Springtime In New York: The 1994 New York Rangers, Knicks & Yankees

1994 gave the Aristocracy Of New York a great sports run. The New York Rangers, the favored team of the city’s elites made a run to their first Stanley Cup in 54 years. The Yankees, after spending several years in the baseball wilderness, sent a message they were on the way back, even if a strike cut it short. And the one team that unites the city, the Knicks, came within a basket of the NBA title. Let’s look back on the events of ’94, with a special emphasis on what it was like in springtime.
The Rangers’ championship drought was the longest in the NHL, and there was no sign of better things to come. They’d missed the playoffs the previous year and even bringing in a respected coach in Mike Keenan didn’t give reason for anyone to believe a Stanley Cup run was in the offing. After nine games they were 4-5, but at the point the team took off. The next fourteen games produced a 12-0-2 record and after a loss stopped the streak, the Rangers immediately rattled off a 6-0-1 run. By the time the calendar turned to 1994, they were 26-9-3, and a couple more good win streaks before the season was over sewed up the Atlantic Division title and the #1 seed in the East.
Keenan’s team was led in scoring by Adam Graves and got great passing from the defenseman, in Brian Leetch and Sergei Zubov. They had depth, with five players outside the core getting 20+ goals. But the heart and soul of the New York Rangers was Mark Messier, the center who’d been the sidekick for Wayne Gretzky in Edmonton. Gretzky’s dominance was so complete that it could only be understood by comparing him across sports, to the Chicago Bulls’ Michael Jordan. Messier played the role of Scottie Pippen in Edmonton. Now he was the leader in New York and this was chance for a title.
The Jordan/Pippen Bulls were a thorn in the side of the Knicks, eliminating them each of the previous three years. In 1991 it was the first round. In 1992 it was the second round, a series that went seven games. In 1993 it went six games, but the defeat was gut-wrenching, as New York lost Game 5 at home after forward Charles Smith was blocked (or fouled depending on your point of view) several times on the game’s final possession going for the winning points. Chicago won the NBA title all three years, but with Jordan’s first retirement after the ’93 Finals, the door was open for Pippen to do his own version of Messier—or for New York to seize the moment and take over the East.
Pat Riley was in his fourth year as the head coach, after a history-making run with the Los Angeles Lakers during the 1980s, where he won four NBA titles (1982, ’85, ’87, ’88) and made the Finals in 1983 and 1984. Now he was trying to burnish his reputation by winning again. And his own star player was hungry for a ring. Patrick Ewing, the 7’0” center who’d led Georgetown to dominance in the early 1980s hadn’t found the same team success at the NBA level. Ewing averaged 25 points and 11 rebounds a game in ’94, and now he had a coach who could coax the most out of a supporting cast around him.
Along with Ewing, power forward Charles Oakley and John Starks, completed the team’s core. Oakley hit the glass, while Starks provided points and assists in the backcourt. After that, Riley used six players more or less equally, including two who are familiar to basketball fans today. Doc Rivers is now the coach of the Boston Celtics, while Hubert Davis is an analyst on ESPN’s College Gameday each Saturday. Rivers helped out in playmaking, while Davis was the team’s best three-point shooter. Smith was still a part of the team’s regular rotation, while power forward Anthony Mason hit the glass hard. Greg Anthony, the leader of UNLV’s 1990 national championship team, was an able floor manager and distributor, and Derek Harper chipped in further help from the perimeter.
The Knicks opened the season with seven straight wins and even though they later lost a December 17 game in Chicago, New York was 18-7 when the calendar turned. They took advantage of a soft schedule out west later in January and won six in a row. On February 20 they took their revenge on Chicago with an eighteen-point win over their nemesis. Towards the end of the month, Riley’s team hit its first real adversity. A tough scheduling run resulted in four straight losses, the last three at Phoenix, Denver and Houston, all teams that were playoff-bound in the West. But the Knicks answered with a 15-game win streak and treated the crowds at Madison Square Garden to wins over Chicago, Indiana and Cleveland, all playoff-bound, and a road win over Indiana. It wasn’t quite enough to get the #1 seed—Atlanta won a season finale game against Indiana that secured the tiebreaker, as both the Hawks and Knicks finished with 57-25 records.
