- Lindsay Berra
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- It was a high, hard shot to the top left corner of the net that New Jersey Devils left winger Jeff Friesen used to score the difference-maker in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals on the Anaheim Mighty Ducks' previously unsolvabale netminder, Jean-Sebastien Giguere. It was the same kind of shot that Friesen used to beat Giguere with in practice.
"He plays like Patty Roy," Friesen said. "Anything below 18 inches, forget about it. I got a chance to play with him and know a couple of his tendencies."
That chance came in March of 2001, when Friesen was traded from San Jose to Anaheim for popular Ducks sniper Teemu Selanne. In Anaheim, Friesen may have learned a bit about beating Giguere, but there was little else that made the 26-year-old happy.
When Friesen was put on a line with Ducks' captain Paul Kariya, also a left winger, he was forced to play the right, which made him unhappy. When he was put on other lines and didn't have Kariya to pass him the puck and set him up for scoring chances, he was unhappy.
Friesen felt pressure to put up numbers comparable to the 50-goal, 100-point seasons posted by Selanne, and Friesen's 17 goals and 43 points were not. More unhappiness.
Friesen also butted heads with then-Ducks coach Bryan Murray and, in the spring of 2002, requested a meeting to express his opinions about Murray to Ducks general manager Pierre Gauthier. In May, Gauthier was fired and Murray was promoted to GM. Two months later, Friesen was traded, along with defenseman Oleg Tverdovsky for Petr Sykora, two minor leaguers and a prospect.
"He didn't want to be there," Murray said. "He thought he got traded to a team that was no good. He thought we weren't going to win anything. He told me repeatedly. So as soon as I got the GM job, I traded him away to a better team, or so he thought. The second (Devils GM) Lou Lamoriello called about Sykora, I was right on it. You want players that want to play for you. If they don't, then you've got to do something about it."
Friesen has clicked so well with the Devils, he says the trade saved his career. Part of the reason he's so happy is the chemistry he found with center Joe Nieuwendyk and right winger Jamie Langenbrunner, both Cup-winners with Dallas who also went through trade pains. Devils coach Pat Burns put the trio together on January 7. During the next 20 games, the Devils lost only four times and the line averaged over a goal per game. Friesen finished the season with 23 goals and 28 assists for 51 points. He's fast and responsible defensively (he was a plus-26 in the regular season, and is a plus-6 in the playoffs), so he gels easily with New Jersey's defense-first system.
"He fit right in and played a team game in New Jersey," Devils captain Scott Stevens said. "He sacrificed his own points and goals and fit in great."
The Devils rely on scoring by committee -- nine players scored more than 10 goals during the regular season -- so there isn't any pressure for Friesen to post unbelievable numbers. If he puts the puck in the net, great. If he doesn't, someone else will.
But, in the latter half of the playoffs, Friesen has been that someone. He has scored five goals in the last seven games -- four of them were game winners, including the series-clinching goal against the Ottawa Senators in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals.
"His speed is great, he forces the puck all over the ice and uses his speed to back the D off," said right winger Brian Gionta, Friesen's linemate in Game 1 against Anaheim. "He creates a lot of room and a lot of chances."
Even though the team he thought would never win anything could prevent him from winning the Stanley Cup, Friesen doesn't have any regrets.
"Getting a chance to win is what you want in your career," he said. "Now, things are working out for everybody."
Lindsay Berra of ESPN The Magazine can be e-mailed at email@example.com.