The Devils were in no mood to quibble.
Between his roars like Leo, The MGM Lion and laughter, like Seinfeld, coach Tommy McVie had somehow coaxed the New Jersey Devils into the 1991 playoffs.
“Not everybody believed it was possible,” said McVie whose voice alternately sounded like a gravel truck and a tuba. “But we did it and now we have another bigger job to do.”
If just making the post-season was tough, the first playoff round for the Garden Staters would be like being on the wrong end of a firing squad.
The Devils foe would be a Pittsburgh Penguins squad featuring stars on top of stars. Mario Lemieux was in his prime and so was Ron Francis. Jaromir Jagr, young as he was, had superstar written all over him.
Tom Barrasso’s goaltending was the envy of 99 percent of enemy coaches and the remainder of Pitt’s well-balanced roster could play as well any in the National Hockey League; and often better.
But if neutral observers believed that this put fear in the Devils’ hearts, they had another think coming. An underdog all his playing career, Coach McVie brought a unique blue collar — “We can do anything” — spirit to his dressing room.
“We’re in a good position,” smiled forward Brendan Shanahan. “We’re on the bottom looking up. We seem to play real well in that position.”
Defensemen Bruce Driver and Eric Heinrich were among other Devils who also managed to keep their sunny side up, despite Las Vegas’ oddsmakers agreeing that Pittsburgh was an overwhelming favorite.
Driver: “We match up well with them. We have a lot of talent in this room. At the same time, we realize the type of hockey we have to play to beat Pittsburgh. The key for us is discipline and that’s improved lately.”
Weinrich: “The keys to beating the Penguins are not getting into a shootout with them and frustrating their top players. Mario Lemieux and Paul Coffey are dangerous anytime. But if we play a tight-checking game and don’t give them a lot of shots we can beat them.”
The element of “Home Ice Advantage” also favored the Pens. During the regular season, McVie’s lads went a dismal oh-for-four at Pittsburgh’s Igloo. And that’s exactly where the first two games of the tourney would be played.
Both in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, the sentiment was the same. It was all there in the media, electronic and print. Exhibit A: DEVILS’ ODDS LONGER THAN THEY LOOK proclaimed a headline in the Newark Star-Ledger.
And what made the odds perhaps even longer than that was uncertainty in McVie’s mind as to which of his goalies could muzzle the big guns of Lemieux’s Army.
Sean Burke had been New Jersey’s titular Number One netminder ever since he flew into Newark and helped the Devs to their first playoff experience in 1988. But that seemed as long ago as The Roarin’ 20s.
Meanwhile, Chris Terreri had brought a new kind of love to his team. He was fresh, fantastic at times and full of the fury that comes wth an underdog.
McVie kept his goaltending decision as secret as atomic plans. All he’d say on playoff-eve was, “Both guys are ready to go. In the meantime, I’m thinking about it.”
The cerebral circus ended at game time. McVie chose Terreri and the little guy with the big New England accent came through as he once had when stopping hard biscuits for Providence College.
“I was very excited,” Terreri later would say.”I knew this was my chance to make a name for myself.”
That he did.
Despite Lemieux’s second period power play goal, Captivating Chris otherwise blanked Pitt’s big boys. Eventually Peter Stastny rallied the Visitors with a pair of red lights. Laurie Boschman capped the 3-1 win with a late, high blast.
“We tried to frustrate them,” Stastny explained. “If you’re used to scoring goals — and they are — and you don’t score; they only got one — eventually it gets to you. You doubt and you question. We got them where we wanted to get them.”
McVie: “We beat ’em with old-fashioned hockey. I don’t want ‘Fire-Engine Hockey.’ I don’t believe in that. I’m into checking and we did some outstanding checking.”
Whether the Penguins had an antidote to the Devils contentious checking remained a moot point heading into Game Two in Pittsburgh. Then, there was the matter of solving Terreri who had everyone talking superlatives.
“The kid is really good,” remarked Jagr who one day would be a Devil. “But one win isn’t the end of the series.”
Game Two opened and Terreri lived up to his first game rep. He inspired his skaters to 1-0 and 2-1 leads but then the Penguins displayed their might. They began scoring — but so did New Jersey.
By the end of the third period, the teams were deadlocked at 4-4, giving the Devils a peach of an opportunity to go up by two games; only this time Tom Barrasso had the fans in an uproar during an up and down overtime period.
First, Tom Terrific robbed Claude Lemieux; then he stoned Doug Brown and next, Bluce Driver. Each Devil figured he had the winner on his CCM or NORTHLAND PRO or VICTORIAVILLE stick.
Eight-and-a-half minutes of sudden-death overtime had elapsed with still no decision. That’s when Lady Luck finally looked approvingly on the home squad.
“Luck Be A Lady Tonight” turned out to be the theme song for the 19-year-old bushy-haired Jagr just when the Devils figured that they had him cornered.
Double J snared the rubber along the right boards and stepped on his accelerator. He caught Devls defenseman Tommy Albelin out of position as he motored toward the anxious Terreri.
Johnny MacLean raced over to cover for Albelin precisely when Jagr reached the face-off circle. Now it was a one-on-one situation but Jagr had the advantage over Johnny Mac in both size and agility.
MacLean: “I tried to stop him from getting to the net but he popped away.”
Still, there was a chance that defenseman Ken Daneyko might get to the potential disaster area in time but Jagr did a Mambo dance around Dano, now making it one-on-one with Terreri.
Chris was in a favorable position, eyes simultaneously fixed on the shooter and his stick as the puck lay cradled on Jaromir’s blade. ZOOM! Off went the drive.
“I got most of the shot,” Terreri remembered, “but it hit me in the helmet and went in; it was a great play.”
The red light behind the goaltender flashed at 8:52 of the first overtime period. Now the series was tied at one win apiece although the total goals favored New Jersey, 7-6.
What only a week earlier had looked like a series win as easy as Penguins aces picking cherries off a tree now had them battling through a New Jersey thorn field.
“They gave us grief,” one of the Pittsburgh defensemen exclaimed. “If we didn’t know it before we now know we’re in for a long, tough series.”
What’s more, the best-of-seven round now moved to the Meadowlands with the Devils suddenly in the driver’s seat. Their two-game efforts suddenly changed a lot of minds about which team was better.
With a potential five games to go, fans both in New Jersey and Pennsylvania were finding this compelling series as exciting as a Stanley Cup Final.
Right now, either team looked good enough to win The Cup. But which one eventually would do it?
LISTS: FOUR DEVILS REASONS FOR TAMING THE PENGUINS
1. TERRERI MATCHES BARRASSO: On paper, Pittsburgh boasted the better goaltender but after two games Chris held an edge; but just a little.
2. THE SPIRIT OF THE UNDERDOG. Knowing that almost every “expert” picked Pittsburgh to romp in the series, the underdogs adopted an “Us Against The World” attitude that provided positive motivation.
3. HOME ICE NOT AN ADVANTAGE: Over the first two games in Pittsburgh, the Visitors proved to be the better team on the ice although the teams wound up tied at one win apiece.
4. THE MAGIC OF MCVIE: In the most simple terms, Coach Tommy was getting one-hundred-percent efforts from everyone on his roster.
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