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DEVILS OVER THE DECADES: Ch. 39 - Breezin' Along with the Breeze

Stan Fischler details the 1991-92 season for the Devils and the challenges they faced

by Stan Fischler StanFischler / Special to NewJerseyDevils.com

The Devils entered the 1991-1992 season with wind in their sails; just breezin' along with the breeze.

"Things are looking up," said prize acquisition Claude Lemieux, "and we're looking like one of the best teams in the Division, if not the entire league. We've got the goods."

What they didn't have was bullet-shooter John MacLean, sidelined for the season with a damaged knee. Granted that it was an egregious loss but, that said, it didn't brake the New Jersey Express by one mile-per-hour.
 

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A 9-0 rout of the San Jose Sharks at Byrne Meadowlands Arena confirmed a couple of things: 1. Coach Tom McVie's skaters had developed a killer instinct; 2. Chris Terreri got a mortgage on the goal crease with a shutout.

When the team needed a touch of Tabasco, spicy Lemieux added pizazz as well as goals including a backhanded game-winner against the Sharks.

The French-Canadian mouthpiece also had no compunctions telling off a reporter who had the temerity to criticize his team's masterful defense after yet another win.

"If you don't like our style," bristled Lemieux, "well, too bad, go watch a show somewhere else!"

Then there were the surprises.

RANDY MCKAY: Hardly mentioned in dispatches when he skated for Detroit, the big forward with the perennial five-o'-clock shadow mesmerized the media with his blend of scoring and boxing abilities.

"It's great to be getting a regular turn," McKay enthused. "I'll play tough and, if the occasion demands, I'll scrap."

DAVE BARR: Injured in training camp, the wise winger proved an excellent utility swing man. He could expertly kill penalties or take a turn on the power play.

"Dave is the kind of guy any coach would want on his team," said McVie. "Reliable; that's his virtue."

CRAIG BILLINGTON: Who needed Sean Burke? The Biller fixed up team spirit and demonstrated skill in his first start on October 31, 1991 at Calgary. Up until that match, the mighty Flames had been undefeated.

Craig stopped 34 out of 36 shots behind a 5-2 victory. It was just the goaltending balm that McVie needed to go with his second cup of Java.

Biller: "I have a lot of pride in the role I play on this team. Whether I play one game or ten or twenty, that doesn't alter the pride. I'm a goaltender, doing what I love to do. Now I'm in the NHL and that means a lot to me."

Pride was a component in Stepane Richer's genes. Deep into autumn, he led his mates on to home ice against Les Canadiens. This was no laughing matter; the Habs invaded East Rutherford with a nine-game win streak.

Richer should have been hampered by a groin strain but he acted as if he had never heard of groin or strain. He scored a tie-breaking goal in the second period and the game-winner in the third frame.

"It was a big win," chuckled Richer after the final buzzer, "and especially since my best friend, Patrick Roy, was in goal for Montreal. One goal against him, maybe; but to get a pair.

"It took a while after being traded from the Canadiens for me to get used to playing for another team. But now that we've played Montreal -- and beat them -- I really feel like a Devil now. I'm glad to be here."

Richer liked headlines and headlines suited his gregarious personality to a T, as in Terrific. A three-goal hat trick on November 20, 1991 against the Washington Capitals merely added to Stephane's allure.

But to the Garden State Faithful, no triumph meant more to the fans than one over the New York Rangers. The Battle of the Hudson now was in its ninth year and Richer wasted no time feeling it in his bones.

Stephane: "When we play the Rangers I feel the same way I felt when I was with Montreal and we played the Bruins. Every game was the Stanley Cup Final. You had to win every time.

"Those are the games where you see what kind of player you are. Every shift is important. The intensity level is high and you know you can blow a game with one mistake."

Which is not to suggest that the Devils would sleepwalk if the Rangers were not involved. Quite the contrary. McVie was keeping them doing a Mambo every game out. And when the Habs were foes, the press pressed -- hard!

The hardest presser was a biting French-Canadian writer named Rejean Tremblay who could punch keys with the best of them and counter-punch when he really got mad.

Guaranteed, Tremblay was not happy about how Habs coach Pat Burns had treated his boy Richer before Stephane got hoisted to the Meadowlands. Matter of fact, Rejean was downright miffed.

So was Burns who went on a verbal tear, ripping both Lemieux and Richer for how they played for him. Sounding like a United Nations peacemaker, Lemieux calmly commented, "Now you know why we didn't get along with Pat."

A native Montrealer, Randy McKay also got into the act -- only with more action than talk. On January 29, 1992, McKay showed up at The Forum and showed family and friends that he was a big-leaguer to stay.

With the teams locked in a 3-3 tie and no solution in sight, Randy took matters into his own hands by duping the Montreal defense, a la Montreal icon Rocket Richard from a bygone era and then assaulting the net.

"At first," Randy explained, "I kept going behind the net and saw a commotion. That's when I snuck it through. I went hard to the net which is what the coaches want me to do."

In the end, New Jersey won and McKay had two goals. It was hard to determine which of Randy's clan was most busting his vest with appreciation, his father Hugh or a batch of uncles and cousins who flew in from Toronto.

McKay: "For me it was a dream come true. I always wanted to be one of the night's 'Three Stars' selection. Frankly, I never expected to be named the First Star."

