After a 15-year wait, the Rangers were back in the Stanley Cup Finals on this date 15 years ago.
Not since they fell to the Montreal Canadiens in1979 had the Rangers played in the Stanley Cup Finals. But in 1994, having just disposed of the New Jersey Devils in seven dramatic games, the Rangers were in the final round against the Vancouver Canucks, only four wins away from raising Lord Stanley’s chalice.
|Rangers defenseman Brian Leetch and Vancouver's Pavel Bure both had key assists in Game 1 of the 1994 Stanley Cup Finals, but Bure's assist would end up coming on the overtime game-winner. |
Game 1 took place at Madison Square Garden on May 31, 1994, four days after Stephane Matteau’s double-overtime score eliminated the Devils and catapulted the Blueshirts into the Cup Finals. As had three of the seven games against the Devils, the outcome of this contest would also be determined after more than 60 minutes of hockey had been played.
Many expected the Rangers to be somewhat drained and flat after their emotional series against the Devils. But after Mike Richter made a few terrific saves in the opening minutes of Game 1, the Rangers asserted themselves in a forceful way, dominating much of the game action.
Steve Larmer scored the first goal of the Finals only 3:32 into the first period to give the Rangers a quick 1-0 lead. Larmer drove hard to the net, collected the rebound of Alex Kovalev’s shot, and pinballed his own shot off the goal post, off the pad of goaltender Kirk McLean, and into the cage.
Although the Rangers continued to thoroughly outplay the Canucks after Larmer’s goal, they could not solve McLean and build upon their lead. The Rangers fired 15 shots at McLean in the opening period, and another nine in the second, but were still holding only a slim 1-0 advantage after 40 minutes of play.
While Richter made 15 saves over the first two periods, he was also helped out in a big way by teammate Sergei Nemchinov during the middle stanza. With the Canucks buzzing around the Rangers’ net in one sequence, and the Rangers out of position, Nemchinov blocked a pair of point-blank shots. The Rangers quickly steadied themselves and regained control of the action.
Very similar to Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Devils, the Rangers’ failure to add to their lead came back to haunt them in Game 1 against the Canucks. Vancouver pulled even at 5:45 of the third period when defenseman Bret Hedican hammered home the rebound of Jyrki Lumme’s shot.
However the Rangers went right back at it, and they regained the lead less than three minutes later when Kovalev -- in the midst of an outstanding performance -- converted a gorgeous feed from Brian Leetch to make the score 2-1. Leetch corralled a pass off the boards from Sergei Zubov, danced into the offensive zone, drew several Canucks towards him, and then zipped a cross-ice pass to Kovalev streaking down left wing for the score at 8:29.
Not content with a one-goal advantage, the Rangers pressed forward, but McLean made one big save after another. Esa Tikkanen -- who would finish with a team-best 10 shots on goal -- cranked up one thunderous slap shot after another against McLean, to no avail. Mark Messier was also foiled on a shorthanded break, with Adam Graves stoned by McLean on the open rebound attempt.
So eerily similar to the first and seventh games against New Jersey, the Rangers would surrender the tying goal to the Canucks with under a minute remaining to play in the third period, and be forced into sudden-death overtime.
Cliff Ronning fired a shot on goal that was deflected by teammate Martin Gelinas. Richter seemed to trap the puck between his arm and body, but the puck fell free and squirted over the goal line with one minute left on the clock, tying the game 2-2.
The Rangers were becoming old hands at surrendering the lead late in the game, only to rebound in overtime -- or double-OT as was the case twice against the Devils. But the Canucks were quite comfortable in the extra session, as well. In fact, the Canucks had won three-straight overtime contests while facing elimination in the opening round against Calgary. The Canucks won all three of those matches, and knocked the Flames out in seven games.
As they had done throughout most of regulation, the Rangers absolutely dominated the Canucks in overtime. Matteau had a pair of glorious chances from the slot; Kevin Lowe was robbed on a wide-open one-timer; Graves was denied three times on the doorstep; and Tikkanen, Larmer, and Kovalev all were left shaking their heads as McLean made one breathtaking save after another.
McLean faced 17 shots in overtime, and stopped them all. And he had just a touch of luck, too, when Leetch rang a shot off the crossbar with a minute left in OT.
Had Leetch’s shot been a few inches in a different direction, the Rangers would have had a thrilling and well-deserved overtime victory in Game 1 of the 1994 Stanley Cup Finals. However, Leetch’s shot found iron, the puck caromed out to the circle, where Pavel Bure beat Rangers’ defenseman Jeff Beukeboom to it, and the Canucks were on their way to a 3-on-1 rush that would ultimately decide the contest.
Bure pushed the puck ahead to Ronning, his speedy teammate, and Vancouver took off on a mad dash towards Richter. Ronning waited for the perfect moment before feathering a pass to Greg Adams on right wing, and Adams ripped a one-timer past Richter’s glove at 19:26 of overtime, and the Canucks had somehow won Game 1, 3-2.
The players on the Canucks did not know whom to mob first, Adams -- who had just scored the game-winning goal -- or McLean -- who turned in a scintillating 52-save performance, and was the primary reason Vancouver had just stolen home-ice advantage away from the Rangers.
While not happy with the result, Rangers coach Mike Keenan was upbeat after the game, emphasizing that McLean had stolen a victory for the Canucks and that his club had played a very strong all-around contest. Keenan and his troops were confident that if they played throughout the rest of the series as they did in the first game than the Cup would be theirs at the end.
Game 2, scheduled for two days later, was certainly going to be yet another crucial test, however, for the Rangers.