Something new had developed in the Rangers-Devils rivalry that would affect the teams for almost two decades.
That was the arrival of Martin Brodeur as New Jersey’s premier puck-stopper. The affable French-Canadian from Montreal made a brief debut during the 1991-92 season, but really didn’t emerge as a factor until the 1993-1994 season. Brodeur posted a 27-11-8 record with a 2.40 goals against average, and won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top freshman. Brodeur’s ascent meant that New Jersey finally had a goaltending antidote to New York’s irrepressible Mike Richter.
In the Rangers' favor, Richter finished the regular season with a 42-12-6 record and 2.57 goals against average. His experience alone placed him in an advantageous position vis-à-vis his New Jersey counterpart.
(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: Compared to Richter, Brodeur was a mere stripling. Marty was only 22 years old and his lack of experience had already been quite evident. It was too much to expect the kind of performance that Mike would give the Rangers. I sensed that Brodeur’s teammates were well aware of that effect.)
The same could be said for the Rangers' lineup under coach Mike Keenan. But in one area the teams were equal.
Each club had advanced through two playoff rounds. The Rangers defeated the Islanders and the Capitals, and the Devils defeated the Sabres and the Bruins.
The other thing they had in common was a sizzling -- virtually volcanic -- loathing for each other. And it would get even more intense after the opening faceoff of Game One at The Garden.
(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: As someone who was broadcasting for SportsChannel, I experienced this rivalry firsthand. Those of us at SportsChannel felt like second-class citizens compared to the MSG guys. The MSG Network was much better financed and able to do things in a bigger, if not better, way than we could at SC. So we understood how the New Jersey general staff felt when the media regularly gave the Rangers more space in the papers and more airtime on television. The reality was that the Trans-Hudson rivalry extended from the ice to the dressing rooms and right up to the respective front offices.)
It would be simplistic to say that the Rangers were overwhelming favorites until you consider the undercurrent of problems contaminating the high command. General Manager Neil Smith and coach Mike Keenan had often split philosophically -- not to mention verbally -- and, not surprisingly, their skirmishing had attracted the media attention. But the fact that the Rangers had whipped the Devils in all six meetings during the regular season kept the odds heavily on the East side of the Hudson River.
If the Devils were to have a reasonable opportunity to make a series of it, their hopes centered on thwarting Mike Keenan’s offense. Devils coach Jacques Lemaire relied on a simple plan: The best way to frustrate the Rangers was via a suffocating defense, which the media simplified by calling it a “trap”.
(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: Those of us on the Devils side resented the way trap was used by the media and teams such as the Rangers. When reporters or those in the Blueshirts' camp used the term (trap) it was as if Lemaire had designed a new and entertainment-stifling system. In fact, that same technique was employed by the NHL’s winningest coach, Scotty Bowman, when his Montreal Canadiens won four straight cups from 1976-1979. Nobody complained about the trap then and we couldn’t understand what the beefing was about all of a sudden.)
But since it got New Jersey this far, there was every reason to stick with the plan; and so they did. But it didn’t take the Rangers long to exploit the weakness in the Devils system. The first breakthrough was orchestrated by Rangers defenseman Sergei Zubov.
The fleet creative Russian spread from his defensive zone to center ice before skimming a pass to Mark Messier. The Captain returned the favor with a sweet backhand, allowing Zubov to surprise Martin Brodeur with a wrist shot that found the five-hole.
Less than four minutes into the game the Rangers were ahead 1-0. Sensing Brodeur’s nervousness -- Marty misplayed a rebound off the boards -- New York revved up its offense, barely missing on several opportunities.
Somehow New Jersey weathered the storm and began counterattacking with special help from its “Crash Line.” Bobby Holik, Randy McKay and Mike Peluso set the Blueshirts back on their heels with their inimitable brand of rough offense. It didn’t produce a goal, but it had the Rangers scrambling for a change.
(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: What this unit lacked in talent, it compensated for with vim, vigor and vitality. Holik was the brains behind the trio while McKay was the clutch scorer and Peluso the disturber, although all three could get the opposition angry.)
Whatever domination the home team enjoyed went out the window with less than two minutes remaining in the opening frame. Mike Richter blocked a Tommy Albelin shot but the goaltender allowed a rebound that went to John MacLean.
