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SI Flashback: Stanley Cup 1994

SEVEN GAMES TO GLORY
New York Rangers over Vancouver in seven games
Conn Smythe winner: Brian Leetch, New York

The Rangers outlasted the upstart Vancouver Canucks to finally capture that elusive Stanley Cup

By Michael Farber

  June 13, 1994 David E. Klutho
We interrupt this New York Ranger Stanley Cup celebration to bring you a call from the President of the United States.

"Brian?"

"Mr. President," said Brian Leetch, winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in the playoffs.

"Congratulations, man," Bill Clinton said. "I've been sitting here alone in the White House watching this, cheering for you, biting my fingernails, screaming and yelling."

They chatted for a minute before Clinton hung up ...

"Was that Dana Carvey?" Leetch asked.

Who knew? The Rangers hadn't won the Stanley Cup in 54 years, had never even had a chance to win it at home until this series, and now New York and a sport that until recently seemed like the poor cousin in America were getting the full Bubba treatment. Leetch had every right to be incredulous.

The Curse is now dead. Maybe in the year 2048 some wiseacre NHL fans will chant "1994" in derision, but the "1994" rocking the Garden Tuesday night was as much an ablution as the Moet & Chandon baths the Rangers took in their dressing room. New York had survived a tense Game 7, beating the Vancouver Canucks 3-2 behind goals by Leetch, Adam Graves and Mark Messier and spectacular goaltending by Mike Richter ...

This was the celebration that was supposed to have happened after Game 5 in New York. Paradise Delayed ...

 

Cart before the Cup
There had been no doubt that TONIGHT'S THE NIGHT, as the New York Post headline screamed the day of Game 5. (The last Ranger Stanley Cup was eight years old when Truman beat Dewey .) This was the first time in Ranger history that they were in a position to win the Stanley Cup on home ice, and the scalpers were charging such exorbitant prices (one report put it at $2,000 a seat), you would have thought that Barbra Streisand were singing the national anthems.

The Rangers themselves were getting ready to party. In fact, they were so busy filling out their post-Cup victory schedule, they could barely squeeze in 60 minutes against the Canucks. Thursday: team party. Friday: guest shot for 20 on David Letterman's show. Saturday: cookout with Mayor Rudy Giuliani at Gracie Mansion. The Rangers were done in during Game 5 by two parts Pavel Bure and Geoff Courtnall, one part hubris.

After scoring three goals in a 5:35 stretch of helter-skelter hockey to tie the game in the third period [of Game 5], the Rangers inexplicably continued to gamble. Their assault yielded a spate of three-on-twos going the other way, which resulted in three more Vancouver goals.

As the New York players filed off the Garden ice [after the 6-3 loss], they were hailed by chants of "Let's Go, Ran-juhs!" Apparently sound doesn't carry 3,085 miles. Two nights later in Vancouver in Game 6, the Canucks dominated New York 4-1. Suddenly the vaunted Ranger experience -- nine players are 30 years or older -- looked like nothing more than old age. If the Rangers were going to drink from the Stanley Cup, it seemed that commissioner Gary Bettman would have to fill it with Geritol.

How could this have happened? New York had grabbed a 3-1 series lead before the wheels began looking like those on an old Packard. Indeed, the Rangers had played well enough to have won the Cup in four straight. If Leetch's overtime drive in Game 1 hadn't dinged the crossbar seconds before the Canucks came back up ice to score the winner in a 3-2 victory, not even goalie Kirk McLean's 52 stops would have saved Vancouver.

Unlike the cagey New Jersey Devils, who tried to contain New York's explosiveness with speed bumps in the neutral zone, the Canucks were content to play the Rangers straight up -- speed on speed, size versus size, captain Mark Messier versus captain Trevor Linden, up-and-down hockey. In Game 2 the matchup certainly did look like No. 1 (New York) in the regular season versus No. 14 (Vancouver) as the Rangers outshot the Canucks 40-29 and won 3-1.

Leetch scored twice in Game 3 [which New York won to take a 2-1 series lead], but his Game 4 performance will endure longer than the Ranger jinx ...

Leetch was unofficially anointed the 1994 Conn Smythe Trophy winner that night as the champagne was put on ice. Still, Messier insisted that the Rangers would not become complacent. "We're only going to look ahead to the next 20 minutes," he said. Six 20-minute periods later, the Stanley Cup was very much in doubt.

But on Monday, Ranger coach Mike Keenan delivered a speech Messier called "the most intense, emotional, greatest speech I've heard in 16 years of hockey." The Rangers seemed renewed in Game 7, twice taking two-goal leads and holding off Vancouver by controlling three face-offs in their own zone in the final 37.8 seconds.

