Greatest Rivalries: Avery’s Infamous Screening of Brodeur

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There are many ways to describe Sean Avery depending on your rooting interest.

For example you can include his personality, his outlook on life, as well as your view of hockey decorum and personal fan favorites.

Because of his idiosyncratic behavior — mostly as a Ranger — Avery has alternately been called Puck’s Bad Boy, The Great Gabbo and Superpest, among the kinder nicknames.

In the minds of virtually every New Jersey Devil, circa 2008, — and especially Martin Brodeur — their descriptions are considerably less charming and considerably to the left of indiscreet.

This pure hatred of Sean Avery did not happen overnight. Actually it grew over several years but crystallized into volcanic proportions during a playoff game at Madison Square Garden  on April 13, 2008.

At that point in time the sizzling surliness that infused itself in any Battle of the Hudson exceeded the fury of any normal playoff game. This particular match surpassed all reason — and all because of Avery and his unique brand of popularity in the Gotham.

(THE MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: Over the years I’ve done a number of book-signings at Cosby’s sporting goods store on 31st Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenue. One of the most obvious sights for me on any given game day there were the number of fans wearing Avery jerseys. As popular as stars such as Henrik Lundqvist, Jaromir Jagr and Marian Gaborik had been, more fans wore the Avery uniform than the jersey of any of the other players. And when I’d ask some of the Rangers faithful about their favorite they invariably named Sean as number one on the list. The secret word had to be “charisma.”)

Charisma has several ingredients that satisfy a Rangers fan, but especially when the foe happens to be a rival like the New Jersey Devils. But one playoff episode in particular cemented Sean as an all-time favorite Ranger. Not only did Avery create a disturbance in the New Jersey crease that will live in infamy for Devils fans but Sean un-nerved the normally unflappable Martin Brodeur. By doing so, Sean virtually turned a keenly competitive post-season series in the Blueshirts favor and inspired a brand, new NHL by-law appropriately labelled “The Avery Rule.”

That’s why this particular MSG Network feature depicts why the Rangers-Devils confrontations match in intensity the Islanders-Blueshirts rivalry. During the 2007-2008 season, they had one thing in common both the Isles and Devs disliked Avery with equal intensity; the difference being that the Nassaumen missed the playoffs and the Devils had to put up with Sean for five more irritating games; the most explosive of which featured Mister Goalie vs. Mister Pest.

Before examining the match itself you’ll find it useful to discern just how a nondescript fourth-line player previously with both the Detroit Red Wings and Los Angeles Kings emerged, almost magically, as a superhero on Seventh Avenue. And it didn’t take very long either. Fans loved the Dead End Kids quality about Avery. Not very big for a major-leaguer, Sean seemed more than willing to take on the biggest foes — if not physically than certainly vocally. Although he was born in Canada, Sean displayed a New York street smarts that instantly endeared him to the Rangers Faithful.

(THE MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: I became one of Avery’s precious few media buddies in a curious way early in his Rangers career at the club’s practice facility in Greenburgh, New York. While in the MSG Network studio there for a feature we were doing, Avery walked in to prepare for an interview following my feature commentary. During a break in our shoot, I began schmoozing with Sean who I had never met before. I told him that his style reminded me of a player from yesteryear. “Chances are you’ve never heard of him,” I said. “But you and this other guy have similar styles.” Naturally, Sean wanted to know but I insisted that the fellow I had in mind played so long ago, it wouldn’t mean anything to him. Then I mentioned that the player in question was Hall of Famer Ted Lindsay. “Sure I know him,” Avery chuckled. “Remember, my first NHL team was the Red Wings and every once in a while Lindsay would come out and skate with us.” It was obvious that Sean took the comparison as a complement because no one else would have thought to make the comparison than The Maven since I saw Lindsay play more than two-dozen games at the Old Garden both with Detroit and later Chicago. Sean and I were pals forever after that.)

Before reaching the bright lights of New York, Avery really made noteworthy headlines only once and that took place during a previous labor dispute between the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association. During the work stoppage of 2004-2005, Bob Goodenow was boss of the union which was deadlocked throughout the entire un-played season with the league. Although Goodenow’s stewardship of the union was quietly criticized, the only player who publicly took a stand ripping Goodenow was none other than Sean. Although his issues may have been unpopular among his peers, Avery — in typical fashion — refused to be daunted by reprisals from any union members. In the end, Avery was right. Goodenow was unceremoniously dumped from his position as union boss in 2005.

In terms of Avery being an asset to the Kings, the answer to that was that the L.A. sextet had no compunctions about trading him. Unobtrusively and with little fuss or fanfare, the Rangers acquired him from the Kings on February 5, 2007. Everything about his transfer to Seventh Avenue was uneventful.

Uneventful, that is, until Sean donned his Rangers uniform in a game for the first time just one day later. As luck would have it New York’s opponent that night (February 6) just happened to be the New Jersey Devils.

It required about one period of play for The Great Gabbo to win the hearts of Rangers fans. His first order of business was listening to coach Tom Renney, which he did very well.  That done Sean then made it his business to take a mortgage on the rectangle of ice that happened to be goalie Martin Brodeur’s crease.

Needless to say, Mister Goalie took exception to Avery’s antics and — in that very first confrontation — made his concern known to the referees. And if that proved to be the prelude of the Avery-Brodeur War, the first serious shot was fired by the new Ranger on a TV interview during the first intermission. To say that it was a stunner would be a case of grossly minimizing the chat because Sean immediately began discussing Brodeur — in most unpleasant terms.

“Marty’s a whiner,” Avery asserted for starters, “and he’s always been a whiner. You just have to play through it and I’m going to be in his face all night.” In this case Sean was a man of his word.

(THE MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: At first it appeared that Avery would be available post-game for either a peroration on anything or just a few pithy comments. But it became apparent to me that Sean was playing a very coy cat-and-mouse game with the media; often completely ducking out of sight when most players were available for post-game chats. It also was clear that Sean loved playing for Tom Renney whose relaxed coaching style enabled him to do his thing whether Brodeur liked it or not. Of course, those on the Devils side of the MSG telecasts appreciated Sean’s devilish behavior merely for its entertainment value. If nothing else, the Avery-Brodeur battles sure were entertaining.)

On the other hand that “entertainment” value didn’t elude the man who had become hockey’s premier off-ice personality, Don (Grapes) Cherry, maestro of the CBC’s Hockey Night In Canada segment, “Coach’s Corner.” The more purist-oriented Cherry took a dim view of Avery and pontificated on Sean’s misbehavior.

“I’ve known this kid since he was about sixteen-years-old,” Cherry proclaimed. “Once a jerk, always a jerk.”

Certainly, Brodeur would agree but Avery couldn’t have cared less. Sensing Brodeur’s discomfort and the indisputable fact that he had gotten Marty’s goat, Avery sought additional ways and means of driving Brodeur crazy. The next opportunity arrived on February 20th, less than three weeks after Sean’s donning a Blue Shirt. During the second period of a Rangers-Devils game, in New Jersey, Avery skated in for a shot on goal. Since the puck didn’t go in, Sean decided that something more eye-catching should take place so he deliberately collided with Marty, knocking the goaltender’s mask clear off Brodeur’s head.

Furious by the invasion, Marty shoved Avery who responded by knocking the future Hall of Famer to the ice. The conflict had officially escalated and like Jack’s Beanstalk, it would grow and grow and grow. But there was much more to Sean’s game than anti-enemy antics. Yes, he could play and a lot better than many observers had believed possible. Granted, he never would be another Ted Lindsay but who cared about that?

What also grew among the Rangers-watchers was an appreciation of Avery, the hockey player. He was a nifty stickhandler; a tenacious corner man, totally fearless, pretty good with his dukes and one who could deliver a dangerous wrist shot once he moved himself within firing distance; all that combined with his innate ability to be a disturber.

“He was a huge player for us,” recalled Martin Straka, a key member of that Rangers team. “The fans loved him and they got us going when Sean was playing well. As a player he had everything — speed, could play the body, fight and score goals. His energy helped everybody on the team.”

In his first season as a Ranger — following his trade from Los Angeles — the Rangers were 17-6-6 down the stretch; thus the proof of his value was in the arithmetic. “Sean definitely gets under the skin of the other team,” added Ryan Callahan. “That’s his job and he’s good at it. The whole team likes that and enjoys how good he does his job.”

The problem was that Avery’s on-ice assets were mitigated by his idiosyncratic behavior off the pond. In Renney’s view — on balance — it all measured out to Sean being more plus than minus. With Avery in the lineup, the Devils seemed distracted by Sean’s presence. Beating up on the Ranger often appeared to be more a priority for the Devils than anything. Of all the Garden Staters forward David Clarkson made it his passion to nail Avery at any opportunity.

(THE MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: It took me a while but I finally figured that the special quality that enabled Avery to succeed was what I call “The Knack.” He seemed to have a “book” on just about every opponent worth antagonizing. Clarkson was one of them. I’ll never forget one confrontation when Avery suckered Clarkson into engaging him in a fight. The trick was that Avery simply dropped his arms and let Clarkson toss him around like a rag doll. In the end New York wound up with the power play. I scored that as a win for Sean even though Clarkson mauled him. Likewise, Avery had Brodeur’s number and also used his radar to figure out when the referee’s were watching him or not. But when all was said and done, Puck’s Bad Boy was skating a fine line, gambling that his antics wouldn’t, in the end, catch up to him.)

Even some of Sean’s teammates began taking a dim view of his shenanigans. Back-up goalie Steve Valiquette was one of them. “He really doesn’t shut up, ever,” said Valiquette. “He practices on me so he’s warmed up for Brodeur. And it’s really annoying. I can see how it affects Marty and other guys.”

The running gunfight with Clarkson featured scuffles throughout the year, culminating with a fight on March 19, 2008. it proved to be the prelude to the main event — Avery vs. Brodeur — that would come in the playoffs. Meanwhile, Avery’s presence was paying off, long-term, in The Battle of the Hudson. Over the entire campaign, the Blueshirts were 7-0-1 against the Devs; the one loss being a Shootout on the last day of the regular season.

All of the above simply led to the bitter Rangers-Devils 2008 playoff meeting which opened at Prudential Center and appeared to be headed for overtime with the teams tied at one in the third period. But a Brodeur miscue — could it have been Avery’s mere presence in the New York lineup that distracted Marty? — helped set up Ryan Callahan’s go-ahead goal as the Rangers went on to win, 4-1, to take a one game lead in the series.

(THE MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: Something surreal was taking place that was instantly apparent to me; and that was “The Avery Effect.” Sean’s every move both on the ice, on the bench and in the dressing room, post-game, was taking center stage. Actually, The Great Gabbo’s presence was virtually pushing the series itself to a supporting role. But because this scenario was so unique it caused jubilation on the Rangers side — hey, they were winning, weren’t they — and consternation among the Devils.)

Game Two, also in Newark, was scoreless entering the third period. The Rangers scored two goals in less than a minute with Jaromir Jagr and Avery picking up the tallies. John Madden got the Devils on board with a goal with only 1:23 left. The visitors won 2-1 for a two game lead in the series, heading back to Manhattan for the next two games.

Then, it happened.

Game Three was tied 1-1 at the end of the opening period as the Devils took a pair of penalties. Which brings us to the ultimate Avery-ism with Brodeur as the victim.

What would become a legendary chapter in the rivalry unfolded in the second period with the Rangers on a five-on-three power play. As the Blueshirts moved into attack formation, Sean positioned himself in front of Brodeur. However his stance was nowhere near the traditional “screening” method with Avery’s back to the goalie. This time Sean not only faced New Jersey’s goaltender, he began waving his stick right snack in Brodeur’s face.

Chris Drury, the Rangers captain and a purist, himself, was stunned by his teammate’s antics. “I heard the ref behind me warning Sean,” said Drury who skated close to Avery. “I didn’t know if Sean heard it. I just wanted to say, ‘This is what the ref is saying.’ I didn’t want to lose the five-on-three.”

(THE MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: By now it had become common knowledge that The Avery Act was not welcomed by all of his teammates; least of all such a straight-arrow captain as Drury. On the one hand, Chris had to think about victory first for his club but on the other hand, a veteran such as he had a very conservative view about what was right and what was wrong with Sean’s shenanigans. Drury even seemed to be warning Avery not to pull off his stick-in-the-face prank while it actually was tormenting Brodeur; and I believe that in his heart Drury did not want to win a game with such an unseemly strategy. On the other hand, Rangers fans loved it because this was the Puck’s Bad Boy they had embraced from the very beginning. Plus, what better victim than the Great Brodeur.)

Following Avery’s novel screen, the Devils cleared the zone but the New Yorkers immediately counterattacked and in the concluding tic-tac-toe maneuver it was Avery who beat Brodeur to put the Blueshirts ahead. A TSN analyst succinctly commented, “I’ve never seen anything like that in my life.” But the game was far from over and eventually reached overtime tied at 3-3. The Devils prevailed when John Madden’s shot ricocheted off Rangers defenseman Marc Staal’s skate and past Henrik Lundqvist. The Devils won 4-3 and trailed the series two games to one.

Jagr: “When you look at what Avery did with his stick in Marty’s face, well there weren’t any rules like that against it. Five-on-five you won’t do that because the other team would have an advantage five-on-four. But five-on-three, I thought it was cool. I thought it was smart.” That was Sean’s thinking; there really were no NHL rules prohibiting his face-to-face-stick-to-face maneuver. However, apart from the citizens of Rangerville, public opinion — media as well — regarded the ploy as less than decorous and worth of rebuke; including one from Mister Goalie himself and only served to boil the rivalry to an even more heated level.

“I’ve been watching games for thirty-three years,” said Marty, “and I’ve never seen anything like that in my life. If it’s within the rules, it’s within the rules. The official came over and said it probably wasn’t something that should be done. My opinion is that if it’s within the rules, it’s within the rules but it’ s a five-on-three and I’m trying to get the puck. I’m trying to look around him. It was almost impossible because of the stick being so close to my face.”

Cherry: “You can’t blame the referee because he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Could you believe what you were seeing? I’ve never seen anything like that and I’ve been in every league that’s ever existed.”

