Greatest Rivalries: Rangers-Devils 1994 Game 7 – Matteau, Matteau, Matteau

 

@StanFischler

“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 whatAssociated 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.)

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Potvin Breaks Orr’s Record

One of the most remarkable aspects of Denis Potvin’s smashing of Bobby Orr’s record of most points by a defenseman is rooted in a statement that the Islanders’ Hall of Fame backliner made nine years before the landmark event.

In 1976, an international tournament called the Canada Cup included the world’s best players skating for their respective national teams. Among those included on Team Canada was Boston Bruins defenseman Bobby Orr, considered by many to be the greatest D-man of all-time.

Still in his prime, Orr owned a pair of Stanley Cup rings and was to enhance his stature even more by being named the Canadian team’s most valuable player. Potvin, who was Orr’s teammate on Team Canada, startled the hockey world by asserting that Orr had taken the MVP title only because of “sentimentality.”

What’s more, Potvin went a step farther, authoring an article in a major Canadian magazine under the title, “I’m Better Than Bobby Orr.”

The reverberations it caused through the National Hockey League only served to delight Potvin who loved the limelight and eventually would “write” his own autobiography, “Power on Ice.”

(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: Denis and I were good friends right from his rookie year. I ghosted his book, “Power On Ice” right after the Canada Cup episode and I can assure you that Potvin considered himself at least as good as Orr. And Denis wasn’t even in his prime then. “Orr does things that I don’t do and I do things that Bobby doesn’t do.” Potvin was right. He played a much He played a much more physical game than Orr and was defensively more dependable. Potvin also wrote one more book than Bobby! Or, as Sports Illustrated noted, “Potvin is a rarity among hockey players in that he speaks in polysyllables, enjoys art and theater and does not limit his reading to centerfolds.” Surprisingly, Potvin and Orr wound up being good buddies.)

Nevertheless, the anger of Boston fans stirred by Potvin’s quasi-put-down of Orr was small potatoes compared with the super-intense manner in which Rangers fans reacted to the Islanders Hall of Famer.

The hatred — and it was nothing less — has been generated for years ever since Potvin’s team upset the Rangers in the 1975 playoffs. But it reached a peak on Feb. 25, 1979 at The Garden.

During a typically intense battle Potvin delivered a thudding bodycheck to Ulf Nilsson, the lithe Swedish forward who — with his Swedish compatriot Anders Hedberg — provided a one-two punch to the Blueshirts’ offense.

Nilsson’s leg was severely damaged and the blow essentially ended his NHL career. Not surprisingly Rangers fans accused Potvin of deliberately injuring their ace. The next time the Isles visited The Garden, Potvin was greeted with chorus after chorus of POTVIN SUCKS!

(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: Nilsson eventually exonerated Potvin from any guilt, calling the hit a legitimate check. If anything it was a borderline blast from a competitor whose intensity was similar to that of Gordie Howe and Mark Messier, each of whom were known to be less than delicate with the foe. Considering the Islanders-Rangers rivalry at that point — and the fact that I was working the Isles telecasts — I considered the fans criticism of Potvin perfectly normal but Denis was not guilty.)

What was so astonishing was that the one-game verbal scathing of Potvin became a ritual every time he skated on Garden ice. And if that didn’t strain credulity, the POTVIN SUCKS mantra continued long after Denis retired in 1988 and it’s uttered at least a few times during every single home game.

Even the staid New York Times took due note of the razzing. “To this day,” wrote Fred Bierman, “fans of the archrival Rangers utter his name more frequently and with greater fervor than those who cheered his checks and slapshots.”

Potvin: “It’s quite amazing that they’re still doing it. The whole thing has taken a life of its own.”

(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: Very craftily, Denis has managed to conceal any hurt feelings over the endless slurs. On visits to MSG as a television commentator for the Florida Panthers and later the Ottawa Senators, he has kidded Rangers fans who’ve needled him. “You guys aren’t listening carefully,” Potvin likes to joke.” What they’re saying is ‘POTVIN’S CUPS, POTVIN’S CUPS.’ That’s for all four that I won.”)

Explaining the chant’s durability has challenged many observers of New York fandom. The Times’ man, Bierman, put it this way: “As time has passed the chant has increasingly less to do with Potvin the player or the person. Instead, it has turned into a way for Rangers fans — many of whom, never saw Potvin play — to express their general frustrations or to have a laugh during a lull in the action.”

The aforementioned background only serves to underscore the anxiety suffered by Rangers fans on the night of Dec. 20, 1985 when the Islanders came to Seventh Avenue with Captain Potvin leading the invasion.

Make no mistake, the rivalry was as intense as ever. That Potvin’s Islanders had set a record between 1980 and 1984 of 19 consecutive playoff series wins was fresh in the minds of fans and Denis still was in his prime, on the threshold of breaking Orr’s record for most points by a defenseman.

(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: Heading into Potvin’s record-breaking game, the Rangers and Isles were touch and go in the standings, each vying for a playoff berth and each eventually making it although the Nassaumen finished third in the Wales Conference one notch above the Rangers. Potvin’s 21 goals marked his ninth 20-goal season. He finished the campaign just four assists shy of severing Brad Park’s career assist mark of 683. It was now fair to suggest that Potvin was better than Orr.)

As for the game itself, the tension surrounding Potvin’s record was heightened since he had not scored in the previous four games. “The four-game drought was hurting us,” Denis allowed. “Everyone had become conscious about getting me the big point.”

It was the height of irony that the fifth game would unfold at The Garden with John Vanbiesbrouck in the Blueshirts’ goal facing Kelly Hrudey at the other end.

Less than four minutes into the opening period, the visitors scored. Potvin, who was at the end of his shift, spotted scoring legend Mike Bossy and skimmed a cross-rink pass to the right wing. Bossy beat Beezer at 3:38 to put Al Arbour’s club ahead.

I couldn’t believe it when Bossy scored,” explained Potvin. “My intention was to get the puck to him and get off the ice. I didn’t even see the puck go into the net. I looked at Bossy’s face and when he looked straight at me, I knew he had done it.”

(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: Covering the game from the Islanders’ SportsChannel vantage point, I was interested in seeing how the pro-Rangers, anti-Potvin crowd would react. Would they – at least momentarily – acknowledge Denis’ greatness or would the perpetual animosity prevail? As it happened only a portion of the packed house cheered. But at least some recognized that a major milestone in league history had been reached. I felt good about that.)

The Associated Press reporter at rinkside offered this appraisal: “Most of the 17,409 fans — Rangers partisans — booed.“

In a sense, the Blueshirts faithful had the last laugh. Trailing 2-1 late in the third period, the Rangers rallied to tie the count, 2-2, on rookie Mike Ridley’s goal with less than four minutes remaining in regulation time. The game ended in a 2-2 draw.

Because of Potvin’s accomplishment the media crowded into the visitors’ room where Captain Denis held forth as long as the questions were fired at him. And when it came to the inevitable comparison with Orr:

“Obviously I wouldn’t have been close to the record had Bobby not had bad knees,” said Potvin. “But I’m excited about setting the record. I wanted to be compared with Bobby. That was my goal.”

(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: I was very impressed with Potvin’s postscript and the fact that he not only praised Orr but noted how Bobby’s knees severely limited Orr’s career. Actually Denis broke the record in 882 NHL games while Bobby set the record in only 657 games. As for other significant comparisons; Orr won two Stanley Cups and Potvin four plus Denis lead the Isles to the never-to-be-broken 19 consecutive playoff series wins. What it comes down to is two extraordinary defensemen of differing styles and contrasting teams. Take your pick. I’ll take Potvin any day.)