The rebuilding in the Bronx had taken place under the watchful eye of general manager Gene Michael and Buck Showalter was the field boss. By the standards of even a few years later, this wasn’t the star-studded lineup we’ve come to expect from the House of Steinbrenner. Don Mattingly was winding down a great career, and while he could hit for average and get on base, a lot of the power was gone from his swing. On the other side of the infield, the Yanks had Wade Boggs, the Red Sox mainstay who’d left the team on bad terms and was now employing his precision hitting skills for the enemy. Boggs hit .342 in 1994, and his .489 slugging percentage showed he had some power to the alleys. Showalter’s power came from rightfielder Paul O’Neill and centerfield Bernie Williams, both of whom would be cornerstones of the dynasty in the later part of the decade.
Pitching was a problem, but not at the top. Jimmy Key won 17 games in a season that ended in early August. The closer was Steve Howe, remembered mostly for blowing numerous “last chances” when it came to his drug use and eventually being banned from the game. Howe’s repeated screw-ups and baseball’s repeated willingness to bring him back was immortalized in the police-action comedy The Naked Gun 2 ½, when actor Leslie Nielsen warned the villain—‘This is your last chance…and I don’t mean one of those Steve Howe kind of last chances. I mean your last chance.” Howe could still pitch in ’94, getting 15 saves with a buck-eighty ERA. Behind Key and Howe, Showalter mixed and matched and found ways to win games. In a stretch from April 19 to May 3, the played the soft AL West (everyone in the division was at least ten games under .500 when the strike hit on August 12) and went 10-5. The Yanks were only 2 ½ games back of Boston in the AL East.
The NHL playoffs started two weeks ahead of the NBA, and on April 17, the Big Apple hunkered down for an intra-city rumble. It was Rangers-Islanders. And it was also no-contest. The elites of the city crushed the peasantry, as the Rangers won their first two games at MSG on back-to-back days, each by a score of 6-0. Three days later play resume in Long Island’s Nassau Coliseum and the favorites closed it out with wins of 5-1 and 5-2.
Messier’s team got a week off while the seventh-seeded Washington Capitals fought and ultimately upset the two-seed Pittsburgh Penguins, meaning it would be the Caps that would match up with New York in the conference semi-finals, as the NHL re-seeded the bracket after the opening round. Between the end of the Islander series and the beginning of the Caps’ series, the Knicks got underway.
Riley’s crew would also stay close to home for the first round. The NBA first round was still a best-of-five affair at the time, and on a Friday night in MSG, the Knicks beat the Nets 91-80. They followed it up on Sunday with 90-81 win. That Sunday, May 1, was a busy one for the MSG employees, because the Rangers-Caps dropped the puck. The home team kept its offensive outbursts going with a 6-3 win, and followed it up two nights later with a 5-2 triumph. On Wednesday the 4th, the Knicks missed a chance to close out their series, dropping a one-point game in the Meadowlands, but they came back and sealed the deal on Friday. The Rangers went down to D.C., scored five more goals in Game 3 win, and even though they finally lost a postseason game in Game 4, the series was closed out back home with a 4-3 win.
The Knicks had an old nemesis ahead of them in the second round, as the Bulls loomed. It would be a series worthy of the hype and of the stakes. The Rangers had a nearby rival to play for the Eastern Conference title in the New Jersey Devils—the 3rd seed, but with a better overall record than division winner Pittsburgh. Rangers-Devils would prove to be one of the greatest series in NHL playoff history.
