NEWARK, N.J. — History will not repeat itself. The ghosts of 1994 should be gone for good now.
The New Jersey Devils are heading to their fifth Stanley Cup Final since losing to the Rangers in the Eastern Conference Finals 18 years ago. Adam Henrique's second overtime winner of the playoffs, this time 1:03 into OT, was the difference in a 3-2 victory in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Friday at Prudential Center.
Exactly 18 years ago to the day that Mark Messier guaranteed a win and then made good on his words with a third-period hat trick in Game 6 at the Meadowlands, Martin Brodeur — the Devils goalie that night as well — came up big with 33 saves, including eight in a Ranger-dominated third period.
Brodeur and the Devils lost Game 7 in double overtime in 1994, but this time around he was not tested in the 63-second OT despite the Rangers holding the puck in for a long stretch in the first minute.
"I wasn't sure if it was in or not. When I saw everybody celebrating, it was just a big relief," Brodeur said of his view of Henrique's winner. "We played really hard this playoff series, and this was an emotional series against the Rangers. To pull it off in that fashion, it's even sweeter."
Alexei Ponikarovsky got the puck to the net from the right-wing half wall. Ilya Kovalchuk whacked away at it with Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist (26 saves), nearly flat on his stomach, kicking back with his right pad. The puck eventually squirted under Lundqvist, into the blue paint, and free for Henrique to slam it in.
Henrique also scored the double-OT winner in Game 7 against Florida.
"Johnny on the spot for that one," Henrique said. "I was sitting there. I couldn't see the puck. I knew it was down, and I was just praying it was going to come under his pad. It's a big one. It's one you dream about."
New Jersey, champions in 1995, 2000 and 2003, will go for its fourth Cup against the Los Angeles Kings starting with Game 1 here in Newark on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC, RDS). The Devils and Kings haven't played since New Jersey won 3-0 at Staples Center on Oct. 25.
So much has changed since then, including the Kings' coach — from Terry Murray, who was scouting for L.A. at Prudential Center on Friday, to Darryl Sutter. The Kings are 12-2 in the playoffs and 8-0 on the road.
But the Devils, who earned home-ice advantage in the Cup Final because they had more points in the regular season than L.A. (102-95), are confident after winning three in a row against the Rangers.
"You know, we're in the Stanley Cup Final for a reason," Kovalchuk said. "They were really good on the road all playoffs long, but I don't think they faced a team like us yet. It's nice we start at home, and I think that's going to be a big advantage for us."
The Rangers' season came to an abrupt end despite a second straight comeback from a multiple-goal deficit.
They fell behind 2-0 in the first period on goals by Ryan Carter and Ilya Kovalchuk separated by 3:51.Ruslan Fedotenko and Ryan Callahan scored in the second period — goals that were separated by 3:54 — to tie the game. The Rangers outshot the Devils 8-5 in the third period, but Brodeur was perfect and even used his stick to make two key poke checks on Artem Anisimov and Marian Gaborik.
"We're a team that just keeps battling," said Rangers center Brad Richards, who was stoned by Brodeur during a power play midway through the third period. "We had our fair share of opportunities. It's a fine line. To get this far, it's a bounce here or there."
It was a bounce that went the Devils way, a bounce that ended a Rangers season that saw them pile up an Eastern Conference-best 109 points and win back-to-back Game 7s against Ottawa and Washington.
They just couldn't force another.
The Devils outscored the Rangers 8-1 in the first period. In the only two games the Rangers won, Games 1 and 3 — both 3-0 victories — they scored all of their goals in the third period.
"I feel bad for the club," Rangers coach John Tortorella said. "I thought they played with [intestinal fortitude]. Going into [Game 6], I felt really comfortable with the mindset of the club, and I thought they displayed themselves. After a little bit of a struggle, we gathered ourselves and I thought we played two really good periods. I thought it was going to be us."
It wasn't because the Devils found a way again, because Henrique found a way again.
New Jersey is 4-1 in overtime in the postseason. Henrique has two of the winners, both in clinching games — a feat accomplished only once previously, by Calgary's Martin Gelinas in 2004
"Again, unflappable," Devils coach Peter DeBoer said of Henrique, using a word he has used to describe the Calder Trophy candidate all season long. "I mean, this kid's just the right place, right time, all the time. The two biggest goals of the playoffs come off his stick, and that's not accidental."
So, the Devils are back in the Cup Final for the first time in 2003. They hadn't won a playoff round since beating Tampa Bay five years ago in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. They didn't make the playoffs last season after a 10-29-2 start that cost rookie coach John MacLean his job.
Jacques Lemaire came in to right the ship and get the Devils back in the playoff race, but they fell short despite going 28-10-3 in the second half.
DeBoer was hired over the summer after three seasons in Florida that did not yield a playoff berth. Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello saw something special in DeBoer, who brought with him an aggressive forechecking system that was against the grain for a franchise that was all about defense.
DeBoer said it took the Devils about half the season to fully comprehend and play the style he wanted them to play. They're reaping the rewards now.
After going seven brutal games against Florida, the Devils knocked off the Philadelphia Flyers in five games and the Rangers in six.
"I was out of work last June and July and got a call from Hall of Fame general manager who recognized some of the work I had done in Florida and gave me a chance to work with a group of guys that have a great blend of veteran presence and Stanley Cup rings," DeBoer said. "They know how to win and a lot of great young players coming through. So I'm fortunate to be sitting here. It could have been a number of different candidates that he talked to, and I'm thankful that I got the opportunity."
His biggest opportunity is still ahead of him.
"You go from not making the playoffs to all of a sudden you're in the Stanley Cup Final," Devils captainZach Parise said. "It doesn't get higher or lower than that in the span of a year. We got a chance."
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl