When Jeff Friesen Prevented a New Jersey Devils Collapse: Looking Back at the 2003 Eastern Conference Finals

This picture is actually from November 2003 and not from the 2002-03 season. Nevertheless, nearly all pictured here played a role in what happened with Ottawa in the 2003 ECFs. - Victor Decolongon

The 2002-03 New Jersey Devils won the franchise's third Stanley Cup, a Cup that almost never happened as the Devils nearly blew a 3-1 series lead to the Ottawa Senators in the Eastern Conference Finals. This look back covers it all from Game 1 to Friesen's game winning goal.

Winning is the ultimate goal in sport and when you win the Stanley Cup, it's a complete success. The greatness of the achievement tends to overshadow some of the difficulties involved in getting there. A great example is the 2003 Stanley Cup. You probably remember Grant Marshall scoring in triple overtime to knock out Tampa Bay. You likely recall Jeff Friesen getting the late game winner in Ottawa. You should recall Martin Brodeur putting up a shutout, Mike Rupp getting a piece for the first goal, and the Devils cruising to a 3-0 win in the Meadowlands to win it all.

Do you remember how the Devils almost didn't get there, nearly choking the playoffs away?

I nearly forgot. Oh, sure, the Stanley Cup Finals series against the Mighty Ducks wasn't easy. That went seven games with each home team winning each game. Go back a round and it's remarkable what happened. The New Jersey Devils and Ottawa Senators went to the limit; but it really shouldn't have happened. In fact, the Devils were up 3-1 in that series. Just like the Flyers were in that famous 2000 Eastern Conference Finals series. Just like the Devils in that same series, Ottawa didn't quit and managed to get two straight wins. Unlike the Devils in 2000, Game 7 would be at the Corel Centre and this Ottawa team really pushed in that one. If it wasn't for John Madden, Grant Marshall, Wade Redden, Karel Rachunek, and Jeff Friesen, then the Devils maybe don't win that game. Instead of three Stanley Cup Finals trips in four years, they would have joined the Second Rate Rivals on many lists of Epic Playoff Series Collapses that were, have, and will be written.

Both Teams Heading into the Series

I was reminded of the 2003 team when I saw this picture put up in a FanShot by NJGuy. It's been floating around since Ilya Kovalchuk "retired" last week; a sort of coping mechanism among the fans to think it'll all be alright. It's true the Devils didn't have a top scorer. Patrik Elias led the team with 57 points in the regular season, tied for the 67th most by a player in that season. However, that team was hindered by poor shooting luck and a hideous power play. According to QuantHockey, the average shooting percentage (all situations) in 2002-03 was 9.36%. The 2002-03 Devils shot at about 8.1%. To put that in perspective, the 2013 Devils also shot about 1% below the league average. Their very unsuccessful power play contributed to the lack of points across the board. The Devils finished dead last in the NHL in power play opportunities (303), power play goals (36), and success rate (10.9%). Considering some of the Devils' top scorers in the regular season finished in the 30s to 40s in the league for even strength points, I think it's fair to figure that a terrible power play hamstrung their numbers.

The 2002-03 Devils were no rag-tag bunch of guys working hard for each other. I mean, they did work very hard. Head coach Pat Burns, a legendary coach, wouldn't have it any other way. But they had a lot going for them. Legendary goalie, Martin Brodeur had a solid 91.4% save percentage (91.1% was the average per QuantHockey) with 9 shutouts. He also won the Vezina for the first time. Scott Stevens turned 39 by the end of the season and still bossed opposing players for an average of 23 minutes per night. Scott Niedermayer was one of the best defensemen in the league, playing about 24 and a half minutes per night and leading the defense in scoring. That's two Hall of Famers leading a defense with a very good Brian Rafalski and Colin White with another backstopping them and one should-be Hall of Famer on the bench. Additionally, while the team wasn't productive in points, they were incredible at getting shots. They finished second in the league with an average of 31.7 shots per game. Despite a sub-average shooting percentage and a woeful power play, the Devils finished just above league median with an average of 2.63 goals per game. Also, when you consider the Devils high shots-per-game rate with a league leading shots-against-per-game rate of 23.6, and it suggests the Devils dominated play regularly. The game data back then doesn't allow for calculating Corsi or Fenwick, but it wouldn't surprise me if the 2002-03 team were fantastic in possession. Anyway, scoring issues aside, the Devils managed to finish fourth in the league with a record of 46-20-10-6. They were hardly indicative of an underdog.

