Devils continue their comeback ways as trade deadline and ’03 Cup reunion approach

At this point the Devils have become a weekly TV action series – start each episode by putting the protagonist in peril, then one way or another they find their way out of it. Our comeback heroics during this breakout year have become so pronounced, I’m literally starting to hope we just don’t use them all up during the regular season now. Coming from 2-0 behind last night against the Kings, and then rallying from 3-2 down in the final minute with an empty-net goal from Nico Hischier is a script we’ve seen quite a few times this year, both with the multi-goal comeback and with the game-tying empty netter late.

What made last night’s comeback particularly meaningful is that Dawson Mercer continued his breakout month with two goals (including the winner in OT) and an assist, giving the second-year forward a total of seven goals and nine points in his last five games. Mercer’s connection with Tomas Tatar got the Devils back in the game, first with Mercer winning a puck behind the net and getting it to Tatar in front for a goal late in the second, then Tatar returned the favor early in the third. Mercer himself couldn’t help but notice how both goals were remarkably similar.

Having a second line emerge would be huge for this team’s playoff chances. Perhaps the deadline will see some further alteration to the Devils’ forward group. It’s almost become a catch-22 though, on the one hand you don’t want to make some big, seismic trade that messes up the chemistry of a team that’s winning in such dramatic, pulsating ways. On the other hand, let’s face it – some of these results would probably be different in the playoffs if you had normal sudden death overtime instead of the 3-on-3 mini-game. We’ve excelled in the latter this season, we’ll have to figure out how to win the former when the time comes.

Still, it took a fair amount of resolve just to get to the mini-game last night after one comeback to tie the game at two, the Devils suffered a breakdown at an inopportune moment with Sean Durzi scoring off a cross-ice feed from (who else?) Anze Kopitar. Although the Devils did a good job limiting the volume of chances last night, the Kings took advantage of the quality in the few chances they did give up with Kopitar scoring a breakaway reminiscent of his 2012 Stanley Cup Final OT winner in the first period, then Victor Arvidsson scored on a two-on-one to put the Kings up two in the first period. After a rare off night against the Habs on Tuesday, it looked like we were about to go back into a malaise.

Of course, the Devils said not so fast my friend – first tying the game early in the third, then re-tying the game in the final minute with more dramatics, this time courtesy of the two franchise centers when a Jack Hughes feed found Nico open in front of the net for a redirection goal that tied the game again.

That goal was only a prelude to the dramatic winner, though quite deserved given that the Devils pretty much controlled play throughout the extra period as the Kings seemingly tried to play prevent and take their chances with the shootout. Can’t say I blame them on the one hand, as I said earlier we’ve been money in the extra session this year and Dougie Hamilton’s been a big reason why. He was once again instrumental in a winner last night, working a give-and-go with Mercer for the winner.

So far it’s been at least a decent homestand, sandwiching a dominant win over the Jets on Sunday and last night with Tuesday’s dud against a team in the Bedard Cup Playoffs. Tuesday’s 5-2 loss against the Habs actually ended our six-game home winning streak, but one that was hard to realize even was a streak considering those six wins came over a six-week span, given our two long road trips and All-Star bye week break since early January.

I’d rather not do any big picture analysis even though the big picture is almost upon us with the trade deadline about a week and a half away, and the playoffs less than two months away. I’ve already heard and read enough Timo Meier analysis (and more specifically analysis of potential trade packages) to drive me up a wall. Watch the Sharks troll everyone and take a total pass on trading him, waiting for the kind of return that doesn’t generally happen anymore. Reports suggest they’re holding out for Mercer to be included in such a deal, good luck with that – especially with him carving out his own niche as a key forward now. Teams just don’t trade twenty-one year old roster players like that in a cap system anymore. Lou Lamoriello dealing Brendan Morrison and others for Alexander Mogilny was a lifetime ago, pre-cap and pre-current FA rules.

Admittedly, Timo would round out the top six quite nicely and this Devils team could certainly use more depth come playoff time even if they don’t land that big fish. Especially with the rest of the East arming up, the Bruins’ statement trade last night put the league on notice, especially given their success already this year.

Our immediate concerns are more local though, given our position in the standings it’s likely we wouldn’t have to face the Bruins until the Eastern Conference Finals, which…would be a great problem to have. Assuming the Devils stay in the top three of the East, we have to concern ourselves more with the Rangers and Canes. And both teams are looking to load up as well – the Rangers have already struck with the Vladimir Tarasenko trade, not to mention the Patrick Kane speculation while the Canes are the other main speculated suitor for Timo. In theory winning the division and avoid the prospect of having to beat both Carolina and New York to get out of our bracket would be nice, but again I’m not gonna stress over seeding. Especially if we would only wind up playing a live underdog like the Islanders or last year’s President’s Cup winning Panthers.

