HIGH AND MIGHTY After a slow start, the Rangers earned the Presidents' Trophy for finishing atop the league standings

June 21, 1994

ON OCT. 19 THE NEW YORK RANGERS PLAYED as if they were bored,
losing 4-2 at Madison Square Garden to the expansion Mighty Ducks of
Anaheim in a game with so little hitting it could have been rated G.
Two days later, on their practice rink at Playland, in Rye, N.Y., the
Rangers yawned through seven minutes of drills until Mike Keenan
decided that an attitude adjustment was in order. Keenan, a coach of
big words and larger gestures, broke his hockey stick over the
crossbar of one of the goals. He was not being environmentally
friendly. He was not being friendly at all.
The Rangers tramped to the dressing room for a high-decibel
dressing down, and then Keenan sent them back onto the Playland ice,
where he skated them -- starts and stops, starts and stops -- until
they were exhausted. ''That was a 911 practice,'' New York goaltender
Glenn Healy said. ''It could have put a mortal man in his grave.
There should have been telephones set up on each net so we could call
for ambulances.''
Of course, Keenan was supposed to be the dose of strong medicine
the Rangers needed. The 1992-93 season had been a nightmare as a 1-11
finish knocked New York out of the playoff picture. Defenseman Brian
Leetch played just 36 games because of injuries, and a feud between
captain Mark Messier and then-coach Roger Neilson caused deep
divisions in the dressing room. The team Keenan took over not only
wasn't on the same page, it wasn't in the same library.
''The way I perceived Mike, I knew we would have someone we'd have
to answer to,'' Ranger defenseman Kevin Lowe said. ''I'm a little
old-fashioned. I like that, someone who's going to crack the whip.
Mike's the type of guy who just won't stand for things.''
For those watching Keenan's outburst that afternoon, the air was
thick with premonition. New York seemed to have turned a corner. This
would go down in team history as Mike Keenan's Stick Save. ''I
remember talking to people there and saying that one day in the
spring everyone would look back on that practice as where it all
began,'' said Kevin McDonald, one of the Ranger publicists. ''From
that moment, the team would be on its way.''
Not exactly. Two days later the Rangers lost 4-1 on the road to
the second- year Tampa Bay Lightning. Leetch spent 15 minutes in the
penalty box, defenseman Sergei Zubov played as if he were wearing
sneakers, and goalie Mike Richter's record dropped to 0-4.
Six months later New York would win the Presidents' Trophy as the
best team during the NHL's regular season. Leetch would be hailed as
the most exciting defenseman in the game; Richter would be embraced
on Broadway; and Zubov, with 12 goals and 77 assists, would become
the first defenseman to lead his team in scoring the year it finished
first overall. The Rangers would win a team- record 52 games, amass
112 points, own the league's top power play, rank third in penalty
killing, and never lose a game while leading after the second period
or be shut out. New York played with such purpose that the legion of
1940 fatalists could hardly imagine what could go wrong in the
playoffs this time.
Nothing did. The 84-game grind now seems lost in the celebration
of a Stanley Cup, but the crack of Keenan's stick against the
crossbar that day really was the starting gun for the Rangers. After
the Tampa Bay debacle Richter went 17-0-3 -- breaking Davey Kerr's
54-year-old club-record unbeaten streak of 19 games -- while Leetch
had points in 16 of his next 19 games and Zubov in 10 of his next 14.