(THE MAVEN’S COMMENT: I had mixed emotions — to this day I still do — about Avery’s maneuver. From the Rangers viewpoint, I loved it. My theory always has been that a team does what it has to do to win provided it does so within the rules. At that moment in time there simply was no rule against the stick-in-the-goalie’s-face a la Avery. Add to that the intensity of the rivalry and any Rangers type would have reason to support the ploy. On the Devils side, it was appalling to see a gentleman-goalie such as Brodeur humiliated in such a manner. From the entertainment (TV) angle, this was magnificent sports theater at its very best. Bottom Line: I loved it!)

That the Devils went on to win a tremendously thrilling game almost was overshadowed by the Avery sideshow which suddenly was thrust into the NHL’s crosshairs. What would Bettman, Inc. do about it? Or, specifically how would the NHL’s warden, ex-Rangers coach Colin Campbell, handle the case?

With dispatch, that’s how. Campbell, whose full title was Senior Vice President and Director of Hockey Operations, studied the facts, reviewed the videotape, consulted with his staff and produced what amounted to an amendment to the Unsportsmanlike Conduct code which instantly became known as “The Avery Rule” or, as Campbell defined it as follows:

“…The minor penalty will be interpreted and applied to a situation when an offensive player positions himself facing the opposition goaltender and engages in actions such as waving his arms or stick in front of the goaltender’s face for the purpose of improperly interfering with and/or distracting the goaltender as opposed to positioning himself to try to make the play.”

Undaunted by their lone loss to the Devils — nor neither hot nor bothered by Campbell’s innovative rule amendment — the Rangers won the next two games and conquered New Jersey four games to one. That, however, was not all there was to it because this particular play had a much anticipated curtain call and it all had to do with the traditional end-of-series handshake. Fans stood attentively to see exactly what would happen when Brodeur and Avery met face to face on the congratulatory line. Sure enough, Marty shook the hand of every victor except one; that of Avery.

In a sense Brodeur’s “missing palm” became just another cause celebre in the ongoing rivalry. What’s more, Avery would not let well enough — or should I say “bad enough” — alone when it came to post-game comments. Confronted by the media in the winner’s dressing room, Avery was queried about Brodeur’s snub and wasted no time delivering yet another put-down of the future Hall of Famer.

“Well,” Sean dutifully explained, “everyone talks about how classy — or un-classy — I am and Fatso (Brodeur) there just forgot to shake my hand, I guess. We outplayed him. I outplayed him and we’re going into the second round!”

(THE MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: Egad! Calling Brodeur ‘Fatso’ was a colossal insult. In the end this episode revealed Avery at his effective best in every way — goal, pugnacity, irreverent — and at the top of his game, career-wise. By now he already had become distracted by several events including non-hockey Manhattan life. His other “career” as an intern for Vogue Magazine inspired considerable attention as well as his eventual trade and later return as a Ranger under John Tortorella. From the get-go it was evident that Torts and Gabbo were not on the same page. While Renney tolerated Avery’s act, Tortorella was less than enthused. And when Torts went so far as to declare that Sean was not good enough to gain a spot on his lineup, Avery’s career became null and void as a Ranger. All in all it was a good show while it lasted and, arguably, the best act involved the New Jersey goalie and his New York antagonist.)

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Greatest Rivalries: Avery’s Infamous Screening Of Brodeur

 

@StanFischler

There are many ways to describe Sean Avery depending on your rooting interest.

For example you can include his personality, his outlook on life, as well as your view of hockey decorum and personal fan favorites.

Because of his idiosyncratic behavior — mostly as a Ranger — Avery has alternately been called Puck’s Bad Boy, The Great Gabbo and Superpest, among the kinder nicknames.

In the minds of virtually every New Jersey Devil, circa 2008, — and especially Martin Brodeur — their descriptions are considerably less charming and considerably to the left of indiscreet.

This pure hatred of Sean Avery did not happen overnight. Actually it grew over several years but crystallized into volcanic proportions during a playoff game at Madison Square Garden  on April 13, 2008.

At that point in time the sizzling surliness that infused itself in any Battle of the Hudson exceeded the fury of any normal playoff game. This particular match surpassed all reason — and all because of Avery and his unique brand of popularity in the Gotham.

(THE MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: Over the years I’ve done a number of book-signings at Cosby’s sporting goods store on 31st Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenue. One of the most obvious sights for me on any given game day there were the number of fans wearing Avery jerseys. As popular as stars such as Henrik Lundqvist, Jaromir Jagr and Marian Gaborik had been, more fans wore the Avery uniform than the jersey of any of the other players. And when I’d ask some of the Rangers faithful about their favorite they invariably named Sean as number one on the list. The secret word had to be “charisma.”)

Charisma has several ingredients that satisfy a Rangers fan, but especially when the foe happens to be a rival like the New Jersey Devils. But one playoff episode in particular cemented Sean as an all-time favorite Ranger. Not only did Avery create a disturbance in the New Jersey crease that will live in infamy for Devils fans but Sean un-nerved the normally unflappable Martin Brodeur. By doing so, Sean virtually turned a keenly competitive post-season series in the Blueshirts favor and inspired a brand, new NHL by-law appropriately labelled “The Avery Rule.”

That’s why this particular MSG Network feature depicts why the Rangers-Devils confrontations match in intensity the Islanders-Blueshirts rivalry. During the 2007-2008 season, they had one thing in common both the Isles and Devs disliked Avery with equal intensity; the difference being that the Nassaumen missed the playoffs and the Devils had to put up with Sean for five more irritating games; the most explosive of which featured Mister Goalie vs. Mister Pest.

Before examining the match itself you’ll find it useful to discern just how a nondescript fourth-line player previously with both the Detroit Red Wings and Los Angeles Kings emerged, almost magically, as a superhero on Seventh Avenue. And it didn’t take very long either. Fans loved the Dead End Kids quality about Avery. Not very big for a major-leaguer, Sean seemed more than willing to take on the biggest foes — if not physically than certainly vocally. Although he was born in Canada, Sean displayed a New York street smarts that instantly endeared him to the Rangers Faithful.

(THE MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: I became one of Avery’s precious few media buddies in a curious way early in his Rangers career at the club’s practice facility in Greenburgh, New York. While in the MSG Network studio there for a feature we were doing, Avery walked in to prepare for an interview following my feature commentary. During a break in our shoot, I began schmoozing with Sean who I had never met before. I told him that his style reminded me of a player from yesteryear. “Chances are you’ve never heard of him,” I said. “But you and this other guy have similar styles.” Naturally, Sean wanted to know but I insisted that the fellow I had in mind played so long ago, it wouldn’t mean anything to him. Then I mentioned that the player in question was Hall of Famer Ted Lindsay. “Sure I know him,” Avery chuckled. “Remember, my first NHL team was the Red Wings and every once in a while Lindsay would come out and skate with us.” It was obvious that Sean took the comparison as a complement because no one else would have thought to make the comparison than The Maven since I saw Lindsay play more than two-dozen games at the Old Garden both with Detroit and later Chicago. Sean and I were pals forever after that.)

Before reaching the bright lights of New York, Avery really made noteworthy headlines only once and that took place during a previous labor dispute between the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association. During the work stoppage of 2004-2005, Bob Goodenow was boss of the union which was deadlocked throughout the entire un-played season with the league. Although Goodenow’s stewardship of the union was quietly criticized, the only player who publicly took a stand ripping Goodenow was none other than Sean. Although his issues may have been unpopular among his peers, Avery — in typical fashion — refused to be daunted by reprisals from any union members. In the end, Avery was right. Goodenow was unceremoniously dumped from his position as union boss in 2005.

In terms of Avery being an asset to the Kings, the answer to that was that the L.A. sextet had no compunctions about trading him. Unobtrusively and with little fuss or fanfare, the Rangers acquired him from the Kings on February 5, 2007. Everything about his transfer to Seventh Avenue was uneventful.

Uneventful, that is, until Sean donned his Rangers uniform in a game for the first time just one day later. As luck would have it New York’s opponent that night (February 6) just happened to be the New Jersey Devils.

It required about one period of play for The Great Gabbo to win the hearts of Rangers fans. His first order of business was listening to coach Tom Renney, which he did very well.  That done Sean then made it his business to take a mortgage on the rectangle of ice that happened to be goalie Martin Brodeur’s crease.

Needless to say, Mister Goalie took exception to Avery’s antics and — in that very first confrontation — made his concern known to the referees. And if that proved to be the prelude of the Avery-Brodeur War, the first serious shot was fired by the new Ranger on a TV interview during the first intermission. To say that it was a stunner would be a case of grossly minimizing the chat because Sean immediately began discussing Brodeur — in most unpleasant terms.

“Marty’s a whiner,” Avery asserted for starters, “and he’s always been a whiner. You just have to play through it and I’m going to be in his face all night.” In this case Sean was a man of his word.

(THE MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: At first it appeared that Avery would be available post-game for either a peroration on anything or just a few pithy comments. But it became apparent to me that Sean was playing a very coy cat-and-mouse game with the media; often completely ducking out of sight when most players were available for post-game chats. It also was clear that Sean loved playing for Tom Renney whose relaxed coaching style enabled him to do his thing whether Brodeur liked it or not. Of course, those on the Devils side of the MSG telecasts appreciated Sean’s devilish behavior merely for its entertainment value. If nothing else, the Avery-Brodeur battles sure were entertaining.)

On the other hand that “entertainment” value didn’t elude the man who had become hockey’s premier off-ice personality, Don (Grapes) Cherry, maestro of the CBC’s Hockey Night In Canada segment, “Coach’s Corner.” The more purist-oriented Cherry took a dim view of Avery and pontificated on Sean’s misbehavior.

“I’ve known this kid since he was about sixteen-years-old,” Cherry proclaimed. “Once a jerk, always a jerk.”

Certainly, Brodeur would agree but Avery couldn’t have cared less. Sensing Brodeur’s discomfort and the indisputable fact that he had gotten Marty’s goat, Avery sought additional ways and means of driving Brodeur crazy. The next opportunity arrived on February 20th, less than three weeks after Sean’s donning a Blue Shirt. During the second period of a Rangers-Devils game, in New Jersey, Avery skated in for a shot on goal. Since the puck didn’t go in, Sean decided that something more eye-catching should take place so he deliberately collided with Marty, knocking the goaltender’s mask clear off Brodeur’s head.

Furious by the invasion, Marty shoved Avery who responded by knocking the future Hall of Famer to the ice. The conflict had officially escalated and like Jack’s Beanstalk, it would grow and grow and grow. But there was much more to Sean’s game than anti-enemy antics. Yes, he could play and a lot better than many observers had believed possible. Granted, he never would be another Ted Lindsay but who cared about that?

What also grew among the Rangers-watchers was an appreciation of Avery, the hockey player. He was a nifty stickhandler; a tenacious corner man, totally fearless, pretty good with his dukes and one who could deliver a dangerous wrist shot once he moved himself within firing distance; all that combined with his innate ability to be a disturber.

“He was a huge player for us,” recalled Martin Straka, a key member of that Rangers team. “The fans loved him and they got us going when Sean was playing well. As a player he had everything — speed, could play the body, fight and score goals. His energy helped everybody on the team.”

In his first season as a Ranger — following his trade from Los Angeles — the Rangers were 17-6-6 down the stretch; thus the proof of his value was in the arithmetic. “Sean definitely gets under the skin of the other team,” added Ryan Callahan. “That’s his job and he’s good at it. The whole team likes that and enjoys how good he does his job.”

The problem was that Avery’s on-ice assets were mitigated by his idiosyncratic behavior off the pond. In Renney’s view — on balance — it all measured out to Sean being more plus than minus. With Avery in the lineup, the Devils seemed distracted by Sean’s presence. Beating up on the Ranger often appeared to be more a priority for the Devils than anything. Of all the Garden Staters forward David Clarkson made it his passion to nail Avery at any opportunity.

(THE MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: It took me a while but I finally figured that the special quality that enabled Avery to succeed was what I call “The Knack.” He seemed to have a “book” on just about every opponent worth antagonizing. Clarkson was one of them. I’ll never forget one confrontation when Avery suckered Clarkson into engaging him in a fight. The trick was that Avery simply dropped his arms and let Clarkson toss him around like a rag doll. In the end New York wound up with the power play. I scored that as a win for Sean even though Clarkson mauled him. Likewise, Avery had Brodeur’s number and also used his radar to figure out when the referee’s were watching him or not. But when all was said and done, Puck’s Bad Boy was skating a fine line, gambling that his antics wouldn’t, in the end, catch up to him.)

Even some of Sean’s teammates began taking a dim view of his shenanigans. Back-up goalie Steve Valiquette was one of them. “He really doesn’t shut up, ever,” said Valiquette. “He practices on me so he’s warmed up for Brodeur. And it’s really annoying. I can see how it affects Marty and other guys.”

The running gunfight with Clarkson featured scuffles throughout the year, culminating with a fight on March 19, 2008. it proved to be the prelude to the main event — Avery vs. Brodeur — that would come in the playoffs. Meanwhile, Avery’s presence was paying off, long-term, in The Battle of the Hudson. Over the entire campaign, the Blueshirts were 7-0-1 against the Devs; the one loss being a Shootout on the last day of the regular season.

All of the above simply led to the bitter Rangers-Devils 2008 playoff meeting which opened at Prudential Center and appeared to be headed for overtime with the teams tied at one in the third period. But a Brodeur miscue — could it have been Avery’s mere presence in the New York lineup that distracted Marty? — helped set up Ryan Callahan’s go-ahead goal as the Rangers went on to win, 4-1, to take a one game lead in the series.

(THE MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: Something surreal was taking place that was instantly apparent to me; and that was “The Avery Effect.” Sean’s every move both on the ice, on the bench and in the dressing room, post-game, was taking center stage. Actually, The Great Gabbo’s presence was virtually pushing the series itself to a supporting role. But because this scenario was so unique it caused jubilation on the Rangers side — hey, they were winning, weren’t they — and consternation among the Devils.)

Game Two, also in Newark, was scoreless entering the third period. The Rangers scored two goals in less than a minute with Jaromir Jagr and Avery picking up the tallies. John Madden got the Devils on board with a goal with only 1:23 left. The visitors won 2-1 for a two game lead in the series, heading back to Manhattan for the next two games.

Then, it happened.

Game Three was tied 1-1 at the end of the opening period as the Devils took a pair of penalties. Which brings us to the ultimate Avery-ism with Brodeur as the victim.

