Unless you grew up in a two-team town, you don’t understand what was at stake for a New Jersey Devils fan on May 27, 1994.
The Devils were second-class citizens in the market, a franchise with more relocations than deep playoff runs to its credit. The New York Rangers hadn’t lifted the Stanley Cup in 54 years, a fact I remember my father gleefully noted on a sign he created for his car that read “54 AND COUNTING” to commemorate the second ever meeting between the Devils and the Rangers in the conference playoffs.
That they met in the conference final meant Devils fans had a chance to not only earn bragging rights but score the ultimate indignity against their cross-river rivals: Winning a Cup before the Rangers did. Graduating to championship status while the Rangers grumbled on about “curses.”
To live in a two-team town meant you cared slightly more about what happened in that night’s game because of what would happen the next morning, i.e. being the giver or receiver of copious amounts of grief.
I was in high school at the time, which meant Devils fans and Rangers fans coexisted in the same halls. I remember shouting matches between fans about the series. Taunting signs on lockers torn down in anger. My then-girlfriend was a die-hard Rangers fan. Let’s just say the 1994 conference final wasn’t an aphrodisiac.
So what happened on May 27, 1994, would greatly enhance or diminish the lives of the few, the proud, the Devils faithful.
It would diminish them.
I think the taunting subsided roughly around the same time the waking nightmares did.
I watched Game 7 in my parents’ living room, knowing that the fates were with the Rangers after Mark Messier’s “guarantee” – because what the hell else was he going to say, facing elimination? – had already entered hockey lore after the Rangers’ Game 6 win. As Mike Richter stopped everything in the Devils threw at him, and I paced a trench into the carpet, the Rangers’ victory became inevitable.
Then Valeri Zelepukin happened.
The Devils winger was never an essential player. A nice complement to better linemates at the most. One of those was Claude Lemieux, whom the Devils wanted on the ice with less than 20 seconds remaining in the third after a quick whistle gave the Devils the faceoff in the offensive zone.
It was Lemieux who found Zelepukin on Richter’s doorstep, and it was Zelepukin who silenced the MSG crowd with a goal at 7.7 seconds of the third to tie the game at 1-1 -- after a sick pad save from Richter.
The intermission between regulation and the first overtime was something I’ve only experienced one other time: In the gold medal game in 2010, after Parise beat Luongo. It was a seemingly endless string of thoughts about how the inevitable wasn’t inevitable, about history being rewritten, about what another goal would mean for a team that had been crapped on and disrespected and laughed at and undermined for the better part of my life in comparison to their arch rivals. About what that goal would do to change the dynamic of that rivalry. About the pain it would cause. About the joy it would create.
The only reason there was a second overtime is because a rookie goalie named Martin Brodeur decided there’d be one, stopping 15 Rangers’ shots.
In double overtime, the only reason Stephane Matteau would have a chance to end the game was because Bernie Nicholls couldn’t follow an incredible save by Richter on Stephane Richer, despite a gaping net behind the Rangers’ goalie. It was a moment that literally had the Devils jumping off their bench, thinking victory was theirs.
Check out this brilliant segment on the Matteau goal from "Road To Victory: The '94 New York Rangers Story.”
Other than using the clip on various blogs – countdowns, Rangers playoff stories, when the Devils drafted Matteau’s son – I haven’t really spent much time breaking down the actual Game 7 double-OT game winner.
Which is to say I probably haven’t paid attention to the Matteau goal, in a hockey sense, in 20 years. Not because it causes me any discomfort. It’s more like how you don’t think about dental surgery after you’ve had it.
What struck me now was just how fast Matteau seemed to be skating, like he hit a power-up button or something. Scott Niedermayer is one of the fastest defensemen to ever put blades to ice and he was smoked to the corner.
What also struck me was the baffling play from Slava Fetisov to start the sequence, taking an end-around dump-in from Jeff Beukeboom and playing the puck off the leg of Esa Tikkanen back to the corner. Where s he aiming? Get it out of the zone, maybe, comrade?
(That Tikkanen would become one of the worst acquisitions in Devils history is really the cherry on this crap sundae for Jersey fans.)
Fetisov would of course appear later on Matteau’s goal. He slid in front of Brodeur on Matteau’s wraparound. Did the puck go in off his stick? Was he just a non-factor as Brodeur couldn’t protect the post? I’m not exactly sure anymore, but I do recall cursing the day this old Russian bag of bones joined the Devils for years on afterwards. With all due respect to the man, of course.
If nothing else, the Matteau goal perfectly captures why playoff overtime is unmatched for its sheer drama. It was at an unexpected moment, from an unexpected player. It was a completely pedestrian play the ended up being perhaps the single most important goal scored in franchise history. And that’s just how these things go: Matteau’s goal was every bit as jumbled and ugly as Patrick Kane’s Cup winner in 2010.
But the same thing happens whenever they’re scored: Bedlam.
When Matteau ended Game 7, I remember hitting the floor with my knees and burying my face in the beige carpet of my parents' house. I might have slid into a fetal position, might have matched my production ot tears to that of a Brodeur on the handshake line. Stunned, saddened, frustrated. Hated every second of the celebration. Every smiling face, every elated fan knowing that destiny had to be on their side now.
Hated myself for allowed an ounce of that belief to poison my mind.
Hated knowing all the Rangers fans in my life would now have an answer to "1940" or any other taunt, that every debate and argument could be answered with the same response:
For many of us that watched the game on television, Howie Rose’s “MATTEAU MATTEAU MATTEAU!” and “MOUNT VANCOUVER” call wasn’t heard until hours later when WFAN was still doing postgame coverage.
I was a huge listener to the station, and to Rose’s coverage of both the Rangers and the New York Mets. I say this with full disclosure and honesty: I couldn’t listen to him for a while. Months. Maybe a year. It’s all gone now that he’s the voice of the New York Islanders, which I’ve always felt was his personal hell the Hockey Gods had cast him into after cursing New Jersey fans with having to hear “MATTEAU MATTEAU MATTEAU” for the rest of their natural lives.
But that’s just a theory.
I often wonder how I’d feel about the Matteau goal if the Devils hadn’t rebounded in 1995 with their first of three Stanley Cups, and if the Devils hadn’t eventually put on their big boy pants and eliminated the Rangers a few times. I’d probably be like those Sabres fans that start spitting bile when they talk after Brett Hull’s name comes up. From an unending pain perspective, not from the “NHL SCREWED US, MAAAAAAAAAN” perspective.
As it stands, I can appreciate the Matteau goal for what it was: The single greatest moment in conference finals, New York Rangers and New York hockey history. It was like an exploding confetti cannon whose pressure was powered by an entire city's held breath, rallying to support the same team. The 1994 Rangers were akin to the 1986 Mets that way: Even if you weren’t a fan, you were a fan.
Unless of course you were an Islanders or Devils fan.
It was a moment, 20 years on, that’s we’ve never seen repeated and never will, given the context.
Unless of course the Rangers want to keep this drought going until 2048. Which is, you know, their prerogative.