Right now it seems hard to believe there was a time where the Devils were among the elite franchises in the NHL and a perennial championship contender. Maybe the only reason I do believe it is because I lived through it. In fact, it doesn’t even seem like two decades have passed since the franchise’s second Stanley Cup in June 2000. This weekend the Devils are having a 20th anniversary reunion and celebration of that team the night they play the Dallas Stars (their 2000 Finals opponent) at the Rock. Of course, the first indication that this is a different time is that none of those playoff games took place in the Devils’ current home building but in East Rutherford, NJ at the old Continental Airlines Arena.
It almost seems tacky to say – but in some ways the second championship was the least memorable of the three for me, though you could argue it was the most talented bunch of the three championship teams (1995, 2000, 2003). There’s always something special about the first championship, and the 1995 playoff run was not only an underdog’s delight – with all four series being won without home-ice in any of them – but arguably kept the franchise in New Jersey hereafter given it would have been a PR nightmare for both the NHL and Devils owner John McMullen to have the league’s champion move, particularly out of McMullen’s own home state. 2003 will forever hold a special place in my heart because of the heart of that particular team, and the fact I was in attendance for many of the games in the last two rounds including the Cup clincher against the Ducks.
That said, there was a lot to celebrate and remember about the 2000 team. Ironically pretty much the first thing I think of when it comes to the 2000 team – apart from the Cup-winning goal itself – is how the team sputtered just before the playoffs, resulting in the shocking firing of coach Robbie Ftorek with just eight games left in the regular season. While Ftorek should be given some credit for helping transition the team from the veteran outfit that won in 1995 to a younger group led by the A-line of Patrik Elias, Petr Sykora and Jason Arnott, along with incorporating no fewer than four vital rookies during that 1999-2000 season (Scott Gomez, Brian Rafalski, John Madden and Colin White), the team’s playoff failure in 1998-99 against the #8 seed Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round coupled by a 5-10-1 stretch late in the 1999-2000 season sealed Ftorek’s fate and he was replaced by assistant Larry Robinson. Bear in mind the team was still in first place at the time, and this firing was universally panned by the hockey media.
While my favorite Devil of that period was gritty, personable defenseman Ken Daneyko and my favorite Devil after he left was Elias for the way he carried himself on and off the ice – in many ways Robinson was my favorite person ever associated with the franchise because he was always loyal, humble and genuine, yet a proud and fierce competitor. Larry first made an impact as an assistant on the ’93-94 and ’94-95 teams, the latter of which won the franchise’s first Cup, then he got a deserved promotion when the Kings hired him as their head coach. After four up-and-down seasons ended in frustration and a pink slip, he came back to the Devils as an assistant under Ftorek for that ’99-00 season and turned out to be the right man at the right time for this team.
It wasn’t immediately apparent though, as the team continued to sputter around .500 in Larry’s first few weeks on the job, eventually losing the division to the Flyers by a single point. Yet, many players on the team’s highlight video credit the team’s final regular season game against the Panthers (ironically, ending on an OT winner by Arnott) with being the impetus that spurred the team to a higher level in the postseason. And sure enough, the Devils found another gear sweeping those same Panthers in the first round, with captain and star defenseman Scott Stevens beginning a dominant postseason by helping to shut down Rocket Richard winner Pavel Bure – and continued it through the next round, helping to contain the Leafs’ formidable Mats Sundin as the Devils beat the rival Leafs in six. One of the few games I was able to attend as a college student that year was the Devils’ memorable Game 6 clincher against Toronto where they allowed a mere six shots in a spotless 3-0 triumph.
Now in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Flyers, it looked like a mismatch through five periods as the Devils won Game 1 in Philly just as easily as they beat the Flyers there in the 1995 Conference Finals (winning all three games in the city of Brotherly Love in a six-game triumph), and jumping out to a 3-1 lead late in the second period of Game 2 before things fell apart and the Devils would lose a momentum-changing 4-3 decision. Shockingly, the team gave drab performances in losing both games 3 and 4 at home to fall behind 3-1. With the season at a crisis point, it was the mild-mannered Robinson who managed to jolt the team out of its doldrums with an impassioned, out of character speech that snapped everyone to attention and made clear the opportunity they were losing out on, but one they still had a chance to make something of.
Now simaltaneously chastened and emboldened, the Devils responded by walking into the lion’s den of Philly and coming out of it with a dominant 4-1 win that put the series back up for grabs. A tense Game 6 back in New Jersey remained scoreless late into the third period before perennial big-game player Claude Lemieux (himself getting a second chance in New Jersey after an ugly post-Cup divorce with the team) scored to break the deadlock in an eventual 2-1 win that evened the series. Back in Philly for Game 7, it was again Stevens who struck a memorable blow – literally – by knocking Flyers franchise center Eric Lindros out of the lineup just a game after he returned from a long absence, with a then-legal shoulder to head hit. However, it was another tight affair on the scoreboard that again wouldn’t be decided till late in the third period, this time with the young Elias assuming the mantle of Flyer-killer scoring both goals in another 2-1 decision, including the winner with just under three minutes remaining.
