"Henrique!!!! It's Over!!!"
Those words signaled the end of the Eastern Conference Finals. As Calder finalist Adam Henrique slammed the puck into the back of the net, the goal horn sounded and Mike ‘Doc' Emrick made a call that will live on for many years. I've watched the play and listened to the call probably about 50 times already. Each time the result was the same: The New Jersey Devils had beaten the New York Rangers four games to two and had advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Those words meant something else to die-hard Devils fans. From this die-hard fan's perspective the mid 90's Rangers led by Mark Messier, Brian Leetch, Adam Graves and Mike Richter had lived like ghosts inside my head.
Notice I didn't focus on 1994. It was more than that. The 1996-97 Devils were the top seed from the east that year, and had made a few key acquisitions to put them in a prime position for another Cup run. The Devils steamrolled their first round opponent and things looked promising. But the Rangers got in their way. Once again the Devils were eliminated by the Rangers, losing 4-1 in the conference semi-finals. Unlike '94, coming into the playoffs that year the Devils were the team to beat, the favorites. The upset in '97 coupled with the heartbreaking loss in '94 always left a sore spot for me. Opportunities lost.
Despite a Stanley Cup in 1995, the Devils had a four year span that saw two tough series losses to the Rangers and not even qualifying for the playoffs in 1996. A lot of joy mixed in with a bunch of misery.
More after the jump.
Flash forward to 2012 and the New Jersey Devils have had a fantastic playoff run so far, with the Stanley Cup Finals up next. That's the main goal and the focal point of success for an organization, especially one that is run by Lou Lamoriello. The conference final victory over the New York Rangers however, not only advanced the Devils one step closer to that goal, it provided closure for many Devils fans still stung over the mid-90's playoff losses to the Rangers.
Martin Brodeur understands this. From Tom Gulitti reported after the Devils victory via Fire & Ice:
"But, I think winning against them in the big stage, not just for me, but for the fans of New Jersey, people that are supporting us and always take a second seat to these guy for whatever reason, now they've got to be pretty happy going to work and going to school and doing all their things that they do. I know from some of the messages I got throughout this playoff series, we made a real happy right now by beating them."
Any Devils fan who followed the team in the tri-state area and especially those who sat in Brendan Byrne/Continental airlines arena during the mid-90's look at the quote above and just nod their head in agreement. Any fan who had Rangers fans needle them about owning the Devils can relate.
Even after seeing four Stanley Cup Final appearances with three victories and numerous playoff berths, a Devils fan needed something else. Despite seeing a struggling organization turn into one of the best of the NHL, there was still something missing from a fan's perspective. The Devils were missing a significant victory over their hated rivals in a significant playoff series.
That's just what they got. I can think of no better way to erase the memories of the mid 90's than the way things unfolded. The Devils not only advanced, but crushed the hopes of Ranger fans in the process. Whether it was key Devil third period/overtime game winning goals in games the Rangers had fought back to tie or watching their team embarrass themselves when losing (see Rupp, Mike) this series had a bit of everything to break the black hearts of Ranger fans.
And to top it off it was Brodeur, the goalie that let in Stefan Matteau's wraparound in '94, that was still in net for the Devils.
For the players involved in last week's games, the playoff series in 1994, 1997 or 1995 didn't matter. For some reason I (and many other sports fans) dwell on big losses more than big wins. That's why Friday night was so important. The memories of the mid 90's had stuck with me for years, but Adam Henrique, Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise, Travis Zajac and Martin Brodeur helped exorcize those bad memories
The ghosts are gone. It's over.