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1995-96 New Jersey Devils Team Photo - Click to View Full Size

1995-96: Continuing to Battle

The championship celebration lasted well into the summer as various players took the most famous trophy in all of sports back home with them to become heroes for a day.

The 1995 off-season was fun, to say the least, and the Devils deserved it for how hard they fought during the entire NHL playoffs en route to winning the organization’s first Stanley Cup on June 24, 1995.

Once September dawned, however, it was back to work with training camp at South Mountain Arena in West Orange. Now the Devils took the ice with a target on their backs as the best and most envied team in the league.

Despite putting together a respectable 37-33-12 record for 86 points – at that point the third-best regular-season point total in team history – the Devils failed to make the playoffs during the 1995-96 season.

They are still the last NHL team to miss the post-season the year after winning the Stanley Cup. The Devils, though, have reached the playoffs every year since.

“That year was amazing,” former Devils’ defenseman Scott Stevens said. “We had so many points, and it would have been plenty to get in during any other year.”

Devils open the 1995-96 season by raising the Stanley Cup Championship banner during a pre-game ceremony.

This was hardly a normal season, at least in the Atlantic Division, where six of the seven teams finished with better than .500 records. Only the Islanders and their 22 wins and 54 points were eliminated before the last day of the regular-season.

“Nowadays, a team at .500 usually has a chance to make the playoffs,” Stevens said.

The Devils had their chance with a home game against Ottawa on April 13. With a victory, the Devils would have returned to the post-season for the seventh straight year because they
owned a 3-1-1 advantage in the season’s series over the eventual eighth-place Tampa Bay Lightning.

The Senators erased any hopes with a convincing 5-2 victory at the Meadowlands.

“We were there until the end, and we had our fate, to a certain extent, in our hands against Ottawa,” goalie Martin Brodeur said. “We just didn’t come through.

“We were good enough, but like anything, when you have previous success you feel like you’re able to turn it on,” Brodeur added. “It got to a point where we couldn’t turn it on anymore. We waited too long to do anything, and it became an uphill battle.”

The Devils didn’t feel any Cup hangover in the early going as they won six of their first eight games and outscored the opposition, 27-15, including 16-4 in the first four games, all wins, against Florida, Winnipeg, Montreal, and Buffalo.

However, from there the bumps got bigger, more challenging. The topsy-turvy Devils returned, really for the first time since the 1992-93 season.

Devils select Petr Sykora in the first round, 18th overall of the 1995 draft.

The Devils finished the first 41 games of the season with an 18-19-4 record.

Former defenseman Tommy Albelin, who was traded to Calgary on February 26, 1996, said the shorter off-season as a result of winning the Stanley Cup in late June, did have something to do with the hot and cold first-half.

“Everybody was feeling very good about themselves, but we didn’t get done playing until June 24, and after you take a month off you’re already into late July,” Albelin said. “It’s hard to repeat because you lose all of the time when you can actually train the hardest. Now you come in with 75 percent in the gas tank instead of 100, and everybody knows you’re the champion. There is no easy building to go into when you are the champ.

“Every game is so hard to play because everybody is ready for you.”

The Devils got back into the race midway through the second half of the season. They hit a stretch of 23 games from January 23 through March 15 when they went 13-3-7, picking up 33 points to become part of the post-season talk again.

General Manager Lou Lamoriello also began making trades to get his team headed toward the post-season. Lamoriello, who had already traded Chris Terreri and Jim Dowd earlier in 1996, sent Albelin to Calgary in return for Phil Housley. He also got Dave Andreychuk from Toronto on March 13.

However, the Devils couldn’t keep steamrolling to the end.

They won only twice in their next nine games (2-6-1) after the hot 23-game stretch. With five games remaining, the Devils weren’t out yet, and they picked up three wins in their next four games heading into the showdown against Ottawa.

They just couldn’t get that one extra victory. “You always have that, ‘well we won last year mentality,’ so you don’t worry and don’t panic, but we could never get over the hump,” Albelin said. “That entire year was an uphill battle, and we never hit the top of the hill to start going down.

“That was not a fun experience to have, but you have to learn from all of them and pull them out at different times.”

It was the first time since the 1984-85 season that no Devil recorded at least 30 goals.

Steve Thomas led the team with 26 goals, 35 assists and 61 points. Brodeur played his first 70-plus game season, appearing in a still-career-high 77 for 4,433 minutes. He was 34-30-12 with a 2.34 goals-against average.

It wasn’t enough.

“After winning the Cup, you expect to definitely be in the playoffs the next year,” Stevens said. “Maybe it was just a wakeup call to get back on track."

Dan Rosen covers high school sports and the NHL for The Record (Hackensack, N.J.).

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