A perfect 6-0-0 record against the Devils during the 1993-94 regular season meant nothing. An 8-1 postseason mark heading into Game 1 of the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals was irrelevant. Even three one-goal leads in said Game 1 did not guarantee the Rangers a single thing.
All that mattered was that New Jersey’s Stephane Richer scored at 15:23 of the second overtime to hand the Devils a dramatic 4-3 victory over the Rangers in the opener of the Eastern Conference Finals on this date 15 years ago.
|Rangers goaltender Mike Richter stood tall in defeat in Game 1 vs. New Jersey, making a remarkable 44 saves at MSG. |
Gone for the Rangers was home-ice advantage in the series, earned after 52 wins and 112 points in a Presidents’ Trophy-winning regular season. Gone, too, was part of the aura and swagger these Rangers had built up by virtue of their dominating play over the Devils during the 1993-94 campaign, along with their first and second-round playoff demolitions of the Islanders and Washington Capitals, respectively.
Added to the mix was a healthy dose of respect for an underrated Devils squad, which finished only six points behind the Rangers in the standings and proceeded to wipe out an 0-2 deficit in a second round playoff series on their way to a 4-2 series win over the tough Boston Bruins.
As they had also done previously against the Islanders and Capitals, the Rangers opened up against New Jersey by scoring less than four minutes into the series. Defenseman Sergei Zubov finished a give-and-go sequence with Mark Messier by whistling a wrist shot past the gloved hand of Martin Brodeur at 3:39 of the first period to give the Rangers a 1-0 lead.
With The Garden rocking, referee Bill McCreary met with linesman Gord Broseker to decide if Brian Noonan -- who had crashed the crease -- had interfered with Brodeur on the play. The two officials decided that Noonan had made contact with Brodeur, but only after the puck had hit the net, and the goal stood, much to the delight of the 18,200 fans at Madison Square Garden.
Less than two minutes later, Alex Kovalev broke in all alone on Brodeur and fired a puck between his pads, and for a split second it appeared that the Rangers would grab a huge 2-0 advantage early in Game 1. However, Kovalev’s shot hit the post and bounced out, and the Devils caught a big break.
Had Kovalev’s shot hit the net instead, perhaps there would have been a far different finish to Game 1. But instead puck met iron -- just as another Kovalev shot would do later on in the first overtime.
The visitors had another bounce go their way late in the first period, and, as such, were able to head into the intermission tied 1-1. John MacLean swung the puck toward the crease in front of Mike Richter’s cage, and it deflected off a Rangers’ skate and skittered over the goal line to pull the Devils even.
The Rangers, though, were able to regain the lead at 17:50 of the second period when Sergei Nemchinov recorded his first goal of the playoffs. Veteran forward Greg Gilbert outworked several Devils in the corner to gain control of the puck, and then zipped a perfect pass to the player affectionately known as “Sarge”. Nemchinov rifled his shot top shelf, just under the crossbar, from between the circles, and the Rangers had a 2-1 lead.
Yet again the Devils responded to tie the game when Bill Guerin put a slap shot past Richter at 5:50 of the third. But once more the Rangers would move a goal ahead when Steve Larmer batted in a power play rebound at 11:05 to put the Rangers up 3-2.
Desperate for one more comeback, the Devils applied tremendous pressure over the final nine minutes, but Richter was brilliant in denying one great scoring chance after another. Clinging to the one-goal lead, Richter may have thought he had saved the game when he robbed Richer from in-tight with two minutes left in regulation.
However, with Brodeur pulled for the extra attacker, Claude Lemieux banged in a loose puck during a goal-mouth scramble with 43 seconds left on the clock, and the game was again tied, this time 3-3.
Only seconds before the tying goal, Richter had fended off both Lemieux and Guerin with amazing stops in-close. But there was nothing he could do when Lemieux finally tied it up.
Richter again was the story during the scoreless first 20-minute overtime session. He made 11 saves in the first overtime, including a pair of dazzling stops on two separate breakaways by Valeri Zelepukin.
Though the Rangers were the home team, it was the Devils who seemed to have more jump as the overtime periods played on. Perhaps the reason for that was their experience of having already played three overtime contests in the 1994 postseason, including a four-OT thriller against Buffalo in the opening round. By contrast, the Rangers had not played a single minute of overtime since the playoffs started.
New Jersey stormed Richter again in the second overtime period, and again he was brilliant in making huge saves on Richer and Bob Carpenter, in particular. Meanwhile down at the other end of the ice, the Rangers managed just three shots on Brodeur in the second OT.
Finally, the critical mistake was committed. Rangers’ defenseman Jeff Beukeboom pinched along the right-wing boards, but the puck squirted by him, and Carpenter head-manned the puck to a streaking Richer, who was being chased by the back checking Adam Graves.
It was no contest as the speedy Richer skated away from Graves and fired on Richter. After bailing out his teammates all night long, Richter nearly did so again, but though he got a stick on Richer’s shot, it carried into the net. And for the first time in the 1994 playoffs, the Rangers were trailing in a series.
Richter finished with 44 saves as the Rangers were outshot 48-38, including 20-12 in the two overtime periods.
Following the match, head coach Mike Keenan lamented his team’s lack of “desperation” and “intensity.” Keenan vowed his club would come with a far superior effort in Game 2 at The Garden on May 17.