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SUNDAYS WITH STAN: Upstart Devils Startle Rangers

Richer, Devils shock the Rangers by taking Game 1 of the 1994 conference finals

by Stan Fischler / Special to NewJerseyDevils.com

How great was the 1994 Playoff between the Devils and Rangers? 

At the time Tim Sullivan, The Associated Press Hockey Editor, called it "The NHL's Greatest Series Ever."

Then, Sullivan underlined his point by writing a 226-page book about it.

Triumph published it with the title BATTLE ON THE HUDSON.

SUNDAYS WITH STATN
DEVILS-RANGERS, 1994 EASTERN FINAL

This much is certain, whether it was the "greatest series ever" might be up for debate, but the seven-game event held Metropolitan Area sports fans in a vise-like grip for two weeks.

The series began on May 15, 1994 at Madison Square Garden which, curiously, is round, not square. As expected, the game was a sellout.

Technically speaking, the National Hockey League had labelled it the Eastern Conference Final. To the local audiences it was recognized as Manhattan vs. The Meadowlands.

The contrast could not have been more stark; on one side, the Big City guys and on the other, the suburbanites. 

To hockey men, the distinctions were compelling. Despite their overwhelming success, the Blueshirts were shaking with inner turmoil while the challenging Devils appeared completely calm. 

Rangers general manager Neil Smith had been not-so-quietly battling with his coach Mike Keenan all season. Smith wanted to keep his winning roster stable; Keenan wanted changes.

Eventually, the aggressive coach wore down his boss with demand after demand. Ultimately, Smith capitulated and executed several trades with Edmonton to toughen the New Yorkers.

The result was a preponderance of former champion Edmonton Oilers wearing Gotham colors. Mark Messier, Kevin Lowe, Jeff Beukeboom and Esa Tikannen all owned Stanley Cup rings.

Each would play a vital part in the ultimate result. But Keenan still wasn't satisfied. Keenan practically forced Smith to add a relatively unknown Chicago Blackhawks player to the squad. His name: Stephane Matteau.

"The Edmonton guys already had the experience of being Cup champions," Keenan explained. "A player like Matteau -- even though he hadn't won anything, gave us size and grit. Now I like our mix."

So did the media. Popular WFAN-AM host Steve Somers reflected the prevailing mood: "This year, 1994, felt like it was going to be the Rangers year."

It wasn't just the Edmonton expatriates who fortified Keenan's lineup. Nor was it Matteau, nor the outstanding defenseman Brian Leetch. Guarding the four-by-six-foot goal was acrobatic Mike Richter.

"We all had confidence in Mike," captain Messier said. "He was super motivated, had the experience and, most of all, the skill."

It was different on the New Jersey side. Coach Jacques Lemaire successfully had alternated the little veteran Chris Terreri with peach-faced rookie goalie Martin Brodeur.

Lemaire and his boss, Lou Lamoriello, had brainstormed over the relative merits of the experienced Rhode Islander, Terreri, against the quietly confident Montrealer, Brodeur.

"We finally decided to go with Marty," Lamoriello recalled. "It already was a given that he was our goalie of the future, but we figured that his time was now."  

Part of the confidence exuded by the Devils general staff was Brodeur's surprising calm in this intense playoff situation. Some observers credited his father, Denis, for Marty's ever-encouraging reaction.

As a first-rate minor league goalie who also made a name for himself on the international stage, Denis Brodeur was both mentor and pal to Marty.

Denis was regarded as a cool cat. Ditto for his son.

"Considering Marty's age," said teammate Bobby Holik, "he treated playoff games with the same easy-going reaction as any other regular-season game. And that attitude rubbed off on us and was a confidence-builder."

Now it was time for Game 1 and almost immediately the Rangers jumped into a 1-0 lead. Sergei Zubov, one of the gifted but underrated New York blueliners, beat Brodeur before the game was four minutes old.

"It took a while," said Devils young forward Bill Guerin, "but we finally got our act together and played them pretty even." 

With 1:44 remaining in the first period, the Devils counterattacked and "Old Reliable" John MacLean tied the game with assists from defensemen Tommy Albelin and Bruce Driver.

But the pressing Rangers took the lead again late in the second period. It was 2-1 after two and the Figure Filberts immediately hauled out some stunning statistics.

The key bit of arithmetic revealed that the Rangers were 48-0-4 when leading after the second period in 1993-94. 

Didn't matter. 

Lemaire's energized skaters took the third period away from the Blueshirts. Guerin tied the game and New Jersey's forecheckers had the New Yorkers seemingly on their heels.

But an ill-advised unsportsmanlike penalty to Jim Dowd upset the Devils momentum and - faster than you can say Messier - the Rangers captain set up Steve Larmer giving the home club a seemingly locked-in 3-2 advantage.

It all came down to the final minute of the third period. Brodeur was pulled for a sixth skater and the Devils stormed the enemy zone. Play eventually centered around the Rangers crease; it was truly a chaotic scene.

All of a sudden, out of the crowd of bodies one stick was lifted in triumph. From the wild scramble opportunistic Claude Lemieux seized the rubber and flipped it home. Overtime loomed.

"If nothing else," said Brodeur, "we showed that we could keep up with them."

New Jersey did just that in the first overtime, outshooting the Blueshirts, 11-9, but without a goal to show for it. Now, the second sudden death period was underway and the see-saw in play continued.

Eventually a break would be exploited. The Rangers defensive structure had been broken and only forward Adam Graves was available to stem the Devils' thrust.

Graves was used as a screen by an onrushing Stephane Richer who outflanked the forward and found air behind Mike Richter. 

The underdogs - poof, just like that - now were ahead one game to none. Silence enveloped The Garden, but not the Devils bench. Richer was smothered with hugs and other assorted species of kudos.

"It was a goal-scorer's goal," said Mister Devil, Ken Daneyko.

That it was and now the question on many minds in The Garden State: can Lemaire's Legion do it again?

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