Mario Lemieux: Almost a Devil

In 1984, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the New Jersey Devils battled to the last game of the season, not for Stanley Cup glory, but for the coveted first pick in that summer’s NHL Draft. The player expected to go number one overall that year was Mario Lemieux of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Laval Voisins. At this point in the NHL’s history, there was no draft lottery: the team that finished last overall in the league got the first pick. Lemieux could be the type of player that would change the fortunes of a struggling franchise and that urgency was not lost on management of the two struggling teams.

Teams were preparing to get a crack at Lemieux as far back as 1981 (Montreal traded Pierre Larouche to the Hartford Whalers that year in exchange for the Whalers first round pick in the hope that Hartford would finish last come 1984 and Mario could be picked by his hometown team). While Montreal’s gamble did not pay off, come the 1983-84 season, two teams were in the hunt for Lemieux: the Pens and the Devils. As the NHL’s bottom feeders, “Le Magnifique” was within grasp. As the season progressed, Pittsburgh and New Jersey were neck-and-neck at the bottom of the league standings. By the time March rolled around, things started to get a little tense as, on March 5, the Penguins traded former Norris Trophy winning defenseman, Randy Carlyle to Winnipeg for a first round draft choice and a player to be named later. That player would go on to be Moe Mantha, obtained after the season ended. Next, Pens General Manager Eddie Johnston sent the team’s number one goalie (Roberto Romano) down to their American Hockey League affiliate in Baltimore. He was replaced with Vincent Tremblay, a goalie not quite on the level of Romano (he allowed 24 goals in 4 games once called up). And so it was, with a team of minor leaguers and castoffs, the Pens would finish three points behind the Devils (a record of 16-58-8 for 38 points versus the Devils’ 17-56-7 for 41 points). The Devils, to their credit, continued to play their regulars. When the draft – held in Montreal – came around, the Penguins (as expected) picked Lemieux while the Devils, with the second overall pick, selected Kirk Muller of the Guelph Platers of the Ontario Hockey League.

While Kirk Muller was certainly a fantastic player, a franchise player worthy of the first overall pick in any other draft year and the Devils first real superstar, Mario Lemieux would go on to a career rivaled in the modern era only perhaps by Wayne Gretzky. Famously, “Super Mario” would score on his first shift on the ice in the NHL and, in fact, on his first NHL shot. More importantly than that, though, Mario would help to revitalize an NHL franchise that had not had a winning season since 1979 and not made the playoffs since 1982; a team that had filed for bankruptcy back in 1975 (the first NHL team to do so since World War II). Within seven years (1991) the Penguins were Stanley Cup champs thanks largely to Lemieux. The Pens would add another Cup in 1992 under Lemieux’s captaincy. Lemieux would fall in love with the city of Pittsburgh, living there, becoming a naturalized American citizen, and, when the Penguins ran into financial trouble again in the late 1990s/early 2000s and were on the verge of moving (as had been threatened prior to Mario’s arrival in Pittsburgh), he swooped in to buy the team, securing their future in Pittsburgh and helping to get financing for their new arena. Mario Lemieux would be the Pittsburgh Penguins savior not once, but twice.

The rest of the fallout from that draft included the NHL going to a lottery system whereby the lower you finished, while giving you a better chance at gaining the number one overall pick, did not guarantee you the first pick. The Devils, with Muller, would actually see more immediate improvement than the Penguins (making the playoffs in 1988 and going all the way to the Wales Conference Finals that year) while the Pens would not make the playoffs for the first time in the Lemieux era until 1989. However, by 1991, the Devils would trade “Captain Kirk” to the Canadiens for Tom Chorske and Stephane Richer, who was a key component on the Devils first Stanley Cup team in 1995.

In the end, it could be said that everything worked out for everyone involved: the Penguins got Mario and he led them to two Stanley Cups as a player and a third as team owner. But more importantly on the Pittsburgh side of things: he helped keep the team in the city not once, but twice. From the NHL’s perspective, they got a superstar player who would help revitalize a team that was a doormat really since their inception into the league and got incentive to fix a draft system that was broken. The Devils got an immediate superstar in Kirk Muller, who would lead them through the late 80s as captain and undisputed leader. His trade to Montreal would also bring them one of the bigger figures from their ’95 Cup team.

It is easy to look back at this whole affair with 20/20 hindsight and see how everything played out fine for both the teams and the league. Both the Pens and the Devils have the same number of Cups today at three, so we could say that everything worked out. Conversely, there could be a tendency to say that the Devils got the short end of the stick and that they could have had even more should Lemieux been drafted by them. It did not work out that way and we will never know. What is known is how deathly serious getting Mario was at the time. The Devils and the Penguins were in dire straits as franchises and Lemieux was a franchise player, he could only go to one team, but the hockey world got two stable, great franchises out of him.

The Turnpike Rivalry

When discussing New Jersey Devils rivalries, your first inclination is to go right to their feud with the New York Rangers and the Hudson River Rivalry. There is another rivalry, though, that began merely as geographic unpleasantness and, due to the high-intensity stakes of the Stanley Cup Playoffs has grown to be something more: the Devils’ and the Philadelphia Flyers – the Turnpike Rivalry.

Philadelphia came into the National Hockey League during the 1967-68 doubling of the league franchises, being admitted when Baltimore fell out of the running for a team. The Flyers of the late-1960s were not the “Broad Street Bullies” that would come to be the team’s trademark. And, in fact, it was due to the team’s lack of physical toughness that would lead to the team acquiring players like Dave “the Hammer” Schultz and Bobby Clarke built mostly through the draft. Going into the 1970s, the Broad Street Bullies were ready to ride and the Flyers would become the first expansion team to win the Stanley Cup in 1974 and then won it again in 1975. The Flyers would lose to the Montreal Canadiens in the 1976 Stanley Cup Final, as the Habs were beginning a dynasty that would win them four straight Cups from 1976 to 1979.

