Thursday, October 13, 2016

Top 10 Devils Wins

The New Jersey Devils begin their 35th season tonight. Well, their 34th: 2004-05 was canceled, because the NHL team owners decided it would be more profitable in the long run to lose an entire season's worth of revenue in order to break the players' union than to pay the contracts to which they'd already agreed.

Of course, the two biggest "wins" in Devils history came on June 30, 1982, when, following Dr. John McMullen buying the team on May 27, officially approved the Rockies' move to New Jersey; and on October 6, 2004, when the Newark City Council approved the building of what became known as the Prudential Center, so the team could finally get out of their uncomfortable crib at Exit 16W.

The Meadowlands Arena, under whatever name you called it then or call it now, was a "childhood home": We loved it, but it was not a suitable place for us as adults, and we had to get out. Besides, in this case, "father," meaning the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, did not know best.

With that in mind, here are, in my opinion, which isn't the only one that matters, only the one that matters the most in this space...

Top 10 New Jersey Devils Wins, 1982 to 2016

Honorable Mention. December 23, 1992, Madison Square Garden, New York, New York: Devils 5, New York Rangers 4.

Despite being already 23 years old, this was my 1st live hockey game. Although I loved the Devils, it had only been a year or so, since the publicity blitz the NHL put on for its 75th Anniversary season (1991-92), that I got into the game at the kind of level where I just had to go to games. Don't ask me how I got a ticket for this one, because I don't remember.

The Garden was loud. I couldn't even hear John Amirante sing the National Anthem. I never realized that 18,200 people in an enclosed building could sound louder than 55,000 fans in an outdoor stadium -- the noise couldn't get out. The Rangers led 4-1 in the 3rd period, and their 18,000 maniacs were giving me a hard time. (I'm assuming my fellow Devils fans numbered about 200 that night.)

But Stephane Richer scored, and suddenly it was on. The Devils tied it up in the last 2 minutes. In English soccer parlance, "Four-one, and you fucked it up!" In overtime, Richer struck again, firing a laser beam that John Vanbiesbrouck still hasn't seen, and the Devils were victorious.

I got out of the Garden real fast. But happy. This game may have been forgotten by just about everybody except me – and Richer, and the Beezer – but I'll cherish it forever. After all, unlike the Yankees and Rutgers football (but like East Brunswick football and, strangely, the usually woeful Nets), the Devils won the first live game in which I saw them.

Honorable Mention. October 8, 1982, Brendan Byrne Arena, East Rutherford, New Jersey: Devils 3, Rangers 2.

Three days after debuting at home with a 3-3 tie against the then-equally woeful Pittsburgh Penguins, the Devils played a nearby team for the first time. Then, it was hard for anyone but Islander fans to say, "RANGERS SUCK!" Still, at the time, this was a franchise that was technically 3 days old, and officially 3 months old, against one that was 56 years old. For crying out loud, they were founded in the Coolidge Administration.

Beat the Rangers in a game that really matters? At the time, we were glad simply to beat anybody. To get our 1st win against the guys 8 miles down Route 3 (which flows into the Lincoln Tunnel Approachway)? It was sweet. But there would be sweeter ones to come.

10. February 3, 2006, Byrne (by now Continental Airlines) Arena: Devils 3, Carolina Hurricanes 0.

A February game? Sure, it's yet another shutout for Martin Brodeur, but what's the big deal? Especially since the 'Canes ended up beating us in the Playoffs a few weeks later, and won the Cup?

The big deal is that it was Scott Stevens Night, and his Number 4 was retired. By raising our 1st retired number banner, along with the 3 Stanley Cup banners, 4 Conference Title banners and 7 (now 10) Division Title banners, it was a confirmation that our little franchise had finally grown up. Just as were our 1st Playoff berth in '88, our first Playoff Series win the same year, our 1st Conference Finals berth the same year, our driving of The Scum to the limit in '94, our 1st Cup Finals and our 1st Cup win in '95, our 1st former player elected to the Hall of Fame (Peter Stastny) in '98, our 2nd Cup win in 2000, and our 3rd Cup win in '03.

But this was the 1st time we were able to mark a great Devils career as complete. After all, who remembers Stastny as a Devil instead of as a Quebec Nordique? And Viacheslav Fetisov is remembered mainly as a Soviet, then a Detroit Red Wing.

It was our chance not only to announce that, yes, we have some history now, but also to say, "Thank you" to the most important player in the history of the franchise. Marty is the greatest player in team history, but Scottso, because of how he lifted us up and turned us from pretenders into champions from 1991 to '95, is the most important, and will never be toppled from that perch.

9. April 14, 1988, Byrne Arena: Devils 6, New York Islanders 5.

This was Game 6 of the Patrick Division Semifinals, and it was the 1st time the Devils ever won a Playoff Series. And against the team that had cast a very long shadow over New York hockey since their own such victory in 1975, a shocker over the Rangers (who, as Isles fans taught us, suck).

