2003-04: Battling Through
|2003-04 Team Photo|
The Stanley Cup celebration was over.
It was time to play hockey again, time to fight, scratch, and claw to get back to being the team standing tallest, back to being the team that everybody envies.
The Devils did a solid job in the 2003-04 season, but they just couldn’t get there. They lost in five games to the Philadelphia Flyers in the opening round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Worse yet, the trials and tribulations the Devils went through in the process of getting to the playoffs were at times overbearing.
Celebrated future Hall of Fame defenseman Scott Stevens, the team’s captain for 5,092 days (Sept. 24, 1992 through Sept. 6, 2005) would play only 38 games during his swansong NHL season.
Stevens missed the final 43 games of the season, and didn’t play in any of the five playoff games against Philadelphia.
"A player like that in the lineup, with his physical presence and his experience, I would be lying to say that he wouldn’t help us,” left wing Patrik Elias said after the Devils lost game five in Philadelphia.
Only hours after that 3-1 loss at Wachovia Center, Coach Pat Burns announced he was battling cancer.
Burns eventually stepped down as Devils’ coach, and Larry Robinson took over after the lockout season.
|With a goal against the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, Patrik Elias (shown during 2004 Stanley Cup playoffs) became the all-time leading playoff scorer in Devils' history with 76 points.|
The road to the playoffs finished on a down note as well, as the Devils lost, 3-1, at home against Boston on April 4 in the final regular-season game.
That loss, coupled with the Flyers’ 3-3 tie against the Islanders, meant the Devils fell one point shy of winning the Atlantic Division, and dropped to the sixth seed.
Instead of having home-ice advantage as the third-seed, the Devils had to head down the Turnpike. The results weren’t kind.
“It is a big deal,” Brodeur said after losing to Boston that afternoon. “We had a chance. It was in our hands and they (Bruins) really wanted it. There is a lot to be said for having home-ice advantage in the playoffs. It helped us out tremendously in the past. We played in the 2003 Stanley Cup Finals (against Anaheim) and we won every game in our building.”
Staying true to form, the Flyers won every game in their building against the Devils, including the first two, both by 3-2 decisions.
The Devils took game three at home by a 4-2 margin, but lost 3-0 in game four and then dropped game five at Wachovia Center.
“You think, what do you do now?” center Scott Gomez told reporters after game five. “I was numb. You remember how special the playoffs are. That’s the worst part. Now what do you do?”
What made losing game five hurt even more was how it happened.
The game-winning goal came with only 5:23 remaining and snapped a 1-1 tie. It came on a 45-foot wrist shot from the top of the right circle that sailed past Brodeur on the short side, hit the right post, and ricocheted into the net.
Brodeur made 37 saves that night, but that was the one that got away.
“It hit so hard, I thought it would bounce out the other side,” Brodeur said that night. “I was really surprised on that shot.”
The Flyers scored an empty-net goal with 7.5 seconds left to seal it.
“That’s kind of how the year went,” center John Madden said. “We finished with 100 points, but I can remember a number of games that went that way. You’re sitting there going, ‘I can’t believe that just happened.’”
|Devils selected forward Travis Zajac with the 20th-overall pick of the 2004 NHL Entry Draft.|
But it wasn’t a bad team either. As Madden stated, the Devils did finish with 100 points for the second-straight season and seventh time in eight seasons. They won 43 games, including four in a row before losing that fateful game against Boston.
Elias finished with team-highs in goals (38) and points (81). Scott Gomez had a career-high 56 assists. Brian Gionta continued his maturation with 21 goals and eight assists.
Even Jay Pandolfo pumped in 13 goals, and rookie defenseman Paul Martin debuted with six goals and 18 assists.
Brodeur also won 38 games, including the 400th of his career, and finished with a 2.03 goals-against average.
The key, though, was the guy that didn’t play. Or, rather, the guys who didn’t play.
Also missing that season was good ’ole No. 3, Ken Daneyko, who announced his retirement after the Devils won the Stanley Cup in 2003.
With Stevens out of action, the Devils were without two-thirds of their core defensemen that won all three Stanley Cups.
Left to pick up some of the pieces was Scott Niedermayer, who took over as captain in Stevens’ absence on January 9, 2004. Niedermayer was always the quiet one, soft-spoken off the ice but dazzling on it.
More importantly, he slipped into the captain’s chair perfectly. Niedermayer became the first player in Devils’ history to receive the James Norris Memorial Trophy as the league’s top defenseman.
“There are a lot of situations where people think captains are the guys who are the cheerleaders in the dressing room, and the great ones I’ve had have never been like that,” Burns told the media that season. “They’ve all been guys that have led by example on and off the ice, and Scott Niedermayer is definitely one of the top ones I’ve seen in a long time. He knows how to play. He wins. Like Scotty Stevens and Bob Gainey, he’s right up there.”
He just didn’t have enough pieces around him to make it all work.
“A lot of guys did a lot of similar things last year and we made it to the end,” Niedermayer explained after game five. “Everybody in here should be proud. We worked real hard and paid a price to try to win the series. It just wasn’t going to happen.”
Dan Rosen covers high school sports and the NHL for The Record (Hackensack, N.J.). He is a regular contributor to Center Ice Magazine.