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To Sweep, or Not to Sweep? I SUNDAYS WITH STAN

The Devils were on the cusp on a historic upset, with a chance to win the franchise's first Stanley Cup title in a Final sweep

by Sam Kasan @SamiKasan / NewJerseyDevils.com

It was the spring of 1995 and the Devils were winning on all fronts.

They owned a seemingly insurmountable three-games-to-nothing lead in the Stanley Cup Final with Detroit. (Game 4 at the Meadowlands.)

Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman remained unable to crack the safe that was New Jersey's airtight defensive system, and his team was demoralized beyond all reason.

So was the New Jersey Sports and Exhibition Authority. 

Months earlier, the Authority had Devils owner Dr. John McMullen in a seemingly locked financial vice. 

It adamantly refused to grant the Garden State's only major league hockey team a much-needed rental reduction and didn't really care if Nashville made Doc Mac an offer he couldn't refuse; a new arena.

But thanks to the Devils remarkable underdog wins over Boston, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, the negotiating power pendulum had swung to the hockey club.

"Before the Final round, the Devils had become the most popular sports team in the Metropolitan Area," said hockey historian Ira Gitler. "Now - only one win away from the Cup - they had become the talk of the entire National Hockey League."

And the New Jersey Sports and Exhibition Authority as well since the NJSEA realized it was losing the balance of influence.

The worm had turned against the NJSEA, big-time. A groundswell of support for the Devils meant that the Authority would suffer an irreparable blow if the popular hockey club skipped town, swapping East Rutherford for Nashville.

Meanwhile, McMullen gained yet another power broker on his side, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. Working side by side with McMullen, the new hockey boss of all bosses, attempted a behind-the-scenes maneuver to save the Devils for New Jersey.

Bettman: "We're in a difficult position created by many factors. The best thing we can do now, from the game's standpoint, is to put this matter to the side. Let's get through The Final and then deal with it."

Devils fans were in no rush to get Game 4 started. Those who still weren't cheering the 5-2 rout in Game 3 were busy making plans for tailgating in the vast Byrne Arena parking lots or merely ruminating how their favorite club ever got to this exalted position.

"It was the very best time to be a Devils fan," said Jim Charshafian. "Every move Jacques (Lemaire) made turned out to be the right one and Marty Brodeur was driving the Red Wings scorers nuts with his big saves."

On Friday, June 23, 1995, a day before Game 4, the professional hockey analysts were writing stories about the uncanny march of the Devils. Many still were shaking their heads in bewilderment.

Hall of Fame play-by-play broadcaster Mike (Doc) Emrick remembered picking the brains of two broadcasting colleagues - former NHL players Peter McNab and Ed Olczyk.

Doc said that somewhere near the end of Game 2, McNab had tipped him off that New Jersey would win The Cup and possibly sweep Detroit.

Emrick: "Peter is very tall and I'm not. When I thought I had heard him say New Jersey would win The Cup, I thought I might have been hearing things. And I said, 'I beg your pardon?'

"Then, I leaned in a little closer and he said, 'The Devils are gonna win this thing and it might be a sweep' I learned to always pay attention when a former player says something. They sense when a match-up is just a mismatch."

Still, how could even a seasoned hockey reporter such as Rich Chere of the Newark Star-Ledger explain the events that were unfolding. Perhaps Scott Stevens had the answer after the practice leading into Game 4.

"I'll remember how we did it," the captain smiled. "We never had home ice in this playoff. We had an up and down year, and we finished ninth overall. But we all stuck together and worked hard for each other!"

They would have to work hard for that fourth win.

Already humiliated by the third game blowout, Bowman was determined to revive his skaters. His boss, general manager Jim Devellano, knew the score.

"We knew that if any coach could turn this series around for us," said Jimmy D, "it was Scotty. But we weren't kidding ourselves. By this time, it was apparent that the Devils not only were hot but on a mission."

In the home dressing room, Billy Guerin delivered the sensible - yet hoary - prognosis:

"Everyone knows that the toughest win is the series-clincher. We're as ready as ready can be."

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