1994-95 champion Devils: An oral history, Pt. 2

Smoking-hot rookie Martin Brodeur inhales victory. (AP)

The New Jersey Devils won the Stanley Cup in the 1994-95 NHL season.

That fact outrages many, enrages some and excites others. The legacy of those Devils is often playing the infamous neutral-zone trap, which ushered in the league’s Dead-Puck Era. And although it is true those Devils netted only 15 more goals than it allowed, their 136 goals tied them for 13th overall — middle of the road — in the 26-team NHL.

While defence is what is remembered most about that season, there were so many other aspects at play. The Devils almost did not get the chance to win the Stanley Cup, and even when they did, it was under the shadow of a potential move from the Garden State.

Also, the rival New York Rangers were nearly forced to wait 18 months to raise their banner, as the league’s first lockout threatened the 1994-95 season.

It’s been 20 years since the Devils claimed their first title. We decided to let the main characters tell their story this week.

1994-95 New Jersey Devils oral history: Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 4/ Part 5

Part 2: The Season that Almost Wasn’t

After the Rangers claimed the Cup in 1994 by winning back-to-back seven-game series, America’s most popular sports publication took notice of the NHL’s advancement.

Mike Emrick, longtime NHL and Devils commentator: We were supposed to have plundered the sport. In fact, there was a Sports Illustrated cover of how hockey, on the heels of the Rangers’ Stanley Cup win, was hot, and the NBA was not.

Yet player salaries were also on the rise, and just two years after a players’ strike nearly cancelled the 1992 playoffs, the owners locked out the players — the first lockout and the second of four work stoppages in a 21-year stretch.

New Jersey’s roster did not lose much from the club that pushed the Rangers to the brink. Still, the lockout put the highly anticipated 1994-95 season in doubt.

Ken Daneyko, defenceman: You live to play, and when that is taken away, it is frustrating. The guys today are so involved in the business side of things. [The ’95 lockout] was new in that we wanted to just play and not be involved in the business side. At least I didn’t.

Scott Niedermayer, defenceman: I know I was frustrated.

Emrick: We had a brief players’ strike earlier in the decade, but this one seemed to be more bleak. We were hearing that some of the teams at the time lost less money by not playing. Even in January, when we were reaching the showdown moments, there were still owners that wanted to “show ’em” by shutting for the year and battling with the owners who felt a season should still be played.

The players and owners finally came to an agreement in time for a 48-game season on Jan. 12.

Tom Chorske, forward: I had been skating in Italy. I guess I was staying busy, which was a positive, and somewhat in shape.

We wanted to get back to business because we were so close and had some momentum going. We wanted to get back at it and see if we could take it one step further.

New Jersey iced a veteran team that struggled in the 48-game sprint. The Devils put themselves behind the proverbial eight ball, gaining just 22 of a possible 48 points in their first 24 games.

Scott Stevens, defenceman: There’s no question we were quite inconsistent.

GM Lou Lamoriello, realizing his team’s window was wide open, tinkered, dealing centre Corey Millen to Dallas for 35-year-old Neal Broten on Feb. 27. Sixteen days later, he swapped Alexander Semak and Ben Hankinson for puck-moving defenceman Shawn Chambers.

Lamoriello: They were both needs in our lineup. You look at a lineup, and you know what you need. They turned out to be everything we needed them to be. Shawn Chambers came in as an offensive defenceman and did just as good a job defensively.

And Broten, I can’t even think about how important he was, the hockey sense that he had. We don’t win without those two players. They gave us that little jump start, and they made everyone around them feel good that we had that good additions.

Emrick: Lou realized he had the defensive elements in place, but he needed more offence and experience. Broten added so much up front in skill, desire and smarts. Chambers’ shot gave the power play a weapon it needed.

Chorske: The acquisitions were certainly huge. Those guys played big roles in the playoffs and the finals. It was a stroke of genius of Lou and the scouting staff.

The Devils ripped off 10 wins and piled up 23 points in their subsequent 16 games, putting them staunchly in playoff position.

Stevens: We came together and got stronger, and towards the end of the year we picked it up. We went into the playoffs on a high and playing real solid hockey — probably the best hockey we’d played since Jacques [Martin] and Larry [Robinson] came to the Devils. It was a good time to get hot and come together.

