In the minds of many New Jersey Devils fans, the year 2000 will always be one of the top moments in the team's history.
Not only did New Jersey win their second Stanley Cup championship, defeating the Dallas Stars in double-overtime, but it overcame insurmountable odds to reach that point. While winning the championship will always be memorable, it would be the run in the Conference Finals that made the postseason memorable, especially for a 12 year old fan just starting to fall in love with hockey.
Growing up, I had always been a hockey fan. My older brother tried to make me a New York Rangers fan, getting me a Jeff Beukeboom jersey. But I had to be different, and so I started to follow the Devils. It helped that, by the time I started really paying attention, the Devils were just entering the turning point of the franchise. It was not only a great time to get into the sport, but an even better time to be a fan of the Devils. They won their first Cup in 1995, a memory still a bit hazy. That playoff run in 2000, however, was my first real experience with the postseason.
The first two rounds came and went, and despite a late season swoon and a coaching change, New Jersey seemed primed for a run to the Stanley Cup. In their way stood the Philadelphia Flyers, a team that won the Atlantic Division, finishing a mere two points in front of the Devils. New Jersey had one of the best offenses in the league that season, scoring 251 goals.
In Game 1, New Jersey would flex that offensive muscle, scoring four times en route to a 4-1 win. Bobby Holik and Petr Sykora scored a minute apart in the third period, and Martin Brodeur stopped 35 shots in the win. I sat in front of my television, anxiously awaiting the final three wins to get into the Stanley Cup Championship. After that dominant performance, my 12-year old self thought it would be a cakewalk.
I didn't take into account the names Daymond Lankow and Rich Tocchet.
Lankow and Tocchet turned the series around, helping Philadelphia fight back for a come-from-behind victory in Game 2. Philadelphia would go on to win their next two games, forcing New Jersey to the brink of elimination. Those three wins that seemed so easy became a pipe dream, and I was crushed knowing the inevitable - that the rival Flyers would prematurely end the Devils season.
But a funny thing happened on the way to elimination - the Devils fought back. In Game 5, the Devils skated away with the 3-1 win, extending the series one more game. In Game 6, Claude Lemieux played the hero role, scoring a third period goal to break a scoreless tie. Just like that, the Devils tied the series, and went to a decisive seventh game.
The odds were still against New Jersey. No team in the expansion era ever overcame a 3-1 deficit to win the Conference Finals. But, ever the optimist, I sat down to watch Game 7. Sitting way to close to the television, I stayed glued to the action. New Jersey took the one goal lead, and then Scott Stevens secured his place in Devils history with "The Hit"
1999-00 Round 3/Game 7: Scott Stevens Hits Eric Lindros (via McKay4429061)
Philadelphia would battle back after losing Eric Lindros, with Tocchet tying the game at one. In the third period, Patrik Elias would cement his name in Devils history, scoring one of the biggest goals in Devils postseason history.
1999-00 Round 3/Game 7: Patrik Elias Goal(2) (via McKay4429061)
The Devils would go on to win the Cup, capping off an incredible comeback with a memorable win over the Stars. But, for a 12-year old just getting into the sport of hockey, it wasn't all about the championship. Watching history made before my eyes - and handing the Philadelphia Flyers a crushing blow - made me fall in love with the sport of hockey.
These two teams renew their playoff rivalry today, but most of the players from that 2000 playoff run are gone. But whenever they meet in the playoffs, I'm always reminded of my 12 year old self, excitedly jumping around the living room after witnessing the most incredible comeback in playoff history.