Though, they certainly looked like one on paper for the Eastern Conference Finals. While the Devils disposed of Boston and Tampa Bay in five games, they drew the Ottawa Senators for the Eastern Conference Finals. The Senators were the only team in the East to finish ahead of the Devils with the league's best record: 52-21-8-1. Off the ice, the Senators were in serious financial trouble. Owner Rod Bryden really didn't have the money to keep the team afloat, player payments were missed, and the team filed and got bankruptcy protection during the season. On the ice, anyone who played the Sens were in trouble. Just look at the player stats from their season. They were led up front by Marian Hossa, who had a sensational 45-goal, 80-point season. Daniel Alfredsson was a sure threat at all times. They were well supported by Todd White, Martin Havlat, Radek Bonk, Mike Fisher, and Magnus Arvedson. Jason Spezza wasn't even a featured player then; and they didn't need him to be one. They were that potent up front. Their defense was led by Wade Redden, back when he was good; Zdeno Chara, who was a monster defender then and gave Ottawa fans a reason to love Mike Milbury; and supported by Karel Rachnuek and Chris Phillips. A young A-Train also had his rookie season that season. They got perfectly acceptable goaltending out of Patrick Lalime. Ottawa was just good to great; finishing in the top ten in nearly all of the team stats in 2002-03. They doused the Islanders in the first round and clamped down on the Flyers in the second to play New Jersey.

The Opener

Believe it or not, NHL.com still has the boxscores from games as far back as the 2003 playoffs. Unfortunately, they're not in the same format as they are now so I can't tell you who out-attempted who. I'll include them along with the recaps from ESPN.com - and they're pretty good recaps for that matter - for posterity's sake. I'll even include links to Youtube videos from the series for additional perspective. Either way, what we had first was a loss.

Game 1 on May 10 could've gone either way in retrospect. It did go to overtime. I'm sure the many fans screaming "Who-hoo" to Blur's "Song 2" in the first period didn't expect it, though. Chris Neil scored the first of the series at 6:10 and Todd White doubled the lead a little more than a minute later. Frustration The Devils did out-shoot the Sens early on but it wouldn't be until the second period where the Devils responded. Joe Nieuwendyk got the Devils within one at 14:19 and Jay Pandolfo tied it up less than three minutes later. The Sens pushed for the lead in the third but Brodeur denied all 11 shots. Overtime would be needed but it wouldn't last. Each team only got a shot and Ottawa's was a re-direction of a Martin Havlat's pass by Shaun Van Allen. It caught Brodeur on the flank and sent the fans home happy. (Game 1 Boxscore; ESPN.com Recap)

Fun Game 1 Fact: Two rare penalties were called in this one: Neil for an illegal substitution at 19:42 into the first; Martin Brodeur getting tagged for tripping in the second period.

Game 1 Video: Here's the entire overtime from Game 1. Just like OT, it's not that long of a video. Stevens got caught in a two-on-one and the pass to Van Allen was killer.

Taking Control of the Series

Game 2 started off rocky but ended with a decisive looking score. Tommy Albelin scored on the Devils' first shot of the game at 4:15. It took the Devils some time to get going since they took the game's first penalty less than a minute in. After Albelin's goal, they took three more. Ottawa couldn't capitalize on four early power plays, due in part to Martin Brodeur being, well, himself. The Devils settled down and Jeff Friesen expanded the lead later in the first; a 2-on-1 feed from Joe Nieuwendyk with an uncredited assist to Chara for coughing up the puck to make the odd-man-rush happen. Radek Bonk would bring the Sens and the fans back into it with an early second period goal. However, John Madden hammered a big nail into a coffin seconds after the Devils killed their fifth power play of the game. "Mad Dog" beat Rachunek to a puck, broke ahead, and beat Lalime to make it 3-1. Jay Pandolfo put home a rebound to seal it up at 4-1 and tied the series. Again, the score looked good but the penalties were harrowing early and the shots were in strong favor of Ottawa - likely due to score effects. Brodeur had to be great in this one and he was. (Game 2 Boxscore; ESPN.com Recap)

Fun Game 2 Fact: While it ultimately didn't matter much, only one Devil did well at the dot: Pascal Rheaume. Yes, Pascal Rheaume was a playoff regular in 2003. He went 9-for-15 whereas the other centers - Gomez, Nieuwendyk, Madden - were below 50% in success rate.