Lou Lamoriello was as happy as a lottery winner what with Richer, Lemieux, Chorske, McKay and Barr bringing home the two points. But the opposition wasn't sitting around playing Pinochle so Lou put down his cards and dealt.

This time he moved slumping, 28-year-old David Maley to the Edmonton Oilers for 21-year-old former Ranger forward Troy Mallette. Lou won seven years of age on the deal and filled a need.

"We lacked a certain ingredient on the left side of the ice. Troy gives us youth, aggressiveness and intimidation."

To say the trade was a blessing was roughly equivalent to declaring that the sun rises in the East; not Western Canada. Over the length of 18 games, New Jersey won 13, tied one and lost only four games.

That was fine and dandy, like sugar candy, but anyone who knew how the front office was thinking realized that no game meant more to owner Dr. John McMullen -- or Lou for that matter -- than a front-ender with the Rangers.

It came up on February 16, 1992 and, as if anyone needed to know how McVie felt about it, Terrific Tom did not suppress his thoughts to the press: "If you don't like a hockey game like this, you ought to be covering tennis."

There was plenty of "coverage" that night both with the media and on the ice where Claude Lemieux followed Rangers ace Mark Messier around as if Claude was Mark's valet.

Messier: "Claude was with me everywhere on the ice. When I went to the bench he almost sat down with me!"
 
With Messier in check, the Devils leaped to a three-goal lead early in the third period only to watch the Rangers reply with a pair of red lights.

Somewhere on the New Jersey bench there had to be someone to halt the Rangers comeback and there was. With 17 seconds left in the third period, Lemieux potted an open-netter.

The win not only pushed the Devs to within eight points of New York -- they once trailed by 13 -- but now New Jersey had gone 14-4-1 in their last 19 games. Suddenly, everyone was talking about a playoffs Battle of the Hudson.

"Can you imagine seven games like that?" grinned McVie. "It could happen."

If one word could describe McVie's men as they approached the homestretch and a playoff berth in the offing, it was formidable. From crease to the blue liners to the offense the Devils had it all.

Lemieux was enjoying a career year; Terreri was goaltending at peak performance; and Fetisov was looking like the World Class player he had been in the Soviet Union.

Just two nights after blitzing the Blueshirts, the Broad Street Bullies came to East Rutherford. Revitalized with a new coach, the Flyers showed resiliency tying the game 3-3 with a mere five seconds left in regulation time.

Philly pressed hard and quickly for the OT winner but Dave Barr got in the way. Not only did he get in the way, Barr greased a pass to Fetisov camped at the left face-off circle.

Slava: "My first thought was to shoot the puck low because (goalie) Ron Hextall is a big guy. Then, at the last second, I saw he was coming out and the two top corners were open."

The puck nestled in the short side at 1:42 of overtime and by the beginning of March any doubts about the Devils strength were vacuumed out of the minds of the most skeptical cynics.

Certainly, the Rangers were convinced. On March 4th, the Devils took the ice at Madison Square Garden burdened with a ten-game winless streak at the Seventh Avenue arena. They emerged with a 5-4 victory.

Fair-minded as always, Messier credited Lamoriello with turning New Jersey into a contender. "Lou held everyone accountable in that organization," Mark averred, "and success followed."

But there was nothing Lou could do about endless injuries that made March seem like a health care jubilee for team medics. By March 26, 1992 so many regulars were sidelined that McVie filled gaps with seven rookies.

One in particular arrested attention but unless you owned a Ouija board there was no way of knowing where this Junior age goaltender was heading. His name was Martin Brodeur; he was about to start his first NHL game.

A barber's delight, Brush-Cut Brodeur may have been a bit rough around the edges --"Once over lightly, but not politely, Barber!" -- but the key saves were there along with a 4-2 victory.

Call it a portent of things to come.

Marty's introductory "A Star Is Born" act was followed by the entrance from Stage Right of another understudy bussed in from Utica. "Billy Guerin has been the best right wing we've had on the farm," said Lamoriello.

In time, the kid from New England would become the best right wing on the Devils but for the moment, the Devils were looking at the calendar.

New Jersey finished a franchise-best (38-31-11) in fourth place. Like bulls in a music shop, they broke many franchise records. Consider:

MOST POINTS: -- 87; MOST HOME WINS -- 24; LONGEST WINNING STREAK -- 6 GAMES; FEWEST GOALS ALLOWED -- 259."

"That's all well and good," McVie concluded, "but we've got a new season ahead of us. And guess who I had predicted we'd meet?"

Nobody had to wait for the answer since this would be the first time the Devils and Rangers -- the Blueshirts finished first -- would meet in the playoffs.

LISTS: FOUR REASONS FOR DEVILS PLAYOFF OPTIMISM:

1. LEADERSHIP: The players believed in Tom McVie the way a New Jersey team had faith in Jim Schoenfeld four years earlier.

2. BEST OFFENSIVE SPREAD: The additions of Stephane Richer, Tom Chorske, Dave Barr and Randy McKay provided McVie with balance to complement the likes of Claude Lemieux and Company.

3. CONFIDENT TERRERI: With the "Back-up" label now in his rearview mirror, Chris had peaked as a starting goalie. He was supremely sure of himself.

4. THE STEVENS EFFECT: Before Scott Stevens arrived in East Rutherford, the Devils defense was solid. The addition of Bingo Stevens converted McVie's D into one of the NHL's best.

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