NEWARK, N.J. – Eighteen years ago, Mark Messier set the stage for one of sports’ most dramatic moments.
On the eve of the New York Rangers’ must-win Game 6 against the Devils in New Jersey in the 1994 Eastern Conference finals, Messier guaranteed his team would force a deciding contest back at Madison Square Garden.
The Rangers not only won, Messier backed up his boast with a hat trick.
Fast forward to now. The teams once more head to a Game 6, in New Jersey, with the Rangers—again the East’s top team—down 3-2, needing a win to stay alive.
That’s where the similarity ends.
There is no Messier in the Rangers’ locker room to will his team to victory after predicting it. And this time, New York really isn’t the star-laden team that ended the franchise’s half-century Stanley Cup drought back in 1994.
The Devils have shown repeatedly in this best-of-seven series they are just as good as their long-time, cross-river rivals. Their series lead is well deserved, having outplayed New York in all but a few periods.
The only game the Rangers dominated was Game 5, and the Devils won, 5-3, to take the lead in the series based on a strong start and a stronger finish.
Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur is the only player remaining from the memorable 1994 series. Now 40, he was the difference on Wednesday night in New York.
“I don’t see anything that is similar,” Brodeur said Thursday in a conference call. “I know if you guys look at it, it looks the same. But it’s different teams and a different way of playing the game. That’s 18 years ago. That’s a long time. I know I’m feeling a lot different. I’m feeling a lot more appreciative of what’s going on.
“Before, the Rangers were a good team when they beat us. We were not supposed to compete with them at all in ’94. They made these trades and they had all these big guys at the end, and they pulled it off in a dramatic way.”
Messier’s three Game 6 goals forced a Game 7 at Madison Square Garden, where Rangers forward Stephane Matteau beat Brodeur with a wraparound in double overtime to give New York a 2-1 win and the East crown. Brodeur was just a rookie at the time.
“But this time around, we feel we can play with them,” said Brodeur, who led the Devils to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup in 1995, some 13 months after Matteau’s tally. “It makes me feel a lot more comfortable going into these games coming up.”
Rangers coach John Tortorella downplayed the comparison, saying his players were not even thinking about it.
“Not to disrespect what happened,” he said, “but that has nothing to do with how we’re preparing, I guess, is the best way to put it.”
The Devils aren’t preparing with history dancing through their heads, either. New Jersey coach Peter DeBoer, in fact, said his only memory of the guarantee was that he still had hair 18 years ago.
Even Brodeur seemed stunned, saying the Devils were so isolated in the post-season in ’94 that he was not aware of Messier’s guarantee until questioned about it after the Rangers’ 4-2 win, a game in which New Jersey led 2-0 until late in the second period.
“I don’t know when he did it,” Brodeur said. “I think it was in the morning skate or something. It could have been the night before. But again, I don’t recall it having an effect on us at all. But I think at the end of the game, everybody made a big deal out of that. If he really said it, it’s a pretty gutsy thing to do.”
The Rangers seemed to find themselves in Game 5 after falling behind 3-0 in the opening 10 minutes. They tied the game early in the third on a fluky goal by Marian Gaborik, but they seemed to stop skating with the same intensity after that.
Devils fourth-line centre Ryan Carter scored with less than five minutes remaining in regulation and Zach Parise added an empty-net goal to cement the New Jersey victory.
Now, the Devils are in position to advance to their first Stanley Cup final since 2003 and a meeting with the Los Angeles Kings, starting next week. All they have to do is win on either Friday here or Sunday in New York, where they have already won two of three.
“I don’t think we’re looking at two chances,” said New Jersey forward Dainius Zubrus, who hopes to return to the Cup final for the first time since his rookie season in 1996-97 with Philadelphia. “We want to do it (Friday). We’re definitely not hoping to win, we want to win. We don’t want to go back to their building.
“It was a tough game. They played really well (on Wednesday), and we don’t want to be going back for Game 7. That’s for sure.”
The Rangers know what it is like to face a must-win game. They had to win the final two contests against Ottawa in the opening round, including Game 6 on the road. They also had a Game 7 against Washington in the second round.
“It’s a do or die, almost like a Game 7,” said Rangers forward Ruslan Fedotenko, who has won Cups with Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh. “We have been there many times, and I feel like we know what we need to do and we will do it.”
The biggest thing is to keep the puck out of the net. New Jersey, shut out in Games 1 and 3, has scored nine times in the last two games, with seven beating Henrik Lundqvist and two coming with the goaltender pulled.
“We can’t put more pressure on ourselves. We always want to win,” Lundqvist said. “You always want to play a desperate game. (But) you don’t want to go out there and do too much and be too excited. You need to find a good balance emotionally, and just go out there and try to play as well as you can.”
Kind of like how Messier and Co. did 18 years ago.