Any Devils fan with a sense of history savors the final night of the 1987-88 season as a golden moment in Garden State hockey annals.
"I'll never forget it," says George Falkowski, teacher, and cartoonist who lives in Phillipsburg. "That's when we knocked the Rangers out of the playoffs -- and the Devils got in for the first time."
John MacLean beat Darren Pang with an overtime goal at Chicago Stadium and New Jersey's young hockey franchise enjoyed league-wide esteem that had been lacking before.
For Rangers fans, that moment in -- horrid for the Blueshirts -- time became known as "The Easter Night Massacre."
That humiliation demanded some form of revenge no matter how long it took to deal a Rangers revenge. It finally emerged in the spring of 1992.
After ten years of waiting, the Garden State stick handlers and their enemies from across the Hudson River would meet in the playoffs.
"On paper," Falkowski recalls, "it seemed like a mismatch; maybe even a Rangers sweep."
The New Yorkers stormed through the regular season like a Nor'easter blowing over everything in sight. They finished atop the Eastern Conference with a stunning record of 50-25-5.
That established them a fat 18 points ahead of coach Tom McVie's Devils.
Not that New Jersey's 38-31-11 mark was anything to mope about; after all the post-season had arrived -- a new and even more exciting ice world.
"We all knew that when it comes to the playoffs," said the Devils pesty and productive forward Claude Lemieux, "anything can happen."
The first thing to happen was a cavalcade of comments from the media.
Even New York Yankees Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra got into the act.
A longtime Devils fan and pal of owner Dr. John McMullen, Yogi chirped:
"This series will show what our guys are made of because the Rangers are a genuine powerhouse. It's gonna be a helluva challenge for Tommy McVie."
Of course, The Great NHL Fillibusterer, McVie, was eating up the chatter while also trying to draw a winning game plan. A headline in the Sunday Star-Ledger offered a clue:
STOPPING MESSIER DEVILS NO. 1 PRIORITY
The Star-Ledger's veteran Devils beat man, Rich Chere, picked the Rangers in six. A few other reporters pegged the Blueshirts in four.
"Bring 'em on," chortled McVie who also got a kick out of his troops being labeled "The Scrapiron Devils" by Tim Sullivan of The Associated Press.
Who could blame Tim? While the Rangers were solid in goal with John Vanbiesbrouck and Mike Richter, McVie was playing Netminder Roulette with crease quantity and uncertain quality.
"Tommy had a choice of four goaltenders," said Glenn (Chico) Resch, he ex-Devils puck-stopper now radio analyst. "There were Chris Terreri, Craig Billington, Chad Erickson, and the rookie, Martin Brodeur."
One of the four would have to tame the Presidents' Trophy-winners. New York finished with 15 wins over the NHL average of 35.
Rangers leadership -- up front with Messier and on D with Brian Leetch -- was de luxe; and that's putting it mildly.
Messier tallied 35 goals and 107 points and combined with Leetch for 209 points. The Devils didn't have an answer for Leetch but they did feature Bruce Driver who had come into his own as a dependable defender.
Driver: "We knew we had to play our game, and how not to be intimidated. They had quite a team and the points and statistics to prove it. Everyone knew that."
The curtain lifted for Game One at Madison Square Garden and, true to form, the home club leaped into a two-goal lead and retained command until the third period.
But the Scrapiron sextet retaliated in the third period when little known --yet surprisingly skilled -- forward Zdeno Ciger popped a 35-footer past a startled Vanbiesbrouck.
From that point on McVie's flak guns took dead aim at the Rangers net and came close but there would be no more Ciger; or cigar, for that matter. The New York skaters exited with a 2-1 triumph; the Devils with hope.
Vanbiesbrouck: "I'll guarantee that the Devils are far from down and discouraged."
No crystal ball was on the market that could predict what would follow in Game Two at The Garden on April 21, 1992. This was especially so since Beezer had taken a 9-0-1 record into the game.
In no time at all, the Devils had erased Vanbiesbrouck's aura of invincibility. A pair of second-period goals within 56 seconds by Claude Lemieux and Laurie Boschman zoomed NJ to a 7-3 rout.
