THE DRESSING ROOM WAS STILL. A FEW heads were slumped. Then New
York Ranger captain Mark Messier started to speak. He talked about
what a great opportunity New Jersey Devil Valeri Zelepukin and his
goal with 7.7 seconds left in regulation time had afforded the
Rangers. If they could go on and win the Stanley Cup now, if they
could tuck a Game 7 overtime victory into their portfolios, said
Messier, then this team would be remembered as truly worthy. Messier
talked and talked and talked, but the words were not as important as
the sound of his voice. The captain would not let his team sleep.
''I don't think there was a sense of doom in the room after the
late goal,'' Ranger defenseman Kevin Lowe said. ''More a sense of
disbelief. I mean, this was almost unbelievable.''
* So while the Madison Square Garden sound system blared the
Rolling Stones' 19th Nervous Breakdown -- in the movie biz, this
would be known as foreshadowing -- in the cocoon of their dressing
room Messier and Lowe and goalie Mike Richter lent voices of
optimism. This would be 7 the hard way. The 18,200 fans in the seats,
numbed by decades of heartbreak, might have been preparing themselves
for the worst, but the 1994 Rangers did not believe in the genetic
memory of failure. They would not look back 54 years or even 7.7
seconds. They had some hockey left in them. There was so much to do
in the remaining minutes before the first overtime would begin. Fix
sticks. Repair any psyches that might have been bruised. There was no
time to even think about what an extraordinary Eastern Conference
finals series they had been playing against the Devils.
If styles make fights, they also make a hockey series. The Rangers
were a high-tempo, in-your-face-shield team, applying pressure all
over the ice like their Edmonton Oiler progenitors. (Messier was one
of seven Rangers who had been on Stanley Cup winners with Edmonton.)
The Devils were the counterpunchers, cautious and clinging. They had
appropriated the defensive style new coach Jacques Lemaire had used
previously with the Montreal Canadiens, sending in a lone forechecker
to sniff around the offensive zone before dropping back to join four
teammates in a mid-ice choke hold.
But the trappings surrounding Rangers versus Devils were even more
compelling than the neutral-ice trap. This series was a clash between
the city and the suburbs, to which a generation of Ranger fans had
fled; a battle of the first-place (Rangers, 112 points during the
regular season) against the second-place (Devils, 106 points); this
was, in short, the real showdown for the Stanley Cup. The Vancouver
Canucks versus Toronto Maple Leafs Western Conference finals?
Fuhgeddaboudit! For two weeks the Hudson River was the epicenter of
the hockey universe.
Rangers-Devils also offered an element found in most epics --
symmetry, which is why the Garden crowd seemed so morose as it
awaited the Game 7 overtime. In Game 1, Devil forward Claude Lemieux
had tied the score with 43 seconds left in regulation, and teammate
Stephane Richer had won the game at 15:23 of the second OT when
Ranger defenseman Jeff Beukeboom got caught pinching in the attacking
zone. Almost two weeks later the history buffs in the upper reaches
of the Garden were experiencing a case of deja voodoo.
To New York fans it was incomprehensible that the outcome of this
series should have come down to another, final sudden death. Given
that the Rangers had defeated the Devils in all six of their
regular-season meetings, it seemed that this series should have been
short, if not sweet. It seemed that every game should have been like
the second, which Messier had all but won in the first 73 seconds
with two thunderous hits and a goal. But it was not to be so easy.
In Game 3 the Rangers had had to sweat, but New York forward
Stephane Matteau had scored in the 86th minute, muscling a shot past
New Jersey's brilliant goalie, Martin Brodeur, in double OT to give
the Rangers a 2-1 series lead.
For Game 4 the Devils were without Bernie Nicholls, their most
potent center, who had received a one-game suspension for
cross-checking New York's Alexei Kovalev across the neck and shooting
a puck in his face. But, despite Nicholls's absence, the game quickly
turned sour for the Rangers. New York's Brian Leetch had injured his
shoulder in Game 3, and on the first shift of Game 4, he hurt it
again. Brian Noonan strained knee ligaments, Adam Graves suffered a
laceration to his thigh that required 10 stitches, and Messier, who
already had sore ribs, sustained a hip flexor injury.
Coach Mike Keenan sat Leetch for stretches of six and eight
minutes, and Messier's plentiful ice time was trimmed slightly, even
though the Rangers were trailing by only one goal midway through the
second period. ''I put Leetch back out, and he went down on a
two-on-one and missed the net by six feet,'' Keenan said. ''That's
not Brian. But there was a certain confusion among the players
because they all weren't aware of the injuries.''
