The playoffs are not for the faint of heart. They are an emotional roller coaster ride for both the players and the fans. But at least the players have some control over their destiny. The fans can only sit, stand or pace nervously watching, waiting and hoping for the best.
Twenty years ago, the 1993-94 Rangers enjoyed one of their best seasons in franchise history, setting numerous team records and finishing with the best overall record in the league. But being the Rangers, the playoffs have always been a different story and so there was much apprehension going into the post season. After all, from the day that Mike Keenan was hired in April 1993, the goal of this team was to win the Stanley Cup NOW! On the very first day of training camp, Keenan showed the players a video of the New York Mets 1986 ticker-tape parade down New York City’s “Canyon of Heroes.” His goal was to let them see what it would be like if they won the Stanley Cup and how the city would embrace them. Then there were the in-season trades that swapped old favorites including James Patrick, Darren Turcotte, Tony Amonte and Mike Gartner for players that Keenan thought would help him win a Cup such as Steve Larmer, Nick Kypreos, Stephane Matteau, Brian Noonan, Glenn Anderson and Craig MacTavish. They joined a cast of veteran ex-Oilers that GM Neil Smith had previously acquired, such as Mark Messier, Adam Graves, Kevin Lowe, Jeff Beukeboom and Esa Tikkanen.
The playoffs began on April 17th and compared to what was to come, the first two rounds were a breeze for the Blueshirts and their fans.
First, they swept the Islanders in the Eastern Conference Quarter Finals 4-0, then they went on to eliminate the Capitals in five games.
Things got a lot more dicier when the Blueshirts met the New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference Finals. In the series opener, the Devils tied the score at 3 in the final minute of regulation and won the game when Stephane Richer scored at 15:33 of the second overtime to take away the Rangers home ice advantage.
But the Blueshirts bounced back two nights later as Richter shut out the Devils 4-0. The Rangers also won the third game 3-2 on Stephane Matteau’s goal at 6:13 of the second overtime. But the Devils stormed back and won the next two games 3-1 and 4-1 and all of a sudden the Rangers found themselves with their backs up against the wall, just one game from elimination.
Long time fans could feel the knot in their stomachs and sense that the annual disappointment was near. But Mark Messier saw things a lot differently. He ‘guaranteed’ that the Rangers would win Game 6, and his promise made headlines on the sports pages of all the New York newspapers. He then backed up his pledge, scoring a hat trick and adding an assist in the Blueshirts 4-2 come from behind victory. The Rangers were still alive.
In the seventh and deciding game, Brian Leetch gave the Rangers a 1-0 lead in the second period. That lead held up until late in the third period when Valerie Zelepukin scored on his own rebound with 7.7 seconds remaining in regulation to force the game into overtime. The Garden crowd was stunned as once again that familiar sense of impending doom made its way back into their collective consciousness.
The first overtime period was scoreless as the Rangers outshot the Devils 15 – 7, each Devil shot evoking shrieks and gasps from the crowd that was more concerned about a puck that might get past Richter than one that the Rangers might shoot past Brodeur. Then at 4:22 of the second overtime, Matteau outraced Scott Niedermayer for a loose puck along the boards, skated around the back of the net and tried a wraparound from the right post. The puck hit Brodeur’s pad and trickled into the net. “Matteau, Matteau, Matteau” Howie Rose screamed on the radio, creating a ring tone before we even knew what ring tones were. Finally it was alright to exhale, at least briefly. The Rangers were going to the Finals for the first time in 15 years, and the emotional roller coaster ride was ready to start all over again.
The Rangers opponent was the Vancouver Canucks who entered the playoffs as the seventh seed in the Western Conference and had beaten Calgary, Dallas and Toronto to reach the finals for the first time since 1982. The Canucks had also been resting for a week waiting for the conclusion of the Rangers-Devils series.
In the opener, the Blueshirts one again surrendered the tying goal in the final minute when Martin Gelinas deflected a Cliff Ronning shot past Richter at the 19:00 minute mark to force another overtime. The Rangers outshot the Canucks in the extra session but goaltender Kirk McLean who had never beaten the Rangers in his career, held the Rangers at bay. Then with less than a minute left in the period, Ronning found an unchecked Greg Adams speeding towards the Ranger net. Adams on-timed the puck past Richter and just like that the Blueshirts were down 0-1 in the finals.
But the Rangers bounced back in the second game, winning 3-1 to even the series as the teams made the long trip to Vancouver. The Canucks got off to a quick start in the third game when Pavel Bure scored at 1:03 of the first. But the Rangers got a break when McLean misplayed Leetch’s clearing shot into a goal. The Blueshirts got another break late in the period when Bure was given a 5 minute major and a Game Misconduct for high-sticking Jay Wells and breaking his nose. Glenn Anderson scored on the ensuing power-play to give the Rangers a 2-1 lead. From there on it was all Rangers as they coasted to a 5-1 victory.
