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Eighteen years later, rivalry reignites in Eastern finals

by Staff Writer / New Jersey Devils

For older hockey fans in the metropolitan New York area, it seems like 18 minutes, not 18 long years, since the Devils and Rangers saw their border battle blossom into one of the elite rivalries in the League.

And it was an unforgettable Eastern Conference Finals in the spring of 1994 that pushed the rivalry from its regional stage to a national stage. Now, almost 18 years to the day, the rivalry is re-energized on the same stage.

Will it be as good as that epochal seven-game series staged almost two decades ago? That, of course, remains to be seen during the course of the next two weeks, but it would take some doing. Fortunately, the players -- and personalities -- are in place for a redux.

This is a series filled with both big-name stars and gritty role players that always find a way to step to the fore when healthy doses of fear, loathing and adrenaline are thrown together in such a cauldron.

There is only one player in this series that was active 18 years ago. That is, of course, the ageless wonder, Martin Brodeur, who was in his first season of seeing significant action in 1994 and still found a way to push the Rangers as far as humanly possible before Stephane Matteau made hockey history with a wrap-around goal in the second OT of Game 7 sent the Rangers to their first Stanley Cup Final appearance since 1979.

"I guess it's kind of amazing when you look at the amount of years in between the two series," Brodeur told reporters. "A lot of things have changed since '94, as far as the media is concerned. I expect it to be just the same for the guys. They have to just enjoy the moment.

"This is a great time in everybody's lives and we need to really take it all in. You never know when you're going to get back in the situation that you're going to play for a chance to go to the Stanley Cup. Playing against our biggest rival, kind of, puts a cherry on top."

A little more than two weeks after the unforgettable Game 7 at the Garden -- after another seven-game series against the Vancouver Canucks -- the Rangers were crowned Cup champions for the first time in 54 years. The parade down the Canyon of Heroes to celebrate that monumental accomplishment remains one of the biggest and most raucous celebrations in the history of the city.

While Brodeur is the only tangible link to the 1994 series, the memories from that spring remain vivid. It was, at its core, a battle for everything -- offensive-zone possession, shooting lanes, room in the corners, positioning in the slot and, most importantly, goals. The teams played 27 periods of hockey and were separated by just two goals -- 18 to 16 in favor of the Rangers -- across 506 minutes of pitched battle. Emotions ran so hot that the series also featured a pair of suspensions.

"It was a different game back then," Rangers forward Adam Graves told The Associated Press this week. "I just remember how much of a war it was and how you had to fight for every inch, and the battles in front of the net. I can remember, physically, how taxing it was going against guys like [Ken] Daneyko and [Scott] Stevens and just the battles in the corner.

"That is vivid in my mind."

The tone was set in Game 1 of the series -- a double-overtime win by the Devils -- and the teams never took their foot of the emotional accelerator until Matteau scored his goal for the ages.

Remember, the Rangers were heavily favored to win the Eastern Conference Finals. Yes, only six points separated the two rivals -- who each topped the 100-point mark just like in 2012 -- but the Rangers had swept the season series from the Devils, using those six wins to gain some breathing room atop the Eastern Conference standings.

And, the Rangers were winning Game 1, at a rocking Madison Square Garden, until Claude Lemieux authored another chapter as a playoff heel, scoring the tying goal in a wild scramble in front of Rangers goalie Mike Richter. Then it was Stephane Richer ending things at 15:23 of the second OT period, stunning the crowd into silence.

The Rangers answered two nights later with a 4-0 win, but the upstart Devils headed across the Hudson to their then-home, Brendan Byrne Arena, with a much-desired road split.

Game 3 was another double OT affair and this time it was the Rangers who stunned the home crowd as Matteau did some epic foreshadowing with his goal at 6:13 of double overtime for a 3-2 victory.

Matteau's goal, however, served as more of a wake-up call than a backbreaker for Brodeur and the Devils. Brodeur allowed just one goal in each of the next two games as New Jersey took a surprising three-games-to-two series lead in the series as it headed back to East Rutherford, N.J. for an elimination game.

On the eve of Game 6, Mark Messier further burnished his legacy with "The Guarantee," promising that his team would force a Game 7. It was more than idle talk as he rescued the Rangers, who were trailing 2-1 in the third period, by finishing off a hat trick in the 4-2 victory that forced Game 7.

Everyone remembers Matteau's Game 7 heroics, but they were only made possible by the heroics of the Devils' Valeri Zelepukin, who scored with just 7.7 seconds remaining in regulation to force overtime. The score remained 1-1 through the first OT and for the first 4:24 of the second OT before Matteau! Matteau! Matteau! on the famous wraparound.

When it was over, everyone knew they had been involved in a series that would live in hockey lore for decades to come.

Now, these same two teams get an opportunity to relive and, perhaps, rewrite the history of this rivalry with another Eastern Conference Finals border battle.

Shawn P. Roarke - Senior Managing Editor

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