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Nicholls' Classy Yet Sad Memory | SUNDAYS WITH STAN

Bernie Nicholls had a storied NHL career, but the game he'll never forget was a loss the Rangers

by Stan Fischler / Special to

It takes a special, classy, athlete to do what ex-Devil Bernie Nicholls did.

I'm talking about a guy who played 16 seasons in the NHL and only two for New Jersey,

Asked to choose "The Game He'll Never Forget," Nicholls chose a Devils loss of all things. 

And to the Rangers, of all teams.

Ordinarily this would be hard to fathom until you understand the game and the series to which Bernie refers.

The game, played on May 27, 1994, at Madison Square Garden, is regarded among hockey historians as one of the best and most melodramatic of all-time.

It was Game 7 of the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals and would catapult the winner on a fast track to The Stanley Cup.

Nicholls, who had become the balance wheel of New Jersey's attack, was enjoying the second season of his Devils employ. His prime foe was future Hall of Famer - Rangers captain - Mark Messier.

"Our rivalry with the Rangers was as intense as anyone could imagine," said Nicholls. 

And I can vouch for that since I was covering the entire series for the Devils' (then) SportsChannel network. 

But, under the pressure-cooker circumstances, you could logically ask why Nicholls would nominate that particular match as the most unforgettable of all he's played.

And that includes stints with the Edmonton Oilers, Los Angeles Kings, Chicago Blackhawks, San Jose Sharks and Rangers, as well as New Jersey.

He played a total of 1,127 major league games, totaling 1,209 points. In an interview with Chuck O'Donnell for the latter's book, "The Game I'll Never Forget," Nicholls explained why he chose that 1994 classic.

Significantly it was in a contest in which he neither scored a goal nor an assist. So, why did he call it a game he'll never forget?

"I thought that the team that wins this series would be the best team in hockey," Bernie explained, "and after five games we were up three games to two. In Game 5 I even had two goals.

"That lead meant that we could clinch the series in Game 6 at The Meadowlands. And for more than half the game, we had a 2-0 lead and looked like we'd win the series."

But that was the game in which Messier made good on his promise to produce a Rangers victory. New York's captain delivered with a hat trick and the Visitors tied the series at three games apiece.

Nicholls: "We still felt we could win the series. Finishing with a seventh game at The Garden didn't faze us since we'd already had won two playoff games there.

"I picked that game as my most unforgettable for a lot of reasons and one of them was that I couldn't think of any that could be matched just for the tension produced alone. I know that even Messier had 'butterflies.'"

The goaltending matchup alone - Martin Brodeur vs. Mike Richter - was worth the price of admission not to mention Messier vs. Nicholls.

But it was a goal by Rangers Hall of Fame defenseman Brian Leetch that put the Blueshirts ahead 1-0 well into the game's third period. Richter was airtight in goal right down to a face-off deep in the Rangers end. Only seconds remained for one more Devils play.

"(Coach) Jacques Lemaire had me take the face-off against Messier," Nicholls remembered. "Until then Mark had been dominating on the draw but this time I won it from him.

"My defenseman Bruce Driver made a good pinch down the left wing and we got the puck to the front where there was a scramble. Finally, our fine Russian forward Valeri Zelepukin found the loose rubber and put it in."

Richter thought a "goalie interference" penalty should have been called on the play. The Rangers stopper rushed referee Bill McCreary behind the net and could have been penalized for "unsportsmanlike behavior."

But McCreary shook it off and that set the stage for an unforgettable sudden-death decision. 

New Jersey had the momentum and pressed for the winner in the first overtime but Richter held the fort.

"Neither team was holding back," Nicholls recalled. "Unfortunately, fatigue took its toll on us when we went into the second overtime."

By that time, the Rangers controlled the puck. Or, as Devils assistant coach Larry Robinson noted: "We were running out of gas."

A faulty Devils clearing attempt just past the four-minute mark of the second overtime enabled the Rangers to get puck control behind Brodeur's net.

To this day, it's debatable how the elusive puck made it over the goal line behind Brodeur since the Devils goalie seemed to have the left corner covered by his left pad.

Nicholls: "I'm not sure whether the puck went off (defenseman) Slava Fetisov or Marty. It wasn't a pretty goal but most double-overtime goals aren't pretty." 

But the game was more than pretty; and I can vouch for that; having covered it from start to finish with my heart throbbing throughout.

That's why a sportsman such as Nicholls - despite losing the game - could call it "The Game I'll Never Forget!"

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