The Flyers team that would face the New York Islanders in the 1980 Stanley Cup Final was a much different team than the Broad Street Bullies in their heyday and would lose to the Isles to kick off New York’s dynasty of four straight Cups. It would be five years before Philly would return to the Finals, as they faced Wayne Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers in 1985 and lost in five games after winning game one. They would lose to Edmonton again in 1987 and it would be ten years before Philly would get another shot at Lord Stanley’s Cup.

The Devils first faced off with the Flyers in the 1995 Eastern Conference Finals. The Flyers would take out the Buffalo Sabres and the defending Stanley Cup champion Rangers to get to the penultimate round, while the Devils beat the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins to get to that round. Game one kicked off the series on June 3, 1995 at The Spectrum and resulted in a 4-1 Devils win. Game two brought a 5-2 Devils victory as the scene shifted to the Meadowlands for game three. For the next two games on Devils home ice, Jersey’s Team would squander their 2-0 series lead by losing 3-2 in overtime in game three and 4-2 in game four. The teams now returned to the City of Brotherly Love tied at two games apiece, but with just 44.2 seconds left to play in the game, Claude Lemieux’s slap shot just inside the Flyers blueline sailed past goaltender Ron Hextall’s blocker and gave the Devils a 3-2 lead that they would hold on to. Game six back at the Meadowlands saw New Jersey clinch their first Prince of Wales Trophy with a 4-2 victory over the Flyers. The Devils would meet Detroit in their first Stanley Cup Final, and would complete a sweep that would net the franchise their first Stanley Cup. Leading scorers for the series were: Devils: Randy McKay, 4 goals, 3 assists and 7 points; Flyers: Eric Lindros, 2 goals, 3 assists and 5 points.

The teams would not meet for another five years, but it was well worth the wait! Meeting again in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2000, the Devils path included wins over the Florida Panthers and Toronto Maple Leafs; while Philadelphia defeated Buffalo and Pittsburgh to get there. Game one at the First Union Center commenced on May 14, 2000 and gave the Devils a 1-0 series lead with a 4-1 win. Then things got interesting. Philly would take the next three, including two on New Jersey’s home ice. Game two was taken 4-3; game three, 4-2; game four was won 3-1 with current Flyers head coach Craig Berube scoring the game winner. The Devils now found themselves down three games to one and on the brink of elimination. For the Devils, it was time to get to work. And that they did. Game five in Philadelphia saw Bobby Holik net the game winner as the Devils cut the deficit to three games to two with a 4-1 win. Game six back at the Meadowlands and Alexander Mogilny capped a 2-1 win for Martin Brodeur and the Devils to force a game seven. Game seven: nothing says more to a sports fan than those two words and it was Patrik Elias who came through as the hero, putting a dagger through the Flyers playoff hopes, giving the Devils a 2-1 win and sending them to the Stanley Cup Finals for the second time in their history where they would face and defeat the Dallas Stars for their second Stanley Cup in five years. Leading scorers were: for the Devils, Jason Arnott with 2 goals and 5 assists for 7 points and for the Flyers, Rick Tocchet with 4 goals and 2 assists for 6 points and Mark Recchi with 3 goals and 3 assists for 6 points.

The teams next met in 2004’s Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, where the Devils came in as the defending Stanley Cup champs. Unfortunately for the Devils, it was a short five game series with the Flyers dethroning them. The Devils only win came in game three 4-2 at Continental Airlines Arena on April 12 of 2004 as the Flyers bounced them and marched on in the playoffs. The Devils leading scorer was Scott Gomez with 0 goals and 6 assists for 6 points while the Flyers leading scorer was Alexei Zhamnov with 3 goals and 5 assists for 8 points.

Twenty ten was a year that was another mediocre effort for the Devils in the first round against the Flyers. The Devils were again eliminated in five games with their only win coming this time in game two, 5-3 at Prudential Center. The Devils had lost the first game and would lose game three in OT, 3-2. They would never recover and be eliminated in two more games. For the Devils, Ilya Kovalchuk would lead them in scoring with 2 goals and 4 assists for 6 points while for the Flyers, Mike Richards was the leader with 2 goals and 6 assists for 8 points. The Flyers would continue on to the Stanley Cup Finals that year, losing in a dramatic game seven to the Chicago Blackhawks.

The team’s most recent playoff meeting came in 2012 in the Conference Semifinals. This series was all Devils (after they were victimized in OT in game one by Danny Briere, giving the Flyers a 4-3 home win). After that, the Devils took control and never looked back. They won game two 4-1 with David Clarkson bringing the heroics in the City of Brotherly Love. Game three would be settled in an extra session at the Prudential Center in Newark, 4-3 with Alexei Ponikarovsky notching the game winner for the Devils. Game four was won 4-2 by the Devils in Newark; while game six would wrap things up in Philly with a 3-1 Devils win. Kovalchuk was again the Devils leading scorer with 2 goals and 5 assists totaling 7 points, while Briere led the Flyers with 3 goals and 2 assists for 5 points. The Devils would march all the way to the Cup Finals that year, only to be upended in that series by the Los Angeles Kings, who won their first Stanley Cup.

The Devils-Flyers rivalry, while not quite as heralded as the Devils-Rangers rivalry has produced just as many memorable moments and games as the Hudson River version. Like the Rangers, there is certainly no love lost between the teams or their fans and the balance of power has shifted back and forth over the years, but one thing remains constant: if the Devils and the Flyers get together in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, it is almost a guarantee that there will be tough, hard-nosed hockey being played.