The Devils' marksman sped behind the net and beat Richter with a deft wraparound, tying the score. It was just the confidence-booster Lemaire’s squad needed and it would ultimately set the tone for the entire series.
It was touch and go both ways through the middle period until another Russian, Sergei Nemchinov, one-times the rubber past Brodeur with less than three minutes remaining. If Las Vegas was betting, as the second period ended -- New York leading 2-1 -- it would’ve heavily favored the Seventh Avenue Skaters.
After all, the Blueshirts were 48-0-4 when they were ahead after the first period during the regular season. But if there was one lesson to be learned, it was never to underestimate the coy Lemaire.
(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: From the broadcasting viewpoint, it appeared that as long as New Jersey stayed within a goal, there was a chance of something good happening to the Devils. Veterans such as Bernie Nicholls, John MacLean and Stephane Richer were always dangerous.)
The irrepressible Devils got back in the game when Bill Guerin one-timed a Nicholls pass. The 2-2 tie extended into the third period, but the Rangers again took the lead when Steve Larmer beat Brodeur with a backhander that looked like the game-winner.
(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: Those of us on the New Jersey side were just happy that the Devs had at least kept pace with the home club. We weren’t expecting another goal, especially since the Rangers maintained the lead right down to the final minute, when Lemaire yanked Brodeur and added a sixth skater. What happened next was the surprise of surprises.)
It came down to the final minute with Brodeur pulled for an extra attacker. Scott Niedermayer paced the attack by sending the puck into the right corner, where John MacLean beat all the Rangers to the rubber.
Meanwhile, Claude Lemieux camped out in front of Mike Richter looking for the centering pass. MacLean obliged and a melee developed around the New York crease. When the dust had cleared, the opportunistic Lemieux had flipped the biscuit past Richter with only 34 seconds remaining on the clock.
(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: Suddenly there was hope on the New Jersey side. What we liked best of all was that the Devils had taken over the game and had actually outshot New York 13-8 in the third period. We figured that if Brodeur could come up with a couple of big saves, the Devs had a chance.)
It was 3-3 and the Garden was similar to a mausoleum. So it went to sudden death and this time Martin Brodeur rose to the occasion, making successive stops on Greg Gilbert and then Mark Messier.
Richter was no slouch at the other end, stopping Valeri Zelepukin, who had split the Rangers defense and then released a wrist shot that was easily handled by Richter. Neither team could settle the issue in the first overtime, leading to the second sudden death.
(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: When you get to a second overtime in the playoffs, the fatigue factor is decisive. Keenan had been playing Brian Leetch more than anybody (40 minutes) and both teams had older players. Right now it really was a toss-up).
Once again both goalies were severely tested in the opening minutes. Some 18 years later, Leetch looked back and said, “At that point you don’t have time to worry about how long you’ve been playing.”
But with five minutes gone in the second overtime, Leetch had already played 47 minutes and he was still on the ice when the Devils launched a serious attack led by Bobby Carpenter.
Soon Stephane Richer was speeding towards the Ranger blue line while Adam Graves made a desperate attempt to cut him off at the pass but it was too late. Gliding in at the right circle, Richer employed his most effective weapon; his wrist shot.
(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: At this point in time, the most dangerous Devils shooters were Lemieux, MacLean and Richer. What we loved about Richer is that when he got hot, he was HOT! By this time, Richer already had six shots on goal and we were hoping for a lucky seventh -- he hadn’t been a two-time 50 goal scorer for nothing.)
Richter anticipated the move once Richer eluded Graves and made a desperate attempt to harpoon the puck before the Devil released it. Mike made a nice try but it was a case of too little too late and Richer’s shot cleanly beat Richter.
The time on the clock was 12:03 in the morning. The score was 4-3 for New Jersey which led the series 1-0.
On a broader scale, the remarkably pulsating game would prove to be the template for things to come; that is one of the best, most competitive hockey playoff series of all-time.
MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: Needless to say those of us in the Devils camp were ecstatic. Wow! After the Rangers' season-long domination this victory was more than we expected. It was too soon to dream of a series victory but it wasn’t unrealistic for us to believe that one victory could lead to two -- and you know the rest. The big thing was that Brodeur rose to the occasion. Marty not only was the best goalie of the night but also the best interview. Anyone who knows me realizes THAT is as important to me as a win or a loss!)