It's been an eventful decade here in the Garden State when it comes to hockey. Two Stanley Cups, three Prince of Wales trophies, five Atlantic Division titles, seven 100-point seasons. Oh, and the Devils' goalie cemented his name in the conversations of "Greatest to ever play the game". Over the next week, I will countdown the 10 best moments since 2000. The countdown continues today, with numbers 10 through 6, and wraps up on Wednesday Thursday (apologies, got a little sick Wednesday and have to push it a day) with the Top 5.
What really made the moment special was how the crowd handled it. For what was technically an enemy player, Brodeur received thunderous applause and a standing ovation from the 21,273 in attendance at the Bell Centre. Roy stood from his luxury box and applauded. Brodeur's father was in tears. Hockey's mecca had been the stage for another grand moment in the sports history, and was fully recognized and celebrated as such.
BONUS HONORABLE MENTION: Um, last night? Martin Brodeur Breaks NHL Regular Season Shutout Record against Pittsburgh (December 21, 2009)
9. The Devils Dominate Lemieux, Jagr and the Penguins to Win the 2001 Eastern Conference Final
It was hard not to just stand up and be amazed by Mario Lemieux during the 2000-01 season. Retired for three years and now running the Pittsburgh Penguins as an owner in an attempt to save them from bankruptcy, "Le Magnifique" announced in December of 2000 that he would return to the National Hockey League full time as both a player and an owner for the Penguins, stating he believed he could help the Penguins, and he wanted his young son, Austin, to see him play.
Many people are skeptical of legends who make comebacks. Remember, Michael Jordan would return to basketball less than a year later and make a mockery of the whole notion that a great athlete could recapture his past glory. Mario was always different, though, and this was no exception. Lemieux would go on to have one of the more remarkable seasons in sports history.
Super Mario made his comeback official on December 27, 2000 against the Toronto Maple Leafs. In a game that was televised around the world, Lemieux assisted on a goal 33 seconds into his first shift. There was no doubt this would be the real thing. Not only did #66 amass an unheard of 76 points in 43 games (26th in the scoring race), he took a fairly mediocre Penguins team (well, beyond him and Jaromir Jagr) to the Eastern Conference Final this year. Many were rooting for Mario as the story of the year, however, the Stanley Cup Champion New Jersey Devils were standing in his way, and boy were they standing tall.
The 2000-01 New Jersey Devils became every Lou-aid drinker's saving grace. Egads, a Devil team that could lead the NHL in scoring! The Devils had their best season in franchise history, going a ridiculous 48-19-12-3 (Remember the 4th column in the standings?) for a total of 111 points. They scored an NHL-high 295 goals, and gave up only 195, the team's lowest total since 1997-98. They had seven 20-goal scorers (Can you name them all? The answer is at the end of the post*) and three players with 80 or more points (Alexander Mogilny, Patrik Elias, Petr Sykora).
Combine that with the still classic Devils defensive trio of Scott Stevens, Ken Daneyko and Scott Niedermayer, plus budding younger stars like Brian Rafalski and Colin White, and Martin Brodeur (another 40-win season) had all the help he needed to guide New Jersey to another first place finish in the Conference and Division. They had some trouble in the first two rounds of the playoffs, though. The Carolina Hurricanes fell down 3-0, but took the series to six games in round one, and the Devils needed two overtime victories on their way to a seven-game win over old nemesis the Toronto Maple Leafs. But they were in the conference final for the 4th time in team history, and were set to take on the Penguins. The Devils were a favorite, but they knew they needed to play well.
Boy, did they ever. The Devils played poorly for about six minutes of this entire series, during one period of Game 2 at The Swamp. They'd lose that game 4-2, but go on to shutout Pittsburgh in games 3 & 4 (3-0 and a dominating 5-0) to set up a Game 5 at the Meadowlands. Jason Arnott scored at 57 seconds of the first, and the Devils never looked back, beating the Pens 4-2, ending the series at 4-1, and finishing Lemieux's magical story with him sitting in the box for a cheap slash and cross check on John Madden with a minute to go. Every storybook ride has an ending. Of course, that classic line would turn out to be all too true for the Devils less than two weeks later, when they lost to the Colorado Avalanche in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.
That loss has left a sour taste in a lot of Devils fans mouth about this year, but there's no reason not to celebrate this team. While many feel the Stanley Cup slipped from our grasp, and probably did, they were still likely the best version of New Jersey's team that has ever been put on ice to date. They took a Pittsburgh team with two of the greatest players of their era (three if you count Kovalev) and absolutely manhandled them. It was a true Devils-styled victory.
8. Devils Draft University of North Dakota Forward Zach Parise in the 2003 NHL Draft (June 21, 2003)
An embarrassment of riches. Names that could stockpile the Hall of Fame someday. Most importantly, one of the best draft classes ever, and the Devils were right in the thick of it.
The New Jersey Devils would be the last team one would expect to score their next superstar forward from the 2003 NHL player selection meetings, held in Nashville. The Devils had just won their third Stanley Cup, and were scheduled to pick 22nd, but when General Manager Lou Lamoriello sees something he likes, or his scouts have told him they like, he goes after it.
Parise was seen as a guy just outside the Top 10 at the draft, but it was acknowledged that he had as much talent as his Canada Cup winning father, Jean Paul. As the draft went by, both the Rangers (#12, Hugh Jessiman, one of the first round's lone busts) and the Islanders (#15, Robert Nilsson, now with the Oilers via the Ryan Smyth trade), whom Zach's father had played for, passed on the young winger. San Jose passed him at #16 to take Steve Bernier, and then Lamoriello pounced.
