The 1994 New York Rangers carried the longest championship drought was the longest in the NHL, and there was no sign of better things to come when the season began. 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. A couple more good win streaks before the season was over sewed up the Atlantic Division title and the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
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 the chance for a title.
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 Madison Square Garden on back-to-back days, each by a score of 6-0. Three days later, play resumed 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.
New York and Washington dropped the puck in MSG on May 1. 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. 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.
It was a nearby rival that awaited in a battle for the Eastern Conference title. The New Jersey Devils were 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.
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 would ultimately win him three rings and get a Finals appearance as late as 2012.
The Devils’ 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.
The Rangers did what they had to do in Game 3 and that’s get a 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 Los Angeles 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.
Vancouver was the opponent in the 1994 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 there 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.
The Canucks 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.
The city of New York was planning on celebrating a championship after Game 5. 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. And Vancouver forced a Game 7.
We were back in MSG on Tuesday night, June 14th. The Rangers jumped out to a 2-0 lead, got the momentum of the series turned around and 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 1994 New York Rangers hoisted the Stanley Cup.