The Rangers faced another extended break, with nine days falling between the end of the Capitals’ series and the beginning of the battle with the Devils. The Knicks got the city’s undivided attention, and they won close home games in Games 1 & 2, 90-86 and 96-91. With a chance to drive in the dagger back in Chicago in Game 3, the Bulls’ Toni Kukoc hit a game-winning shot at the buzzer to steal a 104-102 win. The game was overshadowed by Pippen’s refusal to enter the game for the final play, angered by coach Phil Jackson’s decision to call the final shot for Kukoc. The acrimony in Chicago might’ve been fun for New York fans to watch unfold, but it became less so after the Bulls won Game 4 and evened up the series.
New Jersey took the ice in Madison Square Garden knowing it could match up with the conference’s top seed. Devils’ goalie Martin Brodeur was already becoming one of the best in the business, beginning a career that continues to this day. The offense didn’t have the depth or star power of New York’s, but they consistently lit the lamp, ranking 2nd in the NHL in goals scored. Scott Stevens distributed sixty assists from the center spot while Stephane Richer and Jon Maclean were the primary scorers on the wings. The first game of the series sent a message that fans were in for a classic. New York clung to a 2-1 lead in the final minute, when New Jersey’s Claude Lemieux scored. It went to double overtime and a goal from Richer stole the opener for the Devils. Home ice had changed hands, even though the Rangers came back with a must-win 4-0 triumph in Game 2.
One night after the Rangers evened up the series 1-1, the Bulls and Knicks resumed hostilities for Game 5 at MSG. A year ago in this spot Knicks fans were outraged at the lack of a call in the closing seconds. Now there would be a call and it would be Chicago’s turn to vent. Trailing by a point on the final possession, Hubert Davis went up for a 23-footer. Pippen contested the shot and it missed. A foul was whistled on Pippen and Davis won the game at the line. Phil Jackson drew a $10,000 fine for his critical remarks afterward. Most neutral observers were stunned, given the propensity of officials to swallow their whistle at the game’s most important moments. Whatever your opinion of the call, New York had clearly dodged a massive bullet and now had to cash in their chance. Even though they were beaten in Chicago for Game 6, the Knicks came back home and won the decisive game by ten points. The hurdle that was the Chicago Bulls was finally cleared.
Back on the ice, the Rangers did what they had to do in Game 3 and that’s get road win. It was another double overtime affair, with Stephen Matteau scoring the game-winner in the 3-2 final. But things quickly turned sour for New York, as New Jersey controlled play the next two games with consecutive wins of 3-1 and 4-1. New York had to go the Meadowlands for Game 6 with its season on the line.
It’s moments like this when leaders can become legends and Messier knew his moment. He stepped up and guaranteed the Ranger fans that they would see a Game 7. Guarantees have become overblown in the years since Joe Namath made history’s most famous guarantee before the Jets upset the Colts in the 1968 Super Bowl and then Riley resurrected the practice for the 1988 Lakers. But they’re not overblown when followed up with a moment the sports world saw on a Wednesday night in late May. The Devils were up 2-1 after two periods and with a defense and goalie like they had, the Finals were in their grasp. In the third period Messier scored to tie the game…he scored to give New York the lead…and he scored to add insurance. A third period hat trick backed up the guarantee and sent the series to Game 7.
With a pair of double-overtime games and an epic individual performance this series was already one for the books. Game 7 upped the ante. A tense affair throughout, New York led 1-0 and was literally seven seconds from a win, when New Jersey tied the game. We had overtime again. And we had double overtime again. For the second time, Matteau got to be a hero, scoring on a wraparound to win it 2-1 and at long last send the Rangers to the Finals.
Now it was time for the Knicks and they’d caught a break with #5 Indiana first delivered a mild upset of Shaquille O’Neal’s Orlando in the first-round and then beat Atlanta. The Knicks would have homecourt advantage for the conference finals, and just as they had against the Bulls, they won the first two at home. Just as they had against the Bulls, they lost the next two back in the Midwest. For Game 5…unlike against the Bulls, they failed to defend their home floor. In an individual performance for the ages, Indiana’s Reggie Miller, one of the best outside shooters in the history of league, lit up New York. With 25 points in the fourth quarter alone, Miller led the way to a 93-86 win. The Knicks would have to follow the same path as the Rangers—win a Game 6 on the road, and then come back home to close it out.
