He didn't just clinch the series. By scoring a wraparound goal
in overtime to win Game 5 of his team's Eastern Conference
semifinal series against the New Jersey Devils on Sunday, Adam
Graves of the New York Rangers also put an end to the bloodshed.
If you weren't playing with a metal plate screwed into a
recently fractured bone in your left ankle (Devils left wing
Dave Andreychuk); if your nose hadn't been broken for the second
time in two weeks (Rangers defenseman Ulf Samuelsson); if you
weren't playing with a shiner or didn't have sutures in your
face or weren't nursing some injury (virtually every other
player), well, dammit, you just weren't trying.
The Battle of the Hudson was a typical Stanley Cup playoff
series in that the stakes--and sticks--were higher than in the
regular season. This tournament is the roughest, toughest and
the most intensely played in sports. The postseason is a time to
grow a beard, test your threshold of pain and, if you're a New
Jersey player, stand around in your opponents' crease.
Never follow a Devil through a minefield. Do not ask him to do
the hokey pokey. These guys have a penchant for putting their
feet where they don't belong. In three consecutive games against
the Rangers, New Jersey had key goals disallowed when video
replays showed someone with a forked tail on his jersey had
preceded the puck into the blue semicircle in front of the net.
The Devils' ill-timed trespasses in Games 2, 3 and 4 were the
most obvious sign that this team, the best in the conference
during the regular season, was off its game. After their 2-0
victory in Game 1, the Devils' faith in their trapping defensive
system seemed to erode. They lost confidence, and the next four
May 18, 1997
The Rangers, often defensively feckless during a season in which
they finished with 86 points--18 fewer than the Devils--have
been airtight since the start of the playoffs, yielding 15 goals
in 10 games. Why hadn't they played this way all season? "It
gets boring," says New York defenseman Brian Leetch. What the
Rangers had done this year, according to New York center Wayne
Gretzky, was similar to a pattern his old powerhouse Edmonton
Oilers teams once observed: Have fun during the regular season,
defense be damned, "then buckle down in the playoffs."
Those rare occasions when the Rangers didn't buckle down
provided goaltender Mike Richter with opportunities to
demoralize the Devils. Richter stopped all but four of New
Jersey's 182 shots he faced in the series. Many of the saves
were memorable, none more so than his stop on right wing John
MacLean in the final minute of Game 2. Richter moved out to
challenge MacLean, then collided with him, losing, in order, his
goal stick, his blocker and his glove. As the puck bounced
dangerously around the crease, the partially denuded goalie
flopped onto his back and finally slapped the disk away
"When we do score," said forlorn Devils defenseman and captain
Scott Stevens, "it doesn't count." Stevens made this glum
observation after Game 4 in New York, a 3-0 loss in which the
Devils' frustration came to a full boil. It was as if the
Rangers had suddenly taken on the disciplined persona of the
Devils and the Devils had become Slapshot's Charlestown Chiefs.
With nine minutes to play, New Jersey winger Bill Guerin
received a misconduct penalty for screaming at referee Mark
Faucette and missed the rest of the game. Guerin's beef?
Faucette had failed to penalize Rangers forward Esa Tikkanen
after Tikkanen leveled goalie Martin Brodeur in a goalmouth
collision. (Replays showed that the manic Finn had been nudged
into Brodeur by Stevens.)
Eight minutes later and with the action taking place 80 feet
down the ice, MacLean took a two-handed swing at New York wing
Niklas Sundstrom, snapping a bone in Sundstrom's forearm. Then,
in the game's waning moments, Devils designated brawler Reid
Simpson came onto the ice spoiling for a fight. He ended up
trading punches with Rangers defenseman Alexander Karpovtsev,
who, despite his inexperience as a pugilist, landed a solid
right to Simpson's face. As the dejected Devils left the ice,
center Doug Gilmour and defenseman Lyle Odelein flipped off the
jeering Madison Square Garden crowd.
No less shocking than New Jersey's loss of composure was the
NHL's decision two days later not to suspend MacLean, whose
slash ended Sundstrom's season. The decision, it was widely
speculated, was a make-up call for the league's allowing New
York captain Mark Messier to walk after he attempted to behead
Gilmour in Game 2.
