- The Washington Times - Friday, May 11, 2001

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J.
When New Jersey won its first Stanley Cup in 1995, it was almost too easy. The Devils never trailed a series by more than 1-0 and lost just four games over the four rounds.
So it was understandable that the Devils thought they had it made. They were badly mistaken. The following season New Jersey became the first defending champion in 27 years to miss the playoffs and won only one series over the three years after that.
"Winning the Cup in 1995 just kind of happened," 18th-year Devils defenseman Ken Daneyko said. "The last couple of years, we've had to scratch and claw for everything, and we've learned how to win."
In rallying from a 3-1 deficit in the Eastern Conference finals en route to winning their second Cup last spring, the Devils developed a steely resolve. When even "shoot first, defense much later" right wing Alexander Mogilny is dishing out vicious checks, as he did in New Jersey's 5-1 victory over Toronto in Wednesday's Game 7 of the conference semifinals, it's obvious that this team has plenty of grit.
That quality is the essence of Devils defenseman and captain Scott Stevens.
The first player then-Washington general manager David Poile drafted while turning the long-woeful Capitals into instant contenders back in 1982, Stevens became a regular at 18. Always a second banana to the more seasoned Rod Langway, Stevens was somewhat of a hothead during his eight years with the Caps, averaging 196 penalty minutes. Washington won just five series during those eight playoff springs.
But when Stevens signed as a free agent with St. Louis in 1990, he began to mature. The Blues made him their captain, an honor he maintained when he was traded to the Devils the next year. In the 11 seasons since he left Washington, Stevens has averaged just 95 penalty minutes and has captained his teams to 14 series conquests.
Having captained two Cup winners, being named to 12 All-Star teams and skated in more regular-season games than all but eight players in NHL history, the 37-year-old Stevens wasn't at all fazed when the heavily favored Devils fell behind the Maple Leafs 3-2 in their Eastern semifinal series or 1-0 after the first period of Game 7.
"There was no panicking in here," Stevens said after the game in the Devils' locker room. "I said one goal wasn't going to beat us, but if we don't get the puck in deep [in the Toronto zone] and get our noses dirty instead of relying on our skill to carry the puck like we did during the season, we're not going to win. We started getting it in deep in the second period, and that made the difference."
Six times now Stevens has led his team into a Game 7 and four times he has left the ice triumphant. One of the two losses was in double overtime. The Devils, who will open the conference finals at home tomorrow against the winner of last night's Pittsburgh-Buffalo game, are eight victories from becoming just the third repeat champion in 13 years. And Stevens is that close to joining Wayne Gretzky as the only players of this generation to captain more than two Cup winners.
While Gretzky who won his four Cups with Edmonton by age 27 was the Oilers' captain because of his incomparable skills, Stevens who earned his Cups at 31 and 36 leads the Devils with his heart.
"We're halfway there, but we've got a lot of work ahead of us," Stevens said. "We're coming together as a team. We're playing for each other. If we keep that feeling, we can go a long way."
While Stevens usually exerts his leadership with solid defense and the type of crunching hits he laid on Carolina's Ron Francis and Shane Willis in the first round, he added exclamation points Wednesday with a rocket of a goal and a gorgeous assist during New Jersey's four-goal second period.
"Scott's a great leader," said Devils left wing Patrik Elias, who scored on the nifty cross-ice pass from Stevens. "When he's on the ice, the other team has to be worried because he's the best open-ice hitter in the league. Scott plays hard, and it's good to see him chip in offensively."
Added Daneyko: "Scott stepped up that's what big players do in these kind of situations."
Big wasn't a reference to Stevens' 6-foot-2, 215-pound body but a tribute to his importance to the Devils and his standing in the NHL.


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