Yesterday marked a milestone in New Jersey Devils history. It has been a decade and a half since the team last hoisted Lord Stanley’s Cup. On June 9, 2003, the Devils sealed a 3-0 Martin Brodeur shutout in game seven to defeat the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and claim the championship of the National Hockey League.
That was a memorable run for many reasons, not the least of which was seeing Pat Burns, longtime NHL head coach, finally get to lift the Cup over his head at Continental Airlines Arena. There were other stars too. Jamie Langenbrunner led all playoffs scorers with 11 goals while Scott Niedermayer led in assists with 16. Both Langenbrunner and Niedermayer tied for the points lead with 18. Brodeur led the league in playoff wins with 16 and shutouts with an amazing seven (including three in the Stanley Cup Final).
Marty played 24 games that playoffs, accruing eight losses along the way, but it was Jean-Sebastien Giguere of the Mighty Ducks who would win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. Giguere led the playoffs in shots against (697), saves (659), save percentage (.946) and goals against average (1.62) all according to Hockey-Reference.com.
But while he was certainly deserving of the MVP award as he was Anaheim’s most outstanding player on their Cinderella run to the Final, many Devils fans are still sore over his being named Conn Smythe winner due largely to the official explanation given by the NHL. Apparently, the MVP votes were split between too many Devils to get one concise winner.
This actually makes sense when you consider that, in addition to Langenbrunner and Niedermayer’s totals and Marty’s brilliance between the pipes, Scott Stevens also led the playoffs in plus/minus with a plus-14, Jeff Friesen tied with Langenbrunner in game winning goals with four each and John Madden led in shots on goal with 77.
The fact that too many players played well to give the MVP award to any one individual epitomized those Devils teams: sacrificing the self for the greater good.
The Devils finished that 2002-03 regular season with a 46-20-10-6 record according to Hockey-Reference, accumulating 108 points. That was good enough for a first place finish in the Atlantic Division, edging out the Flyers by a single point.
The Senators would finish first in the Eastern Conference with 113 points, meaning they would face the lowest seed, the Islanders in the first round while the Devils would get the Bruins, who finished with 87 points in a Northeast Division dominated by the Sens that year.
The Devils would dispatch Boston in five games, winning the opener in New Jersey by a score of 2-1 on April 9. They took game two 4-2 while game three saw Marty post his first shutout of the postseason with a 3-0 win at FleetCenter. The Devils dropped game four with a chance to sweep, 5-1 but would close things out on home ice with a 3-0 victory. It was on to round two and the Tampa Bay Lightning, who had taken care of the Capitals in six games.
Once again, the Devils only needed five games to knock out the Bolts. Game one was a 3-0 Marty shutout in East Rutherford. Game two a 3-2 overtime win and the Devils headed south to Florida up two games to none.
But a 4-3 loss was in the cards at the St. Pete Times Forum as Tampa cut the series deficit to two games to one.
But New Jersey would not be denied. Game four saw Patrik Elias net the game winner from Scott Gomez and Stevens add an insurance goal to give the Devils the 3-1 win and go up 3-1 in the series. They would close things out in game five on May 2 in triple overtime back home. Grant Marshall etched his name in the Devils’ record books by scoring at 11:12 of the third OT period to send the Devils to the Eastern Conference Final for the sixth time in franchise history.
It was here that two of the best teams in the East would faceoff for the right to represent the conference in the Stanley Cup Final.
The Devils knew going in that this series against the Ottawa Senators was going to be tough. The Sens had won the President’s Trophy with the best record in the regular season, accumulating 113 points overall. Game one proved just how tough this would be as Ottawa’s Shaun Van Allen scored just 3:08 into OT to win the first game at Corel Centre for the Sens. This series would not be the relative cakewalk that the other two were.
The Devils bounced back in game two with a 4-1 win and also took game three back home by a narrow 1-0 score line. Sergei Brylin scored the lone goal in the game that put the Devils up two games to one.
