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.
Part 4: In Defence of the Trap
As the Devils moved closer to the Stanley Cup, the term “neutral-zone trap” was circulating through the National Hockey League, and many believe the 1995 New Jersey Devils were the proliferators of the trap.
Larry Robinson, assistant coach: Everybody was calling it the neutral-zone trap, but it wasn’t anything different than what we were playing in Montreal in the 1970s. It was a 1-2-2, and everybody else was mad because they didn’t have any room to go. We didn’t really reinvent the wheel. I think that system has been in place since hockey started.
Scott Stevens, defenceman: It wasn’t something we developed. It’s still being played today. There are at least 28 teams still playing that way in the neutral zone. The Kings have won two of the last four Stanley Cups playing that way, and the Bruins won one of the others, and those teams play the 1-2-2. You create a lot of turnovers with the 1-2-2. With the red line in place, it was very effective. Other teams wanted to be stubborn, and you could eat them alive.
Tom Chorske, forward: The trap was more of a perception of the media. They grabbed onto it because it was successful and frustrating our opponents. It was easy for opposing coaches to talk about, because they were almost trying to get us to stop doing it.
I didn’t mind playing it, because it was less work. We were going to dump the puck in, and if we couldn’t get to the puck first, we fell back in the trap.
I remember Jacques [Lemaire, head coach] saying, “We’ve got to get the puck to the front of the net. Why don’t we let the opponent come out with it, then let them turn the puck over for us? We’re still going to have to get the puck back, get it to the front of the net. Let’s not kill ourselves in the corner and tire ourselves out.”
The trap system was used to create turnovers, and it seemed brilliant. Frankly, we created more than our fair share of offence, but the perception was, “They sit back and don’t play offence.” We were just doing the forechecking between the red lines. It’s trying to accomplish the same thing; you’re just doing it in front of the goal line. It seems to make a lot of sense.
“I still don’t know what the hell the trap is. I just played as hard as I can.” —Ken Daneyko
Ken Daneyko, defenceman: I take it with a grain of salt now. It pissed me off at times.
I think people were jealous. They were envious that we were that good at it. You know what I mean? We had great personnel. The forwards knew how to play, and Jacques taught them. They did it in Montreal with Guy Lafleur and Jacques Lemaire and Denis Savard and all those guys. They knew how to play.
I still don’t know what the hell the trap is. I just played as hard as I can. Maybe it was because I didn’t listen in practice [laughs]. The forwards were more involved. I still don’t know what the trap was.
Lou Lamoriello, general manager: It simply was putting pressure on the puck and turnovers. The terminology came out, and I was still trying to figure out what people were talking about. We were just playing the game. But the [neutral-zone trap] became a buzzword.
The narrative prior to the 1995 Stanley Cup Final was that of the upstart, defensive-minded Devils against the offensive machine of the Detroit Red Wings. Detroit claimed the Presidents’ Trophy that year and featured a lineup of future Hall of Famers, led by high-flying forwards Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov, two-way defenceman Paul Coffey and Mike Vernon in goal.
Coaching legend Scotty Bowman was behind the Wings’ bench, and they entered the final with a 12-2 postseason record. Because of the lockout, the Devils and Red Wings did not meet during the regular season, but few expected the series to be a long one.
Tommy Albelin, defenceman: The mentality from the press going into the Detroit series was, you will not have a chance against this team. We really, really were the underdogs. Everybody got a little mad.
We knew we can play with these guys. We didn’t play them that year, and we didn’t know what to expect.
Sergei Brylin, forward: We were trying to prove that we belong in the finals.
Scott Niedermayer, defenceman: I remember they had the media day in Detroit, and walking in there, we were getting a lot of questions at the big scrums. I remember the whole atmosphere was, “How are you going to compete with those guys?” The underlying tone was that we weren’t going to do well.
We had a quiet confidence. We had been through tough playoff series that year and the year before. We just wanted to go out there and not get too caught up in anything else. We were ready. I think it helped us having that underdog label.
