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SUNDAYS WITH STAN: Prelude to the Historic Rangers-Devils Series, 1994

There was much hype and anticipation heading into the Devils-Rangers Eastern Conference Final Showdown

by Stan Fischler / Special to NewJerseyDevils.com

The prelude to Round Three of the 1994 Stanley Cup playoffs between the Devils and Rangers almost was as appetizing for the fans as the series that would follow.

Sidebars oozed out of almost every player interview; on the East Rutherford side as well as those comments emanating from Seventh Avenue in Manhattan.

"Revenge is one of the things on our minds," said Martin Brodeur. "We haven't forgotten what they did to us last year."

Neither had New Jersey loyalists forgotten. The Devils had battled the Rangers through a seventh game before being ousted. For Brodeur it was his first taste of the rivalry.

Brodeur: "It was pretty obvious that these guys took themselves very seriously."

So did the media.

It wasn't that reporters necessarily took the respective sides of the teams they covered, but there's a bit of fan in every hockey newsman. On both sides of the Hudson, the journalistic juices were flowing.

Although he was - and still is - a New Jersey resident, then Daily News reporter John Dellapina observed the upcoming series objectively. He knew that the Blueshirts were favored, but he admired the Garden Staters.

"New Jersey had a lot of talent on its roster when it faced off against the Rangers," Dellapina remembered. "They had a lot of offense with a lot of creative people and a lot of interesting personalities.

"They were willing to sacrifice for the greater good and be structurally sound. People like Stephane Richer and Claude Lemieux had bought into Jacques Lemaire's system."

On the Manhattan side, the Broadway Blueshirts boasted a surplus of talent. General manager Neil Smith had traded for so many Edmonton players, the Rangers were nicknamed "Oilers East."

That didn't bother Smith. Pushed by his cantankerous coach Mike Keenan, Neil went after the likes of defenseman Kevin Lowe, forwards Esa Tikanen and Craig MacTavish to augment captain Mark Messier.

"I wanted as many guys who'd been Cup-winners," said Smith. "Players like Lowe and MacTavish had experience, character and, best of all, talent."

To get them, Neil had to part with such fan favorites as Mike Gartner and Tony Amonte to obtain grit checkers such as Stephane Matteau from the Chicago Blackhawks

Although regarded as nothing more than a second- or third-liner, Matteau eventually would emerge as a hero among New York heroes. Yet, the irony of it all was that he never wanted to come to Seventh Avenue.

Matteau: "When I first heard that I was traded, I was skeptical. The Rangers were first overall, were cruising and it seemed like no one could get near them.

"They had it all. So, when I got traded by Chicago, I felt as if the Rangers traded for me just to have me around in case somebody got hurt. But then I met Mike Keenan and he knew where I could fit in - and win."

A similar but more subdued atmosphere prevailed in the Devils dressing room. Beyond stars such as captain Scott Stevens and experienced scorers such as Richer and Lemieux there remained a talented core.

"Another lesser-touted Devil," Dellapina recalled, "was young Scott Niedermayer, a phenomenal offensive talent. Like the others, he learned how to play the Lemaire way; and they all played that way.

"Between Lemaire's structure, the Devils' obvious talent on both offense and defense and the emergence of Brodeur, New Jersey was well on its way to getting over the hump. They were ready for the Rangers."

Well, not quite. Not even close when one considers the season series between the cross-Hudson rivals. No matter how you shake it, the arithmetic concluded that it was all Blueshirts.

In October, it was 4-1 for the New Yorkers.

In November, it was 3-1 for the Keenan-ites.

In December they met twice - 2-1 early in the month and 8-3 right after Christmas; all Rangers.

There was nothing new in the new year. On February 24, 1994, the Rangers triumphed, 3-1

The six-game regular-season set ended on April 2, 1994; this time a 4-2 decision for New York. 

From the Devils' standpoint, the mathematics were menacing. It was 6-0 Rangers in games and 24-9 in goals scored.

If the Garden Staters were mortified by the math, they refused to admit it.

"That was one season," said captain Scott Stevens, "and this is a new one. May the better team win."

The series began on May 15, 1994 at Madison Square Garden. Almost immediately, Stevens was proven right.

This was a new season and the Devils would play like champions!

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