|Adam Graves lit up the Molson Centre by scoring four goals in Games 3 and 4. |
In the spring of 1996, the Rangers had just completed a solid regular season in which they finished in second place in the Atlantic Division -- earning the third overall seed in the Eastern Conference -- with 96 points, and were looking to recapture their Stanley Cup glory of two years prior.
In his fifth season on Broadway, Adam Graves had recorded 22 goals and 58 points while playing in all 82 games. Though his numbers were solid, it was the fewest goals and points Graves had recorded at that juncture in any of his non-lockout seasons as a Ranger.
With a first-round playoff series against the Montreal Canadiens in front of him, Graves was seeking to get back on track with a strong postseason after scoring only once in his last 11 matches to close out the 1995-96 regular season.
“One of the reasons why I love the post-season so much is that your whole mindset changes,” says Graves. “It’s all about the game in front of you, not doing things that shape a whole season. Your focus is on one game, one opponent. There’s no long-term thinking involved.”
Graves sent an early message in the series against the Canadiens that things were going to be different for him in the playoffs. Only 7:17 in to the opening contest at Madison Square Garden, Graves beat Canadiens’ goaltender Jocelyn Thibault to give the Blueshirts a 1-0 lead.
Though the Rangers would eventually fall 3-2 to the Canadiens in Game 1 on a Vincent Damphousse overtime score, Graves was the best player on the ice for either team. Graves played a robust physical game, and finished with 10 shots on goal.
The best was still yet to come for Graves, and the Rangers. However, it would happen only after the Canadiens grabbed a 5-3 victory in Game 2, with the winning goal once again coming off the stick of the veteran Damphousse. Graves played another strong game -- assisting on Ulf Samuelsson’s game tying goal late in the third period -- before he and his teammates once again ended up on the losing side of the ledger.
“We really felt that the pressure had fallen on their side,” recalls Graves. “All we had to do now, albeit in a tough place to play in Montreal, was relax and play. We knew it was going to be a tall order to come back, but if we could win Game 3, we knew we would settle down and regain our confidence.”
Led by the relentless Graves, that is exactly what the Rangers did. Graves scored a pair of power-play goals in the first period -- the first at 15:30, the other at 17:50 -- and the Rangers held on for a crucial 2-1 road victory in Game 3. As he had done in the first game of the series, Graves once again fired 10 shots on goal.
Only twice during the regular season had Graves scored two goals in a game, the last coming on Dec. 30 in Edmonton against Bill Ranford and the Oilers. Now he had netted not only a pair of goals in Game 3 against Montreal, but had scored the only goals that the Rangers would muster against Thibault on the night.
But Graves wasn’t yet done with multiple-goal efforts in the series. Graves scored the third and fourth goals for the Rangers as they held on for a 4-3 victory in Game 4, evening the series at two games apiece.
The Rangers desperately needed to sweep the Canadiens in Montreal, and they had done exactly that. And it was Graves who notched four of their six goals at the Molson Centre, including both game-winners.
“Our play power play was really humming at that point, and, most importantly, our confidence was back and our minds were in the right place to succeed,” explains Graves.
The momentum built from those two critical road wins carried over as the Rangers finished off the Canadiens in six games to advance to the second round of the playoffs. Graves, who also scored a goal in the Blueshirts’ decisive 5-3 victory in Game Six, finished the series as the club’s top point producer (6-1-7), and he had tied the franchise records for most goals in a playoff series (6) and most power play goals in a post-season (5).
Though the rest of the 1996 post-season was not as a pretty for the Rangers, nor for Graves -- who received a 50-stitch cut inside his mouth when hit by a puck in practice prior to the start of the next round against the Penguins and then had to sit out Game 3 of the four-game sweep at the hands of their rivals due to a back injury -- it will always be remembered for a great series comeback that was led by one of the most brilliant individual playoff performances in franchise history.