“We had to play punishing game, and that was kind of my game.” —Scott Stevens
Daneyko: We were a heavy underdog against Detroit, and we as players knew we weren’t such big underdogs, but players aren’t immune to hearing the talk.
Jacques wanted to make sure we believed, so a day or two before the Stanley Cup Final he put every name of our teams on the board, and he compared guy to guy. He asked us, “Can you play with this guy?” And we realized we matched up better than even we believed. We thought might even be deeper.
We were looking at third and fourth lines, and we felt we were better than them. It was pretty funny and instrumental in making us believe what we were. We were comparable to the Red Wings. It was no way as big of a mismatch as it was made out to be.
Martin Brodeur and the Devils made sure to showcase that. After the teams traded power-play goals in the second, Claude Lemieux netted his 12th playoff goal early in the third. The Devils limited the Wings to five third-period shots and only 17 in the game, claiming a 2-1 victory.
Brylin: We just played our game. We made sure we didn’t give those guys a lot of room. Marty played unbelievable.
Stevens: We had a good nervousness about playing the Red Wings. They were a good, powerful team. We were so focused and a little concerned about their firepower. We went out and played a perfect hockey game.
I think we demoralized them a little bit. We didn’t give them a lot of scoring chances. Everybody was surprised. I think we may have surprised ourselves.
Stevens and the Devils proceeded to demoralize Detroit further in Game 2.
With the score tied at one in the second period’s late stages, Sergei Fedorov found a streaking Vyacheslav Kozlov with a cross-ice pass in the neutral zone. Scott Niedermayer defended Kozlov one-on-one, and the Russian winger, who had 16 points in the postseason and the Red Wings’ first goal of Game 2, looked to shimmy around Niedermayer as he crossed the blue line.
Yet as Kozlov tried to carry the puck toward the hashmarks, Stevens came across the ice and delivered a punishing left-shoulder check that shook up Kozlov.
Stevens: We had to play them physical. We had to play punishing game, and that was kind of my game. I think Nieder stood him and made him cut to me, and I caught Kozlov. Sometimes you can send a message different ways.
Chorske: It was just such an intimidating hit. It would’ve been the same impact if there was a fight, and our enforcer knocked out their enforcer. It was a demonstration of authority. After the hit, they were straightening Kozlov’s helmet, and the Red Wings bench was chirping.
Stevens: Dino Ciccarelli was fired up. I had played with him.
Chorske: I was sitting on the bench right in front of him, and Scotty yelled back at them “You’re next. I’m going to come after you after that.“ The hit just made you feel like, we’ve got this guy on our side. We’ve got control of things. All these Red Wings guys are trying to intimidate him, and he was having no part of you.
Stevens: Games can be changed with a goal or a physical play. I don’t know. I like the physical part of the game. It’s important come playoff time. Physical teams end up winning the war.
Fedorov put the Wings in front early in the third, and the Devils were staring an even series in the face, unless they found a hero. Sure enough, they did.
With the Devils trailing 2-1 halfway through the third period, the 22-year-old defenceman showcased his game to the world.
Niedermayer: I remember losing my stick. I think it got caught under [Detroit forward Dave Brown’s] arm.
Robinson: [Laughing] On that play, Scotty was back behind the net and lost his stick, and one of the Detroit players picked it up and gave it back to him.
Niedermayer: I was able to grab it back, saw some open ice, jumped up into it and had a pretty good head of steam. As a young player I was able to use that to my advantage. I think I caught a couple of guys off-guard.
That year’s Norris Trophy winner, Paul Coffey, was defending Niedermayer, but the young defenceman went outside and inside, firing a wrist shot that drifted wide of the Detroit cage.
Red Wings goalie Mike Vernon was out challenging, and the puck shot off the live Joe Louis Arena end boards right back to Niedermayer, who beat both Coffey and Vernon, flicking the puck into the vacant cage on the short side, tying the game at two.
Niedermayer: If you get caught flatfooted or going the wrong way, it doesn’t matter who you are. It was a different play. I was coming with some pretty good speed.