Game 2 Videos: An uploader on YouTube, McKay4429061, has plenty of Devils clips from back in the day. Given they're recordings of TV from 2003, the quality isn't that great but you take what you can get. Nevertheless, it's better than nothing. Here are clips of Albelin's goal, Friesen's goal, Madden's goal, and Pandolfo's goal.

Game 3 would the first in New Jersey and one of the tensest of the series. There was only one goal scored in the entire game. At the 10:48 mark of the first period, Brian Rafalski took a shot from the left point. Or was it a pass? The puck went in the direction of Sergei Brylin, who tipped it with the backhanded portion of his blade. The shot fooled Lalime and got into the net. From then on, the game was all about great saves, big hits, and the occasional post. There was even some controversy when Pandolfo seemingly scored a few minutes after Brylin's deflection. The puck went over the line but somehow bounced out. The goal judge missed it and by the time the officials saw the in-goal camera angle, the game already re-started. So the Devils should've been up 2-0. Still, Brodeur remained unbeaten and so the Devils took a 2-1 series lead anyway. (Game 3 Boxscore; ESPN.com Recap)

Fun Game 3 Fact: Despite getting double the power play opportunities, the Devils only registered five shots on the power play - same as Ottawa. I repeat: the Devils power play in 2002-03 was bad.

Game 3 Videos: Here's the one goal of the game, scored by Brylin, who was fouled prior to tip. Just for kicks, here's the disallowed Pandolfo goal. Enjoy hearing Darren Pang and, I think, Steve Levy express their consternation over the non-goal too.

The tension continued at the Continental Airlines Arena for the first two periods of Game 4. Grant Marshall scored the first goal and provided a first for the series: a power play goal. Yes, the Devils scored a power goal. They celebrated by taking a penalty themselves less than 30 seconds later (thanks Colin White). Ottawa was kept off the scoreboard until late in the first when Karel Rachunek scored his first of the postseason. Vaclav Varada, a bottom-six forward, scored his second playoff goal in 2003 with a wrister in the second period. While Ottawa owned the shot count, the Devils would battle back and Jay Pandolfo tied it up late in the second period. Daniel Alfredsson took a roughing penalty by roughing up Scott Gomez in the final minute of the second. New Jersey would make them pay when Jeff Friesen re-directed a shot by Brian Rafalski. Yes, two power play goals in the same game. Patrik Elias would get his first of the series and second of the playoffs minutes later and John Madden would tack on a shorty minutes after that. Within the first eight minutes of the third period, the Devils turned 2-2 into 5-2 and went on to take a commanding series lead. Elias finally got a goal, the power play got goals, and they've done well despite being out-shot like in Game 2. (Game 4 Boxscore; ESPN.com Recap)

Game 4 Fun Fact: Pat Burns really leaned on John Madden in the postseason and it showed in this game. He played 20:11, the first time in this series he'd play at least 20 minutes. He'd go on to play at least that much in the next four games.

Game 4 Videos: Five goals? Five clips! Marshall, Pandolfo, Friesen, Elias, and Madden for NJ. Here's also Brodeur denying Arvedson too.

Falling Apart

Now the Devils were up 3-1 in a playoff series. They never lost a series when up 3-1. They also haven't lost at home in this postseason. Ottawa's top scorers - Hossa, Havlat, Alfredsson, etc. - haven't done much all series. The Devils were looking good and the fans were feeling good. However, teams that finish first in the league are rarely paper tigers. It's not like they were going to give up.