No one would ever accuse Riley’s Knicks of producing the kind of basketball orchestra the coach used to oversee in Los Angeles. New York won with raw physicality and defense. It wasn’t always pretty—come to think of it, it wasn’t ever pretty—but the team was nothing if not tough. It showed in moments like this, and they came up with a 98-91 win in Indianapolis, and then a closely fought Game 7, finally prevailed 94-90. The Knicks were in the Finals and the city of New York had a chance to sweep two championships.
While the Rangers and Knicks soared in the rarefied air of championship pursuit, the Yankees had a pretty good May themselves. On the first weekend of the month, Boston came to town. Key opened the series with a complete game win on Friday. On Saturday, the Yanks trailed 5-4 in the ninth, but Boggs helped haunt his old team. The last of his three hits was part of a ninth-inning rally and his pinch-runner eventually scored the winning run. Then on Sunday the offense had a power surge, hitting four home runs, two by catcher Mike Stanley and the three-game sweep left them a half-game out.
Showalter’s team used the Red Sox sweep as a springboard to a ten-game win streak that moved them into first place and the Sox eventually faded and were replaced by the Orioles as the principal challenger in the AL East. Baltimore came into New York two weekends after Boston had, and the Yanks won two of three and led the race by 1.5 games. The prospect of a strike loomed over the game, but the winning was back in the Bronx.
Vancouver was the opponent in the Stanley Cup Finals, and the Canucks were on an unlikely postseason run—although in the NHL this happens so frequently, it’s not really about whether they will be an unlikely run, but who will get hot at the right time. Vancouver was the #7 seed in the West, and had only one elite scorer, although right-winger Pavel Burel was at a level higher than elite, with 60 goals and 47 assists. They upset Calgary in the first round, and the conference’s eight-seed, San Jose, knocked out favored Detroit. Vancouver made the Finals by eliminating #4 Dallas and #3 Toronto.
The series opener was all-too familiar to New York fans. The Rangers led 2-1 with less than a minute to play…and allowed the game-tying goal and then lost in overtime. It was astonishing third time in eight games that they’d given up a tying goal in the final minute and they’d lost two of those three. But Messier’s Rangers calmly came back and played good hockey in Game 2, winning a 3-1 decision. Then they toyed with Vancouver in Games 3 & 4. The Canucks were spotted a 1-0 lead in Game 3 and a 2-0 lead in Game 4, before the Rangers took over both times, with wins of 5-1 and 4-2. Only one win separated them from that long-sought Cup and they had three shots to get it.
Houston was the nemesis in the NBA Finals and the Knicks would not have homecourt advantage against the team that was the second seed in the West. NBC, which televised the NBA at this time, had to have been thrilled that both top seeds, Atlanta and Seattle, had been eliminated. Not only did they get the nation’s #1 media market, but Ewing would go head-to-head with Houston’s Hakeem Olajuwon, giving the sport a great battle between two elite centers—and ones who had a history. Ewing’s Georgetown beat Hakeem’s Houston in college, back in the 1984 NCAA final. In that game, the postgame coverage failed to appreciate how good Hakeem had been in defeat, something that would be a foreshadowing of how coverage of this series would be handled.
Olajuwon would be the leading scorer for the Rockets in every game, as he exceeded his 21 ppg average for the season and averaged 27 a night in the Finals. While Ewing might have “only” scored 19 a game, he was a defensive force throughout, beating Hakeem on the glass, 87-64 for the series and averaging over four blocks a game. Houston won the first game, but a strong third quarter saved New York in Game 2 and the series would go to New York for the middle three games tied 1-1.