Besides big picture future speculation, we’re also coming up on another celebration of the team’s storied past on Saturday – specifically the 20th reunion of the 2003 Stanley Cup champions, the third and (so far) last one in franchise history. It couldn’t come at a better time since for the first time in a decade, we can now see a path forward for the next great era of Devils hockey. Ironically that was the one playoff year where seeding and home-ice mattered, after the road warrior Devils won in 1995 and 2000 in large part by dominating away from New Jersey to the tune of a combined 20-3 road record, in 2003 it was all about home-ice with Pat Burns’ line matching, timely goalscoring and a stifling defense with Martin Brodeur in net leading the way to a third Cup in nine years.

For all my kvetching about how we won Cups as middle seeds in ’95 and ’00 while flaming out as top seeds in between and plenty of years after that, in ’03 winning the division over the Flyers by one point proved vital – both in ensuring home-ice for at least the first two rounds, and by avoiding what proved to be the stronger part of the draw that year. It doesn’t always work out that way but it seemed like some higher power was at work in 2003.

How else to explain swinging and missing on Teemu Selanne at the deadline, only for the unexciting deadline acquisitions of Grant Marshall and Pascal Rheaume to pay off big-time? Or all of Jeff Friesen’s timely goalscoring in the last two rounds of the playoffs? Granted, Friesen was a solid player for a decade in the NHL though he always got tagged with the weight of failed expectations out West after being an #11 overall pick, the narrative was always somehow about what he didn’t do – except in the 2003 postseason.

Maybe it was a higher power that helped Scott Stevens return after a scary head injury in the second round of the playoffs. These days he’d likely be in concussion protocol for weeks after being taken out of Game 3 after a Pavel Kubina dump-in slapshot went right off the side of his head. In 2003, he came right back into the lineup in Game 4 scoring a key goal and resuming his shutdown role of top-line players (in Tampa’s case, Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis).

Of course the defining series that year – even more than the surprisingly tense Finals win over the Ducks – was the Conference Finals against Ottawa. After two deceptively easy 4-1 series wins against Boston and Tampa Bay, the Devils entered as decided underdogs to the more talented President’s Trophy winners, led by young studs who we’d be hearing about for decades to come…Marian Hossa, Zdeno Chara, even a teenage Jason Spezza who drew in and had a big goal in Game 5.

We may have been the underdogs, but experience, guile and heart carried the day as the Devils ran out to a surprising 3-1 lead – all after a crushing Game 1 OT loss to boot! Of course, it wouldn’t be that easy against the best team in the league that year and the Senators followed a tight home win in Game 5 with a potentially crushing Game 6 OT winner in New Jersey. Being in the building for that game, I was in between expectant and hopeful to see the Devils win the conference trophy that night. After all, they’d already put up an 8-0 home record in the playoffs and logic said that was the game they needed to win that game to hold on in the series, but a gut-wrenching 2-1 defeat only set up an even more dramatic Game 7.

Falling behind on the road early only served to make the final chapters of this story even more compelling, as Jamie Langenbrunner’s two goals put the Devils back on the front foot and compelled Ottawa coach Jacques Martin to use his timeout early in the second period to settle his team down. Settle down they did, ironically it was a Friesen giveaway that led to Ottawa’s tying goal early in the third. Coach Burns joked afterward (or was it a joke?) that he told Friesen you owe me now. Boy, did he pay up – with the best assist of his career from Marshall on what would prove to be the Devils’ winning goal late in the third.

The Bob Cole call on CBC of the actual goal was much better than the Gary Thorne one (though Cole did amusingly mistake Marshall #29 for Scott Gomez #23, especially since Marshall had a rare Gomer-esque feed on the play), Thorne almost seemed to be willing a disallowed goal with his blunder that forever ruined the ESPN version of the call. Clearly the goal stood though, and the Devils wound up taking out the Senators at the death.

With a Stanley Cup Finals appearance set against the Cinderella Ducks, it was the Devils who were back in the role of favorite for this series. It would prove to be a home cooking series as the Devils followed stifling shutout wins in Games 1 and 2 with dramatic OT losses in Games 3 and 4 that put us back on the ropes. An unusually wild 6-3 win in Game 5 was followed by a 5-2 loss at the Pond where they seemingly took momentum after star Paul Kariya came back into the game after being laid out by Stevens and scored the put-away goal in the second period.

Back to another Game 7, this time at home. Again I was in the building hoping to see the once-in-a-lifetime celebration. All while laid up with a flu/bronchitis combo. In a post-COVID world I’d have to take a pass on going. Even then I knew I was gutting it out, but I also knew that I could live another hundred years and never have a chance to see a Cup raising in NJ. Losing was unthinkable, but we know deep down nothing’s guaranteed in sports. There was always going to be the chance I’d have dragged myself there only for a gut-wrenching defeat. I did believe in the 2003 team though, after all our tight wins and consistency that year.

