Devils rookie Adam Henrique was 4 years old in 1994, when New Jersey blew a 3-2 lead in games to New York in the Eastern Conference final, allowing the rival Rangers to continue on a Stanley Cup run while the Devils and their fans seethed — or wept — from across the Hudson.
The Devils have seen better days in the wake of that ’94 heartbreak, winning three Stanley Cups in the 18 years since, the first coming the following year.
Still, despite all of the success New Jersey has found over the past two decades, there’s always been something of a score to settle with their cross-river rivals — and Henrique was the guy who finally exorcised those demons.
There he was at the Prudential Center on Friday night, poking and prodding at Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist in overtime. There he was, scoring the game-winner 1:03 into the extra period to give the Devils a 3-2 Game 6 victory over New York, eliminating the top-seeded Rangers and sending the Devils to their first Stanley Cup Final since 2003.
They will face the Western Conference champion Los Angeles Kings, with Game 1 of the best-of-seven series on Wednesday night in Newark.
“It was exciting,” Henrique said afterward of the game-winner, in the understatement of the playoffs. “I was Johnny on the spot for that one.”
The decisive play started when the Devils’ Alexi Ponikarovsky threw a shot off Lundqvist and that bounced in the front of the net, where a mass of Devils, led by Ilya Kovalchuck, frantically went on the attack. Eventually, the puck found the stick of Henrique, who stuffed it past a sprawled Lundqvist for the win.
“Kovi and Poni did a great job up front and I was just sitting there,” Henrique recalled. “I couldn’t see the puck, but I knew (Lundqvist) was down, and I was just praying that it was going to come under his pad. It’s a big one; it’s the one you dream about.”
But it also wasn’t anything new. In fact, Friday marked the second time this postseason Henrique has come up with a series-clinching overtime marker. In Game 7 of the first round against Florida, the 22-year-old Brantford, Ontario, native found the net, beating Panthers netminder Jose Theodore in double-OT to set up a second-round matchup with Philadelphia.
“Unflappable,” Devils first-year coach Pete DeBoer said of his star rookie Friday.
“This kid’s just in the right place at the right time all the time. The two biggest plays of the playoffs come off his stick, and that’s not accidental.”
Henrique has done everything asked of him all season, and his 16 goals and 35 assists in 74 regular-season games are a large part of the reason he’s a finalist for the Calder Trophy for the NHL’s top rookie.
“He’s got to be the Rookie of the Year,” Kovalchuk said. “This guy went through a lot of tough situations, and played in all kind of situations. Coach trusts him a lot to play big minutes, block shots (and) create a lot of good offense. He’s just in the right position.”
Unfortunately, being in the right position earlier in Friday’s game nearly cost Henrique an opportunity at the game-winning goal later.
In the third period, play stopped after Henrique went down to the ice after being hit below the belt while blocking a shot. Visibly in pain, Henrique was helped back to the dressing room before returning to the bench before the end of the period. But his coach said that, despite the scary scene, there was never any doubt that he’d be back.
“I don’t think so,” DeBoer said. “We’ve got a lot of guys banged up this time of year, and we had a bunch of different guys go down with different things and playing through things. That’s what you deal with this time of year. If guys have any human way of getting back on the ice, then you do that.”
Much like Game 5 at Madison Square Garden, New Jersey took an early lead Friday, grabbing a 2-0 advantage after one period behind goals from Ryan Carter and Kovalchuk.
That lead quickly vanished in the second, as Ruslan Fedotenko and Ryan Callahan scored for the Rangers to tie the game 2-2.
After a scoreless third that saw multiple acrobatic, game-saving stops from 40-year-old New Jersey goaltender Martin Brodeur — the last remaining member of that ’94 team — the Devils regrouped, and before many fans had returned to their seats, Henrique ended things once again.
“Whatever his secret is, I want to know,” Carter said. “He’s clutch; he’s a good player. He’s been a good player for us the entire year. … He’s beyond his years.”
It’s certainly been an interesting journey for Henrique, who, this time last year, was coming off a 73-game rookie campaign with the Albany Devils, during which he scored had 25 goals and 25 assists.
“I think last year, playing in Albany was good for my development,” Henrique said. “I think it was needed, and obviously I wanted to be here. … Through a few injuries, I got an opportunity, and I just tried to take advantage of it as best I could.”
He’s done more than take advantage in his first year in the NHL, and the reward came Friday, when his teammates mobbed him along the glass, attacking him from every angle as a rabid crowd flooded the arena with cheers.
“It was a good feeling to see everybody come off the bench,” Henrique said. “(But) it gets tiring when everybody keeps hitting you after a while.”
Tiring, sure. But was the abuse worth it?
That being said, Henrique conducts himself with the poise of a veteran. He realizes that the Prince of Wales Trophy — for the Eastern Conference crown — isn’t the ultimate goal.
He wants one more victorious series-ender, even it’s by another Devil … for the Stanley Cup.
“Obviously, those are two huge goals, probably two of the biggest goals I’ve ever scored,” Henrique said of his two series-clinchers thus far. “But there’s still more ahead. We’re not done yet. We haven’t really won anything. It’s a long ride, and every kid dreams of playing in the Stanley Cup Finals. We have a chance to win, and I’m ready to get started.”