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Five Questions: Leetch talks Rangers past, present

by Dan Rosen's weekly Q&A feature called "Five Questions With …" runs every Tuesday. We talk to key figures in the game today and ask them questions to gain insight into their lives, careers and the latest news.

The latest edition features Hall of Fame defenseman Brian Leetch, who became a Stanley Cup champion with the New York Rangers in 1994 and now is a director in the NHL Department of Player Safety:

Brian Leetch and his New York Rangers teammates became icons in the Big Apple 20 years ago.

Leetch and the Rangers made everyone stop chanting "19-40" by winning their first Stanley Cup championship in 54 years. They paraded down the Canyon of Heroes. They lived the life of a star on Broadway, in the biggest city in the world.

They were legendary. In many ways they still are.

The current version of the Rangers is five wins away from getting the same treatment. They are one win away from reaching the Cup Final for the first time since that magical New York spring in 1994.

The Rangers have a 3-1 series lead on the Montreal Canadiens in the best-of-7 Eastern Conference Final heading into Game 5 at Bell Centre on Tuesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, RDS).

Leetch, watching from afar while living in Boston and doing his work as a member of the NHL Department of Player Safety team, spoke about the Rangers' past and present during a phone conversation with on Monday.

Here are Five Questions with … Brian Leetch:

Throughout this run the Rangers have made strides to pay homage to the 1994 team. They recently involved several players, including Stephane Matteau, Adam Graves, Mike Richter, Glenn Anderson, Jay Wells and Jeff Beukeboom. They got a big ovation when shown on the scoreboard during Game 4. What does it mean to you to know that the Rangers are doing what they can to involve your championship team during this run?

"It's different ownership than in '94 and this group is trying to make a mark on its own. And there are a lot of people who have heard enough about '94. But I know they've brought guys like Matteau and others in a group throughout the year to do different things in the boxes and to hang out in New York for the weekend. They're not running from it. I think they've been doing it the right way. The focus should be on the group that's there. The fact that now they are having a great run and with the symmetry of 20 years, I think it's working out great right now. I had friends at the game [Sunday] that texted me and said they just recognized a group of the guys I played with. I thought it was great. I think it's a great job of balancing between the present and the past."

In 1994 the city embraced your team, and the city seems like it is wrapping its collective arms around this team now too. What is New York like in the spring for a hockey player going on a run potentially to the Stanley Cup Final?

"Well, our situation is always going to be unique because of the 54 years. This team is going through a unique thing on their own with the changes on their team, certainly [Martin St. Louis'] story and how the team has kind of rallied around him. Henrik [Lundqvist] is such an important guy to come into the organization, just like Mark [Messier] when he came in our time. They're getting contributions from different players, and there are a lot of similarities along those lines too. I think the players can feel it. A lot of the guys live in the city now, and they deal with Ranger fans on a day-to-day basis and understand what it's like. A group of them have lived here for a number of years and have watched other sports, whether it's football or baseball, how it is when teams do well, and what a city like New York is and how big it is. When you think about a sports team, it's pretty small in this big city, but to have that groundswell of support behind you it becomes, I wouldn't call it a weapon, but it's definitely something you feel and it's a good feeling you have."

Has this Rangers team surprised you, meaning did you think during the season as you watched them that they were capable of being good enough to make it this far, to be in position in the Eastern Conference Final, up 3-1, one win away from reaching the Stanley Cup Final?

"I get asked that all the time. Obviously I run into Rangers fans all the time. They ask about this year's team, whatever year it is. I always say, 'You have a guy capable of winning the Stanley Cup in goal.' I always start there. With the NHL being so close points-wise, I also always say, 'You just gotta get in.' When they went on their second-half run and they cemented their spot in the playoffs, then it was all about the first round, and it's so hard to get by that first round. Everybody is playing so hard and injuries come up, but I was saying that if they get past that first round the Rangers have as good a chance as anyone to go. I really thought if they remained healthy they could make it.

"But watching that Game 4 against Pittsburgh I remember thinking, 'They don't have enough, the schedule caught up to them and there is no way Henrik alone has enough to win enough.' Then they go play their best game still to this point in the playoffs, Game 5 against Pittsburgh. They won that one. They figured out a way to win Game 6, and then they got it done on the road in Game 7. That surprised me, that Pittsburgh couldn't figure out a way to win one game and the Rangers could get it done for three in a row. Once they got there I said, 'Wow.' And then once Montreal got by Boston, which I didn't see coming, I remember thinking that I like this matchup for New York. But that Pittsburgh series, that was the big surprise for me, that was the one I didn't see coming."

What you, as a former defenseman, likely could see coming is the development of Ryan McDonagh into an elite blueliner in the NHL. What is it about his game that impresses you, and is what you saw from him during your time as an analyst for Rangers games on MSG coming through in his game now?

"The biggest thing we all saw from [McDonagh] early was his skating. I always would compare his skating to Scott Niedermayer. There is a lot of power. He's not a guy that's turning his feet over one after the other, it's just power and speed to be able to track guys down and to be able to close on them quickly. I thought Niedermayer was the same way, and what's interesting is their path has kind of gone the same way.

"Scott came up into a Devils organization that was kind of set in its ways and didn't need him to be involved offensively, just needed him to play his role. I remember [a reporter] coming up to me and asking, 'What do you think about Niedermayer, should they let him go, take the reins off a bit?' I was like, 'He'll be fine. He's going to be fine. He's got everything you want as a player.'

"McDonagh, I didn't know as much about him offensively, but I watched plays he made and I knew he could do it. This year it's just confidence. That has to come from the coaching staff. They have to tell him that they want him to go, they want him involved offensively. The other part has to come from him, to be willing to take his game to a different level by being willing to take chances. Now it's fun to watch him.

"The fact that he can backcheck, or make plays in the corner, pinch down, that's all confidence. He's always had that ability, but you need to know that your coaches are going to be OK if it doesn't turn out right, that your teammates know it's going to be OK, and you can recover. There has got to be some risk involved in playing a two-way game, but he's got a goaltender that can help erase mistakes and he's got teammates that know he gives them way more of an upside playing both ways like this than just playing great defense. That's all confidence, from the group and from himself. It's impressive."

Without failure when a team wins the third game in a series the players will tell the media that the fourth one is the hardest to win. They always say it. Why? Why is the fourth one the hardest to win? Why is it harder to win the fourth one than the first, second or third?

"Oh, I don't know. I always just heard the older guys say it so I used to say it. Gordie Howe was playing and saying it. They've all passed it down. Winning the first one to me was just as hard as winning the fourth one. I don't want to blow up the myth, so there is always that backs-against-the-wall mentality. A team facing elimination is focused totally on winning that game. It's all focus, focus, focus. They're not trying to win two or three in one night. They just want to win that one, and maybe then they do things a little bit different. But from my experience every game is hard to win. It's hard no matter what. We went 4-0 that one year against the Islanders and two of them were 6-0, but I was getting slashed and hit just as much in a 6-0 game as when we won a close game, or when we won against New Jersey. The intensity and the animosity and the desire to win in the playoffs is very similar in every single game."


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