Tomorrow (June 24) marks the 20th anniversary of the clinching of the New Jersey Devils first Stanley Cup. It was on June 24, 1995 that New Jersey defeated the Detroit Red Wings in 5-2 in game four of the Stanley Cup Final to clinch Cup number one and set off one of the greatest eras in franchise history.
I have already covered most of the ’95 Stanley Cup run on this blog, so I thought it might be fun to look specifically at the Stanley Cup Final versus Detroit in this post.
After eliminating Boston, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia on the road to the Finals, the Devils still went in as huge underdogs to say the least. Detroit’s vaunted lineup consisted of players such as captain Steve Yzerman, superstar Sergei Fedorov, Dino Ciccarelli, bruiser Stu Grimson, speedy defenseman Paul Coffey, Keith Primeau and a young Nicklas Lidstrom. They were backstopped by capable veteran and Stanley Cup winner Mike Vernon. The Red Wings went 33-11-4 with a league leading 70 points (good enough for the President’s Trophy in this lockout-shortened season). They finished first in the Central Division and the Western Conference and with the President’s Trophy, they had home ice advantage for as far as they would go in the playoffs.
The Devils, by contrast, were a mostly unknown group with no real stars outside of goaltender Martin Brodeur, who had burst on the scene the year previous and won the Calder Trophy as NHL Rookie of the Year. Of the 18 men on their roster for game four, only two (Claude Lemieux and Stephane Richer) had won the Cup previously. Their two Cups were less than Paul Coffey owned by himself, so even though Detroit were not a truly Stanley Cup experienced team; they still had it where it counted.
New Jersey finished tied for second in the Atlantic Division, behind Philly and with the exact same record and number of points as the Washington Capitals, with a 22-18-8 record for 52 points. The tie breaker that put Washington ahead of the Devils in the playoffs was that, while both teams scored the exact same amount of goals (136), the Devils gave up one more (121 to the Caps’ 120). That was how tight the Atlantic Division race was that season. The Quebec Nordiques of the Northeast Division had the best overall record in the East.
The place where the Devils trumped the Wings was in scoring distribution throughout their roster. While Detroit’s leading scorer was Coffey with 14 goals and 44 assists for 58 points and their top goal-scorer was Ray Sheppard with 30 (he also had 10 assists for 40 points, making him fifth on the team in scoring), the Devils leading scorer was Richer with 23 goals and 16 assists for a (by-comparison) paltry 39 points. John MacLean had 17 goals to lead the team and added 12 assists for 29 points to be second on the team in overall scoring.
Although the Devils offense was not as high octane as the Wings, New Jersey could score when they needed to and, of course, played a lower-scoring, defense-first style. They played in a lot of close-scoring games, which made them a perfect playoff team and, in retrospect, the series should have been called a lot closer than it was in the pre-series prognostications.
Although much has been made of the Devils losing to the Rangers the year prior and how that fueled them to succeed in 1995, the truth was that Detroit had also had some setbacks in the playoffs in the lead up to that matchup.
The Wings had been Stanley Cup contenders for a few years, but had never actually gotten over the hump. The roots of their late-1990’s/early-2000’s dynasty were sown in the late-1980’s/early-1990’s. Detroit had actually lost in the Campbell Conference Finals the year the Devils made their miracle run in 1988, robbing us of this matchup seven years sooner than we got it. After losing to Edmonton in 1988, the Wings would lose to Chicago in the first round in 1989, miss the playoffs in 1990, fall to St. Louis in the first round in 1991, get swept in the second round to the Blackhawks in 1992, lose a heartbreaking seven game series to Toronto in 1993 in the first round and be upset in the first round by San Jose in 1994. The Red Wings were a team of destiny with that destiny unfulfilled so far. The Devils had relatively come out of nowhere, despite their great showing during the 1993-94 season.
All of this helps us to understand just why the Devils were such huge underdogs going into the 1995 Stanley Cup Final.
Game one opened the series in Detroit at the Joe Louis Arena on June 17, 1995. This game was right up the Devils alley, ending in a 2-1 final. Lemieux and MacLean were the Devils goal scorers while Ciccarelli scored the lone goal for Detroit. Marty Brodeur made 17 saves. With this game one victory, the Devils had shown that they could set the tone for the series and dictate the style of play they wanted.
Game two in the Motor City on June 20, 1995 was another close one, with the Devils prevailing 4-2. Goals came from MacLean, Richer, a famous end-to-end rush by smooth skating defenseman Scott Niedermayer and the game winner from Brick, New Jersey native Jim Dowd. Detroit notched goals off the sticks of former Devil, Doug Brown and Fedorov. It was after this game, on the plane ride back to New Jersey, that Martin Brodeur famously told his teammates that he felt like he was seeing the puck like a beach ball and that he had this series if they just scored the goals (paraphrasing, of course, but that was his intent).
Game three was the first Stanley Cup Final game ever played in the state of New Jersey at the Brendan Byrne Arena on June 22, 1995. This one opened things up a little, as the Devils won 5-2. Neal Broten, longtime Devil Bruce Driver, Bobby Holik, Lemieux and Randy McKay all notched goals for the Devils. Yzerman and Fedorov got on the scoresheet for Detroit. The Devils were now in complete control of the series and were totally dominating the play on the ice. One more game was all they would need to bring the Cup across the Hudson River to the Devils.
That game, game four, played at the Meadowlands, would end in the exact same 5-2 score as the previous game. This was the game played twenty years ago on June 24. Sergei Brylin would score one for the Devils, while Shawn Chambers and Neal Broten would each net two, including the Cup clincher for Broten. The Red Wings got goals off the sticks of Fedorov, again, and Coffey. The Devils had won the Stanley Cup after a sweep of one of the best offensive teams in the game at the time. Claude Lemieux was named Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoff MVP.
How did this happen? Detroit was much better equipped to win in a shootout with their big guns and stars. As time would show, the Devils goaltending was better, as Vernon was on the downside of his career, while Brodeur was just starting his record-setting NHL journey. Much has been made of the Neutral Zone Trap and the Devils were better defensively than the Wings, but when they needed to score, the Devils were able to get goals from different parts of their lineup. While the Red Wings were mostly reliant on their big stars, the Devils could get it from almost anywhere in their lineup.
When it came down to it, the Devils were the more well-rounded team. Jacques Lemaire outcoached Scotty Bowman and the Devils won. It was a series that will go down in NHL history as one of the greatest upsets ever and will live in Devils lore as one of their best-played playoff series ever.