If you’ve watched any Devils games at all over the last month you haven’t missed promos for this weekend’s celebration of the franchise’s first-ever Stanley Cup. There’ll be an on-ice ceremony involving almost every player and coach from that team starting at 4:45 and lasting around a half hour before Sunday’s Devils-Flyers game, but even before then on Saturday there’ll be a bit of a Field of Dreams type moment when players and coaches alike reunite for a 45-minute scrimmage at the AmeriHealth Pavilion practice facility next to the Prudential Center with Jacques Lemaire and Jacques Caron coaching the White team headed by Martin Brodeur and ’95 Conn Smythe winner Claude Lemieux while Larry Robinson is coaching the Red team headed by ’95 captain Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer. Complete details can be found at the end of this blog by The Record’s Tom Gulutti:
Unfortunately with a prior commitment (concert) at the main arena and other local arenas unavailable – wouldn’t it really have been something to have this at Izod? – there won’t be much of an audience for this one with the seating capacity at AmeriHealth numbering in the hundreds as opposed to the thousands. If you are one of the lucky few hundred like me who has a ticket, and lived through ’95, they could be holding this in a park for all I’d care – and in my case it’s reliving my childhood to a degree since I was still in high school during that spring. Though for anyone who did get shut out of attending the Devils are also streaming this event starting at 3:45 with the intros – the ‘game’ as it were starts at 4 with three 15-minute periods and commentary from Matt Loughlin and Chico Resch, who I’m sure many Devil fans will be happy to hear one more time. Particuarly assuming the stream is preserved after the game so those of us at the game can hear it.
Of course the headline will be seeing Martin Brodeur in a Devils uniform in full gear, a welcome sight to be sure with the way his career ended – although really the home finale last year was more of a goodbye and whatever cheers he gets this weekend will more or less be an appreciation for his legendary career as a whole. Still it’ll be nice to see most of the other players as well, starting with the captain, Conn Smythe winner and also special props to Scott Niedermayer among others for coming considering his duties coaching on the Ducks bench. Pretty much the only big-name players who won’t be attending are Stephane Richer who had a prior commitment, and Neal Broten, who had a well-documented falling out with the organization the following season – though nothing can change his impact on that ’95 team. Even if we’ll be reminded after a couple minutes that time really has passed since that magical spring, I’m sure a good time will be had by all.
As a relatively new hockey fan in ’95 (I didn’t have SportsChannel till then though I did get a little into the Devils’ playoff run the previous year when the ECF with the Rangers was on MSG), I’m not going to lie – it’s true that you don’t realize how tough it is to win a championship until you’re a fan for a while. Particuarly after that team blitzed through the playoffs with a 16-4 record, never facing an elimination game in any series. Still, that playoff run had its share of defining moments and pivotal games. Even in the first round against Boston after the Devils dominated the first two games at the Boston Garden with runaway shutout wins, a Bruins win in Game 3 and sixty scoreless minutes at the Meadowlands set up a pivotal OT in Game 4. Win and the Devils would take a commanding 3-1 lead, lose and the series would have been 2-2 heading back to Boston. On a seemingly innocent play, tenacious forchecking from Randy McKay created the decisive goal, and an iconic celebration of McKay trying to jump the boards. McKay was part of a line that remains beloved in Devils lore, nicknamed simply the Crash Line by announcer Doc Emrick with McKay, Mike Peluso and Bobby Holik combining physicality with a surprising amount of skill to cause mayhem and chaos in every game they played.
After closing out the Bruins in Boston, the Devils faced another moment of truth against the Penguins following what turned out to be their only road defeat of the playoffs in Game 1 at the Igloo. Game 2 was tense, and Pittsburgh seemingly grabbed the momentum when a much younger Jaromir Jagr scored the game-tying goal with under two minutes remaining in regulation. An overtime in that situation might have been dicey but this time it was the captain that responded, firing a slapshot then gathering up his own rebound and deking past Ken Wregget to restore the Devils lead and stun the crowd. An empty-netter by Lemieux (who would score thirteen goals in that playoff on the way to the Smythe) sealed that game, and the Devils never looked back in that series winning the next three and again closing out an opponent on the road in Game 5.
Throughout that whole playoff run a dark cloud followed them with rumors of an impending move to Nashville. I figured back then this team might need to win a Cup, since it would be much harder PR-wise for governor Christie Whitman and then-neophyte commissioner Gary Bettman to justify having a defending champion move. Despite his contreversial quote during the playoffs about how three teams in the area was too many. Maybe it was best all that backroom haggling took place in the days before Twitter and 24-hour media, it could have proven more of a distraction in 2015 than 1995. Or maybe it wouldn’t have been, with the single-minded focus this team showed during the playoffs (and with the team staying in hotels even at home, they had little choice but to stay focused).