What would become a legendary chapter in the rivalry unfolded in the second period with the Rangers on a five-on-three power play. As the Blueshirts moved into attack formation, Sean positioned himself in front of Brodeur. However his stance was nowhere near the traditional “screening” method with Avery’s back to the goalie. This time Sean not only faced New Jersey’s goaltender, he began waving his stick right snack in Brodeur’s face.

Chris Drury, the Rangers captain and a purist, himself, was stunned by his teammate’s antics. “I heard the ref behind me warning Sean,” said Drury who skated close to Avery. “I didn’t know if Sean heard it. I just wanted to say, ‘This is what the ref is saying.’ I didn’t want to lose the five-on-three.”

(THE MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: By now it had become common knowledge that The Avery Act was not welcomed by all of his teammates; least of all such a straight-arrow captain as Drury. On the one hand, Chris had to think about victory first for his club but on the other hand, a veteran such as he had a very conservative view about what was right and what was wrong with Sean’s shenanigans. Drury even seemed to be warning Avery not to pull off his stick-in-the-face prank while it actually was tormenting Brodeur; and I believe that in his heart Drury did not want to win a game with such an unseemly strategy. On the other hand, Rangers fans loved it because this was the Puck’s Bad Boy they had embraced from the very beginning. Plus, what better victim than the Great Brodeur.)

Following Avery’s novel screen, the Devils cleared the zone but the New Yorkers immediately counterattacked and in the concluding tic-tac-toe maneuver it was Avery who beat Brodeur to put the Blueshirts ahead. A TSN analyst succinctly commented, “I’ve never seen anything like that in my life.” But the game was far from over and eventually reached overtime tied at 3-3. The Devils prevailed when John Madden’s shot ricocheted off Rangers defenseman Marc Staal’s skate and past Henrik Lundqvist. The Devils won 4-3 and trailed the series two games to one.

Jagr: “When you look at what Avery did with his stick in Marty’s face, well there weren’t any rules like that against it. Five-on-five you won’t do that because the other team would have an advantage five-on-four. But five-on-three, I thought it was cool. I thought it was smart.” That was Sean’s thinking; there really were no NHL rules prohibiting his face-to-face-stick-to-face maneuver. However, apart from the citizens of Rangerville, public opinion — media as well — regarded the ploy as less than decorous and worth of rebuke; including one from Mister Goalie himself and only served to boil the rivalry to an even more heated level.

“I’ve been watching games for thirty-three years,” said Marty, “and I’ve never seen anything like that in my life. If it’s within the rules, it’s within the rules. The official came over and said it probably wasn’t something that should be done. My opinion is that if it’s within the rules, it’s within the rules but it’ s a five-on-three and I’m trying to get the puck. I’m trying to look around him. It was almost impossible because of the stick being so close to my face.”

Cherry: “You can’t blame the referee because he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Could you believe what you were seeing? I’ve never seen anything like that and I’ve been in every league that’s ever existed.”

(THE MAVEN’S COMMENT: I had mixed emotions — to this day I still do — about Avery’s maneuver. From the Rangers viewpoint, I loved it. My theory always has been that a team does what it has to do to win provided it does so within the rules. At that moment in time there simply was no rule against the stick-in-the-goalie’s-face a la Avery. Add to that the intensity of the rivalry and any Rangers type would have reason to support the ploy. On the Devils side, it was appalling to see a gentleman-goalie such as Brodeur humiliated in such a manner. From the entertainment (TV) angle, this was magnificent sports theater at its very best. Bottom Line: I loved it!)

That the Devils went on to win a tremendously thrilling game almost was overshadowed by the Avery sideshow which suddenly was thrust into the NHL’s crosshairs. What would Bettman, Inc. do about it? Or, specifically how would the NHL’s warden, ex-Rangers coach Colin Campbell, handle the case?

With dispatch, that’s how. Campbell, whose full title was Senior Vice President and Director of Hockey Operations, studied the facts, reviewed the videotape, consulted with his staff and produced what amounted to an amendment to the Unsportsmanlike Conduct code which instantly became known as “The Avery Rule” or, as Campbell defined it as follows:

“…The minor penalty will be interpreted and applied to a situation when an offensive player positions himself facing the opposition goaltender and engages in actions such as waving his arms or stick in front of the goaltender’s face for the purpose of improperly interfering with and/or distracting the goaltender as opposed to positioning himself to try to make the play.”

Undaunted by their lone loss to the Devils — nor neither hot nor bothered by Campbell’s innovative rule amendment — the Rangers won the next two games and conquered New Jersey four games to one. That, however, was not all there was to it because this particular play had a much anticipated curtain call and it all had to do with the traditional end-of-series handshake. Fans stood attentively to see exactly what would happen when Brodeur and Avery met face to face on the congratulatory line. Sure enough, Marty shook the hand of every victor except one; that of Avery.

In a sense Brodeur’s “missing palm” became just another cause celebre in the ongoing rivalry. What’s more, Avery would not let well enough — or should I say “bad enough” — alone when it came to post-game comments. Confronted by the media in the winner’s dressing room, Avery was queried about Brodeur’s snub and wasted no time delivering yet another put-down of the future Hall of Famer.

“Well,” Sean dutifully explained, “everyone talks about how classy — or un-classy — I am and Fatso (Brodeur) there just forgot to shake my hand, I guess. We outplayed him. I outplayed him and we’re going into the second round!”

(THE MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: Egad! Calling Brodeur ‘Fatso’ was a colossal insult. In the end this episode revealed Avery at his effective best in every way — goal, pugnacity, irreverent — and at the top of his game, career-wise. By now he already had become distracted by several events including non-hockey Manhattan life. His other “career” as an intern for Vogue Magazine inspired considerable attention as well as his eventual trade and later return as a Ranger under John Tortorella. From the get-go it was evident that Torts and Gabbo were not on the same page. While Renney tolerated Avery’s act, Tortorella was less than enthused. And when Torts went so far as to declare that Sean was not good enough to gain a spot on his lineup, Avery’s career became null and void as a Ranger. All in all it was a good show while it lasted and, arguably, the best act involved the New Jersey goalie and his New York antagonist.)

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Greatest Rivalries: Rangers Win On Long Island For First Time Since 1989

 

@StanFischler

If ever the bromide “Turnabout is fair play” had relevance to a hockey rivalry it was amply demonstrated by the annual war game on ice played by the Rangers and Islanders between the months of March 1993 and April 1994.

And if a single game could crystallize the enmity that stirred adrenaline between Manhattan and Uniondale, it took place at Nassau Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum on March 5, 1994.

Or, to put it in space terms, once the 1993-1994 season got underway the Rangers rocket began soaring to the National Hockey League stratosphere while the Good Ship Islanders started to capsize in a horrendous, homestretch as Winter came to an end.

(THE MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: Before the ’93-’94 campaign got underway, I nurtured some doubts about whether the Isles could follow their sensational playoff upsets of April 1993. Too many shakeups were taking place in the Uniondale front office.  Young general manager Don Maloney was making many changes for the worse on what had been a winning machine. Henry Ford once sagely opined, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The Islanders inexperienced front office boss obviously didn’t heed the legendary carmaker’s advice. Or to put it as harshly as possible, the high command confused “dismembering” with “fixing,” but more on that later.)

To better understand how this 180-degree turn in two teams’ fortunes could develop, we must turn the calendar back to April 2, 1993 when Pierre Turgeon’s overtime goal at Madison Square Garden greased the skids on the Blueshirts who soon haplessly slid out of a playoff berth. Meanwhile, the Isles not only were in — like Flynn or Healy, as in Glenn, if you will — but en route to one of the most shocking upsets in big-league hockey annals.

“We worked our way in,” said venerable Isles coach Al Arbour of his club’s accomplishment, which included booting out the Rangers. “I’m proud of our players. The last 30 games of the season were all like playoff games for us. We won a lot of tough games.”

While the Seventh Avenue Skaters went about the business of rebuilding a team which once again would be playoff-caliber, the Isles marched into the post-season like General William Tecumseh Sherman’s Civil War troops storming through Georgia. Their first obstacle — Washington’s Capitals — was pushed aside in six games. Only a Dale Hunter hit-from-behind cheap shot on Turgeon in the decisive Game 6 marred the general jubilation on Hempstead Turnpike.

(THE MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: Immediately after the stirring victory, I was in the Isles’ dressing room interviewing players for our SportsChannel post-game show. Never in my entire reporting career — more than half-century doing dressing room interviews — had I experienced such a solemn, totally depressed clubhouse after a rousing win. The near-destruction of their best forward, Turgeon, reduced the victors to total consternation, and anger. From my viewpoint, I couldn’t see how they could proceed successfully to the next round. Plus, I located the new Commissioner, Gary Bettman, and told him that nothing but the stiffest punishment should be inflicted on Hunter. The NHL’s boss and I would debate his handling of the affair for many months thereafter. As usual, he won.)

Bettman suspended Hunter for 21 games but that hardly was balm for a wound that would have long-time negative effects on Turgeon’s career. “No punishment can undo Hunter’s actions,” explained Bettman, “or erase the competitive loss by the Islanders.”

The Commissioner alluded to the second playoff round which pitted the Islanders against the two-time Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, led by Mario Lemieux. So heavy were the odds against Arbour’s brigade that Newsday columnist Jim Smith predicted that — without the wounded Turgeon — the Islanders would not win a single game.

Likewise, the Pittsburghers agreed, until the start of Game 1. In no time at all, the Champs found the Islanders to be a surprisingly worthy foe even with an obscure forward named Greg Parks replacing superstar Turgeon. Forth and back, back and forth the competition remained intensely keen with the Isles stunning the Penguins to the core with their tenacity. With the series knotted at two games apiece, Derek King of the Isles put it both hopefully — and accurately: “I think this series is going to go seven games. And I think the seventh game is going to be a real doozie.”

(THE MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: What I found interesting about King’s comments was that Derek, as a rule, was never given to boasting. He was a low-key, witty guy but never one given to bombast nor braggadocio. Thus, when Derek made such a comment I paid closer attention. That said, beating the two-time champs still would require more than confident comments. Plus, if it ever came down to a seventh game, the match would take place at Pittsburgh’s Igloo, never a place of warm hospitality.)

Almost as if it came off the pages of a fictional novel, the Islanders saga perfectly followed an un-real script. Trailing three games to two, the Isles were restored to playoff life led by the exuberance and impudence of Darius Kasparaitis. They knocked off Pitt in Game Six in Uniondale while Kasper drove Mario Lemieux absolutely nuts starting with a gratuitous right cross to the chin, a wild elbow — that missed — and a lusty check right into the net. In the end, the 7-5 New York triumph did the virtual unthinkable, eventually lead to a Game Seven.

Among other labels, the most appropriate for the rubber game was “Igloo Upset.” But it didn’t come easy. Neither team scored in the first period, which indicated that Healy was in top form and Tom Barrasso at the other end was no slouch either. Ulf Samuellson put the home club ahead early in the middle frame but Steve Thomas put Arbour’s men back in the game with less than two minutes left in the second. Turgeon was back in the lineup but limited in ice time.

To compensate Arbour employed David Volek, a healthy scratch often during the regular season and a spare part so far in the playoffs. Whaddya know!  Volek put the Isles ahead for the first time at 6:10 of the third and three minutes later Benoit Hogue made it 3-1 on a slap shot that fooled Barrasso. Poof! Just like that, The Igloo had become morgue-like.

(THE MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: In those days The Maven was a very superstitious camper. Working from a booth in the Igloo’s end arena, I was trying to figure what position I should stay in so that the Isles could protect the lead. However, my producer told me that it was time to move down to the studio to prepare for the post-game show. The Penguins were pressing when I got the call and it made me nervous; but I knew I had to head down. Just as I got up to head downstairs, Ron Francis scored for the Penguins. There were almost four minutes remaining as I went to the studio; more nervous for leaving my good luck spot than ever. As I reached the outskirts of the studio, I walked past a room where injured Islanders such as Patrick Flatley were watching the game on a small tv monitor. Yikes! Rick Tocchet scored for Pitt with a full minute remaining; the game, alas, was tied. Ugh! I blamed it all on my producer for forcing me to move from my “good luck” spot; plus I blamed myself as well for not just staying there until we had secured the win. Was I nuts!? Yeah, but that’s just the way I was in those crazy days.)

The Islanders were dismayed by Pittsburgh’s tying goal, but hardly crushed. “It was an eerie feeling in the room after the third period,” Thomas remembered. “But if you gave every guy a lie detector before the overtime, they’d tell you that no one on our team expected to lose.” Effervescent Benny Hogue seconded the motion. “Somehow,” Hogue added, “we felt that we’d find a way.”

If you had owned the world’s biggest vise, you could not have squeezed more thrills into a 5:16 span of the sudden death that followed. By this time, Pitt had out-shot the visitors by a more than two to one margin and the odds heavily favored the defending champs. There was only one obstacle for them, Healy. The bagpipe-playing goaltender had to be outstanding to preserve the tie; and he was flawless. Then, it happened:

Ray Ferraro collected the puck at center ice and instantly realized that he had a three-on-one break along with King on his left and Volek on the other side. After skating over the blue line, Ferraro deposited a pass to Volek who released a one-timer that flashed past Barrasso. For a split-second time appeared to stand still in a mummified Igloo. Suddenly, a frenzied collection of Islanders mobbed the jubilant Czech hero and then shared their grateful sentiments with the other hero — Healy.

(THE MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: Watching the finish from our SportsChannel studio, I was in a state of disbelief for about a half-minute after Volek’s goal; or, until I got word to hustle over to the visiting dressing room. That’s when a personal journalistic “miracle” happened to me that was roughly equivalent to the “miracle” of the Isles’ win. Along with my cameraman, I managed to squeeze into a spot just to the right of the dressing room door. Meanwhile Ginger Killian, the Islanders P.R. boss, was artfully blocking the door to ensure that nobody in the media horde got in until she got the high sign from Al Arbour. Suddenly, without any notice, as Killian had momentarily turned away, Ray Ferraro opened the door, ostensibly to see if any of his family was there. Precisely at the moment that Ray stuck his head out I stuck my microphone at him and began what emerged as one of the three best interviews of my entire career. By the time Ginger had realized what had happened, she was helpless to stop my interview. And since Ferraro had always been one of the best talkers among the players, he gave me the kind of stuff you only get once in a lifetime. It was a priceless moment in my broadcasting career.) 

“Everything I asked of my players,” Arbour concluded, “they delivered.”

