From our recent special issue, we look at No. 22 on our list of the best teams in NHL history.
By John Grigg
There are few places in the world that know how to party like New York City. And in 1994, the Big Apple celebrated the New York Rangers’ first Stanley Cup since 1940 with the biggest party the NHL has ever seen.
“Three generations of Rangers fans had not seen a championship,” said TV analyst Glenn Healy, the 1993-94 team’s backup goaltender. “You can imagine the thirst for them to celebrate the championship…from the parade to Radio City Music Hall, it was an incredible ride.”
The Cup was seen being walked down Broadway Ave., on The Late Show with David Letterman and in police helicopters over Manhattan. Motorcades of New Yorkers followed the Cup to parties after it had been noticed riding shotgun in someone’s car.
The trophy went through so much in ’94 that the rules surrounding its stewardship were changed and the Hall of Fame’s ‘Keepers of the Cup’ were created. No longer were players simply handed Stanley and told to go on their merry way, the Cup now had 24/7-chaperones who guarded it like a newborn baby.
“It totally changed from that moment on,” Healy said.
But the party was never a sure thing. The Rangers had won the Presidents’ Trophy that year, but had done the same two seasons prior when they were unceremoniously bounced in the second round of the playoffs. A Cup was no sure thing.
New coach ‘Iron’ Mike Keenan was known for being hard on his players and questions surrounding Keenan’s treatment of the players began as early as four games into the pre-season when he scheduled two-a-day scrimmages. The perceived poor treatment continued during the early part of the regular season, when Keenan benched pretty much everyone at one time or another.
“They have to learn the difference between being an average performer and being a top performer,” said an unapologetic Keenan at the time.
Trips to the doghouse weren’t sole domain of role players, either. Hall of Fame defenseman Brian Leetch felt Keenan’s wrath, as did the longest-tenured Ranger, James Patrick; so did good-guy Ed Olczyk and uber-talented sophomore blueliner Sergei Zubov, who went on to lead the team in scoring (the first defenseman to do so for a first-overall team).
“I guess that’s a possibility,” Keenan said when asked if his tactics were creating scared, uptight players. “But it’s better to find out who can handle these situations in October than in the springtime.”
The Rangers began with a 4-5-0 start and Keenan was quoted as saying it’d take until Christmas before the players got used to his system – and presumably him as well. But it didn’t take that long. By Nov. 14 the Blueshirts were 12-5-2, in first place, atop the league in power play and penalty-killing percentage and they already had nine shorthanded goals.
“One of the things Mike did so well as a coach,” reflected Adam Graves, who that season Keenan called the best left winger he had ever coached, “we won a lot of games in the first period that year because you knew you had to be ready to play from the drop of the puck, otherwise you weren’t going to play. He had a way of galvanizing the guys.”
General manager Neil Smith also did his part. One of Keenan’s main complaints early in the season was that the Rangers simply weren’t tough enough and too easily pushed around by bigger, grittier teams.
Looking back at it now, Graves doesn’t necessarily agree.
“We had a real presence and we were a big team back in those days,” he said. “Jeff Beukeboom, Jay Wells, Joey Kocur to name a few…and then our best player up front, Mark Messier, being probably one of our toughest guys.”
Nevertheless, Keenan felt the trading of Tie Domi and Kris King to Winnipeg the season before had left a huge hole, so Smith moved Patrick and Darren Turcotte to Hartford for gritty ironman Steve Larmer and noted pugilist Nick Kypreos. With Beukeboom, Kypreos and Larmer – whom Keenan had loved when he coached in Chicago – in the lineup, the Rangers were set to play a more Keenan-esque game.
New York went on a 14-game unbeaten streak (12-0-2) and matched the franchise’s best point total after 30 games with a 21-6-3 mark. By mid-December, goaltender Mike Richter had set a team record with a 20-game personal unbeaten streak. At the end of the season, he had posted a Blueshirts record 42 wins.
When the all-star break arrived, New York was firmly atop the league standings with 63 points and Keenan, for once, had little to gripe about.
“The best winning percentage, first in penalty killing, very close to the top in power play, the most shorthanded goals, the best goals-against average – you’d have to give them an ‘A’ based on those categories,” the coach said at the time. “And I’m a tough marker.”
After the all-star break the Rangers continued rolling, going 7-1-1, led by captain Mark Messier’s 18 points. But as the trade deadline approached, Keenan and GM Smith recognized that, as good as the team was, it wasn’t perfect. The Rangers were largely a veteran squad with 12 players aged 29 to 34 and Keenan had basically used three lines and four defensemen for much of the season. Smith, who had made 47 trades in his four-plus seasons as GM of the Rangers, went to work.
