The best way to describe May 14, 1994, is to picture a quiet, serene setting out in the country before a fierce storm is set to touch down. For the 14th of May some 15 years ago was the day before the Rangers and Devils would commence their epic seven-game, two-week battle to determine which team would represent the Eastern Conference in the 1994 Stanley Cup Finals.
The Rangers had dusted off the Washington Capitals in five games to advance to the conference finals, blitzing through the first two rounds of the playoffs with an incredible 8-1 record.
|Adam Graves and Mark Messier celebrate a goal at MSG during the Blueshirts' series victory over Washington in the second round of the 1994 playoffs. |
After sweeping their arch-rivals, the Islanders, in the first round, the Rangers won the first three games of their series with Washington before finally dropping a 4-2 decision down in Landover, Md., in Game 4. However, a late goal by Brian Leetch secured a 4-3 home-ice victory for the Blueshirts in Game 5, and the Rangers were on their way to the conference finals for the first time since 1986.
The only downside to having so thoroughly dominated the first month of the post-season was the fact that the Rangers had to wait five long days in between eliminating the Capitals and opening up against the Devils.
While head coach Mike Keenan and assistants Colin Campbell and Dick Todd appreciated the extra time, both to gain valuable rest for the older veterans on the roster as well as the chance to better prepare for New Jersey, the coaching staff was also concerned that the club could lose its edge with such a lengthy layoff.
The Rangers had been firing on all cylinders right from Game 1 of the Islanders’ series. They rocked The Garden with a 6-0 victory that night, driving Isles’ goalie Ron Hextall from the nets to the sing-song chant of “Hex-Tall! Hex-Tall!” And the Rangers followed that up with another 6-0 blanking of the Islanders in Game 2, this time beating up on backup goalie Jamie McLennan.
So dominant were the Rangers in their opening-round sweep of the Islanders that they did not surrender a goal until late in the second period of Game 3 at the Nassau Coliseum, a contest the Rangers won 5-1. Mike Richter and his teammates put up 155:28 worth of shutout hockey to open up the postseason, a staggering number which sent a message throughout the league that this group of Rangers was serious about a long playoff run.
After not trailing through the first 181:28 of the series, the Rangers surrendered the first goal to the Islanders in Game 4, and then gave up another first period tally to fall behind 2-0 after just 7:24 worth of play. But Alex Kovalev’s goal late in the first stemmed the tide of the home team and began an onslaught of five straight Rangers’ goals in a 5-2 victory to clinch a sweep of the opening round set.
Kovalev and captain Mark Messier each recorded a team-high four goals in the series, chipping in with seven points apiece. Leetch, meanwhile, led the Rangers with eight points (2-6-8) and a hard-to-fathom plus-11 plus/minus mark, and Richter allowed only three goals the entire series, finishing with a microscopic 0.75 goals against average.
Though the opponent played better in the second round, the results were quite similar as the Rangers grabbed Games 1 and 2 at The Garden against the Capitals, winning 6-3 and 5-2. While the familiar stars did their part for the Blueshirts in the first two games, players like Brian Noonan (two goals in Game 1), Esa Tikkanen (1-1-2 in Game 2), Joe Kocur (1-1-2 and a rousing fight with Washington’s Craig Berube in the first two contests), and Craig MacTavish (two assists in the opener) all stepped up, as well.
Richter was the story of Game 3, backstopping his third shutout of the playoffs, in a 3-0 win at the Cap Centre. After surrendering five goals in the first two games of the series, Richter stopped all 21 shots he faced in Game 3 as Leetch, Messier, and Steve Larmer handled the scoring for the visitors.
After finishing off the Capitals in five games, the Rangers were not only 8-1 in the post-season, but they had outscored the opposition by an incredible 42-15 margin along the way. Their power play was a big reason for the Rangers’ success, converting on 12 of 52 opportunities over the first two rounds, while Leetch (5-12-17) and Messier (6-6-12) each had recorded points in all nine matches to date.
It was this dominating play that Keenan wished for his team to maintain in the days leading into the conference finals against the Devils, a team that the Rangers had beaten all six times they had faced them during the 1993-94 regular season.
And on May 14, Keenan and his players were well-rested and confident during their final tune-up at their practice rink in Rye, N.Y. Unlike the Rangers, who had cruised through the first two rounds, the Devils had been forced to seven games by the Buffalo Sabres in the opening round and had to rebound from an 0-2 hole before taking out the Boston Bruins in six games during the second round.
Perhaps more important, Devils coach Jacques Lemaire was not sure who his goaltender would be against the Rangers. Young Martin Brodeur and veteran Chris Terreri had split the duties against the Bruins, after Brodeur had backstopped the entire series against Buffalo. And against the Rangers during the regular season, Brodeur had recorded a goals-against of more than four goals per game, while Terreri was only slightly better at 3.48.
It seemed on May 14, 1994 that the Rangers held many an edge on the Devils. But as history would eventually prove, there would be much intense give-and-take before the Rangers secured the final razor-thin edge in this series.