Zubrus is 15 years removed from the "choking situation" so aptly coined by Terry Murray during the finals. He is 15 seasons from being plastered on the bedroom walls of teenage girls throughout the Delaware Valley as a hockey heartthrob. It feels like a lifetime ago.
Zubrus and Vinny Prospal are the only two links from that 1997 Flyers team — which remains one of the deepest in franchise history — still skating in the NHL today. Their coach that year, Murray, was the Los Angeles Kings’ coach until December. Zubrus’ goaltender during that Cup run, Ron Hextall, is now the Kings’ assistant general manager.
That’s exactly why Zubrus, who turns 34 on June 16, wants to make the most of his first trip back to the finals. He knows he may never get another shot. Heck, Zubrus has made the playoffs eight times in the last 15 years, but his team has only survived the first round once before this season.
Now, his Devils have their work cut out, trailing 1-0 after Wednesday night’s Game 1, 2-1 overtime loss to Los Angeles.
"I just remember how devastating it was to lose in the finals," Zubrus said. "At that point, you’re thinking how lucky you are to be in that position. Now, 15 years later, I know how lucky I was and what it takes to get to this point again."
Zubrus was traded to Montreal in 1999 for Mark Recchi and has gone on to play more than 1,000 games in four different uniforms. His connection to Philadelphia may seem distant now, but in many respects, a part of Zubrus always will be with the Flyers.
They were the team who drafted him in the first round, brought him to the NHL and watched him blossom on a line with Eric Lindros and John LeClair during his rookie playoff run. He chipped in with five goals and four assists in 19 postseason games in 1997. He has the same point total in 19 playoff games with the Devils this postseason.
"That year through the playoffs, I slowly moved up through the lineup," Zubrus said. "In Detroit, we never really had a chance. We started at home and lost the first two games. They beat us pretty cleanly. Then [Murray’s ‘choking situation’ comment], he used that sentence, the media picked it up, and the next thing you knew, he was fired."
When he was dealt in 1999, Zubrus personally wrote thank-you cards to Flyers general manager Bob Clarke and chairman Ed Snider with gratitude for the tremendous opportunity. Zubrus and Darius Kasparaitis are the only two players from Lithuania to ever skate in the NHL.
Zubrus still maintains a permanent residence in Cherry Hill. When his Devils ousted the Flyers last month, a few members of the Flyers organization — all these years later — trickled through to wish him well.
In fact, it is believed that Zubrus and the Flyers had discussions about a possible return before he signed a 6-year, $20.4 million deal with the Devils in 2007.
Now Zubrus is thriving on a Devils team that is four victories short of a Cup. He says he doesn’t feel old yet, though he is part of a core — with Martin Brodeur — that makes New Jersey the oldest team in the playoffs. Zubrus plays an active role on the penalty kill, power play and a regular shift on the second line.
His 17 goals and 27 assists this season were his best totals in five seasons with the Devils, his best point total since netting 60 with Buffalo and Washington in 2007. A cerebral player, Zubrus fits in perfectly with Pete DeBoer’s "smart, aggressive" system.
"Part of it is that I feel healthier," Zubrus said. "A few years in a row, I had some things done to my knees. Right off the bat, it feels like the coaching staff trusts me maybe a little bit more than before. I feel like I’m more involved in the game than I was maybe a few years before."
When Zubrus was 18, a few Flyers veterans — like Lindros and defenseman Petr Svoboda — pulled him aside. They told him to enjoy the moment. This year, Zubrus was able to offer the same advice to 22-year-old Adam Henrique and 19-year-old Adam Larsson.
"I just told them my experience," Zubrus said. "I was 18 and I was in the finals. That whole moment didn’t last as long as I wanted and it didn’t end the way I hoped. You’re very lucky to be on a team that’s made it this far. The moment that you have, you need to use it. You just never know."
Contact Frank Seravalli at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @DNFlyers. Read his blog, Frequent Flyers, at www.philly.com/frequentflyers.