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By Jim Cerny, newyorkrangers.com
It was on this date, 15 years ago. It was June 14, 1994.
The waiting is over! The New York Rangers are the Stanley Cup champions! And this one will last a lifetime!
|Rangers captain Mark Messier lifts the Stanley Cup after the Blueshirts ended their 54-year wait on June 14, 1994. |
No doubt every Rangers fan has heard those famous words uttered by the team’s play-by-play voice Sam Rosen. But his words, as well as the thousands upon thousands written and spoken in the immediate aftermath and the 15 years since, can never quite capture the exact feeling of what surged through the hearts and minds of Rangers fans when their beloved team finally captured the Stanley Cup on June 14, 1994.
Perhaps the sign held by a fan at Madison Square Garden that night, which read “Now I Can Die in Peace”, best explained how the fans felt when 53 years of heartbreak melted away into one glorious moment.
Really, all you had to do that night was look around The Garden to understand what truly had just taken place. Grandfathers hugging their sons and grandsons. Strangers enveloped in embrace with other strangers. Fans spilling into the press box on top of the reporters. Free-flowing tears of joy, of remembering past failures, near-misses, and close-calls, that now were not as painful because the Cup was finally back home at The Garden.
And the sound! That the famous spoked roof at Madison Square Garden did not lift up and blow off from the sheer volume evoked by the 18,200 strong is rather unbelievable actually.
Mark Messier understood all of this. As passionate a player and leader this sport has ever known, Messier was willing to be the focal point for the most passionate fans in hockey, whether that entailed wearing the bulls eye when the team failed to qualify for the playoffs the previous spring, or delivering the Stanley Cup in 1994.
And when it was time to accept the Cup from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, Messier was cognizant to not only share it with each and every player, coach, executive, and member of the team’s support staff, he made sure that he held it out for fans to touch, as well. The Rangers were one big family, and the fans were as much a part of this Stanley Cup as the people on the ice.
Of course in the aftermath of winning the Cup, it is almost difficult to remember the anxiety built up in and around MSG prior to Game 7 against the Vancouver Canucks. The Rangers had let a 3-1 series lead evaporate and now faced a winner-take-all seventh game against a team that was clearly starting to play its best hockey of the series.
When the first puck was dropped in Game 7, there was as much a feeling in the air of anxiousness and angst as there was excitement. Fortunately, the Rangers were led by a composed group of veterans in Messier, Kevin Lowe, Esa Tikkanen, Steve Larmer, Greg Gilbert, and Craig MacTavish, among others, and that composure was obvious on the ice.
And it didn’t hurt at all that head coach Mike Keenan delivered a passionate speech the day before Game 7 that Messier referred to as “the most powerful I have ever heard.”
Then again, it really didn’t hurt the Rangers either that they had the best player in the series on their side, and that he would open then scoring 11:02 into the first period.
After Messier made a neat move by passing the puck to himself off the right-wing boards and around Vancouver’s Pavel Bure, The Captain found Sergei Zubov skating into the slot. Zubov accepted the pass, and as goaltender Kirk McLean aggressively skated out to challenge a potential shot, Zubov slid a pass to Brian Leetch at the bottom of the left circle.
From a sharp angle, Leetch buried his 11th goal of the playoffs past a lunging McLean, and the Rangers had the all-important first goal of Game 7. Leetch would go on to play more than 30 minutes of superb two-way hockey on this night, routine for him during the 1994 post-season, to cement the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP which was presented to him after the contest.
Three players who did not receive nearly as much acclaim as Leetch -- forwards Brian Noonan, Tikkanen, and MacTavish -- then set out on a ferocious forecheck, one that ended with Vancouver defenseman Jyrki Lumme in the penalty box for cross-checking three minutes after the Rangers’ score.
The hard work by that threesome earned a power play, which was cashed in by Adam Graves at 14:45 to give the home team a 2-0 lead. Zubov rushed the puck into the offensive zone, slipped a pass to Alex Kovalev on left wing, and then saw Kovalev find Graves in the slot with a quick feed of his own. Graves rifled a 15-foot shot past McLean for his first goal in 10 games and The Garden exploded.
With Mike Richter very sharp between the pipes, the Rangers carried their 2-0 advantage into the first intermission, knowing that the next goal of the contest would be crucial. If the Rangers scored next, a 3-0 lead at MSG seemed to almost ensure the Cup. However, a score by the Canucks would change the whole complexion of the match, and further ratchet up the anxiety felt by the fans.
More angst did take place early in the second period, for both the Rangers and their fans, when hulking defenseman Jeff Beukeboom suffered a knee injury following a collision with Vancouver forward Shawn Antoski. And it only got worse when Vancouver captain Trevor Linden scored a shorthanded goal at 5:21 to make the score 2-1.
The Rangers held their ground, though, after Linden’s score, and the Canucks could not generate a lot offensively. Yet again, the next goal of the match would be critical to the outcome.
And it would be Messier, carrying more pressure than any other single player for either team in this series, who would deliver the next goal, which would ultimately become the Stanley Cup-winning goal.
Noonan and Graves had their in-close shots denied by McLean during a wild scramble in the Vancouver crease. The puck trickled to Messier, stationed at the left post. Messier swatted at it, and the puck deflected off John McIntyre’s leg and over the goal line at 13:29 of the second. It would the final goal scored by the Rangers during the 1993-94 season, and would be just enough to hold off the Canucks.
Their 3-1 lead held up early into the third period thanks to Richter, who made several key saves after Messier’s goal. But at 4:50 of the third -- with Tikkanen in the penalty box for hauling down Bure -- Linden converted a pretty pass from Geoff Courtnall for his second goal of the night, and it was 3-2 with still 15 agonizing minutes of hockey left to be played.
The action flew back and forth. Richter denied Bure and Nathan Lafayette. McLean held off a pair of excellent scoring chances by Larmer. Martin Gelinas’ shot hit the outside of the post with Richter stretched as far to his left as he could. Larmer hit a post. Lafayette’s blast clanged off the post. With less than a minute left to play, Richter somehow saw Bure’s blast through a maze of legs and sticks and made a game-saving pad save.
|Mark Messier and Adam Graves celebrate Graves' first-period goal against Canucks netminder Kirk McLean in the first period. |
There would be three faceoffs in the Rangers’ end of the ice over the final 38.7 seconds of play. Messier won the first two; but after Larmer iced the puck again -- on a very controversial call in which Bure slowed down while chasing the puck in his own end to create the icing -- MacTavish was called upon with 1.6 seconds remaining on the clock for one last faceoff.
The Rangers had thought that they already had won the Cup when Larmer cleared the puck out of his own zone, and were stunned with the icing call. Celebrations -- both on the ice and in the stands -- were halted. And, yes, the Ghosts of 1940 were getting one last laugh as the fans and players were left to wonder if there would be another last-second goal allowed by the Rangers to force another Game 7 into overtime, just as had happened in the series against the Devils.
The faceoff was to Richter’s right. MacTavish took the draw against Bure, with Messier, Larmer, Leetch, and Doug Lidster the other Rangers on the ice. MacTavish won the faceoff into the corner where one last time Larmer pinned his man into the boards. The horn sounded, the fireworks exploded, and Messier did his crazy hopping dance of joy.
The New York Rangers had won the 1994 Stanley Cup!
Graves mockingly crowed, “1940!”.
The curse had been lifted.
And as Messier raised the Stanley Cup high over his head a few moments later, the Ghosts of 1940 were last seen leaving the building.
This one, indeed, would last a lifetime.