The New Jersey Devils had grown into one of the NHL’s best franchises. They’d won the Stanley Cup in 1995, sweeping the favored Detroit Red Wings. In 2000, the Devils won another title and in 2001 they reached the Finals before losing to the Colorado Avalanche. Expectations were now high and when 2002 ended in a first-round playoff loss, a coaching change was made, with Pat Burns brought in to run the show for the 2003 New Jersey Devils and put the team back on top.
Patrik Elias was a young 26-year-old forward in ’03 and he led the team with 57 points. The top goal producers were Scott Gomez and Jamie Langenbrunner, with Jeff Friesen and Joe Neuwendyk playing supporting roles. But the pride and joy of the team was the defense, the best in the league and Martin Brodeur in goal.
The Devils won six of the season’s first seven games and were 15-6 in early December. A 10-1 stretch then moved them 33-12-3 by February 5, a record they extended to 46-20-10 by the end of the year. It was good enough to win the Atlanta Division and earn the #2 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, trailing only the Ottawa Senators
New Jersey began the playoffs first with a matchup against the seventh-seeded Boston Bruins. The B’s were led by Joe Thornton, who won the Hart Trophy (the league’s MVP award) in 2000 and is still a good player today in San Jose. What the Bruins didn’t have was stable goaltending, relying on a by-committee approach.
Much like the 2003 Boston Red Sox tried to do closer-by-committee and saw it stand in sharp contrast to the New York Yankees and Mariano Rivera, the Bruins’ approach was no match for New Jersey and Brodeur. In the first two games, Langenbrunner provided the offense, scoring two goals in Game 1 and then a goal and assist in Game 2 to lead New Jersey to wins of 2-1 and 4-2.
The series shifted to Boston where Brodeur pitched a shutout in a 3-0 win. The Bruins had a blaze of glory, scoring five goals in Game 4, but when the series went back to the Meadowlands, Brodeur was locked in again, producing a second 3-zip shutout and the Devils were on their way to the second round.
Round two was against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the third seed in the East, a bracket that had gone chalk in the first round, a surprising development in the NHL to say the least. Tampa Bay was led by Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis, each 30-plus goal scorers, but like the Bruins, they were overmatched at the goaltending spot.
Langenbrunner and John Madden (a 22-year-old forward, not the one-time NFL analyst and coach of the 1976 Oakland Raiders championship team just in case you were wondering) each scored a goal in the opener as the team got its third 3-0 win in the first six playoff games. They won again on Saturday in overtime when Gomez delivered two assists and Langenbrunner lit the lamp for the game-winner.
Tampa Bay got back in the series in Game 3 with a 4-3 win, but the Devil defense showed up in lockdown form again to the fourth game 3-1 and take command of the series. Game 5 took three overtimes and Brodeur turning back 38 of 39 shots, but the home team finally broke through and won 2-1 to move on to the conference finals.
Ottawa was waiting for a 1 vs. 2 showdown. The Senators were led by Marian Hossa and Daniel Alfreddson at the forwards, both players who are still key components of offenses today. There was a young defenseman named Zdeno Chara, who eight years later would be a big part of Boston’s run to the Stanley Cup. While the Senators couldn’t counter Brodeur, Patrick Lalime was still no slouch in goal.
The Senators defended home ice in overtime with a 3-2 win to start the series. But Lalime came up small in the second game. Even though New Jersey managed just 21 shots, four of them found the back of the net and a decisive 4-1 win sent the series back east tied at a game apiece. The Devils owned their home ice in the middle games, with Brodeur spinning a 1-0 shutout in Game 3 and then another Lalime meltdown in Game 4 as the Devils won 5-2 with only 20 shots on. New Jersey had three chances to clinch a third Eastern Conference title in four years.
Brodeur played a poor game in Game 5, allowing three goals on 18 shots in a 3-1 loss. Both goalies were locked in for Game 6, as Lalime and Brodeur each posted 30-plus saves. But Ottawa got its second overtime win of the series and what looked well in hand just four days earlier was coming down to a winner-take-all battle on the road.
An early Ottawa goal in Game 7 kept the momentum going for the home team. But Langenbrunner, quiet for much of this series, found the scoring rhythm of the postseason’s early rounds, scoring twice in the second period and giving his team in the lead.
Early in the third period Hossa tied the game and it was now time for the kind of tension that playoff hockey, alone among all sports can bring, as you watch knowing your team’s season could live or die on a moment’s notice—and unlike baseball or football, you don’t have the luxury of at least feeling safe when you’re at bat or have the ball. It was Friesen who delivered the game-winner, scoring with 2:14 left and handing New Jersey a 3-2 win and another trip to the Stanley Cup Finals.
The Devils’ opponent was the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, who’d come out of the West as the fourth seed. Their key scorers were Petr Sykora and the top passer was Paul Karya, while Jean-Sebastian Giguire, having a tremendous postseason, was in goal.
A tremendous team defensive effort made Brodeur’s life easy in Game 1, as the goalie faced just 16 shots and turned back all of them. Friesen scored twice and the Devils won 3-0. Game 2 might as well have been a videotape of the first. New Jersey held Anaheim to 16 shots and won 3-zip. They got on the plane west in firm command of the Finals.
An embarrassing mistake by Brodeur turned the tide back the other way in Game 3. He dropped his stick in the course of play and the puck careened off it and into the net. It was a decisive play in a game the Ducks won in overtime and it overshadowed the goaltender’s 30 saves in a 3-2 loss. These overtime games weren’t going New Jersey’s way and they dropped another one in Game 4, this time a 1-0 heartbreaker to knot the Cup battle at two games apiece.
New Jersey returned home, facing urgency in Game 5 and Langenbrunner stepped up big along with the rest of the offense. The team generated 37 shots, Langenbrunner scored twice and the Devils won 6-3. But Anaheim had its own offensive outburst back home two nights later, winning 5-2 and Brodeur coming out in the third period. The Stanley Cup would come down to a decisive seventh game.
This was an exciting spring in New Jersey, and the NBA’s Nets were also in the Finals. One night after Game 3 of the NBA Finals at the Meadowlands, the arena opened up to settle the championship of hockey.
Michael Rupp, a New Jersey forward hadn’t scored a goal all season. His first came in the opening period of Game 7 of the Finals. After a poor outing in Game 6 and a shaky one in Game 5, one had to wonder what version of Brodeur would show up. As has been in the case so many times in his career, the goalie brought his A-game to the biggest game.
Friesen scored two more goals and Brodeur saved all 24 shots fired at him and another 3-0 victory meant the Cup was being hoisted for the third time in nine years by the Devils. In a curious decision, Sebastian-Giguere won the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the playoffs, although it has been speculated that Devil players divided the vote. In either case, Langenbrunner’s 11 goals would have made him a worthy choice on a worthy champion, the 2003 New Jersey Devils.