To the distinguished list of Gordie Howe, Jean B�liveau, Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky, add the name of right wing Michael Rupp. He is a 23-year-old rookie and a natural center with 26 games of NHL experience whom the desperate New Jersey Devils inserted into the lineup midway through the Stanley Cup finals because the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim were ruling the face-off circle. Rupp was a role player who could hardly imagine that, like those immortals, he would score a Stanley Cup-winning goal. "Tough to believe," he said after the Devils' 3-0 victory in Game 7 on Monday night. "Those are great names, but the most important names I'll be linked with are the New Jersey Devils on the 2003 Stanley Cup."
The most obscure player on the most obscure champion in recent NHL history planted himself in the high slot early in the second period and deflected Scott Niedermayer's shot from the point. The 6'5", 230-pound Rupp then raised his arms in celebration and astonishment when the puck trickled through the splayed pads of net-minder Jean-S�bastien Giguere. It was Rupp's first career playoff goal, the first of the game and the only one Martin Brodeur, the NHL's best goalie now that Patrick Roy has retired, would need.
The shutout was Brodeur's record seventh in the playoffs and third in the finals, although it was not enough to wrest the Conn Smythe Trophy as postseason MVP from Giguere. The New Jersey crowd booed that announcement, but the Devils applauded when Giguere accepted the award. They could afford to be magnanimous. They won their third Cup in nine years, and while this year's squad is far from the most imposing of the Devils' Cup winners, it might have the most moxie.
The 2003 Cup run marked a watershed in NHL history: the end of the star system—at least stars who do not wear masks and more padding than a K-9 trainer. Despite a welcome spasm of offense in Games 5 and 6 that awakened a somnolent final series, the playoffs belonged to Giguere and Brodeur. They did more than prove the truism that goal tending rules; they demonstrated, with only modest stumbles, that today's game is about little else but goaltending.
Until scoring twice with the extra man in Game 6, the Ducks were an unspeakable 6 for 61 on the power play in the postseason, but they reached Game 7 of the finals because Giguere tended the net the way an ill-tempered troll guards a bridge. At the same time, the Devils, whose leading scorer in the regular season, Patrik Elias, had just 57 points and whose best playoff forward, John Madden, did not score for the last 10 games, were able to win the Cup because Brodeur was Giguere's equal despite an egregious own goal in Game 3.
Hockey doesn't parse numbers like baseball—this sport has Sabres, not sabermetricians—but some statistics underscore the NHL's sea change. New Jersey right wing Jamie Langenbrunner led all postseason scorers with 18 points (in 24 games), the first time no player reached 20 points in the playoffs since 1969, when the Boston Bruins' Phil Esposito led with 18. But Esposito had eight goals in only 10 games that year and played in two rounds, not the four Langenbrunner slogged through. Other than goalies, the difference-makers these days are coaches and role players, a point of note for budget-conscious general managers as the NHL lurches into its final season under the collective-bargaining agreement.
It wasn't until the end of these star-deprived finals that play became compelling. The series turned last Thursday, in Game 5, a match so out of context with the first four games that it seemed to materialize out of the NHL's rollicking 1980s. The puck dropped shortly after 8:15 p.m. EDT, but the Cup finals unofficially began about 15 minutes later. During a first-period scrum, a rare postwhistle get-together in a series that had been so good-natured by playoff standards that the Devils and the Ducks appeared ready to open bench doors for one another, Madden emerged from the mob with blood spurting from his left cheek. The gash, which had been opened accidentally by the skate of Anaheim's Adam Oates and required 16 stitches, not only forced Madden to miss a few shifts but also started the bile flowing. "Everyone had been kind of polite, and the series wasn't that rough," New Jersey center Scott Gomez said afterward. "It definitely needed some blood."
Suddenly the gushing blood was replaced by a torrent of goals in a fun, flawed match. Through the first four games of the finals (nearly 248 minutes), there had been three shutouts and a total of 12 goals. In the first 52:52 of Game 5, there were nine scores. The Devils and the Ducks finally produced a match filled with passion, wacky bounces and uncharacteristically mediocre goaltending from Giguere and Brodeur. Like other premier goalies, Giguere, who finished with five shutouts and a superb .945 save percentage in the playoffs, is all but impregnable when he's positioned properly. For the first time in the series, swarming pressure from the Devils forced Giguere to move side to side.
He failed to react to a Turner Stevenson pass from the face-off circle that found Pascal Rheaume on the rim of the crease for the first New Jersey goal, and for the rest of the game Giguere had more trouble reading plays than a seventh-grader has reading Faulkner. He had to search for the puck through the thicket of Devils forwards, and when he did stop it, he often left juicy rebounds. Giguere emerged from the dressing room 45 minutes after the 6-3 debacle and wrote off the aberration as a poor team effort. "I'm sure Anaheim disagrees," Gomez said, "but this was good for hockey. You put nine goals on the board, you get people talking."
People had been talking for more than a week about the negative aspects of the series, and often the discussion involved Paul Kariya, the Ducks' invisible captain. Of the NHL's 20 highest-paid players, Kariya was the only one who had reached even the Cup semifinals, and his $10 million salary carried the burden of high expectations, which he had not met in the first four games against New Jersey. Then Kariya had an assist in Game 5, his first point in the finals, and two more early in a 5-2 win in Game 6 last Saturday. So to say that the thunderous check by the Devils' 6'1", 215-pound defenseman Scott Stevens in the second period of Game 6 woke Kariya from his lethargy is an exaggeration. But the hit, and Kariya's response, did reveal a profound measure of his value.