Ever since Lou Lamoriello became Devils major domo in 1987, New Jersey’s National Hockey League team has bragged about its “brand,” or, to put it another way, what the club is all about.
In its most basic form, the perennial theme about Garden State hockey has been DEFENSE FIRST.
Those who have been resentful of Larrupin’ Lou’s system that produced three Stanley Cups and two trips to the Final round in a mere 17 years have denigrated both the artistry involved and the accomplishment. Lamoriello listens and laughs. The record shows that the man behind the Devils virtually always has the last laugh.
(THE MAVEN’S COMMENT: Jacques Lemaire was Devils coach in 1994-1995 when mostly Canadian hockey writers began sniping at the Devils’ defensive techniques. I’m convinced that one writer in particular — Al Strachan then with the Toronto Sun — led the anti-New Jersey denigrators because of what happened in June 1995. When Lemaire’s skaters reached the 1995 Cup Final against heavily favored Detroit, Strachan predicted that Scotty Bowman’s powerful Red Wings would beat the Devils in a sweep. Instead, New Jersey reversed the forecast and ousted the Motor City sextet in four. Critics such as Strachan should have known better. Ironically, there was nothing new about Devils’ hockey. Lemaire merely was borrowing a page from Bowman’s book when Scotty’s Montreal Canadiens won four consecutive Cups (1976-1979). Lemaire should know; he was the top center on that dynastic Habs outfit.)
As far as Lamoriello’s critics are concerned the term trap is synonymous with “Devils Hockey.” And that, in turn, is the equivalent of suffocation on ice. But it’s also the equivalent of winning hockey.
Thus, when the Garden Staters indulge in a relatively strange thing such as one of their rare free-scoring, fire wagon forms of hockey, it’s big news. And when the Rangers happen to be on the other side, the headlines are even bigger. And that’s why I always have been fascinated by the game on Dec. 12, 2008. It was so different and had so many long-range ramifications, such as the eventual removal of then-coach Tom Renney.
It’s not that the Rangers have been slouches when it comes to putting the accent on the negative; as in low-scoring games. (Why do you think John Tortorella likes having five shot-blockers in front of Henrik Lundqvist?) In 2008-2009, the New Yorkers burst from the starting gate, winning 10-out-of-13 games; losing only a pair and tying one. It was the best early run in the team’s history. Defense would take care of itself and Lundqvist was getting better by the year.
The Devils also did well at the start with a 6-2-2 mark. As usual, Martin Brodeur was riding high and when it came to good, old-fashioned kitty-bar-the-door hockey Lou’s lads still owned the patent. Alas, the Devils’ brand had not changed one bit.
(THE MAVEN’S COMMENT: The first time I heard that expression — kitty-bar-the-door hockey — was back in the mid-1940s when the Toronto Maple Leafs became the first NHL dynasty, winning three straight Stanley Cups –1947, 1948, 1949 and a fourth in 1951. Under coach Hap Day, the Leafs played what then was considered a commendable “clutch-and-grab” game which also was referred to as “kitty-bar-the-door” hockey. In those days, Hall of Fame goalie Turk Broda was the kitty who barred the door and for the Devils it was Brodeur — until Marty suffered a serious injury early in the 2008-2009 season.)
Ever since his rookie season as a Devil, Brodeur had been virtually indestructible. Given his druthers, he would have loved to play all 82 games of any season, but management would never go that far. After all, the backup goalies deserved at least a cameo appearance once in a while, didn’t they? Even Marty understood that.
Which explains why Marty’s serious injury — a torn biceps tendon — suffered on Nov. 1 in a game against Carolina changed the entire complexion of his club’s season. This would be a long-term setback with no sure indication when Brodeur would return and how well he’d play thereafter. The onus now was on Scott Clemmensen and suddenly the Devils’ prospects for the season took a nosedive. Nobody figured that a Clemmensen could replace Mister Goalie.
All of which explains why the events of Dec. 12, 2008 caused double and triple-takes among the sellout crowd at Prudential Center.
The same goes for Devils coach Brent Sutter. And when the topsy-turvy, 8-5, game had ended, Sutter sheepishly joked,”if I wasn’t bald before, I’m bald now.”
With Renney behind the Blueshirts’ bench, there was absolutely no forecasting the avalanche of goals leading to the 8-5 Devils decision. “We scored five goals,” snapped Renney, “and that should win you a hockey game.”
Especially when Henrik Lundqvist was guarding the twine for New York and perennial backup Clemmensen got the assignment for the Garden Staters.
