1994-95 champion Devils: An oral history, Pt. 3

Scott Stevens, seen here later in his career, played an integral role on the 1994-95 New Jersey Devils. (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. This week, we let the main characters tell their story.

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

Part 3: Toppling the monsters

Though they were without Mario Lemieux, the Pittsburgh Penguins still sported an embarrassment of offensive riches during the 1994-95 season.

Led by future Hall of Famers Ron Francis and Luc Robitaille — along with a whopping 70 points from 22-year-old Jaromir Jagr (in a 48-game season, remember) — the Pens potted the second-most goals in the NHL.

Scott Stevens, defenceman: They were a good hockey team. They had a lot of firepower and could score goals.

The Devils, meanwhile, were forced to take to the road yet again for Game 1 against the Pens. New Jersey had claimed all three road games in its first-round series win over Boston. And for the fourth straight away game, the Devils built a first-period lead.

The Penguins tied the game in the second, then took the lead early in the third. Claude Lemieux’s goal tied the game, and as the clock ticked down, it appeared as if Game 1 was destined for overtime.

Sergei Brylin, forward: We believed in our guys. That’s when Claude Lemieux started scoring those big goals. We had the same kind of approach. We played hard and did what we needed to do.

Robitaille had other ideas. The forward beat Martin Brodeur on a breakaway with just 1:16 in regulation, lifting Pittsburgh to a 3-2 win. The Devils dropped their first postseason road game and their lone loss away from New Jersey that playoff year.

The teams were knotted at one into the third period of Game 2, but Lemieux’s goal gave the Devils the lead with just 12:11 left. The Devils’ defensive system was best known for locking down opposition, and they were poised to steal the second game in Pittsburgh.

Yet Jagr banked his 10th goal of the playoffs off Devils defenceman Tommy Albelin with just 1:15 in regulation, and the Penguins were suddenly in a position to take a 2-0 edge to New Jersey.

Albelin: It trickled in off the back of my skate and just crossed the line. I felt terrible doing that.

Stevens: It was deflating because we thought we had that game wrapped up.

That’s when the Devils’ leader stepped in.

With the score knotted at 2 in Game 2, Stevens took matters into his own hands. He carried the puck from his own end and fired a slap shot from 70 feet that Ken Wregget sticked away. Stevens picked up his own rebound between the circles and beat the Penguins goalie with a backhand shot between the pads, giving New Jersey the lead with just 45 seconds to play.

Stevens: There’s no question it was nice to come out of there with a split.

I remember carrying the puck and crossing the blue line, with [Penguins defenceman Ulf] Samuelsson as a screen. I remember picking up the puck on my backhand and putting it five-hole on [Wregget].

It wasn’t an overtime goal, but it felt like one. It was a big win and a big boost to grab home-ice. To score that goal I know was important to us. It gave us a lot of confidence.

Tom Chorske, forward: He scored that goal, and the way he scored it was out of character, and it was like “whoa.” Pumped us full of all kinds of energy, and he just settled back into doing his thing. He wasn’t known for scoring highlight-reel goals.

Stevens’ goal inspired the Devils, and they returned home to rout the Penguins 5-1 in Game 3.

In Game 4, the Devils took a 1-0 lead on Neal Broten’s goal 40 seconds into the third period. Wregget stopped 49 shots that night, including 38 during regulation. The Penguins answered late in the frame, when Francis beat Brodeur, and the teams entered overtime tied at one.

Albelin: I remember that being a back-and-forth, up-and-down series.

With the seconds of the first OT period waning, John MacLean picked up the puck, leading a four-on-two break across the Penguins’ blue line. MacLean carried the puck around the net, and the right-handed shot circled Wregget.

Parked at the top of the crease was Broten. MacLean slung a pass through the Pittsburgh defence to the left-shooting Broten, who beat the beleaguered netminder for the game-winner.

Stevens: I remember [Broten] celebrating. He was another key guy, a great asset, and he scored a key goal. That was a close series, and it was probably going to be that whoever won that series would go on and win the Cup.

The clubs returned to Pittsburgh for Game 5, and the Penguins put forth a spirited effort in the first and led 1-0 late in the frame. But Robitaille took a boarding penalty on Albelin late in the first, setting up New Jersey on a power play.

Albelin: Luc Robitaille hit me from behind, and I don’t remember too much from that. I had to get carted off and couldn’t play.

Seconds after the hit, Bobby Holik scored a power-play goal — the first of four straight New Jersey markers. The Devils’ 4-1 win sent them back to the Eastern Conference final, and for the second straight year, they’d meet a division rival.

East Rutherford, N.J. and Philadelphia are separated by only 94 miles down Interstate 95.

Yet the road to the Eastern Conference crown in 1995 was decided in that small space.

