Only on the rarest of occasions will a single playoff-game result not only in long-term effects on both hockey clubs but actually inspire one team’s moves — in this case, the Rangers — that would eventually lead it to win a Stanley Cup.
It wasn’t evident at the time but the Rangers ‘6-5 postseason victory over the Islanders on April 13, 1990 did more than merely provide the Blueshirts with their first playoff series victory over the Nassaumen in more than a decade, but its fallout would inspire major long-term changes on both sides of the Manhattan-Uniondale fronts.
Right off the bat, Roger Neilson’s Rangers sextet proved that his general manager, Neil Smith, had completed a couple of moves that not only solidified Smith’s job, long-term, but also confirmed that the general manager did right by Rangerville in hiring enigmatic Roger to run the bench. After all, before Neilson came to The Apple there was some question as to whether he was just an idiosyncratic — but wise — fellow or just another hockey nut case. In due time, Roger proved very, very intelligent and no cashew at all.
Better still, Smith’s reputation was further enhanced by a late-season trade for sharpshooter Mike Gartner that not only would directly impact the series-clinching game, but also would have major reverberations right up to — and including — the strategic franchise-turning season of 1993-1994.
The player exchange — completed on March 6, 1990 — was one of the most fortuitous in New York sports trading history, baseball, football, basketball or hockey for that matter. Smith dealt forward Ulf Dahlen with a 1990 fourth-round pick to Minnesota in exchange for the speedy Gartner plus a 1990 fourth-round pick and future considerations. While Dahlen enjoyed what, at best, could be called a modest NHL career, Gartner’s performance as a Ranger went off the charts and would eventually lead right up to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.
(THE MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: The beauty part of the deal for the Rangers at the time Smith consummated it was that Minnesota superficially appeared to have made a smart move. After all, Dahlen once had been the Ranger’ first choice — seventh overall — in the 1985 Entry Draft in which Wendel Clark was picked first overall. What’s more, in his first full season with New York,Ulf scored 29 goals and 23 assists for 52 points in 70 games. Some thought that a First All-Star nomination was in Ulf’s future. It turns out that a 700-goal career was in Gartner’s career, not Dahlen’s.)
While speed and radar-type shooting were among Mike’s major assets it was the manner in which he utilized his jackrabbit movements and synchronized them with his blazing shot that made him special. In time, Gartner would become the first Ranger to score at least 40 goals in three consecutive seasons — 1990-1991 to 1992-1993 — and was selected to his sixth All-Star Game in 1993. During that midseason contest he scored four goals and was named the All-Star Game’s most valuable player. He also won the 1991 and 1993 Fastest Skater competition.
As far as his Rangers contributions would evolve, Mike set the tone late in the 1989-1990 season for what would develop into a Hall-of-Fame career by scoring twice against Philadelphia in his New York debut game. In his final dozen games of the season — including the Flyers’ match — Gartner netted 11 goals and had five assists; good for 16 points over just 12 games. He became an instant favorite from the blue seats on down to the ice-level pews.
In one of the all-time modest understatements about his success on Seventh Avenue, Mike explained, “I like to think I’m a fairly dangerous player when I have the puck.”
During his early days wearing the Blue Shirt, Gartner savored a seven-game goal-scoring streak from March 12 through March 27, helping the Blueshirts clinch the Patrick Division and the Presidents’ Trophy. And that was just a lovely portent of things to come.
Meanwhile, in Uniondale, life was not so beautiful on the Islanders’ side. Not only were they on the brink of playoff elimination, but the remnants of general manager Bill Torrey’s four-Stanley Cup dynasty were crumbling about him. Goaltending had slipped from flawless to flawed. The defense was about average at best and even with future Hall of Famer Pat LaFontaine in the lineup, there wasn’t sufficient blitz on attack. Torrey’s Draft picks such as Brad Dalgarno — picked one ahead of Dahlen — were not panning out as they had in the glorious Mike Bossy-Bryan Trottier Era.