The joy that accompanied the win nevertheless was tempered by two not-so-pleasant bits of news. One was that Turgeon had not fully recovered from the Hunter cheap-shot and the other was news that the NHL had just done the winners a disservice. The league announced that the Islanders would not be given a respite before the next round began. After the Friday night celebration in Pittsburgh, they would have to immediately fly to Montreal and start the third playoff round on a Sunday afternoon to please the networks.

Injuries had decimated Arbour’s lineup. Travis Green was out with an eye problem while Turgeon, Flatley and Marty McInnis were less than 100 percent. While there now was talk of the Nassaumen reaching the Stanley Cup Finals, it was not to be. The 4-1 opening game loss in Montreal, was followed by a pair of heartbreaking overtime defeats. The Isles briefly stopped the bleeding with a 4-1 win in Game 4 but lost 5-2 as the Habs marched to the Final and an eventual Stanley Cup.

(THE MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: All in all it was a very satisfying season — amazing in some respects — and certainly a bang-on one in terms of our telecasts. As much of a downer was the loss to Montreal had been, all signs indicated that with the current lineup that the Isles would be a contender for a year or two.)

Ditto for the Rangers who were determined to redeem themselves in the 1993-1994 campaign; all of which leads up to the March 5, 1994 showdown and explicitly why the Islanders wound up on a treadmill to oblivion while the Rangers would win their fourth Stanley Cup.

The chief protagonists on the Isles side included their inexperienced general manager Don Maloney and number one playoff hero Glenn Healy. In one of the franchise’s all-time blunders, Maloney chose to minimize Healy’s value and decided that Ron Hextall would be more useful to the Islanders future. Hextall’s best years — mostly with Philadelphia — were in the past but he did have experience, a Bill Smith-type feistiness and an almost genetic hatred for the Rangers.

Maloney’s roster upheaval began with the acquisition of Hextall from Quebec in a complicated deal while losing Healy to the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in the Expansion Draft. Defenseman Jeff Norton was dealt to the San Jose Sharks while the rights to back-liner Jeff Finley were dealt to Ottawa. Most stunning of all, however, was the manner in which Healy was claimed by Tampa Bay and almost immediately dealt to the Rangers, of all teams!

(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: As far as Hextall was concerned, I’ve always felt that he had only two outstanding games all season after he came to the Islanders. The first was an exhibition affair with the Rangers. While the contest itself was meaningless, the goaltender won the hearts of Isles fans after a Rangers goal. Instead of leaving well enough alone, Ron reached for the puck out the net and fired it at the head of the Blueshirts scorer. The fact that he just barely missed the target didn’t really matter. It was that fiery spirit that enthralled the spectators and the fact that he was audaciously shooting at the Rangers. The other noteworthy game was during the final week of the season when he almost singlehandedly beat the Lightning in Florida to put his club into the playoffs. But the consensus from Day One on was that Maloney never should have allowed Healy to leave. The results confirm that assumption because, when all was said and done, Hextall was a failure as an Islander.)

While Maloney was re-designing the Islanders, Neil Smith relentlessly was converting his Rangers into a powerful sextet. With Mike Keenan as the bench dynamo and Mark Messier displaying what had once been his Edmonton-type leadership, the Blueshirts were off and running toward the top of the NHL. By the beginning or March 1994, there was no question that the Seventh Avenue Skaters had become a Stanley Cup threat while it appeared very likely that the Islanders actually would miss the post-season.

If the Isles enjoyed any solace heading into the March 5th encounter on the Island it was their continued dominance of the Rangers in Uniondale. Heading into the fateful match, the Blueshirts record at the Coliseum was a dismal 0-12-3. Their last victory had been accomplished on October 28, 1989.

Certainly, the prospects were bright for Keenan’s club and, conversely not so hot for Arbour & Co. On the previous night (March 4), the teams had tied, 3-3, at The Garden but Hextall looked like a sieve once more. Many observers wondered about the starting goaltenders. Or, as the New York Times put it: “Will Arbour come back with Hextall who gave up three weak goals in the first period before being replaced. Will Keenan start Mike Richter, or will he give the nod to Glenn Healy, the former Islander who hasn’t started against his old team in four games this season?”

(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: By this time in the season it had become apparent beyond a shadow of a doubt that Hextall — as an Islander — was a mistake. On the other side, Healy had proven to be an able aide to Mike Richter. Which only showed just how strong the Rangers had become in goal while the Islanders had been mediocre in that department.) 

Sure enough, Keenan opted for Healy while Arbour stuck with Hextall. In the end, neither move proved to be fortuitous. As for the rivalry, make no mistake the disparity in the standings hardly diminished the heat. Right off the opening face-off the Islanders Brad Dalgarno gashed the Blueshirts Adam Graves just below the left eye while Dalgarno inexplicably escaped without a penalty although Graves had a simple explanation: “It’s just part of the game.”

The wound hardly affected Graves who potted the game’s first two goals; the first at 10:47 of the first period was a wrist shot from the slot and the second a conversion of a rebound from defenseman Kevin Lowe’s initial drive. Graves also got even with Dalgarno later in the tilt with a not-so-subtle slash.

As for wounds, Healy soon would suffer hurt feelings after erroneously wandering from the net to clear a loose puck. Healy missed, Benoit Hogue followed up and scored. Furious, Keenan signaled Healy to return to the Rangers bench.  After just a little more than 11minutes of the game, the Rangers coach had seen enough of Healy and unceremoniously gave his back-up the hook. Glenn hardly kept his displeasure to himself and when he reached the bench the coach and goalie exchanged words.

Keenan: “There was no discussion whatsoever. Glenn asked if he was coming out because of the mistake he made and I didn’t say one word.”

Healy: “I offered just a kind ‘hello’ to Mike! I don’t play for my coach; I play for myself and my teammates.”

For a time it appeared that the Isles supremacy over the Rangers in Uniondale would hold; especially with a 4-3 lead. But Arbour needed a better game from Hextall than he had received the previous night and it was not to be as the Rangers rebounded to tie the count, 4-4. Finally, with only 63 seconds remaining in the third period the visitors had possession on a power play. Taking a pass from Graves, point defenseman Sergei Zubov fired at Hextall but the puck caromed off the leg of Kasparaitis and into the net.

The faltering Islanders win streak over the Blueshirts at the Coliseum was ended. At this point in time all that coach Arbour could hope for was a playoff berth, which did materialize in the final week of the season. However, it proved little solace once the post-season began. As luck would have the Rangers and Isles met in the first playoff round and in no time at all — just four games — it was over and the Isles were out.

(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: What mattered on the Islanders side was that the March 5th defeat was symptomatic of a team in a tailspin. In all the years that I had been doing the SportsChannel Islanders games, I never experienced such a hopeless quartet of games because of the Rangers overall power and the Islanders ineptitude — with the accent on Hextall. Letting Healy go to the Ranges was a Maloney mistake for which he could never atone.)

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Greatest Rivalries: Madden’s Hat Trick Powers Devils Over Rangers in 2006 Playoffs

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If the name of just one hockey player could define the genius of Devils boss Lou Lamoriello, John (Mad Dog) Madden would be it.

Un-drafted and unknown in the late 1990s, Madden hardly was given a tumble by his revered coach at the University of Michigan, Gordon (Red) Berenson, the former Ranger.

In fact, when Lamoriello scouted the Wolverines he had his Argus eye on some whiz-kid named Brendan Morrison, who eventually wound up wearing Devils’ red but proved to be lacking in Madden’s qualities.

Morrison may have been an attractive prospect but one Lou look at Madden led to two and that led to a dozen and, eventually, a New Jersey contract for the Toronto native.

(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: I met Madden for the first time in the Spring of 1999 when he still was with the Devils earlier AHL farm team in Albany. The River Rats’ p.r. guy, Jon Scherza, had tipped me off that Mad Dog was a winner.  “He scored big ones for us,” said Scherzer, “and — mark my words — he’ll do the same for the Devils.”  I had a good chat with Madden while there and was most impressed with his determination and confidence that he would, in fact, make good; given the chance.)

“Johnny turned out to be one of our biggest surprises, in terms of what he accomplished in the NHL,” Berenson allowed recently when he was at The Garden, coaching Michigan against Cornell. “He sure turned out to be quite a find; one of the best.”

One of the best included a pair of Stanley Cup rings for the Garden Stater and another for good measure in Chicago. In each case Madden was a pivotal element securing the three championships.

“John certainly was an asset to our Cup teams,” says Lamoriello.

(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: One of my most vivid memories of Madden took place in Philadelphia where he suffered a serious leg injury. I recall, post-game, seeing Mad Dog limping badly as he headed for the team bus. It looked as if he’d be gone for the series but, sure enough, he was back in record time and — as usual — proved a clutch performer.)

As you will see in this latest Greatest Rivalries episode on MSG, Madden was a multi-talented forward who uses his relatively slight physique to advantage. He ranks among the National Hockey League’s all-time best penalty-killers — usually teamed in New Jersey with Jay Pandolfo — and was an offensive force when least expected. The Rangers learned this lesson on an April night in 2006.

What’s more — in conjunction with Mad Dog’s feats —  another name could be added to underline the superior hockey wisdom of Larrupin’ Lou and that would be Brian Rafalski.

Like Madden, the fireplug defenseman went un-drafted but unlike Mad Dog, Brian attended the University of Wisconsin. Madden was the crack penalty-killer while Rafalski proved the ace on the power play and the PK as well. Together, they helped oust the Rangers in four-straight playoff games a half-dozen-plus years ago but they were especially effective on Johnny’s hat trick night.

Remember, this was the first playoff year after the 2004-2005 season that was wiped out because of the NHL work stoppage. It also followed Henrik Lundqvist‘s starry goaltending effort for Sweden in the 2006 Olympics. Of course, in the Rangers-Devils confrontations, Martin Brodeur was at the other end and we were witnessing what would become an endless “Battle of the Goaltenders — Marty vs. Henny.”

Mind you, what we were seeing then was not the Vezina Trophy-winning Lundqvist but a reasonable facsimile thereof. After all, the Swedish sensation already had established his puck-stopping credentials on both sides of the Atlantic. What still was debatable was how he would emerge from his Olympic effort and how much gas was left in his tank to help speed his Rangers past New Jersey. Henny had helped the Swedes to a Gold Medal victory over Finland and may very well have burned himself out for the NHL season in so doing.

(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: Some in the Rangers camp were concerned that, coming off his Olympian effort, Henrik would suffer the feared “build-up to a letdown.” Also there were mutterings that Lundqvist might also be nursing an injury. By contrast there never were “letdown” fears on the New Jersey side. Any time a Devil viewed a New York uniform his adrenalin flow doubled in intensity.)

Unlike Lundqvist, who was a Rangers rookie, Brodeur had fully established his credentials with three Stanley Cup rings in his possession. What’s more the Rangers still were unsure whether Henny — still not King Henrik — was their number one goalie or whether veteran Kevin Weekes deserved that nod. That explains why there never was any hesitation about employing the tried and true Weekes in Game Two.

Another factor favoring the Devils was Jaromir Jagr’s weakened condition. Having finished the season as the NHL’s second-leading scorer, the big Czech committed an egregious blunder in the opening playoff game when — in a weak, emotional moment — he chose to get even with irksome Scott Gomez. Out of control, Jagr took a swing at the Devils center. In the process Jagr threw out his shoulder after which the Devils threw caution to the wind and won, 6-1, thanks to thirteen power play opportunities. Lundqvist’s dubious performance inspired the goaltending change and Weekes started Game Two at The Meadowlands.

(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: I had known Jagr since his rookie year with Pittsburgh and enjoyed some fun moments with him. One day, while I was speed-walking along the Hudson River in Riverside Park, I happened to be wearing a Devils sports shirt. When I got to the promenade near the 79th Street Boat Basin, who should I see standing along the railing, enjoying the view, but Jaromir and one of his girlfriends. When he saw my Devils’ attire, he laughed. I said, “Next time I’ll wear my Rangers jacket.” The episode with Gomez revealed the immature side of Jags who took a gratuitous swing at the little Devil — and missed. Really, it made no sense but, then again, Scotty must have suckered Jagr with some trash talk. Then again, had Jaromir realized the consequences, I’m sure he wouldn’t have done such a foolish thing. C’est la guerre. Point is that Jags was the Rangers prime offensive force. He already had broken team records for goals and points in a single season.)

Minus Jagr — who was en route to a possible Hart Trophy as NHL MVP — the Rangers suddenly went from underdogs to distinct underdogs. A feeling of frustration enveloped the New York room. “Jags is one of the best players in the world,” lamented Rangers forward Steve Rucchin. “I don’t care what team it is in the league — you lose a guy like that and it’s going to be difficult to win.” Likewise, the Devils sensed they had an advantage never dreamed of at the start of the series. One could say that the handwriting was on the wall as early as the first period of Game Two and it bore Madden’s signature.

Rangers defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh was outraced for the puck at the point by Devils backliner Brian Rafalski during a New Jersey penalty kill. With only one Blueshirt left to defend, Ralphie went two-on-one with Mad Dog, skimming him the rubber in time to deposit it behind Weekes. Jay Pandolfo, who launched the play, also got an assist for his effort. Before the period was over Brian Gionta fattened New Jersey’s lead with a power play goal; the Devils sixth PP score of the series.

(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: Even though the Devils entered the dressing room with a two-goal advantage after the first period, the game seemed far from being clinched. Unlike their play in the opening 6-1 debacle, the Rangers were playing a better all-round game. The discipline was there; especially when Cam Janssen tried to goad Jed Ortmeyer into a fight. The Ranger ignored retaliation while Janssen went off for two minutes. This was the kind of situation that could have inspired a comeback. Those of us on the New Jersey side were concerned. We wanted the Devils to keep the Rangers down while they had the chance.)

Down by two, late in the middle period, New York got the break it was waiting for; a five-on-three power play. Yes, indeed, the Rangers pressed the attack. Petr Sykora beat Brodeur but hit the goal post; no goal. The Devils penalty-killing trio held fast with Pandolfo finally swatting the puck out of his defensive zone. Meanwhile the ubiquitous Madden emerged from the penalty box. “I was pretty much (standing) up for the last forty seconds (of the period),” Madden recalled.

As the play unfolded, Mad Dog was closest to the puck, enabling him to break away from his pursuers in blue. His breakaway was stopped by Weekes, but not comfortably and that started a strangely awful Rangers chain reaction of moves.

