EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- In a series where most of the focus has been on stars like Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Martin Brodeur and Scott Stevens, it's nice to know there's a Brian Rafalski.
The Smurfish, second-year defenseman has been one of the big reasons the defending champion New Jersey Devils are a game away from eliminating the Pittsburgh Penguins and returning to the Stanley Cup finals.
Rafalski is the top-scoring defenseman in the playoffs (7 goals, 7 assists) and his plus-minus rating (10) is second best in the league heading into Tuesday night's Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals.
That's not too shabby for a guy who had trouble convincing people he even belonged in hockey coming out of the University of Wisconsin in 1995.
The big rap against Rafalski was his size: 5-foot-9. He could skate, but to play in the NHL, scouts felt he needed to be bigger and improve his offense.
As a result, Rafalski wasn't drafted. He spent six months working for Philip Morris as a summer intern. Most days were spent in an office. On others, he traveled to stores and set up displays.
"I never pushed cigarettes," said Rafalski, who insisted he just needed a job that summer. "I never sold cigarettes."
The job ended when Rafalski was signed by Byrnas Gavle in Sweden for the 1995-96 season. He spent the next three years playing in Finland before the Devils signed him.
The story goes general manager Lou Lamoriello called the team's chief European scout, Danny Labraaten, and asked who was the best player in Europe.
"Rafalski" was the answer. Lamoriello had his signature on a contract in June 1999 and he's been on the Devils since.
"I never looked too far ahead," Rafalski said of his four years abroad. "I looked at it one year at a time. You can't control the future. If I got that chance, I was going to take it and go for it."
Expansion and the NHL's increased emphasis on speed paved the way for Rafalski's entrance to the league.
"My offensive ability," Rafalski added. "I worked on them a lot in Europe and got more confident in that area, working on my shooting, skating and power play. I needed to be good at that to play in the NHL.
"I wasn't going to be a defensive defenseman in the NHL at 5-foot-9."
Rafalski led the Devils' defensemen in scoring in the regular season with nine goals and 43 assists.
Even so, his numbers for the playoffs are remarkable. His shots are finding the net. His passes are right on the tape and his quarterbacking on the power play has been perfect.
"He's gives us a great dimension," Brodeur, the Devils' goaltender, said. "We've always seen him as a great skater and a good passer. But it seems like he has put everything together."
What's been ever more remarkable in this series is that Rafalski has been playing with a different partner on defense.
For most of his first two seasons, he was paired with Stevens, the Devils' captain, and they always went against the opponent's top line.
Since Stevens was going against Lemieux every shift, Devils coach Larry Robinson felt that didn't give his top line of Jason Arnott, Patrik Elias and Petr Sykora a defenseman who could move the puck.
So Rafalski was paired with Sean O'Donnell and veteran Ken Daneyko worked with Stevens.
The result got both Rafalski and the Arnott line going, and left Lemieux struggling. Rafalski has three goals and four assists in this series, which is three goals and two assists more than Lemieux and Jagr combined.
"I had some friends that were doing hockey pools this year and I said Rafalski will be a pretty good pick," O'Donnell said of his new partner. "He's a pretty good sleeper. Players know how good he is, but a lot fans, Devils' fans, don't know how solid he is."
They do now.
The Penguins will be coming to New Jersey after being shut out at home in Games 3 and 4, showing little life in either.
Lemieux still feels the Penguins can go to New Jersey and win.
"We've done it in the past with some tough situations, and that's because we believe that we can go in on the road and win a big a hockey game and come back to our building," Lemieux said. "So we believe we can go in there and beat these guys."
Rafalski doesn't doubt him.
"They faced elimination two games in the last round against Buffalo and responded," he said. "We have to expect them to respond."