The Devils finished 22-18-8 and in fifth place in the Eastern Conference, opening their postseason on the road against the Boston Bruins. The Devils claimed a six-game series win over Boston in the previous season’s second round, winning the final four games, three of which were in Boston.

Chris Terreri started all three games in goal in Boston that postseason as Lemaire protected his rookie netminder from the hostile Boston Garden crowd. Brodeur had only made two career starts in Boston, and Lemaire even went with Terreri to start in New Jersey’s two games in Boston during the regular season.

With Game 1 in Boston, did the team have confidence enough in the 22-year-old Brodeur?

Daneyko: Marty was still a young kid at the time, and we had Chris as the backup, who did a pretty darn good job for a long time. But we knew it was Marty’s time to shine. He brought something you needed, a calmness, at that position. We felt we were as strong as any in goal.

Chorske: In hindsight, that was the beginning of the Brodeur reign. He had matured enough that he was a starter and a No. 1 goalie. I think we had confidence in him and confidence in the system.

Brodeur rewarded Lemaire and his team’s confidence, shutting out the Bruins in New Jersey’s first two wins of the series, 5-0 and 3-0.

“We knew it was Marty’s time to shine. He brought something you needed, a calmness,” says Daneyko. “We felt we were as strong as any in goal.”

Albelin: Marty is a great competitor, and he is always trying to put any challenge he’s had in the past and overcome them. Getting those two shutouts there were huge for the team and for him.

Claude Lemieux potted a pair of goals in the club’s Game 1 win and finally started to get going. After dropping Game 3 at home, the Devils were carried by Brodeur in Game 4, who made 38 saves, but the clubs ended regulation scoreless. That’s when the Devils’ fourth line took over.

Randy McKay and Mike Peluso were wingers, with Bobby Holik serving as the centre, of New Jersey’s “Crash Line.” The troika may have been New Jersey’s fourth line, but they wreaked havoc on the opposition.

Chorske: They played like, at worst, a third line. At times they looked like a second line, but they played that fourth-line style. Certainly with the guys like Bobby Holik and Randy McKay, they were bringing offense and physicality.

About eight-and-a-half minutes into the first overtime, McKay dumped the puck into Boston’s end innocuously, and he and Peluso charged into the Devils’ attacking zone to forecheck. Boston defenceman Jon Rohloff possessed the puck behind the net, looking to set up an attack.

Peluso pressured Rohloff behind the net, which forced the defenceman to change his course. On his backhand, Rohloff skated with the puck to the front of his net past Lacher, yet McKay swooped in and, in one motion, backhanded the puck between Lacher’s legs for the game-winning goal.

The joyous McKay skated, arms extended to the half boards, leaping up the glass. His four teammates on the ice quickly boosted him as the members from the bench charged to join the wild celebration, as New Jersey went back to Boston ahead 3-1.

Sergei Brylin, forward: Randy was such a great guy on and off the ice. He did what he needed to do. For him to score that big overtime goal was great. We were happy for him.

Mike Miller, Devils radio broadcaster: Randy was so well-liked and respected by teammates. Anybody would’ve had that jubilation. Getting a goal from Randy in that spot, it was easy to understand his jubilation. But the other 19 guys on that team felt just as good for him.

Lost amid the celebration was Brodeur’s third playoff shutout. The Devils trekked back to Boston, claiming a 3-2 win in Game 5 that closed the historic Boston Garden for good.

Albelin: That was the last National Hockey League game ever played in that building. That’s something you remember. It was a pretty special building, like the Montreal Forum and Chicago Stadium. There were a lot of classic hockey games and good hockey players to play there. It had a lot of history. It is a fond memory of mine that we played the last NHL game in that building.

Stevens: I loved to play in that rink. It was a small rink, and the fans were right on top of you. It was a very physical building, which I liked. To be the last team to win there was pretty neat.

The series win sent the Devils to the second round for the second straight season — a first in franchise history.

Check Sportsnet.ca tomorrow for Part 3 of the 1994-95 New Jersey Devils oral history.

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