So many times during his tenure as a New York Ranger, Mark Messier delivered a huge clutch performance in a big spot, exactly when his club needed him to do so. A case in point took place on May 17, 1994.
After the Rangers had dropped Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals 4-3 in double-overtime to the Devils two days earlier, there was much talk in the media and outside of the Rangers’ dressing room that the ’94 club was ill fit to handle adversity, and that the ghosts of 1940 were being resurrected yet again.
|In addition to shifting the momentum back to the home team, Mark Messier's effort in Game 2 of the Rangers-Devils series was a sign of bigger things to come. |
However, inside the Rangers’ locker room, the players and coaches were aware that they had not put forth their best effort in Game 1, but were more than confident that the club had the right mental make-up to bounce back from the disappointing defeat. To a man, they also believed they had the perfect captain to lead them back into the series, as well.
Messier did not let his teammates down in Game 2, and they followed his lead in a punishing 4-0 victory over the Devils at Madison Square Garden 15 years ago today.
The Captain set the tone right from the opening faceoff. Messier chased the puck deep into New Jersey’s end of the ice and delivered a thunderous check on Devils’ captain Scott Stevens, which sent the powerful defenseman down to the ice. Messier then turned and hammered rugged defenseman Ken Daneyko with another powerful hit.
With the amped-up fans standing and roaring their approval, Messier collected the loose puck -- after teammates Esa Tikkanen and Glenn Anderson had crunched New Jersey’s Claude Lemieux to cause a turnover -- and quickly put a wraparound shot inside the left post to hand the Rangers a 1-0 lead just 1:13 into the game.
There were numerous signature moments for Messier throughout his Hall-of-Fame career, many of them in a Rangers’ uniform -- and some were still to come in this very same series against the Devils, of course -- but this was Messier at his intimidating best, mentally and physically imposing his will on an important contest. And his teammates were right in lockstep with their 33-year-old captain.
Veteran defenseman Kevin Lowe became a heat-seeking missile, delivering one fierce check after another, one of which sent Valeri Zelepukin head-over-heels high into the air. Joe Kocur took the wind right out of many a Devil with his powerful blows. Adam Graves. Brian Noonan. Jeff Beukeboom. Anderson. Tikkanen. Even the somewhat passive defenseman Alexander Karpovtsev challenged Lemieux to come off the bench and fight.
Messier had set the tone of how the game would be played, and his teammates made sure that there would be no deviating from the blueprint until the final horn sounded after 60 minutes of dominating play.
The great start, and consistent strong defensive and physical play, notwithstanding, this was no easy victory for the Blueshirts. Messier’s goal stood alone until the third period when Sergei Nemchinov, Anderson, and Graves all scored to provide goaltender Mike Richter some much-needed insurance. And if not one for one amazing save by Richter midway through the second period, there might have been a huge swing in momentum and a different result on this night.
Nearly 13 minutes into the second, with the Rangers still leading only 1-0, New Jersey’s Bill Guerin skated wide around Brian Leetch on left wing and then burst towards the net. Swiftly moving from left to right across the crease, Guerin tried to draw Richter out of position before taking his shot. Richter patiently and expertly stayed right with Guerin, eventually making a sensational juggling glove save on Guerin’s forehand shot.
In retrospect, the save on Richer might go down -- along with the penalty shot save he made on Vancouver’s Pavel Bure later in the ’94 Stanley Cup Finals -- as one of the most memorable of Richter’s stellar NHL career.
Later in the second period, the Rangers successfully killed off a two-man disadvantage, with Steve Larmer, in particular, doing a great job blocking potential passes and shots. The Devils managed just one harmless shot on goal during their 5-on-3 power play, and mustered only 16 at Richter the entire night.
The shutout was already Richter’s fourth in the playoffs, equaling the league mark of most shutouts in one post-season. Most importantly, though, the blanking evened the series a game apiece heading to the Meadowlands for Game 3.
Nemchinov scored 47 seconds into the third, his second goal in as many games, to give the Rangers their first multiple-goal lead of the series. Then Anderson intercepted an attempted clear by Daneyko, broke in on goaltender Martin Brodeur, stick handled around Brodeur’s poke check, and flipped a backhander into the cage at 6:11 to up the Rangers’ lead to 3-0. The goal was Anderson’s first of the postseason.
Two minutes later, Graves converted a feed from Brian Leetch to score a power play goal and it was 4-0.
All that was left over the final 11-plus minutes of play was for the Devils to try and send a physical message back to their hosts. Lemieux got away with a wicked unpenalized slash on Graves and moments later the two had to be separated by the officials. With 9:25 remaining in the game, Graves and Lemieux were escorted to their respective dressing rooms with various penalties on their ledgers.
Messier finished with the goal and an assist to extend his point-scoring streak to all 11 playoff games.
But as important as his game-opening goal was, Messier will be best remembered for seizing control of the game and swinging the momentum back to the Rangers as the series headed across the Hudson River for Games 3 and 4.