In the stands a sign read NOW I CAN DIE IN PEACE.

Leetch's enduring Game 4
For a 10-minute stretch in the second period, he and Bure lost themselves in the moment. Six-on-six turned into one-on-one each time they touched the puck. These were men playing for the Stanley Cup, but they could have been kids on a frozen pond in Connecticut -- or Moscow. They went end-to-end, first one, then the other, as their teammates melted into the background.

Bure had the chance to put the game away with a penalty shot in the second period and the Canucks leading 2-1. But Richter boomed out of his net to take away any angle on a long shot, retreated to the crease, then stood his ground when Bure deked and then kicked out his right skate at the last nanosecond to make the save. "A classic confrontation between the game's most electrifying player and an outstanding goaltender who doesn't get nearly enough credit," Keenan said. The save reversed the momentum, and the Rangers' Sergei Zubov scored to make it 2-2 late in that period.

The game, however, remained tied with fewer than five minutes remaining in regulation. With New York on a power play, Leetch blew past defenseman Brian Glynn at the Vancouver blue line and feathered a gossamer pass over a stick to Alexei Kovalev, who hit the roof of the Canuck net for the winning goal. Leetch said he had been embarrassed by comparisons with Bobby Orr that Vancouver coach Pat Quinn had bestowed upon him, but after Leetch's four-point night in the Rangers' 4-2 win, it was Orr who would have been flattered.

Issue date: June 22, 1994

Crooked stick steals Game 2 from Kings
[Ed. Note: Excerpts follow from SI's coverage of the Rangers-Devils Conference final -- in which Mark Messier provided one of the great performances in playoff history.]

The Rangers' lethargic 4-1 loss at Madison Square Garden in Game 5 -- New York was now one game from chapter 54 of The Curse of the Rangers -- sort of shot holes in the motivation theory. New York needed a lift, and Mark Messier gave it to them in writing.

Actually the tabloids did the writing. On the morning of Game 6, they trumpeted Messier's guarantee of victory that night. This is what Messier said: "We know we have to win it. We can win it. And we are going to win it." This hardly constituted a double-your-money-back offer. It was more a conviction than a prediction; it was definitely not Joe Willie Namath before Super Bowl III putting his name on the line. But Messier, with his death stare, body-by- Schwarzenegger and the will he wears on his sleeve, is a mythic figure. When he shared his feelings, it was like from his mouth to the hockey god's ear.

The Devils took a 2-0 lead into the second period at the Meadowlands and looked invincible until Keenan took a timeout midway through the period. He didn't say anything for most of the 30 seconds because sometimes the eloquence of silence is the best coaching device. The timeout was one of the defining moments of this game, but New Jersey also undermined itself. The Devils, seemingly blinded by the light at the end of the Lincoln Tunnel, lost their way, abandoning the trap for the Rangers' up-and-down style, which produced a flurry of two-on-ones for New Jersey but no third goal ...

As Ranger fans checked their guarantees, Messier scored a natural hat trick in the third period -- his third goal finding an empty net with 1:45 left as the Devils, trying to take extra advantage of a power play, had deployed six attackers against four. The moment was a bit of New York magic, as compelling as the gimpy Willis Reed taking the court for the Knicks against the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 7 of the NBA Finals in 1970 or Reggie Jackson's three homers on three straight swings in Game 6 of the '77 World Series. "Game 6 was an incredible individual feat by Mark," Rangers coach Mike Keenan said. "Historically, among the greatest ever."

Messier offered no guarantees before Game 7. And as the Rangers' eyes met his in the dressing room after Valeri Zelepukin had [tied the score at 1-1 with 7.7 seconds remaining] broken through on a goalmouth scramble following 59 minutes, 52 seconds of Devil futility, Messier simply reminded them how much sweeter a victory in overtime would be.

New York dominated New Jersey in the first OT, outshooting the Devils 15-7. The Rangers were not leaving much to chance, let alone to the Fates. As the team was getting ready to go out for the third double overtime of the series, Stephane Matteau spied Ed Olczyk, one of the New York players not dressed for the game. "O.K., this is the story," Olczyk said. "Matty, in his broken English, said, 'C'mon Eddie, give me some luck, give me some luck.' I put my face real close to his stick. Now it came out that I kissed his stick, but I'm not sure if I actually did."

At 4:24 of the second overtime Matteau, the Game 3 hero, rattled the puck in off Martin Brodeur's stick. This was an ugly goal, hardly befitting a noble series. But if you saw it through the prism of 54 years of Ranger misery, this was a thing of unspeakable beauty.
-- Austin Murphy

Issue date: June 22, 1994

 


 
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