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NHL Centennial

Devils-Senators Game 7 resonates 14 years later's Tom Gulitti calls New Jersey victory favorite playoff memory

by Tom Gulitti @tomgulittinhl / Staff Writer

Editor's note: As part of the League's Centennial celebration, staff members were asked to write about their favorite Stanley Cup Playoff memory. Today, Staff Writer Tom Gulitti looks back to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final between the New Jersey Devils and Ottawa Senators on May 23, 2003.

Picking my favorite Stanley Cup Playoff game was not easy. Though I have covered higher-profile games, Game 7 of the 2003 Eastern Conference Final between the New Jersey Devils and Ottawa Senators at Corel Centre [now Canadian Tire Centre] stands out among the many memorable ones I have witnessed.

The Devils led 3-1 in the best-of-7 series before the Senators, the Presidents' Trophy winners that season, won the next two games, including a 2-1 overtime victory in Game 6 at Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

That was when Devils coach Pat Burns went to work. Burns, who died of cancer in 2010, was a demanding coach and a master at finding motivational tools for his players.

On May 23, 2003, the day of Game 7 against the Senators, Burns saw NHL trailers set up outside the building in anticipation of the Stanley Cup Final potentially being held there (similar trailers also were outside Continental Airlines Arena).

Burns told his players, "We're going to send those trailers back." When the Devils' bus broke down on the way to the arena and was replaced by a much older one that Burns compared to something out of the movie "Slap Shot," he portrayed this as a slight against them that they would have to overcome.

When forward Joe Nieuwendyk had to leave the game after three shifts because of an oblique injury he had sustained during Game 6, Burns appealed to the players on Nieuwendyk's behalf during the first intermission, describing how the 36-year-old center was in tears in the training room because he was unable to play with a trip to the Stanley Cup Final on the line. Forward Jamie Langenbrunner, Nieuwendyk's closest friend on the team, scored two goals in the opening 5:46 of the second period to give the Devils a 2-1 lead.

A turnover by Devils forward Jeff Friesen led to Senators forward Radek Bonk's tying goal 1:53 into the third. Rather than lose his temper with a distraught Friesen when he returned to the bench, Burns told him: "Just relax. You owe me one."

Friesen paid his debt by taking a pass from forward Grant Marshall and scoring with 2:14 remaining in the third to make it 3-2. I remember distinctly the crowd, which had been deafening in anticipation of the Senators reaching the Stanley Cup Final, going silent when Friesen scored that game-winner.

The only sounds in the building were from the Devils celebrating on the ice and general manager Lou Lamoriello and assistant coach John MacLean yelling happily in the press box. The Devils would defeat the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in seven games in the Stanley Cup Final to win their third championship.

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