The Maven's Haven

  • Monday, December 17, 2012

    Greatest Rivalries: Rangers & Devils Meet in Playoffs for the First Time

    To best understand and appreciate the Rangers’ playoff series victory over New Jersey in the Spring of 1992, one must turn back the calendar to the Autumn of 1991; specifically Oct. 5

    The fallout from one of the most arresting trades in NHL history still was reverberating around the hockey world all because THE Captain, Mark Messier, had just become a Ranger.

    At the time, Messier was regarded as the best team-leader in the business, if not the best all-round player in terms of his on-ice talent, physicality and inspirational abilities. "Nobody," said Adam Graves who played alongside Messier in Edmonton, "wants to win more than Mark."

    (THE MAVEN'S COMMENT: I had attended a Messier appearance at the Downtown Athletic Club where an SRO crowd greeted the new Ranger. While I knew Mark well from his Edmonton days, I noticed an extra feeling of command in his persona now that he was in Manhattan. He had become an instant New York sports leader. No practice was necessary.)

    Not that the Devils were lacking neither talent nor leadership in the 1991-1992 campaign. Under boss Lou Lamoriello's leadership, the Garden Staters had become a formidable outfit with young talents such as Kirk Muller, John MacLean and not-so-ancient veterans such as Claude Lemieux and Peter Stastny. 

    If the Blueshirts had an accomplished coach in Roger Neilsen, the Devils had the equally experienced Tom McVie behind the bench. And if the latter had an advantage over the former, McVie was the unofficial NHL King of the One-Liners. (Example: "I've been fired more than Clint Eastwood's Magnum!" Or, asked how he slept after a loss, Tom shot back, "I slept like a baby. Every two hours I woke up and started crying!")

    Beating the Rangers that season was no laughing matter. New York completed the regular campaign with a league-leading 105 points (50-25-5) while Messier delivered as expected. "Moose" led his club in scoring with 35 goals and 72 assists for 107 points in what Mark described as "My second career."

    For a time -- at the start of the homestretch -- the Devils appeared good enough to challenge the first-place Rangers especially with a 4-2 victory over New York. In that game, McVie employed his anti-Messier missile named Claude Lemieux. The pesty Devils forward was all over The Moose; so much so that Mark commended his foe after the match. "Claude was with me everywhere on the ice," the Blueshirts’ captain allowed. "When I went to the bench he almost sat down with me."

    (THE MAVEN'S COMMENT: Working at SportsChannel, I did many personality features. One of them centered on Lemieux who had moved into a large home near Montclair. With a TV crew, I visited him for a few hours in which he regaled us with his carpentry, musicology and dedication to being a Devil. In no time at all Claude was the Devis’ answer to Messier; all heart, soul and talent.)

    Meanwhile -- with his team's victory over the Rangers in mind along with the Rangers-Devils rivalry -- McVie made a prophetic comment, although he may not have realized it at the time. Tommy told the assembled media that he had seen the future. "Can you imagine seven games like that?" asked the voluble coach who then answered his question with a look toward the playoffs: "It could happen."

    And so it did, but not before Neilson's sextet pulled away from the pack while the Devils suffered a series of injuries to key players that dropped them out of first place contention. But as has always been the ice in sports, an injury to one player means an opportunity for another and so it was with McVie's goaltending corps. His starter Chris Terreri was enjoying a superlative season with Craig Billington proving to be an able reliever.

    But in the final month of the schedule in a game with Edmonton Oilers forward Anatoli Semenov crashed into Biller. As bad luck would have it, Craig was lost for the season. That was the bad news. The good news was that the Devils were nurturing a young, French-Canadian goaltender on their minor league team in Utica and on March 26, 1992 Martin Brodeur was promoted to The Show. 

    Although Brodeur was still of Junior age in his debut against the Boston Bruins, he was typically cool although his challenge was immense. The Devils were so pockmarked with injuries that McVie was compelled to insert six other rookies in his lineup. But the kid-goalie with the brush cut produced timely saves including a game-turning one on Vladimir Ruzicka who had been set up alone in front of the net by Adam Oates. What appeared to be a certain goal turned into an eye-opening Brodeur arm deflection enabling him to gain his first NHL win, 4-2.

    (THE MAVEN'S COMMENT: It was impossible to venture any kind of sensible guess as to Marty's future as an NHL star. He was as green as you'd expect a teenaged goalie to be and I'd been around long enough to know that goalies, long-term, are not what they seem to be after a game or two. I reserved judgment on Brodeur.)