Denis played through the 1987-88 season and soon was inducted into the Hall of Fame in Toronto.

Rangers fans rather view Potvin as worthy of a Hall of Infamy and the POTVIN SUCKS offers proof that there’s no end to Islanders-Rangers enmity.

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Greatest Rivalries: Rangers-Devils – The Guarantee

 

@StanFischler

Never in the course of hockey history has a team owed so much to one player and his one utterance — “I guarantee a victory”.

Mark Messier was THE man and the Rangers team he captained in the 1993-94 season was teetering on the brink of playoff-elimination prior to Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Semi-Final round.

An upstart New Jersey Devils squad hardly was given a chance to defeat a team that not only had won the President’s Trophy for most points in the regular season, but also was considered an odds-on favorite to win the Stanley Cup.

(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: Once Neil Smith had executed the deal that brought Kevin Lowe and assorted other Oilers to Manhattan, there was a rare feeling of championship-caliber players on the team, which of course was led by their former Oilers leader, Messier.)

Add to that the fact that the Broadway Blueshirts had won all six of the games played with the Devils during the regular campaign.

However, New Jersey captain Scott Stevens offered a veto: “That was one season and this is a new one.”

(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: If nothing else, the law of averages suggested that the Devils would at least win one game, but anything more than that was considered out of the question.)

Sure enough, the Devils’ captain had it right. In Game 1 at The Garden, the Devils rallied in the final minute to tie the game and won it after 35:18 of sudden death on Stephane Richer flip over Mike Richter, as the Rangers’ goalie attempted his poke-check.

New Jersey’s 4-3 triumph served notice that this was going to be a major challenge for the Rangers.  And nobody was more aware of that than New York’s head coach, Mike Keenan. Not that the Rangers needed any prodding, since they scored an early goal in Game 2 at The Garden, made it holed up into the third period, and scored three more for an emphatic 4-0 decision.

Infused with confidence, Messier and his mates soared ahead in the series by taking Game 3, thanks to Stephane Matteau’s sudden-death goal at 26:13 of overtime. It marked the first time that either the media or fans took notice of the tall French-Canadian who later would be the talk of New York.

(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: At this point, the Rangers were playing according to form, and Matteau’s game-winner suddenly caused everyone to take a second look at his possibilities of being a hero yet again. It appeared that the Rangers would continue steamrolling at The Garden.)

Totally unfazed, the Devils knotted the series in New Jersey, and then deflated the Rangers at The Garden in a game which they led 4-0 until late in the third period.

New Jersey coach Jacques Lemaire was pushing all the right buttons, both strategically and psychologically. Lemaire even castigated the press for focusing on New York’s front office turmoil rather than his Devils.

“I want my players to get the recognition they deserve,” he said. “They never get the credit [from the media] when they win. Our guys deserve more when you consider what they achieved.”

(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: I was doing the Devils telecast for SportsChannel, and we had come to love Jacques for his wisdom and wit. He certainly meant what he said about his players not getting recognized, and it only served to give the Devils even more motivation as they approached what could have been the series-clinching game.)

Having said that, he turned his attention to Game 6, Wednesday, May 25, 1994 at The Meadowlands.

On the Rangers’ side, there was a mixture of intense concern, yet players secure in the knowledge that they had the better team. But they needed more than that. And that’s where The Captain came through.

Following a Rangers practice in Rye, New York on May 24th, 1994, Messier met the media.

“There might have been 15 people around him in a semicircle,” said Mark Everson, the Rangers’ beat writer for the New York Post. “A few cameras. Everyone was waiting for him to come out and talk. It seemed normal enough. Another day in the series. He came out and I just asked him, ‘Well, Mark, what has to happen here?’”

Then, Messier delivered two little words that would explode into a legendary quote: “We’ll win.

MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: As a longtime print journalist, I suspected that Everson had planted the “Guarantee” with a “Can’t-Miss” question. But it really didn’t matter because the series hype was developing a remarkable crescendo, and that was multiplied when the papers came out the following day.)

The “Guarantee” struck The Captain’s teammates in an assortment of ways. In the book, Battle on the Hudson: The Devils, the Rangers, and the NHL’s Greatest Series Ever, by Tim Sullivan, Nick Kypreos of that Blueshirt team summed up Messier’s impact thusly: “To know the person that [Mark Messier] is and how he conducts himself on a daily basis, it’s not just The Guarantee, it was everything he said from the beginning of the season. He made us feel like every night was a guarantee. If we came to work hard, paid the price, took care of ourselves, then there would be many nights where we’d win. We believed him. We believed in how he believed in us. He was our leader. He was the guy we leaned on the most.”

In this case what really mattered was the manner in which the press would handle Messier’s vow. Not surprisingly, the sensation-oriented Post featured Messier with a story across the back page: “Captain Courageous’ bold prediction: WE’LL WIN TONIGHT.”

(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: When I saw the headline — remember I was doing the Devils side — I shuddered. I had known Mark since his rookie year, and I was aware that if anybody could turn a comment into a win, he was the guy. It didn’t matter whether Everson had contrived it or not. I really was worried.)

Now it was time for Messier to turn his words into action. Game 6 was a contest filled with amazing twists and turns but one with a single constant; excitement throughout.

(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: What nobody knows is that two hours before the game, Rangers press agent Barry Watkins approached me and said that Keenan wanted to see me alone in an empty dressing room next to our studio. I couldn’t imagine what this was all about, since it was totally unprecedented. But I had been pals with Keenan ever since he visited my ailing son, Simon, in the hospital when the 15-year-old was awaiting a heart transplant. I met Keenan one-on-one and he started off by ranting about the officiating, as if I could do anything about that. Then he went off on tangents, and I surmised that the purpose of this was simply for him to let off steam before the most important came of his coaching life. I spent the next 15 minutes nodding and listening to the filibuster. I never experienced anything like that before or since — and doubt that I ever will.)

The capacity crowd of 19,040 was treated to a first period which was dominated by the home club. New Jersey exited with a 2-0 lead on goals by Scott Niedermayer and Claude Lemieux.

(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: I was in the corridor as the Rangers came off the ice, and everybody seemed dispirited except Messier, and it was at this point that I felt something electrifying was going to happen, and it wasn’t going to be because of the team I was broadcasting for; it was the Blueshirts.)

Every aspect of Lemaire’s game plan was working, a fact not overlooked by the New Yorkers. They were a dispirited lot heading to their dressing room and it was reflected in the first half of the second period. Wave after wave of Devils poured through the Rangers’ defensive lines hurling innumerable volleys at Richter. The third — and very likely series-crushing — goal appeared imminent. But, alas, it never came.

Still, if New Jersey could carry a two-goal lead to the dressing room with 20 minutes remaining, it was a desirable scenario. However, one mix-up allowed Alexei Kovalev a bit of skating room and the sharpshooting Ranger rifled a shot past Brodeur. Instead of a three-goal cushion, the Devils had to contend with a fragile one-goal lead going into the third period.

The melodrama unfolding on the ice was equaled in the corridors of Brendan Byrne Arena as well.

For example, at the end of the first period, the Rangers trooped into their dressing room apparently defeated, until Messier rallied the troops. Conversely, at the end of the second stanza,

Bernie Nicholls appeared on television and conceded that his club appeared tired. Those who saw the interview believed that Bernie was virtually admitting defeat.

