EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- New Jersey captain Scott Stevens stood in the Devils' zone, calmly looking down at Detroit's Vyacheslav Kozlov, the man he had just leveled with a clean, hard check.
Kozlov needed help off the ice. Stevens needed nothing.
Stevens has been the dominant physical force in the first two games of the NHL Stanley Cup finals, which his team leads 2-0 going into Game 3 tonight at the Meadowlands.
In Game 1, he checked Detroit's big center Keith Primeau so hard he left the game with five minutes left in the second period and still hasn't been back.
In Game 2, he showed his temper early and drew a retaliation penalty against Dino Ciccarelli and then settled down. The next time he made an impression, he hit Kozlov with the legal hit that sent him wobbling to the bench.
"But give him credit," Stevens said of Kozlov. "He came back in the game. I didn't think he'd come back. You've got to try and get some good hits out there and hopefully get the team going a bit."
You've got to give Stevens credit, too. He has learned to control his temper, the one weakness opposing teams used to exploit.
"But he has learned to control himself quite a bit," said Lemaire. "He thinks about it and he works at it. I told him that he is a lot more important on the ice than he is in the penalty box. I told him the guy who controls our defense has to stay on the ice and he works at that."
Stevens looks contrite.
"It comes with age," he said. "I'm a very emotional person and sometimes you think you can crank it up a little more. But my
game is more strictly defensive and I'm very content with my job. I get a lot of satisfaction out of shutting people down."
He has outplayed Detroit's all-star defenseman Paul Coffey in this series and given the Red Wings a lot to worry about. Ciccarelli, who played with Stevens in Washington earlier in their careers, says he has changed his game a lot and no longer picks up dumb penalties. That means he stays on the ice for the big hits.
"I remember when I played against Scott," said Stevens' teammate Claude Lemieux. "I knew he could score. I knew he could skate. I knew he could do just about anything he wanted on the ice. But the thing I worried about was the big hit and how tough he is. I think Detroit thinks about that, too."
A perfect example of how he has changed came against the Philadelphia Flyers. He was shadowing Eric Lindros, and at one point Lindros caught Stevens near the boards and pummeled him, drawing blood from a cut under his eye.
"Do you know what he did?" asked defensive teammate Ken Daneyko. "He laughed. Laughed. It sent a message to everyone that we were getting to Philadelphia but they weren't getting to us. If that had happened a year or two ago, Scott would have spent the next period and a half chasing Lindros trying to retaliate."
While Stevens may be getting more attention now that he is in the finals, the defenseman was a star long before.
Stevens was the NHL's first major-league free agent, the first star player to play out his option and sign an offer sheet that more than tripled his former salary. He did it in 1990, eight years after joining the Capitals and earning all-star status.
The St. Louis Blues offered him a four-year, $5.1 million contract, which the Caps decided not to match.
Now 31 and a 13-year veteran, he is the fourth-highest paid player in the NHL, behind Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Mark Messier, with a new four-year contract worth $17.1 million.
"That contract caused him to try to do too much early this season," said right wing Randy McKay. "It frustrated him because he wasn't getting the offensive numbers he got last year and he wanted to show hewas worth the money. But his value to us is his being a force to be reckoned with in our own end. That's when he's playing his best and that's what he's doing in this series."
NOTES: The Red Wings practiced at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit yesterday and then chartered here in the late afternoon. Coach Scotty Bowman said Primeau, who missed Game 2 with a twisted back and sore oblique muscle, should be able to play tonight. . . . Devils coach Jacques Lemaire, whose team lost two games at home against Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference finals, warned his team to beware of home distractions. "Like their friends and fans telling them they are so good they don't have to do anything to win. They are not good. They'll be good if they go out and win two more games.". . . Wings center Steve Yzerman warns his team isn't finished. "We're not enjoying the position we're in, but we're not going to fold up right now."
DETROIT RED WINGS
vs. NEW JERSEY DEVILS
(New Jersey leads series, 2-0)
Game 1: Devils, 2-1
Game 2: Devils, 4-2
Tonight: at New Jersey, 8, ESPN
Saturday: at New Jersey, 8, Fox
Monday: at Detroit, 8*, ESPN
Wednesday: at N. J., 7:30*, ESPN
June 30: at Detroit, 8*, Fox