EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- It's a bit surprising that the Colorado Avalanche lead the Stanley Cup finals. It's shocking that they gained the advantage by allowing only three New Jersey Devils goals in three games.
The Avalanche, who posted the NHL's best record, entered the series as underdogs, largely because they are without the injured Peter Forsberg, their best player. Yet they lead 2-1 in the best-of-seven finals against the defending champion Devils and will try to use its tight play to carry the club to another road victory in Saturday's Game 4.
"Dallas won the Cup a couple of years ago primarily with defense. That's what New Jersey did last year also," forward Alex Tanguay said Friday. "All of them have great offenses, but those past two years they held their own defensively. That's why they won the Cup."
The Devils led the NHL with 295 goals scored, while the Avalanche were best in the Western Conference with 270. But that scoring prowess has given way to good defense in the finals.
"It's easier to defend than to score goals in the NHL," Avalanche coach Bob Hartley said. "I think we have real good proof, two great offensive machines. I think that the defensive strengths of both teams are overshadowed by all."
Colorado won the series opener 5-0 before dropping Game 2 at home 2-1. They rebounded to beat the Devils 3-1 on Thursday night.
Defense is not foreign to these teams. New Jersey gave up the second fewest goals in the Eastern Conference, Colorado was tied for second best out West.
"Once it is on the ice, you can see that a good defense will neutralize with its offense on both sides," Hartley said. "There is absolutely no room. It is tough to generate a good scoring chance."
Colorado's defense pair of Ray Bourque and Adam Foote has held New Jersey's A-Line of Jason Arnott, Patrik Elias and Petr Sykora to just one power-play goal in the three games. By keeping the trio from getting room to maneuver, the Avalanche have been able to succeed.
"I think Adam and Ray have been matched against those guys almost every shift," fellow Avalanche defenseman Rob Blake said. "They're so mobile. If you watch Ray out there, and how quick he is on the puck and goes side to side.
"He stands up at the blue line and just doesn't give you space. It doesn't matter what line he plays against, he does that and that makes it difficult for players."
The New Jersey offense is generated by creating speed through the neutral zone. By keeping the Devils attackers on the periphery, the Avalanche have limited them to one power-play goal, another goal scored just seconds after an advantage, and another tallied at even strength on a breakaway.
"Especially with (Scott) Gomez, Elias, Sykora, these guys if they get the middle of the ice and get the blue line that's when they're at their best," Blake said. "So you try to keep them to the outside. The back pressure, you want to flush the guy to the outside and come through the middle."
While Colorado's defense is surprising many observers now, Avalanche players say this was the game plan all season long as they prepared for the postseason.
"That what was we preached since Day 1, make sure that when you go out there you think about your zone first," Tanguay said. "Make sure you don't get scored upon. That's been a lot of work throughout this season to accomplish that and hopefully we'll be able to keep it rolling."
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