Game 5 tightened up as the two teams combined for 40 shots and Ottawa kept the series alive. The Devils tried to get up early with a 7-2 shot differential in the first but there would be no goals. Ottawa got on the board first when their special teams showed up. Magnus Arvedson set up Todd White for a shorty 3:59 into the second. New Jersey would get an equalizer from Scott Stevens of all players. He was 39 and his offensive days were long behind him. Still, he let a slap shot fly off a faceoff, it bounced off Chris Phillips' skate and it beat Lalime to tie it up. But the Sens swarmed and a rookie named Jason Spezza played a key part in the team's effort that night. He nearly scored in the second period but Colin White denied him a clear opportunity at the net. In the third period, Spezza put the puck behind the net. Sergei Brylin was about to get it out but Peter Schaefer took it away. Schaefer was denied on a wraparound attempt, Martin Havlat pounced on a rebound, and Brodeur denied him. Only the pad stop on Havlat knocked the rebound out, went right off Richard Smhelik's skates, and back into the net. 12:28 into the third, Spezza would light the lamp when he deflected Chris Phillips' shot. The goal came while Brian Gionta was in the box for hooking Radek Bonk; it was Ottawa's first power play goal of the series. It put the game out of reach despite the Devils' efforts in out-shooting Sens 9-4 in the third. (Game 5 Boxscore; ESPN.com Recap)

Game 5 Fun Fact: This game was Spezza's first ever playoff game. He certainly made a mark with a goal and an assist. Spoiler: It would be his only points in the series. (Aside: No videos online as far as I can tell from this game. Odd.)

Now, losing Game 5 wasn't a cause for panic. The game was very tightly played. The Devils gave the Sens more power play chances. Lalime stood tall when the Devils did bring it in the third. But they still had a lead in the series. The series was coming back to New Jersey, where they have been fantastic all postseason long. It's not like the Devils forgot how to play Ottawa, they did handedly beat them 4-1 and 5-2 earlier. Plus, they hung tough in a 1-0 win too. On May 21, there wasn't reason to worry.

Game 6 had all of the drama one would want in a playoff game. There were plenty of shots, as the two teams combined for 65 - a big jump over the 40 in Game 5. There was plenty of physical play and the refs kept calls even up at 12 minutes each. There were even concerns about the ice, which was choppy since the Continental Airlines Arena held a graduation ceremony early in the day. It also had a lot of chances left begging. Part of that had to do with great play by both Brodeur and Lalime. Occasionally it had to do with the inflexibility of goal frames. It was apparent early on that goals would come far and few between in Game 6.

As with Game 5, the Devils jumped out an early lead in shot differential in the first period: 11-6. As with Game 5, they did not score. As with Game 5, Ottawa struck first. It was late in the period and the Devils were killing off a minor penalty given to Elias for goaltender interference. Brodeur went for a clearing attempt, only to be denied by the Senators. Marian Hossa got the puck to Radek Bonk, who put one through Brodeur for a PPG. The Devils would not take long to respond in the third period. Wade Redden was serving a cross-checking minor for fouling Scott Gomez and the Devils set-up on their power play. Niedermayer fed it to Jeff Friesen down low. Friesen tried to pass it out, but instead only found Karel Rachunek's skates. The puck bounced off the blades, off Lalime's pads, and out for Joe Nieuwendyk to bury into the net. The score was tied but the shots started to fade. The third ended with only a 6-5 advantage to New Jersey in shots. Jamie Langenbrunner and Hossa each were close to putting their team ahead, only to be denied by iron in different spots. Lalime and Brodeur did whatever they could to keep their team in it through overtime.

The final play of the game began when Hossa took on Stevens one-on-one into the zone. Hossa got past Stevens out wide but he was at too tight of an angle to put a good shot on net. He kept it low and Vaclav Varada crashed the net. Brodeur kept it out while White tried to put Varada down. Meanwhile, Chris Phillips - defensive defenseman Chris Phillips - jumped up on the play. He broke away from the pack and Turner Stevenson couldn't stick with him. Phillips cut across the slot to the crease and the loose puck came his way. The rest was academic: just put it hard on net.

