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Ex-Rangers greats see Cup potential in current group

by David Kalan /

NEW YORK -- With a sixth postseason appearance in the last seven seasons sewn up, it's starting to feel like seeing the Rangers in the playoffs is becoming an annual rite of spring once again.

There are few people who know what that feels like better than Mark Messier.

"Playoff time in New York is like no other," he said.

If there is anyone who understands the energy and excitement that can take hold of New York when the Rangers have a legitimate chance to bring home the Stanley Cup, it's the man whose captaincy was instrumental in giving the Rangers their first championship in half a century 18 years ago.

On Tuesday, Messier, 1994 Cup-winner Adam Graves and Rangers legend Rod Gilbert were all on hand at the unveiling of a new Rangers-themed subway train being put into service in honor of the upcoming 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and it was clear all three could sense the tangible excitement surrounding New York ahead of the postseason.

As the trio walked around the blue-bedecked shuttle train at Grand Central Terminal in front of a raucous crowd of onlookers, each expounded on the chances of this season's team as it looks to win the franchise's first NHL title in nearly two decades -- and just its second in the last 72 years. While no one was making guarantees this time around, they are seeing shades of '94.

"Any time you're lucky enough to win a championship, there are ingredients that go into it," Graves said. "This team obviously has a great deal of talent and a great deal of character. They play as a team and they play hockey the right way, and as players that were fortunate enough to wear this jersey, Mark would agree and Rod would, too, that they play the game the right way. They come to play, they play each shift and, again, blocking shots, getting in lanes, taking hits, giving hits, and they play by committee and you have to respect that.

Riding the Rangers Express

Every day the New York City subway fills with millions of people and Mark Messier is no stranger to it. During his time with the Rangers, he made his fair share of trips on the subway to sporting events, and when the Rangers unveiled a train Tuesday in honor of the upcoming postseason, he couldn't help but sense the anticipation many of the fans will feel as they ride it to Madison Square Garden this spring.

"I rode the subway a lot when I was a player," Messier said. "I never had the subway car looking like this, but I've been to many Yankee games on the subway and felt the excitement of fans going to those games. I think the excitement of this train is going to add a lot of excitement prior to the games going over.

"It will really get the people in the mood before they get to the game."

The train, which will run as a shuttle between Times Square and Grand Central Terminal, is wrapped in blue with images of Rangers players all along the exterior of the cars. Inside the color theme continues as the seats are Rangers blue and the team's shield logo dots the walls.

Messier, Adam Graves and Rod Gilbert all received a chance to check out the train Tuesday, with each taking their turn in the conductor's chair.

"This is fantastic," Gilbert said. "I've [ridden on subway trains] a number of times but not decorated like these. And we have the best fans, as you know, and they deserve this. They deserve to get in the mood once they get to this train and then they get to the garden. The atmosphere is going to be incredible."

Gilbert might have been the most excited of group, letting out an enthusiastic "All aboard" as he peered out the conductor's window. But to a man each former-player was excited to see the train, the crowds and the general energy around the city as New York gears up for what is shaping up as its best shot at the Stanley Cup since 1994.

"Just to come in here you feel right at home," Graves said. "There's nothing better than Ranger blue and for people that know Ranger blue they're going to be excited and for people that don't, they're going to open their eyes to what a great tradition we have at the Garden."

-- David Kalan

"From the net out, from (goaltender) Henrik (Lundqvist) out, they're a team that's very, very balanced, but they are a team. They play together."

When speaking to the media, Graves repeatedly made note of the hard-nosed, grinding reputation the Rangers have built, stringing together wins with a recipe of superior goaltending, a commitment to defense and a consistent, team-wide contribution to offense that, in his words, "comes from all 18 skaters."

That's the kind of reputation Graves can certainly identify with. In parts of 16 NHL seasons -- including 10 with New York -- Graves was a gritty presence on the ice, accumulating 1,224 penalty minutes, but he was a player with a nose for the net, which he found frequently, scoring 329 goals -- 52 in the Rangers' championship season alone.

That 1994 Rangers team has carved out its own unique place in the annals of New York sports, and while the question of whether the team's 2012 edition will join the them is months away from being answered, there are parallels starting to appear.

One clear example is in net, where the always-reliable Lundqvist has made the types of saves -- and been the dependable rock at the back -- that the organization saw in 1994 with Mike Richter. That postseason, Richter played as solidly as any championship netminder can, backstopping New York through all 16 wins while accumulating four shutouts and a paltry 2.07 goals-against average. His save of Pavel Bure's penalty shot in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final remains etched in Rangers lore.

"I believe that the most important position in hockey is in the net," Graves said. "You can watch video to see what Michael was able to accomplish and how much he meant to our hockey club and what he meant to me as a teammate -- just a fantastic man, first of all, and a tremendous competitor and goaltender and teammate. But when you talk about Henrik Lundqvist, over his first six or seven years in the National Hockey League, he has established himself as one of the premier top two or three goalies and I think this year he's even elevated his game to a different level."

Still, finding parallels between two teams can be tricky business. The dramatic changes an organization can undergo from year to year, let alone over two decades, can make it difficult to make comparisons, as can the notable fact that the game has changed significantly since 1994 both in style and in the rule book. As a result, Messier was among those hesitant to measure one Rangers team against the other.

"I never like to compare," Messier said. "Every team's different, the personnel's different. The team this year has had a great year. They've earned the right to be in the position they are right now. The coaching staff has done a great job. With the parity in the League it's not to be taken lightly the kind of season they've had: 50 wins, in position to win the division, conference and even the Presidents' Trophy. … It's a collaborative effort right from the ownership to the general manager to the coaching staff, players, trainers, doctors, dentists -- a lot of people go into having a season like this."

Even if Messier wants to avoid the natural temptation to put the excitement of 1994 against 2012, it isn't to say that the current group should keep its distance. All three of the former players on hand are involved with the franchise and repeated the same mantra of continuity from era to era within the organization. The words "excited" and "proud" were thrown around regularly Tuesday, showing the connection former Rangers feel to the current group.

Gilbert almost appeared to gush when he spoke of the Rangers' chances of winning a Stanley Cup this season. The No. 7 hangs in the rafters of Madison Square Garden for Gilbert, but he was never fortunate enough to win a championship during his career, all of which was spent with New York. But Gilbert has been a regular presence around the Rangers this season, attending practices and occasionally traveling with the team. Having spent that much time around the current club, Gilbert is convinced it's a group of players that has the stuff of champions.

"They know the tradition of the Rangers," Gilbert said. "I'm sure every one of these great players has experienced the feeling that Adam and Mark receive. The adulation and the support of all the fans and how important it was to get them to that parade. So they know exactly what they're up for and there's a lot of effort that's going to go into it, and I think they're prepared to do the sacrificing."

Standing with Graves and Gilbert inside a car on the Rangers' new blue subway train, it seemed like the captain, too, was on board.

"The team's had a tremendous year," Messier said. "With the parity of the League now to have the kind of year they've had -- 23, 24 losses, whatever it is -- is incredible. And the unfortunate part of it is that the season has really just started because the playoffs are what we play for.

"We've all got our fingers crossed that they can keep it going."

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