If the name of just one hockey player could define the genius of Devils boss Lou Lamoriello, John (Mad Dog) Madden would be it.
Un-drafted and unknown in the late 1990s, Madden hardly was given a tumble by his revered coach at the University of Michigan, Gordon (Red) Berenson, the former Ranger.
In fact, when Lamoriello scouted the Wolverines he had his Argus eye on some whiz-kid named Brendan Morrison, who eventually wound up wearing Devils' red but proved to be lacking in Madden's qualities.
Morrison may have been an attractive prospect but one Lou look at Madden led to two and that led to a dozen and, eventually, a New Jersey contract for the Toronto native.
(MAVEN'S THOUGHTS: I met Madden for the first time in the Spring of 1999 when he still was with the Devils earlier AHL farm team in Albany. The River Rats' p.r. guy, Jon Scherza, had tipped me off that Mad Dog was a winner. "He scored big ones for us," said Scherzer, "and -- mark my words -- he'll do the same for the Devils." I had a good chat with Madden while there and was most impressed with his determination and confidence that he would, in fact, make good; given the chance.)
"Johnny turned out to be one of our biggest surprises, in terms of what he accomplished in the NHL," Berenson allowed recently when he was at The Garden, coaching Michigan against Cornell. "He sure turned out to be quite a find; one of the best."
One of the best included a pair of Stanley Cup rings for the Garden Stater and another for good measure in Chicago. In each case Madden was a pivotal element securing the three championships.
"John certainly was an asset to our Cup teams," says Lamoriello.
(MAVEN'S THOUGHTS: One of my most vivid memories of Madden took place in Philadelphia where he suffered a serious leg injury. I recall, post-game, seeing Mad Dog limping badly as he headed for the team bus. It looked as if he'd be gone for the series but, sure enough, he was back in record time and -- as usual -- proved a clutch performer.)
As you will see in this latest Greatest Rivalries episode on MSG, Madden was a multi-talented forward who uses his relatively slight physique to advantage. He ranks among the National Hockey League's all-time best penalty-killers -- usually teamed in New Jersey with Jay Pandolfo -- and was an offensive force when least expected. The Rangers learned this lesson on an April night in 2006.
What's more -- in conjunction with Mad Dog's feats -- another name could be added to underline the superior hockey wisdom of Larrupin' Lou and that would be Brian Rafalski.
Like Madden, the fireplug defenseman went un-drafted but unlike Mad Dog, Brian attended the University of Wisconsin. Madden was the crack penalty-killer while Rafalski proved the ace on the power play and the PK as well. Together, they helped oust the Rangers in four-straight playoff games a half-dozen-plus years ago but they were especially effective on Johnny's hat trick night.
Remember, this was the first playoff year after the 2004-2005 season that was wiped out because of the NHL work stoppage. It also followed Henrik Lundqvist's starry goaltending effort for Sweden in the 2006 Olympics. Of course, in the Rangers-Devils confrontations, Martin Brodeur was at the other end and we were witnessing what would become an endless "Battle of the Goaltenders -- Marty vs. Henny."
Mind you, what we were seeing then was not the Vezina Trophy-winning Lundqvist but a reasonable facsimile thereof. After all, the Swedish sensation already had established his puck-stopping credentials on both sides of the Atlantic. What still was debatable was how he would emerge from his Olympic effort and how much gas was left in his tank to help speed his Rangers past New Jersey. Henny had helped the Swedes to a Gold Medal victory over Finland and may very well have burned himself out for the NHL season in so doing.
(MAVEN'S THOUGHTS: Some in the Rangers camp were concerned that, coming off his Olympian effort, Henrik would suffer the feared "build-up to a letdown." Also there were mutterings that Lundqvist might also be nursing an injury. By contrast there never were "letdown" fears on the New Jersey side. Any time a Devil viewed a New York uniform his adrenalin flow doubled in intensity.)
Unlike Lundqvist, who was a Rangers rookie, Brodeur had fully established his credentials with three Stanley Cup rings in his possession. What's more the Rangers still were unsure whether Henny -- still not King Henrik -- was their number one goalie or whether veteran Kevin Weekes deserved that nod. That explains why there never was any hesitation about employing the tried and true Weekes in Game Two.
Another factor favoring the Devils was Jaromir Jagr's weakened condition. Having finished the season as the NHL's second-leading scorer, the big Czech committed an egregious blunder in the opening playoff game when -- in a weak, emotional moment -- he chose to get even with irksome Scott Gomez. Out of control, Jagr took a swing at the Devils center. In the process Jagr threw out his shoulder after which the Devils threw caution to the wind and won, 6-1, thanks to thirteen power play opportunities. Lundqvist's dubious performance inspired the goaltending change and Weekes started Game Two at The Meadowlands.
(MAVEN'S THOUGHTS: I had known Jagr since his rookie year with Pittsburgh and enjoyed some fun moments with him. One day, while I was speed-walking along the Hudson River in Riverside Park, I happened to be wearing a Devils sports shirt. When I got to the promenade near the 79th Street Boat Basin, who should I see standing along the railing, enjoying the view, but Jaromir and one of his girlfriends. When he saw my Devils' attire, he laughed. I said, "Next time I'll wear my Rangers jacket." The episode with Gomez revealed the immature side of Jags who took a gratuitous swing at the little Devil -- and missed. Really, it made no sense but, then again, Scotty must have suckered Jagr with some trash talk. Then again, had Jaromir realized the consequences, I'm sure he wouldn't have done such a foolish thing. C'est la guerre. Point is that Jags was the Rangers prime offensive force. He already had broken team records for goals and points in a single season.)