I got lucky. I was trying to get it on the net and get around [Coffey], and it comes back to me. It wasn’t by design.
Albelin: It’s like him to do that kind of stuff. When you look at him and see him skating, he doesn’t look that fast. He’s absolutely flying, but it’s like he hasn’t even broken a sweat yet.
Daneyko: He was a dynamic guy that every team needs to win. We were all going, “Holy shit!” on the bench, watching him go end to end. It was classic.
The score was tied again, and with less than two minutes left in regulation, the Devils found one more chance to win the game.
Shawn Chambers warded off a hook from Darren McCarty carried the puck across the blue line. Chambers filtered a pass to Bill Guerin, who fired a slap shot that Coffey awkwardly blocked with his back.
The defenceman writhed in pain, but play continued. Guerin corralled the puck and threw a blind pass to the vacant point. Albelin hustled from the bench to keep it in and lasered a pass to Chambers at the opposite point.
The left-handed defenceman blasted a slap shot that Vernon stopped, but little-used centre Jim Dowd — from Brick, N.J. — backhanded the rebound past the sprawled-out goalie, giving the Devils a 3-2 lead.
Robinson: Every game, somebody came up and had a big game. Jimmy Dowd didn’t play that much, but he scored that winning goal.
Daneyko: Jimmy Dowd scored that game-winning goal, then sat out the next game in favour of Sergei Brylin. You need 23 guys. Some nights that guy who plays five minutes is more important than the guy who played 22.
The Devils’ 4-2 win and 2-0 series advantage left them feeling confident and the hockey world stunned.
Chorske: I remember sitting near [Brodeur] on flight back from Detroit in the final, and I said, “I can’t believe we’re up 2-0 on Detroit. This is great.” He said, “From [my] perspective, we’re going to win. We got this. We’ve just got to keep doing the same thing. The puck looks like a beach ball, and we got these guys tied in knots.” That was his confidence.
As series returned to New Jersey, the Devils were greeted by talks of a potential move. Devils owner John “Dr. Mac” MacMullen had leaked in May that the club was in talks to move to Nashville, and with the team in the Stanley Cup Final, those rumours grew louder.
The prospective move didn’t distract the Devils through their run to the final, but would it distract them as they played perhaps their final two games in the Garden State?
Chorske: We heard about it, and we didn’t really talk about it. We didn’t have to have a group conversation. Lou and the coaches talked about it.
It’s out of your control. You just concentrate on the season, on the year. Whatever is going to happen will take care of itself after the season. It’s not going to happen before the end of the Stanley Cup playoffs, so you can’t let it be a distraction.
Robinson: It wasn’t a distraction, because I knew it wouldn’t happen. Those things happen in pro sports where one side was trying to get advantage. Dr. Mac was trying to get a little leverage. We had a lot of veteran guys, and they could shut stuff off like that.
Lamoriello: There was a real possibility of it happening, and that was because of the status of our lease at the Meadowlands. Our focus was winning a series. You can’t allow distractions to take place, and we never allowed anything from outside to get in the locker room. Nashville became a focus of the media. But, because of the coaching staff and demeanor of everybody, we had one focus and that was it: the game
With the team’s status in limbo, Devils fans packed into the Brendan Byrne Arena to watch the first championship-series game in New Jersey’s history. The club was cognizant of its home woes from the previous series with Philadelphia, and its captain was concerned.
Stevens: I was nervous coming back. We played really well on the road and had a good road record. The home crowd can be more difficult to play in front of. Now, you’re at home and keep emotions in check and play the right way.
We had to come home and keep the momentum going and not give Red Wings life at all.
New Jersey stepped on Detroit’s throat, peppering Vernon with shots and chasing the beleaguered netminder. The Devils scored the game’s first five goals en route to a 5-2 win, after which Bowman famously quipped after the game that his team’s performance was “embarrassing.”
Robinson: Detroit was a little overconfident. Because we couldn’t score goals, they might’ve taken us a little bit for granted.
Check Sportsnet.ca tomorrow for Part 5, the conclusion of the 1994-95 New Jersey Devils oral history.