Keenan came to New York with a reputation as a goalie killer, as a
coach with a quick hook, but in fact he had nurtured more goalies
than he had destroyed. With the Philadelphia Flyers from 1984-85
through 1987-88, he had built up Pelle Lindbergh and then given Ron
Hextall all the playing time he could handle. With the Chicago
Blackhawks from 1988-89 through 1991-92, Keenan made Ed Belfour into
a top-notch netminder. Now, under Keenan, Richter finally emerged
from the long shadow of the departed John Vanbiesbrouck, who had been
a fan favorite. Even though Healy started the season 4-0 and Richter
was 0-4, the Rangers' commitment to Richter was genuine.
''I knew going in, Mike could be pretty demanding,'' said Richter,
whose 42 wins made him the first Ranger goalie since Ed Giacomin in
1968-69 to lead the NHL in victories, ''but all that he was demanding
was that I be better than I had been. He showed confidence in me --
and that made me confident.''
One of the first things Keenan showed Zubov was the stationary
bike. After getting married last summer, Zubov came to training camp
out of shape. During the season he pedaled to Vladivostok and back
without leaving the dressing room. Keenan had Zubov targeted for the
Rangers' minor league affiliate in Binghamton before that Tampa Bay
game, but Zubov somehow stayed with the big club even after the
ragged showing against the Lightning. Two nights later he assisted
on the game-winner against the Los Angeles Kings, and from then on he
was spectacular.
Leetch was in fabulous shape to start the 1993-94 season, but he
needed reconditioning when it came to his game. He had won the Norris
Trophy in 1991-92 as the league's best defenseman before being beset
by shoulder and ankle injuries last season. Keenan instructed Leetch,
despite his impressive resume, to stand his game on its head: He was
to think defense first, before jumping into the attack. And Keenan's
way of delivering the message wasn't to leave smiley-faced little
reminders stuck to Leetch's locker.
''Mike's way of reminding you is sitting you on the bench,''
Leetch said. Peter Andersson, who left in one of Ranger general
manager Neil Smith's five deals at the trading deadline, took
Leetch's spot on the power play early for a while, and there was no
louder wake-up call than that. ''There was one game ((a 6-4 victory
against the Quebec Nordiques on Oct. 13)) where Brian turned to me on
the bench and said, 'I'm ready,' '' Keenan recalled. ''I said,
'Really ready?' He said, 'Yes.' From that point on, he was.''
By Nov. 13, in the midst of a 14-game unbeaten streak, the Rangers
had the best record in the league -- a position they would never
relinquish. Adam Graves had 12 goals during the streak, on his way to
a club-record 52 for the season, and Steve Larmer, who was acquired
by New York in early November from the Blackhawks, was already making
his nightly contribution of making everyone around him better. ''It
had been a rough start, but having Mike as a coach was like a dating
process,'' Healy said. ''There were some rough dates at first, but in
that streak we came around.''
There were signature games, including a 1-0 road win against the
Washington Capitals before Christmas with Healy in goal. After the
All-Star break in January, the Rangers defeated the formidable
Pittsburgh Penguins 5-3 and 4-3 and then added a 3-1 beating of their
toughest intradivision rival, the New Jersey Devils. Despite a
history of second-half fades, New York would not stumble this season,
in part because Keenan would not let up on his players.
For half a period against the Boston Bruins on Feb. 23, when
Alexei Kovalev was hogging the puck and taking shifts only slightly
shorter than a Russian novel, Keenan kept waving him back onto the
ice whenever he skated to the bench. The 21-year-old Kovalev was
uncertain if he was being punished or rewarded. A few games later
Keenan moved Kovalev from right wing to center, giving him more room
if not more ice time. The young star from Russia blossomed. On March
5, when they beat the New York Islanders in a regular- season game at
the Nassau Coliseum for the first time since October 1989, the
Rangers had finally hip-checked their last psychological barrier.
But the NHL season is the world's longest exhibition schedule. As
the Rangers rolled merrily through the final month of the season, New
York's management wouldn't allow itself to be lulled into a false
sense of security. ''Neil ((Smith)) and I discussed it, and we
weren't going to be fooled about first place,'' Keenan said. ''I'd
already gone through that in Chicago ((the Blackhawks were first
overall in 1990-91 but lost their first-round playoff series)), and I
wasn't going to be fooled again. We needed more size, strength and
depth for the playoffs. We had a commitment to Messier and Leetch
that we would do everything to win.''
Smith wound up turning over one fifth of a first-place team at the
trading deadline on March 21 (page 32). In exchange for speedy
forward Tony Amonte, the Rangers acquired bulk and grit from Chicago
in forwards Stephane Matteau and Brian Noonan. For prospect Todd
Marchant, New York gained experience in 35-year-old center Craig
MacTavish, who came from the Edmonton Oilers. In the most intriguing
deal of the day, Smith moved Mike Gartner, the sixth player in NHL
history to score 600 regular-season goals, to the Toronto Maple Leafs
for Glenn Anderson, who began the playoffs as the third-leading goal
scorer in Stanley Cup history. Among them the new, Cup-ready Rangers
had 28 rings. ''We were joking that day, 'Yeah, they must really like
the makeup of our team,' '' Healy said. ''They only changed it 20
New York finished the regular season with an 8-2-2 record in its
last 12 games and was well prepared for the playoffs. On the
September day that Keenan met his new team, he had shown the players
a tape of the 1986 Mets' World Series parade. This, Keenan told his
charges, could be yours. Nine months later the Rangers understood a
lot had to come down on their heads before the ticker tape would.