The Stanley Cup playoffs usually render the regular season absolutely meaningless. A two-month grind of intense hockey produces upsets galore and wears even the most dominant of teams down.
But here we are in 2001 with a dream match-up—New Jersey versus Colorado.
It is the defending Stanley Cup Champions and reigning beasts of the Eastern Conference against the President’s Trophy winner from the West. Not since 1989 has the top team from each bracket advanced to the finals, setting the stage for one of the most memorable seven-game series in recent memory.
The storylines are overflowing in this contest—Martin Brodeur squares off against his boyhood idol, Patrick Roy, between the pipes; Colorado rallies without the help of superstar Peter Forsberg, still recovering from a ruptured spleen; Patrik Elias continues his emergence as the best left wing in the NHL on the Devils’ dominant “A” line; New Jersey seeks to become the third expansion team to win three Stanley Cups, joining the Edmonton and Long Island dynasties.
But the angle that has captured the heartstrings of the hockey community is one very dear to Boston—Ray Bourque.
This series marks the third time Bourque has made it to the finals, and this very well could be his last and best chance at taking a sip from the championship chalice.
There has not been a finer defenseman in all of hockey over the past twenty years than No. 77.
He played for some very good Bruins teams, but both times he made it to the precipice, he ran into the juggernaut of the 1980s, the Edmonton Oilers. No team in that decade—not the Bruins, not anyone—could match the likes Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, Glen Anderson, and Grant Fuhr.
But in sports, dreams do come true. Bourque gave himself a chance to make some magic when he painfully requested a trade out of Beantown. Bostonians know all too well the plight of great players not winning titles, and Bourque was not going to let himself be another victim without a fight.
“For me, it’s been a long time coming,” Bourque told ESPN.com. “That’s why I came here, to give myself an opportunity to win again.”
Unlike his previous opportunities in the Finals, Bourque may actually be able to personally will his team to victory this time around. For all of the Devils’ depth, the key to their offense is the production of their “A” line. Jason Arnott, Petr Sykora and Elias absolutely skated circles around the Penguins in the Eastern Conference finals. Bourque and fellow Avalanche blueliner Adam Foote will go head-to-head with perhaps the finest line in all of hockey.
If they can somehow find a way to shut them down, Colorado will have a great chance at winning its second Cup since 1996. Bourque has made such an impact on his franchise that although he has been with the team for just over one year, he is an alternate captain, second fiddle in the locker room only to fellow future Hall of Famer Joe Sakic—a lifer in the organization—who has been with the team since it was in Quebec.
“I’m sure that Ray would share the Cup,” Colorado coach Bob Hartley said on ESPN.com. “This guy is so unbelievable for us. Not only on the ice but in the locker room. To give him another chance to get the Cup was certainly great for him, but also great for us.”
Bourque has reached the point in his career where nobody mentions his numbers anymore. He is the NHL’s John Elway, trying to find a way to put that one last feather into his cap before Father Time says that you cannot play anymore.
At age 39, it is a marvel that he can still play at his high level with 52 points this season and a sterling +25 rating. It will be a thing of beauty to watch him and Rob Blake set up at opposite points on the power play and go to work.
More than anything, Bourque is the greatest rooting interest in this series. He is the horse to rally behind, to try and will over the finish line through sheer support. The Devils, meanwhile, will probably receive as much popular support as their namesake. (There actually is a New Jersey devil, according to old state legends.)
But as much as it seems fair for Bourque to get fitted for a ring, it isn’t going to happen. Bourque ran into the dynasty of the 1980s in his previous trip to the Stanley Cup finals, and this year, he is going to find himself up against the current dynasty, the Devils.
All four New Jersey lines can score and play airtight defense. Brodeur always raises his game a notch above his usual self, and he has already performed well enough to take home the Vezina Trophy this year. Brian Rafalski and Scott Niedermayer are playing as well as Bourque and Blake, the other Colorado star offensive defenseman.
And behind the bench, the Devils’ Larry Robinson has never lost a Stanley Cup final, taking home seven as a player and coach.
Sakic, Chris Drury, Milan Hejduk, and company will give New Jersey all that it can handle and the Devils defensive system will face more pressure than Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr could apply.
The Devils come at you in waves. Super Mario himself called New Jersey the greatest team he has ever played in his career.
That’s good enough testimony for me.
Devils in six.
In real life, the bad guys do win. Sorry, Ray.