Eight years ago, the New Jersey Devils accomplished what many franchises are still attempting to do year after year: win the Stanley Cup. In fact, this would be the third Stanley Cup victory for the Devils. Only nine franchises in the post-NHL era have won more than 3 Stanley Cups: both New York teams, Ottawa, Chicago, Boston, Edmonton, Detroit, Toronto, and Montreal.
Notice that most of that list includes each of the "Original Six" franchises; and Ottawa's Cup wins were way back in their adopted history (1920s and prior). Considering that Edmonton carried their team over from the WHA, the Islanders are the only team on this list who built their team from scratch in the NHL to win that many Stanley Cups. It really puts the Devils' victories in an impressive perspective (this applies to the Penguins too).
Let's reminiscence about the 2003 team, their playoff run, and the Stanley Cup Final after the jump.
The 2003 team was a defensive powerhouse. Per NHL.com's team stats, the Devils tied with Philadelphia in yielding the lowest goals against total in the league at 166. The Devils did stand out from the Flyers with the league's lowest shots against per game rate at 23.6. On paper, the Devils were expected to be quite good. This was a defense that had Scott Niedermayer in his prime, Brian Rafalski handling second pairing duties with ease, Colin White starting to blossom, and Scott Stevens still playing well enough despite getting up in years. The Devils also had several forwards who most definitely helped out on defense, which is still something Devil forwards are encouraged to do. Among other forwards, John Madden and Jay Pandolfo were entering their primes as shutdown players; veterans Grant Marshall and Turner Stevenson gave grit to go with their tenacity along the boards; and Jamie Langenbrunner showed he could contribute well at both ends of the rink. On paper, it was bound to be good. On the ice, it was brilliant; thanks to the players' own performance and head coach Pat Burns coaching them up to be as stingy as they were.
Oh, and there was Martin Brodeur. 73 games, 73 starts, 9 shutouts, a 91.4% save percentage, a GAA of 2.02, a record of 41-23-9-5, and a Vezina trophy in 2003. He was pretty good.
Their offense really wasn't, however. Per NHL.com, they averaged 2.63 goals per game, a total of 216 - which was good for 14th in the league that season. However, that's still a really low total by itself. Breaking it down player by player from HockeyDB, Patrik Elias led the team in scoring with 28 goals and 29 assists in what seemed like a snake-bitten season for the winger. Langenbrunner, Scott Gomez, and Jeff Friesen would be the only Devils to break 50 points - 55, 55, and 51 respectively. Langenbrunner, Friesen, and Elias were the only Devils to score more than 20 goals. The crown jewel of the cruddy offense was the power play wasn't the definition of awful. They got 303 opportunities and scored on only 36 goals - a conversion rate of 11.8%, dead last in the league. Needless to say, Devils fans were very thankful for the stalwart defensive corps and Martin Brodeur.
Offensive woes, the Devils rode their team to success with a record of 46-20-10-6 in 2002-03. A tie against Buffalo in their final game of the season giving them that extra point to win the Atlantic Division ahead of Philadelphia. The Devils earned the second seed, and decisively smashed Boston in the first round 4-1 and Tampa Bay in the second round 4-1. Good times unless you liked the B's or the Bolts.
The Eastern Conference Finals were considerably tougher against Ottawa. The Senators had a very strong team by way of finishing first in the Eastern Conference; led by Marian Hossa and Daniel Alfredsson up front, Wade Redden and Chris Phillips in the back, and Patrick Lalime in nets. They wanted their first "modern" Stanley Cup and gave the Devils a mighty fit. The Senators took Game 1, but the Devils decisively beat them in Games 2 and 4 (4-1, 5-2, respectively) and shut them out 1-0 in Game 3. Yet, the Sens clawed back in Game 5 and Game 6 with wins, attempting to do to New Jersey what the Devils did to the Flyers in 2000. It was a very nervy Game 7 in Ottawa for Devils fans around the world.
The nerves perhaps got to Jeff Friesen. Early in the third period, gave up the puck at the blueline in the third period in a game the Devils were winning 2-1. Radek Bonk took it and tied it up. The crowd was ignited and Freisen looked like he wanted to crawl into a hole in the ground. I wouldn't have blamed him if I was in his shoes. Back then, I wasn't, I was a fan who was very much blaming him - dreading the worst.
Fortunately, Friesen became the hero of the night and redeemed his horrible error late in the game. Grant Marshall, of all people, nutmegged Wade Redden with a pass - and you know, let's just watch it here and be amazed:
Friesen turned out to not only be one of the few notable offensive players on the 2002-03 team, but one of the team's important goal scorers in the playoffs. He put in 10, four of which were eventual game winners including this series-clinching strike. As you'll see in the video, it was only his fifth goal of the postseason, which should give you a clue as to how his SCF went. Anyway, the Devils clamped down like their lives depended on it - considering Burns was the coach and Lou was the GM, perhaps they were - and they moved on. Alfredsson just slumped along the boards wondering just what happened - how they came so close yet so far. A jarring image in contrast to the Devils cheering enthusiastically. The agony of defeat compared with the ecstasy of victory. This recap at ESPN of that Game 7 sums it up well, should you need it.
