On this date 15 years ago, the Rangers entered the Meadowlands with an opportunity to grab a commanding 3-1 series lead over the Devils in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference Finals, with Game 5 looming on home-ice at Madison Square Garden. And with back-to-back well-played victories in the series, the Rangers felt awfully good about the prospects of winning and securing that 3-1 advantage.
However, at the end of Game 4 on May 21, 1994, the Rangers seemed to be a team with many more questions than answers after the Devils evened the series with a 3-1 victory.
|The Rangers' performance in Game 4 of the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals did not sit well with former head coach Mike Keenan, who made a number of suprrise personnel decisions on the fly that night. |
That the desperate Devils won Game 4 in their building was not nearly as shocking as the fact that the Rangers failed to match New Jersey’s intensity and Mike Keenan’s reaction to that.
Keenan, the Rangers’ passionate head coach, stewed behind the bench as the Devils stormed his team in all three zones right from the start of the match. As the Devils dominated the first period, Keenan’s ire grew. When Stephane Richer scored on a power-play wraparound at 10:17 of the opening period to give the Devils a 1-0 lead, the Rangers’ bench boss glared out to the ice and clenched his jaw tighter.
And when the Devils grabbed a 2-0 lead on Bill Guerin’s breakaway goal at 16:54 of the first, Keenan finally made his move. Keenan sent veteran backup goaltender Glenn Healy in to replace a stunned Mike Richter, who not only had been fabulous throughout the playoffs and during this series, but was far from the reason the Blueshirts were trailing 2-0 in Game 4.
For a while, Richter kept his mask on, possibly figuring that Keenan would reinsert him into the contest after having had sent Healy in as a form of a timeout to slow down the Devils. Eventually Richter learned that Healy was staying in the game.
Removing Richter was only Keenan’s first bold move. With his club not responding - four minutes into the middle stanza, the Rangers were being outshot 15-3 -- Keenan made the bold decision to bench defenseman Brian Leetch for long stretches.
However, sitting his 30-minute-a-night defenseman, and arguably best all-around player, was not enough for Keenan.
Mark Messier saw his ice-time scaled back. The defense pair of Kevin Lowe and Sergei Zubov was often passed over for the third pairing of Jay Wells and Alexander Karpovtsev. Craig MacTavish and Brian Noonan joined Leetch as spectators, as opposed to participants. And rugged fourth-liner Joe Kocur was double-shifted to inject energy and a physical edge back into the Rangers’ collective game.
The Rangers responded. Healy was stout in goal and kept the deficit at two goals. Then Stephane Matteau scored a power-play goal at 8:47 of the second period, and after a brutal start to the game, the Rangers trailed only by 2-1.
Steve Larmer, one of the few Rangers to play a strong game right from the first drop of the puck in Game 4, fed Messier behind the Devils’ net, and The Captain found Matteau alone in front for the score.
Though the Rangers picked up their play after Matteau’s goal and were able to generate more shots, the Devils’ defense was still stifling and Martin Brodeur was sharp between the pipes.
With the score still 2-1 in the third period, Healy and Brodeur traded big-time saves. Healy thwarted Claude Lemieux’s breakaway before making a clutch save on Randy McKay’s screened wrist shot. Brodeur made a pair of strong down-low stops on Kocur and Larmer.
Then at 13:18 of the third, the Rangers cracked and made a mistake that would ultimately seal their fate in Game 4. Healy and Karpovtsev converged on a puck behind the Rangers’ net. Because of miscommunication between the two, neither played the puck and New Jersey’s Valeri Zelepukin was able to swoop in, steal it, and wrap it into the unguarded net for a 3-1 Devils’ lead.
It was an unfortunate moment for the Rangers, and for Healy, who had been superb since being summoned to replace Richter. Healy did stop 13 of 14 shots, but it is the one that slipped away he remembered most following the defeat.
In the Rangers’ post-game dressing room, Richter and Leetch remained poised and professional about Keenan’s decisions, though the coach added to the surreal atmosphere by stating that Leetch had suffered an undisclosed injury during the game. A somewhat-bewildered Leetch denied that he was hurt, but the New York tabloids had themselves quite the off-day story in between Games 4 and 5.
The best-of-seven was now a best-of-three, and the Rangers once again had home-ice advantage by virtue of their victory in Game 3 in New Jersey.
Game 5, the all-important swing game of the series, now even two games apiece, was just two days away.