It was the biggest goal he ever scored in his life, and it remains one of the biggest goals any Ranger has ever scored. But Brian Leetch had a decision to make on the play, and a split-second to make it, and if the puck had been on the stick of almost anybody other than Sergei Zubov, everything might have been different.
This was June 14, 1994, and just past the midpoint of a scoreless first period in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Vancouver Canucks. The Rangers had something cooking with Mark Messier leading a rush, and Leetch jumping into the attack; but when the puck didn't go to him at first, the blueliner had to make a fateful decision about where he should go next.
"I was coming on one side trying to get open for Mark thinking he was going to go to me," Leetch recalled to NYRangers.com. "And then when he goes on a back pass to Zubie, if it's somebody else, or let's say this is the beginning of the year -- and Zubie and I are just in our first year playing together -- I would stop and go out of the zone. Because I'm not familiar yet with the way he sees the game as the same way I see the game.
"Once you're used to that, you do things differently than you would with other players, and I'd do some things with Zubie out there that I wouldn't do with anyone else. So once it went to Zubie, I'm like, 'I'm going to stay right here because he's either going to shoot the puck because that's a better decision, or if I'm the better decision he's going to pass it to me. So that's why I stayed in that spot.
"I knew we could get back if we had to. But he wasn't going to fumble it, he wasn't going to shoot it into someone's pads. If he had a chance to score he was going to rip it. And if there was a better option, I better stay there to give him that option.
"And he passed it right over."
Ranger fans still can close their eyes and see Leetch open up to get that pass low in the left circle, measure the target, and drill it behind a desperately reaching Kirk McLean, who had left his crease to play a shot from Zubov and was crispy toast as soon as the pass went across. It gave the Rangers a 1-0 lead at 11:02, and they never trailed again until they were carrying the Cup around Madison Square Garden.
The dish was the first of Zubov's two assists on the night, and the night was the first of two in his splendid 13-year career on which he would hoist the Stanley Cup. On Monday night in Toronto, Zubov will receive another of his sport's ultimate honors, when the former Rangers, Penguins and Stars defenseman is enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame as a member of the Class of 2019, alongside Guy Carbonneau, Hayley Wickenheiser, and one-time Ranger Vaclav Nedomansky, plus builders Jim Rutherford and Jerry York.
It is an honor that those closest to Zubov argue is overdue for a player whose full mastery of the game was never fully recognized, or even understood.
"His teammates knew," said Leetch, a member of the Hall of Fame's Class of 2009. "His teammates, we all rave about him -- anyone that's ever played with him, you just always hear, 'I never knew he was that good,' or, 'We would never have been as good if we didn't have Zubie in the back end.' It was no different with our team. We were really lucky to have him."
Zubov joined the Rangers as part of a wave of players coming overseas from the crumbling Soviet Union; the Blueshirts had drafted him in the fifth round of the 1990 Draft, a fact he didn't learn of until months later. He started his NHL career with 31 points in 49 games for the Blueshirts in 1992-93, when Leetch was battling injuries in his fifth full NHL season and had just won his first Norris Trophy the year before.
"I could see my replacement coming up," Leetch half-joked. "When I'd be watching him, I'm like, 'Jeez, this guy, he's got it all.'"
As it happened, when Leetch got healthy again for the 1993-94 season, he and Zubov teamed up to form a lethal blue-line duo on power plays and 4-on-4 situations, to the point where Leetch recalled with bemusement how the Rangers would be accused of baiting opponents into matching minors so they could open up the ice for a foursome of Leetch, Zubov, Messier and Adam Graves.
And yet on June 14, 1994, there were Zubov and Leetch on the ice together at 5-on-5 in the first period.
"After those two games we lost, Game 5 and Game 6, we just kind of had the mindset: Just get out there and play our game and make as many plays as we can - go at them and try to beat them offensively," Zubov told NYRangers.com. "That was the mindset, to me. And we were going, especially in the first period."
Messier started the attack by catching up to Leetch's outlet in front of the Vancouver bench and stickhandling across the middle, delaying for oncoming teammates. Leetch made a run down the left expecting a pass; instead, Messier held it, which drew defenders and opened up ice for a drop pass to Zubov, who had jumped on for Jeff Beukeboom and was advancing on the right.
"As soon as Mark didn't pass it to me, I would have turned out and gone back," Leetch said, "but I didn't because I saw Zubie going in."
The play, with both defensemen attacking the net, reminded Zubov of another memorable goal in his career, the first one he ever scored for his CSKA Moscow Red Army team, when he combined with another future Hall of Famer. "I scored with Slava Fetisov on a 2-on-0," Zubov recalled. "Two defensemen in a 2-on-0. It just happens in a game once in a while, I don't know how to explain it."
As for the '94 goal, "Once I got that puck -- I mean, Leetchie was an unbelievable player, not just that playoffs, but especially those playoffs, the whole run," Zubov said. "He always appeared at the right place at the right time, and that's just what he did there. He started that game, it was the first step for us that night.
"Everything happens fast. I looked at the goalie, he came out a little bit, and you just try to make the best out of the moment. Leetchie was wide open."
Those two combined for 221 points in the regular season and playoffs, and had a hand in the same goal 38 times during the 1993-94 season -- none more important or more lasting than the one in Game 7. And whenever there is a highlight reel of the Hall of Fame career of Sergei Zubov, there will always be Leetch from Zubov and Messier, one of Zubov's 888 career points in the regular season and playoffs, second-most all-time among Russian-born defensemen.
Leetch, though, knew there was so much more to what made Zubov not just great, but a Hall of Famer. When it came to Zubov, his teammates knew.
"A lot of big points, a lot of big moments, but a lot of just calmness, settling things down," Leetch said. "That first pass out of the zone, where we're running around and it could be chaos, but you get a guy with his patience and his vision and all of a sudden it's out and the pressure is alleviated.
"When I look up and down that ('94) lineup, I point to guys and go, 'Well, we wouldn't have won without him, we wouldn't have won without him.' But with the amount of minutes Zubie played, and the key moments that he played in, and everything that he brought to our team, certainly Zubie stands out. We wouldn't have won without him."