The Devils pushed the Sens to the brink of elimination by winning game four 5-2 at the Continental Airlines Arena. But the very talented team from Canada’s capital city would take the next two games and make a series out of this.
They won game five 3-1 and game six 2-1 in overtime off a goal from Chris Phillips. Game seven loomed and the Devils were in a bad situation. They had failed in two tries to kill off the Senators and now game seven would be played on their home ice. But two goals from Langenbrunner and a late one in the third period from Friesen would give the Devils a narrow 3-2 victory and the Prince of Wales Trophy as the 2003 Eastern Conference champions.
Waiting for them in the Final were the upstart Mighty Ducks. Anaheim had finished the 2002-03 season with 95 points, good for second place in the Pacific Division and the seventh seed in the playoffs, where they got the Detroit Red Wings in the first round. Detroit finished with 110 points but something was in the air in Southern California. The Ducks would sweep the vaunted Wings in the first round in one of the biggest Stanley Cup Playoff upsets of the decade. They would then take care of the team that finished ahead of them in the Pacific Division in the second round, the Dallas Stars.
Dallas had finished a point better than Detroit and was the top seed in the Western Conference, but the Ducks eliminated them four games to two to move on to the West Final. There they met the equally surprising Minnesota Wild. The Wild were in just their third season and were coached by former Devils bench boss Jacques Lemaire. The Ducks, however, proved just how mighty they were by taking the Wild out in four straight.
So while the Western Final was done in a sweep by May 16, the Devils and Senators played the full seven games, going until May 23. With the Stanley Cup Final set to begin on May 27 in New Jersey or Ottawa, that gave the Ducks 11 days off while the Devils had just four.
And the Devils looked like the team that did not just have an 11 day layoff between games in the series opener. That one was a 3-0 Devils win where Friesen scored twice and Grant Marshall added one. The Devils were up 1-0.
Game two, also played in East Rutherford, ended with the exact same final score: 3-0. Elias, Gomez and Friesen were the goal scorers for New Jersey. Two games played and the Devils had outscored their opponents, 6-0.
But game three would be a wake up call. The Devils lost 3-2 in OT with Ruslan Salei netting the winner for Anaheim at the 6:59 mark of the extra session. The Mighty Ducks had cut the series lead to 2-1 and were about to tie things with a 1-0 win (also in overtime) in game four. Former Devil Steve Thomas had the only goal of the game to tie the series at two games apiece.
Game five saw the series return east and a Devils rout. New Jersey won 6-3 to put Anaheim at the brink of elimination for the first time in the 2003 playoffs.
Game six was a big one back home for the Ducks. They won 5-2 to force a game seven, but something happened in that game that you could never see today. At the 13:48 mark of the second period, Paul Kariya came through the neutral zone carrying the puck with his head down. Stevens absolutely demolished him with a vicious open ice check. Kariya lay unconscious on the ice for several scary moments before a puff of air suddenly burst onto his visor, letting the fans and other players know that he was back to consciousness. Stevens was not penalized on the play and Kariya would, in fact, return to the game. Heroically, he scored a goal a few minutes after the hit to help the Mighty Ducks to a 5-2 win and to force a game seven.
The legality of Stevens’ hit can (and has) been argued for 15 years. But under the rules in play at the time, it was legal. Borderline, but legal. Knowing what we know about concussions today, the hit is very hard to look at now. But at the time, it was certainly not a dirty hit.
All of this would set up a dramatic game seven back in Jersey and the series would end the way it began: a 3-0 Marty shutout to clinch the third Cup in Devils history. Rookie Mike Rupp scored the Cup clincher while Friesen added two more. Marty made 24 saves while his counterpart, Giguere, made 22 on 25 Devils shots.
The Devils had won their third Stanley Cup in eight years, but the decline was about to set in. The team would not reach a Stanley Cup Final again until 2012. Anaheim would get their Cup in 2007 with none other than Scott Niedermayer as their captain.
As we look to the future for the Devils, it is always great to look back on what has happened and the legacy of this great hockey club. Hopefully there are many more moments such as those produced in 2003 yet to come.