There has been plenty of chatter that teams need a fast start to make the playoffs and contend for the Stanley Cup championship in the NHL's 48-game shortened season.
A good start always helps the cause, but the 1995 Stanley Cup champion New Jersey Devils took their time before they found their way. They started slowly, finished strong and prevailed in the lockout-shortened season 18 years ago.
"A lot of the great players are not great starters," former Devils forward Bobby Holik, a two-time Stanley Cup champ with the Devils in 1995 and five seasons later. "We didn't get out of the gate quickly that season. Scott Stevens, Claude Lemieux, even Marty [Brodeur] as young as he was back then, were all slow starters.
"These guys are horses. They're built to be great when it matters most in the second half of the year and in the playoffs."
The Devils began the 48-game schedule in 1995 with a winless four-game road trip. They tied the season opener in Hartford, lost in Buffalo 2-1, suffered a 1-0 overtime defeat in Boston and were hammered 5-1 in Montreal.
It took the Devils 12 games to get back to .500 at 5-5-2, but they continued their up-and-down ways until game No. 28. New Jersey was 10-12-2 entering its home game against the Boston Bruins on Mar. 19, when Stephane Richer, who was dealing with a pulled stomach muscle, scored in overtime.
It was the start of a 10-3-1 run that enabled the Devils to comfortably skate to the fifth-seed slot in the East and a spot into the playoffs.
Holik felt that even though the season didn't start on time, the Devils had a strong belief in themselves from their heartbreaking playoff performance in 1994. That was when the Stephane Matteau scored in double overtime for the New York Rangers in the East final to end the season for New Jersey.
"For some reason the feeling was there," Holik said. "We had such good momentum from the year before after going to the conference final and losing to the Rangers. That was our first season with Jacques [Lemaire] as our coach. We looked at the 1995 season, even though it was shortened, as a do-over, a second chance."
Holik believes that the four-month lockout only provided the Devils an opportunity to further foster team chemistry. Only Tom Chorske left for Europe, but his stint in Italy was brief. Sergei Brylin, Brian Rolston and Jim Dowd developed in the AHL. The rest of the team convened at the South Mountain Arena and worked out together on the ice and in the gym.
"We still felt like a team even though we weren't playing," Holik said. "We always had at least 12 players at each skate. The core group stayed together."
Holik recalled how when the Devils needed an extra netminder for their lockout workouts, former newspaper columnist turned NHL public relations man, Frank Brown, donned his pads and tended goal.
"We abused poor Frank severely," Holik said with a chuckle.
The Devils seemed to employ the 48-game regular season simply as a tune up for the playoffs. They overcame injuries to defencemen Bruce Driver and Ken Daneyko. Both returned in time for the playoffs. Then they reeled off dominant wins in the first three rounds over Boston (4-1), Pittsburgh (4-1) and Philadelphia (4-2).
In the final, New Jersey met the Detroit Red Wings, who started strong at 12-4-1 and cruised to the Presidents Trophy. The Devils swept Detroit 4-0.
"It was a great run," Holik said. "We were confident in our ability. Once we got healthy and got going in the playoffs we just knew we had it. This was a team that was kept together. We had a lot of players in their prime. We were still on the rise and we knew it."
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