"Playing before that home crowd was huge. We didn't want to be known as a team that blew a 3-1 lead in the Finals."
-- Neil Smith, former Rangers GM
With his New York Rangers worn down after losing Games 5 and 6 of the 1994 Finals to Vancouver, General Manager Neil Smith was glad that the schedule called for an extra day of rest before Game 7 at Madison Square Garden. As eager as he was to see the team he had built end hockey's longest championship drought, Smith was content to wait an extra day.
"Having two days of rest saved us," said Smith, then the Rangers' GM and now an NHL Network analyst and consultant for the Anaheim Ducks. "We were an older team and a lot of our guys had injuries. The extra day off really helped."
So did having the deciding game at Madison Square Garden, where a roaring sellout crowd was eager for its first taste of champagne from the Cup since 1940.
"Playing before that home crowd was huge," Smith says. "We didn't want to be known as a team that blew a 3-1 lead in the Finals."
Not that Smith wasn't nervous after seeing his team win three of the first four games, then miss a chance to win the Cup at home in Game 5 and get beaten badly in Game 6 at Vancouver. "I don't think I slept at all the night before," he said.
But the Rangers, who hosted Game 7 after finishing with the NHL's best regular-season record for the second time in three seasons, were anything but nervous. Riding on the roar of the crowd, they dominated the first period and got goals from Brian Leetch and Adam Graves to leave the ice with a 2-0 lead. Trevor Linden's shorthanded goal early in the second cut the margin to 2-1, but Mark Messier jammed in a rebound late in the period to restore the two-goal edge with 20 minutes to play.
But breaking a 54-year Cup drought isn't easy, and the Canucks made everyone nervous when Linden scored again with 15:10 to play. Now it was a one-goal game — and for Smith, the seconds turned into minutes. Linden's second goal "numbed the building," he says. "Just when we thought we had it — we found out that it's never over until it's over."
The Canucks spent most of the last 10 minutes in the Rangers' zone, but Mike Richter stopped everything in sight — at one point getting some help from the goal post when a potential game-tying shot caught the iron.
Even the fates appeared to torture the Rangers. With the final seconds winding down, Steve Larmer finally dumped the puck out of the zone, but the play was whistled back on an icing call with 1.8 seconds remaining.
"As paranoid as I can get," he remembered, "I knew that they weren't going to score with that little time on the clock." Craig MacTavish won the last draw and the longest championship drought in NHL history was over.
"Carrying the Cup was surreal," said Smith, who came to New York in 1989 and built the Rangers into a championship team in five years. "It was higher than any high. When I came to New York in 1989, there was such doubt that anyone could ever build a Cup winner in New York."
To Smith, who had never been an NHL general manager before taking the Rangers' job, building a championship team in New York was especially sweet.
"To have done it in New York, a place I never thought would win before I got there, was extremely satisfying — one of the most rewarding feelings of my life," Smith said "To have done it for the fans — there were people there actually crying. It was like the birth of a child. To have built that team and see the joy when we won the Cup was unbelievable."