“This will be the biggest game in these two franchises’ history, going back at least 50 years. Buckle up!” –Peter McNab – Devils TV analyst for SportsChannel
Well, some would call it not only the greatest game, but the greatest game of the NHL’s greatest series ever. That’s what Associated Press executive hockey editor Tim Sullivan labeled the series and its finale.
Not only that, but Sullivan wrote a whole book -- Battle on the Hudson -- about it. One of the chief protagonists happened to be Stephane Matteau.
Superficially, at least, Matteau did not have the trappings of a superhero.
(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: Matteau reminded me of one of my early hockey heroes. His name was Joe Klukay, and he was a defensive forward for the Toronto Maple Leafs three-Cup dynasty of the late forties, but obscured by Hall of Famers such as Syl Apps, Max Bentley, and Ted Kennedy. Still, Klukay was capable of the big play.)
At his very best, the tall, French-Canadian from Rouyn Noranda, Quebec would be a just-average second-liner; but more likely a solid utility forward. Although in Junior hockey, there were signs that he was capable of a big moment.
Skating for the Hull, Quebec Junior team, Matteau teamed up with future NHL aces such as Jeremy Roenick and Martin Gelinas.
But after making it to The Show with Calgary in 1990-1991, Matteau was more of a defensive forward. Neither the Flames nor his second big-league team, Chicago Blackhawks, were particularly impressed with him, and on March 21, 1994 -- the trade deadline -- Stephane was dispatched to New York.
He became a Ranger along with Brian Noonan while the Blueshirts sent Tony Amonte and Matt Oates to the Windy City. Nobody in Rangerville got particularly excited over the exchange. But the Matteau Madness would come two months later at one end of Madison Square Garden.
(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: Those of us in the media were more disappointed than pleased. Tony Amonte was a local favorite, while neither Noonan nor Matteau seemed terribly significant in terms of the Rangers’ playoff aspirations.)
To fully understand the impact that Stephane had on New York, it should be noted that the series-winning goal that he scored has been ranked as the 31st most important in the Top 100 Moments in New York City sports history.
But before we get to that, it must be understood that the Rangers had clinched nothing as they entered Game 7 of the Conference Final against the New Jersey Devils.
And bear in mind that Jacques Lemaire’s sextet had been considered fortunate at the start of the series to come away with one win, let alone the three that they now possessed.
(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: I consider Lemaire one of the all-time top coaches. He was a brilliant strategist but also had a way with the media and a gentle but firm touch with his players. But I certainly did not think a win was possible for New Jersey after the tie so abruptly changed in Game 6. The Rangers’ undertow was simply too strong.)
No question, the Devils were back in one of their favorite roles, being the underdog. New Jersey-born Jim Dowd reflected his club’s sentiment before the match: “We had the mindset that never once would a negative thought cross our minds. That’s how we got to the point we were at; it became our tradition.”
That said, the Rangers had been so impressive coming from behind in Game 6 on Mark Messier’s hat trick that those in the Devils’ camp puzzled over the club’s strategy, and one of them was Mike Miller, the Devils’ play-by-play voice.
“I wondered,” Miller reflected, “how Lemaire and the team were going to prop themselves up for another chance at it. That’s what was on my mind.”
In the Rangers’ dressing room, the theme was, “We did it before (just two days ago), and we can do it again. And we will do it again.”
(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: What the Rangers had to worry about was the dreaded build up to a letdown. I was reminded of the 1956 Game 7 of the World Series between the Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers. The Brooks had won the series in 1955 and were going for their second straight. Plus, it was at home -- Ebbett’s Field -- and Big Don Newcombe was on the mound. Needless to say, the Yankees killed them.)
As for the game itself, it was as hyped in the media as Game 6, if that were possible. Radio and television personalities who normally were on the fringe of the ice moved front and center with hockey as their lead story. One of them was WFAN’s Chris (Mad Dog) Russo. “The Devils had no chance,” asserted Russo, “Not the way the Rangers won the last game.”
In a sense the game resembled baseball at its best; a pitchers’ battle. Only this time, it was the opposing goaltenders that had center stage. On the New York side, there was the veteran Mike Richter, and on the other side was a still rather young Martin Brodeur.
If either of them was going to crack, it would be the 22-year-old rookie guarding the New Jersey twine. But despite the MSG crowd bellowing “MARTY! MARTY!” Brodeur seemed oblivious to the invective.
(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: Brodeur still was not as convincing as he would be in future years. I liked him more as an interview at that point in time than as a goaltender. He simply had not been around long enough for me to feel the confidence that was exuded by Richter, who had the experience and the style to go with it.)