That team would need every ounce of their focus against Flyers in Game 5, after momentarily losing it during two straight home losses in Games 3 and 4. As even coach Jacques Lemaire admitted in the team highlight video Heaven, the Devils got overconfident after two easy wins in Philly to open the series. Losing in OT of Game 3 followed by a desultory Game 4 set up the team’s first pivotal game deep in a series, and Game 5 in Philly proved to be one worthy of being a series-decider. With the score tied at 2 late in the third period and looking like it was destined for OT, arguably the biggest goal of the playoffs came from – who else? – Lemieux beating Ron Hextall with a long slapshot in the final minute of regulation to stun the Flyers and their fans and give the Devils a 3-2 lead in the series. Even up 3-2 at home, this team still needed to maintain focus in Game 6, the spot in the mountain where they had stumbled the previous year against the Rangers. Although the Flyers scored first, the night would ultimately prove to be a Devils celebration as they would win the game comfortably in the end, and celebrate their first trip to the Stanley Cup Finals in style.
Now at hockey’s summit they faced a seeminly superior team, the President’s Trophy winning Detroit Red Wings who won 33 games in the 48-game regular season, and went 12-2 in the Western Conference playoffs to get to the Finals with star-studded names like Yzerman, Federov, Primeau, Coffey and a young Nicklas Lidstrom. Not to mention arguably the NHL’s greatest coach ever in Scotty Bowman, and the man under whom Lemaire learned quite a bit as a player for Bowman’s Hab dynasty in the ’70’s. Of course the allegory of the ’95 Finals would strike a blow for the value of team over the individual. Few could have guessed back then that a largely unheralded second-year goalie on the Devils would prove to be arguably the greatest ever – many favored vet Mike Vernon of the Red Wings in the goalie battle. While most knew of Scott Stevens’ talent and edge even before he sent Slava Kozlov into never-never land during Game 2, few could have guessed that a third-year defenseman on that team would score the signature goal of the Finals and would have his own HOF career in the making.
Most oddsmakers favored Detroit before the series, some thought it would be decisive. I thought it would be a hard-fought seven game series that the Wings would win. Silly me. If New Jersey’s 2-1 win in Game 1 at the Joe Louis Arena felt like a bit of a house money game, Game 2 would be the calling card for the Devils to stake their claim as an elite team in hockey for the next ten years. Stevens’ hit on Kozlov in the second period provided the bite but people forget the Devils were still down 2-1 in the third till a great individual effort by Niedermayer changed the entire complexion of the series – skating end-to-end with the puck, and then after missing the net with his initial shot, putting in his own rebound to tie the game. Arguably it was that double blow that sent the Wings reeling and seeing Paul Coffey writhing on the ice after blocking a shot moments before Jersey native Jim Dowd scored the decisive goal with under two minutes remaining was symbolic of both teams – Detroit’s pain and the Devils’ clutch teamwork. Dowd would go on to have a decent career in the NHL but this was by far the highlight of it.
Even after the Devils’ two road wins, little did anyone suspect it was over…but after a dominant Game 3 at home where Vernon was pulled in the second period then everyone knew it was over. I even fell asleep late, feeling comfortable in the Devils’ decisive 5-2 win (really a 5-0 game before a couple of cosmetic goals by the Wings in the final minutes). Though Game 4 had more drama with the Wings taking a 2-1 lead late in the first, defenseman Shawn Chambers – a crucial deadline acquisition by GM Lou Lamoriello – scored another late-period goal that changed the complexion of a game. After Neal Broten’s eventual game-clinching goal in the second period, the Devils would win going away with Chambers getting his second of the night and young Sergei Brylin scoring the Devils’ fifth goal of another dominant performance. Arguably the most-remembered moment of Game 4 came with a few minutes left and the game well in hand when Peluso started sobbing uncontrollably on the bench, overwhelmed by the magnitude of the victory. Doc’s call of the final seconds ticking down was simple but effective enough…’The championship to New Jersey, the Devils win the Stanley Cup!’.
Thankfully I had the good sense to tape everything from pre to postgame on my VHS and still have all it in very good shape, amazingly enough, including footage from the ensuing parade. Some may have mocked the Devils for having a parade in the parking lot, but who that was watching (or there that night) could forget the Stanley Cup making a dramatic entrance via helicopter? Or backup goaltender Chris Terreri holding up a homemade ‘Nashville? NO WAY!’ sign to the delight of the crowd. Of course the rest is history, the team didn’t move to Nashville and then-owner John McMullen later credited the response of the fans at the parade of helping to convince him to stay. While the larger legacy of the win may have been keeping the Devils in New Jersey, the significance on-ice can’t be overlooked either. It was the first major sports championship by a team calling New Jersey its home, and cemented the Devils as a power for years to come. Even with a short-term hiccup of missing the playoffs the following year, the Devils would go on to win two more championships in 2000 and 2003. Although both would have its own special significance – especially as it became more apparent how hard it actually was to win the Cup – it was the first one that forever removed the Mickey Mouse label of the previous generation and gave Devils fans a team to be forever proud of.