(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: I was the one who interviewed Bernie Nicholls in between periods on the SportsChannel telecast, and I sensed that disaster was ahead. It was not only how he was sweating and talking, but all of his body language signaled defeated. Once he left the studio I turned to a colleague and said, ‘It doesn’t look good.’)

If there was any doubt about the pendulum swinging, it was provided in the third period — by Messier himself, who not only delivered on his guarantee, but personally produced a hat trick, including the game-sealing open net goal for a 4-2 New York triumph.

(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: Of course we didn’t know it at the time — there was still another game to be played — but no one in the Devils camp felt particularly confidenXt, but some of us already felt that we were seeing what could be — and what was touted later — as the NHL’s greatest series ever. Or as I like to put it, having seen my first hockey game at the old Madison Square Garden on Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th Street, I can assure you that I have witnessed many playoff gems. But this 1994 best-of-seven was one for the ages.)

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Greatest Rivalries: Rangers-Islanders: April 10, 1984

 

To some observers– mostly Islanders fans– this was the greatest hockey game ever played.

To other critics, it was the best of any Met Area showdowns. And there were plenty of reasons to underline the point.

For one thing, the Islanders-Rangers rivalry had reached the white heat level by the 1983-84 season. Having won four straight Cups, the Isles were hell-bent on a Drive For Five. On the flip-side, the Blueshirts were an up-and-coming team with 1980 Gold Medal-coach Herb Brooks making magic behind the bench.

(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: Brooks had taken on an almost mystical persona by this time. His use of a hybrid North American-European style had the Islanders guessing. What I remember vividly was seeing passes from the goal line all the way up to center ice on a regular basis. This had been unheard of.)

Adding further spice to the best-of-five series was the fact that the Nassaumen had beaten the Rangers in the 1981 semifinals, four games to none, and did it again in the 1982 quarterfinals, four games to two, and once more in 1983, by a similar count.

(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: I covered both of those series, and it was apparent that, given a break or two, it could have gone the Rangers’ way.

As an added boost, the Isles signed 1984 Olympic heroes Patrick Flatley and Pat LaFontaine, each of whom would be a factor in the upcoming New York-New York showdown.

This time, it appeared as if the Seventh Avenue Skaters would prevail despite losing the opener 4-1 at Nassau Coliseum.

Brooks’ skaters stunned Al Arbour‘s club 3-0 in the second match and then destroyed the Isles 7-2 at the Garden.

With Game Four at MSG as well, the Isles appeared ready for a KO.

Leading 1-0 into the third period, the Rangers allowed a John Tonelli goal to tie the game, whereupon the visitors went on to win 4-1.

(THE MAVEN: Tonelli easily was the most underrated Islanders hero from the first Cup right through to this series.

The series was knotted at two wins apiece, and if that didn’t create enough of a furor, the Patrick Flatley-Barry Beck episode merely was adding gasoline to the fireworks.

In game four, the Isles’ rookie torpedoed the hulking Rangers’ defenseman– considered the most intimidating and best of the Blueshirt backliners– with a bodycheck that sidelined the Ranger for the series.

(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: Beck and Brooks never quite got along. A Craig Woolf story in the New York Times—Woolf was the only witness—had Brooks calling Beck a “coward” at a Rangers practice.)

Not surprisingly, arguments flared on both sides as to whether it was a clean or dirty check. Not that any more fuel had to be added to the conflagration, but outspoken Isles goalie Bill Smith publicly gloated over the elimination of Beck from Brooks’ lineup.

(MAVEN: The next morning I was walking along Broadway near 100th Street when a pal, Pete Myers—a longtime Rangers fan—virtually accosted me, wailing over Smitty’s anti-Beck outburst. He was about to beat up on the picture of Flatley in the back page of the Daily News. I beat an orderly retreat.)

Thus, the stage was set for the climactic game five at the barn off Hempstead Turnpike.

(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: This game was impossible to figure, mostly because the Rangers were relishing their upstart roll and Brooks was using the same hypnotic tactics that propelled Team USA to the Gold in 1980. Confidence was not the order of the day in the home team dressing room.)

Sure enough, the Rangers catapulted to a lead on Ron Greschner’s goal. As the clock ticked down the end of the first period, it appeared that Rangers goalie Glen Hanlon would exit with a one-goal lead. But with only seconds remaining, Mike Bossy stole the rubber from Rangers defenseman Tom Laidlaw and beat Hanlon to knot the count at one. Nobody scored in the middle frame.

(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: Bear in mind that I was working the game—along with Jiggs McDonald and Ed Westfall for SportsChannel, the Isles’ home network. I don’t have to tell you who we were rooting for; but I will tell you that we felt that the next goal would be the series winner.)

When the Isles’ Swedish defenseman Tomas Jonsson beat Hanlon at 7:56 of the third frame, we figured that was the clincher. Were we in for a surprise.

(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: The SportsChannel studio at Nassau Coliseum was just a few steps away from the Rangers’ dressing room. By this time, “scratched” visiting players such as Beck and Nick Fotiu had crammed themselves into our room to watch the remainder of the game on our little monitor. Much as I was pals with Nick and liked Barry, I was very uneasy about their presence. It severely limited our ability to cheer both inwardly, outwardly, and physically. However, they were too big to push around, so I kept my mouth shut; in this case, discretion was the better part of valor.)

Desperate for the tying goal with less than a minute to go, Brooks had pulled goalie Hanlon and with 39 seconds left, Don Maloney chopped a rebound at shoulder height past Smith.

Although the Islanders bellowed that it was scored illegally, the goal stood, and the game went into overtime.

(MAVEN: We were thoroughly deflated in the studio; stunned to the very core. Adding insult to injury, Beck and Fotiu returned to the studio for the sudden death period. This time we really wanted to kick them out, but the game had resumed and twice it appeared that the Rangers had it sewed up.)

First, Bob Brook broke through the Islanders defense and was foiled by Smith, and then Mikko Leinonen fanned on a shot as he stood at the edge of the goal mouth.

(MAVEN: It just seemed like a matter of time before the surging Rangers beat Smitty. Meanwhile, Beck and Fotiu continued to annoy us with their shouting.)

The end was almost anti-climactic. The Isles moved the puck into the Rangers’ end, whereupon Tonelli appeared to trip Rangers’ defenseman Reijo Ruotsalainen.

(MAVEN: Objectively speaking—if that’s possible—it was a penalty; at least by the book.)

There was no whistle, and Tonelli worked the puck free along the left boards, and eventually it skidded over to Ken Morrow, who was stationed at the right point. The 1980 Olympic hero got the pass from Brent Sutter and sent one of his patented “knuckleballs” goalward. It appeared to be a seeing-eye puck, making its way through a maze of players before it beat the screened Hanlon at 8:56.

(MAVEN: We let Beck and Fotiu exit hastily until they were out of earshot before bellowing in the highest of high glee. When I interviewed Morrow post-game, he echoed our very thoughts when he concluded, “What I feel right now, more than anything, is relief.”)

CONCLUSION: The newspaper Newsday had as good a summation of the game in one word than anything: “EPIC!”

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THE END OF THE SEASON EDITION

A season that had the potential to be the best in New York Red Bulls history finished with the end of the Hans Backe era.

It looked as if things had finally broken the Red Bulls’ way. New York was tied on aggregate in its Eastern Conference Semifinals matchup against DC United heading back to Red Bull Arena. After Mother Nature forced a postponement, the Bulls came out and were the better team in the rescheduled match, forcing the issue against their long-time rivals, but unable to deliver the knockout blow.

