New York ranger forward Alexei Kovalev looked as if he'd been in a train wreck. He had a baseball-sized welt on his left cheek, and his neck bore a mark that looked more like he'd gotten it smooching in the backseat of a car than from a sneaky cross-check at the hands of Bernie Nicholls of the New Jersey Devils in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals. Ranger coach Mike Keenan bellowed about an "act of violence"—whoa, there's a scoop!—and demanded that Nicholls be suspended for delivering the blow. The NHL did sit Nicholls down for Game 4, but after the incident Kovalev seemed less upset than his coach. "This," Kovalev said with a shrug, "is the playoffs."
Kovalev could have said this is the playoff. New York is the center of the universe (just ask any New Yorker), but now that assertion was no boast. The league's two best teams—separated by six points in the regular-season standings, seven miles, the Hudson River and a gulf of difference in their franchise histories—were waging regional war. Forget about the Toronto Maple Leafs against the Vancouver Canucks in the Western Conference finals, a series that the Canucks led three games to one at week's end (page 64). By the reckoning of much of hockeydom, the Ranger-Devil series was essentially for the Cup, a prize that seemed tantalizingly close for New Jersey on Monday night after the Devils took a 3-2 series lead with a 4-1 victory in New York.
The New York-New Jersey playoff might not have had the raw ferocity of the Battles of Alberta between the Edmonton Oilers and the Calgary Flames in the late 1980s, because clutch-and-grab has replaced free-flow and big open-ice hits, but Rangers-Devils still had a retro feel to it. New York boasted seven warhorses from the Oiler dynasty that won five Stanley Cups between '84 and '90, including the incomparable Mark Messier, and a total of 28 NHL championship rings among its players. New Jersey countered with a clear connection to the past glories of the Montreal Canadiens. While just two Devils owned Stanley Cup rings, both of them, Claude Lemieux and Stephane Richer, earned their jewelry playing on Montreal's Cup-winner of '86; and New Jersey was coached by Jacques Lemaire and assistant Larry Robinson, who between them had had their names engraved on Lord Stanley's mug 14 times as players with the Canadiens. What's more, the Devils had a white-hot rookie goalie, Martin Brodeur, whose father, Denis, happens to be the longtime Canadien team photographer.
No sport venerates its past at championship time more than hockey. Maybe it is the tradition of the Cup itself, chiseled for 100 years with names of men good and gritty enough to have held it. Maybe it is simply that hockey players are old-fashioned enough to respect their elders. "Ask anybody in the game," says Devil defenseman Ken Daneyko. "The money's great, the accolades are great, but all they want is their name on the Cup."
The favored route to the Cup is one paved with experience. In the NHL, dynasties have not gone the way of the dinosaur. Since the 1967 expansion, every team that has won the Cup, save two, has won it again within two years (the two exceptions are the '89 Flames and the '86 Canadiens). "The first Cup is the toughest for a franchise," says Neil Smith, the Ranger president and general manager, who has a Stanley Cup ring from his days as a New York Islander scout.
The Rangers, of course, have been chasing the Cup ever since winning their last one, in 1940. Someday, given expansion from six to 26 teams, going more than a half-century without a Stanley Cup won't seem such a remarkable failure. But given that the NHL had only six teams before '67 and given the Rangers' string of bad teams and bad luck, there is no bigger deal in hockey than New York's so-called Curse.
Smith, now in his fifth season with the Rangers, knew he wouldn't have time to build a winner from scratch, but he also knew where he could pick up some quality pieces. In the last three seasons he has assembled a Cup-ready team, turning most often to the cash-poor Oilers, who, after winning the Cup in '90, began breaking up their team.
In September 1991 Smith signed free-agent Adam Graves, who had played two seasons for Edmonton and has blossomed into a 52-goal scorer and one of the best whole-rink players in the NHL. A month later Smith landed Messier, who had been the league's MVP in '90. Another month went by, and Smith cherry-picked a big Oiler defenseman, 6'5". 225-pound Jeff Beukeboom. During the '92-93 season he traded with Edmonton for defenseman Kevin Lowe and Esa Tikkanen, the noisy Finnish forward who, to opponents, is the personification of chalk squealing on a blackboard. This spring Smith swelled the ranks of the Oiler Alumni Association by acquiring 35-year-old center Craig MacTavish and 33-year-old wing Glenn Anderson, who had spent the previous three seasons in Toronto but had starred on Edmonton Cup-winners.
"Last year someone in the organization told me, 'Enough Oilers,' " Smith says. "I said, 'What should I get, then, Sharks and Senators?' We had gotten Lowe and Tikk that year, and we'd had a bad season [the Rangers didn't make the playoffs], but I never really worried about getting guys past their prime. I never went after Edmonton players by design. But these guys became available and seemed to fit our needs. These are world-class players. They've done things. God bless them if they want to put on our uniform. They are guys who can lead you through adversity."
Messier, the Ranger captain, did just that on May 17, during Game 2 of the series against the Devils. New Jersey had stolen the opener in Madison Square Garden 4-3 thanks to its Canadien connection: a late tying goal by Lemieux and a winner in double overtime by Richer. But in the second game Messier dished out two thundering hits in the first minute and then scored just 73 seconds into the game. The path had been cleared for goalie Mike Richter's fourth shutout of this year's playoffs, a 4-0 victory.