KANATA, Ontario -- Everything that is right about team sports played out in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals between the top-seeded Ottawa Senators and the second-seeded New Jersey Devils at the Corel Centre on Friday night.
In the end the older, slower Devils were able to dig down and find a way to beat the younger, faster Senators, 3-2, breaking the hearts of a city -- and country -- that desperately wanted to bring the Stanley Cup back across the border.
The fabulous deciding game could have gone either way and was filled with storylines that began to unfold even before the first faceoff.
On the way to the rink, the Devils team bus broke down. So, this group of highly paid, world-class athletes jumped on a beat-up old replacement bus. "It looked like something out of the Slap Shot movie," New Jersey coach Pat Burns joked.
Then, less than five minutes into the first period, veteran Devils center Joe Nieuwendyk broke down. Nursing an undisclosed injury from the final minutes of Game 6, Nieuwendyk tried to give it a go in Game 7. But, after just two shifts, a heartbroken Nieuwendyk knew he couldn't do it.
Down 1-0 after the first period, the Devils returned to their locker room to find the 36-year-old pivot in tears.
"I saw Joe sitting in the corner of the training room with a tear running down from his eye," Burns said. "So, I told the players we have a rangy old veteran who would love to help us out. And, he's got tears in his eyes because he can't.
"That seemed to pump up the team," Burns continued. "Everybody rallied around each other."
The Devils, trying to win it for Nieuwendyk, charged out of the locker room with even more purpose. Less than six minutes later, they had a 2-1 lead. Fittingly, Nieuwendyk's close friend Jamie Langenbrunner netted both goals. On the first one, he banked a shot off the skate of Senators D-man Anton Volchenkov. Two minutes later, Langenbrunner beat a screened Patrick Lalime over the stick shoulder.
"Joe has always been a big leader for us," said Langenbrunner, who came to New Jersey with Nieuwendyk in a 2002 trade-deadline deal. "I think we were all moved when we saw him so emotional. He usually keeps his feelings close to the vest."
Sensing their season slipping away, the Senators again displayed their newfound resiliency. They pushed to tie the game. But, they had a hard time winning room in the scoring areas of the ice. Finally, early in the third period, they got a break when Devils left wing Jeff Friesen failed to get the puck deep, turning it over in the neutral zone. The turnover led directly to Radek Bonk's tying goal with 1:53 left.
Friesen, disgusted by his miscue, broke his stick over the sideboards and began cursing himself on the bench.
"I think he was pondering suicide at that point in time," Burns said. "So, I went over to him and told him to relax. I told him that he owed me one."
And, Burns wasn't the only one to console Friesen
"I don't think suicidal was an understatement," Friesen said. "Marshy (Grant Marshall) kept telling me to forget about it. It definitely helped me keep my focus."
Then, with just 2:14 remaining in regulation time, Friesen traded in his goat's horns, converting a perfect pass from Marshall into the game-winning goal. On the play, Senators defenseman Karel Rachunek made a horrible decision to attack Marshall, instead of checking Friesen, who broke free to the net. Marshall found him with a perfect pass that slid between the skates of defenseman Wade Redden. Friesen accepted the pass, moved around goalie Lalime on his forehand and deposited the puck into the net.
"A lot goes through your head when you make a mistake like I did," said Friesen, who finished the series with three game-winning goals. "But, everybody really helped me get through it.
"Then, Marshy gives me a great pass to set me up for the game-winner," Friesen continued. "It's definitely the biggest goal I've ever scored."
In between Friesen's bad play-good play, goalie Martin Brodeur came up with several huge stops. The biggest came with less than six minutes remaining in the game. A loose puck popped into the slot and Marian Hossa moved in for the kill. Hossa, who was being pulled down by John Madden (who should have received a penalty on the play), managed to get a shot to the net. But, a sliding Brodeur was able to get his arm on the puck and keep it in front of him.
In the on-ice celebration, Nieuwendyk -- in his street clothes -- came out to the bench to greet his teammates. Each Devil took a turn hugging the grateful Nieuwendyk.
"I can't say enough about my teammates," said Nieuwendyk, still misty eyed after the game. "When you get to be my age, you don't know when you'll get another chance to play for the Cup. Hopefully, I can get a couple of days of rest and give it another go against the Ducks."
Because the Devils stuck together and played for one another, they found a way to beat the Senators, who are clearly on their way to great things in the future. As fans, we can only hope the final series between the Devils and Ducks is as good as the one that just ended.