Then, an opening in the 69th minute. After a great pass over the top, Kenny Cooper was bearing in on goal, one-on-one with DC United goalie Bill Hamid. Cooper fell over in the penalty box after being clipped by Hamid and the DC keeper was given a straight red card for denying a clear goalscoring opportunity. All signs pointed to a Red Bulls win at this point.

But it wasn’t meant to be.

Cooper, who had been perfect in his MLS career from the spot, was denied twice — once by his team’s own encroachment into the box and once by substitute keeper Joe Willis, who guessed correctly and made sure the match stayed level. Whatever you think of the rule on encroachment, referee Mark Geiger made the correct decision. There should be no argument;  the rule was properly implemented.

It quickly went south after the penalty miss. For the second consecutive postseason, Rafa Marquez puzzlingly got himself sent off in the 75th minute for a bookable offense on Chris Pontius. It evened up the sides and it was only a matter of time before DC United took advantage. That’s when rookie Nick DeLeon wrote his name in DC United folklore.

Heartbreakingly, the DC midfielder was played onside by Connor Lade and put the finishing touch on the Red Bulls’ 2012 campaign. New York had one last chance with a free-kick opportunity in the dying minutes of the match, but — for whatever reason — Roy Miller took the kick instead of Thierry Henry. You can’t blame Miller for not hitting the target, but you have to ask why wasn’t Henry on the ball and taking the kick?  Whatever the reasoning, the final result was New York’s elimination and lots of questions heading into the offseason

Backe Out

It didn’t take long for the Red Bulls to decide the fate on Backe, as they announced Friday they would not be extending his contract Friday.

“We want to thank Hans for his work over the past three years and wish him the best of luck in the future,” said Global Sporting Director of Red Bull Soccer Gerard Houllier in the team’s official statement.

You could say that Backe had a mixed record as head coach. The Red Bulls qualified for the postseason in every season the Swede was in charge, but there was no delivery of any silverware, the hallmark for any successful coach. His first year was by far his most successful — New York finished in first in the Eastern Conference in 20120 — and it can be argued that the 52-year-old might be the best coach in franchise history.  When you consider the list of coaches in the franchise’s history include a World Cup winner (Carlos Alberto Parreira) and three former US National team coaches (Bora Milutinovic, Bob Bradley and Bruce Arena), that’s something to be said.

But the fact is the goal for the team was to win MLS Cup this season and Backe fell short. With new management under the direction of Houllier, it was inevitable that the powers that be were going to head in a new direction.

After a strong first season, Backe couldn’t figure out a way to straighten out the Red Bulls’ defense. The team was always susceptible to set pieces and couldn’t seem to replicate the first-season success Backe had.

According to Fox Soccer’s Ives Galarcep, sources close to him have said that the team is leaning towards hiring former Leeds United manager Gary McAllister as the next head coach. It would make a lot of sense, considering McAllister’s connection to Houllier. The former Scotland midfielder played under Houllier at Liverpool and was his assistant when the Frenchman was the manager at Aston Villa.

Whoever succeeds Backe will have many questions to answer heading into next season. Has Marquez played his last game as a Red Bull?  If Marquez goes, will the team try and go after another big name to fill the open designated player slot?

Whatever happens, the franchise has a long season to plan ahead.

2012 Season Awards

A first for me in the Bulls Run blog, season awards!

Player of the Year – Dax McCarty

The trade that sent Dwayne De Rosario to DC United last season was lambasted in some quarters — how on Earth can you trade a star player in MLS for a journeymen central midfielder?

A year later, the thought process is somewhat different. McCarty was one of the unsung stars of the Red Bulls this season and was one of the best players in MLS, bar none.  McCarty was the Red Bulls’ version of Xavi Hernandez, Barcelona’s pass machine, as he attempted and completed the most passes in the league this season, according to Opta. The ability to get the ball, keep the ball and distribute the ball seems so simple, yet it’s one of the most difficult things to do in soccer. Just 25 years old, McCarty has a bright future ahead of him.

Rookie of the Year – Connor Lade

It looked at first Ryan Meara would run away with this award, but because of a hip injury that sidelined the Red Bulls’ goalie, Lade takes the category.

Proving versatile as a left back, right back and as an auxiliary winger, Lade appeared 26 times this season and provided the team with energy down the flank.

Comeback Player of the Year – Kenny Cooper

The 28-year-old had a bounce-back season in 2012, tallying 18 times to lead the Red Bulls after a somewhat subpar season in Portland in 2011. He developed a good partnership with Henry and at times was simply unplayable.

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Melo Says Relax, Knicks Make Stunning Comeback

Stephen Jackson had just drilled an open three-pointer with 4:07 left in the third quarter to give the Spurs a 73-69 lead and Mike Woodson was hot. He quickly called a timeout and railed into his team about transition defense. The huddle was intense. Woodson did not want his team to give an inch.

But the Spurs kept coming and the Knicks defense just couldn’t do anything with Tony Parker, who continually got into the paint and found Tiago Splitter for easy baskets. The Brazilian big man ran off 13 straight points early in the fourth quarter and the Knicks deficit was now 89-77 with 7:14 left in the game. The Knicks were sunk. And Woodson called another timeout.

And once again, there was fire in the huddle. Intensity and anger spewed from all directions. Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler and Jason Kidd saw signs of panic in the team for the first time this season. The leaders then spoke up and got the attention of their coach.

“That’s when we told him to calm down,” Chandler said with a chuckle.

“It was just like, ‘Everybody relax’,” Anthony said.

“Melo was the ringleader,” Chandler said of the moment. “Me and Melo said, ‘Listen, we have a chance here. We’re not out of this game.’ It seemed like everybody was getting a little frantic.”

Kidd told MSG Network’s Tina Cervasio, “That just shows our experience. We didn’t panic.”

After that timeout, Kidd brought the group together on the floor, as he’s done a few times already this season, for a quick pep talk. He saw something in the Spurs, despite their 12-point lead. He saw fatigue.

“They’re going to let us back in,” he told them.

Kidd also had it in his mind that he was going to lead his team back in, as well. It happened in 73 seconds. Raymond Felton attacked the rim for a drive to make it an 89-79 score with 7:02 left and then the Spurs started to miss. Patty Mills and Parker each missed jumpers, the second which came to Felton, who pushed the ball up the floor and fed Kidd for an open three. After Parker missed another shot, J.R. Smith grabbed the board and up the court the Knicks raced again. Smith hit Kidd for another three and just like that the deficit was four with 5:49 to go.

An eternity, especially for the exhausted Spurs.

“I think we ran out of gas,” Gregg Popovich admitted. “We got tired. Part of it was trying to guard those guys.”

San Antonio needed it to be a 41 minute game. Their energy plummeted in the final seven minutes, as the Knicks rode the momentum of Kidd’s threes into opportunistic, selfless offense (exemplified by Anthony’s smart decision to pass the ball on the break, which led to Smith’s go-ahead three-pointer with 1:48 to go) and an intense defensive clinic, which held the Spurs to just 8 points from Splitter’s three-point play with 7:14 to go until Kawhi Leonard hit a meaningless three-pointer with 5.4 seconds left and the game already decided. The Spurs left their home court stunned and spent.

“That’s a hell of a team,” Popovich said of the Knicks.

Woodson spoke with equal admiration for the 6-0 Knicks, who secured the first trademark win of the season and ended a nine-year drought in San Antonio. They also won him his first ever game at the AT&T Center after going winless in six visits with the Hawks.