For starters, Weekes momentarily lost sight of the loose puck he previously had saved. There was no stoppage of play because the officials realized that the puck was all alone — minding its business — behind Weekes on the goal line. It was S.O.S time for New York and Ozolinish was steaming to the rescue; or so he thought.

What the Rangers needed most of all with only six seconds left in the period was a surgical stick move by the onrushing Sandis but, alas, Ozolinish failed to adequately put on the brakes. Arrive, he did. “What I was trying to do,” the D-man explained, “is get there in time and sweep the puck away.”

Two out of three worked: 1. Ozolinsh got there in time; 2. He swept the puck; 3. But he swept it into his own net. “It was an unfortunate mistake,” Sandis added in one the true understatements of his young life, “and it took our momentum away.”

(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: As the play unfolded, I was standing at the Zamboni entrance which was at the other end of the rink from where the action was taking place. When Weekes made the save, I assumed that play would stop. From my vantage point there was no way I could see where the puck was even after Ozolinsh joined the melee. When the red goal light suddenly flashed, I was stunned; it just didn’t seem right since I figured the Ozolinsh had saved the day. But with the aid of replay and play-by-play, it all became clear. What a tremendous break for the Devils; a backbreaker for the Blueshirts. For the first time all game, our side began breathing easier.)

Fortified with a three-goal lead at the start of the third period, the Devils did what they do best; protect the lead. In his 135th consecutive playoff start for New Jersey, Brodeur made 25 saves, including a breakaway stop on Ortmeyer in the second. Blair Betts scored the only Rangers goal in the third which was answered by Madden’s hat trick counter.

It marked Mad Dog’s first post-season hat trick and closed out the 4-1 triumph. Madden also tied an NHL record with his two man-down goals. “This won’t happen for a long time,” a jubilant John said post-game, “but it would be nice if it did. In reality I have to get back to checking and getting the puck deep and winning face-offs and killing penalties.”

Throughout Madden’s career in New Jersey, Mad Dog overshadowed his linemate and penalty-killing pal Pandolfo. And on the very night of John’s hat trick, Pando assisted on all three of his partner’s goals; and without any fuss or fanfare which, by the way, was typical of Jay.

As for the Rangers, who went down in a sweep, everything that could have gone wrong did so. Not only did Jagr take himself out of the series in Game One with his unfortunate Gomez lunge, but defenseman Darius Kasparaitis was hampered by a groin injury and there was the Lundqvist issue in terms of his being simply fatigued as fallout from his Olympic experience.  Weekes was a reasonable back-up but as Kevin, himself, noted the Devils came on too strong for the Blueshirts.

“In that second game,” Weekes concluded, “we came out and could only get one past Marty. Earlier in the season maybe we get four or five but the Devils were playing differently in the playoffs. Real Devils hockey!”

(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: I found it interesting that the two free agents Lou Lamoriello acquired for 1999-2000 — Madden and Rafalski — peaked as Devils in the Rangers series. Not that either followed up with inadequate seasons thereafter but it was more a question of the pair becoming jaded in New Jersey. Rafalski would cash in on free agency by moving on to Detroit where he won a Cup as a Red Wing while Madden got his third taste of champagne in Chicago. In my estimation, the Devils missed Rafalski more than Madden but not by a lot. Bottom Line: Between the acquisitions of Madden and Rafalski, Lou solidified his qualifications in the Rare Realm of Hockey Geniuses.)

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Greatest Rivalries: Islanders Win, Rangers Miss Playoffs, Turgeon Scores 50th Goal In 1993

 

@StanFischler

RangersIslanders, April 2, 1993, was extra-special for a lot of reasons: 1. A playoff berth was at stake: 2.The team with the NHL’s best record a year earlier was up against an upstart club that didn’t even make the playoffs in the previous season; and 3. The fallout from a mid-season Rangers coach-firing still smoldered among Blueshirts fans.

In retrospect, events leading up to that dynamic New York-New York encounter still remain as gripping nearly two decades later as they did on that melodramatic night at The Garden.

“That game,” recalled Islanders defenseman Uwe Krupp, “was like we were playing for the Stanley Cup.”

Among the unfolding plots at the start of the 1992-1993 season that would profoundly influence the climactic contest were the following:

* ROGER NEILSON VS. MARK MESSIER: Despite leading his team to first overall in the Spring of 1992, the captain had become so disenchanted with his coach that Neilson was doomed to be axed by g.m. Neil Smith. But how? And when?

* PAT LAFONTAINE VS. JOHN PICKETT: The Islanders hero had become noticeably unhappy with his owner as well as Patty’s overall situation on the Islanders. Dare g.m. Bill Torrey trade his star? And who could follow in place of a Hall of Famer like LaFontaine?

Just about 99 and 44/100ths percent of the time it’s impossible. Then there’s that final percentage left and that’s why Bill Torrey goes down in NHL history as a genius trader for unloading LaFontaine and — more important — landing an ace such as Pierre Turgeon.

When Torrey was convinced that LaFontaine and Pickett had reached a point of no return, Bowtie Bill pulled off a magnificent trade that would benefit both his club and the Buffalo Sabres. On top of that Brent Sutter, who played for two Cup-winners in Uniondale, also had slipped in terms of his effectiveness and he, too, would become an ex-Islander.

On October 25, 1991, LaFontaine was dispatched to Buffalo along with Randy Wood and Randy Hillier. In return the Isles received Turgeon, Benoit Hogue, Uwe Krupp and Dave McLlwain. Torrey’s big trading double-dip was immediately followed with another shocker — the popular Sutter, was dealt to Chicago along with Brad Lauer for Steve Thomas and Adam Creighton.

(THE MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: I was very close to LaFontaine. He was the only NHL player ever to invite me to his wedding; which, by the way, was a beaut. Patty was fond of my sons, Ben and Simon, who hung out at the Coliseum while I worked the SportsChannel games. We even developed a password, “Swordfish,” which was borrowed from a Marx Brothers movie, “Horsefeathers.” To this day, when LaFontaine sees me the first thing out of his mouth is “Swordfish.” All of which explains why on the one hand I was saddened by his departure. On the other hand, it had long been obvious that Patty wanted a change of scenery and, in that sense, I was relieved that he moved on to Buffalo.)

Rangers general manager Neil Smith was confronted with a similar dispute; only this one on Seventh Avenue where his captain Messier often disagreed with coach Neilson. Among other complaints Mark beefed about Neilson’s supposedly weak forechecking system. Assistant coach Colin Campbell observed that the feuding pair reminded him of a couple en route to a divorce. “There was that tension between them,” said Campbell, “and it made you feel uneasy.”

Neilson had something going for him as the Rangers approached the 1992-1993 campaign; a season earlier he had coached the Blueshirts to the best record in the league and they came close to taking a 3-1 lead in the 1992 playoffs against defending champion Pittsburgh before losing in the end. But those successes didn’t seem to impress Messier as much as other Rangers-watchers. Despite the fact that Neilson had received a three-year contract extension, the captain was not complimentary to his coach. In fact the relationship had so deteriorated during the 1992 NHL awards dinner when Messier accepted the Hart Trophy while Neilson — who was there — had been a candidate for coach-of-the-year.

As Neilson biographer, Wayne Scanlan, noted in his book, Roger’s World, “Messier thanked seemingly everyone in the Rangers organization, down to the arena caretakers, except Neilson. The lively New York press had a field day with the simmering feud.”

(THE MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: Messier’s anti-Neilson comments essentially matched what Mark previously had told me privately over lunch during the previous Summer. By this time I couldn’t imagine where the feud would lead. But it was apparent that there was no way that Roger would win this battle unless, somehow, Smith could be an effective peacemaker. Neil tried to patch the differences but they proved to be irrevocable.)

Meanwhile, in Nassau the Islanders leading scorer and captain was gone as Torrey re-invented his 1991-1992 team with character and depth. Each of Bill’s moves would prove successful, long-term, looking toward the fateful game in the Spring of 1993. What remained to be determined was how well Turgeon would replace LaFontaine and whether the supporting cast — especially Hogue and Thomas — would prove to be a tonic as the Isles staggered around the NHL depths. Torrey described his new players as “bigger, younger, aggressive and feisty.” All true.

As for Turgeon, although he lacked Patty’s speed, Pierre was a smooth playmaker who had put up big numbers. Arbour figured that Hogue could be the Poor Man’s Guy Carbonneau, noting that the latter was one of the best defensive forwards in the league. Meanwhile, Thomas brought one of the league’s best shots and Creighton — son of a former Ranger, Dave Creighton — was 6-5 and was a scoring threat when the spirit moved him; which was not that often.

With Sutter gone, Torrey named Patrick Flatley captain and hoped that the additions he brought to Nassau would meld with the rest of the roster. To Bill’s dismay, the chemistry was slow in developing although Arbour was pleased with a second line comprised of Hogue, Flatley and Ray Ferraro. Pivoting the pair, Ferraro was playing the best hockey of his life and even earned an invitation to the 1992 All-Star Game.

(THE MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: Apart from his playmaking skill, Ferraro impressed me as a first-rate personality. Hey, since I did the SportsChannel interviews, that mattered plenty to me. Ray alternated between being frank, funny and — best of all — available. Meanwhile, Flatley took his captaincy seriously and Hogue instantly became a fan favorite because of his speed and all-round amiability. Benny was Ferraro but with a French-Canadian accent.)

Another pleasant surprise was big Krupp on defense. He used his size to advantage and also had the distinction of being the only German-born player in the NHL. He spoke perfect English and could effectively break down plays for the media. Uwe’s other distinction was that he and his wife, Beate, raised sled dogs in their Greenlawn, Long Island backyard. No other player could make that statement!

Meanwhile, a blockbuster was exploding in the board rooms. In December 1991, longtime owner Pickett revealed that he was allowing two Long Island-based investment firms to buy into the team. Stephen Walsh, Robert Rosenthal, Ralph Palleschi and Paul Greenwood essentially took over the club with Pickett an interested onlooker. “I expect to be a passive investor,” said Pickett, who had saved the Isles from bankruptcy in the late 1970s. “They’ll be running it.”

The four investors climbed on the Islanders bandwagon at the right time. By the second half of the 1991-1992 season, the club had jelled and soon would add two American Olympians — defenseman Scott Lachance and forward Marty McInnis — to the roster.

(THE MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: I liked the speed of McInnis and also believed that he would develop into a top scorer. I was right on the first count and wrong on the second. Lachance, who was the Islanders fourth overall pick in the 1991 Draft, never climbed beyond average as a defenseman. No question; the Islanders got the wrong Scott. The one New Jersey picked just ahead of him is a sure Hall of Famer; that being Scott Niedermayer.)

After welcoming the newcomers, the club focused on making a playoff berth. By late February 1992 the Nassaumen had climbed to within a point of reaching the post-season but then injuries intervened. Glenn Healy, whose goaltending never was better, went down with a severed right index finger that sidelined him for the homestretch. Flatley’s long-term wound forced Torrey to trade Ken Baumgartner and Dave McLlwain for Daniel Marois and Claude Loiselle. Overall it was a good deal for Torrey who gained a superb defensive forward in Loiselle. While Marois was a bust, both Baumgartner and McLlwain had been useless to the club.

Despite the spate of injuries, Torrey’s moves enabled his skaters to compile the NHL’s second-best record in the second half of the schedule although they did miss the playoffs.  “From the All-Star break on,” said Arbour, “this club gained a whole lot of respect and a whole lot of confidence.” Nor did they seem to miss LaFontaine!

During the off-season, Bowtie Bill added Euoprean muscle, trading his eighth overall Draft pick and a second-rounder to Toronto for the Maple Leafs fifth overall selection. The prize was a Lithuanian bodychecking whiz named Darius Kasparaitis. “We paid a steep price,” the g.m. explained, “but we know it’s worth it. Darius has a fire that can be infectious.” Following a not-forgotten Steve Thomas tip, Torrey also signed big Russian defenseman Vladimir Malakhov for the 1992-1993 season.

(THE MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: We were excited about the two European defensemen. Granted, we didn’t know a heckuva lot about them but just the advance notices were positive enough to provide hope. “Kasper” became an instant fan favorite. I loved the guy; his big smile and his even bigger — really, throwback — hip checks. Darius’ bodychecks drove stars such as Messier and Mario Lemieux nuts. Even Rangers MSG Network analyst John Davidson went out of his way to rip Kasper’ s — allegedly illegal? — hip blocks. But all that did was make the Islander want to do more; which he gladly did.)

During the first half of 1992-1993, gears still were not neatly meshing in Uniondale. The club played 24 of its first 38 games on the road and hung unenthusiastically around the .500 mark. Finally, after a players-only meeting in mid-November, the Islanders began to see the light. Kasparaitis’ crunching checks kept the opposition distracted while Malakhov proved a wonder as a power play point man. Krupp and Lachance also turned out to be an effective duet on defense. Big points were now were coming fast off Turgeon’s stick; Pierre, unlike LaFontaine, had become a less flamboyant hero than Patty but a fans idol nonetheless.

“Pierre is different than most superstars,” explained Steve Thomas. “He doesn’t know how good he is. So when I have the chance, I remind him.” Reporters covering the team didn’t need reminders. Turgeon was being talked up as a potential winner of the Hart (MVP) and Lady Byng (quality play-good conduct) trophies.

On the bench, Arbour showed why he would become the second-winningest coach in NHL history; behind Scotty Bowman. Among Al’s more positive moves was creating a “Kid Line” of Travis Green, Marty McInnis and Brad Dalgarno which successfully was employed to thwart opponent’s top lines. “The Kid Line,” said Hogue, “is an inspiration to us.” A playoff berth in 1992-1993 suddenly became a possibility, especially when one considers the turmoil surrounding the two most notable Rangers, named Roger and Mark.

A Neison-Messier peace parlay early in the 1992-1993 season unraveled and that meant one of the two eventually would have to go. Meanwhile, injuries — including Mark’s bad back — led to a crippling slump. Desperately, Neilson privately consulted with some of Messier’s pals — including Adam Graves — about patching things with Mark but Roger never told the captain who soon would learn about those talks. It was one of Roger’s most egregious errors and by the 41st game of the season, Neilson had become an ex-Rangers coach with Ron Smith moving up as interim head coach.