Minus Jagr -- who was en route to a possible Hart Trophy as NHL MVP -- the Rangers suddenly went from underdogs to distinct underdogs. A feeling of frustration enveloped the New York room. "Jags is one of the best players in the world," lamented Rangers forward Steve Rucchin. "I don't care what team it is in the league -- you lose a guy like that and it's going to be difficult to win." Likewise, the Devils sensed they had an advantage never dreamed of at the start of the series. One could say that the handwriting was on the wall as early as the first period of Game Two and it bore Madden's signature.
Rangers defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh was outraced for the puck at the point by Devils backliner Brian Rafalski during a New Jersey penalty kill. With only one Blueshirt left to defend, Ralphie went two-on-one with Mad Dog, skimming him the rubber in time to deposit it behind Weekes. Jay Pandolfo, who launched the play, also got an assist for his effort. Before the period was over Brian Gionta fattened New Jersey's lead with a power play goal; the Devils sixth PP score of the series.
(MAVEN'S THOUGHTS: Even though the Devils entered the dressing room with a two-goal advantage after the first period, the game seemed far from being clinched. Unlike their play in the opening 6-1 debacle, the Rangers were playing a better all-round game. The discipline was there; especially when Cam Janssen tried to goad Jed Ortmeyer into a fight. The Ranger ignored retaliation while Janssen went off for two minutes. This was the kind of situation that could have inspired a comeback. Those of us on the New Jersey side were concerned. We wanted the Devils to keep the Rangers down while they had the chance.)
Down by two, late in the middle period, New York got the break it was waiting for; a five-on-three power play. Yes, indeed, the Rangers pressed the attack. Petr Sykora beat Brodeur but hit the goal post; no goal. The Devils penalty-killing trio held fast with Pandolfo finally swatting the puck out of his defensive zone. Meanwhile the ubiquitous Madden emerged from the penalty box. "I was pretty much (standing) up for the last forty seconds (of the period)," Madden recalled.
As the play unfolded, Mad Dog was closest to the puck, enabling him to break away from his pursuers in blue. His breakaway was stopped by Weekes, but not comfortably and that started a strangely awful Rangers chain reaction of moves.
For starters, Weekes momentarily lost sight of the loose puck he previously had saved. There was no stoppage of play because the officials realized that the puck was all alone -- minding its business -- behind Weekes on the goal line. It was S.O.S time for New York and Ozolinish was steaming to the rescue; or so he thought.
What the Rangers needed most of all with only six seconds left in the period was a surgical stick move by the onrushing Sandis but, alas, Ozolinish failed to adequately put on the brakes. Arrive, he did. "What I was trying to do," the D-man explained, "is get there in time and sweep the puck away."
Two out of three worked: 1. Ozolinsh got there in time; 2. He swept the puck; 3. But he swept it into his own net. "It was an unfortunate mistake," Sandis added in one the true understatements of his young life, "and it took our momentum away."
(MAVEN'S THOUGHTS: As the play unfolded, I was standing at the Zamboni entrance which was at the other end of the rink from where the action was taking place. When Weekes made the save, I assumed that play would stop. From my vantage point there was no way I could see where the puck was even after Ozolinsh joined the melee. When the red goal light suddenly flashed, I was stunned; it just didn't seem right since I figured the Ozolinsh had saved the day. But with the aid of replay and play-by-play, it all became clear. What a tremendous break for the Devils; a backbreaker for the Blueshirts. For the first time all game, our side began breathing easier.)
Fortified with a three-goal lead at the start of the third period, the Devils did what they do best; protect the lead. In his 135th consecutive playoff start for New Jersey, Brodeur made 25 saves, including a breakaway stop on Ortmeyer in the second. Blair Betts scored the only Rangers goal in the third which was answered by Madden's hat trick counter.
It marked Mad Dog's first post-season hat trick and closed out the 4-1 triumph. Madden also tied an NHL record with his two man-down goals. "This won't happen for a long time," a jubilant John said post-game, "but it would be nice if it did. In reality I have to get back to checking and getting the puck deep and winning face-offs and killing penalties."
Throughout Madden's career in New Jersey, Mad Dog overshadowed his linemate and penalty-killing pal Pandolfo. And on the very night of John's hat trick, Pando assisted on all three of his partner's goals; and without any fuss or fanfare which, by the way, was typical of Jay.
As for the Rangers, who went down in a sweep, everything that could have gone wrong did so. Not only did Jagr take himself out of the series in Game One with his unfortunate Gomez lunge, but defenseman Darius Kasparaitis was hampered by a groin injury and there was the Lundqvist issue in terms of his being simply fatigued as fallout from his Olympic experience. Weekes was a reasonable back-up but as Kevin, himself, noted the Devils came on too strong for the Blueshirts.
"In that second game," Weekes concluded, "we came out and could only get one past Marty. Earlier in the season maybe we get four or five but the Devils were playing differently in the playoffs. Real Devils hockey!"
(MAVEN'S THOUGHTS: I found it interesting that the two free agents Lou Lamoriello acquired for 1999-2000 -- Madden and Rafalski -- peaked as Devils in the Rangers series. Not that either followed up with inadequate seasons thereafter but it was more a question of the pair becoming jaded in New Jersey. Rafalski would cash in on free agency by moving on to Detroit where he won a Cup as a Red Wing while Madden got his third taste of champagne in Chicago. In my estimation, the Devils missed Rafalski more than Madden but not by a lot. Bottom Line: Between the acquisitions of Madden and Rafalski, Lou solidified his qualifications in the Rare Realm of Hockey Geniuses.)
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