“It shows me,” Woodson said, “that this team is for real.”

THE BEST ‘BAD’ GAME OF MELO’S CAREER

Afterward, Melo’s teammates were lauding his performance, and rightly so. While the boxscore shows he had just nine points on 3 of 12 shooting, there was no understating the impact he had on this win.

“A lot of people may say he had a bad game,” Felton said. “No, he had a great game. As far as he did his job for us, creating triple-teams, I’ve got to give him a lot of credit.”

Kidd added, “We knew [Popovich] wasn’t going to let him play tonight, so we tried to use him, I don’t want to say as a decoy, but he was getting triple- or double-teamed and we just tried to play off him and other guys had to step up and make plays. But Melo did a great job passing out of the double-team and defensively he was big for us.”

You might recall in the previous Fix we suggested this may be the case in this game. The Spurs were going to throw everything at Melo to limit his clean looks and see if the tactics that have worked in the past would work again. In previous years, Melo might have gotten frustrated, forced shots and broken plays just to get touches. He might have let the struggles on offense squelch his effort on defense. But none of that happened.

If this is a new Melo, this was his signature game.

“It was open, at that point in time, for me to find the open man, attack the offensive glass, rebound, play defense,” he said. “There was a lot of times where I was getting the ‘hockey assist’ rather than the actual assist. Guys were open. Any time you are triple-teamed, somebody is going to be open.”

Despite the low scoring total (which dropped him from the NBA scoring lead to sixth, not that such things should matter anymore to him), Melo helped out in an area the Knicks struggle: rebounding. He grabbed a team-high 12 boards and had five on the offensive glass. He also had three assists, but his passing – and deferring and willingness to play a decoy — also led to offense for others, especially Felton (25 points).

“He’s sacrificing everything for us,” Felton said. He then nodded towards Anthony in the locker room and said, “That’s a great teammate over there.”

Among Anthony’s “hockey assists” was the aforementioned pass to Felton on that critical fast break in the final two minutes. Kidd (who else?) picked off a bad pass from Manu Ginobili and found Anthony streaking down the right wing. Anthony had Ginobili dead in his tracks and probably could have overpowered him for a layup or foul, but Ginobili also could have slid under for an offensive charge. The Knicks were down one at the time.

Instead of forcing the shot, Anthony slipped it to Felton in the paint and Felton, with Tim Duncan looming over him, turned and kicked it out to a wide-open Smith for the go-ahead three with 1:48 to go.

At that moment, somewhere in Basketball Heaven, Red Holzman smiled.

“Tonight was a good way to show how together we are as a unit,” Anthony said. “We did it as one tonight.”

This wasn’t lost on the Spurs, who are the standard-bearers of the share-the-ball principle. These are not the same old Knicks.

“They went from two guys shooting all the balls,” Stephen Jackson said, “to a team that everybody has confidence in everybody else.”

FIXINS

• Not much time to enjoy this one, as the big, burly Grizzlies are up next in Memphis Friday night (Knicks Game Night begins at 9 p.m. on MSG Networks). Anthony suggested he may need a break from playing the power forward spot after battling Leonard, Jackson and DeJuan Blair in San Antonio and with Zach Randolph in Memphis on deck. But it doesn’t get any easier if he moves to the small forward position, where Rudy Gay is more than equipped to take him on.

• Marcus Camby and Kurt Thomas were both DNPs in San Antonio, but will Woodson take advantage of their rested legs in the back-to-back against the Grizzlies’ big front line?

• Some terrific statistics after six games:

Knicks continue to take good care of the ball. They had just seven turnovers against the Spurs, which was the fourth straight game the team has maintained a single-digit turnover total. They lead the league in fewest turnovers per game (10.2) and also have an incredible turnovers-per-possessions rate of just 10.8 percent.

What also stands out is that despite playing very stingy, very aggressive defense and being among the tops in forcing turnovers and recording steals, the Knicks don’t foul a lot. They have the NBA’s third-lowest fouls-per-possession rate at 18.2 percent.

The Spurs remain the NBA’s highest-scoring fourth-quarter team, at 27.1 points per game, but the Knicks held them to 24 points (which includes that late three by Leonard). The Knicks remain the NBA’s toughest fourth-quarter defensive team, allowing just 18.7 points per game. They held the Spurs to 31.8 percent shooting in the final quarter.

• And one last amazing stat before we go:

Mike Woodson has now coached 30 regular season games with the Knicks. His record is 24-6. That stands as the best first 30-game record by a Knicks coach. Stu Jackson opened the 1989-90 season with a 21-9 record, while Pat Riley and Don Nelson were both 20-10 in their first 30 games with the Knicks. Holzman, by the way, was 19-11.

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Knicks Take On The Blueprint

Forget about getting closer to the franchise-best start that the 5-0 Knicks are attempting to match, tonight in San Antonio the Knicks are simply trying to do something they haven’t done in nearly a decade: beat the Spurs on the road.

It is a game that needs no hyperbole for the Knicks, no added incentives or historical references. This game is strictly about 2012-13 and a very early, but very intriguing, Litmus test for a team that, despite a terrific start, still lacks a trademark win. They take on a Spurs team that has been the standard in the NBA for 13 years and counting. Gregg Popovich’s team is off to a 7-1 start.

“I’m kind of anxious to see where we are, playing one of the top teams in the league on their floor,” Mike Woodson said of the game, which airs tonight on MSG Network (Knicks Game Night begins at 8 p.m.). “It will be interesting to see how we come out of it.”

The Spurs have their familiar championship core — Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili — along with some talented young role players in Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter and Long Island’s Danny Green. They have played the same style for over a decade and it’s something the Knicks are attempting to emulate with their older, experienced group.

Jason Kidd, who, with the Nets, lost to the Spurs in the NBA Finals in 2003, called them “the blueprint.”

“They play the right way,” Kidd said. “They share the ball. They don’t care who scores or who makes the winning basket. It’s all about winning.”

That was never more evident than in the Spurs’ previous game, Tuesday in Los Angeles, with the team trailing 82-81 in the final seconds. Out of a timeout, the Spurs ran a play to perfection which got the ball to Green, who buried the game-winning three-pointer. In an era when most teams give the ball to their best player and clear out for a one-on-one — derisively labeled as “Hero Ball” — the Spurs ran a play for one of their role players, who got open because of a screen by one of its star players, Duncan.

Popovich dismissed the AAU-inspired “Hero Ball” mentality. “I hate that,” he said. “It’s so boring.”

Let’s not completely overlook the fact that as Pop champions the cause for team basketball, he also knows how to exploit a defensive weakness. And Kobe Bryant was — and is this season — absolutely the weak link in the Lakers defense. So it was logical to target Bryant’s man.

Still, the team has to buy into it and stars have to accept the fact that they won’t get the chance to take that last shot. The success of Popovich’s coaching lies within the unyielding support he gets from the team’s leaders, starting with Duncan. None of this works if Duncan does not set the standard in the locker room: you trust your teammates, through wins and losses.

Naturally this takes us to Carmelo Anthony, who admittedly has had trust issues in the past. It is not a matter of intentionally disrespecting his teammates, but more that Melo trusts his talent more than he does those around him. But this season, as Woodson tries to instill this Spurs mentality into the Knicks, Melo has to see Duncan as a blueprint as well.

There’s been a lot of talk about this “new Melo” approach this season, but, what makes it genuine so far is that talk isn’t coming from Melo.