As for Messier? Forget about him. Lemieux not only muzzled Mess' offense but distracted the Rangers captain left and right before the dismayed partisan crowd.
"Claude played great," said teammate Scott Stevens. "He did a terrific job taking players off and looked exactly like he did when he helped the Canadiens win the Stanley Cup."
Having returned to the Meadowlands for Game Three, the suddenly revitalized Devils happily discovered that the media had discovered them.
Writing in the New York Times, Alex Yannis declared, "The Devils have converted themselves into a relentlessly fearless and unified team.
"They played like a team possessed, hitting everything that moved and stood up for each other as if they were family."
Messier did break through for a goal in East Rutherford but Stephane Richer and Scott Stevens gave the Devils a lead while Haitian-born Claude Vilgrain added a cushion goal for NJ's 3-1 shaker-upper.
By now, even the non-hockey sports journalists were intruding onto the playoff scene. Typical was Chris Russo, Co-Host of "Mike and the Mad Dog" show on popular WFAN radio.
"The Devils are proud of what they've become," said Russo. "They continue to build to get better."
Meanwhile, the Rangers knew that they had better get better; immediately, if not sooner. "Game Four is a must game for us," Brian Leetch insisted and his coach seconded the motion.
Roger Neilson: "We've got to win one in New Jersey. So far we've played as well as we can play but they've played better."
Having the luxury of employing either Vanbiesbrouck or Mike Richter, Neilson chose the less experienced but more mobile Richter in Game Four. Mike returned the favor with a 3-0 blanket job on the Devs.
With the series tied at two wins apiece Game Five loomed as a goalies' battle; except that Chris Terreri was sent to the showers after being sunburned with five red lights.
McVie sent out an S.O.S. and, of all people, unknown, inexperienced Martin Brodeur annexed the Devils crease.
Faster than Marty could say, "une, deux, trois, quartre," his mates scored four goals and the earlier rout now was reduced to a mere rumble.
Alas, Brodeur, who eventually became the invincible Hall of Famer Marty, was soon solved by the Rangers. The Devils went down, 8-5 and found themselves on the NHL dance floor, doing "The Precipice Waltz."
McVie chose Terreri as his Game Six starter although the doughty little goalie was hobbled by injury. Granted Talkative Tommy was taking a gamble but little Chris had proven a gutsy clutch performer in the past.
Although the Locals fell behind 2-0, they rallied and carried a 4-3 lead into the third. Terreri resisted relentless Rangers pressure, glued his goal, and raised his arms triumphantly with a 5-3 win, guaranteeing a Game Seven.
But before Terreri could lower his victorious arms, a pair of Rangers ruffians, Tie Domi and Joe Kocur confronted Laurie Boschman and sucker-punched the Devil.
Laurie's pals heard the 911 and soon an old-time Pier Six brawl had officials working overtime until cooler heads prevailed.
"The teams don't like each other," observed Rangers defenseman James Patrick, one of the cooler heads.
A melodramatic series returned to the Garden for a decisive Game Seven. Playoff fever had gripped the Metropolitan Area while fans revelled in the scenario.
"You heard it everywhere," noted New York Times columnist Dave Anderson, "aren't the playoffs terrific? Will the Devils eliminate the Rangers?"
Half-way through the opening period, the Garden Staters were looking good. The score was tied 1-1 and McVie's men were on the attack when Boschman was nailed with a senseless holding penalty.
New York cashed in and when the Devs got whistled down again, the Blueshirts power play connected to make it 2-1. An even-strength Rangers goal completed the first period scoring with the home club ahead, 3-1.
"We were matching them hit for hit," said Devils forward Kevin Todd, "but we ran out or shots."
Well, not quite.
With New York ahead, 6-1 in the second period, another valiant comeback was launched. By the middle of the third the score was 6-4 and all hands wondered who'd pot the next prize.
But penalties were the Devils undoing once more and this time for -- of all unnecessary things -- too many men on the ice. Again the Rangers cashed their power play and followed with a late-game open-netter.
The Devils lost 7-4 but exited The Garden secure in the knowledge that they gave New York their best shot. Even demanding boss Lou Lamoriello extracted some good from the result.
"We're headed in the right direction," concluded Lou. "I'll get to work and make that happen."