Welcome back to the Last Word on Hockey’s summer series where we look at the biggest game in team history. Each day we will be back with a new team to look at. Looking at things like the lead-up, what happened, followed, and why it makes it the biggest game. The biggest game does not automatically mean a win, either. Sometimes, it can be a loss that set the franchise back massively. Sit back and enjoy as we break down all 31 team’s most important game. This is the New Jersey Devils biggest game in franchise history. The full series is found here.
New Jersey Devils Biggest Game in Franchise History
The New Jersey Devils started to play in the NHL during the 1982-83 season and did not make the post-season for the first time until 1988. At the start of the 1987-88 season, Lou Lamoriello was already the team’s President. Consequentially, he named himself General Manager. From that point on Lamoriello would start to lay the foundation for what would become one of the most consistent franchises in the NHL.
Through various trades and acquisitions in the summer of 1991, which landed them Scott Niedermayer, Scott Stevens, Stephane Richer, and Randy McKay. With these acquisitions, the Devils found themselves making the playoffs on a more consistent basis. Not to mention the Devils drafted goalie Martin Brodeur with the 20th overall pick in the 1990 NHL Draft. Everything Lamoriello had put together finally paid off in the lockout-shortened season of 1995 when the Devils won the franchise’s first Stanley Cup.
It appeared the Devils were on the right track to being a successful and stable franchise in the league. Or so they thought.
The March Back To The Stanley Cup Final
The Devils were riding high after winning in 1995, but the team would have to take a step backward in order to learn what it took to win consistently in the NHL. It first started when the Devils could not defend their title. The team missed the playoffs in 1996. The following years brought even more heartbreak. The Devils would lose to their rivals the New York Rangers in the second round of the 1997 Stanley Cup Playoffs. After back to back first-round playoff loses; first to the Ottawa Senators in 1998, then the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1999, something had to change.
It did not matter how many first place and 100-points seasons the Devils had, the results were not there. Starting off the 1999-2000 season, there was something special surrounding the game. The Devils had bright young faces in the lineup which included the likes of Brian Rafalski, Scott Gomez, and John Madden. This mix of young rookies and veterans had brought the Devils to the league’s best record by mid-February of 2000. But then all of a sudden, the team inexplicably started to struggle.
The last month and a half of the season for the Devils was a downhill spiral. The team did not know how to stop losing and when it was going to end. Management would make some trades during the downswing acquiring Vladimir Malakhov from Montreal and Alexander Mogilny from Vancouver. These moves did not help and the Devils continued to lose. Lamoriello with no other options fired head coach Robbie Ftorek. Lou replaced him with assistant coach Larry Robinson with only eight games left in the regular season. Lamoriello was fearful of a fourth straight playoff flop.
The Devils entered the 2000 Stanley Cup Playoffs on a high after defeating the Florida Panthers, the same team they would play in the first round, on the final day of the regular season.
This was a must-win series, and the Devils played like it. The Devils would sweep the Panthers out of the playoffs. The next series against the Toronto Maple Leafs was a little more difficult. After splitting the first four games, the Devils raised their game to another level to oust the Maple Leafs in six games. In the Eastern Conference Final, the Devils would face more adversity. Trailing the Philadelphia Flyers 3-1, the Devils took head coach Larry Robinson‘s words to heart to rally and defeated the Flyers in seven games.
The Devils were back in the Stanley Cup Final, but an even greater foe awaited them.
The Stanley Cup Final vs Dallas
The Dallas Stars were the defending Stanley Cup Champions with a loaded lineup that included Mike Modano and Brett Hull. The Devils knew they would have to continue to play strong defence against this deadly combination. Not to mention with Ed Belfour between the pipes, the Stars were primed for a repeat.
However, in 2000 the Devils had one thing going for them – a line that could score. That line was simply known as the “A-Line.” Jason Arnott, Patrik Elias, and Petr Sykora was an offensive juggernaut for the Devils. This lined propelled the Devils into the Stanley Cup Final against the Stars. The Stars defence had its work cut out for them. It was something the Stars were not prepared for as the series got started.
The Devils would take Game 1 by a score of 7-3 on home ice, but like all good teams do the Stars showed great resiliency. Behind a strong performance by Belfour and two goals from Brett Hull, the Stars tied the series heading back to Dallas.
Back in Reunion Arena, the Devils showed why they were a great defensive team, especially on the penalty kill. After falling down 1-0, the Devils would kill off the next two penalties and late in period one, the Devils tied the game at 1-1. Midway through the second, Sykora would give the Devils the lead they would not relinquish.
Leading the series, the Devils looked for a sweep on the road. After a scoreless first period, the Stars scored late in period two thanks to a goal by Joe Nieuwendyk. In appeared the Stars were in control before the Devils scored three straight goals to rip the victory from the jaws of defeat. Up 3-1 heading back to New Jersey, the Devils had a chance to wrap up the season on home ice.