Certainly the crowd was getting more than its money’s worth. This was hand-to-hand combat -- a war game on ice -- with neither team capitulating in the first period. Broadcasting for ESPN, former NHL-er Bill Clement observed, “Everybody hits. If you don’t hit, you don’t play in a Game Seven.”
The only thing they didn’t do was score. It was zip-zip after one, although the Rangers had a slight edge in shots on goal, 11-10.
(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: Bear in mind that I was there as a Devils broadcaster for SportsChannel and there was no hint of objectivity in my heart. I was happy to see New Jersey un-scored on, but I still figured it was going to be the Rangers’ night.)
While the players battled on the ice, the respective coaches played their own chess game, juggling lines and gambling on hunches. Lemaire in particular employed his fourth -- or Crash -- line of Bobby Holik, Randy McKay and Mike Peluso. Jacques had the right idea because the best chance early in the second period was a Holik point-blank blast that Richter deflected harmlessly with his right leg.
It was amazing to consider how many games within the game were emerging. Two the best offensive defensemen in history, Scott Niedermayer and Brian Leetch were trading forays, each looking for the opening that would break the ice.
(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: I was worried about Leetch, who already had scored five goals in the playoffs, and was further nudged by Keenan, who had benched Brian earlier in the series. As much as I liked Niedermayer, he still was relatively young and lacked Brian’s savoir faire.)
Then it happened midway through the middle period, with the faceoff deep in the Devils’ zone. New York won the draw, and the puck skimmed to Leetch at the left point. Rather than shooting, he dashed along the left wall and then turned right, heading behind Brodeur’s net.
One Devil, Billy Guerin, went to take the Ranger out of the play while defenseman Scott Stevens provided a backup. Guerin had the right idea, but Leetch trumped both Guerin and Stevens with a spin-o-rama.
(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: No goalie is perfect, and if Brodeur had an egregious weakness early in his career, it was his inability to foil wraparounds. In fact, Adam Graves eliminated New Jersey in 1997 with a Game 5 wraparound while Stevens practically climbed on his back. Anybody concerned about the Devils -- as I was at that moment -- had to be worried.)
Sure enough, Leetch’s whirlwind play resulted in the puck seeping through Brodeur’s pads as he pressed against the right goalpost. The time was 9:31, and The Garden represented Bedlam at its best -- or worst -- depending on your viewpoint.
(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: The way Richter was playing, I couldn’t see a Devils comeback. It was as if Mike had hermetically sealed the four-foot by six-foot goal. He was playing like a goalie possessed, for a very good reason; he was a goalie possessed. And he proved it by blanking the visitors for the rest of the period.)
Brodeur was no slouch either.
Apart from the one goal he allowed, the Devils’ stopper was cool, calm and collected and asked only that his team provide him with one goal, and he would do the rest.
But that goal was not forthcoming in the first half of the third period. Meanwhile, The Garden was rocking with each successive Richter save. Not even Lemaire’s powerplay was working and all signs indicated that the frustrated Devils had run out of gas.
(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: The way I saw it, the pendulum had tilted in the Rangers’ favor because New Jersey’s offense lacked pizazz.)
Now the clock ticked down to the final minute and the Garden’s decibel count had reached record proportions. The possibility of an open-net goal was there for the Rangers’ taking, now that Brodeur had raced to the bench.
A couple of Ranger icings finally led to a melodramatic faceoff. With less than ten seconds remaining, Valeri Zelepukin tried to whack a loose puck away from Richter as the goalie covered it in the crease. Somehow, it squirted free and the likeable Russian shoved it past Richter’s left skate for the tying goal. There was a scant 7.7 seconds left remaining on the clock when the red light flashed.
(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: I was astonished beyond all reason. First of all, Richter had been impenetrable and secondly, the Devils’ offense seemed incapable in meeting the challenge. The whole thing was surreal, but I wasn’t sorry. Now our guys at least had a chance.)
Virtually overlooked, among the stunning sequence of events, is the fact the Rangers should have been penalized for what transpired immediately after the goal.
Incensed that he had been beaten and that referee Bill McCreary allowed play to continue after Richter had hoped for a smother-the-puck whistle, the goalie skated towards the referee who was behind the net and made contact with the official; shoving him into the endwall.
Remarkably, McCreary nearly glared at Richter, but failed to give him either a two minute penalty or at worse, a game misconduct. After all, how does one get away with pushing a referee into the end boards?
