EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The New Jersey Devils surprised the Dallas Stars in nearly every way possible -- with their speed, their persistence, their nonstop scoring.
Most of all, they surprised themselves.
Petr Sykora scored twice in a four-point night and Ken Daneyko, who has played every postseason game in Devils history, scored his first playoff goal in five seasons as New Jersey's top line embarrassed Dallas' stars in a commanding 7-3 victory Tuesday night.
''This team worried us,'' Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur said. ''We have a lot of respect for them, and we still do. We knew we couldn't let up at all.''
They didn't. Sykora also assisted on Jason Arnott's two goals as the Devils, attempting to become the first Eastern Conference team to win the Stanley Cup since they did it five years ago, badly outplayed the defending champions at their own game.
The Devils' top line of Sykora, Arnott and Patrik Elias combined for four goals and now have nine in the last five games. By contrast, the Stars' Brett Hull and Mike Modano, the top two scorers in the playoffs, went scoreless, with Brodeur making a key save of Hull's shot less than a minute before the Devils took a 3-1 lead.
''We were flat and a step late all night,'' Stars coach Ken Hitchcock said. ''I think our whole group really struggled in our own zone with the quickness. I don't think we've played against a group of forwards this quick before, and we made a lot of mistakes because of it.''
The Devils, considered the underdogs just as they were when they upset Detroit in four games in the 1995 finals, can take a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series by winning Thursday night at home.
The Stars are 11-1 at home in the playoffs, but even they can't like their chances if they go back to Reunion Arena down two games.
''This puts a lot of pressure on us, but we know we're going to play a better game,'' Hitchcock said.
The game was vintage Devils -- vintage 1995, that is.
The Devils followed still-new coach Larry Robinson's game plan to perfection. They seized the critical early lead, dusted off the neutral-zone trap that was so effective in '95 to shut down Dallas' scorers and let Brodeur stop the shots that sneaked through their defense.
''We had some goals squeak through there for a change, and our guys were skating well,'' Robinson said. ''But I don't consider this a 7-3 game. I've seen Dallas come back before, and we're in for a game Thursday.''
Dallas goaltender Eddie Belfour was no better than the forwards in front of him. Belfour, who had allowed two or fewer goals in 12 of his previous 13 games, yielded six goals on 18 shots before being replaced by Manny Fernandez with 16:58 left.
The Stars allowed just 13 goals in the entire Avalanche series -- the fewest in 50 years in a seven-game Stanley Cup semifinal series.
Belfour took a decongestant, antibiotics and cold medicine before the game, and wishes now he hadn't.
''It affected my judgment,'' he said.
When did he realize it?
''After they scored the sixth goal,'' he said.
Still, the Devils' oft-overlooked offense obviously ambushed a baffled Belfour and the Stars, who looked fatigued and off their game almost from the opening minute despite having three days off since eliminating Colorado on Saturday.
''They have a history of slow starts in the playoffs,'' the Devils' Bobby Holik said. ''This is not surprising, they played a day later than we did and they traveled. No one thinks this is over. They're too good to feel that way.''
The Devils, known more for their give-no-ground neutral-zone trap, were the NHL's second-highest scoring team during the season, but Robinson reshaped their game after succeeding the fired Robbie Ftorek with eight games left in the regular season.
Robinson sold the Devils on returning to their '95 style, in which the trapping defense set up an opportunistic offense, rather than vice versa. But even Robinson couldn't have expected this, not against a determined, defense-driven team that Hitchcock said was extremely focused on winning a second Cup.
''This series, just like in 1995, we have a lot of respect for the team we're playing,'' Brodeur said. ''We were scared of that series in '95, they were supposed to beat us bad, and next thing you know series is over. This time around, it's the same thing -- we know they have a lot more to give.''
The Stars have already matched the worst result of the last four defending champions -- Detroit, Pittsburgh and two of Wayne Gretzky's Edmonton Oilers teams -- who returned to the finals the year after winning the cup. All four of those teams repeated as champion, and only one lost even one game in the finals.
After Arnott and Stars defenseman Darryl Sydor traded goals in the first period, the game quickly got away from Dallas in the second period. And the biggest goal of all was scored by perhaps the least-likely player.
John Madden won a faceoff in the Stars' end that bounced to Daneyko, who didn't score a goal all season. Daneyko teed up a knuckleball-type shot from the top of the left circle that somehow eluded Belfour at 2:52 of the second for his first playoff goal in 49 games since June 5, 1995.
The Stars should have known then they were done. And they were, even if the Devils weren't.
''We wanted (Daneyko's goal) to be the game-winner,'' Brodeur said. ''He's been the heart and soul for New Jersey for the last 15 years, and it was great for him to score a goal like that in the Stanley Cup final.''
Sykora effectively finished them off at 10:28 with the first of his two goals, grabbing Elias' blind pass from behind the net and slipping it by Belfour, who began the game with a 1.88 goals-against average.
''He hasn't had too many nights like that,'' Hitchcock said of Belfour.
Defenseman Scott Stevens, whose punishing hits left the Flyers' Daymond Langkow and Eric Lindros with concussions in the Eastern Conference finals, made it 4-1 at 16:04 with a soft wrist shot from the left point, and the rout was on.
''Individuals are playing well, and that means the team is playing well,'' Stevens said. ''Everybody was expecting a boring, slow game and I remember thinking, 'Geez, this is a lot of scoring.'''
Sykora and Arnott scored again in the third period, and Sergei Brylin added a goal, before the Stars' Jon Sim and former Devils captain Kirk Muller scored meaningless goals 12 seconds apart.
The Devils, who won all four games of the Eastern Conference finals against Philadelphia in which they scored first, did so again. Elias' wraparound attempt deflected off Belfour's glove to Sykora, who swept a pass across the slot to Arnott at 7:22 for his fifth playoff goal.
The first goal in the first game of a Stanley Cup final can be critical to determining the early momentum -- the Game 1 winner has won the cup 79 percent of the time.
Stars defenseman Derian Hatcher left in the third period with a slight hyperextension of his right knee, but Hitchcock expects him to play in Game 2.
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