“I don’t know about a new Melo,” he said. “My focus is just very high right now.”

He also seems to have 14 players and a head coach within his circle of trust, perhaps for the first time in his career.

And while tonight’s game is a big test for these Knicks as a whole, it may be an even greater test of Melo’s trust. The Spurs, who know him well from many Western Conference battles, are going to throw everything at him defensively. They also have the 21-year-old Leonard, who has the size and quickness to contend with Melo on the perimeter and the low block. While Melo was able to destroy the likes of Thaddeus Young, rookie Jae Crowder and the no-names in Orlando, this may be a game in which Melo exploits the defensive attention he is going to get by passing the ball and passing up shots. This may be the game in which a perceived lack of whistles, which has frustrated Melo recently, can’t affect his defense or his focus.

This may be the game in which he proves he doesn’t have to play Hero Ball, either, to win.

REMEMBER THE ALAMO?

The Knicks won their first game at the AT&T Center (then known as the SBC Center) in San Antonio. They haven’t won a game there since.

It was March 18, 2003, the first season of the new arena after the Spurs spent 10 seasons at the Alamodome, when Allan Houston led the Knicks to a 105-97 win. Tonight’s game will feature several players who appeared in that game, most of them on the Spurs: Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Stephen Jackson (on his first go-around in San Antonio). For the Knicks, Kurt Thomas (in his first go-around in New York) started at center in that game and had 13 points, 4 rebounds and 2 steals in 20 minutes of action.

On that same night, the NCAA Tournament opened. Carmelo Anthony and top-seeded Syracuse began their national championship run three nights later with a hard-fought win over Manhattan.

And I was covering hockey. Remember hockey?

GOING SMALL VS. BIG SPURS

Woodson indicated he wanted to stay with his starting lineup, with Melo at the power forward spot. With Tyson Chandler on Duncan and Leonard a given to defend Melo, that leaves the 6-11 Tiago Splitter to guard Ronnie Brewer. At the other end, it puts Melo on Splitter and Brewer on the active Leonard. Popovich can come in with Stephen Jackson if Splitter is ineffective. What will be interesting to see is how Rasheed Wallace does against Duncan (historically, he has defended him well), and as a help defender against the speedy Spurs guards. Also, is Marcus Camby getting closer to being able to play more minutes?

Speed will be a major factor for the Knicks defensively, as Parker will attack Raymond Felton and Patty Mills is a speedster, as well (which could be a matchup nightmare for Pablo Prigioni). The Mavericks (Darren Collison and Roddy Beaubois) were able to exploit this in the first half last week before the Knicks made adjustments.

Brewer sat out Wednesday’s practice with swelling in his surgically-repaired knee, but is considered probable for the game.

BY THE NUMBERS

Some of the Knicks most impressive defensive statistics will be put to the test, starting with their lock-down mentality in the fourth quarter. The Knicks lead the NBA by holding opponents to just 17.6 points per game in the fourth quarter. The Spurs, however, are the NBA’s highest-scoring fourth quarter team at 27.5. If it’s a close game, something’s got to give.

Both teams are very strong defensively, as the Knicks rank No. 1 in Opponent PPG (87.8) while the Spurs are No. 9 (92.6). Both teams are top 10 in steals (Knicks No. 1 at 10.4, Spurs No. 9 at 9.2) and top 10 in Opponent FG% (Knicks No. 1 at 38.6%, Spurs No. 10 at 43.1%).

The Knicks defensively are the league’s best in the second half, holding teams to 38.6 points per game. No one has scored more than 40 points on them in the second half yet this season. But the Spurs are a very good second half scoring team, with 50.9 points per game, which ranks fourth in the league.

But while the Spurs score a lot in the second half, they also give up a lot at 48.5 points per game, which is the sixth-highest in the NBA.

So where are other areas to exploit?

The Spurs, despite their size, aren’t a very good rebounding team. In fact, they are 28th in the NBA in rebounding (47.0 per game), and the league’s second-worst offensive rebounding team (8.0 per game).

However, the Knicks aren’t very good at rebounding either. They rank 26th in the NBA (47.2) and like the Spurs aren’t great on the offensive glass (ranked 23rd at 9.4 per game).

The Spurs also will turn the ball over. They are 19th in the league with 15.5 turnovers per game, though they were very good against the Lakers with only eight. The Knicks are third in the NBA in forcing turnovers (18.4 per game) and lead the league in Opponent Turnovers per Possession (19.6%).

The Spurs are 12th in forcing turnovers (15.9 per game), but the Knicks have been excellent in taking care of the ball so far. Their 10.8 turnovers per game is the lowest in the NBA. Over the last three games, the Knicks have averaged just 8.3 turnovers per game. That’s one key element to winning on the road.

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Chandler’s Challenge Spurs Knicks

The third quarter last season for the Knicks was, as Bill Pidto would put it, a toxic situation. So many games were lost in that quarter alone, it became a regular topic on the Ford Knicks Post Game Show.

The Knicks were the sixth-lowest scoring third-quarter team last season, at 22.7 points per third quarter. They often came out of the half flat on offense and it cost them. Who knows, it may have cost them enough wins to get the Atlantic Division and potential home-court advantage in the first round.

This season so far, the Knicks have reversed the trend. They’ve used the third quarter to take control of games, to hold off anticipated counter-attacks by opponents, and to take control of games before the fourth quarter begins. Statistically speaking, the difference so far stands out with their standing as the fifth-highest scoring team in the NBA in the third quarter (26.5) and second-best defensive team in the third quarter, allowing just 20.5 points per game in the third.

What’s the difference? Adjustments by the coaching staff, for one, but a notable difference is a mindset that starts in the locker room when the players talk before they head back out to the court. In Philadelphia, after the Knicks rallied from an early 10-point deficit, they talked at halftime about how great their potential is for a team that is still getting to know each other. Then on Friday, after taking a two-point deficit into the half, Tyson Chandler, one of the strongest voices in the room, laid down a challenge.

“We’re not going to come back into this locker room disappointed and feel like we let one get away,” he said.

“Tyson’s always vocal,” Carmelo Anthony said. “He was very vocal about not letting this one slip away.”

Jason Kidd then brought the group together into a huddle before the half started and implored them to “buckle down,get into the passing lanes” and “make it hard on them.” He then added, “No easy shots.”

Kidd then put his words to action, with a pair of steals and he also drew an offensive charge while scoring four points in 4:46 in the quarter. The Knicks outscored the Mavs, 29-21, took an 84-78 lead into the fourth quarter and never looked back.

“He was the guy that really stepped us up in the second half on defense,” Raymond Felton said. “He got a couple of steals there, he got to be more aggressive with O.J. Mayo, got them out of their offense. He’s the guy that got us going second half with our defense. Everybody just followed his lead from there.”

The Knicks eventually returned to that locker room and, as Chandler said, they were not disappointed.

“This was one of those set-up games, where you let a team stay around and they bite you in the end,” Chandler said of playing the upstart Mavs, who were having success despite playing without Dirk Nowitzki and Shawn Marion.

Mike Woodson beamed with pride as he boasted that his team has held opponents under 40 points in the second half in each of the first four games.

“That’s locking in,” he said, “and taking pride in defending the ball.”

That’s a team that accepted a challenge at halftime.

THE START OF SOMETHING GOOD?

The win on Friday gave the Knicks (4-0) their third-best start in franchise history. A win over the Orlando Magic on Tuesday would match the second-best start at 5-0, set by Red Holzman’s 1969-70 team, which won the franchise’s first NBA title.

