When the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils meet tonight in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals, it will mark a rematch 18 years later of one of the great series in Stanley Cup Playoff history.
En route to their first Cup in 54 years, the Rangers needed seven games to get past the Devils in a series that included three double overtime games. Games 3 and 7 were both double-overtime matches, with the Rangers Stephane Matteau emerging as a folk hero who provided the game-winning goal in each.
At the time, Bobby Holik was 23 and in the fourth season of what would be an 18-year career as a center in which he won the Stanley Cup twice, both with the Devils. He scored 13 goals in 70 games that season and finished a plus-28 and was a member of the Crash Line with Randy McKay and Mike Peluso that often received the assignment of neutralizing the oppositions best lines comes playoff time, a feat it was able to perform with some regularity over the years.
Holik, who runs his own Web site, HolikonHockey.com, along with a shooting Web site that hes fond of (HolikonShooting.com), offered his always strongly opinionated and thoughtful insights on that series along with his prediction of this years match-up. (Holik also played for the Rangers in a tenure that was less memorable than his first with New Jersey.)
In their infancy as a franchise, Wayne Gretzky once labeled the Devils a Mickey Mouse organization, an appellation for which some New Jersey fans still have yet to forgive The Great One. But in 93-94 the rookie year of goalie Martin Brodeur, who will start tonight for New Jersey the Devils made some key strides under the keen eye of general manager Lou Lamoriello in a process that ultimately made them one of the NHLs top organizations ever since.
It was the first time for me to be that far in the playoffs, Holik said. It was just absolutely amazing. The Crash line, we were building our reputation throughout that playoff year. I played a role that I didnt really put an expectation on what role I am going to have. Im a two-way player who is going to contribute to the team to win hockey games, but playing on the Crash Line with Peluso and McKay throughout that playoff run, it was completely different but at the time I never thought about it as I should be a different player than I am.
I just loved finally being relevant and the team being relevant. Third or fourth year, we were finally being contenders. You talk to the Devils fans of the last 25, 30 years and the Crash line is one of their best memories We went to the conference finals and we won the Cup thats an accomplishment and we played against teams lines like (Philadelphias) Legion of Doom in those years and we were contributing and it was such a great, great experience. I was young. It was a tremendous experience playing alongside Claude Lemieuxs and Bernie Nicholls and Scottie Stevens. We had a lot of young, future great players
In fact, Holik credits the experience for the following season when the underdog Devils dominated heavily favored Detroit in the Cup final, sweeping the series.
It was like a start for us, Holik said. We didnt win the Cup. We went to the seventh game. But we saw the end, kind of (Rangers captain Mark) Messiers greatness. It was a changing of the guard, basically.
In a current era with so much parity, Holik thinks its foolish to make any predictions, but asked for his, he said he thinks the Devils will win in five or six games.
He played three seasons in Atlanta as a teammate of Devils star Ilya Kovalchuk, whose 12 points rank third in the playoffs. Holik said he recognized at the time that the young Kovalchuk had the will to be great, but now he sees a player who has evolved and matured from a hard-headed scorer who only passed when he ran out of options to one who looks to pass first. Mostly, Holik sees the Devils as the more offensive team, which gives them the better chance.
The Rangers also are coming off back-to-back grueling seven-game series. Their most recent series included a triple-overtime game with Washington; whereas New Jersey eliminated Philadelphia in five games. Holik thinks key Devils players who were banged-up like center Dainius Zubrus and defensemen Marek Zidlicky and Anton Volchenkov will benefit from the rest.
Whether this series can live up to that of its predecessor of 18 years ago is a high bar. Holik was asked what he remembers most about that series.
Obviously, Game 6 was very disappointing because we had them, Holik said of a 3-2 Devils series lead that evaporated with a 4-2 Rangers win on the Devils home ice. That was very disappointing. We had them on the ropes. Game 7, it was tied, seventh game, seven seconds left and it went to OT.
What I remember the most is the tremendous experience... To play alongside and against players in their best like Messier -- he was great -- Mike Richter, Brian Leetch on the other side. Scott Stevens, Bernie Nicholls, Claude Lemieux, Stephane Richer, all these guys (on the Devils), for my generation of player it was a tremendous experience. I think because we were good enough, obviously, to go to the final but thats why we won fairly decidedly the next year because we had that experience. Not only our veteran players but even the players of my generation had that experience from the year before.
Talking about 94, I have to go 95, we went throughout but came up short. But we made minimum mistakes that next year because we knew how hard it is and how much we learned.