In some ways, it doesn't feel as though it's been 11 seasons (12 if you count the 2004-05 season that was lost to a lockout) since our New Jersey Devils last won the Stanley Cup; in others, such as the last few seasons with any playoff games, it feels as though it has been a lifetime. Our proud franchise has fallen on rough times in the last few seasons with another hockey-less spring; since we don't have a postseason to discuss, I decided to bring back Throwback Thursday and look back at better days.
The Road to the Finals
The Devils had an excellent regular season in 2002-03, finishing 2nd in the East and 4th in the NHL with 108 points. Going into the season, the team had acquired Jeff Friesen and Oleg Tverdovsky for Petr Sykora and Mike Commodore (there were other parts involved, but none as significant as those mentioned) from the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. The new faces on the roster would help the team finish where they did, as well as help once they reached the dance.
Jamie Langenbrunner would carry the team through the first round, as they would win their first three playoff games against the Boston Bruins. The Bruins would come back to take Game 4, but Langenbrunner would score his 4th and 5th of the playoffs in Game 5 to eliminate Boston. The Tampa Bay Lightning would be next, and the Devils came roaring out of the gate to win the first 2 games. Tampa would take Game 3, but New Jersey would make quick work of the Lightning by taking Games 4 and 5; this would set the stage for a meeting with the East's top team, the Ottawa Senators.
The teams split the first two games of the series in Ottawa, and upon their return home to New Jersey, the Devils would take a commanding 3-1 series lead. Ottawa would not die though, and won Game 5 in Ottawa and Game 6 in New Jersey. Langenbrunner would strike again for Game 7 at the Corel Centre, adding his 8th and 9th goals of the playoffs, and Friesen would break a 2-2 tie with just under 2 1/2 minutes in the 3rd to send the Devils back to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Ruining the Cinderella Story
The Devils would meet the Mighty Ducks in the finals; while they finished the season in 7th place, they did so comfortably in the Western Conference with 95 points. The Ducks did however have to beat two favored teams in the defending champion Detroit Red Wings and the Dallas Stars; led by the goaltending of Jean-Sebastian Giguere, the Ducks positioned themselves to try and upset a third team on their road to the championship.
The series would start at Continental Airlines Arena, and the Devils dampen Anaheim's hopes for victory with a pair of 3-0 victories to take a 2 game lead in the series. Jeff Friesen would lead the way with 3 goals over the two games, Patrik Elias would chip in a goal and 2 assists, Oleg Tverdovsky would contribute 2 assists in Game 2, and Martin Brodeur was spectacular in shutting out the Ducks on both nights. The story would change when the series went back to Arrowhead Pond; both games would go to overtime, including a 0-0 tie in Game 4, before the Mighty Ducks would win both to even the series.
Game 5 would be a shellacking, with 5 different Devils scoring en route to a 6-3 victory which would leave the Devils with a chance to win the cup in Anaheim for Game 6; that would not be the case, as the Mighty Ducks would turn the tables and beat the Devils up in a 5-2 victory. With the series even at 3 games each (with each team having won all their home games so far), the teams would head back to New Jersey; one way or another the Stanley Cup would be awarded in the building that night.
The first period of Game 7 was tense, yet not really eventful; there was no scoring and the only penalty was a boarding minor against Turner Stevenson that the Devils killed off before the end of the period. With a 0-0 score going into the second, an unlikely hero would rise to the occasion. Mike Rupp, fourth line tough guy and infrequent goal scorer, chose the best time possible to score his first goal of the Stanley Cup finals, as well as his first career playoff goal.
If you go to approximately the 15 second mark of the above video, you can see Scott Niedermayer rush to keep the puck in the offensive zone; he fires the puck towards the net, and Rupp gets just enough of it to deflect the shot past Giguere for a 1-0 Devils lead. Neidermayer certainly deserves credit for the hustle play and for putting the puck where it needed to be, but Rupp's heroic play shouldn't be discounted; here's a player who worked hard game after game just for his spot in the lineup, and he was finally rewarded with the goal that would wind up being the cup-clinching goal.
Jeff Friesen would add his 9th of the postseason just under 10 minutes later, and would pot another in the third period to give the Devils their 3rd 3-0 victory of the series; Rupp would add 2 more assists on Friesen's goals and Brodeur would make 24 saves in shutting Anaheim out. Giguere would wind up winning the Conn Smythe Trophy for carrying the Ducks through the playoffs, and while there were many New Jersey fans disappointed by the fact that a Devil didn't win it, the fact that the team won the largest achievement that night was more than enough for this Devils fan.
As I said earlier, this was the final cup that the Devils have won to date; while we don't want to be a fan base that relishes in past achievements only, I think it's important to celebrate moments like this that helped to define our team. This cup win also helped in the making of a decision, as Ken Daneyko would retire that summer after winning his 3rd Stanley Cup with New Jersey; it almost seemed to be hinted at, as Daneyko was kept on the ice by the late, great Pat Burns for the final minute of Game 7.
In many ways this was the end of an era for the Devils; Daneyko was gone and Scott Stevens would miss half of the 2003-04 season due to illness and injury. He supposedly wanted to return for 2004-05, but that was the season lost to the lockout, and Scott would retire before the start of the 2005-06 season. Scott Niedermayer would become an unrestricted free agent after the lockout as well, and chose to sign with the same team the Devils head beaten for their third Stanley Cup. With their defensive stalwarts gone, the Devils would need to attempt to establish a new identity, and would attempt to do so without a "rebuild" that so many NHL teams seem to go through at one point or another.
Your Take and Next Time
I'd like to hear your thoughts and memories about the Devils' victory in the 2003 playoffs; which players stood out to you? Did you think this would be the last time we would see all three members of the retired numbers club on the ice together? Were you worried Anaheim would take Game 7? Leave any thoughts in the comments below.
If anyone has any "throwback" idea they would like to see covered, please suggest it below as well; sadly it's going to be another long spring/summer here and we will have some time to reminisce after covering prospect profiles, the draft itself, and free agency.
If no ideas come up, the next Throwback Thursday will take a broad look at the 2012 Stanley Cup run; while I have looked at specific goals from it in the past, I would like to highlight some of the events from that postseason that don't receive as much attention as well as discuss why that Devils team was so successful.
Thank you as always for reading!