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 5: We Are the Champions
Being just one win from the Stanley Cup was an uncomfortable position for the team, but coach Jacques Lemaire, who had been there before, assuaged the inexperienced club’s fears.
Tommy Albelin, defenceman: The thing that comes to mind. I see [Detroit’s] Paul Coffey sitting in his stall talking about, “When is the lion the most dangerous? When it’s backed in the corner.”
We realized we’d better step on their throat too. We can’t let them get life in this series.
Tom Chorske, forward: We were at our morning skate going into Game 4, and the team was tight and intense. Jacques called us in at the end, and said, “It seems like you’re tense and uptight.” He must’ve noticed missing passes, not moving with fluidity.
He said, “You’re up three games to none. Do you really think Detroit is going to beat you guys the next four games? Relax. Just keep doing what you’re doing. They’re not going to beat you four straight games. Just play and have fun and relax.”
In Game 4, Broten put the Devils on top just 1:08 into the game. But the suddenly resurgent Red Wings answered the prospect of being swept, with Sergei Fedorov and Coffey each scoring first-period goals to give Detroit a rare lead in the series.
With the threat of letting Detroit back into the series, Shawn Chambers blasted a shot late in the frame that eluded goalie Mike Vernon and knotted the score at two.
Mike Emrick, TV commentator: Chambers’ shot gave the power play a weapon it needed as evidenced in the clinching Game 4 versus Detroit.
Chorske: I don’t remember too many people criticizing Mike Vernon. There were a couple of goals he might want to have back.
The Devils began to control the possession and tempo, and the onslaught was too ferocious to overcome, as Neal Broten scored midway through the second, giving the Devils a 3-2 lead.
Holding a one-goal lead, the Devils put the clamps down on Detroit. The Red Wings managed just one shot in the third period, and about eight minutes into the third, forward Sergei Brylin gave the Devils an insurance goal, putting them ahead 4-2.
Brylin: It was amazing, something I’m going to remember to tell my kids and my grandkids. My dream was to play in the NHL, and I never thought a lot about winning the Cup.
Winning the Cup was unbelievable. It was an unbelievable start to my career in NHL.
Chambers’ second goal at 12:32 gave the Devils a 5-2 lead, leaving many to soak up the final minutes of their first Stanley Cup championship.
Chorske: We got a couple [goals], you’re up three games to zero, and you’ve got a couple goals that felt like the Red Wings were like, “We can’t do anything to slow them. The momentum is on their side.” We had a pretty comfortable lead in the third period. We could feel it, could sense it, and I think they could too.
You dream about winning the Cup. You never dream you’re going to be in such a commanding position. We’ve got seven or eight minutes to go, and we’re up 3-0, and we’re going to win. Kind of had to ride it out.
Albelin: You know you have them on the ropes. It was a nice couple of minutes.
As the seconds dwindled, emotion caught up with Mike Peluso, as the scrappy winger missed a shift crying on the bench.
Chorske: Mike Peluso was elated on the bench to tears, which I think said a lot about him and our team. It spoke to how much he loved the game and being on the team — that he was comfortable crying on the bench in front of us all. None of us cared. You just are like brothers, and no one cared if someone was crying on the bench. It was cool to see that it meant so much for him.
Scott Niedermayer, defenceman: It was unique to look up and down the bench and smile at guys. It was amazing. I was a young player — 22 or not even; I was 21 — to be a part of that so early. Looking back, you realized how spoiled how I was.
While the players were soaking up the impending victory, Robinson and Lemaire were polishing off their first win as coaches against their former bench boss, Scotty Bowman.
Larry Robinson, assistant coach: Jacques maybe took a little bit more satisfaction in that than I did. Deep down, there’s a lot of admiration between the two, whether [Jacques] wants to admit it or not. As much as they say they dislike—and that maybe is not the right word—but they are very much alike. They’re professors of the game. They both know the game pretty well, and they take a lot of pride in it.
The seconds bled away, leaving the Devils as the champions of the NHL in 1995. The team mobbed Martin Brodeur’s cage, and the crowd went wild.