In one of the best games of the series, Brodeur and Belfour put on a goaltending clinic. Both teams traded scoring chances throughout regulation with neither team giving an inch. The Devils took the play to the Stars and were inching to win their second Stanley Cup. As the game headed into overtime, the next goal would determine if the Devils would win the Stanley Cup or if there would be a Game 6. Unfortunately for Devils fans, the Stars would force a Game 6 as Mike Modano scored the game-winner in triple overtime.
The Date was Saturday, June 10, 2000. The spot was Reunion Arena in Dallas, Texas. The Devils were still up 3-2 in the series, but this time, if the Devils were to capture the Stanley Cup, they would have to play on the reigning champions’ home ice. A feat that had not be accomplished in over 24 years.
The Devils had a history of not being able to close out a series. If the Stars won, the series would shift back to New Jersey with many questions left to answer. And all the momentum on the Stars side.
Before the series started the Devils and Stars hardly knew each other, but after five physical games they had become brutal rivals. In the first period, both teams would lose key players on their team. Darryl Sydor was hit into the boards suffering a knee injury and crawled in front of Belfour to block a shot. Shortly after Arnott up-ended Nieuwendyk on the face-off.
However, no hit was bigger than the one Derian Hatcher laid on Sykora. Hatcher knocked Sykora out of the game. There was a lot of bad blood as each team had lost one player. With their backs against the wall, the Devils showed what kind of team they had inside the locker room.
After a scoreless first period, the Devils and Stars exchanged second-period goals. First, the Devils took advantage of a Stars power play as Niedermayer scored a short-handed goal to give the Devils a 1-0 lead. The lead would be short-lived as Mike Keane scored on the power play on a pass from Modano to tie the game at 1-1. The Stars took all the momentum away from the Devils. If Game 6 was going to be a shootout, the Devils had the firepower to compete with the Stars.
The Devils had a surge in offensive chances, but nothing would come of it. The Devils would hit multiple posts and were inches away from taking the lead. Just like in Game 5, the next goal for the Devils could produce the Stanley Cup. The battle raged on as the Devils would continue to carry the pace of play. The Devils and Stars would need overtime again to decide things.
Early in the first overtime, Sergei Brylin had a golden opportunity to end the game. After Randy McKay circled the net drawing two Stars defenders to him, he made a pass to Brylin who could not bury the puck as Belfour left the right side of the net open. The teams would trade chances through the first overtime before Arnott took a penalty late into the first overtime. It was rare to see a team get a power play in overtime. As the horn sounded for the end of the first overtime the Devils had 42 seconds left to kill on the penalty.
It is never ideal to start a period in the penalty box, but the Devils boasted one of the best penalty kills in the league. The Devils were able to kill off the remaining time on the penalty but still faced an uphill climb.
The Devils had lost seven consecutive playoff overtime games. The defending champs continue to put up a good fight, but it would not be much longer until the clock struck midnight.
The play began with a face-off in the Stars zone, the puck would come around to the left side where Stevens would keep the puck in on the left point. He would throw the puck to the opposite corner where Elias would chase the puck down. Elias would send it out front to Arnott for the game-winner to win the Stanley Cup.
For the second time in six years, the Devils were once again Stanley Cup Champions. The Devils would get back to the playoffs in 2001, and make a run all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. Unfortunately, the Devils could not win back to back Stanley Cups. The Devils would lose to the Colorado Avalanche in seven games. The following year the Devils lost to the Carolina Hurricanes in the first round. However, the Devils win the Stanley Cup for a third time in 2003 defeating the Anaheim Ducks in seven games.
The Devils were a so-called dynasty winning three Stanley Cups in nine years. From 1996 to 2011 the Devils had a run where they did not miss the playoffs for 15 years. Talk about becoming a model of consistency. Not to mention the three players who played for the Devils that would go into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Throughout this run to the Stanley Cup, the Devils had other big games that could have nominated for this piece. Two games come to mind. First is Game 6 of the 2000 Eastern Conference Semifinal when the Devils held the Maple Leafs to six shots. Just imagine one team holding another to just six shots in today’s NHL. That is how dominant the Devils defence was. The second is Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Flyers. The Devils were down 3-1 in the series to force a Game 7. With the game tied at 1-1, Elias would score late to propel the Devils to the Stanley Cup Final.
The Devils were known for being a defence-first team under head coach Jacques Lemaire. Under Lemaire, the Devils played a defensive simply known as the “neutral zone trap.” The objective was to force teams to turn over the puck in the neutral zone leading to a counter-attack. Throughout the decades the Devils style of play was criticized by the media and hockey purists for “making the NHL boring.” Nevertheless, the system won titles and to this day has a lasting impact on the NHL as one team or another plays a version of the “neutral zone trap.”