[Note by jrs1940: we're going to go a little more in depth on our 1994 retrospective for the Conference Finals and Stanley Cup Finals, beginning today ]
On May 15th, 1994, the greatest playoff series most of us have ever seen and ever will see began at Madison Square Garden.
Billed as the "Battle of the Hudson", these two teams, though just eight miles apart in proximity, could not have been further apart. This was the bright lights of Broadway vs. the swamps of Jersey. The superstar-laden Rangers vs. the blue collar Devils. Flash and dash vs. the neutral zone trap. These were the two best teams in the NHL during the regular season, and were set to do battle in the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals, and it would be a series for the ages.
Fittingly for a series that would have so many Ranger fans praying almost hourly, the opening face-off was taken by a Messiah and a Carpenter.
The two teams met six times during the regular season, with the Rangers winning all 6 games, and when Sergei Zubov put the Rangers ahead early in the first, you could forgive Ranger fans for thinking they were well on their way to number seven.
But the Devils, in their ever patient, ever frustrating style of play, stayed within their game, slowing the Rangers down at every opportunity, dictating the pace of the game, and waiting out their opportunities. Their first came late in the opening period, when John MacLean tied the game at one.
The teams traded power plays in the second period, but the Devils were doing a great job of minimizing the Ranger chances and quieting the MSG crowd, until Sergei Nemchinov got the fans back in the game with a wrist shot over the shoulder of NJ goaltender Martin Brodeur with just over two minutes remaining.
A bad turnover by Stephane Matteau led to Bill Guerin tying the game 6 minutes into the 3rd period. Matteau threw the puck blindly into the slot, creating a two on one for the Devils that they were able to capitalize on, tying the game for the second time. The Rangers, who finished with the number one power play in the NHL in the regular season (not a typo) showed why with 9 minutes remaining in the third, when Steve Larmer scored with the man advantage, giving the Rangers their third lead of the game, and their last.
In the 1993-94 regular season, the Rangers were an unbelievable 48-0-4 when leading after two periods, but were about to reverse that trend at the worst possible time, and it became a bad habit that would haunt the Rangers and their fans for the rest of the team's magical 1994 run.
At the 19:17 mark of the third period, with Brodeur on the bench for the extra attacker, Claude Lemieux put a loose puck past Ranger goaltender Mike Richter, and made Game One the first of what would be three double overtime games in this series.
Overtime progressed much as regulation had, with the Rangers mounting the attack, and the Devils holding off, playing the waiting game. The Rangers had numerous chances to put the game away, Adam Graves missed the net in the first overtime, and Alexei Kovalev hit the crossbar on a breakaway. The Devils kept waiting for the Rangers to make a mistake, and eventually, they made one.
With Brian Leetch and Jeff Beukeboom caught deep in the offensive zone, the Devils were able to break out, and with only Adam Graves and Mark Messier back on defense, Stephane Richer was able to score the game winner and give the Devils a 1-0 lead in the series.
The Devils had won the first battle, but the war was just beginning.