While the city awaited the Knicks’ return home, they were planning on celebrating a championship after Game 5 of the Cup series on June 9. The parade was even planned. What wasn’t planned was the Canucks coming out firing, and leading 3-0 early in the third period. As they had in the previous two games, New York came storming back and in a ten-minute span tied the score. But this time Vancouver had an answer with three more goals of their own in a wild closing period. Whenever a team leading a series 3-1 loses Game 5 at home it tightens the noose and shifts the pressure. Now New York had to either find a way to win on the road or face a winner-take-all home game no one expected to happen even days earlier.
The Big Apple’s mood had reason to get worse over the weekend. On Saturday night Vancouver forced a Game 7. On Sunday, Houston reclaimed homecourt advantage behind a big night from Olajuwon, who had 21 points/11 rebounds/7 assists and keyed a 93-89 Rockets win. Both championships were slipping away.
Game 7 of the Cup Finals was back in MSG on Tuesday night, June 14th. The Rangers jumped out to a 2-0 lead and got the momentum of the series turned around the crowd into it. Vancouver’s Trevor Linden responded with a shorthanded goal that stood ready to haunt New Yorkers if the Canucks could use it as a rallying point. Again the Rangers relied on their leader. Messier scored a goal for some insurance and even though Linden came back with a third period goal of his own, the Rangers hung on for a 3-2 win. The taunting chants the team long had to endure of “1940!”, a reminder of how long it had been for the franchise, were finally put to rest. Messier and the Rangers hoisted the Stanley Cup.
Now the Knicks had to try and complete the sweep. Oakley crashed the boards with ferocity in Game 4 and the team got a 91-82 win to even the series. Friday’s Game 5 was arguably the most unforgettable game in NBA Finals history. Not because of its caliber. It was a good game to be sure and behind Ewing’s 25 points/12 rebounds, the Knicks moved to within a game of the title. But the game was overshadowed by the televised car chase, as O.J. Simpson’s White Bronco was chased down by police officers, and setting the stage for the retired football star and announcer’s highly publicized and inflammatory murder trial.
The Finals returned to Houston on Sunday afternoon for the final two games. Game 6 usually presents the best chance for the road team to win in these spots—witness Dallas winning at Miami in 2011, or Boston not winning at Los Angeles in 2010—and the Knicks had their chance. They trailed 86-84 and got the ball to Starks on the final possession for a three-point shot that would’ve sealed his place in NBA history. One year earlier Chicago’s John Paxon had hit a trey in exactly this spot. Olajuwon was having none of it. He stepped out and got a piece of the ball. We were going to a Game 7.
Riley’s team played a good game in the finale, but winning a Game 7 on the road in the NBA—especially in the Finals—takes a lot more than good. Olajuwon had a 25/10/7 night and the dream died in a 90-84 Houston win. Painful though it was, no one could deny New Yorkers had as good a spring and early summer as sports fans could hope for.
The Yankees gave the city reason to hope for a third team to make their sport’s showcase event and possibly produce another victory parade. They went to Baltimore and won three of four, extending their division lead to three games. In late July they took an 11-game trip to the West to face the A’s, Mariners and Angels and went 10-1. The lead in the division was now out to 5.5 games, and it hit ten games by August 5. In the final week leading up to the strike—a point where a work stoppage was seen as imminent—they lost five of six, but still held the lead in any area it mattered.
No one was optimistic about much of the regular season being salvaged, but there was talk perhaps the postseason could be preserved. If it was held in its entirety, the Yanks had the AL East crown. They also had the best record in the American League overall, meaning they were safe if a partial postseason were picked up starting with the League Championship Series, or even just going directly to the World Series. The LCS option wasn’t radical for the time, because this was the first year of the three-division alignment for each league and the Division Series still a new phenomenon. Regardless, none of it happened and the season just ended there. The Yankees wouldn’t be able to give the city another championship, but they had given them a nice summer run to help sports fans wind down after the magnificent spring.