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 Vanbies-brouck 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."