He was only ten years old the last time the New Jersey Devils lost a conference finals series, but in a single sentence, Devils’ captain, left winger Zach Parise, captured the feeling for most in the Devils’ organization and among the team’s fan base on Friday night.
“Now, I’m glad we can stop hearing about ’94,” Parise told Madison Square Garden television network analysts Steve Cangialosi and former Devils and Colorado Rockies goalie Glenn “Chico” Resch, after sixth-seeded New Jersey reached its fifth Stanley Cup finals with a 3-2 win over the top-seeded New York Rangers in Game 6 of the best-of-seven Eastern Conference finals on an overtime goal by rookie center Adam Henrique at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey.
Parise was of course, referring to the last time the current Atlantic Division rivals met in the Eastern Conference finals, a classic series remembered best for ex-New York captain Mark Messier’s Game 6 proclamation, with the Rangers’ season on the line – just as it was again on Friday night, ironically on the 18th anniversary of what has become celebrated as the “Messier Guarantee Game.”
As many recall, Messier’s personal third-period hat trick in 1994 forced a Game 7 that New York won in double overtime over New Jersey, sending the Rangers on to the next round to win their fourth Stanley Cup, and first since 1940.
Although that conference final series marked a turning point for each franchise – with New York’s struggles and New Jersey’s large degree of success – the ghosts of nearly two decades ago still haunted the Devils and their fans.
But, maybe no more.
The Rangers, who until this season, had made it past the conference semifinals only once (after beating the Devils in 1997), since 1994, had been perfect (3-0) in elimination games this postseason. But, New Jersey’s history in the conference finals (going 4-0, with Eastern finals wins in 1995, 2000, 2001 and 2003) since their loss to New York 18 years ago, was even better.
The latter of those two won out when Henrique (one goal), who played just one game last season and who is now a finalist for the Calder Trophy, given to the league’s top rookie, finished a mad scramble in the crease by tapping a loose puck into the net just 1:03 into overtime.
Left wingers Alexei Ponikarovsky (one assist) Ilya Kovalchuk (one goal, one assist, team-high two points), who led New Jersey with 37 regular season goals, and who has a team-leading 18 points in the postseason as one of three Devils to score a team-best seven playoff goals this year, each played key roles in the game-winning play.
From inside the Rangers’ blue line, Kovalchuk sent a wrist shot that was stopped by goaltender Henrik Lundqvist (29 saves, three goals allowed). Ponikarovsky (one assist, two penalty minutes) chased down the rebound in the right corner and sent another shot on goal which Lundqvist saved. The puck caromed to Lundqvist’s right where Kovalchuk was denied again by Lundqvist’s stick.
While that was going on, Ponikarovsky had moved to the other side of the Rangers’ zone where he was in the right place at the right time to slowly slide a weak shot under Lundqvist, who was down in front of the net along with defenseman Ryan McDonagh (who assisted on both New York goals).
The puck hit Lundqvist’s left skate and stayed in the crease for a couple of seconds next to the left shin of center Brad Richards (one assist), whose knees were on the ice, just behind Lundqvist.
That’s when an alert Henrique, who set a new franchise record with his 11th postseason point as a rookie, pushed the puck across the goal line and finally exorcised the Devils’ 18-year-old demons.
In a couple of different ways, it was a fitting ending to what vexed New Jersey for that long, especially with the names involved, and how the Rangers are built – on the strength of their goaltending and tough, hard-nosed play.
In 1994, goaltender Mike Richter largely carried New York to its last Stanley Cup victory. Similarly, the Rangers were riding the back of Lundqvist, who after shutting out the Devils in Games 1 and 3 of the series, allowed an uncharacteristic ten goals in the final three games – all, Devil wins.
And, since Lundqvist is well-known as King Henrik, it was quite suitable that New Jersey ousted New York when the almost similar-sounding Henrique beat Henrik.
Also ironic were head coach John Tortorella’s comments after the game, as he praised his team by saying in an unintentionally amusing way, “I thought they played with balls… I thought we were the better team… I love our balls.”
Those comments seemed appropriate not only because they very succinctly captured the grittiness of Tortorella’s team as it rebounded from an awful first period and a 2-0 deficit, to control the play over the next two periods and tie the game, but because Henrique ultimately won the game after taking a shot to the groin that forced him to leave the game for a while.
Henrique bravely blocked a shot by Ranger center Brian Boyle (a former first-round draft pick of the Devils’ next opponent, the Los Angeles Kings) with 7:40 left in the third period and stayed down on the ice as play was stopped.
But, of course, Henrique rebounded from that momentary injury to as Tortorella might have put it, “show some real stones,” and even exemplify the symbolism of a body part that’s a little higher up – with some intestinal fortitude – as Henrique eventually sent the building known as The Rock into a frenzy. Or, more applicably worded in that particular case, the crowd went nuts.
Early on, it looked like New Jersey would coast to an easy win. Although the shots were even at 14 apiece in the first period, the Devils dominated with the majority of the scoring chances and the game’s first two goals, just 3:51 apart.
