With the Rangers trailing the Devils 3-2 and facing elimination in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference Finals back in 1994, Mark Messier had a message to deliver the day before Game 6.
“We’re going to go in there and win Game Six. We’ve responded all year. We’ve won games we’ve had to win. We know we’re going in there to win Game Six and bringing it back for Game Seven. We feel we can win it, and we feel we are going to win it.”
|Rangers captain Mark Messier celebrates the empty-net goal that capped off his remarkable hat trick on May 25, 1994. Messier's performance helped the visiting Rangers beat New Jersey and force a decisive seventh game at The Garden. |
When the words left Messier’s mouth, the reporters on hand at the Rangers’ practice facility in Rye knew they not only had their story, but boldfaced back page headline, as well.
Messier, who later admitted that he was just trying to boost the confidence of his teammates after two straight defeats at the hands of the Devils, had just placed the bulls eye directly on the front of his Rangers’ sweater, somewhere just below and center of the red “C”, which was the symbol of his captaincy. Mark Messier was either going to be ridiculed and mocked to no end if the Rangers failed to win Game 6, or he was going to be praised for his great leadership during the most trying of times if the Blueshirts extended the series with a victory at The Meadowlands.
No one -- not even The Captain himself -- could have predicted that Messier would author another, much more amazing, alternative.
The funny thing about the night of Game 6 on this date 15 years ago is that, despite Messier’s bold “guarantee”, the Rangers looked very much like the same team that had been thoroughly outplayed by the Devils in losing Game 4 by the score of 3-1 and the fifth game by a 4-1 final. The confident Devils were winning most physical battles, creating the better scoring chances, and were bottling up the Rangers with their suffocating neutral zone trap.
To make matters worse, for the third straight game, the Devils recorded the first goal of the night. Defenseman Scott Niedermeyer had his shot deflect off the stick of Rangers’ center Sergei Nemchinov and past goaltender Mike Richter at 8:03 of the first period to give the surging Devils a 1-0 lead.
Before the opening stanza was complete, New Jersey’s Claude Lemieux tipped a Niedermeyer shot into the cage for his seventh playoff goal at 17:32, and the Devils were up 2-0.
The Rangers could not get any traction in their game, and were clearly frustrated. New Jersey carried their mastery over the Rangers into the second period, but could not extend their lead past two goals because of Richter.
At the time -- and even now, 15 years later -- Game 6 is best remembered for what would come later on in the contest, with Messier turning in one of the greatest big-game performances in NHL history, while backing up his bold words of 24 hours prior. But what can not be overlooked is that if not for Richter’s sheer brilliance in goal, there would have been no comeback for Messier and the Rangers. Instead there could have been an ugly result and much talk about the Curse of 1940.
Though beaten on two deflections, Richter was steadfast in his will and play between the pipes that there would not be a third score against him, one that surely would have finished off a reeling Rangers’ squad.
When the deficit reached two, his teammates began to take more chances offensively, and as a result Richter faced four odd-man rushes over the first two periods of play. Richter denied all four of those prime scoring chances for the Devils.
At one point or another during the game, Richter flat-out robbed each and every one of the Devils big guns, from Stephane Richer to John MacLean, from Valeri Zelepukin to Scott Stevens, from Lemieux to Niedermeyer. All stoned by the Rangers No. 35.
Rangers’ head coach Mike Keenan called a timeout midway through the second period, but did not say a single word to his players. Down 2-0 and less than 30 minutes away from elimination, Keenan needed to regroup.
Keenan decided to move slumping young winger Alex Kovalev up to the top line alongside Messier and Adam Graves in the place of veteran Glenn Anderson. He also made a few other tweaks to the lineup, and decided to up the ice time of his top defenseman Brian Leetch and his partner Doug Lidster, who was playing in the place of the suspended Jeff Beukeboom.
Not much changed for the Rangers immediately after the timeout as New Jersey still controlled the play. But late in the second period, Messier and Kovalev worked some magic to get the Rangers back into the contest.
Messier stole the puck at center ice and burst into the Devils’ zone. He dropped the puck to Kovalev, who faked a slap shot, skated in a few strides, and then ripped a 30-foot shot past Martin Brodeur with just 1:41 left in the middle stanza to bring the Rangers within 2-1.
In the dressing room during the second intermission, Kovalev implored Messier to push the puck even more, to attack a Devils team that was showing its first signs of fatigue.
And attack they did. Playing with a renewed confidence, the Rangers began to force the issue offensively and impose their will on a suddenly-backpedaling Devils team early in the third period. It was also Messier’s time to take charge.
Kovalev skated over the blueline and found a streaking Messier with a pass in the slot. Messier flew by the defense and whipped a backhand shot between Brodeur’s left skate and the post, and just 2:48 into the third, the Rangers were even 2-2.
Had this goal and the assist on Kovalev’s score earlier been his only contributions on the night, Messier likely still would have been lauded for his great leadership and ability to deliver in the clutch, rallying his team back from a 2-0 hole. But The Captain was far from finished cementing his legacy in Game 6.
Nine minutes of nail-biting hockey passed before Messier struck again. With both teams skating 4-on-4, Leetch made a dazzling move to gain the zone before finding Kovalev with a neat pass. Kovalev hammered a shot on goal, which was denied by Brodeur. But Messier bulled his way past the back checking Bernie Nicholls and deposited the rebound into the net at 12:12 and, almost unbelievably, the Rangers were ahead 3-2.
A one-goal lead against a desperate Devils team was precarious, no matter that the Rangers had stolen the game’s momentum. Richter turned in more solid saves before Anderson was penalized for slashing with 2:49 left to play.
Those ghosts of 1940 had risen again. They would not go quietly. They -- as well as the Devils -- needed to be beaten back. And again it would be Messier that would handle the chore.
The Devils pulled Brodeur and were skating with a 6-on-4 advantage when Messier intercepted a MacLean pass and, without looking down the ice, scaled a 150-foot shot dead-center into the empty Devils net to complete the Hat Trick and put the Devils away 4-2.
In what was so symbolic of Messier the great leader, instead of standing at center ice to be mobbed by his teammates who were on the ice, he bolted to the team’s bench to share the moment with all of his teammates in a long group hug.
Messier had delivered in a way so few athletes have in any sport at any time in history. On a big stage, taking the responsibility of his team and placing it squarely on his shoulders, with no margin for error, Messier came through. All in attendance that night exited The Meadowlands with the knowledge that they had witnessed one of sports’ true great moments. And it had been authored by The Captain.
Now even in the series 3-3, the Rangers and Devils would head back to Madison Square Garden for a seventh and deciding game in this epic 1994 series. And more magic would await the previously star-crossed Rangers’ franchise.