By the spring of 1997 three years had passed since the Rangers’ memorable Stanley Cup Championship run. In the ensuing years, the Rangers had been eliminated in the second round of the playoffs each season, disappointing themselves and The Garden Faithful who desperately wanted to share more magical moments as they did in 1994.
|Adam Graves celebrates the overtime playoff goal against New Jersey's Martin Brodeur that propelled the Rangers into the 1997 Eastern Conference Finals. |
The general manager at the time, Neil Smith, had assembled an impressive roster for the 1996-97 campaign, featuring the legendary Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier, high-scoring left wing Luc Robitaille, and a talented core of Adam Graves, Brian Leetch, Esa Tikkanen, and Mike Richter, among others.
Graves had another solid season on Broadway, recording 33 goals, the third of four times he would score 30 or more during his NHL career. However, the Blueshirts struggled to jell most of the season, finishing just four games over .500, though in fifth place overall in the Eastern Conference with 86 points.
Where it all began to come together for the Rangers was in the playoffs. Facing former Rangers’ goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck and the Florida Panthers in the opening round, the Blueshirts lost Game 1 before running off four straight wins -- including two in overtime -- to oust the fourth-seeded Panthers in five games.
That first-round series victory catapulted the Rangers into a second-round match up with the top-seeded New Jersey Devils. By 1997, these two proud organizations had built a fierce rivalry, with the Rangers grabbing the Cup in 1994 and the Devils answering with a championship of their own one season later. And there had already been two memorable post-season clashes which both resulted in seven-game series victories for the Rangers, in 1992 and 1994.
“That was one of the great rivalries in all of hockey,” notes Graves. “To face each other in three great playoff series over a six-year span just added to it.”
As they did in the series against Florida, the Rangers were shut out in Game 1 vs. the Devils, but rebounded behind Richter with a shutout of their own on the road in Game 2 to even the series. Then with Gretzky playing at the top of his game and Messier and Tikkanen also taking starring turns, the Rangers won the next two games on home ice, 3-2 and 3-0, to head back to New Jersey looking to finish off the heavily-favored Devils.
Despite the team’s success, Graves had been having a very quiet playoffs offensively. He was scoreless in the first eight post-season matches before finally notching the game-opening -- and as it turned out, game-winning -- goal in Game 4’s shutout victory over the Devils.
In typical Graves fashion, though, the lack of scoring did not affect his all-around game as he continued to be a force on the forecheck and diligent in his defensive game, helping to contribute to the club’s 7-2 post-season record heading into Game 5 at The Meadowlands.
The opportunity to play hero was right around the corner for Graves, however.
After Tikkanen and New Jersey’s Brian Rolston traded goals during regulation of Game 5, the Rangers and Devils headed to overtime for the first time in the post-season since May 27, 1994 when Stephane Matteau famously eliminated New Jersey in double OT of Game 7 in the epic Eastern Conference Finals.
With that memory vivid in so many minds, Graves swooped in behind the Devils net a little more than halfway through the 20-minute overtime session. Graves had the puck, but he also had the brute force of New Jersey defenseman Scott Stevens hanging on his back.
As two of the strongest players of their day continued their powerful ballet, with Graves trying to hold off Stevens as the Devils’ captain attempted to slow down his Rangers’ adversary, Graves swung around the right side of goaltender Martin Brodeur’s cage. Brodeur tried to poke the puck off of Graves’ stick -- but fatally missed -- and Graves sent the puck between Brodeur’s pads at the 14:08 mark of overtime to eliminate the Devils in near-identical fashion as Matteau three years prior.
“I’m not going to tell you that was a beautiful goal or that I had it planned all the way,” states Graves. “Brodeur tried to make a play and failed. Then the puck had eyes and found a way in. It was surely not by design. It was much more luck.”
What made the goal such a work of art, so to speak, was the battle between Graves and Stevens, two of the most respected players of their day. Graves believes it is a battle that might have been whistled down if it occurred today.
“In today’s NHL we both might have been called for penalties, and the play -- and the goal -- would have never happened as it did,” says Graves. “Stevens was holding and hooking me, and I had a hold of his stick with my free hand! But it was a classic one-on-one battle that fortunately went our way.”
It was a special moment for Grave,s as the goal vaulted the Rangers into the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since the magical spring of 1994. However, an injury-depleted Blueshirts’ squad was unable to hold off a strong Philadelphia Flyers team and the season ended for the Rangers in five games.
But Rangers’ fans had one more memorable Adam Graves moment to appreciate and file away alongside so many others. And that in itself made the spring of 1997 so special.