The Edmonton Oilers were scheduled to pick 17th, and Lou decided this was the time to take him. He traded the Devils 22nd pick and their 3rd round, 68th overall pick to Edmonton to move up and steal Parise. Commentators lauded the Devils as making yet another great player move. TSN/NBC announcer Pierre McGuire never lets anyone forget how many teams made the mistake of not choosing Parise. The Devils had solidified themselves with a scoring force for what looks like it's going to be years to come, and their best forward to come from the system since Patrik Elias. And just think, 17 other teams could've had him for free...
7. The Devils Open the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey (October 27, 2007)
Hockey... in Newark? Never gonna' happen. The demographics aren't right for it. The average Devil fan won't go there, they'll be too frightened. No one will want to take mass transit. Eh... maybe if the Nets are there too. But no, the Devils and the Devils alone announced their intention to relocate the franchise to New Jersey's largest city on February 9, 2004. The Devils and Newark reached a definitive agreement on it on January 12, 2006, and the first steel columns were erected two months later.
It seemed amazing how quickly the whole thing was coming along. The team held a topping off ceremony on March 21, 2007, just a year and 19 days after the first steel beams went up. You had to wonder if everything would be ready by October 25, 2007, when a Bon Jovi concert (the first of 10, with openers that included the Newark-area's own My Chemical Romance) would open the new place, and two days later when the Devils would get their first shot in the new digs.
I first ventured to the place on October 18, 2007, when they were allowing people to try it out. Man, was it glorious. Everything this franchise has ever deserved. Spacious concourses, a friendly atmosphere... Devils logos on the urinals! No matter how many people I bring to The Rock for the first time, they never fail to notice this (unless they're women, obviously).
The Devils have not yet had the success at The Rock on the ice that they did in the old Meadowlands building, however, it has allowed the Devils a second chance to better connect with it's fanbase. Hosting minor league games, draft parties, watch parties at the bar across the street, the occasional open scrimmage at the practice rink. All the better to see you with, I suppose. The Devils attendance has gone up year-to-year in Newark, figures to do again this year. Every time someone's doubted the Devils could do something, they prove 'em wrong, and the rink's just another example.
6. Jeff Friesen Scores the Game-Winning Goal in Third Period of Game 7, 2003 Eastern Conference Final (May 23, 2003)
We were just confused about whether or not it went in when it all happened...
We'll tell more of the story of the 2003 Devils later in the countdown, so let's talk about the 2003 playoffs. The Devils dealt easily with the seventh-seeded Boston Bruins and the third-seeded Tampa Bay Lightning in five games. Everything seemed to be going pretty smoothly for New Jersey, as any sane person had to look at them as a favorite, a rejuvenated giant given new life under coach Pat Burns. There's always another hump until you win it all, though, and the #1-seed Ottawa Senators were a large one to climb.
The Senators walked the walk as favorites in the series, defeating the Devils at 3:08 of OT (the fourth period would be a very annoying problem for Jersey in 2003, going 2-4) on a Shaun Van Allen goal to take a 1-0 series lead. The Devils came back and stole away home ice advantage in Game 2. In typical Devil fashion, the goal scorers were varied (Tommy Albelin!) and Marty Brodeur was solid.
This would be the case for Game 3 at the Meadowlands, except the goal scorers weren't so varied: there was only one, and it was Sergei Brylin. Brodeur made 24 saves to shutout the Sens in Game 3, and the Devils continued to roll, dominating Ottawa in Game 4, 5-2, with five different scorers once again. Then things took a turn for the worse.
The Sens, back home for Game 5, shut down New Jersey 3-1, including a goal from a then-little known prospect named Jason Spezza. A Chris Phillips OT winner back in The Swamp tied the series at three games apiece. You had to be scared as a Devils fan. The series would head to a deciding Game 7, and it would be on Ottawa's rink. They were also without veteran center Joe Nieuwendyk, who was kept out due to injury.
The Devils handled it, though it wasn't easy. Magnus Arvedson's goal early in the first had the Senators leading 1-0 after 20. Early in the second, however, a Sergei Brylin's shot was blocked by Anton Volchenkov... right to Jamie Langenbrunner. Jamie's monster playoff year continued as he beat Patrick Lalime to the short side to tie it. A few minutes later, Langenbrunner struck again, after a dogged effort forechecking, fired a wrister from behind the far-side faceoff circle to make it 2-1.
The Senators tied the game early in the third on a Radek Bonk goal, and things were so tense headed down the stretch, you almost knew these teams would be headed for a third OT in the series. The Devils were not about to let that happen, though. With just over two minutes left, a clear by John Madden sent Grant Marshall breaking down the left wing. He had Jeff Friesen with him, but he seemed guarded, so he kept skating in. However, all of a sudden, Marshall had drawn the other Senator defender to him, leaving Friesen alone. He fired the pass of his life to him (the shot of his life is for the Top 5) and Friesen, who by all accounts, probably could've won the Conn Smythe that year, made a great, quick deek and slipped it past Lalime.
There was some worry shortly after, as ESPN play-by-play man had thought, somehow, that the puck didn't go in. He quickly corrected himself, though if I remember correctly, all of us were cheering too loudly to hear, anyway. The Devils were off to Stanley Cup Final, thanks to some great goaltending, rock-solid defense, and very timely scoring. They've played off that script before, and would do so again in the next series.
*= Alexander Mogilny (43), Patrik Elias (40), Petr Sykora (35), John Madden, Sergei Brylin, Randy McKay (all 23) and Jason Arnott (21).