(THE MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: I hated seeing Neilson leave; especially under those circumstances. He’d always be one of the hockey guys who’d give you all the time in the world just to schmooze. Knowing Neil Smith as I did, I realized that this was as difficult a move as a young g.m. could make. Neil candidly admitted, “I was devastated. I could hardly pick my head up to tell Roger. I hated myself for it.” As for Ron Smith, he was a smart cookie but his Rangers cookies were crumbling all around him.)

Buoyed by the Rangers woes, the Islanders playoff drive increased in its intensity. Such subtle factors as Loiselle’s penalty-killing and all-round abrasive style were very positive elements for Arbour and inspired Flatley to observe, “Claude is one of the most annoying players in the league; and that’s a compliment.”

If one game could be pinpointed as the positive turning point of the season for Arbour it took place on February 20, 1993 when Bill Smith’s Number 31 jersey was permanently raised to the Coliseum rafters prior to a game with the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins. Before the match, Captain Flatley addressed his teammates. “I said, ‘Let’s win it for Billy,'” Flats remembered, “but the guys wouldn’t buy that. They said, ‘The hell with him, let’s win it for ourselves.'” And they did, winning 4-2.

(THE MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: For some reason — apart from the Rangers — Pittsburgh topped the list of most-disliked teams not only for the Islanders players, themselves, but for those of us in the SportsChannel contingent. While we admired Mario Lemieux’s skill we weren’t particularly crazy about his attitude on and off the ice. In games he always seemed to be complaining about something. And off ice there was a bit of the prima donna about him. Plus, beating the two-time Stanley Cup champs gave everyone a special kick. Who knew what would happen in the playoffs? The post-season still was a dream at this point in the schedule.)

Down the homestretch, from February 27-March 9, the Islanders won five straight games; the first four by one goal and the last by killing off a six-against-three disadvantage to hold on and beat the Flyers, 4-2. Now the playoff race looked like it was crafted by a Hollywood scriptwriter. No less than four teams — Isles, Rangers, Capitals, Devils — were battling for the final three Patrick Division playoff spots. Not having made the playoffs since 1990, the Nassaumen definitely were the most motivated of the contenders. Alas, it all would come down to the marvelously-timed confrontation on April 2, 1993 at The Garden.

Think about it, what could be more dramatic when it comes to a Rangers-Islanders rivalry than a single game that likely would determine a playoff berth between the two teams? It was the talk of the town and naturally tension ran high long before the players even took their pre-game workouts. In terms of the homestretch race, the firing of Neilson didn’t seem to help the Blueshirts. They had lost four straight under Ron Smith and sat one point behind the visitors. If ever the Rangers had a regular season must game to win, this was it.

(THE MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: When you follow a team — as I then was doing with the Islanders — and it fails to make the playoffs for two straight years, a feeling of no-confidence surrounds it until that outfit actually proves that it has the goods to get over the hump. Plus, the Rangers entered the match having been 14-3-3 in their last 20 games against the Isles as MSG. That explains why we on the Isles SportsChannel side were pessimistic. After all, the Rangers were home and overdue to escape their slump. Also on my mind was the anti-Neilson comments Messier had made to me a long time ago but not that long ago that I had forgotten about them. Still, it seemed hard to believe that the Rangers would cave. In any case, I was as pumped as I ever had been before a telecast and I knew — no matter which team won — that this would be a classic encounter. There would be no build-up to a letdown on this night in Manhattan.)

Classic contests often can be defined by uncertainty and that element certainly played into the drama as the Islanders played early confident hockey. They missed taking the lead when Turgeon beat Mike Richter but watched the puck bounce harmlessly off the goal post. Undaunted, Arbour’s troops continued pressing and gained a two-man advantage late in the period. Derek King, one of the most un-appreciated Islanders, lifted his club into the lead during the five-on-three power play. At last there was a breakthrough. After taking a Turgeon feed in the slot, King lifted a 15-foot wrister over Richter’s glove and under the crossbar at 18:25 of the first period. 1-0, Long Island.

Vlad Malakhov, the hulking Isles defenseman, gave Glenn Healy a two-goal cushion in the second but now the see-saw moved in the Rangers direction when Eddie Olczyk put one past Healy. The Rangers’ red light ignited The Garden crowd that roared for just one more. It didn’t happen in the second period which ended with the Nassau skaters up 2-1.

Does any Rangers fan remember Peter Andersson? That’s a toughie. He entered the game with only three goals over the entire season but coach Smith inserted him on the power play alongside Messier and Tony Amonte as the third period approached its mid-point. In this game at least, Andersson became a memorable Blueshirt. His 50-foot blast more resembled a pinball as it caromed off the skates of Islanders Brian Mullen and Uwe Krupp before skimming past Healy. It was 2-2 — anybody’s game — and all signs suggested that the next goal would be the winner in regulation or sudden-death.

Each netminder shone in the final minutes of the pulsating third period. Healy made superior saves on Amonte and Darren Turcotte while Richter produced a memorable glove stop on defenseman Tom Kurvers’ 20-foot drive from the left circle. Neither club cracked as the buzzer sounded while setting the stage for a dramatic extra session.

(THE MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: On the SportsChannel (Islanders) side, we remained nervous, mostly because we knew that the Rangers had a terrific home record against our guys and — no less important — had rebounded from the two-goal deficit. But I knew that there was plenty of angst in the home dressing room. The Blueshirts were under pressure because they had plummeted from their previous 105-point season. What’s more, if they were to lose this game the club would be the first franchise since the 1969-70 Canadiens to miss the playoffs after having the league’s best overall record in the previous campaign. Either way, the upcoming moments were not for the faint of heart.)

Who would score the sudden-death winner? The chief offensive protagonists were Turgeon, who had 49 goals so far on the season, and Messier who had freely admitted that he didn’t want to end his second season as a Ranger with such a downer as an OT defeat which inevitably would dump his club out of playoff contention.

In overtime Captain Mark had his chances to be the Blueshirts hero; two good ones, in fact — on two-man rushes. Healy beat him on the first and on the second, young center Travis Green intercepted a pass by the captain. Although he didn’t know it at the time, Green was about to launch a counterattack that eventually would produce the winning goal. Green, now coaching the Western Hockey League’s Portland Winterhawks, dispatched a pass to Brian Mullen who fired the rubber into the Rangers zone. it would never come out. Amonte made a clearing attempt but Malakhov was at the right point where the Islander D-man intercepted the disk.

(THE MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: Standing between the Islanders bench, watching the play, I felt as if I could touch Malakhov’s right shoulder. I wanted to tell him to shoot the puck. But instead Vlad faked a shot and then centered the cookie for Turgeon. I sensed big things although Pierre’s shot then went wide. Now the puck was back with Malakhov again. I couldn’t figure what he should do — or would do.)

The big Russian backhanded the puck to Dalgarno on the opposite side of the goal crease. With the Rangers defense in disarray, Turgeon planted himself in front of the net within sight of Dalgarno who found him with a perfect pass. “I just took a whack at it,” Turgeon recalled. The flip shot eluded Richter at 3:41 for Pierre’s 50th goal. “I was lucky,” Turgeon allowed in his post-game review, “but I’ll take forty like that. Getting my 50th in this kind of situation was really special.”

Torrey, Arbour and their bunch went bananas while Healy cautioned that the Isles still had not clinched a playoff berth. “But,” the goalie added, “it does put us in control.”

It sure did, catapulting the Isles to a third place finish while the Rangers only won a single game through the rest of the homestretch and missed the playoffs. Days later, Messier would clean out his stall and tell the press: “Right now I don’t feel like playing another game in my entire life. My mind’s about ready to explode.”

(THE MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: Having been associated with Islanders telecasts for 18 seasons up until this very special game, I can assure you that it was — in its own many-faceted way — the most exciting regular season game I ever experienced, especially in terms of Turgeon’s supplanting LaFontaine as the new Nassau hero. Conversely — and curiously — the defeat was therapeutic for the Rangers. As a result of his club missing the post-season, Neil Smith imported Mike Keenan as new head coach for 1993-1994. A year later the Blueshirts won their fourth Stanley Cup.)

 

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Greatest Rivalries: Rangers & Devils Meet In Playoffs For The First Time

 

@StanFischler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Greatest Rivalries: Gartner’s Hat Trick Eliminates Isles

 

@StanFischler

Only on the rarest of occasions will a single playoff-game result not only in long-term effects on both hockey clubs but actually inspire one team’s moves — in this case, the Rangers — that would eventually lead it to win a Stanley Cup.

It wasn’t evident at the time but the Rangers ‘6-5 postseason victory over the Islanders on April 13, 1990 did more than merely provide the Blueshirts with their first playoff series victory over the Nassaumen in more than a decade, but its fallout would inspire major long-term changes on both sides of the Manhattan-Uniondale fronts.

Right off the bat, Roger Neilson’s Rangers sextet proved that his general manager, Neil Smith, had completed a couple of moves that not only solidified Smith’s job, long-term, but also confirmed that the general manager did right by Rangerville in hiring enigmatic Roger to run the bench. After all, before Neilson came to The Apple there was some question as to whether he was just an idiosyncratic — but wise — fellow or just another hockey nut case. In due time, Roger proved very, very intelligent and no cashew at all.

Better still, Smith’s reputation was further enhanced by a late-season trade for sharpshooter Mike Gartner that not only would directly impact the series-clinching game, but also would have major reverberations right up to — and including — the strategic franchise-turning season of 1993-1994.

The player exchange — completed on March 6, 1990 — was one of the most fortuitous in New York sports trading history, baseball, football, basketball or hockey for that matter. Smith dealt forward Ulf Dahlen with a 1990 fourth-round pick to Minnesota in exchange for the speedy Gartner plus a 1990 fourth-round pick and future considerations. While Dahlen enjoyed what, at best, could be called a modest NHL career, Gartner’s performance as a Ranger went off the charts and would eventually lead right up to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.

(THE MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: The beauty part of the deal for the Rangers at the time Smith consummated it was that Minnesota superficially appeared to have made a smart move. After all, Dahlen once had been the Ranger’ first choice — seventh overall — in the 1985 Entry Draft in which Wendel Clark was picked first overall. What’s more, in his first full season with New York,Ulf scored 29 goals and 23 assists for 52 points in 70 games. Some thought that a First All-Star nomination was in Ulf’s future. It turns out that a 700-goal career was in Gartner’s career, not Dahlen’s.)

While speed and radar-type shooting were among Mike’s major assets it was the manner in which he utilized his jackrabbit movements and synchronized them with his blazing shot that made him special. In time, Gartner would become the first Ranger to score at least 40 goals in three consecutive seasons — 1990-1991 to 1992-1993 — and was selected to his sixth All-Star Game in 1993. During that midseason contest he scored four goals and was named the All-Star Game’s most valuable player. He also won the 1991 and 1993 Fastest Skater competition.

As far as his Rangers contributions would evolve, Mike set the tone late in the 1989-1990 season for what would develop into a Hall-of-Fame career by scoring twice against Philadelphia in his New York debut game. In his final dozen games of the season — including the Flyers’ match — Gartner netted 11 goals and had five assists; good for 16 points over just 12 games. He became an instant favorite from the blue seats on down to the ice-level pews.

In one of the all-time modest understatements about his success on Seventh Avenue, Mike explained, “I like to think I’m a fairly dangerous player when I have the puck.”

During his early days wearing the Blue Shirt, Gartner savored a seven-game goal-scoring streak from March 12 through March 27, helping the Blueshirts clinch the Patrick Division and the Presidents’ Trophy. And that was just a lovely portent of things to come.

Meanwhile, in Uniondale, life was not so beautiful on the Islanders’ side. Not only were they on the brink of playoff elimination, but the remnants of general manager Bill Torrey’s four-Stanley Cup dynasty were crumbling about him. Goaltending had slipped from flawless to flawed. The defense was about average at best and even with future Hall of Famer Pat LaFontaine in the lineup, there wasn’t sufficient blitz on attack. Torrey’s Draft picks such as Brad Dalgarno — picked one ahead of Dahlen — were not panning out as they had in the glorious Mike Bossy-Bryan Trottier Era.

(THE MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: Make no mistake, on the SportsChannel side, where I was working Isles games, we hadn’t given up on our team. Brent Sutter had emerged as a genuine leader while foot soldiers such as Randy Wood, Brad Lauer and David Volek were expected to bolster the attack. But the real shocker to all of us was Arbour’s stunning roster move. In this decisive final game. the already-legendary Bryan Trottier watched his last game as an Islander from the press box. No, it wasn’t an injury; he had been scratched in favor of younger players. Perhaps even worse, there were strong rumors floating around the press room that the relationship between LaFontaine and ownership was not so hotsy-totsy. In time those rumors turned into reality when the following season’s training camp opened without Patty.)

Prior to the opening face-off everybody, including The Maven, seemed to be on edge. I still was upset about the radio war that Chris Russo and Mike Francesa were waging against me. On top of that the series had been filled with controversy, fisticuffs and assorted bloodshed that sometimes pitted friends against former friends. Neil Smith vs. Al Arbour was a case in point and by this time Smith had become a bundle of nerves. Making the playoffs with a commendable effort was just fine for the rookie NHL GM, but if his season was to be marked a genuine success a series victory of the Islanders would wrap up Neil’s gift just fine. In this postseason, at least, that would really be all Smith needed to please ownership.

The melodrama that unfolded on the ice hardly made it easier on the Rangers’ general manager’s metabolism. Just when his club seemed to have built a victory cushion, the Blueshirts would falter and nothing Neilson tried would relieve the tension.

“We played a kind of a nervous game,” said Roger. “And as it went along we became a worried team.”

Rivalries will do that. Tensions that had begun building with the opening game’s histrionics hardly abated in Game 5. Revenge was on many players’ minds, but none more than veteran Rangers defenseman Ron Greschner, who was the only still-active player who had skated for Blueshirts coach Fred Shero when in the 1979 playoffs when the Rangers upset a mighty Isles club with a six-game victory in the Stanley Cup semifinal.

“These games can be scary,” Greschner allowed, “but it doesn’t get any scarier than we made in this one.”

(THE MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: In order to win, the Islanders needed a big game in goal and got neither from the combined efforts of Mark Fitzpatrick and Glenn Healy. Actually, we had expected the very promising Fitzpatrick to become a star because he did have the basic tools, but his career was ruined when he was later stricken with a rare blood disorder that caused swelling in his muscles, joints and tissues. At first Healy was considered a back-up pick-up and nothing more. But he would soon become a Nassau Coliseum favorite, highlighted by the 1992-1993 season. Ironically, Healy later wound up on the Rangers — with a Stanley Cup ring no less!)