Behind league MVP Eric Lindros’s 70 points, Philadelphia won the division, the first of an 11-season streak of first- or second-place finishes. Lindros, John LeClair and Mikael Renberg’s notorious Legion of Doom harkened many Flyers fans back to the glory days of the 1970s. The Flyers were 8-1 in the postseason, coming off a sweep of the New York Rangers.

The Devils and Flyers mirrored each other as far as size was concerned, and the 1995 season culminated a budding rivalry between the neighbours.

Scott Niedermayer, defenceman: We had a fierce rivalry with the Rangers, but it was the same exact thing with the Flyers. They were a big, physical, hard-nosed team, and we knew we had to pay a price to beat them.

Stevens: We had to be physical and match their physical size, but we had some size on our team too. We matched up pretty well with them and got off to a strong start.

As Game 1 at the old Spectrum opened, it quickly became clear the focus was on intimidation.

Brylin: We started in Philly, and they had the smaller rink, and for the first five or 10 minutes, it wasn’t even about scoring goals — such tough, physical play.

Although the Flyers had the size and hostile environment on their sides, the Devils had a rare ability to win on the road and stole the first two games, 4-1 and 5-2, at the Spectrum.

Brylin: We kept it simple on the road, more so than at home. There is less pressure on the road. The fans cheering against you sometimes help you do the right thing on the ice.

Back in New Jersey, the Devils suffered a rude awakening. The Flyers won Game 3 in overtime, then chased Brodeur in a 4-2 win in Game 4. The series was even returning to Philadelphia for the pivotal Game 5.

Stevens: We might have been feeling too good about ourselves. Giving up those two games at home was a real testing point for us in our run to the Cup.

Brylin: Nobody panicked. We knew that it wasn’t going to be an easy series.

The score was deadlocked at two in the Game 5’s late stages. The series was begging for a hero. As had become his wont, Claude Lemieux stepped to the forefront.

Claude Lemieux was a pest for his entire 21-season hockey career. Lemieux started in Montreal, helping the Habs win the Cup in 1986. But after missing the majority of 1989-90 with an abdominal injury, the Canadiens dealt him to New Jersey.

Lou Lamoriello, Devils general manager: His competitiveness is something unique and special. We had the opportunity to acquire him, and he had that history. He thrived on it.

He was a big man, played physical and came to play. He was a special playoff guy.

“For the first five or 10 minutes, it wasn’t even about scoring goals.” — Sergei Brylin

Chorske: I was around him a little bit in Montreal, but he got traded before I did. He hadn’t quite developed into the mature Claude Lemieux we saw develop in New Jersey.

He was a great teammate. I’d much rather have him on our team than playing against him. He always treated me really well. Most guys liked to crack some jokes and have some fun, and he would crack jokes about himself.

Maybe the trade to New Jersey was good for him. He converted from just an agitator, and he could play a physical brand. He evolved into a big-game player and a guy who could shut down too. He played with a lot of energy and emotion.

Brylin: I loved to play with him and share the same ice as him, especially in the playoffs. His game is built for the playoffs. He was emotional and energetic. He was a straight shooter.

With the seconds of Game 5 dwindling, the Flyers won a neutral-zone faceoff and dumped the puck in. Dmitri Yushkevich snapped a shot from the right point that Brodeur sticked to the corner.

Lemieux picked up the puck in the Devils’ defensive zone and gained a head of steam across the red line. As Lemieux reached the Flyers’ blue line, Philadelphia defenceman Petr Svoboda backed up, allowing Lemieux to snap a shot toward Flyers goalie Ron Hextall.

Lemieux’s shot eluded the beleaguered Flyers netminder, giving New Jersey the advantage with just 44.8 seconds remaining in regulation.

Stevens: I remember Claude going down the right side, and he fired a shot that just stymied Hextall.

Albelin: I can see it in front of me. Claude just kind of shot it. Hextall should’ve stopped it. I don’t know why he didn’t. But it was a perfectly placed shot just inside the left post.

Niedermayer: He definitely had luck on his side that year. He was feeling it. He knew to get the puck on net at that time. It was definitely uplifting to see a goal like that.

Chorske: It kind of was a defining moment for Claude. Inside, he had a strong desire to be a leader. He found himself in a situation and in a moment where he was able to rise up and score a huge goal. From that point on, he went on a tremendous run for the rest of his career.

He saved that whole series with that goal.

For the second straight year, the Devils returned home for a potential closeout game against a division rival with a trip to the Stanley Cup Final on the line. Unlike the memorable Game 6 the year prior, New Jersey had what it took to close up shop.

Stevens: It was our time. We were firing on all cylinders. We had depth. We learned how to play and to beat them.

After falling behind 1-0, the Devils scored four straight goals, including Lemieux’s 11th of the postseason, cinching a 4-2 win and a trip to the Stanley Cup Final.

Check Sportsnet.ca tomorrow for Part 4 of the 1994-95 New Jersey Devils oral history.

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