After beating their rival in such spectacular fashion, the Devils went into the Stanley Cup Finals flying and ran the Stars out of the Continental Arena in Game 1 with a 7-3 score which wasn’t even as close as that. Of course, the defending champion Stars wouldn’t go down as easily thereafter and Dallas struck back with a 2-1 win in New Jersey evening the series. However, the Devils continued their playoff reputation for being road warriors in Dallas. After going 10-1 on the road during the ’95 run to the Cup, the Devils were on their way to fashioning a just as spectacular 10-2 road playoff record in 2000, including winning tense Games 3 and 4 in Dallas (2-1 and 3-1) to take a seemingly commanding 3-1 lead in the series – though the Devils had just seen the other end of what can happen when you’re up 3-1 in a series.
Sure enough, the two teams engaged in a memorable back-and-forth over the final two games, mostly a back-and-forth goaltending duel with Martin Brodeur and Ed Belfour alternating heart-stopping saves. It took till the third OT of Game 5 before anyone was able to score, unfortunately for the home fans that would be the Stars’ Mike Modano, spoiling the potential home party and sending the series back to Dallas with a taut 1-0 triple OT win. As if things couldn’t get more tense between the two teams, Game 6 started out with some bad blood after a physical opening period culminated in the Stars’ Derian Hatcher knocking Sykora out for the game. Even for that period of time, it was a dirty hit considering Hatcher left his feet and seemingly led with his elbow.
With so much on the line, eventually the teams settled into another grinding, tense game with Scott Niedermayer of the Devils and Mike Keane of the Stars alternating goals in short order during the second period. However, that would be it in terms of scoring through regulation and the first OT, which nearly ended when Arnott’s penalty gave the Stars a rare OT power play. Fortunately for both Arnott and the team, the Devils’ great defense and goaltending did the job killing off the penalty and things crawled into a second OT. Fittingly, it was the remaining 2/3 of the A-line who finally broke through with Elias finding Arnott through traffic with a no-look cross-ice backhander that had its own eyes, and the big centerman did the rest with a historic goal.
I remember staying up deep into the night for this game’s finish, I can’t remember exactly but I think it was at least 1:30 in the morning East Coast time when the game finally ended. It was certainly worth staying up for that, as well as the postgame where coach Robinson made one more extraordinary gesture after Elias brought Sykora’s jersey onto the ice and draped it over his shoulder with the Czech winger stuck in a local hospital after being knocked out of the game. Seeing this, the coach took Sykora’s jersey and put it on himself, creating a memorable visual.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Devils’ three titles in nine seasons is that each team had different personalities (not to mention different coaches). Both the ’95 and ’03 teams were veteran-laden though the ’95 team had more talent and was able to create more offense while the ’03 team squeezed every ounce out of having an all-world defense, goaltending and Pat Burns’ coaching. 2000 was the Devils’ youngest, most high-octane team of the three in terms of stats, yet still capable of winning gritty low-scoring games when the chips were down.
If any of the Devils’ championship teams were going to repeat it could and should have been the 2000 team. In 2000-01 the Devils had an even more dominant regular season with 111 points and a league-leading 295 goals. Yet the same focus and determination that symbolized the 2000 playoff run went missing in 2001. Still, the team got back to a second straight Finals on talent despite struggling at times to beat Carolina (losing two straight after going up 3-0 in the first round) and Toronto (falling behind 3-2, then having to take two must-win games to escape the second round), before beating a spent Penguins team in the Conference Finals. Facing a formidable Avs squad in the Finals, the Devils managed to get a 3-2 lead, one win away from going back-to-back but the inconsistencies of that playoff year finally caught up with them in the final two games and they came up short of making history.
Still, nothing can take away what that 2000 team accomplished – especially for captain Stevens who won the Conn Smythe and became one of the few modern playoff MVP’s who won the award on the strength of defense, time and again shutting down Bure, Sundin, the Flyers’ top line with John LeClair and Mark Recchi and the Stars’ HOF first line of Modano and Brett Hull. It was certainly a showcase playoffs for #4, who was having his leadership questioned after a series of dissapointing team finishes post-1995 Cup. Certainly team architect Lou Lamoriello deserves special mention too, not only for his gutsy decision to make a late-season coaching change, but also for a bold series of trades from bringing back Lemieux to bringing in uber-skilled Alexander Mogilny and having him play a secondary role. 2000 was also a memorable last hurrah for owner McMullen, responsible for bringing the team to New Jersey in 1982 and keeping them here thirteen years later, but eventually he would be compelled to sell the team to the YankeeNets corporation after the 2000 playoffs.