Straying away from the continuity of the postseason run, only Jamie Langenbrunner put in more goals than Friesen with 11. Langenbrunner was fantastic in the 2003 postseason, including the first two goals against Ottawa in that Game 7. He led all forwards in points with 11 goals and 5 assists; and just as it endeared him to Dallas fans, his defense was just as important as his shot. He's now persona non grata to Devils fans, but how he played in 2003 made Devils fans fall in love with the guy. Recalling that makes the more recent memories of #15 grate even more. Moving on. Only Scott Niedermayer had as many points (2 goals and 16 assists) - who was also a beast in 2003. Niedermayer was arguably one of the best defensemen in the world for a bit of time in the last decade. Loads of minutes, moving up and down the ice smoother than butter, and making seemingly all the right reads.
Let's get back on track to the Stanley Cup Final. The opponent was Anaheim. Yes, the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. Their Cinderella story was part-Aladdin, with a genie granting Jean-Sebastian Giguere special powers to stop all kinds of shots (someone ask Tim Thomas about it, maybe he knows something). Their playoffs went from an upset to a magical run they can win the whole thing. Not to throw the rest of the roster under the bus, but the Ducks don't get close to the Finals if Giguere wasn't putting up 94-95% save percentage performances. After all, even after a 7-game final, the Ducks' leading scorers in the post season were Adam Oates and Petr Sykora, each with 4 goals and 9 assists. Yes, 13 points. The Ducks needed Giguere to be fantastic for another series. Many were expecting a goaltending duel, what with Brodeur being, well, himself and Giguere being so hot.
While Giguere's excellence was the main story, other narratives popped up. Fans got to know Niedermayer's family real well as the Scott vs. Rob matchup was emphasized and their mother thrown in the middle. Devils supporters didn't want to see former-Devil Petr Sykora light up his former team. I also vaguely remember ABC hyping up some couple that promised to get married if Anaheim took the Stanley Cup (they did it anyway, making it an eye-rolling cheap stunt).
The early hopes/fears of a goaltending duel were quickly dashed. The Devils not only won the first two games, but they did it 3-0 in each one. Early indications looked like the Devils were going to take this series, which sounds kind of familiar today. The Ducks were unfazed. They won Games 3 and 4 on their ice, but they weren't big wins like a more recent Stanley Cup Final. No, both were overtime victories. Game 3 may be memorable as that was the game where Brodeur heinously lost his stick on a dump-in that went in; though he got beat in OT by a far more respectable shot. Game 4 was Giguere's lone shutout in the series, his fifth in the postseason. That game, above all others, was the goalie duel that most expected at the start of the Stanley Cup Finals. It would be the only one. Incidentally, Joe Nieuwendyk suffered a hip injury that would keep him out for the rest of the series. This will be important a little later.
Game 5 was a statement game by New Jersey, a 6-3 smashing of the Ducks in East Ruthersford. It was 3-3 until Jay Pandolfo, of all people, got a tally in the second and the Devils just rallied from there. I do admit I may be overstating Pandolfo's goal, but this is reminiscing and I prefer to think that Pandolfo scoring a goal just deflates the opposition. That only lasted a game as Anaheim returned the favor with a 5-2 win in Anaheim.
Which brings us to June 9, 2003. I was 20 years old. I was enjoying the summer break after my sophomore year in college, blissfully unaware of how much more difficult engineering school would get. I wasn't at the Continental Airlines Arena; but at home, watching the game. Hearing 19,040-plus go crazy in support of the Devils, with the red-and-white clad masses waving white towels (or were they pom-poms?) to varying rhythms. The ESPN on ABC broadcast tried to be more even-handed, possibly tilted a bit towards the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. After all, the Devils don't get much respect now, they certainly didn't then. I didn't care, I wanted the one thing Devils fans wanted: a Stanley Cup. Veterans like to point out that after winning a championship, you want to do it again. That feeling is true for fans as well. Two would not be enough. I wanted Giguere lit up. I wanted Paul Kariya kept quiet after scoring a revenge goal in Game 6 after being crushed by Scott Stevens. I wanted Petr Sykora to look like Alfredsson after Game 7 in Ottawa. I wanted the Cup back to New Jersey.
Let's rewind a bit. Joe Nieuwendyk suffered a hip injury after Game 4. His replacement in the lineup was Mike Rupp. You couldn't miss him on the ice. He was massive at 6'5", skated rather awkwardly, didn't seem all that fast, liked to use his big frame, and he had to be protected in terms of his shifts. Rupp was the 8th overall pick in 1998, fell out of favor in the Islanders organization and didn't develop like any prospect you'd expect at 8th overall. Rupp re-entered the draft in 2000 as an overage junior player, the Devils got him in the third round, and did decently in Albany. A big man with grit, not expected to be scorer or a strong two-way player. A guy you want to have on the ice to be tough, not to make plays or break a tie game. He got his first taste of the NHL in 2002-03, putting up 5 goals and 3 assists in 26 games. Due to the Devils' lack of depth at center, Rupp became Burns' choice to replace the veteran Nieuwendyk. Sure, Nieuwendyk wasn't like his former self, but he was usually more useful to the Devils' chances of winning a game of hockey than Rupp at the time. The rookie wasn't even supposed to be there, were he healthy.