In the fourth game with Vancouver leading 2-1 Bure was awarded a penalty shot at 6:31 of the second period when he was tripped from behind by Leetch. A goal by the Russian Rocket would give the Canucks a 2-goal lead. Bure skated in, faked to his right but went left to his forehand. Richter stood his ground and kicked his right pad out at the last second to thwart Bure and keep the Blueshirts within a goal of the Canucks. Sergei Zubov then scored late in the period to tie the game. In the third period, Leetch on a power-play rush found Kovalev in the slot. Alexei one-timed the puck past McLean for a 3-2 lead. Less than three minutes later Wayne Babych kicked at a long shot by Steve Larmer. The puck changed direction and flew past a surprised McLean. The comeback was complete and the Blueshirts were headed back to the Garden with a 3-1 series lead.
There was a party-like atmosphere in the Garden in anticipation of a Ranger Stanley Cup victory, but the celebration would have to wait. It was obvious from the start that this wasn’t going to be the Rangers night. Midway through the first period, Esa Tikkanen blasted a slap shot from the blue line past McLean, but the goal was disallowed because of an offsides call. (A TV replay later showed that they were onside and the goal should have counted.) Vancouver scored a goal in the second period and five more in the third and skated off with a 6-3 victory.
Right around that time there were rumors that Keenan wanted to get out of his contract and was negotiating a move to Detroit for next season. Kennan denied the reports but there had been friction between him and GM Neil Smith and everybody knew going in that “Iron Mike” had a short shelf life and a reputation of wanting more power than he was granted. It was a distraction for the players and yet another reminder to the fans that the time to win the Cup is now because we may not get this far again for a long time.
Back in Vancouver for the sixth game, the Canucks led 2-0 by the middle of the second period. Kovalev scored to put the Rangers on the board, but Vancouver scored twice more in the third to send the series back to New York for a Game 7 finale.
It was do or die for the Rangers on Tuesday night June 14, 1994. A bad goal, an unlucky bounce, a missed call by the officials and everything that the Rangers had worked for all season as well as the ordeal that the fans had been through in the last two months would be down the drain.
But the Rangers got off to a good start as Leetch and Graves scored giving them a 2-0 lead in the first. Bure missed a golden opportunity to score when with Richter out of position he shot the puck from the left post through Beukeboom’s legs. The puck skittered through the length of the crease and was cleared. Trevor Linden cut the lead in half with a short-handed goal early in the second period but Messier restored the two goal cushion with a goal at 13:29. Linden however scored again at 4:50 of the third, this time on the power-play and for the next 15:10 the Rangers protected a one goal lead as the Canucks stormed Richter’s net. Gelinas had a wide open net, but hit the post. Nathan Lafayette’s one-timer from the slot had Richter beaten, but it hit the post.
With less than a minute left in the period, McLean left his net for the extra skater. The Rangers cleared the puck into the Vancouver end a couple of times to kill the clock. Each time the Canuck skater slowed down to get an Icing call, forcing a faceoff deep in the Rangers zone. Considering how many times the Rangers had already given up the tying goal in the final minute of regulation, each faceoff was excruciating. Finally the puck was cleared one last time. The Rangers began celebrating, but once again the officials called them for Icing with 1.1 seconds left. They brought the puck back for another faceoff and added 0.5 seconds to the clock, just to prolong the agony. However, MacTavish, won the faceoff, drew it back and the game was over. As fireworks exploded, Sam Rosen proclaimed that “this one will last a lifetime.”
After 54 years, the sun, the moon and the planets had aligned perfectly. The Rangers had finally put the “1940” chants to rest. The Roller Coaster ride was over. Fans wept openly, crying tears of joy, exhaustion or both. A sign was held up that read ”Now I can Die in Peace!” A great weight had been lifted from everyone’s shoulders. Fathers called sons. People who weren’t even hockey fans called friends who were. It was truly a memorable night.
In the last two rounds of the 1994 playoffs, the Blueshirts played 14 games and won the required eight. They gave up the tying goal three times in the final minute of regulation, played four overtime games and seven overtime periods.
Indeed, close games and overtimes are what make the playoffs the most exciting time of year for players and fans alike. However when you and your team are carrying 54 year’s worth of failure and disappointment into every one of those final minutes and every one of those overtimes the stress and pressure can sometimes be a little too much to handle on a regular basis. It’s like having to go to the dentist every other night for two months. After a while, it just wears you down.
Twenty years later, a new generation of Ranger fans are experiencing a trip to the finals for the first time. Although it hasn’t been 54 years it may still feel like a lifetime to some of them. Everything is relative. Hopefully their wait won’t be as long or their level of anxiety as high as it was for the generations that came before.