Still, with Nashville relocation rumours spreading like wildfires, when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman entered the ice to present the Conn Smythe Trophy to Claude Lemieux, who scored a league-best 13 playoff goals, the New Jersey fans booed the most powerful man in pro hockey.
When Bettman gave the big trophy to captain Scott Stevens, however, the 19,040 exploded again.
Stevens: It was an incredible feeling, a great honour. It was great to do it at home and do it for the fans and people of New Jersey. It was great for the state and fans who had stuck with the Devils.
It was an honour and thrill to finally get my hands on the Stanley Cup. To this day, people still that were young kids say how awesome it was. Thank you for helping bring Stanley Cup to New Jersey.
Albelin: When somebody hands you the Stanley Cup, and you get to lift that over your head, it is the ultimate prize as a hockey player—a once in a lifetime opportunity.
For lifers like Ken Daneyko, John MacLean and Bruce Driver, who suffered through the low days, the highs were extra sweet. The trio gathered in the New Jersey Nets locker room — who shared the arena at the time — for a special photo opportunity.
Daneyko: We had spent 10-plus years together in the organization. It was euphoria. Words can’t really describe it. Me, Johnny Mac and Bruce had a special moment in the Nets locker room, and we looked into each others eyes and said, “Can you believe it?”
Chorske: I was happy for Driver, MacLean, Daneyko — guys who had been there since the lean years.
GM Lou Lamoriello had the same feeling for another Devils lifer.
Lamoriello: It was special having Dr. John MacMullen win a Stanley Cup. He allowed me to take some chances and let me come into the league the way I did. He allowed me to do the things that were necessary and never got in the way.
I felt so good for him. It is hard to put in words, because he was a special human being.
The 1995 New Jersey Devils are often credited for ushering in the NHL’s notorious dead-puck era. The Florida Panthers, under head coach Doug MacLean, ran to the Stanley Cup Final a year later by playing a similar trapping style.
Emrick: The Devils had success with defensive hockey. So, Florida copied it and got to the final before being swept by Colorado the next year.
The Detroit Red Wings, who reached the Cup final three times in a four-year stretch, finally snapped their Stanley Cup drought when they swept the Philadelphia Flyers in 1997. Detroit followed that up with a second straight Cup sweep in 1998, rolling the Washington Capitals.
Emrick: Detroit learned from the experience, and two years later, they started the last of the back-to-back playoff wins the NHL has had.
Robinson left the Devils staff to become head coach of the Los Angeles Kings, and Lemaire and the Devils missed the postseason in 1995-96. After two straight early playoff exits in 1997 and 1998, Lemaire lost his job.
Niedermayer: As a bit of time went by, and Jacques was coaching and demanding me to play certain way. Through time, frustration developed. It stemmed from being a young player who thought I knew what was best. Looking back, I’m thankful that those two guys taught me the hard lessons. It made me a better player.
Lamoriello brought back Lemieux via trade and Robinson as the team’s head coach late in the season in 2000. Each helped guide New Jersey to its second Cup in six seasons.
Robinson: When you win it as an assistant, you get a tremendous amount of satisfaction. But my biggest thrill was when I won it as myself as a coach. It was a great feeling.
The Devils were second in the NHL with 251 goals in 2000, then scored 295 in 2000-01, en route to a second straight trip to the Stanley Cup Final. Brodeur and the Devils also played a defensive style that finished in the top-10 in goals against.
Emrick: What people forget in history is that by the end of the decade, the Devils were one of the top offensive teams in the league and took care of you both ways.
But the 1995 Devils dominated the Stanley Cup playoffs unlike any other team in franchise history. They’re one of just three teams to win the Stanley Cup in the last 20 years to do so playing only 20 games — the 1997 Red Wings and 2012 Los Angeles Kings are the others.
Chorske: Everyone thought it was just the trap, just the system. I think it was combination of a unique group of players who all had roles to play, and we had great chemistry. We had players that were complete players, some of the best two-way, well-rounded players who were on that team and stayed on that team.
Robinson: We could dominate a game. We shut great teams down where they just couldn’t go anywhere. That’s what I remember most about our team. We swept a pretty damn good team in Detroit. That was a pretty well-coached, well-rounded hockey club. That says a lot.