The Devils' 3-1 series lead was erased in a 2-1 OT loss. The Devils suffered their first home loss of the 2003 playoffs. Whatever good feelings were had went away after Phillips ended the game. The Devils knew exactly how it felt to be a Philly fan in 2000. You know the team is good but so's the opposition and a collapse was entirely possible. You could see it coming, you know it would hurt, and there's little you can do about it except for dealing with it. (Game 6 Boxscore; ESPN.com Recap)

Game 6 Fun Fact: Both teams scored their goal in regulation on the power play, but special teams did not come out for overtime. There were whistles but they were matching minors for roughing in both cases.

Game 6 Video: This video has all three goals, narrated from a Senator's perspective. It's good quality too so you can clearly see Bonk's goal, Nieuwendyk's equalizer, and the play that resulted in Phillips' overtime winner. You'll notice White leaving his spot and Stevenson trying and failing to deny Phillips.

Game 7: Jeff Friesen's Moment of Redemption Preventing the Collapse

Game 7's are some of the best experiences in sports for a neutral. As a fan of a team in a Game 7, they can be downright nerve-wracking. There's next to no margin for error. There isn't a "we'll get them tomorrow." There's no "we'll just get them next time." You either win or you're done. Granted, a Senators fan may have felt a bit differently, possibly more confident because, hey, who would've thought there would have been a Game 7 at all? For a Devils fan like myself, you're just hoping, pleading, praying, and wishing the Devils don't get beat a third straight game. Do not become the second team in four playoffs to blow a 3-1 series lead in a Conference Finals series. Do not go Philadelphia. Please do not choke this series away. Please.

Whatever hopes, pleas, prayers, and wishes by the Devils faithful were dashed early. Magnus Arvedson got loose in a dangerous spot and roofed one 3:33 into the game. It was his first goal since March 2003 and it sent the Corel Centre into mass excitement. They were pumped just as any playoff crowd would be in a Game 7; nervous but ready to elate at anything positive. Making matters worse for the Devils was that Joe Nieuwendyk didn't last long on the ice. He apparently got hurt during Game 6's overtime. Being the veteran hockey player that he is, he tried to play through the pain. He made it through three shifts and that was it. He did not return for a fourth shift. Not only were the Devils down 1-0, but also a man through the game. While he wasn't a massive producer, he was a component of the Devils' offense and one of their regular centers. It was an absence that made the game even harder for New Jersey.

Fortunately, one man got back on the board. With 7 goals in the first two rounds, he had none in this entire series. He would go on to score two in Ottawa within minutes of each other in the second period. The man was Jamie Langenbrunner and the goals were massive. The equalizer came with assists from Brylin and Niedermayer. The shot itself went right off Anton Volchenkov's skate; a fortunate and welcome bounce. The go-ahead goal came from the top of the right circle and just stunned the arena. The Devils' top playoff scorer returned to the scoresheet just when they needed goals.

But the game would not be over, not by a long shot. The Senators got reinvigorated late in the second period and pushed for an equalizer of their own. They did not convert on the power play resulting from Colin White slashing Lalime. But not long afterwards, Jeff Friesen made an error in Ottawa's end. He turned the puck over to Karel Rachunek. The defender fed Hossa up-ice; he dropped it back to Radek Bonk in the right circle, and Bonk put the puck home. It was 2-2 and the Corel Centre exploded in excitement. Then the tension returned with both goaltenders making stop after stop. Scott Gomez got robbed twice in this game. Hossa, Havlat, and Alfredsson all pushed but to no avail. The Devils got two straight power plays, but didn't convert. Colin White nearly put the puck in his own net. Late in the third, it started to look like overtime would be necessary. And then came a defensive zone faceoff with about 2:30 left to play in regulation.