It will be a tough challenge to match the franchise’s best start, which was 7-0 by Pat Riley’s 1993-94 team. After the game in Orlando, the Knicks play a difficult back-to-back on the road at San Antonio (Thursday) and Memphis (Friday).

Impossible? No. But very difficult.

But this team has already done something those teams did not accomplish. By winning all four games by a double-digit margin, the Knicks became the fourth NBA team in the last 25 years — and first in franchise history — to win its first four games by double figures, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The other three teams are the Portland Trail Blazers (1999-2000), Utah Jazz (2004-05) and Phoenix Suns (2004-05).

Obviously there is no championship precedence set with that feat, but if the Knicks are looking short-term right now, it does bode well. That ’69-70 team went on to win the Atlantic Division in the first season of divisional play. The ’93-94 team also won the Atlantic and remains the last time the Knicks won the division.

RONNIE ON THE SPOT

J.R. Smith (22 points, 4 steals vs. Mavs) has been very impressive early on in his Sixth Man role and right now is looking like a bargain at the $2.8 million he re-signed at with the Knicks. But a player who is looking like an even bigger steal is Ronnie Brewer. At a cost of $854,389 against the cap, Brewer has provided solid defense and some surprising offense early on as the starting small forward.

Once again, Brewer filled up the stat sheet on Friday against the Mavs, with 13 points, 8 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals and a blocked shot. He hit 2-of-4 from three-point range, where he has been uncharacteristically reliable early on. Four games into the season, Brewer is a sizzling 7-for-13 (53.8 percent) from downtown. For his career, Brewer is a 25.7 percent shooter from three-point range.

DEFENSIVE IDENTITY SET

After four games, the Knicks have achieved the standard Mike Woodson set for them in training camp: to be the best defense in the NBA. Now they have to maintain it for another 78 games. The team ranks No. 1 in two key defensive categories: Opponent scoring (87.5 points per game against) and Opponent shooting (40.7%).

The Knicks are also tied for third in opponent turnovers (18.0 per game) and third in steals at 10.25 per game. They were ranked second in both categories last season.

Something else that points to the team’s tough defensive mindset is that they have held opponents to just 18.75 points per game in the fourth quarter this season.

FIXINS

• The coaching staff owed the players five “touches” at practice this weekend. The coaches and players have a challenge going this season, which was revealed on the Mike Woodson Show (which airs Friday’s at 6:30 p.m. on MSG Network). If the team has more than 13 turnovers, the players have to run the overage in touches (baseline-to-baseline sprints). If they are under 13, the coaches have the run the difference. An offensive charge eliminates one turnover, so with nine turnovers and a charge by Kidd, the team was five under following Friday’s win.

• The Knicks may not have to run extra in practice, but they will be shooting extra free throws after a 26-for-38 performance from the line against Dallas. This came a game after the team hit 19-for-19 from the line in Monday’s win over Philadelphia. Melo (9-for-14) was one of the main culprits, followed by Felton (2-for-5).

• Fun, but otherwise useless fact: The last time the Knicks were the last undefeated team in the NBA? 1958-59. Fuzzy Levane’s team was 2-0 in an eight-team league.

• Anyone else find it ironic that the Knicks, with the oldest roster in the NBA, are not playing on Veterans Day? (All kidding aside, a huge thank you those who have served or are currently serving in our country’s Armed Forces. I want you on that wall, I NEED you on that wall.)

• While the Knicks take aim at the franchise record for wins to start a season, some of you blissfully optimistic types may wonder what the NBA record is to start a season without a loss. OK, we’ll tell you. That belongs to the Houston Rockets, who exploded to a 15-0 start in that same 1993-94 season that the Knicks opened up at 7-0. In fact, well after the Knicks’ streak ended, the Rockets recorded their 15th straight win against, yes, the Knicks at The Garden on Dec. 2, 1993. The streak ended the very next night in Atlanta. (As you all know, the Knicks and Rockets met in the NBA Finals later that season).

• Oh and for another historic parallel: the Knicks’ 7-0 streak to start that season ended at San Antonio that season. Should the Knicks beat the Magic on Tuesday, they’d be 5-0 going into … San Antonio.

• Some have asked why Amar’e Stoudemire has been absent from the Knicks’ bench during games. It has to do with the fact that he had a surgical procedure on his left knee. Sitting on the bench is not an ideal place for anyone recovering from knee surgery (Iman Shumpert is much further along in his recovery and, therefore, chooses to sit there). Stoudemire, who is understandably frustrated by his latest medical issue, has been doing his rehabilitation work with the training staff behind the scenes. There are already plenty of questions about how effective he can be when he returns (sometime in late December) and how he will fit into Woodson’s rotation. There is still at least another month before this topic moves to the front burner. On Saturday, Stoudemire made a rare public appearance when he joined Brewer and Rasheed Wallace to assist in handing out supplies in Far Rockaway.

• Friday’s fundraiser by MSG Network and the Garden of Dreams Foundation was a great success, as we generated nearly $200,000 during our broadcast of the game. Net proceeds will be contributed to the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City, the American Red Cross and other disaster relief organizations, to assist those in the tri-state area who have been impacted by Hurricane Sandy. But we’re not finished with the effort. You can still donate to the cause and have a chance to win some outstanding one-of-a-kind experiences by going to CharityBuzz.com, where an online auction will continue until Nov. 19. Thanks to everyone who contributed!

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Mavericks’ Loss is Knicks’ Gain

They said it was now or never for the Dallas Mavericks before the 2010-11 season. It was a roster that had depth, but an aging collection of core players. There was still skepticism about Tyson Chandler, who was the big offseason acquisition. And then there was the reputation of the Mavericks as a team that always seemed to find a way to fail.

Some of this may sound familiar to Knicks fans.

But what we didn’t know was what started to build that season within the locker room at the American Airlines Center. It turned out to be a special team, a special year and something many of those players felt was, despite their advanced age, only the beginning. Instead, it proved to be the end.

“I definitely think we had an opportunity to go back-to-back,” Chandler said. “Unfortunately, things were blown up.”

He was speaking after Thursday’s practice, speaking as a Knick, as the team prepared to host the Mavericks Friday night at the Garden. Chandler made sure to point out that he isn’t bitter about the sudden dismantling of the 2011 NBA Champions, which began when the Mavs let him go as a free agent and pursue a sign-and-trade with the Knicks. “I’m glad,” he said, “because I’m here, to be honest with you. This is a great situation.”

And what he sees here is what could have been there. The Knicks resemble the 2010-11 Mavericks in many ways, none more obvious than the most talked about parallel: age. The Mavericks were the oldest team to win an NBA title in 20 years, with a “weighted age” (determined by age and minutes played, not overall roster average) of 31.02 years. The Knicks are the oldest team in NBA history, with a roster that has an average age of 32 years (“weighted age” can’t be determined until we get deeper into the season and a rotation is set).

But they look beyond the grey hair and see the grey matter. Much like that Mavericks team, this group believes they have an abundance of elements that counter the age factor: experience, knowledge and confidence.

“We have guys that you don’t really have to teach too much, they know the game,” said Carmelo Anthony, who, in this parallel between the two teams, is Dirk Nowitzki. “They know situations. They know how important each possession is. At the end of the day, each of these guys is very experienced at winning basketball games.”

If this team has a professor, it’s Jason Kidd, who, at 39, is the dean of NBA point guards. Raymond Felton has called him “a mentor/coach/player” and said “He’s been everything for us.” Chandler said having Kidd on the team is “like having another coach on the floor.”

