Remember the end of the movie The Fugitive, when Harrison Ford gives himself up to the weary FBI agent played by Tommy Lee Jones? "You know what," says Jones, "I'm glad. I need the rest!"
Well, probably no team in NHL history has needed a breather as much as the New York Rangers did before their 5-1 win over the Vancouver Canucks in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals last Saturday night at the Pacific Coliseum. The Rangers had spent the previous three weeks, dating back to the start of their Eastern Conference championship series against the New Jersey Devils, frying their nerves in contests that came down to the final seconds or ended in sudden-death overtime—single and double—resulting in heart palpitations for them and windfall profits for their kids' baby-sitters.
So how did the Rangers react to Saturday's blowout, which gave them a 2-1 lead in games and put them on the cusp of the cusp of the Cup? Taking their cue from captain Mark Messier, who borrows his expressions from Easter Island totems, the Rangers trudged into the visitors' dressing room stone-faced and spouting the party line.
"Blowout?" said New York defenseman Brian Leetch, serious as an actuary even though he had scored two goals in the game to solidify his status as the most valuable player in the playoffs. "I wouldn't say that. We got some breaks for a change, but I wouldn't call it a blowout."
The Rangers, grown men who have long pooh-poohed talk of curses and bad juju, had grown suddenly superstitious. The victory in Game 3, with Game 4 scheduled for Tuesday night in Vancouver, pushed New York to within two tantalizing wins of doing what the franchise has not done in 54 years, of getting off one of the most notorious schneids in sports, of winning the Stanley Cup and thereby retiring once and for all the detested "1940!" chant with which opposing fans have bludgeoned the team for years.
All optimism aside, it wouldn't be a Ranger series without a modicum of heartbreak. After squandering the lead in the 60th minute of Game 1 of the finals, the Blueshirts blew it in the 20th minute of OT. The nauseated hush that fell on Madison Square Garden was rent by a woman who screamed, "I can't take it anymore!"
Patience, ma'am. Be comforted by the simple truth that despite dropping that game, the Rangers had, through three games, outplayed the Canucks in nine of the series' 10 periods. All that stood between Vancouver and annihilation was the goaltending of Kirk McLean, who dazzled the Rangers in Game 1 on May 31, stopping 52 of 54 shots. He was a tad more mortal two nights later in a 3-1 loss in Game 2. On Saturday he couldn't stop a Hippity Hop.
In fact, with McLean disintegrating in Game 3, it was Vancouver that began to take on the look of the jinxed. At 13:39 of the first period Leetch was holding the puck just inside the Canucks' blue line. With no one to pass to, he opted for "a little flipper," as he put it, to the left of the net. If McLean had let the puck go, it would have missed the net by two feet. But he played the puck, which took a strange bounce—a Ranger bounce!—off his blocker, caromed off the inside of his left skate and into the net.
Also bizarre was the fact that, for the second season in a row, the Cup finals may have turned on a stick foul. A year ago Marty McSorley of the Los Angeles Kings was busted for playing with an excessively curved stick blade late in Game 2 with the Kings leading the Montreal Canadiens 2-1. A victory would have given L.A. a commanding 2-0 series lead. However, the Canadiens scored on the ensuing power play, forced overtime and went on to take that game and the next three to win the Stanley Cup.
As an assassin of momentum, McSorley has nothing on Pavel Bure, Vancouver's Russian Rocket, who put an abrupt end to a first period of crackling play by the Canucks in Game 3 by driving the shaft of his stick into the face of New York defenseman Jay Wells, breaking Wells's nose and opening a trench under his left eyebrow.