    What followed was an unprecedented 10-day players' strike which, if nothing else, allowed McVie's wounded to heal while the general staff evaluated newcomers who could play a vital role in the playoffs. One of them was U.S. Olympic aspirant Bill Guerin, the Devils’ first choice (fifth overall) in the 1989 Entry Draft. "Bill," said Devils boss Lou Lamoriello, "was the best right wing at Utica."

    Once both the Rangers and Devils had completed their 80-game regular schedule, the first-place Blueshirts were looking down at a club which had slipped to fourth, 18-points behind the Patrick Division-leaders. What’s more, New York boasted the NHL's top-scoring defenseman  in Brian Leetch. He played in every contest, finishing with 22 goals, 80 assists and 102 points, only one point behind both Steve Yzerman of Detroit and the Blackhawks’ Jeremy Roenick. 

    The Devils had a few bragging points as well. Their 38-31-11 mark was the best in franchise history at the time and it was a record-breaking season in other ways: 1. Most points (87); 2. Most wins at home (24); 3. Longest winning streak (six games); 4. Fewest goals allowed (259). After 10 years of waiting, the Devils would finally get their shot at the Rangers in the playoffs.

     (THE MAVEN'S COMMENT: One of the Devils’ biggest fans was New York Yankees baseball legend Yogi Berra, who had loved hockey from his childhood days in St. Louis. Because of his witticisms, Berra's genius as a ballplayer often was overlooked. The same held with Tommy McVie as coach. He was one of the most hilarious personalities I've ever known in hockey. With the proper management, he could have developed into the kind of television star another NHL coach, Don Cherry, turned out to be.)

    "This series will show what our guys are made of because the Rangers finished on top," Yogi explained. Or to put it another way, a headline in the April 19 Sunday edition of the Newark Star-Ledger summed up prevailing strategic thinking on the series: STOPPING MESSIER DEVILS NO. 1 PRIORITY. 

    That made sense especially since the Rangers’ captain would win the Hart Trophy as the NHL's Most Valuable Player. The Messier Effect was what persuaded some "experts" to pick New York in a four-game sweep. Veteran Star-Ledger beat man Rich Chere called the Rangers in six. And just about everybody liked the handle tagged on to the series: THE FIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL.

    Whatever the crystal balls and ouija board suggested, the fans who packed Madison Square Garden for Game 1 soon realized that these teams were more evenly-matched on the ice than they were in the final standings. Despite trailing 2-0 in the third period, the Garden Staters got a goal from Zdeno Ciger and stormed John Vanbiesbrouck's net from that point to the final buzzer. The Devils didn't get the tying goal, but they did get kudos from The Beezer.

    "I'll guarantee," opined the Rangers’ goalie, "that the Devils are far from down and discouraged. They got great goaltending from Terreri."

     (THE MAVEN'S COMMENT: The eventual ascent of Brodeur overshadowed Terreri's early accomplishments as a fine puck-stopper for the Devils. Small by goalie standards, Terreri compensated with acrobatic saves and a tremendous will to win. He ranks among my all-time favorites both as a goalie and a down-to-early personality.)

    peaking of Class A puck-stopping, Vanbiesbrouck took a 9-0-1 record into Game 2 at The Garden, but the visitors quickly dimmed Beezer's luster with a resounding 7-3 triumph. Lemieux not only contained Messier, but scored a pair himself while the rookie Guerin delivered his first NHL goal. "We played pretty good in the first game," Lemieux said, "and better in the second. We'll have to keep playing better."

    Suddenly, the Devils were being noticed while the Rangers, all along, remained the top banana with Messier's line leading the way. When the Devils returned home for Game 3 at The Meadowlands, the New York Times' beat man Alex Yannis commented, "The Devils have converted themselves into a relentlessly fearless team. They hit anything that moves and stand up for each other as if they were family."

    Stephane Richer and Messier exchanged first-period goals before Scott Stevens put the home club ahead to stay. Haitian-born Devils forward Claude Vilgrain added a second-period insurance goal and the Devils skated off to a tumultuous ovation and a 3-1 triumph. 

    Another reason for Rangers concern was that former Soviet defense star Slava Fetisov had reached the peak of his NHL stardom at age 34. Accustomed as he had been to international rivalries in both the Olympics and other tournaments, Fetisov was keenly appreciating the New York-New Jersey rivalry. "These," he said, "are special games for us because we are playing the Rangers. I play physical because that is the way we must play to beat New York."

