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SUNDAYS WITH STAN: The Devils' Offensive

New Jersey stunned the Rangers on the road in a Game 5 victory that left them one game shy of the Stanley Cup Final

by Stan Fischler / Special to NewJerseyDevils.com

The tide had turned.

New York's juggernaut Rangers and their playoff offensive was stopped cold in East Rutherford. 

Jacques Lemaire's Devils cleanly beat them, 3-1, and dominated all relevant areas on the ice. 

The series that grew more remarkable with each game now was tied at two apiece.

Martin Brodeur, baby-face and all, was formidable between the pipes while his coach's defensive strategy had baffled Messier, Inc. 

"The Devils did what they had to do," said captain Mark of the Blueshirts. "And they did it right. Give them credit; now we have some kind of series."

Not only that but Game 5 of this increasingly tense tourney now had moved back to Madison Square Garden where the question of "home-ice advantage" for the Rangers suddenly became debatable.

"We beat them there in Game 1," Devils defenseman Tommy Albelin pointed out. "For sure we can beat them there again."

Meanwhile, the Garden Staters could joke that they had gained "The Away-Ice Advantage" because Bernie Nicholls was returning to the lineup having served his one-game suspension.

Bernie had become a team favorite not just for his upbeat personality and high-grade scoring ability but also the "little things" that mean a lot. 

Defenseman Bruce Driver told "Battle of the Hudson" author Tim Sullivan that Nicholls surprised him when Bernie was traded to New Jersey.

Driver: "Bernie would get in there and block shots all the time and he was great on the penalty kill. He was great at sacrificing his body."

Now, on May 13, 1994, Nicholls would get another chance to show his stuff. Game 5 was yet another sellout at The Garden. As the fans rode MSG's escalators to their seats, they wondered about the Rangers lineup.

Following New Jersey's Game 4 victory, Rangers coach Mike Keenan told the media that his double-dip dandies, Mark Messier and Brian Leetch had been injured. If true, the Blueshirts would be in deep trouble.

Actually, the "trouble" was determining whether Keenan was doing another song-and-dance, propagandizing to gain an edge or whether the aces - Craig MacTavish as well - really were wounded.

They all sure looked healthy when the Rangers traipsed out for their pre-game skate; the trio of "injured" Blueshirts looked as if they graduated from the health club around the corner from The Garden.

But there was nothing healthy about the respective team attitudes. Take a pick between hate, anger and resentment; it was all there.

"It was a mean game," was Bill Guerin's appraisal. "After all we'd now had played each other four times in a row and 'things' happen."

One of those 'things' was the reappearance of Nicholls, who immediately took on the appearance of a punching bag. Except that Rangers forward Adam Graves employed his elbow instead of his fist on Nicholls' noggin.

Retribution was the order of the day as New Jersey's best body blocker, Scott Stevens, connected with Messier on a hit that many scribes thought was worth a minor penalty. Messier considered it a minor annoyance.

The major annoyance would come soon enough.

Nonplussed over the fact that he had become a target, Nicholls raced free with Claude Lemieux on a 2-on-1 break with only Sergei Zubov back. 

Claude's shot was a sizzler that Richter punted aside.

Except that the rebound was served like a waiter at the Waldorf; right on to Bernie's blade and he immediately dismissed it into the Rangers net. 

"Well," said Bobby Holik, the Devils' observant center looking from side to side, "with that one, Bernie sure quieted the crowd."

Yeah, but it was only the first period and it only was one goal. On the other hand, Marty Brodeur was doing a China Wall imitation at the other end of the rink. The hulking French-Canadian's game now was the equal of Richter's.

The Rangers weren't scoring but they sure were hitting. On one particularly devastating play, New York's heavyweight defenseman Jeff Beukeboon rode Stephane Richer into the boards. Face down, Richer didn't rise.

For four minutes, New Jersey's trainers administered to their fallen comrade while Nicholls questioned zebras with the obvious. "How come no penalty?"

New York Yankees legend Yogi Berra, a close friend of Devils owner, Dr. John McMullen, and a regular at Jersey home games could have used one of his favorite sayings, "It's deja-vu all over again."

First a Nicholls hard hit on Tikanan escaped a penalty and now the vice was versa as Beukeboom skated to his bench un-penalized for his clout on Richer. 

But there was a postscript on this one, too. As Nicholls was suspended for a game after a review, the same ignominy would befall Beukeboom.

Richer eventually returned to his teammates later in the game but, by that time, there was no need for his arsenal of revenge. 

"We were relentless," said Guerin. "Marty was solid in goal and we were working our strategy to perfection. The Rangers still hadn't scored a goal."

But New Jersey did. 

First, Mike Peluso was the beneficiary of another poor defensive play by Rangers defenseman Alexander Karpovtsev and capitalized on Alex's poor clearing attempt. Then, Nicholls beat Richter to make it a 3-0 game.

This time there was no such thing as the "Dreaded Three-Goal Lead." Nor four-goal lead at Tom Chorske rounded out the Visitors' scoring for the night. 

For all intents and purposes Brodeur had earned himself a 4-0 shutout. But with just over three-and-a-half minutes remaining a seemingly innocent play would have major ramifications for the remainder of the tourney.

New Jersey's nemesis, Esa Tikkanen, released what normally would have been regarded as a "So-What" shot from five feet outside the Devils blue line in neutral ice. 

Normally this would have been a too-too-easy save for Brodeur. But this curious time, the puck seemed to have "eyes."

It found Brodeur's "five-hole" and, unhampered, rolled over the red line. In its own innocent way, that goal left a message which has been debated by hockey scholars for decades; did that goal disturb the otherwise victorious Devils?

That would depend how much value one puts on hockey psychology. Suffice to say, it remains an interesting question.

Sure, the Devils were full value for their 4-1 triumph.

Sure, they would return home needing only one more W to clinch the series. Yet there was something about that lazy Tikkanen goal that - some believed - proved a mental life preserver for the cliff-hanging Rangers.

This much was certain; the script for Game 6 at The Meadowlands would prove so melodramatic that even a James Bond would have had trouble matching it.

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