FISCHLER: Devils are a truly special group

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Pat Burns, coach of the Stanley Cup champion New Jersey , annoyed Peter Laviolette — then New York coach — last winter when he stated that his club was "held to a higher standard" than other National Hockey League teams. Neither insolent nor arrogant, Burns candidly noted that since the Devs had won championships in 1995 and 2000 — plus reached the seventh game of the finals in 2001 — more was expected of them than the Isles and other teams. Once again, as it has done over and over again during the Lou Lamoriello era, New Jersey has dramatized its culture of champions in the classiest possible manner. "We'll have the lowest maintenance team since I've been here," Lamoriello told me before the 2002-2003 season, and he was right. The maintenance was low but the quality was stratospheric. From captain to goalie to the New York metropolitan area's most unobtrusive superstar, , the iced the most honest group of players I've ever covered in a half-century of sports reporting. This is not a great team on paper. Its leading scorer, finished 67th on the NHL points list. Its power play was the NHL's worst; 30th out of 30. "But," Stevens tells me, "we somehow found a way to win." The did so by redefining team play. "I've played a lot of hockey," says , a hero even when sidelined, "but I've never been associated with a better group of guys than this." The group remained calm and confident to the end. Rookie , who scored the winning goal and totaled a goal and two assists, immediately noticed it before the puck was dropped. "The leadership, the veterans kept us calm," says Rupp. "I was the most calm before Game 7 as I've been in an NHL game. They just keep you laughing and all the way up to game time; it's loose. The experience rises to the top and that helped big time." Even Burns, who had every reason to be nervous, was serene. "I told (assistant coach) Bob Carpenter, 'Am I supposed to be nervous?' He goes, 'No, not really.' I thought I was going to be a nervous wreck but I wasn't." Burns pressed all the right buttons, from his courageous decision to start in Game 7 to his line-matching and confidence in Brodeur. "Pat wanted us to be a better team at home," says the smiling Brodeur, "and it paid off. We felt a lot of confidence in Game 7, even when it still was 0-0 after the first period." However, it took more than a grand bunch to finish first and slog through four rounds — including two seven-game crises — to capture the title. "Lou Lamoriello does an unbelievable job with his team," says Ducks coach Mike Babcock. "He's built an organization that comes back time and time again. Then, they have , one of the great competitors. Plus, Pat Burns has done a great job." Several key elements blended to produce New Jersey's third Stanley Cup in only nine years. GOALTENDING: enjoyed an outstanding regular season, enabling his club to win one-goal games over and over again. Marty out-goaled the ' and followed by Tampa Bay's Nik Khabibulin and . He faltered somewhat against Ottawa, but found his groove when it most counted in the third period of Game 7 to top . After two shutouts, Brodeur blundered against Anaheim. Before Game 7, I thought Marty was crumbling. Yet an hour before game time, he was laughing, relaxed, doing a Hockey Night In Canada interview, proving the man is as cool as they come. He then delivered the coup de grace to Anaheim with yet another shutout. Unquestionably, Marty added more luster to his reputation. SCORING BY COMMITTEE: Without a , or , the Devs were scoring-challenged. To compensate, they had to spread the goals and that they did. , , , , , , et. al. shared the wealth of goals necessary to triumph. During the playoffs, emerged when it counted, as did , , , and, of course, Elias. EFFORT: Nothing epitomizes a Pat Burns' team than energy. Over and over again the came off the ropes when it appeared that they'd go down for the count. It happened in Game 7 at Ottawa and Game 7 in East Rutherford (against Anaheim). No team ever tried harder more often than the . And no player tried harder, game in and game out than . "When left," says Brodeur, "John took it to heart to be the best player out there every night and compete really hard. John has been the go-to guy defensively and he came through for us." COACHING: If voting for the Adams Award (coach of the year) included playoff performance, Pat Burns would be the unanimous winner. He took a team at training camp, imposed a consistent discipline, playing style and unwavering conviction in his decisions and turned them into champions. He was the perfect cop for the perfect-imperfect lunch pail team. LAMORIELLO CULTURE: Were there any doubts that Lou Lamoriello is the best executive in professional sports, they now have been dispelled. Lou's principles are pure, straightforward and made evident to anyone working for him. "Do what's right and do it now" is a Lamoriello theme that characterizes his administration. He operates under a sane fiscal policy, a good-character-first theme when signing players and a determination to achieve a championship every season. That a classy rookie such as should emerge as the winning goal-scorer and hero of the Cup-winning game comes as no surprise to those who know Lamoriello's hiring and scouting practices. Which brings us to the question: Where does this team rank among the outstanding Cup-winners of all-time? I began covering hockey when Toronto's won three-straight Stanley Cups during the late 1940s and then reported on Montreal's which won five consecutive Cups from 1956 through 1960; not to mention the New York ' four-Cup run and every champion thereafter. This club lacks offensive superstars such as Mike Bossy, Wayne Gretzky, Bryan Trottier and . But in , , , and , it features as rock-solid and dedicated a defensive unit as any I've seen and that includes the Denis Potvin-Stefan Persson-Ken Morrow . (Stevens and Niedermayer are future Hall of Famers.) Brodeur's goaltending is in the storied Turk Broda, Bill Smith tradition. But most of all, the true greatness of the contemporary lies in the roster's lack of greatness. This is the best team — in the finest sense of the term — I have ever witnessed. And since hockey is the ultimate team game, the 2002-03 go down in history as the ultimate hockey team. As Daneyko succinctly puts it, "Three Cups in nine years is something special." And that may be the understatement of the half-century. Known as "The Hockey Maven" in both local and national circles, Stan Fischler is one of the most outspoken authorities on the game of hockey. Fischler can be seen offering NHL analysis on "MSG SportsDesk" and on Fox Sports Net's "Regional Sports Report — New York Edition." Fischler also provides studio interviews and pre- and post-game features and reports for both the and on FSN. His columns appear regularly on MSGNetwork.com.
Tagged: Bruins, Canadiens, Devils, Islanders, Rangers, Senators, Avalanche, Maple Leafs, Canucks, Capitals, Grant Marshall, Jamie Langenbrunner, Joe Nieuwendyk, Martin Brodeur, Sergei Brylin, Patrik Elias, Jay Pandolfo, John Madden, Brian Rafalski, Bobby Holik, Patrick Lalime, Markus Naslund, Jaromir Jagr, Peter Forsberg, Colin White, Mike Rupp

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