The Devils did not win the faceoff and Havlat picked up the puck behind the net. Madden cut him off at the right post and got the puck free. A defender (I think Rafalski) cleared it up the boards, only to be tangled up between Rachunek and Friesen. Madden helped jar the puck loose and got it to Marshall, who was in the neutral zone. Marshall flew up ice and Redden, being the lone defenseman, started to converge on him. Rachunek was catching up, though, so Redden backed off. Neither Senator noticed Friesen streaking through the center of the ice, but Marshall did. Marshall threaded a great pass through Redden's legs and Friesen picked it up perfectly in the slot. Lalime stretched out his right pad, Friesen made one little deke, and put it around him. Gary Thorne said "No," Bill Clement said "It's a goal," the Devils celebrated, and the Corel Centre was quiet. Friesen made up for his earlier turnover the best way possible: scoring a goal. He redeemed his performance and saved the Devils' postseason. The Devils would not repeat what Philadelphia did in 2000. They did not choke. They would go on to the Stanley Cup. (Game 7 Boxscore; ESPN.com Recap)

Game 7 Fun Fact: There were no shots on net officially recorded after Friesen's goal by either team.

Game 7 Videos: Plenty of clips for this one. Here's the first goal by Langenbrunner. Notice that Volchenkov had his man but was just at the wrong place at the wrong time. Here's the second goal by Langenbrunner, which made Lalime look bad unless Redden or someone other Senator tipped it. Of course, the most important goal was Friesen's game winner. From Marshall, through Redden, to Friesen, and sent past Lalime. Glorious.

For what it's worth, the same Youtube uploader (awesome work McKay4429061) had the very end of the game complete with the handshake line, Prince of Wales trophy ceremony, and post-game interviews on the ice. It's a cool scene to watch over and over. Lastly, here's the highlights of the game that were on Sportscenter, which has Bonk's third period goal - but not Friesen's turnover - and terrible pronunciations of Brylin and Volchenkov. How one messes up Bree-lin or Vol-chen-kov, I couldn't tell you.

Series Aftermath

Jamie Langenbrunner would go on to score two more goals, both in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Finals. He registered one additional assist in Game 4.

Jeff Friesen's goal was then his fifth of the postseason. He scored five against Anaheim, including the first and third goals in Game 1, the third goal in Game 2, and second and third goals in Game 7 - all 3-0 wins.

Joe Nieuwendyk did not play in the Stanley Cup Finals due to a hip injury. His 1:43 played in Game 7 would be his last with the New Jersey Devils organization. He signed with Toronto in 2004.

Martin Brodeur put up a 93.1% save percentage in the Ottawa series. The percentage in the Stanley Cup Finals was lower at 92.5%, but it was skewed by a poor Game 6 and evened out by three shutouts.

Jay Pandolfo would be involved in another goal review in the Anaheim series. He was originally judged to have kicked a puck in, but the video exonerated him and credited him with a goal. He finished the postseason with six goals, matching his total from the 2002-03 season. It was also the only playoff year where he ever scored more than one goal.

John Madden continued to be given heavy minutes in the Stanley Cup Finals except in Game 5. He only earned one point against Anaheim: an assist in Game 6

Scott Gomez and Patrik Elias would score more than one goal combined in the series against Anaheim.

Pat Burns, after winning his first ever Stanley Cup, would continue to coach the Devils through the 2003-04 season. He stepped down in 2005 after being diagnosed with live cancer. While he successfully fought it, he was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2009. He passed away in 2010. He remains un-honored at the Hockey Hall of Fame.

The Ottawa Senators were bought by Eugene Melnyk, who settled the team's financial problems then. The core of Daniel Alfredsson, Wade Redden, Chris Phillips, Jason Spezza, Anton Volchenkov, and Mike Fisher would get to the 2007 Stanley Cup Finals. They lost to Anaheim, led by Scott Niedermayer.

The New Jersey Devils would go on to face the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in the 2003 Stanley Cup Finals. The Devils would win their franchise's third Stanley Cup in a seven game series where the home team won each game. Their Game 6 loss to Ottawa would be New Jersey's only playoff loss in 2003. They would not return to the Eastern Conference Finals until 2012, when they beat the Rangers in six games. They have never blown a 3-1 series lead.