New York acquired four players at the trade deadline. Craig MacTavish and Glenn Anderson were brought in, bringing the number of Cup-winning ex-Oilers to seven – MacTavish, Anderson, Messier, Graves, Beukeboom, Kevin Lowe and Esa Tikkanen. As well, Stephane Matteau and Brian Noonan, another pair of former Keenan players, were acquired from Chicago. Among those on their way out, high-scoring speedsters Mike Gartner and Tony Amonte.
“For us, it was one of those things where we were in first place and people would have said ‘Wow,’ ” Graves said. “But as it turned out, with the grind and everything else, it proved to be the winning formula. You have to give a ton of credit to Neil Smith, he did a fantastic job in so many ways…great mix of youth and older veterans.”
Added Smith: “Larmer made us a great team for the regular season. The other moves made us a great playoff team.”
A shift from the wing to center motivated the mercurial Alex Kovalev and gave the Rangers the balanced attack they’d been looking for all season. Playing on a line with Larmer, the 21-year-old Kovalev went on a tear, scoring eight goals and 20 points in nine games.
“Kovalev played a vital role for us,” Graves said. “He grew so much throughout the whole season.”
With Messier centering the top line flanked by 52-goal man Graves and Leetch and Zubov patrolling the blueline with unrivalled mobility, the Rangers had one of the league’s deepest, most feared attacks heading into the post-season.
In Round 1 they rolled over their suburban New York cousins, the Islanders, with a four-game sweep. Leetch and Richter led the way. The high-scoring defenseman tallied eight points in the series. Richter had two shutouts, in Games 1 and 2, and allowed just three goals in total. The clean sheets were the first consecutive shutouts to start a Rangers post-season series since 1940, the year of their last Cup.
“Was it 1940?” Richter winced when reminded at that moment of the foreboding date. “Perfect.” With a 4-1 series win over the Washington Capitals in the second round, the Rangers ran their record to 16-3-2 since the trade deadline; everything was great on Broadway, even between coach and players.
“Keenan is probably the best coach I’ve played under,” captain Messier said during the Washington series. “He has a great ability to read a game from a lot of different perspectives.”
But suddenly the smooth sailing on Broadway ended.
The Rangers went up against the New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference final. New York lost Game 1 in double overtime before winning the next two contests with a 4-0 Game 2 shutout and a double-overtime Game 3 victory on a Matteau winner.
New York then lost Games 4 and 5 and was facing elimination when captain Messier stood up and guaranteed a win, publicly vowing to the hockey media, “We will be back for Game 7.” Down 2-0 late in the second period of Game 6, Messier set up a goal by Kovalev to get the Rangers on the board. He then had one of the best third periods in hockey history.
The Hall of Famer scored the tying, winning and insurance goals in the final stanza, cementing his reputation as one of the best leaders who ever strapped on the blades.
“He’s the greatest clutch player in the game,” said New Jersey Devil Bernie Nicholls after the game. “When the chips are down, I want Messier.”
Keenan added after the game: “That has to be one of the most impressive performances by a hockey player in the history of this league.”
If Game 6 was exciting, Game 7 at Madison Square Gardens was heart-stopping. For the third time in the series, a game went to double overtime after New Jersey’s Valeri Zelepukin scored with eight seconds to play in regulation time to tie the score 1-1. For the second time, it was Matteau who played the hero, scoring to send the Rangers to the Cup final and a date with destiny.
New York faced the Vancouver Canucks for the Stanley Cup. The teams had been separated by 27 points in the standings that season, but the dynamic Pavel ‘The Russian Rocket’ Bure had been on a tear with Vancouver and was backed up offensively by Trevor Linden.
In goal, the Canucks had a similarly hot Kirk McLean.
In what is considered one of the best finals of the modern era, just two goals separated the squads during the seven-game series. When it was all said and done, Leetch had won the post-season scoring title and MVP honors.
“You’d be hard-pressed to find a guy who put on a better show winning the Conn Smythe Trophy than Brian did controlling the games in all three zones,” Graves said.
After 54 years, the pressure was finally off – and the party was on.
“It was almost surreal, the whole celebration,” Graves said. “Winning in New York after 54 years, it’d be tough to experience a greater feeling.”
This is an excerpt from THN’s special issue, Greatest Teams of All-Time.