It was really all over for them: This was Captain Denis Potvin's last game, Mike Bossy had already retired due to a nasty back injury, Billy Smith was fast becoming a backup and would retire in another year, Bryan Trottier was mainly a reserve (though would play long enough to help Pittsburgh win 2 Cups), Clark Gillies had been traded 2 years earlier and had just retired, Butch Goring had been retired for a year and Bobby Nystrom for 2.

The era of Big Island Hockey was over. (And except for a nice Cup run in '93, it has never returned.) And the Devils had delivered the eulogy. The Rangers couldn't do it. You know why? Because the RANGERS SUCK!

8. April 3, 1988, Chicago Stadium, Chicago, Illinois: Devils 4, Chicago Blackhawks 3.

Last game of the regular season, and the Devils could clinch a Playoff berth for the 1st time ever (unless you count the 1978 Colorado Rockies), but a tie wouldn't do the trick: They had to win.

And they were losing late, but John MacLean scored to send it to overtime. Since this was the regular season, OT was only 5 minutes, another goal had to come fast. Johnny Mac did it again, scoring the most important of his 347 goals in a Devils uniform (long, but no longer, a team record), past Hawk goalie Darren Pang (now a broadcaster), getting tripped up and copying the famed 1970 Bobby Orr pose.

Except, as thrilling as that must have been for Boston fans, they were up 3 games to 0 in the Finals. They were going to win that series sooner or later. MacLean's goal was far more important to his team. It may be the most important goal in the history of any franchise, except maybe for the one that sent the Isles on their way in 1975, by Jean-Paul Parise. (Of course, father of Zach.)

7. May 26, 2000, First Union Center (currently Wells Fargo Center), Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Devils 2, Philadelphia Flyers 1.

Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. The Fly Guys took a 3 games to 1 lead, and had Game 5 and possibly Game 7 at home. But these were not the fearsome 1970s Bobby Clarke, Bernie Parent, Dave Schultz Flyers. These were the Eric Lindros Flyers. Even Kate Smith and her mighty pipes couldn't have saved them.

This was a Philly choke on the level of the '64 and '77 Phillies, the '77 and '81 76ers, the '02 Eagles, the '04 St. Joseph's basketball team, and Smarty Jones. And the Flyers' tough-guy, "Broad Street Bullies" image was shattered forever when Scott Stevens introduced Lindros to his associate, Mr. Shoulder. It wasn't quite, to use Bruce Springsteen's line, "Well, they blew up the Chicken Man in Philly last night, and they blew up his house, too," mainly because 1980-81 Philly Mob boss Philip Testa got his nickname because of his "cover," a poultry business, while Lindros could have been called "the Chicken Man" for other reasons, if ya know what I mean.

But it was as effective a hit as either the Jersey or Philly Mob has ever pulled off, and Lindros was never the same. Already feuding with the former Captain turned general manager (as a "grownup," he now preferred to be called "Bob" Clarke), he never played for the Flyers again. And, except for the 76ers' run into the 2001 NBA Finals, no Philly indoor team has gotten this close to a World Championship since.

I do want to say this in Flyer fans' favor, though: Just about everybody who roots for the Black & Orange admits that this was a clean hit. (The refs thought so, too: Stevens was not penalized.) Contrast that with the moronic troglodytes who befoul Madison Square Garden, who still insist, 30 years later, that Potvin's hit on Ulf Nilsson was dirty. (That one wasn't penalized, either, and Nilsson himself has said many times that it was a clean hit.) Flyer fans may be sadistic brutes, but they understand the game. Ranger fans are just alcoholic, illiterate, barely linguistic Neanderthals.

6. June 9, 2003, Byrne (Continental Airlines) Arena: Devils 3, Anaheim (then "Mighty") Ducks 0.

Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals, and after a rough 1st 6 games (including Paul Kariya's Game 6 goal after coming back from yet another Mr. Shoulder from Scottso – now that's tough), this one was never really a contest. Coach Pat Burns put Ken Daneyko in after not putting him in for any of the preceding Playoff games, and Dano's veteran presence fired up the crowd, since it was pretty much sure to be his last game, and the crowd fired up the team.

The writers gave the Conn Smythe Trophy for Playoff MVP to Jean-Sebastien Giguere of the Mighty Schmucks. Now, really, Martin Brodeur has 3 shutouts in the Finals, including Game 7, a feat last accomplished in 1945 – before V-E Day! – and they give it to the goalie of the losing team? Giguere posed for a photo with Commissioner Gary Bettman and then skated off real fast. He knew he didn't deserve it.

But the Devils deserved that 3rd Cup. Now they had won more Cups than the Flyers, and only one less than the Rangers (in a lot less time) and the Islanders (in a bit less time). The fools could still make jokes about our attendance (and they still do), but they know we have the better recent history.

Hold on a second, you must be thinking. If the Devils have won 3 Stanley Cups, why is one of them only the 5th biggest win in team history? What could be bigger than a Stanley Cup? How about a win without which none of those Cups would have happened:

5. June 11, 1995, The Spectrum, Philadelphia: Devils 3, Flyers 2.

Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Why not Game 6, when we clinched a berth in the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time? Because of the emotional effect of this Game 5.

