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CRUNCH TIME
Austin Murphy
May 19, 1997
The pursuit of the Stanley Cup raises the level of intensity—and pain—sky-high, as the Rangers' upset of the Devils made bruisingly clear
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May 19, 1997

Crunch Time

The pursuit of the Stanley Cup raises the level of intensity—and pain—sky-high, as the Rangers' upset of the Devils made bruisingly clear

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It had been Gilmour's assignment to shadow Messier's good friend Gretzky. Gilmour had done his work well, holding the Great One pointless in Game 1. With New Jersey outshooting the Rangers 16-1 late in the first period of the following game, Gilmour skated toward Messier, who dropped him with a vicious and unpenalized cross-check to the face. Just 26 seconds later, with Gilmour on the bench tending to his traumatized mug, Gretzky—having lost his shadow—set up Leetch for what turned out to be the game-winning goal.

To hear Messier protest his innocence after that game, a 2-0 Rangers win, was to appreciate his considerable talents as a thespian. The hit on Gilmour? Strictly self-defense. In fact, Messier said, he had no idea that the fellow coming toward him was Gilmour. Funny how things worked out after that—Gilmour was a nonfactor the rest of the series.

In a related development, Gretzky flourished, opening the scoring in Game 3 and setting up the second of Tikkanen's two goals. The Great One's most memorable play of the night did not result in a goal. Carrying the puck toward New Jersey's blue line early in the game, he wheeled back into the neutral zone, then put a 40-foot, no-look, backhand pass on the stick of winger Russ Courtnall. Though Courtnall didn't score, Gretzky delivered a message: I have my best stuff tonight. Your trap isn't going to cut it. New York won 3-2.

Gretzky, who had six goals and 11 points in the first two rounds, looks sharper than he has in years. After spending most of his career playing in Edmonton and Los Angeles and taking three-hour flights to reach most of the cities of divisional opponents, he is thrilled by the reduced travel in the East. Less time in transit has meant more time with his wife, Janet, and their three children. "I've really enjoyed the city," he says. Has he availed himself of Manhattan's cultural offerings? "I enjoy taking my boys to Yankees games."

How about the theater? "We've only been to one play," he adds, a bit sheepishly. "We took the kids to see The Nutcracker."

The title of that Christmas perennial also applied to an incident in the first period of Game 4. As Gretzky skated into the Devils' zone, Stevens doubled him over with what appeared to be an inadvertent stick blade to the groin. Gretzky got another ache early in the next period, slamming into the end boards behind Brodeur after being hooked by defenseman Scott Niedermayer. Following the collision, the Great One lay on the ice with eyes closed, his arms akimbo. After a moment he rose and skated to the bench. On his next shift he went the length of the rink, dunked a cross-ice feed from Courtnall for New York's second goal, then slammed his stick against the plexiglass in celebration.

With all due respect to Gretzky—and to Tikkanen, who scored four goals against the Devils—no Ranger was more valuable in the series than Richter. After Graves's overtime heroics in the Continental Airlines Arena on Sunday, New York coach Colin Campbell was asked to discuss his team's system. After a pause, Campbell, who outcoached the Devils' Claude Lemaire in the series, replied, "Our system was mostly Mike Richter."

Awaiting the Rangers in the conference finals are the Philadelphia Flyers, who until last season played their home games at the Spectrum, outside of which a young, aspiring goaltender named Mike Richter used to stand, shivering and waiting to catch a glimpse of his idol, Hall of Fame goaltender Bernie Parent. In 1985 Richter, who grew up in nearby Flourtown, Pa., and starred at Northwood Prep in Lake Placid, N.Y., wanted badly to be drafted by the Flyers, who had planned to select him in the third round. But the Rangers took him in the second round. After turning away 46 of 47 shots in Sunday's 2-1 clincher, Richter discussed why he is a better player now than he was when New York won the Stanley Cup three years ago. This season, he said, the Rangers' dressing room—newly populated by Gretzky, among others—has been "a great place to learn. You're learning from the best in the world."

The Flyers will be favored nonetheless when the conference finals begin on Friday at the CoreStates Center. Philadelphia is bigger, younger and stronger than New York—as were the two playoff opponents the Rangers already dispatched. In New York's favor is the Flyers' unsettled goaltending situation, in which neither Garth Snow nor Ron Hextall is the unquestioned No. 1 netminder. The Rangers have the game's hottest goalie. The Rangers have two guys, Gretzky and Messier, who can smell another Cup. The Rangers have buckled down.

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