Thankfully, he was in uniform and he was in the right spot at 2:22 into the second period on June 9, 2003:
His first NHL playoff goal - and it ultimately sealed a third Stanley Cup for the New Jersey Devils. Talk about an unlikely hero. Who would beat the mighty J-S Giguere in what would be his most important game of his career at the time? Who would rise to the occasion? Nobody outside of his family would suggest it would be Michael Rupp. Maybe they wouldn't. But he was. His deflection wasn't the most glorious or most visually appealing - deflections usually aren't - but I remember thinking it was one of the greatest things I ever saw. And the Devils faithful would agree, elated at the event that made that all-important lamp light up behind Giguere. He was a focus in SI.com's recap of Game 7, that I invite you to check out.
Of course, the 2003 Devils could have won this game 1-0. The announcers in the above video suggested as such. However, it's a risky way to play. Generally, you'd like to have a larger lead - a buffer in case something goes awry. Enter the Game 7 hero in Ottawa: Jeff Friesen.
Like Rupp's goal, it wasn't pretty. Friesen just pounded a rebound home. However, when it's a guy on your side, "garbage" is treasure. Notice the particulars: Scott Niedermayer takes the shot, Mike Rupp was involved, and Friesen just put in all kinds of effort to get a shot off - much less get it in. Bill Clement and Gary Thorne actually described the CAA as "literally rocking back and forth." Forget just the arena, I couldn't sit still - leaping all over the place like the happiest fool in the world. I felt I was. With two goals, the Devils surely had a lock on the game in my mind. Today, I wouldn't think such a thing, but then I had faith that the Devils would keep Anaheim at bay.
And they did. Thanks to Brodeur. Thanks to Stevens, White, Niedermayer, Rafalski, Ken Daneyko (who I have to admit moved like a glacier in that one), and Tommy Albelin (who moved slightly faster than Dano then). Thanks to the scratched Jiri Bicek, Jim McKenzie, Oleg Tverdovsky, Richard Smhelik, and Nieuwendyk. Thanks to Pascal Rheaume (Devils' depth at forward really wasn't a strength), Stevenson, Marshall, Sergei Brylin, Pandolfo, John Madden (who had an awesome playoff himself with 6 goals and 10 assists), Langenbrunner, Gomez, Brian Gionta, Elias, Friesen, and Rupp. Thanks to Pat Burns and his assistants, Bobby Carpenter, John MacLean, Jacques Caron, and Larry Robinson. Thanks to Lou Lamoriello. Thanks to PuckHoldings. Thanks to New Jersey. They didn't give Anaheim an inch, stepping up as needed.
As time ticked down in the game, my worry turned into confidence. Sure, Anaheim could have made a game of it, but I wasn't thinking in that way. No way were the Devils going to lose this game. No way were the Devils going to be denied another Stanley Cup. No way were the Devils not going to get some respect, even just a little, from those loathe to give it. And Friesen put the proverbial cherry on the greatest ice cream sundae late in the third period:
The game wasn't over, but it pretty much was. Like in Ottawa, Jeff Friesen ensured another Game 7 win for New Jersey - only this goal was just insurance.
The Devils won the Stanley Cup. J-S Giguere and his 94.5% save percentage earned him the Conn Smythe. The Devils fans booed and I agreed with them at the time. After all, Brodeur put up 7 shutouts, 3 against Anaheim, and was nearly as solid with a 93.4% save percentage. Jamie Langenbrunner led the NHL playoffs with 11 goals and 18 points. Scott Niedermayer also had 18 points and was a force in all four rounds. How dare he get this award on New Jersey's home ice? Boo. Looking back, I think Giguere was the right choice. Just not in the moment.
But that was a little blip among the amazingly awesome euphoria Devils fans were feeling. They won the Stanley Cup. The 2002-03 team will be remembered in hockey history. And we got to see it all, right from the beginning all the way down to the last possible game of the Stanley Cup Finals. Contributions from long-time veterans Daneyko, Brylin, and Stevens all the way down to rookies like Mike Rupp. Like most team sports, winning the Cup takes a team effort; and the Devils put effort after effort together that not even a super-hot Giguere could withstand.
I can recall that feeling a little bit even as I type this; and it's a feeling you want to feel as much as possible if you're a fan. It fully justifies all the time, thought, and money put into following sport. There really isn't much like it that I know of, though that may say more about myself than I would care to admit. Eight years ago, the feeling was in New Jersey, with the apex occurring when Scott Stevens lifted up the best trophy in sports for the third time in his career.