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SUNDAYS WITH STAN: Playoff Time with Jacques

In Chapter 45 of Sundays with Stan, Stan Fischler talks about the 94 playoffs

by Stan Fischler StanFischler / Special to NewJerseyDevils.com

All things considered, the 1993-94 regular season under Jacques Lemaire's baton was like a sweet hockey symphony never off-key.

As Lou Lamoriello -- a music-lover -- like to say, the trumpet--players played the trumpet and the drummers played the drums. Nobody played like a player he wasn't."

The Devils "Arithmetic" grade was "A-Plus." 

They brought down the marathon curtain with 106 points just six behind the Presidents' Trophy-winning Rangers.

Their record -- 47-25-12 -- gave them third seed in the Eastern Conference only because Pittsburgh claimed second for winning its division. It marked the best record in franchise history.

"They played smart hockey," said Zach Parise who eventually would make the Devils varsity, "and one reason for that was that they had a smart coach."

They played so well down to the finish that The Boss, Larrupin' Lou, didn't even make a deal at the Trade Deadline. 

Not that Lemaire was contentedly puffing on his ever-present cigar. Far from it. For starters, he wasn't exactly doing handstands over a late-season three-game losing streak.

That alone stuck in his craw, not to mention a 2-4-1 run-up to the season's final game against Ottawa. His skaters provided some redemption with a quartet of goals -- two by Tom Chorske -- and a 4-1 decision.

Speaking of "decisions," Lemaire was confronted with a lovely dilemma-to-end-all-dilemmas; He was gifted with two splendid goaltenders, the veteran Chris Terreri and the rookie, Martin Brodeur.

Few had expected young Marty to each a level of excellence so quickly. He finished with a 27-11-8 record, a 2.40 goals-against average and .915 save percentage.

"There was no doubt," chuckled Lemaire, "that Marty was here to stay. But that didn't mean that Chris wasn't a superpartner.

Ever the team guy back to his Providence College days under then-coach Lamoriello, Terreri kept close to Brodeur. Chris' totals: 20-11-4, 2.72, .907, would delight most NHL goalies.

Another issue confronting Lemaire was his new team's psyche. The regular season is one thing; the playoffs a whole different ball game. The coach wondered out loud:

Lemaire: "If we lost the first game," Jacques mused, "how are we going to react? Do we have a player who will put himself on the line by saying something to the others? I honestly don't know because I haven't had them in that situation."

Their opponents would be the Buffalo Sabres, a dangerous team if only because the Western New Yorkers bragged that they had the NHL's best goalie, Dominik Hasek. Few argued the point. 

Perhaps the most thoughtful Devil was defenseman Bruce Driver, who'd been around long enough to see things clearly and see them whole.

Discussing what would be a titillating series, Driver told author Tim Sullivan ("Battle On The Hudson") there was a simple playoff equation to consider.

"When you're talking playoffs," said Driver, "things certainly have to fall into place, and every player has to have a good year. If one player doesn't have a very good years, it usually doesn't work for the team."

But the season did go well for the Garden Staters and Lemaire hoped it would continue that way when he designated Brodeur as his starter for Game One.

According to the league schedule, the Buffalo-New Jersey series would open in East Rutherford and continue in Western New York for Games Three and Four.

Sometimes there really was a touch of reality to the cheery homily, home-ice advantage, and other times not. At least a partial answer would be available on the night of April 17, 1994.

There was an ambiance of nervousness in the home team's room. After all, this was only the second Game One in franchise history. Some Devils vets were able to cool it. One them had been around -- Bernie Nicholls.

"The thing about this team," Bernie opined, "is that when something goes wrong, we learn from it. We knew how to take what was needed out of defeats."

Sure enough, they were blanked by Buffalo, 2-0, in the home opener. Hasek was flawless; the Devils were flawed. With home-ice advantage lost, Lemaire had to find a prescription to lift his team back with a big W.

The second time around, Marty beat Dom. A 2-1 triumph was just what Dr. Lemaire's prescription produced, It also highlighted was what would become one of the classic goaltending battles, Hasek vs. Brodeur.

With Game Three, the series moved on to Buffalo with the now-confident Devils nonplussed by being on enemy ice. Neither the freshmen nor the seniors were concerned. Youthful Bill Guerin symbolized the thinking.

Guerin: "If you're going to go anywhere in sports, you're going to have to face adversity. For us it started after Game One.

Yet that seemed long ago after New Jersey won Game Three, again by the score of 2-1. Already stars began shining in the New Jersey galaxy. The tall French-Canadian sharpshooter, Stephane Richer, was one, 

The former Montreal Canadien potted a pair of goals and Bernie Nicholls had two assists to thrust Lemaire's crew into the series lead. Meanwhile, Brodeur was matching Hasek save for save.

By now it had become apparent to seasoned observers, that Buffalo featured a better team than advertised. They proved it by tying the series by rebounding with a 5-3 advantage.

What had begun as a series, now had evolved into a serious SERIES. Plus, it got even better in Game Five when New Jersey's Claude Lemieux tallied a pair of goals while Scott Stevens got a pair of helpers.

Final Score: 5-3, Devils. One game away from clinching the series, Lou Lamoriello's sextet flew to Buffalo, secure in the knowledge that they were doing just fine. 

"All we cared about," Lamoriello asserted, "was what we had to do. Eventually, everyone would get into it."

What Larrupin' Lou couldn't have predicted was what his skaters would get into during Game Six.

"It would be one of the greatest games ever played," said Brodeur.

(NEXT WEEK: ONE OF THE GREATEST GAMES EVER!)

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