- Katie Strang, ESPN.com
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With the New York Rangers set to host the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 at Madison Square Garden on Friday and the Anaheim Ducks preparing to square off against the Chicago Blackhawks in a similar do-or-die finale Saturday night, 2015 marks just the third time in NHL history that both the Eastern Conference finals and Western Conference finals have gone the distance.
The last time?
The New Jersey Devils swept the Florida Panthers in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals and went on to beat the Toronto Maple Leafs in the semis. They met the Philadelphia Flyers in the conference finals in what remains one of the greatest comebacks in NHL history, as they erased a 3-1 series deficit to advance to the Stanley Cup finals.
Former Devils defenseman Ken Daneyko remembers that series well, and he pinpointed the turning point for the Devils: when head coach Larry Robinson gave an impassioned speech that inspired belief within their dressing room.
"There was a little yelling, some pleading, [him] kicking a Gatorade can," Daneyko said. "It was very heartfelt. He told us, 'You better not think you're out of it.' It was real inspirational and it gave us some hope. ... We started to rally together and [think] if we just win one game, we've got a shot here."
"Everybody had to be aware when Scott Stevens was on the ice. He was a monster," longtime NHL ref Kerry Fraser told ESPN.com. "That was a defining moment in that series. There was a fear factor that went across the ice seeing Eric Lindros [down]."
Meanwhile, the Dallas Stars breezed through their opening two rounds against the Edmonton Oilers and San Jose Sharks, both of whom they beat in five games, before a grueling conference finals series against the Colorado Avalanche.
When the Stars emerged from the West, they did so battered and bruised. And whereas now there is often ample time built in between the conference finals and the Cup finals, there was much less of a gap back then.
Dallas wrapped up its series against the Avs on May 27 and had just two days off before heading to the finals.
"There's still a lot of injuries, and you didn't have the long layoff between series," former Stars defenseman Darryl Sydor told ESPN.com "Now, you can win a series and have so many days off -- two or three days off from rink -- it was a lot different back then. Survival of the fittest, both mentally and physically."
Fraser, who worked the 2000 Cup finals, echoed Sydor's sentiments.
"Back then, unlike today, where television really dictates what the game schedule is and there can be three days off in between games sometimes, maybe even four, back then it was every other night pretty much," he told ESPN.com by telephone. "That could certainly result in a fatigue factor."
There's also usually a feeling-out period between the two teams when the conferences converge in Game 1.
It was the first series ever between the Devils and Stars, and it was hard to know what to expect out of an unfamiliar opponent. As such, Game 1 was a lopsided affair -- a 7-3 win for the Devils.
"We were caught off guard in Game 1, big-time," said Sydor, who is now an assistant coach with the Minnesota Wild. "But we rebounded. You get to that point where it's just kind of survival of the fittest back then."
Daneyko said he also sensed a bit of a letdown from both clubs in the series opener after the wear and tear they experienced in the conference finals, but it ultimately turned out to be a "heck of a series."
"It just takes a little time and you know where you are and you ramp up," Daneyko explained. "Our series back then had a lot of drama and it heated up quick. ... Maybe that first game was a feeling-out period, but then you find that hatred, the purpose, what you're there for."
That purpose? Perhaps nothing was more demonstrative of that than when Sydor sustained ankle and knee injuries in Game 6. After going down in a collision with Scott Gomez, Sydor, in what has now become a lasting image of toughness and determination, dragged himself on the ice and crawled back to the front of the net while the puck was still in play. He had to be helped off to the dressing room.
"It was hard," Sydor recalled of the moment. "It was the first shift of the game. You put so much in for a month and a half and can't be out there helping."
The Devils, who had been blanked 1-0 in triple overtime in Game 5, went on to beat the Stars in Game 6 on Jason Arnott's one-timer in double overtime, which sealed the club's second Stanley Cup championship.
"We were battered and bruised and fatigued -- as much as it's physical, it's mentally as well. You have to be able to execute and have that will to win," Daneyko said. "I look at our team that won in Game 7, and we just had a couple more guys that wanted to win. That makes the difference."
And that will likely be what separates this year's Cup champs from the rest of the remaining pack, Daneyko predicted. All four teams left have skill in abundance. It's going to instead come down to the will to win.
"It's connected with your heart and doing everything possible," he said. "With the competitive balance, it's having one more guy win one more battle, make one less mistake. Those things really do ring true while you're in it."
24dFrom the NHLPA