After scoring three goals within the first ten minutes of its Game 5 win, New Jersey again applied early pressure on New York’s defense, even while shorthanded. Awarded with the game’s first power play, the Rangers gave up a three-on-one break which ended with center Dainius Zubrus clanking a wrist shot off of the crossbar just 4:05 into the game.
A few minutes later, following a save by 40-year-old future hall of fame goaltender Martin Brodeur, the Devils quickly pushed the puck the other way. Right winger Steve Bernier (one assist) passed the puck to himself between the legs of defenseman Marc Staal (no points) and moved up the right side to send a nice crossing pass to streaking right winger Stephen Gionta (one assist), who made a strong rush at the net, but was stopped by Lundqvist. Center Ryan Carter (one goal, two penalty minutes) followed the play and smacked home the rebound however, to give the Devils a 1-0 lead 10:05 into the opening period.
New Jersey, on its first man-advantage, then scored on perhaps the nicest goal of the series with some masterful teamwork and crisp passing. Defenseman Peter Harold (no points) passed from inside the New York blue line to Henrique in the right circle, who crossed to right winger David Clarkson (one assist). From there, the puck quickly moved to the deep right side of the net to Zubrus, who made a great final pass in front and on the opposite side of the net to set up a waiting Kovalchuk, who one-timed a shot that beat Lundqvist to extend the Devils’ lead to 2-0 with 6:04 left in the frame.
But, as they did in battling back from a 3-0 deficit to a 3-3 tie in Game 5, the Rangers recovered from a poor, lifeless start and in the second period, the game looked as though the teams had switched uniforms. As dominant as New Jersey appeared in the first period is exactly the way New York seemed in the next one, as the Rangers tied the game on a pair of goals within a six-minute span.
Left winger Ruslan Fedetenko (one goal, two penalty minutes), who was called for a tripping penalty on Carter that set up the Devils’ second goal, redeemed himself by getting the Rangers on the board 9:47 into the second period. Kovalchuk was unable to clear the puck out of the New Jersey zone as McDonagh made a heady play to keep the puck in the zone and take it up and around the boards. As he fended off a check by Harold behind the net, McDonagh finished with a brilliant wrap-around setup for Fedetenko, who slapped the puck into the net from inside the crease.
Later, center Brandon Dubinsky (no points) won a faceoff in the left circle, where center Artem Anisimov (no points) sent the puck back to the left point to McDonagh, who then passed to his right, to defenseman Dan Girardi (one assist). As Dubinsky provided a screen in front, Girardi fired a wrist shot that New York captain, right winger Ryan Callahan (one goal), with his back to the net, slyly and intentionally redirected with his right skate, off of the right post and into the net to tie the game, 2-2, with 6:19 to go in the period.
Outshooting the Devils 13-7 in the second period, and 8-5 in the third, the Rangers began to control much of the play, and as Tortorella believed, had apparently become the better team going into the extra session. However, all three shots in overtime were taken by the Devils, with the final one ending New York’s season and a journey that concluded with an arduous grind of playing a 20th playoff game 44 days.
Tortorella, who started his coaching career with four games as the Rangers’ interim head coach in 1999, and who just completed his fourth full season in New York after spending seven years and winning one Stanley Cup (in 2004) in Tampa Bay, wouldn’t use fatigue as an excuse, and won’t allow his team to be complacent next year after seeing the Rangers go further than the franchise had been in 18 years.
“We’re still a young club and we still have quite a bit to learn as far as the desperation when you get to this third round,” Tortorella said. “I don’t want this organization to sit still because [of past years without getting far]… we have to change our mindset… that there’s a lot more hockey to play after you go through a couple [of rounds]… you can’t be tired here, and I don’t think we were.”
What Tortorella should be able to take some solace in is that New York seems headed in the right direction, going from backing into the postseason as an eight seed on the final day of the regular season and a quick first-round exit a year ago, to a one seed and just two wins shy of the Stanley Cup finals this year.
Like Tortorella, but with far less experience, head coach Peter DeBoer, took a similar route of moving from the Sunshine State to New York’s tri-state area. In just his fourth year as an NHL head coach, and in his first with the Devils after missing the playoffs for three straight years in Florida, DeBoer has guided New Jersey to its first Stanley Cup finals in nine years, one season after the Devils missed the playoffs for the first time since 1996.
Now, with the bitter memories of 1994 finally being quashed, the Devils, who won Stanley Cups in 1995, 2000, and 2003, will look to add another league title as they host the eighth-seeded Kings in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals on Wednesday night.
Although New Jersey swept its brief two-game regular season series with Los Angeles (winning 2-1, in a shootout, on the road, on Oct 13th, and at home, 3-0, twelve days later), the Devils are well aware that they can’t take the Kings lightly, as Los Angeles, despite being the lowest playoff seed in the Western Conference this season, has stormed through the playoffs thus far with a 12-1 record, including a perfect 8-0 mark on the road.
In the crapshoot of the NHL playoffs, that’s what you can sometimes get – a six versus an eight. But, the way they’re playing lately, the Devils and Kings both look more like the top seed that the Rangers were.
That scenario adds one last bit of irony to the New Jersey’s story, as the Devils try to go from toppling the King (Henrik), to beating a group of Kings, and once again become NHL kings.