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Devil of a Time

The throwback Devils clinched a nail-biter of a Stanley Cup victory

Issue date: June 19, 2000

By Michael Farber

Sports Illustrated Flashback

  Jason Arnott and the Devils upended and dethroned the defending Stanley Cup champs. Dave Sandford
Ken Daneyko had his second Stanley Cup, a cigar that was half a city block long and his emotions in check after having wept unashamedly moments earlier as he'd spoken of outgoing New Jersey Devils owner John McMullen. The one thing Daneyko, a 36-year-old defenseman, didn't have were his two front teeth. "Anybody got my teeth?" he screamed amid the celebratory din of the dressing room. "Are my teeth over there?" The only man to play in all 131 of the Devils' playoff games finally located his choppers and slipped them into his mouth, a bridge back to the 20th century for the last of the old-time hockey teams.

New Jersey's Stanley Cup finals victory over the Dallas Stars stands as a take-your-teeth-out-and-go-to-work triumph of dated virtues, one that imposed order after a chaotic spring. The heretofore stolid Devils, in their final incarnation under the paternalistic, 82-year-old McMullen, suddenly had been winging it. They were being sold by McMullen, who expressed remorse at having closed the deal; they were being run by a resolute and highly organized general manager, Lou Lamoriello, whose post-McMullen future was an unanswered question; they were being guided by Larry Robinson, who wasn't sure he wanted to be their coach when he was asked to take over with eight games remaining in the regular season; and they were being captained by a bodychecking assassin, Conn Smythe Trophy-winning defenseman Scott Stevens, who suffered a pinched nerve in his shoulder in the opening round that was so severe he struggled to lift the 35-pound Stanley Cup over his head last Saturday night.

The Devils had earned the right to play for the Cup after coming back from a 3-1 series deficit against the Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference finals, something no team had done that late in the playoffs since the 1967 expansion. They won the Cup when their goalie, Martin Brodeur, who had lost seven straight postseason sudden-death games over the last five years, was masterly in a 2-1 double-overtime road victory in Game 6 that dethroned the Stars. "We did it the hard way," Brodeur said. "It's so nice to win with all that adversity."

The New Jersey victory doesn't mark the start of a dynasty, merely the end of an era. McMullen, who couldn't fly to Dallas for Game 6 because of his sore back, will close his $175 million deal with YankeeNets -- in other words, George Steinbrenner -- on July 12. (For all of McMullen's public remorse, don't feel too sorry for him. In 1982 he bought the Colorado Rockies for $10 million and moved them to New Jersey.) The last great corner store in sports, a team that seemed to revel in its anonymity, will become the property of Big Business Inc. It's inconceivable that the change in ownership, not to mention winning the Stanley Cup for the second time in six seasons, will allow the Devils their previous degree of privacy. "Who knows how it will change," defenseman Scott Niedermayer said. "With Dr. McMullen and Lou, it's always been team, team, team. You give up everything for the team." In an age that celebrates the self and not the selfless, there might never be a club like McMullen's again.

There might not be any goaltenders' duels like the two that closed out the Stanley Cup for quite a while, either. In Games 5 and 6, Dallas and New Jersey combined for 165 shots in three hours, 14 minutes and 41 seconds of play. The teams scored four goals in that time, which made the combined save percentage of Brodeur and Dallas's Ed Belfour .976, an almost surreal figure given the gilt-edged scoring chances both the Devils and the Stars had, especially in Dallas's 1-0 triple-overtime victory in Game 5 at Continental Airlines Arena.

After that one-hour, 46-minute, 21-second match, New Jersey center Bobby Holik hopped in his car, drove south on the New Jersey Turnpike to Exit 11, picked up the Garden State Parkway, got off near Asbury Park, headed east to the beach, deked and couldn't put the puck in the Atlantic Ocean. Not really. Holik headed straight home and fell asleep, an extraordinary feat considering he'd had at least a half-dozen superb scoring opportunities that either he squandered or Belfour snuffed. The sun did rise later that morning. Holik could see it in the sparkling eyes of his three-year-old daughter, Hannah. "She walked into the room and woke me," said Holik, who also blew his defensive-zone coverage when center Mike Modano raced by him to redirect Brett Hull's pass through Brodeur's pads for the winning goal. "I got up with her. It was another day. Another chance." Holik was putting the previous night's match in context.

If the goaltending battle had gone on much longer, the postgame interviews wouldn't have been conducted by ABC's Brian Engblom but by Diane Sawyer on Good Morning America. The longest 1-0 match in finals history didn't end until 1:13 a.m. EDT on Friday. While there might have been more heroic or spectacularly reckless games in the finals, none had featured better goaltending--Patrick Roy of the Colorado Avalanche and John Vanbiesbrouck of the Florida Panthers hadn't faced the same quality of shots in their triple-OT, 1-0 Game 4 epic in 1996 -- and none were as nerve-racking. "[I know our team] was tense," said Robinson, who was promoted from assistant coach after Robbie Ftorek was fired on March 23. "You could feel it. Everybody I talked to who was there said they had never seen a playoff game with so much tension. My wife still had a headache the next morning."

The Devils were aware the Cup was being stored in a spare dressing room somewhere in the belly of their arena, and they reacted like nervous peewee players who know their fathers are in the stands. Holik's almost tragicomic attempts at ramming a puck past Belfour overshadowed a darker error by the Devils: Midway through the second overtime, wing Alexander Mogilny, who scored 76 goals in 1992-93 for the Buffalo Sabres, skated in alone on a breakaway and took the most pedestrian of shots, a wrister from 25 feet. It was thigh-high, right at Belfour's glove, an effort worthy of an optional morning skate in January and not a potential Cup-winning goal in June. Of Belfour's 48 saves, few were less taxing.