As for the game, it appeared that — with a 5-2 lead heading into the third period — the Seventh Avenue Skaters had a rout on their hands. In the first four games the Rangers had outscored the Isles 10-3 in the middle periods and in this one they scored three times in the second. For the MSG lads, variety was the spice of scoring — one shorthanded; one on the power play and the third at even strength.

But Islanders defenseman Wayne McBean and forward Randy Wood trimmed the Rangers margin to one giving Smith, Neilson and assorted other Blueshirts a good case of the heebie-jeebies. “I couldn’t believe what was happening,” said defenseman James Patrick who arguably was the most dominant player in the series apart from Gartner.

Soon the irrepressible Rangers fattened their lead to 6-4 when Gartner completed his hat trick. His 45-foot slapshot rocket beat Healy at 11:44 of the final session. In the end, that would prove to be the winning goal and further underline Mike’s value to the Rangers.

To the dismay of the Garden Faithful, the Islanders were not finished. Patrick Flatley scored with 3:07 left in the third, turning it into a one-goal game once more. “The consequences of us losing at home in The Garden to the Islanders when we were the heavy favorite made it even more tense,” Neilson revealed.

(THE MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: At this point we could only dream about an Isles series victory. If only LaFontaine had not missed Games 2-4 and Jeff Norton had not be out in Game 4 it would have been different. Both LaFontaine and Norton each contributed an assist in the finale which was about as much as we could have expected of them at this point in time. But there were no alibis on the Islanders’ side. Every player knew that this was a war game on ice and that there would be the wounded whose absence would hurt. Privately, going back to the Devils’ upset of the Islanders in the 1988 playoffs, LaFontaine had complained that Torrey didn’t supply enough “policemen” to protect him. This might also have been a factor in the contract dispute that would become a black cloud over Patty’s exit from Long Island.)

As the clock wound down to the game-ending buzzer, the Isles mounted a final assault that resulted in a mad scramble the Rangers’ defenders hung tough and, in the end, there were no more goals. It was 6-5 for the Blueshirts, elevating them to the Patrick Division Final and playoff bragging rights over the Nassaumen for the first time in 11 years.

“We’re certainly breathing a lot easier now,” concluded Neilson who accurately echoed his players’ sentiments. Or, as his boss, Smith, put it about his feelings: “Relief, relief — tremendous relief.” Neil was speaking both personally and for his roster at large since the Rangers series win meant that they had advanced farther in the playoffs since 1986.

On the losers’ side, coach Al Arbour offered no alibis or apologies. “We gave it our best shot,” he said. “We were not outplayed; we just didn’t have enough.”

The Hat Trick Hero, Gartner, was as succinct as possible in his post-game explanation of his three-goal onslaught.  “It just happened for me,” he said, “and I can only say that I’m very, very satisfied.”

(The Maven’s Thoughts: No matter on which side individual media members might have been, just about every reporter was happy for Gartner. Over the years he always was kind with his time, pregame or postgame. Over the seasons, Mike proved to be one of the top gentlemen-scholars of The Game. Even Islanders fans had to commend his clutch performance although it pained all of us on the losing side. After all, if you worked for SportsChannel, which I did at the time, losing to the Rangers in a series finale was a very unusual occurrence but one we would get used to very quickly. On the other hand, revenge for the Isles was only three years away — and was it ever sweet.)

Now for the short-term and long-term reverberations of this series-clinching game:

 ISLANDERS: The loss proved to be a major turning point for Torrey’s squad. Not only was Trottier shockingly benched in Game 5, but the general manager bought out the last two years of Bryan’s contract. Pittsburgh’s GM  Craig Patrick signed Trottier two weeks later to add much-needed experience to his talented young team. In 1990-1991, the Penguins won their first Stanley Cup and Trots proved to be an asset.

Meanwhile, LaFontaine’s irritation with management became a festering wound once the 1990-1991 training camp began. The ace produced more shockwaves when he left the team for four days because of unhappiness with his contract which had one year and an option year remaining. It was the beginning of the end for LaFontaine in Uniondale and by October 1991 he had become a member of the Buffalo Sabres in a blockbuster deal which brought Pierre Turgeon to the Isles. This, too, was a turning point trade that by 1992-1993 would prove a tonic for Torrey & Co.

 RANGERS: Despite Gartner’s heroics in the first round, he couldn’t lift his mates over his former team, Washington, in Round Two. The Capitals eliminated New York, four games to one, giving GM Smith food for trading thought.

For one thing, he knew that the victory over the Islanders may not even have happened had LaFontaine and Norton not been disposed of for a total of four games, not to mention the suspensions to Vukota and Baumgartner which took needed muscle away from Arbour’s troops.

As good as Gartner proved to be in the regular season, Mike was of little help in the 1991 playoffs when Washington wiped out the New Yorkers in the first post-season round. What Neil needed most of all was what amounted to an NHL version of a superhero and on October 4, 1991 he got that man; but at a high cost. Bernie Nicholls, Steven Rice and Louie DeBrusk were traded to Edmonton and in return the Rangers received a player who would become a bigger hero in The Big Apple than even Wayne Gretzky; Mark Messier donned the Blue Shirt.

Yes, Messier, gave the citizens of Rangerville a boost but the chants of “1940, 1940” still could be heard through the 1993-1994 season even with Messier captaining the team. By this time Mike Keenan had become coach and the intense mentor came to dislike Gartner’s “soft” game and minimized Mike’s contributions to the team. Keenan demanded that Smith stock his lineup with more gritty players. Just before the March 1994 trade deadline Smith obliged. He traded Gartner to the Toronto Maple Leafs for Glenn Anderson and a Draft pick.

(The Maven’s Thoughts: Gartner, despite a long and storied career, never came close to winning a Stanley Cup. Before becoming a Ranger, Anderson already had five Cup rings — earned with the Edmonton Oilers. Glenn would win a sixth as he developed into a prime player for Keenan as the Rangers took the title in the Spring of 1994. Nevertheless, in the Spring of 1990 the hero on Seventh Avenue was Mike Gartner and that never should be forgotten.)

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Greatest Rivalries: Richer Stuns Rangers

 

@StanFischler

Something new had developed in the Rangers-Devils rivalry that would affect the teams for almost two decades.

That was the arrival of Martin Brodeur as New Jersey’s premier puck-stopper. The affable French-Canadian from Montreal made a brief debut during the 1991-92 season, but really didn’t emerge as a factor until the 1993-1994 season. Brodeur posted a 27-11-8 record with a 2.40 goals against average, and won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top freshman. Brodeur’s ascent meant that New Jersey finally had a goaltending antidote to New York’s irrepressible Mike Richter.

In the Rangers’ favor, Richter finished the regular season with a 42-12-6 record and 2.57 goals against average. His experience alone placed him in an advantageous position vis-à-vis his New Jersey counterpart.

(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: Compared to Richter, Brodeur was a mere stripling. Marty was only 22 years old and his lack of experience had already been quite evident. It was too much to expect the kind of performance that Mike would give the Rangers. I sensed that Brodeur’s teammates were well aware of that effect.)

The same could be said for the Rangers’ lineup under coach Mike Keenan. But in one area the teams were equal.

Each club had advanced through two playoff rounds. The Rangers defeated the Islanders and the Capitals, and the Devils defeated the Sabres and the Bruins.

The other thing they had in common was a sizzling — virtually volcanic — loathing for each other. And it would get even more intense after the opening faceoff of Game One at The Garden.

(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: As someone who was broadcasting for SportsChannel, I experienced this rivalry firsthand. Those of us at SportsChannel felt like second-class citizens compared to the MSG guys. The MSG Network was much better financed and able to do things in a bigger, if not better, way than we could at SC. So we understood how the New Jersey general staff felt when the media regularly gave the Rangers more space in the papers and more airtime on television. The reality was that the Trans-Hudson rivalry extended from the ice to the dressing rooms and right up to the respective front offices.)

It would be simplistic to say that the Rangers were overwhelming favorites until you consider the undercurrent of problems contaminating the high command. General Manager Neil Smith and coach Mike Keenan had often split philosophically — not to mention verbally — and, not surprisingly, their skirmishing had attracted the media attention. But the fact that the Rangers had whipped the Devils in all six meetings during the regular season kept the odds heavily on the East side of the Hudson River.

If the Devils were to have a reasonable opportunity to make a series of it, their hopes centered on thwarting Mike Keenan’s offense. Devils coach Jacques Lemaire relied on a simple plan:  The best way to frustrate the Rangers was via a suffocating defense, which the media simplified by calling it a “trap”.

(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS:  Those of us on the Devils side resented the way trap was used by the media and teams such as the Rangers. When reporters or those in the Blueshirts’ camp used the term (trap) it was as if Lemaire had designed a new and entertainment-stifling system.  In fact, that same technique was employed by the NHL’s winningest coach, Scotty Bowman, when his Montreal Canadiens won four straight cups from 1976-1979. Nobody complained about the trap then and we couldn’t understand what the beefing was about all of a sudden.)

But since it got New Jersey this far, there was every reason to stick with the plan; and so they did.  But it didn’t take the Rangers long to exploit the weakness in the Devils system. The first breakthrough was orchestrated by Rangers defenseman Sergei Zubov.

The fleet creative Russian spread from his defensive zone to center ice before skimming a pass to Mark Messier. The Captain returned the favor with a sweet backhand, allowing Zubov to surprise Martin Brodeur with a wrist shot that found the five-hole.

Less than four minutes into the game the Rangers were ahead 1-0. Sensing Brodeur’s nervousness — Marty misplayed a rebound off the boards — New York revved up its offense, barely missing on several opportunities.

Somehow New Jersey weathered the storm and began counterattacking with special help from its “Crash Line.” Bobby Holik, Randy McKay and Mike Peluso set the Blueshirts back on their heels with their inimitable brand of rough offense. It didn’t produce a goal, but it had the Rangers scrambling for a change.

(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: What this unit lacked in talent, it compensated for with vim, vigor and vitality. Holik was the brains behind the trio while McKay was the clutch scorer and Peluso the disturber, although all three could get the opposition angry.)

Whatever domination the home team enjoyed went out the window with less than two minutes remaining in the opening frame. Mike Richter blocked a Tommy Albelin shot but the goaltender allowed a rebound that went to John MacLean.

The Devils’ marksman sped behind the net and beat Richter with a deft wraparound, tying the score. It was just the confidence-booster Lemaire’s squad needed and it would ultimately set the tone for the entire series.

It was touch and go both ways through the middle period until another Russian, Sergei Nemchinov, one-times the rubber past Brodeur with less than three minutes remaining. If Las Vegas was betting, as the second period ended — New York leading 2-1 — it would’ve heavily favored the Seventh Avenue Skaters.

After all, the Blueshirts were 48-0-4 when they were ahead after the first period during the regular season. But if there was one lesson to be learned, it was never to underestimate the coy Lemaire.

(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS:  From the broadcasting viewpoint, it appeared that as long as New Jersey stayed within a goal, there was a chance of something good happening to the Devils.  Veterans such as Bernie Nicholls, John MacLean and Stephane Richer were always dangerous.)

The irrepressible Devils got back in the game when Bill Guerin one-timed a Nicholls pass. The 2-2 tie extended into the third period, but the Rangers again took the lead when Steve Larmer beat Brodeur with a backhander that looked like the game-winner.

(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: Those of us on the New Jersey side were just happy that the Devs had at least kept pace with the home club. We weren’t expecting another goal, especially since the Rangers maintained the lead right down to the final minute, when Lemaire yanked Brodeur and added a sixth skater. What happened next was the surprise of surprises.)

It came down to the final minute with Brodeur pulled for an extra attacker. Scott Niedermayer paced the attack by sending the puck into the right corner, where John MacLean beat all the Rangers to the rubber.

Meanwhile, Claude Lemieux camped out in front of Mike Richter looking for the centering pass.  MacLean obliged and a melee developed around the New York crease. When the dust had cleared, the opportunistic Lemieux had flipped the biscuit past Richter with only 34 seconds remaining on the clock.

(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS:  Suddenly there was hope on the New Jersey side. What we liked best of all was that the Devils had taken over the game and had actually outshot New York 13-8 in the third period. We figured that if Brodeur could come up with a couple of big saves, the Devs had a chance.)

It was 3-3 and the Garden was similar to a mausoleum. So it went to sudden death and this time Martin Brodeur rose to the occasion, making successive stops on Greg Gilbert and then Mark Messier.

Richter was no slouch at the other end, stopping Valeri Zelepukin, who had split the Rangers defense and then released a wrist shot that was easily handled by Richter. Neither team could settle the issue in the first overtime, leading to the second sudden death.

(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS:  When you get to a second overtime in the playoffs, the fatigue factor is decisive. Keenan had been playing Brian Leetch more than anybody (40 minutes) and both teams had older players.  Right now it really was a toss-up).

Once again both goalies were severely tested in the opening minutes. Some 18 years later, Leetch looked back and said, “At that point you don’t have time to worry about how long you’ve been playing.”

But with five minutes gone in the second overtime, Leetch had already played 47 minutes and he was still on the ice when the Devils launched a serious attack led by Bobby Carpenter.

Soon Stephane Richer was speeding towards the Ranger blue line while Adam Graves made a desperate attempt to cut him off at the pass but it was too late. Gliding in at the right circle, Richer employed his most effective weapon; his wrist shot.

(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS:  At this point in time, the most dangerous Devils shooters were Lemieux, MacLean and Richer. What we loved about Richer is that when he got hot, he was HOT!  By this time, Richer already had six shots on goal and we were hoping for a lucky seventh — he hadn’t been a two-time 50 goal scorer for nothing.)

Richter anticipated the move once Richer eluded Graves and made a desperate attempt to harpoon the puck before the Devil released it. Mike made a nice try but it was a case of too little too late and Richer’s shot cleanly beat Richter.

The time on the clock was 12:03 in the morning. The score was 4-3 for New Jersey which led the series 1-0.

On a broader scale, the remarkably pulsating game would prove to be the template for things to come; that is one of the best, most competitive hockey playoff series of all-time.

