DALLAS (AP) â€” Two nights passed into morning, and still a Stanley Cup had not been won.
The New Jersey Devils and Dallas Stars spent five overtimes over two extended evenings fighting for the same cherished piece of silver, one that has been tarnished somewhat by age but certainly was not by their performance.
For six games, the Stars held tightly to the Stanley Cup they won last season, refusing to let go no matter how hard the Devils tugged and pulled.
Finally, a mistake was made, a tiny opening developed, a perfect pass was made, a shot was buried, a cup was decided. In overtime, of course.
The Devils won their second Stanley Cup in six seasons Saturday night â€” or more precisely, Sunday morning â€” as Jason Arnott one-timed Patrik Elias' backhanded pass by goaltender Ed Belfour at 8:20 of the second overtime for a 2-1 victory in Game 6.
It was a near-perfect play â€” the timing, the pass, the shot all had to be executed precisely in a sliver of time â€” and it created the perfect ending to a series that seemingly would not end. At least not in regulation time.
``He made a great pass,'' Arnott said. ``We needed a play like that to beat Ed Belfour.''
There was no controversy this time, no Brett Hull skate in the crease, no debate to last an entire off-season. This time, there was only exhaustion, and relief.
For the second straight year, the Stanley Cup was awarded not in the prime of night, as are most major sports championships, but deep into the night. It is considered the hardest prize in sports to win because of the two-month postseason effort needed to secure it. But, this time, it also became the hardest to lose.
Even after the defending champion Stars fell behind in the series 3-1, a deficit so insurmountable that only one of the 26 teams facing it has recovered, they stubbornly refused to yield the Cup.
They persevered through the longest scoreless tie in NHL playoff history before winning 1-0 on Mike Modano's goal in the third overtime of Game 5, then were a goal away in yet another multiple overtime elimination game from forcing an all-or-nothing Game 7.
``We took the cup off the champions,'' Devils forward Bobby Holik said.
Before the series, there was considerable talk about how the teams were so similar, with their mirror-image neutral zone traps, unwillingness to commit errors that lead to goals, excellent goaltenders and punishing defensemen.
So, it was almost fitting the Devils won the cup almost exactly the way the Stars did a season ago. A year ago, the Stars outlasted the Buffalo Sabres on the road in a three-overtime Saturday night Game 6. This season, the Devils won the cup in a multiple-overtime Saturday night Game 6 on the road.
``We know what it's like to carry that thing around the ice,'' Modano said. ``Now I know how the Sabres felt last year after we won it there.''
Many of the Devils knew, too, since this was their second cup since 1995. But it was the last for 82-year-old owner John McMullen, who recently sold the team, and the first for coach Larry Robinson, who took over a division-leading but disgruntled team from former coach Robbie Ftorek with eight games left in the season.
No Stanley Cup-winning coach has ever had so little time with a team before winning professional hockey's ultimate prize.
``This has just been a fairy tale to me,'' Robinson said.
And to the Devils, who more than made up for four years of playoff disappointment after winning the cup in 1995. Despite three Eastern Conference championships, they advanced as far as the second round only once. Last year, they were top-seeded in the East, only to be upset in the first round by eighth-seeded Pittsburgh.
This season, they beat them all. They ousted three 100-point teams â€” Toronto, Philadelphia and Dallas â€” and overcame a 3-1 deficit in the Eastern Conference finals, the first team to do so past the second round of the playoffs. They also disproved the belief that the Western Conference, with its powerhouses in Dallas and Detroit, St. Louis and Colorado, was by far the better conference.
The Devils also became only the third team since the 1967 expansion to dethrone a defending champion in the finals, and the first team to win all three of its road games in a six-game series.
``This is more special than 1995 because we proved people wrong,'' Holik said. ``We proved we could do it.''
Most of all, goaltender Martin Brodeur did, allowing but four goals in the final four games. In 1995, he was seen as being a byproduct of a nearly insolvable defensive scheme. This time, no one questioned his credentials, not after he and Belfour yielded but four goals between them in the only two multiple-overtime games ever to conclude a Stanley Cup finals.
``Marty played unbelievable,'' Robinson said.
He wasn't the only one who did in the NHL's most-watched finals in at least 20 years, according to ABC's ratings. If nothing else, championship hockey in the dead of night found an audience that the sport previously could not capture during the traditional viewing hours.
``I'm just glad it's over,'' Brodeur said, ``and we were on the good side of it.''