One year ago today, the Devils played host to the Carolina Hurricanes.
You may also know that date as Stevens Night. I call it the greatest Devils game I have ever seen that wasn't in the playoffs. Clearly the best I ever saw in person. Everyone else calls it February 3, 2006.
Let me go back a bit. The first New Jersey Devil I truly appreciated from the start - this is about 1993 or so - was Scott Stevens. The way he just seemed to be bigger than everyone on the ice regardless of physical stature. The way he was seemed to be in the right place to do good - sometimes great - things for his team. The way he just unloaded a shot from the point.
Of course, there was the way he destroyed anyone who dared to go into his zone through the middle with their head down.
As I watched more and more of the Devils, I became more of a fan of the team who had that heartbreaking loss to those damned New York Rangers in 1994 and the team who rose from the ashes to not only upset but out-play THE Detroit Red Wings (they were ridiculously good, mind you) in 1995 to take home the Stanley Cup. Along with that fandom grew a fandom of Scott Stevens. As the seasons went on, his offensive production dipped, he started losing some speed, and some of the other things that go away when an athlete gets older. But he was still the leader of the team. If a shot needed to be blocked, Stevens was there. If someone was in Martin Brodeur's face, Stevens get in the slot to clear them out. If anyone needed to raise their level of play for whatever reason, it was Stevens; which inspired the team to perform better on countless occasions. Many regard Mark Messier to be a consummate leader, but I and likely many Devils fans would argue in favor of Scott Stevens as such a player.
Of course, if some poor sap was not paying attention while handling the puck, Stevens would be there wrecking their very existence.
Scott Stevens on February 3, 2006 would become the first New Jersey Devil to have his number retired. No true Devil fan would forget about Stevens now with his jersey hanging in the rafters of the arena. And there wasn't anyone else more deserving of such an honor.
Now, I don't go to many games for two reasons. The first is monetary; up until this past year or so I didn't really have the funds to take the Turnpike (about $6 total coming from Edison to the Meadowlands at Exit 16 W), pay the $10 for the right to park there, AND pay upwards for $50 for decent seats. While I can afford to go to more games now, the second reason remains: the Turnpike itself. I hate driving on the Turnpike. Rush-hour traffic on a road where everyone is doing at least 15-20 over the speed limit for about an hour to; and again for an hour back in the middle of the night but with more cars that let's just say should NOT be on the road is not my idea of a trip I want to take on some kind of a regular basis. Silly and/or being a wuss? Perhaps. But that's how I feel about it; and I don't think I'm alone in deciding that after a day of work/classes/etc. driving an hour up and back to the Continental Airlines Arena and paying quite a bit of money for the good ol' hockey game I'll just watch it on TV. In any case.
When I learned that Stevens Night wasn't sold out yet back in January, I decided I'd ignore these reasons and go. Yes, I swallowed the high cost of the only tickets available ($90!! I was in the lower section, but combined with parking and tolls I paid well over $100 to see this). Yes, I (somehow) got through the NJ Turnpike traffic at rush hour. So I joined at least 19,039 other fans in chanting "SCOT-TY STE-VENS" whilst #4 himself was the center of the big ceremony.
You know how some announcers describe an arena as "electric?" Sometimes they are exaggerating, but I truly felt something running through my body whilst screaming and applauding the raising of that big banner. A banner that dictates that not only Scott Stevens will never be forgotten as a Devil but that he was so good no one is worthy enough to wear his number again. Emotional? Yes. Was it worth it? You bet. Further supplanted when he actually walked by whilst in line for the men's room after the first period. I (stupidly) yelled out that he was better than Ray Bourque. I don't know if he heard, but I really think he is.
Then there is the game itself. When a number of a teammate gets retired - and many of the Devils on the 2005-2006 roster did play with Stevens if only for a few seasons - it is not wrong to expect them to play with a little extra passion. I can not put into words how much fire the Devils played with. The Carolina Hurricanes were no longer doormats of the league, they were sound and strong club from top to bottom. If I'm not mistaken, it was one of the first few games Doug Weight played for them after being acquired a little bit before the game. In any case, they were not just a great team, they did go on to win the Stanley Cup in 2006.
And the Devils outright dominated them for 60 minutes. Dominated in every sense of the word. From the first shift where the entire arena was cheering NJ on all the way to the final score of 4-0. Dominated. The defense let the normally high-octane offense led by Eric Staal, Justin Williams, and Rod Brind'Amour get as little as they possibly can. Dominated. Martin Brodeur made all the saves of what few shots he did see and made it look as easy as pie. Dominated. The offense featured a revitalized Patrik Elias, whom was sidelined for half the season still recovering from Hepatitis A, who was flying up and down the ice; an inspired Scott Gomez who wasn't afraid to shoot hard and shoot true; and an blazing Brian Gionta who would go on to set a new franchise record for most goals scored in the regular season. The checking line by Madden and Pandolfo gave the Canes fits, as they forced turnovers to bring the Devils back up front to torment poor Cam Ward with quite a bit of rubber. Dominated.
What did the game itself mean in the big picture? Well, not much to the outside observer. Other than showing the rest of the NHL that A) Carolina was a beatable team and B) New Jersey has the quality to beat such teams; it was a regular season game. It was not part of The Streak or a playoff game. But I believe it was a special game for Devils fans: What made it special was giving the cornerstone of the New Jersey Devils from 1991 through 2003, the stalwart defender who helped took the Devils from being a mediocre team to a consistent contender in the NHL, the man who hit like no other - hard as a wrecking ball while cleaner than a sanitizer, the recognition he deserved. That is what made it special. The game itself was likely one the best gifts Stevens received that night (and received some nice gifts, vacations, a hunting bow, a brand new truck, etc.); an absolutely dominating performance against the team who would then go on to win the Stanley Cup.
What will it mean for today's game? Maybe not much. A few extra camera pans to the rafters, the day perhaps mentioned by Doc, Chico, Steve Cangelosi, and the Maven, maybe an article in the paper, things like that. That isn't a bad thing, it's important to keep looking forward instead of hanging onto the past (like some certain teams but that's not irrelevant for this spiel).
But I will never forget that game and I doubt the other 19,039 people at the Continental Airlines Arena that night will either.