It was anarchy, British Columbia-style. The streets of downtown Vancouver were choked with cars full of horn-honking revelers waving white towels and inching along in giddy gridlock. Imparting a formal air to the uprising was a gaggle of college women in ball gowns who, having ditched the graduation party at their hotel, minced in high heels down West Georgia Street chanting, "Rangers suck!" At the corner of Hornby and Robson, constable Pat Smith, ostensibly directing traffic, high-fived passersby.
That the celebrators' team, the Vancouver Canucks, had yet to beat the New York Rangers for the Stanley Cup concerned these people not at all. It was Saturday night, and after trailing in a series three games to one for the second time in these playoffs, their beloved Canucks had once again risen from the dead to force a seventh game.
They knew that, going into Madison Square Garden on Tuesday, the Canucks had far less to lose than the Rangers, just as they knew the answer to the riddle: When is the home-ice advantage a disadvantage? A: When you are the Rangers, cursed and Cupless, lo, these 54 years and coming home to play for the grail against a younger, fresher foe.
This series had had the look of a five-gamer a week earlier. After winning three of the first four games, New York was expected to squeeze the remaining breath from its dispirited opponent at the Garden in Game 5 last Thursday. Preparations were made for a metropolis-wide bash: David Letterman planned to have all the Rangers on his show; Mayor Rudy Giuliani invited the team to Gracie Mansion for a victory barbecue. The city's tabloids also found themselves caught up in the optimism: TONIGHT'S THE NIGHT! prophesied the front-page headline of last Thursday's New York Post; its back page blared THE CUP STOPS HERE.
Indeed, the Cup did stop at the Garden...for 12 hours. And indeed, it was the night...to add another tearjerking chapter to the Rangers' sordid history. The celebration got off to a false start midway through the first period, when Esa Tikkanen cranked a 60-foot slapshot past Canuck goalie Kirk McLean, triggering a chain reaction of events, all of them bad for the Rangers. The crowd erupted; Vancouver's Sergio Momesso crosschecked Brian Leetch, whose on-ice bodyguard, fellow defenseman Jeff Beukeboom, attacked Momesso, which led to Beukeboom's ejection.
Tikkanen's goal never showed up on the scoreboard. Linesman Randy Mitton ruled Stèphane Matteau off-side. The ruling proved erroneous, as outraged Ranger fans saw with their own eyes: The operator of the giant video screen obligingly reviewed the play in super-slow motion, as if he were screening the Zapruder film for the Warren Commission. With Beukeboom's muscle missing and Ranger goalie Mike Richter not on top of his game, it was downhill from there for New York. Three minutes into the third period, the Rangers trailed 3-0.
Cue the theme song from Rocky. Ranger defenseman Doug Lidster floats a feeble shot toward the net, which somehow eludes McLean: 3-1. Quiet New York leader Steve Larmer chips a rebound top shelf: 3-2. Captain Mark Messier's tight-angle wrist shot ricochets off a Canuck skate and past McLean: 3-3.
Enter the dragon. Serial failure of the magnitude achieved by the Rangers begets its own mythology: New York fans speak of "the dragon," which lurks beneath the Garden, a sentinel against good fortune. Twenty-nine seconds after Messier's goal, Vancouver defenseman Dave Babych beat Richter on a soft goal, and the Rangers were finished.
After two more Vancouver goals had completed the 6-3 loss, New York coach Mike Keenan pointed a finger at his interviewers. The Rangers' success had "seduced" the media, whose euphoric predictions had "rubbed off on the club." Of the distraction created by rampant rumors that he had already agreed to become the Detroit Red Wings' coach and general manager next season—"a done deal," according to Sunday's Detroit News—Keenan made no mention. And he found a different scapegoat after New York's 4-1 defeat in Game 6 in Vancouver, cramming nine complaints about the refs into a 10-minute press conference.
Keenan's real problem was tired, old legs. The Ranger roster features nine players over the age of 30 and four more who are 29. As the teams headed east, predictions that a longer series would favor the Canucks were being borne out. Rubbish, said Messier. With today's conditioning and nutrition, the age factor "doesn't make any difference," he said.
Of the excruciating pressure now on the Rangers, Messier was dismissive, saying, "This is a tremendous opportunity to win the Cup at home. What more could you ask for?"
The Rangers may have found their legs, may have beaten Vancouver in Game 7 on Tuesday and slain the dragon at last. Or maybe the revelers in Vancouver would have one more night to celebrate.