New Jersey Devils 3 - Anaheim Mighty Ducks 0
(Devils win series 4-3)
Because pro sport is designed and packaged for television, it is easy to forget that the games sometimes generate great drama without any help from the wizards in the broadcast truck. Game seven of the Stanley Cup Final is one such occasion. A decent level of excitement is guaranteed simply because of what's at stake.
Game seven between the New Jersey Devils and Anaheim Mighty Ducks delivered reasonably well on the ice too, with two good periods of hockey and an unlikely star in the Devils' Mike Rupp, who had a three-point night.
Rupp was an appropriate hero for the last game of the 2002-2003 NHL season, because this Stanley Cup series was an unlikely one to the end.
It was a showdown almost bereft of stars. It was a series that featured three shutouts and 16 goals in two games. The Ducks' unbeatable goalie, J.S. Giguere, suddenly revealed a five-hole you could drive a truck through. Most importantly, the teams combined for a pretty entertaining seven-game ride, something that was impossible to envision after the first two games.
With their 2003 championship, the Devils rival the Detroit Red Wings as the most successful NHL franchise of the past decade. They have been to the Stanley Cup Final four times in nine years, winning three Cups. A Devils' fan might add that the good times began with a four-game sweep of the Red Wings in 1995.
The Red Wings are built on good drafting, good trading and expensive free agents. The Devils rely on good drafting, good trading, good defense and only a few big contracts. The New Jersey model is the affordable one, so expect to see more NHL teams playing Devils' hockey in the future. That means more defense and more fuel for the debate over possible rule changes to increase scoring.
The fact that Giguere won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP is another compliment to the Devils, who function so well as a team that they likely split the vote several ways. Too bad the trophy cannot be awarded to a combo pack of Devils - defenseman Scott Niedermayer (who tied team mate Jamie Langenbrunner as the leading playoff scorer) and goaltender Martin Brodeur would have made a good pick.
The Mighty Ducks, meanwhile, let slip an opportunity that might not come again soon. Other playoff overachievers, like the '98 Capitals and '02 Hurricanes, folded meekly when they reached the final series. But Anaheim was 60 minutes away from pulling off an upset for the ages. It is hard to imagine them making a similar run next year.
It is hardly a shock to see the Devils win. But overall, 2003 goes down as the year the Stanley Cup Final - and much of the entire playoff tournament - confounded expectations and defied analysis. The sports media tends to promote a hyper-analytical view of the game, in which all variables can be accounted for, all systems are foolproof and statistics are gospel.
It is up to the players to remind us otherwise, by regularly calling on one of their favorite cliches, the one truth of sports that can be considered self-evident: As long as they work hard, anything can happen.