(THE MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: Make no mistake, on the SportsChannel side, where I was working Isles games, we hadn’t given up on our team. Brent Sutter had emerged as a genuine leader while foot soldiers such as Randy Wood, Brad Lauer and David Volek were expected to bolster the attack. But the real shocker to all of us was Arbour’s stunning roster move. In this decisive final game. the already-legendary Bryan Trottier watched his last game as an Islander from the press box. No, it wasn’t an injury; he had been scratched in favor of younger players. Perhaps even worse, there were strong rumors floating around the press room that the relationship between LaFontaine and ownership was not so hotsy-totsy. In time those rumors turned into reality when the following season’s training camp opened without Patty.)
Prior to the opening face-off everybody, including The Maven, seemed to be on edge. I still was upset about the radio war that Chris Russo and Mike Francesa were waging against me. On top of that the series had been filled with controversy, fisticuffs and assorted bloodshed that sometimes pitted friends against former friends. Neil Smith vs. Al Arbour was a case in point and by this time Smith had become a bundle of nerves. Making the playoffs with a commendable effort was just fine for the rookie NHL GM, but if his season was to be marked a genuine success a series victory of the Islanders would wrap up Neil’s gift just fine. In this postseason, at least, that would really be all Smith needed to please ownership.
The melodrama that unfolded on the ice hardly made it easier on the Rangers’ general manager’s metabolism. Just when his club seemed to have built a victory cushion, the Blueshirts would falter and nothing Neilson tried would relieve the tension.
“We played a kind of a nervous game,” said Roger. “And as it went along we became a worried team.”
Rivalries will do that. Tensions that had begun building with the opening game’s histrionics hardly abated in Game 5. Revenge was on many players’ minds, but none more than veteran Rangers defenseman Ron Greschner, who was the only still-active player who had skated for Blueshirts coach Fred Shero when in the 1979 playoffs when the Rangers upset a mighty Isles club with a six-game victory in the Stanley Cup semifinal.
“These games can be scary,” Greschner allowed, “but it doesn’t get any scarier than we made in this one.”
(THE MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: In order to win, the Islanders needed a big game in goal and got neither from the combined efforts of Mark Fitzpatrick and Glenn Healy. Actually, we had expected the very promising Fitzpatrick to become a star because he did have the basic tools, but his career was ruined when he was later stricken with a rare blood disorder that caused swelling in his muscles, joints and tissues. At first Healy was considered a back-up pick-up and nothing more. But he would soon become a Nassau Coliseum favorite, highlighted by the 1992-1993 season. Ironically, Healy later wound up on the Rangers — with a Stanley Cup ring no less!)
As for the game, it appeared that — with a 5-2 lead heading into the third period — the Seventh Avenue Skaters had a rout on their hands. In the first four games the Rangers had outscored the Isles 10-3 in the middle periods and in this one they scored three times in the second. For the MSG lads, variety was the spice of scoring — one shorthanded; one on the power play and the third at even strength.
But Islanders defenseman Wayne McBean and forward Randy Wood trimmed the Rangers margin to one giving Smith, Neilson and assorted other Blueshirts a good case of the heebie-jeebies. “I couldn’t believe what was happening,” said defenseman James Patrick who arguably was the most dominant player in the series apart from Gartner.
Soon the irrepressible Rangers fattened their lead to 6-4 when Gartner completed his hat trick. His 45-foot slapshot rocket beat Healy at 11:44 of the final session. In the end, that would prove to be the winning goal and further underline Mike’s value to the Rangers.
To the dismay of the Garden Faithful, the Islanders were not finished. Patrick Flatley scored with 3:07 left in the third, turning it into a one-goal game once more. “The consequences of us losing at home in The Garden to the Islanders when we were the heavy favorite made it even more tense,” Neilson revealed.
(THE MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: At this point we could only dream about an Isles series victory. If only LaFontaine had not missed Games 2-4 and Jeff Norton had not be out in Game 4 it would have been different. Both LaFontaine and Norton each contributed an assist in the finale which was about as much as we could have expected of them at this point in time. But there were no alibis on the Islanders’ side. Every player knew that this was a war game on ice and that there would be the wounded whose absence would hurt. Privately, going back to the Devils’ upset of the Islanders in the 1988 playoffs, LaFontaine had complained that Torrey didn’t supply enough “policemen” to protect him. This might also have been a factor in the contract dispute that would become a black cloud over Patty’s exit from Long Island.)
