1994-95: Finally Champions
First, the Devils had to survive arguably the toughest NHL regular-season. With only 48 games on the schedule, both Stevens and former defenseman Tommy Albelin noted, any sustained losing streak likely meant you were out of post-season contention.
“It was a tough year for every team to win the Cup,” Stevens said. “I know a lot of players in the league were saying it was the toughest year to win the Cup because of the shortened season.”
At 22-18-8, the Devils had only a .542 regular-season winning percentage, the lowest for a Stanley Cup Champion since Toronto’s .536 in 1966-67. They became the first Cup championship team in the modern era to start every playoff series on the road.
Being on the road certainly wasn’t easy, especially for the Devils, a defensive-minded team that relied on matching lines to gain an advantage. The home team always gets the last change, so the Devils could never be ahead of the curve.
It didn’t matter, as the team went 10-1 on the road, which is still an NHL record for post-season road victories.
“We had a good regular-season, but not a great one, and we had to do everything on the road,” goalie Martin Brodeur said. “That was tough, especially for a team that plays defensively and relies on matchups.”
The Devils started with a pair of shutout victories at Boston in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. They won that series in five, tossing in another shutout, 1-0, in game four.
Next up was Pittsburgh, the team that eliminated the Devils from the playoffs in 1991 in a seven-game series. The Devils lost the first game, but won the next four, allowing only five goals in the process. Stevens’ game-winning goal in game two set the tone for the series.
Now it was on to the conference finals and a date with the Philadelphia Flyers. The Flyers won the Atlantic Division, and had beaten the Devils three of four times in the regular-season
Claude Lemieux is awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player of the playoffs.
The Devils needed six games to upend Philadelphia. They won the first two in Philadelphia, but lost the next two back home. However, a 3-2 win in Philadelphia was followed by a 4-2 win at home in game six.
For the first time in three tries, the Devils finally won the round that would put them into the Stanley Cup Finals.
“We learned a lot from the year prior,” Albelin said, referencing the 1994 season. “If you want to learn how to win, first you’ve got to learn how to lose. You have to hate losing, and hate it with a passion.”
The Devils, though, entered the Stanley Cup Finals as heavy underdogs, this time facing the Detroit Red Wings, who won the Presidents’ Trophy with a league-best 70 points and 33 wins.
Detroit was 12-2 in the post-season, and 9-0 on its home ice at Joe Louis Arena. The Devils left the Motor City with a pair of victories, 2-1 in game one and 4-2 in game two. They were now two wins away, and could get them both back home in the Meadowlands. They made it look easy.
The Devils won both games by 5-2 margins. The celebration was on. For the first time ever, New Jersey was home to the Stanley Cup. For the first time ever, New Jersey was home to a professional sports champion.
“We didn’t even see it coming,” said Brodeur, who won all 16 playoff games that season with a 1.67 goals-against average. “It was like we were on a mission. We beat Boston and Pittsburgh in five, won in six against the Flyers, and the next thing you know we swept Detroit and it’s like, ‘What is going on here?’ ”
Brodeur led the league in all goaltending categories, and Claude Lemieux was named the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoff MVP for scoring 13 goals and adding three assists.
“It’s one of the hardest trophies to win,” Albelin said. “Everybody wants to win it, but I don’t think everybody knows how to win it.”