(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: The lack of a call bothered me for years, and I told my buddy Mike Cosby, who runs the sporting goods store across from The Garden, how I felt about it. As luck would have it, Cosby would play golf with McCreary and asked him about it. The referee revealed that he told Richter at that moment, “You owe me one.” Sure enough, Richter also acknowledged the four little words of salvation.)
McCreary’s amnesty grant was the most important -- yet incredibly unreported -- turning point in the game. Playoff hockey has been pockmarked with questionable calls, and this was yet another for the stockpile. What’s more, the Devils never even made an issue of it, which was a reflection of Lou Lamoriello’s classy behavior.
Now, the issue was how the respective coaches would plot the sudden death.
(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: Since SportsChannel was not broadcasting the game, I was in a position to pick a spot that would be fairly neutral and so I walked into the CBC French-language studio and took in the remainder of the game from there. It wasn’t easy because the monitor was small and there were at least four other guys watching it from up close. I took three years of college French, but I never took one week of French-Canadian French, so I might as well have been in Montreal for all the good it would do me.)
The first overtime period was not for the faint of heart. McCreary did what both teams wanted and that was letting them play while he swallowed the whistle. Infractions that seemed obvious were overlooked and although the Devils were outshot, they had one glorious chance. The puck squirted behind the Rangers net and Richter -- never an adept stickhandler -- raced Guerin for the rubber. If Billy could corral it on his backhand, he had only to sweep around and stuff the puck in the open net.
But the Devil couldn’t get a handle on the puck and the opportunity evaporated like smoke rings in the air. As the period wound down, a pattern was taking place and the Rangers had much of the puck control.
(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: It became apparent to me that the Devils were more tired than the Rangers. They would get the puck in their end and simply throw it aimlessly to center-ice, catapulting the Blueshirts into another attack formation. The law of averages said that a New York goal was inevitable.)
But, the Rangers couldn’t score in the first overtime even though they had a 15-7 advantage in shots and 43-31 overall. It was a moot question whether the Devils were deliberately playing rope-a-dope hockey trying to frustrate the Rangers and exploit that one opening that might develop for the winning goal.
As the second overtime unfolded, it was apparent that there really was no clear cut Devils plan. Once again, the Rangers attacked, Brodeur saved, the Devils deposited the puck around center ice and the Rangers counter-attacked again.
(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: One of Lemaire’s assistant coaches in that game was Hall of Fame defenseman Larry Robinson. Several years after the climactic seventh game, I met him at the Concord Hotel in the Catskills. It was the resort’s annual summer hockey festival and one evening, Robby and I were sitting around at a cookout. I asked him why the Devils were playing a mere survival style of hockey. Robinson wasted no time shooting back the answer: “We ran out of gas; we just ran out of gas.”)
“New Jersey was a mess in its own zone,” wrote Sullivan in Battle On The Hudson, “Exactly what they were famous for not being.” One of the prime culprits on the visitor’s side was defenseman Slava Fetisov, who had become too slow to play the kind of outstanding hockey he had with the Soviets.
The play that killed his club’s chances was launched by Slava in his own zone. Situated in back of Brodeur, Fetisov made a feeble attempt to clear the puck. But, Esa Tikkanen intercepted the rubber and moved it to the left back boards, where Matteau outraced Niedermayer for the puck.
At this point in time, the play appeared to be defensible. That is, until you account for Brodeur’s prime weakness -- the wraparound. It was really up to the young goalie to blunt what was nothing more than a centering pass for Tikkanen. The puck seemed in no hurry after it bounced off Brodeur at the left post and crossed the red line at the goal mouth.
But since the NHL does not award goals in MPH, the sensational slow-motion score, was all the Rangers needed or wanted.
MSG’s Howie Rose -- ironically now an Islanders broadcaster -- uttered the deathless announcement: “MATTEAU! MATTEAU! MATTEAU! Stephane Matteau! And the Rangers have one more hill to climb, baby! But it’s Mount Vancouver! The Rangers are headed to the Finals!”
(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: Those of us on the Devils’ side were crossed beyond all reason. We were like the Good Year blimp being punctured simultaneously in 100 places. Since I was right outside the Devils’ dressing room, I watched them troop in. If ever a broadcaster is allowed to be proud of a hockey team, I was that person standing there observing a most dignified group of athletes who had spent all their energy and took the better club as far as it could. Lemaire, Lou Lamoriello and owner Dr. John McMullen followed quickly and with total calm and class. By the time everyone had entered the room, I felt secure in the knowledge that this Devils outfit had gone as far as it could go. Robinson was right, they ran out of gas. Or to put it another way, the Rangers gas was of a higher octane. Ergo: the better team won.)