Not that Clemmensen was to be taken lightly. As Brodeur’s stand-in, Clemmer was never afforded enough ice time to prove that he was, in fact, one of the most underrated blockers in the league. His first few games replacing Marty were mediocre, but he soon found his focus and entered the Rangers contest on a reasonable roll.
(THE MAVEN’S COMMENT: Ever since Lou took control of the Devils they’ve had first-rate second-goalies. During their first successful playoff run in 1987-1988 it was Bob Sauve who came up with key points spelling rookie sensation Sean Burke. Later it was Mike Dunham ably backing Brodeur as well as Corey Schwab. Clemmensen was unique; a rare Iowa product making it to the NHL and sticking. He always had a calm, farm boy demeanor, never panicking no matter how difficult it was standing in for Mister Goalie. Plus, I loved him because he was such a refreshing interview; filled with insights and freshness for one in his role.)
As for the Rangers, after the Blueshirts were knocked out of the second round in the Spring of 2008 by Pittsburgh, Glen Sather shuffled his roster. Martin Straka, Jaromir Jagr, Brendan Shanahan and Sean Avery all were chucked from the lineup. Sather imported Markus Naslund and Wade Redden while dispatching Fedor Tyutin and Christian Backman to Columbus for Nikolai Zherdev and Dan Fritsche.
Chris Drury was captain, which seemed like a logical choice based on his previous leadership qualities demonstrated in Colorado and Buffalo. Scott Gomez was given the alternate’s “A” along with Naslund. Both second-year Rangers, Drury and Gomez were considered the ideal offensive double-dip; the digger-clutch scorer Drury and the dipsy-doodl0 dandy center in Gomez. Nobody beefed when Sather acquired them.
Drury had been the bane of the Rangers’ existence when he was a Sabre playing New York in the playoffs and figured to be the ideal addition to the lineup. Gomez appeared to be in the prime of his hockey life. Playing on Seventh Avenue seemed like the ideal tonic for a young man who adored the limelight.
(THE MAVEN’S COMMENT: Try as they might, over the long haul neither Drury nor Gomez fit into the Rangers’ equation. Drury certainly tried to be the leader he had been in Buffalo but wasn’t able to match his desire with his production. After he became a Ranger, I got friendlier with Chris than I ever had earlier in his playing career. He told me that his Dad had been a fan of mine so I reciprocated by giving him an autographed book to be given to his father. From that point on, Chris and I were pals. In terms of our conversations, I enjoyed my occasional schmoozes with Drury. As for Gomer, it was apparent that he was tickled to be an Alaskan in Manhattan. The perplexing question surrounded his age — Scotty was in his prime — and the fact that he was not playing up to the level expected of him. Plus, he was getting big dough; more than in New Jersey where he helped win Stanley Cups in 2000 and 2003. Perhaps the Big Apple’s distractions were — well — distracting Gomez.
Renney certainly could have used more production out of his high-priced offensive pair. Following the splendid start in October, the Blueshirts rapidly disintegrated in November. They finished with a 7-6-1 record that month and opened December at 2-2 before finally meeting the Devils. Although this was relatively early in the season, the match had all the goose-pimple-producing excitement of the rivalry.
Lundqvist, who had not allowed the Devils more than two goals since his first-ever match against New Jersey, allowed two in the opening period while New Jersey led 2-1 after one. Onlookers sensed that this would not be Henny’s night when he allowed the third New Jersey goal; this by Travis Zajac and it was a near-instant 3-1 for the Devs. “I think,” Henny later opined, “that we made them better than they really are. We made it pretty easy for them.”
Shorthanded, the Devils upped it to four goals when defenseman Johnny Oduya found a puck that Lundqvist somehow had lost under him but it was not frozen so there was no ref’s whistle. Oduya said thank you very much and buried it. Imagine that, 4-1 Devs and the game wasn’t half over; nor was the feasting on Lundqvist. Before the second period had concluded, it was 5-1, thanks to a Dainius Zubrus backhander.
By now, it was generally accepted that Sutter would employ the traditional Devils-style hockey to run out the game with a carefully scripted defensive final period. Trouble was that logic took a vacation in this version of the rivalry. As reliable as Clemmensen had been over the first pair of periods, his performance in the third left open a question about his reliability, long-term, with Brodeur out for the duration.