    (THE MAVEN'S COMMENT: I found it fascinating to see how the European players quickly grasped the significance of the Trans-Hudson rivalry. Fetisov and fellow Russian Alexei Kasatonov wasted no time hating the Rangers. At times, their attitude toward the Blueshirts seemed to have come directly from Devils owner Dr. John McMullen who was instrumental in luring them across the Atlantic.)

    Trailing two-games-to-one against an inspired underdog, the Rangers knew the math. "We've got to win one game in New Jersey," explained Roger Neilson. Or, as Leetch added, "Game 4is a must game for us."

    They were not dealing in overstatements; and to say that Game 4 was superb would be an understatement. After two periods of pulsating play the game remained knotted at zero-zero although the Devils dominated the offense. Just about everyone in the 19, 040 crowd realized that the first mistake to be exploited would result in the winning goal. 

    Not surprisingly, the man who pounced on the mistake was Messier. 

    The turning point resulted from weak pass delivered by Peter Stastny. Still in the Rangers’ zone, the Slovakian star wanted to kill time for a line change and skimmed the rubber to Slava Fetisov who was backpedalling at the time. Stastny's intentions were good, but his delivery was slow and who should pick it up on the radar but none other than the Rangers’ captain. In full flight, he intercepted the puck, noticed Jan Erixon alone in the slot and fed his linemate a perfect pass. The young Swede beat Terreri between the pads at 4:14 of the third and that deflated the Devils. New York scored two more goals, won the game 3-0 and tied the series at two.

    "We had lots of chances," said Claude Lemieux, "but Mike Richter stood on his head."

    (THE MAVEN'S COMMENT: As good as he was, Richter still had not persuaded Rangers fans that he was competent enough to take them far into the playoffs, let alone past the Devils. In fact this playoff run would prove to be a turning point -- upward -- in Mike's Rangers career.)

    Goaltending would be decisive in terms of the final series result. Richter was hot and Terreri was hurting; a factor that was evident in Game 5, at The Garden. Bang, Bang, Bang, Bang, Bang! Just like that, the Blueshirts pumped five straight goals past the embattled New Jersey netminder, sending him to the showers. And who should replace him but the very inexperienced Martin Brodeur. 

    Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom! And just like that the Devils lit a quartet of red lights, pushing to within a goal of tying the count. But 19-year-old Marty couldn't hold the fort; allowing three more New York goals and it was now the Rangers leading the series – three-games-to-two -- on the strength of an 8-5 MSG margin.

    "Our comeback when we were down by five showed them something," said Devils defenseman Bruce Driver, confident that his club could rebound in Game 6 at East Rutherford with Terreri back between the pipes.

    If a song could best describe Game 6, it would be Fats Waller's rendition of "I'm On a Seesaw." Stastny opened the scoring for New Jersey, but Tony Amonte tied it for New York. Up and down went the scoring; 2-1 Rangers, 2-2; 3-2, Devils; then 3-3. The breakthrough goal was crafted by Lemieux who moved the puck into the enemy zone, drawing Messier and Leetch to him before shooting. Richter, who was well out of his goal, made the save, but Zdeno Ciger cashed the rebound and, this time, Terreri gallantly preserved the lead before Stastny buried the final goal. It was 5-3 for the Garden Staters, who forced a Game 7.

    As an extra, added -- physical -- attraction, the post-game hostilities cannot be ignored. As the Devils celebrated their accomplishment words were exchanged between the foes with Tie Domi and Joe Kocur heading New York's combat team for what developed into a major brawl that required considerable peacemaking. And once the players finally trooped to their dressing rooms Rangers defenseman James Patrick summed up the rivalry with seven well-chose words: "These teams do not like each other!"

    (THE MAVEN'S COMMENT: I've often wondered about the value -- to the losing team -- of post-game fights. This had become part and parcel of the Philadelphia Flyers' brand and in many cases it worked. Conceivably, with coach Roger Neilson's blessing, the Domi-Kocur one-two punch would have a positive effect on their teammates in Game 7.)

    That state of affairs served to whet the appetite of noted Met Area columnists such as Mike Lupica, Dave Anderson and Joe Gergen. What the Rangers-Devils uproar did was turn them away from their baseball focus and over to this scintillating series now heading for a climax. "You heard it everywhere," wrote Anderson in The Times, "aren't the playoffs terrific? Will the Devils eliminate the Rangers?"

    On Thursday, a night before Game 7, the Rangers held their final practice. While most of the players had showered, dressed and departed, The Captain was at his locker, lacing up a fresh pair of skates. An onlooker remarked to Messier, "New skates? For a seventh game?"

    "No," The Captain fired back, "I'm getting ready for the next series." And he was serious about the next series. "This is a big game for me and I'm looking forward to having a big game, as I do going into every game."

