New York ranger forward Alexei Kovalev looked as if he'd been in a train wreck. He had a baseball-sized welt on his left cheek, and his neck bore a mark that looked more like he'd gotten it smooching in the backseat of a car than from a sneaky cross-check at the hands of Bernie Nicholls of the New Jersey Devils in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals. Ranger coach Mike Keenan bellowed about an "act of violence"—whoa, there's a scoop!—and demanded that Nicholls be suspended for delivering the blow. The NHL did sit Nicholls down for Game 4, but after the incident Kovalev seemed less upset than his coach. "This," Kovalev said with a shrug, "is the playoffs."
Kovalev could have said this is the playoff. New York is the center of the universe (just ask any New Yorker), but now that assertion was no boast. The league's two best teams—separated by six points in the regular-season standings, seven miles, the Hudson River and a gulf of difference in their franchise histories—were waging regional war. Forget about the Toronto Maple Leafs against the Vancouver Canucks in the Western Conference finals, a series that the Canucks led three games to one at week's end (page 64). By the reckoning of much of hockeydom, the Ranger-Devil series was essentially for the Cup, a prize that seemed tantalizingly close for New Jersey on Monday night after the Devils took a 3-2 series lead with a 4-1 victory in New York.
The New York-New Jersey playoff might not have had the raw ferocity of the Battles of Alberta between the Edmonton Oilers and the Calgary Flames in the late 1980s, because clutch-and-grab has replaced free-flow and big open-ice hits, but Rangers-Devils still had a retro feel to it. New York boasted seven warhorses from the Oiler dynasty that won five Stanley Cups between '84 and '90, including the incomparable Mark Messier, and a total of 28 NHL championship rings among its players. New Jersey countered with a clear connection to the past glories of the Montreal Canadiens. While just two Devils owned Stanley Cup rings, both of them, Claude Lemieux and Stephane Richer, earned their jewelry playing on Montreal's Cup-winner of '86; and New Jersey was coached by Jacques Lemaire and assistant Larry Robinson, who between them had had their names engraved on Lord Stanley's mug 14 times as players with the Canadiens. What's more, the Devils had a white-hot rookie goalie, Martin Brodeur, whose father, Denis, happens to be the longtime Canadien team photographer.
No sport venerates its past at championship time more than hockey. Maybe it is the tradition of the Cup itself, chiseled for 100 years with names of men good and gritty enough to have held it. Maybe it is simply that hockey players are old-fashioned enough to respect their elders. "Ask anybody in the game," says Devil defenseman Ken Daneyko. "The money's great, the accolades are great, but all they want is their name on the Cup."
The favored route to the Cup is one paved with experience. In the NHL, dynasties have not gone the way of the dinosaur. Since the 1967 expansion, every team that has won the Cup, save two, has won it again within two years (the two exceptions are the '89 Flames and the '86 Canadiens). "The first Cup is the toughest for a franchise," says Neil Smith, the Ranger president and general manager, who has a Stanley Cup ring from his days as a New York Islander scout.
The Rangers, of course, have been chasing the Cup ever since winning their last one, in 1940. Someday, given expansion from six to 26 teams, going more than a half-century without a Stanley Cup won't seem such a remarkable failure. But given that the NHL had only six teams before '67 and given the Rangers' string of bad teams and bad luck, there is no bigger deal in hockey than New York's so-called Curse.
Smith, now in his fifth season with the Rangers, knew he wouldn't have time to build a winner from scratch, but he also knew where he could pick up some quality pieces. In the last three seasons he has assembled a Cup-ready team, turning most often to the cash-poor Oilers, who, after winning the Cup in '90, began breaking up their team.
In September 1991 Smith signed free-agent Adam Graves, who had played two seasons for Edmonton and has blossomed into a 52-goal scorer and one of the best whole-rink players in the NHL. A month later Smith landed Messier, who had been the league's MVP in '90. Another month went by, and Smith cherry-picked a big Oiler defenseman, 6'5". 225-pound Jeff Beukeboom. During the '92-93 season he traded with Edmonton for defenseman Kevin Lowe and Esa Tikkanen, the noisy Finnish forward who, to opponents, is the personification of chalk squealing on a blackboard. This spring Smith swelled the ranks of the Oiler Alumni Association by acquiring 35-year-old center Craig MacTavish and 33-year-old wing Glenn Anderson, who had spent the previous three seasons in Toronto but had starred on Edmonton Cup-winners.