A Game by Game Chart of the Series, Stats from NHL.com

Devils

Ottawa

NJ SOG

Ott SOG

NJ PIM

Ott PIM

NJ PP

Ott PP

Game 1

2

3

34

30

8

6

0-1

0-2

Game 2

4

1

21

31

18

16

0-6

0-7

Game 3

1

0

24

24

4

8

0-4

0-2

Game 4

5

2

20

28

12

12

2-5

0-4

Game 5

1

3

22

18

14

6

0-3

1-7

Game 6

1

2

31

34

12

12

1-4

1-4

Game 7

3

2

27

26

4

4

0-2

0-2

Totals

17

13

179

191

72

64

3-25

2-28

Closing Thoughts

To remind you of something I said way at the beginning of this 5,700+ word monster of a post, the greatness of the achievement tends to overshadow some of the difficulties involved in getting there. As fans, we correctly look at 2003 as a great season. The team had the fourth-best record in the league and they won the Stanley Cup. Yet, even I was amazed to find that the Devils almost didn't get that far. I knew they were a good team playing a high-quality Ottawa team, but I realized that they really dominated the 2002-03 season. I knew the Devils won a close game to get to the Stanley Cup Finals, but I didn't remember exactly how close they were. I didn't know both teams were so unsuccessful on the power play; I just assumed it was just the Devils since, hey, that team was horrible with a man advantage. I didn't recall that nearly all of the goals came from beyond the "top players" from both teams. Hossa, Elias, Gomez, and Alfredsson all took shots, made plays, played a lot of minutes, but all combined for one goal in the entire series. I knew Madden and Pandolfo played important roles in the playoff run, but they were front-and-center for the Devils in this series alone. And I had to re-learn all that even though I watched those games back then! Writing this up sure jarred some of the memories - like being incredibly worried after Phillips' goal - and I hope it does the same for you.

But memories are just that. I'm not a big fan of sticking in the past because it tends to leave one stuck there. And like with winning, it can gloss over some of the flaws. Going back to why I started looking back at all this, I don't think the Devils should try to emulate the 2002-03 team. Sure, the 2002-03 team had a great defense and shot the puck a lot. They were also eye-wateringly bad on the power play. They were also unfortunate in shooting percentage, something we've seen enough of in 2011-12 and 2013 to know what that's like. We shouldn't want a repeat of either and I don't think anybody really is, to be frank about it. At the same time, they were so good everywhere else. The Devils' PK was fantastic, their defense was as solid as solid could be, they had an ace in the net, and the skaters all shot a whole lot. Again, they were a team that finished only behind Ottawa in the East in the regular season. They were more than just a bunch of 50-60 point guys pulling together. That's closer to what I think we all want and yet even with all of those good things, they still nearly choked a significant series lead away and prevented this memories from ever happening. They were a strong team but they had their issues along the way. I'm not sure why one would want to emulate that now.

Even if you feel otherwise, I don't think it's possible at this juncture. The game's also changed quite a bit from 2002-03. Among other changes, goalies are generally better, the game is faster, refs tend to call all of those little whacks and grabs that were common and ignored back in 2003, and there was no cap to constrain what a team wanted to do with their roster. Who knows whether that team would do just as well now? From a more practical perspective, putting together a Devils squad like that one is just about nigh-impossible too. There isn't another Scott Stevens or Scott Niedermayer out there to boss guys around; Martin Brodeur isn't going to turn back the clock 10 years; the 2013 team wasn't shooting a whole lot even with Clarkson and Kovalchuk and I doubt the new signings will shoot as often to get to the levels of the 2002-03 team; there isn't a John Madden or Jay Pandolfo to lean on for excellent two-way play; and as much as I like Peter DeBoer as a coach, he's not Pat Burns. This isn't to say the 2013-14 Devils on paper are a bunch of scrubs, but any comparison to the 2002-03 team would probably falter under a closer look.

Just like you, I regard the 2002-03 team highly. They achieved the goal with several classic moments along the way. But that alone doesn't mean their set up is a worthy or practical blueprint for a successful team for 2013-14 or future seasons. Again, it all almost didn't happen with what happened in the Eastern Conference Finals series. Jeff Friesen didn't just score a series winner. He didn't just make up for an error made earlier in the game. He scored the crucial goal that prevented a myriad of sadness, anger, and regret and denied them a place along the Flyers in terms of playoff collapses. In looking back, it's remarkable how much hinged on a thread. That pressure makes that moment greatly memorable. We should cherish those memories and leave it at that.

Thank you for reading and I assure you, future look backs at the Devils' history will not be this long.

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