    (THE MAVEN'S COMMENT: Some players would be accused of excessive braggadocio, but when Messier delivered a low-key comment such as he did, it was not a matter of bragging but just plain confidence in his ability to craft a victory.)

    If the Devils were intimidated, they certainly didn't betray any fear. "They expected us to be done after the fifth game," noted Driver. "Nobody figured us to go this far."

    But to go farther in the playoffs they would have to rely on substitutes. New Jersey's top defenseman, Fetisov, was sidelined with a leg injury suffered in Game 6. Sniper Stephane Richer had a bad knee and Terreri's back was ailing. "It seemed," lamented McVie, "that whatever could go wrong went wrong."

    And so it was as Darren Turcotte's shorthander put New York ahead just 2:30 into the game, but less than two minutes later defenseman Tommy Albelin tied the count at one. Action was fast and furious as the clubs battled for the lead before Laurie Boschman took an unnecessary penalty just short of the period's half-way point.

    (THE MAVEN'S COMMENT: One of the lessons I've learned from more than a half-century of hockey coverage is that the seemingly "little things," such as a first-period holding penalty, often mean a lot. With Boschman in the box, the Devils needed an airtight penalty kill.)

    Mike Gartner put the Rangers ahead, hammering home his own rebound at 9:38 and less than three minutes later it was 3-1 for New York on an Adam Graves' power play backhander. The reeling Devils got little respite during the intermission and Messier made it a 4-1 game after capping a dazzling two-on-one break with Graves early in the second session. Less than a minute later The Captain fed Graves for the fifth goal that sent the MSG crowd into paroxysms of joy and a standing ovation. Before the Devils could stop the bleeding it was 6-1 for New York by the 14-minute mark of the middle period.

    For all intents and purposes the game was over -- or was it?

    Goal by goal, the visitors assiduously pecked away at Fortress New York. First, it was Bill Guerin who beat John Vanbiesbrouck at 18:49 of the middle frame, reducing the Devils deficit to 2-6. At 7:55 of the third Lemieux scored and at 10:10 it was 4-6 when Pat Conacher scored a shorthander. "We were matching them hit for hit," said New Jersey's Kevin Todd, "but we just ran out of shots." 

    (THE MAVEN'S COMMENT: The Rangers were in disorderly retreat by this time, but the big cushion they had developed enabled them to re-group. Unfortunately, the Devils had a proclivity for shooting themselves in the foot at critical moments. In the end that proved to be the beginning of their end.)

    The last thing the indomitable McVie needed was a too-many-men-on-the-ice penalty and that's what he got at 13:01. A power-play goal and Messier's empty-netter sealed the 8-4 deal for the Rangers who previously never had won a seventh game in the playoffs, losing all four in other rinks. 

    "We had been in this situation all year," Messier concluded, "playing big games. We know how to go about it. Right now, we're already thinking about the Pittsburgh Penguins."

    (THE MAVEN'S COMMENT: The better team won at least in part because of Messier's leadership and clutch play when it most counted and the Devils f’ailure to avoid the penalty box and sick bay. Those of us covering the next round wanted to see how New York matched up with defending champion Pittsburgh led by Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr.)

    In the 1992 Division Finals, Neilson's charges actually took a two-games-to-one lead in the series after dropping the opener. But the Penguins got an overtime goal from Ron Francis in Game 4-- a 5-4 decision -- and ran off the playoff with 3-2 and 5-1 decisions. The Penguins then went on to rout both Boston and Chicago in four-game sweeps to annex their second straight Stanley Cup.

    (THE MAVEN'S COMMENT: During the Summer of 1992 I had been assigned by Inside Sports magazine to do a feature profile on Messier who had become the hockey king of New York. We met at his 57th Street apartment house and walked over to an Italian restaurant on Seventh Avenue across from Carnegie Hall. It was a warm, pleasant day and Mess was in an expansive mood and in no rush at all. We talked about all aspects of his career with particular emphasis on his taking New York to his heart while New Yorkers returned the favor to him. But suddenly -- unexpectedly -- Moose began talking about coach Neilson and not in a flattering way at all. Frankly, I was taken aback but once Mess finished I got the sense that, sooner or later, Roger would be finished as Rangers coach. Clearly, The Captain and The Coach were not on the same page. Messier knew it but -- at least at that time -- I didn't know whether Neilson was aware of the un-bridgeable divide. Ultimately it led to Neilson's departure, Mike Keenan's arrival and two years later the Rangers first Stanley Cup since 1940!)

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