As the clock wound down to the game-ending buzzer, the Isles mounted a final assault that resulted in a mad scramble the Rangers’ defenders hung tough and, in the end, there were no more goals. It was 6-5 for the Blueshirts, elevating them to the Patrick Division Final and playoff bragging rights over the Nassaumen for the first time in 11 years.
“We’re certainly breathing a lot easier now,” concluded Neilson who accurately echoed his players’ sentiments. Or, as his boss, Smith, put it about his feelings: “Relief, relief — tremendous relief.” Neil was speaking both personally and for his roster at large since the Rangers series win meant that they had advanced farther in the playoffs since 1986.
On the losers’ side, coach Al Arbour offered no alibis or apologies. “We gave it our best shot,” he said. “We were not outplayed; we just didn’t have enough.”
The Hat Trick Hero, Gartner, was as succinct as possible in his post-game explanation of his three-goal onslaught. “It just happened for me,” he said, “and I can only say that I’m very, very satisfied.”
(The Maven’s Thoughts: No matter on which side individual media members might have been, just about every reporter was happy for Gartner. Over the years he always was kind with his time, pregame or postgame. Over the seasons, Mike proved to be one of the top gentlemen-scholars of The Game. Even Islanders fans had to commend his clutch performance although it pained all of us on the losing side. After all, if you worked for SportsChannel, which I did at the time, losing to the Rangers in a series finale was a very unusual occurrence but one we would get used to very quickly. On the other hand, revenge for the Isles was only three years away — and was it ever sweet.)
Now for the short-term and long-term reverberations of this series-clinching game:
• ISLANDERS: The loss proved to be a major turning point for Torrey’s squad. Not only was Trottier shockingly benched in Game 5, but the general manager bought out the last two years of Bryan’s contract. Pittsburgh’s GM Craig Patrick signed Trottier two weeks later to add much-needed experience to his talented young team. In 1990-1991, the Penguins won their first Stanley Cup and Trots proved to be an asset.
Meanwhile, LaFontaine’s irritation with management became a festering wound once the 1990-1991 training camp began. The ace produced more shockwaves when he left the team for four days because of unhappiness with his contract which had one year and an option year remaining. It was the beginning of the end for LaFontaine in Uniondale and by October 1991 he had become a member of the Buffalo Sabres in a blockbuster deal which brought Pierre Turgeon to the Isles. This, too, was a turning point trade that by 1992-1993 would prove a tonic for Torrey & Co.
• RANGERS: Despite Gartner’s heroics in the first round, he couldn’t lift his mates over his former team, Washington, in Round Two. The Capitals eliminated New York, four games to one, giving GM Smith food for trading thought.
For one thing, he knew that the victory over the Islanders may not even have happened had LaFontaine and Norton not been disposed of for a total of four games, not to mention the suspensions to Vukota and Baumgartner which took needed muscle away from Arbour’s troops.
As good as Gartner proved to be in the regular season, Mike was of little help in the 1991 playoffs when Washington wiped out the New Yorkers in the first post-season round. What Neil needed most of all was what amounted to an NHL version of a superhero and on October 4, 1991 he got that man; but at a high cost. Bernie Nicholls, Steven Rice and Louie DeBrusk were traded to Edmonton and in return the Rangers received a player who would become a bigger hero in The Big Apple than even Wayne Gretzky; Mark Messier donned the Blue Shirt.
Yes, Messier, gave the citizens of Rangerville a boost but the chants of “1940, 1940” still could be heard through the 1993-1994 season even with Messier captaining the team. By this time Mike Keenan had become coach and the intense mentor came to dislike Gartner’s “soft” game and minimized Mike’s contributions to the team. Keenan demanded that Smith stock his lineup with more gritty players. Just before the March 1994 trade deadline Smith obliged. He traded Gartner to the Toronto Maple Leafs for Glenn Anderson and a Draft pick.
(The Maven’s Thoughts: Gartner, despite a long and storied career, never came close to winning a Stanley Cup. Before becoming a Ranger, Anderson already had five Cup rings — earned with the Edmonton Oilers. Glenn would win a sixth as he developed into a prime player for Keenan as the Rangers took the title in the Spring of 1994. Nevertheless, in the Spring of 1990 the hero on Seventh Avenue was Mike Gartner and that never should be forgotten.)