- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 24, 2003

OTTAWA — Jeff Friesen was down, shocked that his mistake in the third period might cost the New Jersey Devils a chance at another Stanley Cup.

Moments later he scored the biggest goal of his career and sent his team to the finals.

Friesen put the Devils in front for good with 2:14 left as New Jersey beat the Ottawa Senators 3-2 last night in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals.

His turnover in the opening minutes of the third period led to Radek Bonk’s tying goal at 1:53. But inspirational words from coach Pat Burns and several teammates — including injured forward Joe Nieuwendyk — kept him focused and ready to shine.

“I made a bad play at their blue line,” Friesen said. “I couldn’t believe it, there was a lot going on in my mind.”

At that time there weren’t too many thoughts that he would score his third game-winner of the series. But Friesen got behind the Ottawa defense, took a brilliant pass from Grant Marshall and put the puck in.

“I couldn’t even react, I couldn’t even describe what that was like,” Friesen said. “It just happened to work out that I got a chance to get that big goal.”

The Devils, champions in 2000 and finalists in 2001, led the series 3-1 before dropping consecutive games for the first time in the postseason. That got the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Senators into a deciding game few thought would occur.

“We weren’t disappointed when we came here for Game 7 because we knew it was a one-game series and the team we were playing was an unbelievable hockey team,” Friesen said.

Ottawa took a 1-0 lead when Magnus Arvedson scored 3:33 in, but Jamie Langenbrunner scored goals 1:54 apart to put New Jersey in front. After Bonk retied it, Friesen atoned for his error.

Marshall got a pass from the left circle between the legs of Ottawa defenseman Wade Redden and onto the stick of Friesen, who was all alone in front. The goal silenced a frenzied crowd that felt destiny was in their team’s hands.

“We battled back. A great year in there,” Senators goalie Patrick Lalime said. “We showed a lot of character coming back.”

But the Devils are the Eastern Conference champions for the third time in four years. They will face the Anaheim Mighty Ducks for the Stanley Cup with Game 1 in New Jersey on Tuesday night.

Friesen, traded to New Jersey from Anaheim last summer, also scored the game-winning goals in Games 2 and 4 of this series.

It was a bitter ending for the Senators, who overcame bankruptcy, late pay checks and a checkered playoff history in a stirring season.

“Our goal was to go further. It’s starting to hit me now,” Redden said. “It happened so quick there, it’s a tough one.”

Ottawa was the NHL’s top team in the regular season with 113 points, and seemed poised to reach the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in its 11-year history. The Senators won Game 5 at home, the first time they ever avoided elimination, and they took Game 6 on the road on Wednesday night.

Legions of fans, including Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, packed the Corel Centre and were sent into a frenzy when Arvedson scored his first playoff goal. It seemed to bode well for the Senators, who were 7-0 when scoring first this postseason and 36-2-3 when leading after 20 minutes.

Before this year, the Senators had never won a playoff series in which they were the higher seed. They dispatched the New York Islanders and Philadelphia Flyers in the first two rounds before meeting the well-rested Devils.

New Jersey was in danger of losing a series it led 3-1 for the first time. Instead the Devils raised their record to 5-6 in Game 7s.

Ottawa hoped to be the first Canadian team to reach the Stanley Cup Finals since Vancouver in 1994.

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