MAVEN’S THOUGHTS:  Needless to say those of us in the Devils camp were ecstatic. Wow!  After the Rangers’ season-long domination this victory was more than we expected. It was too soon to dream of a series victory but it wasn’t unrealistic for us to believe that one victory could lead to two — and you know the rest. The big thing was that Brodeur rose to the occasion.  Marty not only was the best goalie of the night but also the best interview. Anyone who knows me realizes THAT is as important to me as a win or a loss!)

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Greatest Rivalries: Isles Win on Sutter’s 2OT Goal

If blood, guts and assorted forms of mayhem can characterize a hockey rivalry, none do it better than the 1990 Rangers-Islanders set-to. It all culminated on April 9, 1990, with an Islanders victory in double overtime, but the events that preceded it caused hospital visits, vitriol between management and coaches and a curious on-the-air battle between sportscasters.

The background for the shenanigans is as necessary as the foreground and whatever was left in between. To begin with, there was uncertainty about whether or not Al Arbour should continue coaching the Isles. Especially since Lorne Henning was prominently mentioned as a candidate to succeed him.

But Al liked the idea of revitalizing the team and Henning was brought aboard as assistant coach.  As an extra added attraction to further spark the rivalry, Isles general manager Bill Torrey, signed former Rangers wing Don Maloney.

The Maloney pact sparked intense discussions – if not battles – among Rangers and Islanders fans.  After all, Maloney had been one of the toughest battlers for the Rangers over nearly a dozen years. Don caused no end of grief for the Nassaumen, especially his controversial last-minute goal in the 1984 playoffs. Upon signing with the Isles, Don conceded that his goal was indeed delivered with an illegal high stick.

On the Rangers’ side, rookie general manager Neil Smith had crafted a contending team. He surprised many by bringing Roger Neilson in as his coach and also featured Mike Richter and John Vanbiesbrouck splitting time between the pipes while John Ogrodnick led the team in goals (43) and points (74).

(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS:  My wife Shirley and I attended the Neilson press conference at the hotel diagonally across from the Garden on 34th street and 7th avenue. Neilson seemed like a curious choice because he was considered somewhat of an oddball ever since his Junior days behind the bench with the Peterborough Petes. However, Smith (the youngest general manager in the NHL at the time) impressed us with his intellectual bent and Neilson already displayed the humor and passion that would endear him to the New York media for many years. Within a month, Smith surprised us by putting together a very impressive management team that included assistant general manager/operations Gord Stellick, assistant general manager/player development Larry Pleau, development coach Paul Theriault and assistant coach Ron Smith.)

Once the season started, the Rangers looked formidable while the Islanders were fallible; and that is being kind to them. After 26 games, the Nassaumen had a 5-18-3 record; compounding the problems was the loss of Rich Pilon for the rest of the season after a wrist shot by Detroit’s Brent Fedyk hit him directly in the eye.

Torrey solved the problem by wheeling and dealing. He unloaded enigmatic Finnish winger Mikko Makela to Los Angeles and obtained little center Hubie McDonough and a hulking blonde bomber named Ken (Bomber) Baumgartner. The turnabout was stunning and the Islanders went on an 18-3-1 tear, which included a nine-game winning streak.

Bomber was even more popular with his long hair (and fists) flying in the face of the toughest of enforcers. Although he was, at best, a decent shower singer, Baumgartner was signed by Metal Blade Records to air a pair of hard rockers for an LP. Of course, the star insisted that all of the proceeds go to charity.

It’s important to remember Baumgartner because he would eventually turn the combustible sparks of rivalry into a conflagration; but that would come during the playoffs.

(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: Ever since the four-Cup dynasty years, Torrey sought a one-two punch that would match the Mike Bossy-Bryan Trottier duet.The new version was Pat LaFontaine, who would become a Hall of Famer, and Patrick Flatley, whose physical presence was so pronounced in the 1984 playoffs.The goaltending of Mark Fitzpatrick and Glenn Healy improved with the season. Healy peaked on January 17th, 1990 making 51 saves in a 3-0 win over Vancouver. What we at SportsChannel loved was the humor generated by Healy and Flatley. In fact producer Kevin Meininger developed a regular feature called “The Heals and Flats Show.”It was an impromptu, mostly adlib, routine that occasionally was shot in their game room or similar venues and it was difficult to tell which one was the funnier of the pair. There was no straight man!)

On Jan. 19, the Isles went into the All-Star break actually leading the Patrick Division. The last thing they needed was a break in their spectacular momentum and a spate of injuries to essential players.

Alas, a worst-case scenario unfolded once the team regrouped for a post-All-Star homestretch run and the club never would be the same. Injuries to Patrick Flatley, Pat LaFontaine, Jeff Norton and Derek King affected both offense and defense since Norton also was the club’s top offensive defenseman.

Over a period of five weeks, the Isles not only lost momentum but went winless in 14 games. Ironically they ended the drought on March 17, 1990, defeating the Rangers, of all people, 6-3 at Uniondale.

With a 33-28-12 mark, the Blueshirts were assured of a playoff berth. The acquisition of scoring ace Bernie Nicholls – in exchange for Tony Granato and Tomas Sandstrom – from Los Angeles had bolstered the Rangers attack

Having only three games remaining on their slate,  the Islanders were nine games under the .500 mark (29-38-11) but still had a chance to make the post-season. Returned from his injury, LaFontaine scored his 50th and 51st goals of the season in a 5-5 tie at Edmonton. But a 4-2 loss to Calgary put the team one point away from elimination.

(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: None of us on the SportsChannel side gave the Isles a chance.The club still had a game at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto and then came home to conclude the regular schedule against the Flyers.The loss to Calgary put a damper on what we figured might – just might – be a memorable finish. But beating the Leafs and Flyers in succession seemed a bit much to me; especially since the team had been so erratic down the line.Nobody could have dreamed at that point that these same Islanders would wind up facing the Rangers in the first playoff round.)

Every so often every part of a puzzle that has to fall into place actually does fit all the openings almost all at once and that – in a nutshell – summed up the Islanders race for the playoff berth. Unbelievably, they scored five goals in the third period to win at Toronto, 6-3.Then, on March 31 – The Maven’s birthday – they routed the Flyers in Uniondale. Yet there was one more piece needed to complete the puzzle; the Isles had to rely on Buffalo to defeat Mario Lemieux and the Penguins in the Igloo at Pittsburgh.

Since the Penguins game started later, Al Arbour and his troops were able to park in front of the locker room television set, hoping against hope that the Sabres would prevail. As luck would have it, the game was tied after regulation and went into overtime. Only one minute into the extra session Buffalo defenseman Uwe Krupp’s slapshot grazed off a Penguin and sailed past goalie Tom Barrasso. The Islanders were in the playoffs.

 “Can you believe this?” shouted Bryan Trottier across the jubilant room.

MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: In fact many of us – especially me – figured we were enjoying a dream. I was in the room watching along with Flatley, one of my favorite players. “We had some kind of incredible karma,” Flats announced to the screaming crowd. Meanwhile goalie Mark Fitzpatrick got a few laughs when he added: “Uwe Krupp just became my best friend in the world.”

Eventually the ecstasy dissolved into reality. Just around the corner was the first playoff round and who would the Isles be opening with the hated Rangers at Madison Square Garden.

There was little doubt that the Blueshirts had a better team. The Rangers finished five wins over .500 (36-31-13) but, on the other hand, the Islanders daredevil finish gave them a new feeling of confidence.

 I figured that if Arbour could somehow eke a win out of one of the pair of opening two games at The Garden, his club might pull off yet another playoff upset as they had in 1975. If there was one worry on the Islanders side it was all about Roger Neilson’s coaching. He was behind the Maple Leafs bench in 1978 for one of the bloodiest Islanders series in history. What’s more Toronto eliminated the Isles in seven games.

Neilson also piloted Vancouver when the Canucks met the Islanders in the 1982 Final and went out in four games but not without heavily bruising the likes of Hall of Famer Mike Bossy. There was a palpable feeling that another raucous rivalry series was on its way.

Game One at The Garden was tight and plenty of the skaters on both sides were uptight because the I.Q. – as in Intensity Quotient – was as high as it could get. All that was needed, really, was an explosive incident to send the lava over the top and it happened in the closing minutes.

Picking up speed as he entered the neutral zone, LaFontaine took a double-hit to the head; first from Rangers defenseman James Patrick’s elbow followed by a conk of the game delivered by New York’s resident tough guy Chris Nilan. LaFontaine fell on his head and was unconscious when he was taken off the ice on a stretcher. He was lost for the series.

Maven’s Thoughts: Most observers only mentioned Patrick’s hit on LaFontaine, but I vividly remember Nilan being an integral protagonist for what was to become one of the biggest controversies of this long-standing rivalry.

 If the injury alone wasn’t enough fuel for the fire, a few gallons more of gasoline were administered as the ambulance carrying LaFontaine to the hospital received some rough treatment from Rangers fans as it attempted to exit the Garden which it eventually did but not without fury from without and within.

About to lose the game, 2-1, the Islanders prepared for the final face-off as the clock showed only two seconds remaining. Arbour chose to send two of his toughest players, Bomber Baumgartner and Mick Vukota, out for the draw. Sure enough, Vukota went after Rangers defenseman Jeff Bloemberg while Bomber blitzed forward Kris King. Even goalies Fitzpatrick and Richter got involved.

What surprised some onlookers was that Bloemberg did not retaliate as he was pummeled by Vukota. Only later was it learned that Bloemberg played the pacifist because of his Christian beliefs.

Meanwhile, a war of words erupted in several precincts. Rangers GM Smith – given his first hockey job by Arbour – ripped the Islanders coach for dispatching Vukota and Baumgartner in the waning seconds. On the other side – with LaFontaine’s series-ending injury in mind — the Islanders believed that it was necessary for their coach to make his point that the club would not be intimidated.

In a sense the league sided with the home club; Vukota was suspended for ten games and Baumgartner for one. NHL officials noted that were it not for “the coach’s exemplary history,” Arbour would have been more severely chastised.

Still, NHL President John Ziegler called the Islanders’ actions “shameful, disgraceful, and degrading” but added that those adjectives, “fall short of the mark.”

“They (the Rangers) are always lily-white,” snapped Arbour, “and we’re always the guys in the black hats.”

MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: Defending Arbour, I became enveloped in the dispute a day later while appearing on Bill Mazer’s WFAN program. The show emanated from Mickey Mantle’s Restaurant on Central Park South. It preceded The FAN’s 3 p.m. show featuring Chris (Mad Dog) Russo and Mike Francesa.

About five minutes before signing off, Mazer introduced Russo and Francesa while I still was with Bill at the restaurant microphones. Russo immediately ripped Arbour’s handling of the final seconds to a point where I found his remarks distasteful.

We became embroiled in a heated argument that soon included Francesa and would have continued endlessly had Mazer’s show not concluded. By this time Bill clearly was surprised – likely upset as well – by the fooferaw but bade me a fond good-bye.

 I then got on my bicycle, pedaled through Central Park and arrived at my West 110th Street apartment about 45 minutes later. My wife, Shirley, told me that the phone was “ringing off its hooks” and I soon knew why. Once Russo and Francesa started their show they began criticizing me in no uncertain terms and did so on their following program.

 However, the postscript is hilarious. That June the folks at SportsChannel decided to give Russo his own show. As a promotional gimmick I played a game of one-on-one floor hockey with Mad Dog. (I won.) Before we went out and played we chatted in the locker room of the gym and became “friends.”

And, yes, I did appear on their program a few years later during a Rangers-Devils playoff series and a few other of their shows.

Once the decibel count had receded the games continued and Neilson’s sextet took Game Two at The Garden, 5-2. Now it was time for the Islanders to once and for all step up their performance and pull themselves back in the series.

That’s where Game Three, April 9, 1990, comes into play. As one Islanders fan of the Jewish faith, Daniel Friedman, put it, “The game fell on the first night of Passover so it was fitting that the Isles managed to engineer a ‘miracle’ of their own.”

Considering the uprising that took place in Game One and the post-game eruptions, it was not surprising that blood was boiling on both sides of the rink long before Game Three began in Uniondale. Nassau County police officers maintained a significant presence outside the arena and explained why although everyone already knew.

“We’ve had some problems at Islanders-Rangers games,” said officer Bob Turk. “On St.Patrick’s Day there were some pretty good fights.”

For a change Islanders fans had reason to cheer. Less than two minutes into the opening period, Brent Sutter scored a power play goal but before the ten-minute mark Troy Mallette had tied it for the Rangers. The Blueshirts took the lead in the middle frame when James Patrick exploited a five-on-three power play and Bernie Nicholls added another power play goal to up the margin to 3-1.

But the Islanders weren’t dead yet. Trailing by two in the third, they received back-to-back goals from Patrick Flatley and Hubie McDonough within a 1:22 span of the third period to knot the count at three.

MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: Without LaFontaine, the Isles offense was thin but Flatley continued to play clutch hockey and McDonough showed why he was one of the most underappreciated acquisitions Bill Torrey ever made. With the game tied 3-3, the Coliseum had turned into Club Bedlam.

The third period ended with the teams still even and the animosity level as high as it had been at the end of Game One. But the feuding, fussin’ and fighting did not stop with regulation play. The most devastating hit of the night was leveled by Mallette who rammed Jeff Norton head-first into the glass. Norton was knocked unconscious while the Ranger was escorted out of the contest with a five-minute major penalty and a game misconduct.

“That hit was vicious,” said Baumgartner. “The potential for injury was much higher than anything Mick and I did in that (first game) fight.”

Mallette’s penalty left the Rangers shorthanded with the game still deadlocked into the second overtime period and for a change Islanders fans could exit with smiles. Just 59 seconds had elapsed when Brent Sutter — converting a Jeff Finley pass – re-directed the rubber past goalie John Vanbiesbrouck.

(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS:  I vividly recall walking through the Coliseum parking lot with a conspicuously uplifting feeling and the hope that the series would be long and possibly fruitful for the Isles. But I also had a realistic sense that power play goals such as Sutter’s do not happen often and when I got into the car I said to myself, “Brother, enjoy the moment.”

Revenge was sweet but short-lived for the Islanders. The Rangers trounced them 6-1 and 6-5 to annex the series in five games.

Nobody capsulated the bitter feelings about the series better than James Patrick. “Things happen,” concluded the Rangers defenseman. “Crazy things. Bad things. There’s something special about our rivalry.”

James could say that again and nobody familiar with the Islanders or the Rangers would dispute his assertion!

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