It had been Gilmour's assignment to shadow Messier's good friend
Gretzky. Gilmour had done his work well, holding the Great One
pointless in Game 1. With New Jersey outshooting the Rangers
16-1 late in the first period of the following game, Gilmour
skated toward Messier, who dropped him with a vicious and
unpenalized cross-check to the face. Just 26 seconds later, with
Gilmour on the bench tending to his traumatized mug,
Gretzky--having lost his shadow--set up Leetch for what turned
out to be the game-winning goal.
To hear Messier protest his innocence after that game, a 2-0
Rangers win, was to appreciate his considerable talents as a
thespian. The hit on Gilmour? Strictly self-defense. In fact,
Messier said, he had no idea that the fellow coming toward him
was Gilmour. Funny how things worked out after that--Gilmour was
a nonfactor the rest of the series.
In a related development, Gretzky flourished, opening the
scoring in Game 3 and setting up the second of Tikkanen's two
goals. The Great One's most memorable play of the night did not
result in a goal. Carrying the puck toward New Jersey's blue
line early in the game, he wheeled back into the neutral zone,
then put a 40-foot, no-look, backhand pass on the stick of
winger Russ Courtnall. Though Courtnall didn't score, Gretzky
delivered a message: I have my best stuff tonight. Your trap
isn't going to cut it. New York won 3-2.
Gretzky, who had six goals and 11 points in the first two
rounds, looks sharper than he has in years. After spending most
of his career playing in Edmonton and Los Angeles and taking
three-hour flights to reach most of the cities of divisional
opponents, he is thrilled by the reduced travel in the East.
Less time in transit has meant more time with his wife, Janet,
and their three children. "I've really enjoyed the city," he
says. Has he availed himself of Manhattan's cultural offerings?
"I enjoy taking my boys to Yankees games."
How about the theater? "We've only been to one play," he adds, a
bit sheepishly. "We took the kids to see The Nutcracker."
The title of that Christmas perennial also applied to an
incident in the first period of Game 4. As Gretzky skated into
the Devils' zone, Stevens doubled him over with what appeared to
be an inadvertent stick blade to the groin. Gretzky got another
ache early in the next period, slamming into the end boards
behind Brodeur after being hooked by defenseman Scott
Niedermayer. Following the collision, the Great One lay on the
ice with eyes closed, his arms akimbo. After a moment he rose
and skated to the bench. On his next shift he went the length of
the rink, dunked a cross-ice feed from Courtnall for New York's
second goal, then slammed his stick against the plexiglass in
With all due respect to Gretzky--and to Tikkanen, who scored
four goals against the Devils--no Ranger was more valuable in
the series than Richter. After Graves's overtime heroics in the
Continental Airlines Arena on Sunday, New York coach Colin
Campbell was asked to discuss his team's system. After a pause,
Campbell, who outcoached the Devils' Claude Lemaire in the
series, replied, "Our system was mostly Mike Richter."
Awaiting the Rangers in the conference finals are the
Philadelphia Flyers, who until last season played their home
games at the Spectrum, outside of which a young, aspiring
goaltender named Mike Richter used to stand, shivering and
waiting to catch a glimpse of his idol, Hall of Fame goaltender
Bernie Parent. In 1985 Richter, who grew up in nearby Flourtown,
Pa., and starred at Northwood Prep in Lake Placid, N.Y., wanted
badly to be drafted by the Flyers, who had planned to select him
in the third round. But the Rangers took him in the second
round. After turning away 46 of 47 shots in Sunday's 2-1
clincher, Richter discussed why he is a better player now than
he was when New York won the Stanley Cup three years ago. This
season, he said, the Rangers' dressing room--newly populated by
Gretzky, among others--has been "a great place to learn. You're
learning from the best in the world."
The Flyers will be favored nonetheless when the conference
finals begin on Friday at the CoreStates Center. Philadelphia is
bigger, younger and stronger than New York--as were the two
playoff opponents the Rangers already dispatched. In New York's
favor is the Flyers' unsettled goaltending situation, in which
neither Garth Snow nor Ron Hextall is the unquestioned No. 1
netminder. The Rangers have the game's hottest goalie. The
Rangers have two guys, Gretzky and Messier, who can smell
another Cup. The Rangers have buckled down.