"Last year someone in the organization told me, 'Enough Oilers,' " Smith says. "I said, 'What should I get, then, Sharks and Senators?' We had gotten Lowe and Tikk that year, and we'd had a bad season [the Rangers didn't make the playoffs], but I never really worried about getting guys past their prime. I never went after Edmonton players by design. But these guys became available and seemed to fit our needs. These are world-class players. They've done things. God bless them if they want to put on our uniform. They are guys who can lead you through adversity."
Messier, the Ranger captain, did just that on May 17, during Game 2 of the series against the Devils. New Jersey had stolen the opener in Madison Square Garden 4-3 thanks to its Canadien connection: a late tying goal by Lemieux and a winner in double overtime by Richer. But in the second game Messier dished out two thundering hits in the first minute and then scored just 73 seconds into the game. The path had been cleared for goalie Mike Richter's fourth shutout of this year's playoffs, a 4-0 victory.
"When they dropped the puck in Game 2, Mess had that look in his eyes," Tikkanen said late last week. "He had that same look in Game 4 of the conference finals in 1990 [Messier had two goals and two assists in a 4-2 win over the Chicago Blackhawks], and he had it in Game 2 against the Devils. Like he wants to eat somebody—alive."
New Jersey had been looking for leadership from its captain, defenseman Scott Stevens, but after New York's first goal in Game 1 on May 15, Stevens was on the ice for 10 straight Ranger scores and was goaded into a dumb penalty by the locust-like Tikkanen in Game 3. The burden of leadership reverted to the bench, where Lemaire, who had coaxed the Devils to a franchise-record 106 points in the regular season—second only to New York's 112—proved up to the task.
When New Yorkers travel to New Jersey, they grab their passports, get their shots and pack a few cans of fruit cocktail, just in case. But Lemaire had no apprehension about moving south when the Devil job was offered to him last June. To him, the 16W tollbooth on the Jersey Turnpike seemed like the pearly gates after enduring years of hockey hysteria in Montreal. In '85, done in by the stresses of coaching the Canadiens, he walked away from that job after a little more than a season (though he then became Montreal's assistant general manager).
In New Jersey he would be under no microscope—although, at times, a microscope might have proved useful in detecting Devil fans. (There were more than 5,000 empty seats in the Meadowlands Arena for an early-round playoff game this month.) The former Kansas City Scout-Colorado Rockie franchise, which settled in the Jersey swamp in 1982, has been less than vibrant on the ice as well as off in recent years, but that fact barely concerned Lemaire, who loves the game but not all of its trappings. His world is 200 by 85 feet, and the Devils offered the closest thing to hockey in a vacuum. Lemaire installed a defensive style with one forechecker and neutral-zone clogging that's as stifling as a Lincoln Tunnel rush-hour traffic jam.
"Since 1988 I've felt we've had pretty good teams," says Daneyko, who has been with New Jersey since '83-84. "But we seemed to be content with 35, 38 wins. Then suddenly we have coaches from Montreal, one of the best organizations in all of sports, and you know they won't be satisfied. That rubs off. I thought the stuff about having to win the Cup before you truly know what it takes to win it was mumbo jumbo, a bunch of hogwash. But now I see it's true."
Lemieux, with his generous supply of experience and vast knowledge of hockey's black arts, has left an impression on this series—and apparently on Lowe's hand. According to Lowe, Lemieux nibbled on Lowe's finger during a Game 2 scuffle. That didn't come close to the five-course meal Lemieux made of Jim Peplinski's index finger during Game 4 of the 1986 Cup finals against Calgary. "Somewhere in his background," MacTavish said, "there must be a rottweiler."
Richer has also thrived in New Jersey and does not seem quite so overmatched by life as he did in Montreal, where he once consulted three astrologers during a slump. Now Richer worries about his game and not about the tabloids. In Game 4 against the Rangers he scored the opening goal in the 3-1 home win despite playing with a sore left shoulder, an injury he suffered in the closing minutes of regulation in Game 3, a thrilling 3-2 double-overtime road victory for the Rangers.
The players in this series are fully aware of their historical ties to past Cup champions. "When a few players move from a team that's had some success, they seem to try to re-create the same thing on their new team," Lemieux says. "I've seen it work, and I've seen it fail. Edmonton had some great offensive players, and Montreal played more of a defensive style. And that's definitely reflected here with these two teams. This is a case where it seems the approach has worked—for both teams."