WHILE TRYING TO EXORCISE THE CURSE, THE New York Rangers had
accumulated a flotsam of smaller curses over the last 54 years,
perhaps none so nettlesome as that represented by the New York
Islanders. But by the end of the Rangers' four-game sweep of the
Islanders in the first round of the 1994 playoffs, the rivalry was
diminished. ''This series hasn't been about the Islanders-Rangers
rivalry,'' said Islander forward Steve Thomas. ''Islanders-Rangers is
supposed to be excitement, two teams playing at their highest
Scoffed Ranger forward Glenn Anderson, ''It's not even a rivalry.''
Those were strong sentiments, which would have been unthinkable
before the start of the series. Nothing preyed on the apocalyptic
sensibilities of a Ranger fan more than the prospect of playing the
Islanders, who, to the disgust of the Broadway Blues' followers, won
four straight Cups from 1980 to '83. In the '93-94 regular season the
Islanders took the season series against the Rangers. And in 17
regular-season meetings against the Blueshirts at Nassau Coliseum
since March 1989, the Islanders had lost only once. ''The Rangers
quake when they play the Islanders,'' said Ranger goalie Glenn Healy,
who had spent the previous four years on Long Island.
If recent history weren't enough to buoy them, certainly the
Islanders would find inspiration in the fact that these playoffs
were likely to be the last for Al Arbour, the Isles' coach for 18
seasons, who had hinted at retirement several times during the year.
Alas, the retirement party for Arbour turned out to be funereal. The
Islanders scored only three goals in the series, only one of which
came from their top line of Thomas, Derek King and Pierre Turgeon.
They did not get their first goal until 35 minutes into the third
game, by which time the Rangers had scored 15 times. And most
telling, only once during the series did the Islanders hold a lead:
for 22 minutes during the early going in Game 4.
The ease with which the Isles fell tended to obscure several
strong individual performances by the Rangers. The most notable of
these was by Mike Richter, who opened the series with back-to-back
shutouts (by the tennislike scores of 6-0, 6-0) in Madison Square
Garden to become the first Ranger netminder to accomplish such a
double since Davey Kerr in, yes, 1940. ''There are enough bad omens
around,'' said Richter. ''It's nice to have a good one.''
During the series Richter stopped 87 of 90 shots, and his
performance finally made observers forget that 65-foot slap shot by
the Pittsburgh Penguins' Ron Francis in the 1992 playoffs, which
dribbled past Richter into the net and turned that series the
Arbour experienced his own goaltending difficulties against the
Rangers. In fact, with the Rangers holding a 6-0 lead in the second
period of Game 1, he pulled Ron Hextall, a gesture that would set the
tone for the series. When Arbour looked down the bench to summon
backup Jamie McLennan, he might have peeked through the glass
separating the two benches and spied an amused Healy, who had led the
Islanders to the conference finals the previous spring.
The Rangers had traded for Healy a day before last June's draft,
and while they were pleased with Healy, they were downright giddy
over their four most recent acquisitions: Anderson, Craig MacTavish,
Stephane Matteau and Brian Noonan, all of whom were brought in at the
March 21 trading deadline. In the Islander series that quartet
combined for 10 points.
The Islanders, frustrated by their failures in the first two
games, resorted to more primitive methods when the series shifted to
Long Island. Less than two minutes had passed in Game 3 when Islander
forward Benoit Hogue axed the left leg of Ranger forward Alexei
Kovalev. Later in the game Islander goon ^ Mick Vukota broke his
aluminum stick over Ranger defenseman Sergei Zubov's arm.
The scariest moment would come in Game 4, when Vukota opened a
nasty gusher above the right eye of Ranger defenseman Jay Wells
during a third-period dustup in front of the benches.
Surprisingly, such acts did not draw the ire of the Rangers. ''We
may have to take a punch or a slash,'' said Ranger enforcer Joey
Kocur, rarely one to endorse such a dovish stance. Instead of
retaliating, the Rangers methodically closed out the series with 5-1
and 5-2 victories. And for once it was the Islanders who were left
muttering to themselves, ''Curses.''
This is an article from the June 22, 1994 issue