Keenan only muddied matters more in the postgame press conference
after the 3-1 defeat: He hinted about injuries to Leetch and Messier
in that Sociology 101-speak of his. Of course nothing with Keenan is
exactly what it seems, but the last thing any hockey coach does is
come clean about injuries. Had Keenan benched his two stars and
merely used the hint of injury as a smoke screen? Was his lineup
juggling a motivational tool?
The Rangers' lethargic 4-1 loss at Madison Square Garden in Game 5
-- New York was now one game from chapter 54 of The Curse of the
Rangers -- sort of shot holes in the motivation theory. New York
needed a lift, and Messier gave it to them in writing.
Actually the tabloids did the writing. On the morning of Game 6,
they trumpeted Messier's guarantee of victory that night. This is
what Messier said: ''We know we have to win it. We can win it. And we
are going to win it.'' This hardly constituted a double-your-money-b
ack offer. It was more a conviction than a prediction; it was
definitely not Joe Willie Namath before Super Bowl III putting his
name on the line. But Messier, with his death stare,
body-by-Schwarzenegger and the will he wears on his sleeve, is a
mythic figure. When he shared his feelings, it was like from his
mouth to the hockey god's ear.
The Devils took a 2-0 lead into the second period at the
Meadowlands and looked invincible until Keenan took a timeout midway
through the period. He didn't say anything for most of the 30 seconds
because sometimes the eloquence of silence is the best coaching
device. The timeout was one of the defining moments of this game, but
New Jersey also undermined itself. The Devils, seemingly blinded by
the light at the end of the Lincoln Tunnel, lost their way,
abandoning the trap for the Rangers' up-and-down style, which
produced a flurry of two-on-ones for New Jersey but no third goal.
If a coach with Keenan's track record actually needed redemption
-- after Games 4 and 5, the general opinion was, yes, he sure did --
then it came in Game 6. There was the timeout, of course. But Keenan
also had dressed Doug Lidster for the suspended Beukeboom (Beukeboom
had run Richer from behind in Game 5 and was forced to sit out one
game) and received a splendid performance from the 10-year veteran,
who had played just six games in the past three months. But, most
important, Keenan gave the 21-year-old Kovalev all the ice time he
could handle, playing him at his usual center spot on the Rangers'
No. 2 line and later double-shifting him as a wing with Messier.
Kovalev converted a Messier feed at 18:19 of the second period to cut
the Devils' lead to 2-1. As New Jersey defenseman Ken Daneyko said
afterward, Messier hadn't even played particularly well until that
point. It didn't matter.
As Ranger fans checked their guarantees, Messier scored a natural
hat trick in the third period -- his third goal finding an empty net
with 1:45 left as the Devils, trying to take extra advantage of a
power play, had deployed six attackers against four. The moment was a
bit of New York magic, as compelling as the gimpy Willis Reed taking
the court for the Knicks against the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 7 of
the NBA Finals in 1970 or Reggie Jackson's three homers on three
straight swings in Game 6 of the '77 World Series. ''Game 6 was an
incredible individual feat by Mark,'' Keenan said. ''Historically,
among the greatest ever.''
Messier offered no guarantees before Game 7. And as the Rangers'
eyes met his in the dressing room after Zelepukin had broken through
on a goalmouth scramble following 59 minutes, 52 seconds of Devil
futility, Messier simply reminded them how much sweeter a victory in
overtime would be.
New York dominated New Jersey in the first OT, outshooting the
Devils 15-7. The Rangers were not leaving much to chance, let alone
to the Fates. As the team was getting ready to go out for the third
double overtime of the series, Matteau spied Ed Olczyk, one of the
New York players not dressed for the game. ''O.K., this is the
story,'' Olczyk said. ''Matty, in his broken English, said, 'C'mon
Eddie, give me some luck, give me some luck.' I put my face real
close to his stick. Now it came out that I kissed his stick, but I'm
not sure if I actually did.''
At 4:24 of the second overtime Matteau, the Game 3 hero, rattled
the puck in off Brodeur's stick. This was an ugly goal, hardly
befitting a noble series. But if you saw it through the prism of 54
years of Ranger misery, this was a thing of unspeakable beauty.
OVER AND OUT It took seven grueling games and some sudden-death magic, but the Rangers finally exorcised the Devils
THE DRESSING ROOM WAS STILL. A FEW heads were slumped. Then New