A capacity crowd showed up in East Rutherford ready to watch the Penguins get their flippers clipped. Or, at least they hoped that would be the case.
The date was April 13, 1991. The New Jersey Devils had taken a three games to two lead over Pittsburgh. This was it, with a capita I.
The Garden Staters were one measly win away from a welcome into the second playoff round. What's more, the home club got a bit of bonus news that sounded additionally hopeful.
Penguins goalie Tom Barrasso was suffering from an injury that would at least sideline him for Game Six. Back-up Frank Pietrangelo would be the replacement. Plus Paul Coffey's eye injury had not healed. Scratch, him, too.
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Bam! The Devils were off and running with a 1-0 lead with visions of victory dancing in their heads. Turned out to be too little, too soon.
Penguins coach Bob Johnson pushed his troops to the limit and in the second period, the turvy had gone topsy. The once-embattled Penguins now owned a 4-1 advantage.
"We still had plenty of time to work with," said a sizzling hot Claude Lemieux, "and we were going to give it our best shot."
First defenseman Eric Weinrich beat Pietrangelo, then Claude Lemieux followed with a red light and it still was only the second period. The 4-3 deficit seemed eminently surmountable.
The Penguins were on the ropes as the Devils pounded away for that tying goal. Claude Lemieux led the way, flying high with another attack; this time with Laurie Boschman as co-pilot.
Claude watched Laurie moving toward the Pittsburgh goaltender. At precisely the right time, Lemieux slid the puck goalward toward Boschman whose eyes were riveted to the rubber.
Television cameras later would reveal what Boschman already knew; that the biscuit went from his skate to his stick and then from Laurie's stick into the net.
Up went the sticks in celebration of the tying mark. The Devils assault had paid off and the game now was coupled at 4-4.
Well, at least for a few seconds it was.
As quickly as the partisan crowd went nuts at the sight of the flashing red light, so swiftly did the din turn into mausoleum silence.
Referee Bill McCreary had pressed his "delete" button. His arms frantically waving like a windmill in a hurricane, the official was yelling "No Goal" while the Devils tried to grasp precisely what was going on in this madhouse of mayhem.
And for good reason.
Video replays of the goal clearly indicated that McCreary's "Boschman illegally kicked it into the net" call was -- to put it mildly -- very much in error.
What the tv monitors proved was that Laurie had legally moved the puck from skate to stick after which the puck skimmed past Pietrangelo and over the goal line.
But this was 1991, before the National Hockey League had established a series of electronic advances -- not to mention a special Toronto-based crew -- to analyze such controversial episodes.
McCreary's mind would not be changed had their been 10,000 replays showing that there was no reason to wave off the goal. Thus, the score remained 4-3 and all the Devils bench could say was "We wuz robbed!"
That said, there still was plenty of hockey to play but no more New Jersey goals to be had. Pietrangelo was there when necessary and the game ended 4-3 for Pittsburgh in an anti-climax to end all anti-climaxes.
"Who knows how the game would have gone without that bad call?" wondered Brendan Shanahan in the deflated losers dressing room.
McVie: "We didn't get back to basics until it got to be 4-1."
Whatever. The ill-tasting result meant that the series would go the full seven games with the deciding match on March 15, 1991 at The Igloo in Pittsburgh.
Putting on a happy face, defenseman Bruce Driver pointed out that the Devils had overcome many an obstacle before and one more could be handled. "We only have to win one more game," he said.
Still, the suddenly revitalized Penguins were bouyed by Coffey's return to the lineup in Game Seven, along with the momentum swing pushed by referee McCreary's disallowed goal ruling.
This time there were no magical moves in McVie's blueprint bag. It took the future 1991 Stanley Cup-winners less than seven minutes to grab a 1-0 lead. Jiri Hrdina snared his own rebound and beat Chris Terreri from in close.
Cashing in on a Devils penalty, Mario Lemieux made the Penguins power play count and it was 2-0 after the first period. Hrdina lifted the count to 3-0 early in the second and if there was any gas left in the Visitors tank, it was just droplets.
The buildup that followed New Jersey's three games to two series lead had fragmented into a dismal letdown. Pittsburgh closed the tournament with an emphatic 4-0 curtain-descending decision.
All that could be said in the Devils depressed dressing room was the patently obvious. "We could have won the series in the sixth game," Driver asserted. "But the bottom line is that we lost."
Meanwhile, Pittsburgh rolled through the remainder of 1991 playoff opposition. The Penguins successively defeated Washington, Boston and Minnesota, to claim The Stanley Cup.
Were it any solace to Tom McVie and his troops it was the unanimous assertion in the champions' room that the best team Pitt had faced in the post-season was the scrappy one that called East Rutherford home.
Such cheery homilies did not impress Lou Lamoriello. Whether McCreary was right or wrong, the Devils boss wanted more than what he received in the seven-game series.
"There'll be some changes made," Lou promised. "That's for sure."
Equally certain was the return of coach McVie who rescued the season down the stretch. Lou offered Tom a new contract and the Gravel-Voiced Wonder accepted.
The general manager then added Robbie Ftorek as McVie's assistant coach and signed 1980 Miracle On Ice Olympic Gold Medalist, Herb Brooks, to coach New Jersey's top minor league team in Utica, New York.
"We want more than what we've achieved so far," Lamoriello added in his postscript to the 1990-91 campaign.
Everyone who knew Lou knew that he was referring to The Stanley Cup!
LISTS: FOUR REASONS WHY THE DEVILS BOWED OUT IN THE FIRST ROUND:
1. PITTSBURGH'S POWER PREVAILED: When the chips were down, the likes of Mario Lemieux, Ron Francis, Paul Coffey and their starry cohorts proved too strong for the doughty Devils.
2. THE HOME ICE KILLER: Game Six was there to be devoured by the Devils on a silver platter. Even after the controversial disallowed goal, the Devils had plenty of time to tie the count but, in the end, failed.
3. ONE MISSING GAS TANK: From the third period of Game Six to the entire Game Seven, the Devils were running on fumes. And, finally, simply ran out of gas.
4. THE IFFY CALL: Forever In the "We'll Never Know" category will be referee Bill McCreary's decision to erase New Jersey's tying goal in Game Six. Had the goal counted -- as replays clearly indicated it should have counted -- the game would have been tied and the momentum would have swung to the Devils. Would it have resulted in a New Jersey victory? We'll never know!