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Looking at New Jersey Devils Unsung Heroes: Jeff Friesen

New Jersey Devils - Jeff Friesen #12 (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
New Jersey Devils - Jeff Friesen #12 (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images) /

Every time I look back at the 2003 Stanley Cup Champion New Jersey Devils, I am amazed that the team was able to accomplish what it did. They finished fourth overall in the NHL with 108 regular-season points, but it would require a total team effort for them to survive that playoff run. The third Cup team had no shortage of unsung heroes in the lineup and I promised I’d get to more of them and as a man of my word, I present to you the Jeff Friesen edition.

Friesen came to the Devils during the offseason in a blockbuster trade with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. New Jersey sent former “A-line” winger Petr Sykora along with Mike Commodore, J.F. Damphousse, and prospect Igor Pohanka to Anaheim in exchange for Friesen, defenseman Oleg Tverdovsky and a prospect. The deal was a monster at the time because Sykora was a fan favorite and good friend to Patrik Elias. It was a major shakeup for a couple of teams destined to cross paths again in the Stanley Cup Finals.

A former San Jose Sharks 1st-round pick (11th overall), Friesen scored a career-high 31 goals in 1996-97 while eclipsing the 20-goal mark in four of his eight-seasons in the Bay Area.  His career took a sharp downturn when San Jose traded him to the Mighty Ducks for Teemu Selanne. Yes, he was the guy traded for the “Finnish Flash.” That in itself could not have been easy. Being the guy slated to replace the greatest Duck of all time immediately paints a giant red target on your back. Of course, Friesen was never able to fill those shoes. The 26-year-old needed a fresh start and welcomed the trade out of Anaheim.

Friesen was expected to add both speed and scoring to the Devils lineup, and he did just that. He was lightning fast and regained his scoring touch, finding the back of the net 23 times. It was his first 20-goal season since the 1999-00 campaign, but his true value to New Jersey wouldn’t materialize until the playoffs.

Friesen played in all 24 postseason games that spring scoring 10 goals and adding four helpers. He finished tied with Jamie Langenbrunner for the team lead in game-winning goals with four and was a plus-10. To put that into context, Friesen went to the playoffs seven other times in his career and scored a grand total of eight goals – combined. Yes, it was a very special playoff run for the former 1st-round pick.

Despite the playoff production Friesen’s true shining moment came in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. The Devils were facing the vaunted Ottawa Senators. I know it sounds weird describing them that way, but that team was a monster. They led the NHL with 52 wins and 113 points that season and scored a conference-leading 263 goals with a plus-81 goal differential. Led by Marian Hossa and Daniel Alfredsson, the Senators were not a club to be trifled with.

Surprisingly the Devils jumped out to a 3-1 series lead before the Sens pushed back and forced a Game 7. New Jersey would bend and just before they broke, Friesen saved the day. Although, it almost became a totally different story.

The Devils held a 2-1 lead entering the third period thanks to a pair of Langenbrunner goals, but a turnover by Friesen led to an early third-period equalizer by Radek Bonk. The Devils were rattled and Friesen appeared visually disturbed by his miscue. He would redeem himself in a big way. With just over two minutes left in the game, Friesen fought his way to the front of the net and received a perfect seeing-eye pass from Grant Marshall. The fleet-footed Friesen found a way around Ottawa goalie Patrick Lalime to score and put the Devils up for good.

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Here’s a quick side note to that goal. The goal is memorable for the obvious reasons, but it was the same goal that inexplicably confused play-by-play man Gary Thorne. During the chaos of the Devils celebrating, Thorne said the puck didn’t go in. Thorne didn’t come to his senses until his partner Bill Clement corrected him. I remember being overcome with fear and panic before realizing that Thorne was off his rocker and it was indeed a good goal. To this day that goal remains one of the biggest in franchise history despite the play-by-play gaff.

But, wait! There’s more!

Friesen wasn’t done with the postseason heroics quite yet. He had some sweet revenge to exact on a former team. After the trade from Anaheim to New Jersey, Friesen was very vocal about his perceived misuse by the Mighty Ducks. He felt that he was never really given a fair shake by the coaching staff and it hurt his production. Anaheim would find out firsthand what they missed out on. The former Mighty Duck scored five of his ten playoff goals against his old team, including the final two goals of Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. Meanwhile, former Devil Sykora scored a total of four goals in the entire playoffs.

Next. 10 Truly Bizarre New Jersey Devils Moments. dark

Friesen would only play one more season in New Jersey before being dealt to the Washington Capitals before the 2005-06 season. Ironically the Caps would trade him back to the Mighty Ducks later that season. His career fizzled before being snuffed out the very next season. The Calgary Flames signed Friesen before the 2006-07 campaign. It turned out to be his last. He retired after that season at the young age of 30.

Although his career ended without much fanfare, Friesen’s contribution to the 2003 Stanley Cup team will never be forgotten. It’s not far-fetched to admit New Jersey doesn’t have three Stanley Cup championships without the unsung heroics of one Mr. Jeff Friesen. His goal on Lalime is the thing of legends and will forever be etched into NHL lore. I know it’s one I’ll never forget it.