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Previewing the 1995 Final I SUNDAYS WITH STAN

Heading into the 1995 Stanley Cup Final, Detroit was heavily favored to defeat New Jersey

by Stan Fischler / Special to

Forget about calling it "The Garden State."

By late Spring 1995, the Devils had turned it into the State of Euphoria.

The Philadelphia Flyers had been deposited into the NHL playoff bin and now Jacques Lemaire and his merry men prepared for their first Stanley Cup Final round.

To be truthful, it was a bit scary and sensational as well. Every Devil would attest to that.

"We had visions of champagne-sips dancing in hour heads," joked Billy Guerin who quickly had emerged as a top big-league forward.

Another celebration of sorts took place in the offices of Devils owner Dr. John McMullen, who still was in nasty negotiations with the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority.

"I still had the offer to move our team to Nashville," warned McMullen. "But every time my team won another playoff game it strengthened my negotiation hand. So, I decided to see how far we could go.

"Once we took care of the Flyers, it meant that we were only four wins away from the Stanley Cup. And you know what that meant in terms of negotiating with the Authority. Now I had the upper hand."

It meant that Doc Mac already was in a win-win situation, playing with house money, so to speak. A Stanley Cup victory - however unreal it still appeared - simply would be gravy for McMullen.

Meanwhile, hockey analysts, who never figured that the Devils would get past the first round, were trying to figure out just how the team had climbed so close to hockey's pinnacle.

For starters it was evident - as defenseman Bruce Driver pointed out - that the club jelled in the final practice before the first playoff game in Boston. That catapulted them on The Winning Turnpike.

"It couldn't have happened at a better time," Driver remembered. "In fact, it was almost magical when you think of where we had been and how now all the right gears had perfectly meshed. 

"And it remained that way as we marched through the first, second and finally the third round against the Flyers. But we still had one more big one to win and we were ready."

Coach Jacques Lemaire boasted four diverse lines, a well-knit defense and Martin Brodeur, who had become not only the face of the franchise but arguably the best young puck-stopper in the NHL. 

"As the playoffs went along," said Brodeur, "my confidence grew and the guys in front of me were making the wins easier than ever. We were on a roll, but it still was tough to tell how it would end."

In his chronicle of the 1994 and 1995 playoffs, "Battle On The Hudson," author Tim Sullivan recounted how New Jersey's only big-league team reacted to its quest for the Cup.

"By beating the Flyers, Lemaire's team erased the monkey that had lived on their backs for a year. Indeed, through the summer of the heartbreak loss to the Rangers and the lockout and the winter of discontent, the Devils had secured their first conference title and were headed to the Stanley Cup Final."

If the Garden Staters had been graded for their arithmetic, it would come out A-Plus. After three playoff rounds their 12-4 record was even more commendable considering that every series opened on foreign ice. The road record now was 8-1.

What's more, they would face the Detroit Red Wings in the fourth round and start the tourney with two games at Joe Louis Arena; not exactly a welcoming ice palace for visiting teams.

Mike (Doc) Emrick, who was doing play-by-play for the FOX network at the time, remembered that the Wings and Devils had not faced each other during the regular season.

"The lockout had changed the schedule," said Emrick, "so there was no tune-up for those teams against one another. It was just whatever scouting could take place would tell the teams what they could do against one another." 

What everyone did know was that Detroit featured a bevy of headliners. They included future Hall of Famers Steve Yzerman and Sergei Federov up front and the winningest coach in NHL history, Scotty Bowman. 

Emrick: "The build-up to the Final was that Detroit was this offensive juggernaut that was going to blow right through New Jersey and after the first three games, there would probably be a white flag of surrender and that would be it."

Doc wasn't kidding either. 

Prior to the tournament's 1995 debut, the NHL scheduled a media event at Detroit's Pontchartrain Hotel in which both teams participated. 

First, the Motor City's stars, which also included defenseman Paul Coffey, answered questions from the dais. Then each of the dozen tables were given over to the reporters and at least one or two Red Wings players for more intimate questions. 

When the Wings were finished with the media scrums, they vacated the room and the Visitors moved in for their turn. But at least half the media types chose to ignore the challenging Devils and left the room.

"It was a blatant insult to our guys," one of the Devils public relations men said under his breath. "Just a slap in our faces."

That wasn't all the slapping. One Toronto newspaper ran a headline picking the Red Wings to sweep the series in four straight games.

Such prognostications were not without some merit. Tim Sullivan: "Detroit had stars up and down the roster and that separated New Jersey from immortality. And clearly, it seemed like the toughest of tests."

Under Bowman's baton, the Detroiters finished with 33 wins over the abbreviated season and 70 points. They dominated the Western Conference playoffs with a 12-2 record before taking on New Jersey.

Despite those numbers, confidence radiated from the Devils side. Captain Scott Stevens said it best: "We're up for the Cup and anything else will be disappointing."

When all was said and done, the ultimate victor would have to own the better goaltender and since that was the case, Martin Brodeur emerged as New Jersey's prime hope. 

"Marty has the demeanor and mentality to win this for us," said defenseman Ken Daneyko. 

"Marty is a special guy," added John MacLean. "He's an athlete. He has something the rest of us don't have." 

Discussing his style with veteran Devils beat reporter Rich Chere of the Star-Ledger, Brodeur modestly demurred when kudos were discussed with him.

Brodeur: "I don't think I'm quicker than other people. I think that what I have is I'm able to read stuff. I don't think I'm crazy quick."
Fair enough, but the chips now were being put down for the right to the Cup. 

The oddsmakers had Bowman's bunch as the heaviest of favorites. If the Devils had anything in their favor, it was that they were playing with house money.

Detroit - alias Hockeytown USA - was an excited city. As far as its citizens were concerned, another Cup win was in the bag. 

However, there were some dissenters from East Rutherford who had their own forecast.

"I wouldn't rule us out," concluded Bobby Holik. "We're on a real roll."

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