The game turned on Mogilny's middling effort, which seemed to energize Dallas. The series could have turned, too. The Stars, who in Game 5 began rotating four sets of wingers with centers Modano, Joe Nieuwendyk and Guy Carbonneau, grew more confident. They found their legs. They also found unexpected skating room in neutral ice. "We had been on our heels the whole series," Stars coach Ken Hitchcock said the day after Game 5. "This was the first time we went after it."

Hockey is the most random of sports, a high-speed game of tipped shots and bouncing pucks and human miscalculations that can't be micromanaged like football or baseball or basketball, no matter how hard coaches such as Hitchcock try. As one overtime spilled into another, the Devils and Stars stopped playing Stanley Cup hockey and began playing something perhaps even more extraordinary -- unalloyed, unfettered hockey. "At a certain stage in the series, the game becomes just emotion and enthusiasm," Hitchcock said 13 hours after Game 5. "That's where it is now. You're dealing with straight emotion. I know one thing: We've got a team that can hardly wait to come to the rink, and that wasn't the case two days ago."

Last Saturday the Stars came to Reunion Arena in their best duds, such as they are for superstitious hockey players. Everybody loves distinctive raiments, especially lucky playoff ones. Third-string goaltender Marty Turco wore a faux silk burnt-orange, brown and white shirt with collar points the length of a beagle's ears. It was a gift from former teammate Brent Severyn, who had worn it before Dallas's victories in the final two games of the 1999 Western Conference finals. (Severyn had dropped off the shirt at Reunion Arena while on assignment for a local TV station.) For the second straight game, right wing Mike Keane trotted out his scarlet sport coat, size 42 ugly, that he had first worn in '93 when he played for the Cup-winning Montreal Canadiens. The fiery talisman had been to Keane what Kate Smith's God Bless America had been to the Flyers, only with a better record: Before Game 6, Keane claimed his teams' playoff mark was 13-0 when he wore that coat, including 12 wins in overtime.

New Jersey's players were unimpressed by the emotion or the apparent switch in momentum. Scarlet jacket? Frankly, they didn't give a damn. The Devils had been stunned by the Game 5 loss -- "It was tough to lose after almost six full periods, but we kept telling each other that we could've won all five games [in the series]," Daneyko said last Friday -- but they channeled their shock into the single most brutally physical period of the 2000 postseason, a period that lacked only a steel enclosure to be a Texas death match. Twice the trainers had to be summoned to the ice, the doctors and a stretcher only once.

Dallas defenseman Darryl Sydor was the first casualty, severely spraining his left ankle when he missed a check on New Jersey forward Scott Gomez near the boards and landed awkwardly. He limped off, luckier than Devils winger Petr Sykora nine minutes later. Sykora, who was knocked off balance by a stick to the ribs from Stars defenseman Sylvain Cote, was then crushed by defenseman Derian Hatcher, who delivered a blow to Sykora's head. Sykora landed on his back like roadkill. The hit was deemed legal, his CAT scan was normal -- no autopsy, no foul. Sykora watched the rest of the game from a bed at Baylor University Medical Center.

If the score was even at one body each, the advantage had swung to New Jersey. While Robinson could muddle through by throwing Mogilny on the No. 1 line with Jason Arnott and Patrik Elias and by juggling his other combinations, Hitchcock was compelled to give more minutes to each of his five remaining defensemen and rely more heavily on veterans Cote and Dave Manson, who usually are his third pair. The loss of Sydor would prove significant, a cruel blow for the Stars to suffer after he played only 95 seconds -- less air time than ABC gave Brodeur's telegenic wife, Melanie.

Melanie summed up the drama perfectly, alternately hiding behind a towel when Dallas had a scoring chance and cheering wildly when fortune turned the Devils' way. In her Devils Stetson she got to be more of an ABC regular than Regis. The network knew a good thing. According to Melanie, it offered the Reunion Arena fans in the row in front of her hats and other gimcracks for not leaping to their feet and ruining reaction shots of Melanie. AFTRA beckons.

Even as compelling a show as this must close. In the second overtime, with the overburdened Cote playing his 38th shift, Elias whipped a cross-ice, backhanded pass from the boards that beat Cote and found Arnott. Arnott had committed a ludicrous cross-checking penalty to the throat of Dallas wing Blake Sloan near the end of the first overtime. Until that point referees Terry Gregson and Bill McCreary seemed inclined to let anything short of manslaughter go unpunished. Arnott made amends by flicking the puck into the open corner of the net for the Cup-winning goal.

New Jersey's dressing-room celebration was tinged with the bittersweet sense of a time passing. The Stanley Cup, containing light beer, was passed from lip to lip, and a cell phone was passed from ear to ear so the Devils could share their joy with Sykora, who would leave the hospital the next day. As befits the last old-fashioned team, the tableau was one of inclusion, embracing not only the players' families but also an absent and soon-to-be-former owner and the brilliant general manager who made the late-season switch to Robinson. Lamoriello, who had an equity interest in the Devils and might walk away with $15 million from the sale, said he would discuss his future with New Jersey at a later date. Last Saturday night he walked down a corridor in an aging hockey arena. Domestic champagne was being consumed on the other side of the door. Lamoriello was drinking RC Cola.

Issue date: June 19, 2000


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