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Getting Closer to Stanley I SUNDAYS WITH STAN

The Devils took one step closer to realizing their championship dreams after taking a 3-0 series lead against Detroit

by Stan Fischler / Special to

The New Jersey Devils charter jet landed in the Garden State, one day after the club had won two out of two games of the 1995 Stanley Cup Final in Detroit.

In the Red Wings' Hockeytown USA, some fans thought a two-game-to-nothing Devils lead was a typographical error. 

It wasn't.

On the other hand, coach Jacques Lemaire's crew might as well have been in the State of Euphoria.

It was June 20, 1995 and the Devils - against all logical odds - stood only two wins away from winning their first Stanley Cup

Scotty Bowman's once intimidating Detroit Red Wings had been reduced to an ordinary hockey club despite its bevy of stars and future Hall of Famers. 

"We didn't want to feel overconfident," said Bobby Holik, center on the now notorious Devils Crash Line. "But we were feeling good about ourselves."

Ditto for Lemaire. 

His system - which many out-of-town media types labelled 'The Trap' - had been working to perfection. His young goaltender, Martin Brodeur, was playing with the aplomb of a 10-year vet and no roster holes had yet been evident at any point so far.

"But two wins do not make a champion," Lemaire advised his enthused players.

He was concerned about overconfidence. In the practice a day before Game 3 at home, the balding ice boss acted as if his club was down by two games instead of the vice being versa.

Members of the press corps were taken aback when Lemaire huddled with his stickhandlers and blurted, "You're not that good a hockey team. You haven't won anything yet." 

For the most part, the players got the message. There was no resentment, only respect for the mentor who had led them so far.

"We got the message," said Shawn Chambers, the defenseman Lou Lamoriello had obtained from Tampa Bay. "Jacques didn't want us to let up against those guys. 

"If we take our foot off the pedal, it could be a disaster. So, he wants us to stay focused and keep it going."

Prior to the first home game of the Final in New Jersey, the Garden State fans turned the parking lot into a picnic ground. It was Tailgate City with a street hockey game here and a festive cookout there. 

"This was a once in a lifetime moment," remarked longtime fan Neil Schwartz. "A first Final round in East Rutherford deserves good, pre-game fun."

But fun on the ice would be another story. Red Wings general manager Jim Devellano had been hired away from the NY Islanders to produce a Stanley Cup for owner Mike Ilitch.

"This was supposed to be our season," Devellano insisted. "We had all the pieces, starting with Scotty behind the bench and Stevie Yzerman as our captain and leader. We still expect to win."

Meanwhile, some of the Devils still suffered a sour aftertaste from the previous spring when the Rangers beat them in the second overtime of Game 7.

"We were a little young and inexperienced at the time," Scott Stevens recalled. "We gained a lot of experience. And it's true; sometimes you have to lose before you win."

There was no losing Game 3. 

Right off the bat, defenseman Bruce Driver blazed a power-play shot past Mike Vernon. 1-0 Devils.

Next it was Claude Lemieux beating Vernon. 2-0 Devils.

Then, Neil Broten. 3-0 Devils.

And Randy McKay. 4-0 Devils.

Bowman finally gave Vernon the hook and put backup Chris Osgood between the pipes, but Osgood wasn't much good either. Bobby Holik beat him. 5-0, Devils. 

The Red Wings rallied for two late power-play goals but by that time they'd have been better off in a kite-flying tourney. Final score: 5-2, New Jersey.

Covering the series for the Baltimore Sun, reporter Sandra McKee wrote that the Devils played "stunning team hockey."

The verdict was so emphatic that Bowman - he would retire as the winningest coach in hockey history - was beside himself with fury.

"I was embarrassed and humiliated," blurted Bowman. "I told my guys at the end of the second period that it (the loss) starts with the coach. I've lost a lot in the playoffs, but I've never been humiliated like this. The Devils won every part of the game."

Probing for some negativity on the New Jersey side, one visiting newsman asked Lemaire if he was worried about the two late Detroit goals. 

"No way," Jacques shot back. "There were a lot of penalties at the end and - to tell you the truth - by that time my players were not focused."

The victors' dressing room had an aura of joy and self-confidence. 

"We smell blood," said Randy McKay. "We're in a great situation now and when we play them again, we'll play the same way. But if we let down now, we'll be in trouble."

A couple of Canadian writers who originally had expected a Red Wing sweep wondered how Lemaire felt about his team's performance.

Lemaire: "When I consider the players that Detroit has - some of the best in the NHL - I could never have imagined before the series started that we'd be leading three games to none. Never!"

As a matter of fact, the possibility of a four-game sweep loomed but nobody on the Jersey side would go that far. Except, broadcaster Doc Emrick offered this:

"It's a question of whether the Red Wings can muster something and take the series back to Detroit."

Then, a pause: "Or whether the Devils would pull off not only one of the stranger upsets, but also be able to call it a sweep. Like the sweep (broadcaster) Peter McNab predicted to me after the second Devils win."

Yet, after three games, the idea of the Devils sweeping the high and mighty Red Wings still seemed right out of the Planet Surreal!

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