DENVER -- Finally, the NHL got it right - the two best teams, the two best goalies, in a Stanley Cup final that seems to have it all, right down to a tearjerker of a story line of the aging star with his last chance to win the big one.
The New Jersey Devils and Colorado Avalanche play Game 1 on Saturday night at the Pepsi Center, site of the All-Star Game and, now, 3 1/2 months later, an All-Star final pairing of the two No. 1 seeds - the first such matchup in the Stanley Cup finals since Calgary-Montreal in 1989.
Such a finale rarely occurs in perhaps the most upset-filled of the major pro sports, one where a deflected puck off a skate blade can undo six months of achievement and advance an underdog.
This time, however, there's plenty of stars and subplots for all - great goalies in Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur, scoring stars in Colorado's Joe Sakic and the Devils' A-Line and the quest of 40-year-old Avalanche defenseman Ray Bourque for his first Stanley Cup in his 22nd season.
"It's the two best teams in hockey," Devils forward Scott Gomez said Friday. "It's what everybody wanted to see and what they're going to get. There's emotions all over the place."
Some in Avalanche's locker room, too, where Bourque has his self-proclaimed "best chance and, maybe, my last chance" for a John Elway-type finish in which a superstar finally wins a title just as his career is ending.
"Everybody, deep inside, wants to see that happen," Roy said.
The Avalanche's problem is the defending champion Devils seem to have it all going their way, coming off a five-game demolition of Mario Lemieux's Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference finals and possessing the can't-beat-us swagger of most championship teams.
The Devils can stake a legitimate claim to greatness, too, should they repeat last year's finals victory over Dallas and win their third Stanley Cup since 1995, becoming only the fourth team since expansion - the New York Islanders, Edmonton Oilers and Montreal Canadiens are the others - to win so many cups.
Still, the Avalanche, who had the league's best regular-season record (52-16-10-4) and thus own home ice advantage, seem a little annoyed that another victory party in the Meadowlands parking lot seems a foregone conclusion to many.
Some took notice of Devils coach Larry Robinson's remarks that appeared to question if Colorado truly was the Western Conference's best team, and those by several Devils suggesting the finals would be much like the Penguins series.
As if defending against the Devils line of Patrik Elias, Jason Arnott and Petr Sykora, which produced 10 goals against Pittsburgh and 22 overall in the playoffs, wasn't bad enough, the Avs must defend their very place in the finals.
"I was a bit surprised to hear that from Larry ... but everybody has a right to their opinion," said Roy, who has won three Stanley Cups and can be the first goalie to win it in three decades. "We are going to go out there and believe in our chance, that's what we've done all year."
By playing the first two games and, possibly, four of seven in an arena where twirling pom-pons create a whiteout effect reminiscent of a Rocky Mountain blizzard, the Avalanche can control the line pairings against the A-Line, the most productive in hockey since midway through the second round.
"It makes the matchups more difficult," Devils forward Randy McKay said.
It also means Robinson must be creative to get havoc-wreaking Bobby Holik, who was in Lemieux's face throughout the conference finals, on the ice against the high-scoring Alex Tanguay-Sakic-Milan Hejduk line. And one unwanted matchup could make the difference in a series featuring two of the best big-game goalies ever in Roy, who is 12-2 in Stanley Cup finals games, and Brodeur, who has a record-tying four shutouts this spring and is 8-2 in finals games, 5-0 on the road.
"It's the best against the best," Elias said.
Colorado's scoring ability was diminished when star Peter Forsberg, arguably the best all-around forward in the league, ruptured his spleen two weeks ago and was apparently lost for the season. And, though the regular season often means little in the playoffs, these numbers could be telling: New Jersey outscored Colorado 12-4 during a pair of regular season routs and is 8-2-2 against the Avs over the last six years, 7-0-3 at the Meadowlands.
The Devils also have won nine of their last 11 road playoff games.
"We don't try to put on a show on the road," Gomez said. "Sometimes, at home, you try to do too much, entertain the fans. On the road, we stick to our game, stay patient and wait for our chances."
Not that either team is overlooking this chance - for the Avalanche, to win the second Stanley Cup that many fans figured was a formality following their first in 1996. For the Devils to be mentioned with elite teams such as the Islanders of the '70s and the Oilers of the '80s.
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