Mark Cuban, the Mavericks’ owner, knew exactly what he had in Kidd, which is why he didn’t want to lose him even after Deron Williams and Dwight Howard headed elsewhere during the offseason. Kidd initially planned to re-sign with the Mavs, where he would have likely played out the rest of his career and possibly moved into a coaching position. But when the Knicks’ pursuit of Steve Nash ended, Kidd saw one more shot. Rather than playing out a Hall of Fame career with a rebuilding franchise, Kidd saw a chance to stay on top and, perhaps, go out on top.

“The moment I heard it was a possibility,” Chandler said, “I was on the phone trying to recruit him.”

So he changed his mind and signed with the Knicks. And now New York had two of the key components to Dallas’ championship team.

Cuban was understandably upset, but shortly after Kidd signed with the Knicks, the Mavs’ owner voiced his displeasure on Dallas radio. He said “as of right now, I wouldn’t put J-Kidd’s number in the rafters” at the American Airlines Center. “You can’t put a guy’s number in the rafters when he decides he doesn’t want to be there.”

Kidd’s reply, which came after practice on Wednesday, was to the point.

“Cuban owns the team, so he has a right to his opinion,” he said. “But the one thing he can’t take away is the championship ring. So we helped him get that.”

What’s left for Cuban, and others, to wonder is if Kidd, Chandler and Co. could have won him another.

“That group of guys we had was very special,” Kidd said. “If you would have asked every one, they would have loved to keep that team together. But, again, business just gets in the way, sometimes, of a good thing and we didn’t have that opportunity.”

Kidd won a title in Dallas. He took the Nets to two NBA Finals. When his Hall of Fame career does end, his jersey belongs in the rafters in some arena in this league. But that’s not something he cares to discuss.

“I don’t care about the jerseys,” he said. “I’m here to try to win a ring in New York. That’s all that matters to me right now.”

THE MODERN DAY MINUTEMEN?

During the first championship season, Red Holzman’s group of talented reserves were dubbed, “The Minutemen,” mainly because the group — Dave “The Rave” Stallworth, Cazzie Russell, Mike Riordan et al — were relied upon to come in and perform in spare minutes behind the Hall of Fame starting five. A season after our “Mobb Deep” movement, it may be time to turn back the clock and resurrect the Minutemen moniker, mainly because Mike Woodson’s reserves are likely going to have to be happy with sharing spare minutes.

After Thursday’s practice, Woodson sounded a lot like his former coach when he said, “I’ve said all along, it’s not how many minutes you get, it’s what you do with the minutes you get.”

There will be another player in the mix for minutes on Friday, as Marcus Camby will make his season debut. Camby was brought in to be the backup center behind Chandler, but with Rasheed Wallace already in the mix, Kurt Thomas in great shape an Anthony taking some time at power forward, there aren’t a lot of ticks go to around. And Amar’e Stoudemire is still over a month away from returning.

“I’m not demanding anything,” Camby said. “I’m happy to be here . . . My big-time minutes in this league are long gone. I’m just happy to contribute when my name is called.”

Chandler said playing time won’t be a contention within this group. “The good thing about this team and the big guys we have, we’re all at points in our career where we just want to win. So whether it’s myself, Marcus, Kurt, Rasheed, and then when we get STAT back, [Woodson] can rotate us all with whatever matchup he sees fit.”

Woodson acknowleged this to be just one of many challenges he will face this season.

“I’ve got to figure that out,” he said. “That’s what I’m paid to do.”

MELO-VATION

Even Carmelo Anthony admitted he didn’t want to talk about a change in attitude that he had entering training camp because, perhaps, he , too wanted to see if he could stick with it. Melo always knew how to say the right things, but walking the talk is something he’s rarely accomplished in his All-Star career.

But through camp, the preseason and a week into the regular season, this new Melo appears to be the real deal. And it’s not at all forced or contrived. It’s not an act. It’s a veteran player, a star in this league, who appears to have finally found peace.

“Just me being in shape, and just being real sharp and on my game right now,” he explained it. “It stems from me playing this summer, from us winning this summer [at the Olympics] and just me knowing what I want, I want to win. So my mental focus right now is at 100 percent.

“I haven’t been this focused in a long time,” he then added. “As far as being able to focus on basketball and nothing else. So right now, I think that’s the key ingredient.”

Woodson knows where Melo is right now and a top priority is to keep him there.

“He’s playing at a high level right now,” Woodson said, “and I expect him to continue to play at a high level. I’m going to stay on Melo just like I stay on the guy who plays the least minutes. It’s got to be that way.”

FIXINS

• While the rest of the NBA (media, that is) has taken note of the Knicks’ 3-0 start (the team’s best in over a decade), you won’t get much of a reaction out of the players about it. “Just because we’re 3-0 we’re not going to lay down like, ‘Oh, we got everything figured out.’,” Felton said. “We still got a long way to go.” Camby added, “There’s 79 games to go, it means nothing. It’s just three games. A lot of teams go on three-game winning streaks during the course of the season. If we lose three, I’m sure we won’t be getting all the praise we’re getting now. So we’re trying to stay even-keeled.”

• Still, the players can’t deny a vibe around the team since training camp began. “Everybody’s locked in right now,” Melo said. Chandler added, “This is a unique team here. Great personalities, great chemistry. There’s a great vibe around the team. I’m excited about this season. I think it’s going to be a really good one.” And Felton said, “I haven’t been part of something like this since college,” which was a reference back to his days at North Carolina, where he won a national championship.

• You wanted more so we’re giving you more on the broadcast. Starting Friday night, catch “Knicks Extra”, which follows the PostGame Show on MSG Network. It’s a bonus half-hour of coverage, with more interviews from the Knicks locker room and more insight on the game from myself, Wally Szczerbiak and Al Trautwig.

• Also on Friday night, MSG Networks and the Garden of Dreams Foundation will host a fundraiser to benefit Hurricane Sandy relief efforts. Net proceeds, along with money raised through an online auction, will be split between the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York and the American Red Cross. It begins at 7 p.m. with Knicks Game Night and runs through the game broadcast and into the PostGame Show. Starting at 7 p.m., viewers can call (212) 465-3900 to purchase $100 raffle tickets that enter them for a chance to win various prizes and experience (winners will be announced Nov. 19). Prizes include signed sneakers by several players, such as Felton, Kidd and Chandler, signed jerseys by Melo, Amar’e, Chandler and Kidd, signed basketballs by Iman Shumpert and Steve Novak, 2 tickets to a game and a pregame meet-and-greet with Mike Breen and Walt “Clyde” Frazier and more.

MSG Network, the Garden of Dreams Foundation and CharityBuzz.com have teamed up for an online auction that will run from 6 p.m. on Friday (Nov. 9) to 6 p.m. on Nov. 19. Those prizes include a dinner for four, with Walt “Clyde” Frazier at his restaurant, Clyde’s Wine & Dine, access to attend a practice with a friend and talk X’s & O’s with coach Mike Woodson over lunch, a shooting clinich with Steve Novak and shooting coach Dave Hopla for six children at the practice facility, a round of golf for you and a friend with Jason Kidd and more.

These are great prizes and experiences, but the real importance of the fundraiser is to get money to these foundations who are making the effort to help those throughout the tri-state area, from my hometown of Long Island to Staten Island and the Jersey Shore, who were affected by last week’s devastating storm. Please take the time to call, bid and help if you can.

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