1996-97: Back on Track
It was, for all intents and purposes, the season they needed to have, starting the process that culminated with another Stanley Cup in 2000. Ten players from that 1996-97 roster would contribute to the 2000 post-season run.
The Devils went 45-23-14 and finished in first place in the Atlantic Division with 104 points. This, of course, came after a season in which the Devils had 37 wins, 86 points, and were sixth in the Atlantic Division.
Pandolfo played in 46 games in 1996-97 and registered six goals and eight assists. Elias chipped in with two goals and three assists in 17 games, while Petr Sykora added one goal and two assists in 19 games.
It may not have been significant time for the future stars, but certainly enough to get their skates wet.
“The experience of playing in the NHL for the first time ever is the first thing I remember,” Pandolfo said. “They started bringing new guys in, and younger guys up. Going through those first couple of years, you’re just learning the way you’re supposed to play here, and what it takes to win. It’s those things that hold you back for a few years.”
In 1996-97, the Devils learned how to win again, and that was partly due to the veteran help President/General Manager Lou Lamoriello acquired along the way.
Dave Andreychuk had joined the team in the previous season, and he played in all 82 games in 1996-97, finishing second on the team with 61 points.
Doug Gilmour, Dave Ellett, and Peter Zezel were also brought in by Lamoriello in 1996-97.
At the time they were here to help the Devils win another Stanley Cup, but none wore a Devils’ sweater in 2000.
It didn’t matter.
They were still major factors in how the modern day Devils were developed.
“It didn’t help us as far as winning a championship, but it paid off having these older guys such as Andreychuk, Gilmour, and Ellett around,” Brodeur said. “It really helped some of these younger guys to learn the way they needed to play. Looking back, it was a great thing to have those guys.”
Success, though, was immediate in the regular-season in 1996-97.
The Devils went 24-8-9 in the second half of the season, including a final stretch of 16-5-2 that was good enough for them to hold off the Philadelphia Flyers for the Atlantic Division title.
Martin Brodeur becomes just the second goalie in NHL history to record a goal (19:15 of third period) in post-season play during a 5-2 win in game one of Eastern Conference Quarterfinals vs. Montreal.
Brodeur and rookie goalie Mike Dunham wound up sharing the William M. Jennings Trophy for fewest goals allowed.
Brodeur had a 1.88 goals-against average, still a single-season franchise record. He also had ten shutouts and 37 victories. Dunham played in 26 games and was 8-7-1 with two shutouts and a 2.55 goals-against average.
It was the first of four Jennings Trophies that Brodeur would win.
The Devils also earned the top-seed in the Eastern Conference Playoffs, and blew past Montreal in five games. Montreal’s lone win of the series came in game four when they needed three overtimes to outlast New Jersey, 4-3.
On April 17, Brodeur became just the second goaltender in NHL history to score a goal in postseason play.
The Devils scored more than four goals per game in the series, and won game five at Continental Arena, 4-0. MacLean led the team with three goals and five assists.
That’s where the fun ended.
The Rangers were next, and took care of the Devils in five games, ousting them after New Jersey won game one at home, 2-0. The Devils scored just three more goals in the series.
“You have a good regular-season and you have high expectations for the playoffs, but for whatever reason you’re not ready and things don’t work out and that’s disappointing,” Pandolfo said. “You have to figure out what went wrong, and figure out a way to fix it. You need those different experiences to realize what it takes to win and the type of commitment you need from everyone to get to that ultimate goal. It takes so many different factors to get there. You need a little of everything and can only learn that through experience.”
More than anything, the Devils remember being humbled, and it hurt. It was the first sign that this new group, albeit somewhat similar to the one from 1995, was learning how to hate losing.
“It’s the embarrassment factor,” Brodeur said. “If you’re the favorite, you’ve got to come through. That’s the bottom line. There’s no in-between during the playoffs. You can say I had a good playoffs, but if you don’t win it’s never good.”
Dan Rosen covers high school sports and the NHL for The Record (Bergen County, N.J.). He is a regular contributor to Center Ice Magazine.