(THE MAVEN’S COMMENT: During my long partnership with MSG Network’s Glenn (Chico) Resch, he expressed an interest in learning the Yiddish language and be able to fit Yiddish words into his English commentary. The one Yiddish word that Chico permanently latched on to was “konahora.” Loosely translated, it means prematurely uttering a jinx while things are going well. Thus, if the Devils were ahead 5-1, Resch might be tempted to (prematurely) say that he now expected them to win. Unfortunately such a comment often turned out to be a “konahora,” jinxing the team before the game was fully over. Most of the time, a “konahora” boomerangs on the guy who uttered it. In this particular game, the boomeranging almost happened, but didn’t in the end. But it still proved the point — beware of giving a “konahora.”)
With the puck bouncing so fortuitously for Sutter’s sextet, the last thing Devils fans wanted to see was a Rangers comeback. But konohora or not, it finally was launched late in the middle stanza when Zherdev beat Clemmensen followed by a Clemmer boner that Gomez converted thereby reviving the Yogi Berra-ism that “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.” And here it was proven in the third period as Paur Mara’s wrist shot from straight on eluded Clemmensen and the Rangers were down 5-4 with 18:32 left to play.
Both teams then traded chances but neither scored until there was 8:42 left. At that point Ryan Callahan won a battle behind the net. After getting a pass from Zherdev, he skated out from behind the net to the goalie’s right. From just above the goal line, Cally’s wrister beat Clemmer on the short side. It was the perfect momentum-shifter for the Rangers — except this time for some inexplicable reason it didn’t work.
Displaying more elasticity than imagined, the Devils counterattacked with a thrust into the Rangers’ ice. Forcing defenseman Mara into a turnaover, Zubrus slid the puck to Patrik Elias who buried the biscuit behind Lundqvist and — poof! just like that — it was 6-5 for New Jersey. But all that did was inspire the Blueshirts to do likewise with Brandon Dubinsky leading the way. For a split second, it appeared that the score would be tied 6-6 and it would have had Clemmensen not made the save of the night, booting away Dubinsky’s point-blank shot.
“Their sixth goal was the biggest,” said Drury. “We needed to keep it 5-5 for a few shifts to maintain our momentum but we just couldn’t do it.”
“Let’s face it, they’re a good team,” said Lundqvist.
What the Devils now needed was a “cushion” goal and it was provided by a textbook Elias pass to Zubrus who duplicated that feed with a cross-ice-breakaway skim to Gionta. Skating one-on-one against Lundqvist, the Littlest Devil faked a wrist shot to Henny’s glove side and then deked to his backhand, slipping the rubber past the goalie’s right pad and into the net. “By this time,” explained Elias, “every line kept going.”
No less effective was the trio featuring Bobby Holik at center alongside Zach Parise and Jamie Langenbrunner. They closed out the scoring with a precise job of cycling that culminated with Parise’s pass to Langenbrunner who completed the scoring. In a span of 3:38 in the third period the Devils had three goals — and exited with two points. “Those goals at the end were huge,” reasoned Parise, “but it was so important for us to get to Lundqvist early. That gave us the confidence that we could score on him. It was a nice little explosion.”
And so unlike the “trapping” Devils.
“On our team, when we win like that, there are mixed emotions,” said Elias. “We don’t want that to happen very often because when they caught us we weren’t controlling the puck enough.”
Renney saw it another way and the coach’s explanation made sense. His club simply ran out of gas after its brilliant comeback. “We had to expend a lot of energy doing that,” noted Tom, “and then we fell back on bad defensive lapses. That cost us the game in what turned out to be a track meet.”
Perhaps the bizarre sixty minutes was best summed up by The King himself. “The bottom line,” said Lundqvist, “is that I had to be better.”
(THE MAVEN’S COMMENT: One of the most depressing aspects of the loss — in terms of those closely associated with the Rangers — was that the defeat was one of several that would grease the skids for Tom Renney’s eventual dismissal as coach in late February. I was a keen admirer of Renney because, first and foremost, he was a gentleman. Also, he was a good coach although — as some critics suggested — he may have been too lenient with his skaters. Tom also has a rich sense of humor and the best vocabulary of any coach I ever met; ever. Never before had I ever heard a head coach use words such as “paradigm” in regular conversation; and he wasn’t trying to impress either. I also would miss our ritual of me telling Tom a joke before every single game; once he concluded his pre-game media scrums. As far as I know, he never disliked one of my gags; and I’m not bragging either; just reporting. Nonetheless, the slumps that followed that loss in Newark set a chain reaction in motion and the result was the launch of The Era of Torts.)
In the end, the Devils were winners because — on this night at least — they played non-New Jersey hockey!