If I had any doubts before the game, many of them were alleviated when the pregame scratches were announced. How, you ask? Franchise icon Ken Daneyko was by then in his final season of a gritty two-decade long career. After having played every playoff game in franchise history heading into 2003, he got rotated in and out of the lineup during the postseason that year and for much of the Finals he was on the bench in favor of younger skaters. Yet, when the scratches were announced before Game 7, Daneyko’s name wasn’t among them – sending up the first roar from the crowd of the evening who all realized what I did, he was going to get to play the final game of the season and likely the final game of his career for the Cup.

Maybe they didn’t need a storybook element to overcome a storybook team, but it sure didn’t hurt to give the team and the fans a little extra emotional jolt. Especially as the final shift of Dano’s career helped preserve a 3-0 shutout that clinched the Devils’ third Stanley Cup in franchise history.

Little did anyone know that it would be the last true season of greatness in the Devils’ run as an elite franchise, although there’d be more division titles and playoff appearances to come over the next decade – and even a surprise Finals appearance in 2012 when almost everyone from the 2003 team other than Brodeur and Lou had moved on. Stevens may have been able to grin and bear it that postseason, but unfortunately the aftereffects from his concussion wound up cutting his 2004 season short and sending him into a quiet retirement after the 2004-05 lockout. Burns only coached that one more year before cancer struck and just like that, two of the signature figures from 2003 were no longer there. Friesen himself only had one more season with the Devils as well, perhaps never really recovering from the long lockout since he had two unproductive seasons with three different teams after it.

Hard to believe it has been twenty years since then. It’ll be nice to see most of the 2003 team in attendance. Unfortunately a few key members will not be there, including Friesen who unfortunately has a conflict (given that ex-teammate Patrick Marleau will have his number retired by the Sharks tomorrow night in San Jose), as well as ace checkers John Madden and Jay Pandolfo, who both have other jobs in hockey – Madden as an assistant in Arizona, Pandolfo as the head coach at Boston University. And the unfortunate too-soon passing of Pat Burns in 2010 means that he’ll be represented by his widow.

Almost everyone else will be there however, including Lou taking time away from a busy pre-deadline week to join the festivities. Our YouTube page has already had a few short interviews with alumni from that team and no doubt will have more. In some ways, the 2003 team was my favorite of the three winners, even if it was objectively the least talented – although because of that, the 2003 Cup was also more unexpected than the other two.

Granted, there’s my inherent bias to consider of actually seeing the Cup being presented – illness and all. Still, in 1995 I was still a neophyte hockey fan, and there was always the backdrop of a rumored move to Nashville clouding our success that year (which winning the Cup arguably helped stop). 2000 was obviously the most dramatic ending of the three with Jason Arnott’s goal in double OT of Game 6, knocking out the defending champs on their home ice but that team also underachieved at times before a coaching change snapped them into first gear toward the end of the regular season, then an uncharacteristic tirade from Larry Robinson after Game 4 of the Conference Finals spurred the Devils back from the brink that year.

In 2003, while the team certainly found itself on the brink numerous times in the last two rounds of the postseason, they maintained a single-minded focus throughout and never had the mental lapses other more talented Devil teams of the recent past had. Sure they still had talent – two HOF’ers on defense, a HOF’er in net and hopefully at least one HOF’er up front (Patrik Elias), but that group characterized team in every sense of the word.

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2 Responses to Devils continue their comeback ways as trade deadline and ’03 Cup reunion approach

  1. Derek Felix says:

    This is an excellent writeup Hasan. I really enjoyed how you recapped the 2003 Devils. They definitely had some magic. Beating Ottawa in their barn following that Game 6 loss was no easy task. The experience definitely helped them in that Game 7. The Marshall backhand feed was shocking. Miraculous too. You just don’t expect what you sometimes see in such pressure moments. That’s why I agree with Rupp about it not being a sexy move that puts a team over the top. It’s usually an under the radar move that makes the difference.

    I loved Friesen on the Sharks. I always thought he was a good player with great speed. He delivered for the Devils. I never quite understood what happened to him. I’m glad that they’ll have almost everyone for that reunion. I’ll watch.


  2. hasan4978 says:

    I could have written a lot more on the 2003 team tbh…they even started the season beating Ottawa in Ottawa with Madden getting the game-winning goal iirc, a harbinger as it turned out. The trade deadline head-scratching that we didn’t do more to fortify, exacerbated by the controversial team scratching of Gomez and desultory loss to Atlanta on deadline night. Even the first two rounds of the playoffs to a degree get short-shrifted because we did end both series early, especially the Tampa one which could have easily gone 6 or 7, a lot of close games there and Marshall winning in triple OT of Game 5. If we didn’t end both series early, maybe the script ends differently.

    I didn’t want to completely give short shrift to the present though, especially coming off their seventh multi-goal comeback of the year so this wound up being a past, present and future combo blog basically. There’s just too much to comment on both in the present and with the deadline stuff upon us.


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