With 44 seconds left in regulation in a tie game, Claude Lemieux, already putting together one of the greatest postseason performances in any sport, fired a wobbly 65-foot shot at Flyer goalie Ron Hextall. The red light went on.

I saw this on TV at Ruby Tuesday at the Brunswick Square Mall in East Brunswick, and I think I hit the roof. I know I yelled, "Yessss!" And nobody looked at me like we Devils fans weren't worthy of being around Ranger or Flyer fans. This was a special moment. That it was against the Broad Street Bozos made it all the better.

4. June 10, 2000, Reunion Arena, Dallas, Texas: Devils 2, Dallas Stars 1.

Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals. It was actually 12:30 AM on June 11, Eastern Time, when those of us in New Jersey saw it. Some of us, barely, because Game 5 went to 3 overtimes and this Game 6 was in a 2nd OT. For the first time in years, I was tired of hockey. It was the 26th period of hockey in the Finals. Keep in mind, a Finals going to Game 7 with no overtimes would be 21 periods. I kept thinking, "Please, somebody, put an end to this." Finally, the Devils did, as Patrick Elias sent one of the best passes in hockey history to Jason Arnott, who shoveled the winner past Ed Belfour.

Gary Thorne had the call on ABC: "Back to the point, Stevens stepped up to hold it in, Hull stole it, Stevens holds it in again, shot it right through the top of the crease. Elias centered, shot, score! The New Jersey Devils have won the Stanley Cup! Jason Arnott with the game-winning overtime goal!" And Bill Clement, the 1974-75 Flyer, followed Thorne and expressed the feelings of all of us: "Ho ho ho ho ho! Ohhhh... Finally! The ending of the movie!"

Okay, that's 2 Cups – 1 Cup to go, and there's still 3 wins left to cover. So what's are the wins that could possibly be bigger than 2 Cup wins? How about 2 eliminations of The Scum?

3. April 29, 2006, Madison Square Garden: Devils 4, Rangers 2.

Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. Three times, the Devils had faced The Scum in the Playoffs. Three times, The Scum beat us. This fourth time, we beat The Scum. Swept them. Clinched in their house. Humiliated them.

True, they have since beaten us in another Playoff series, the first ever played at the Prudential Center. But they've never swept us. And they can never again say we’ve never beaten them when it counts. Four straight! We beat The Scum four straight!

And they've still only got 1 Cup since Pearl Harbor, while we've got 3 Cups since Oklahoma City. I’d say "Do the math," but if they could do the math, they wouldn’t be Ranger fans. (I know, I know, a lot of them are also Yankee Fans. They're smart from May to October.)

2. May 25, 2012, Prudential Center, Newark, New Jersey: Devils 3, Rangers 2.

Adam Henrique had already scored 2 goals, including the double-overtime winner, in Game 7 of the Conference Quarterfinal to eliminate the Florida Panthers, after already going to overtime in Game 6. Then the Devils beat the Flyers in 5 games, although it was by no means easy, losing in overtime in Game 1 before winning in overtime on Alexi Ponikarovsky's goal in Game 3.

In the Conference Finals, the Devils had taken Game 2 at The Garden, but gave home-ice advantage right back by losing Game 3 at The Rock, then took it back again by winning Game 5 at The Garden. Game 6 at home was as tense a game as the Devils had ever played -- and most Devils fans remembered losing Game 6 of the Conference Finals to the Rangers at the Meadowlands after Mark Messier's guarantee. The date on that one? May 25, 1994.

May 25, 2012 would be different: Just 1 minute and 3 seconds into overtime, Henrique, then a 24-year-old rookie center, a Portuguese-Canadian on his father's side (endearing him to the Portuguese-Americans of Newark's Ironbound) and a Polish-Canadian on his mother's (endearing him to me, even if he hadn't scored this goal), from Brantford, Ontario (hometown of Wayne Gretzky and comedian Phil Hartman), pushed the puck past Henrik Lundqvist. Mike "Doc" Emrick had the call on NBC: "They score! Henrique! It's over!"

But, as they said on Highlander, "In the end, there can be only one." And this one is obvious:

1. June 24, 1995, Byrne Arena: Devils 5, Detroit Red Wings 2. Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Finals, and the first World Championship for a true New Jersey team. (Remember, those three Super Bowls were won by a team proudly calling themselves the “New York Giants,” the last of them with the “ny” on their helmets.)

Even if the Devils end up becoming to the Stanley Cup's 2nd 100 years what the Montreal Canadiens were to the Cup's 1rst 100 years, there will never be a more special moment for the team than 11:09 PM on June 24, 1995, when Mike Emrick said these words on Fox: "The championship to New Jersey! The Devils have won the Stanley Cup!"

A year earlier, a Ranger fan had hung a banner at the Garden that said, "NOW I CAN DIE IN PEACE." On this night, a Devils fans held up a sign that said, "NOW I CAN LIVE IN PEACE."

Well, maybe not in peace, but as long as the Rangers remain stuck on 1994, we can say to their stupid fans, "What have they done for you lately?"

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