If ever the bromide “Turnabout is fair play” had relevance to a hockey rivalry it was amply demonstrated by the annual war game on ice played by the Rangers and Islanders between the months of March 1993 and April 1994.
And if a single game could crystallize the enmity that stirred adrenaline between Manhattan and Uniondale, it took place at Nassau Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum on March 5, 1994.
Or, to put it in space terms, once the 1993-1994 season got underway the Rangers rocket began soaring to the National Hockey League stratosphere while the Good Ship Islanders started to capsize in a horrendous, homestretch as Winter came to an end.
(THE MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: Before the ’93-’94 campaign got underway, I nurtured some doubts about whether the Isles could follow their sensational playoff upsets of April 1993. Too many shakeups were taking place in the Uniondale front office. Young general manager Don Maloney was making many changes for the worse on what had been a winning machine. Henry Ford once sagely opined, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The Islanders inexperienced front office boss obviously didn’t heed the legendary carmaker’s advice. Or to put it as harshly as possible, the high command confused “dismembering” with “fixing,” but more on that later.)
To better understand how this 180-degree turn in two teams’ fortunes could develop, we must turn the calendar back to April 2, 1993 when Pierre Turgeon’s overtime goal at Madison Square Garden greased the skids on the Blueshirts who soon haplessly slid out of a playoff berth. Meanwhile, the Isles not only were in — like Flynn or Healy, as in Glenn, if you will — but en route to one of the most shocking upsets in big-league hockey annals.
“We worked our way in,” said venerable Isles coach Al Arbour of his club’s accomplishment, which included booting out the Rangers. “I’m proud of our players. The last 30 games of the season were all like playoff games for us. We won a lot of tough games.”
While the Seventh Avenue Skaters went about the business of rebuilding a team which once again would be playoff-caliber, the Isles marched into the post-season like General William Tecumseh Sherman’s Civil War troops storming through Georgia. Their first obstacle — Washington’s Capitals — was pushed aside in six games. Only a Dale Hunter hit-from-behind cheap shot on Turgeon in the decisive Game 6 marred the general jubilation on Hempstead Turnpike.
(THE MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: Immediately after the stirring victory, I was in the Isles’ dressing room interviewing players for our SportsChannel post-game show. Never in my entire reporting career — more than half-century doing dressing room interviews — had I experienced such a solemn, totally depressed clubhouse after a rousing win. The near-destruction of their best forward, Turgeon, reduced the victors to total consternation, and anger. From my viewpoint, I couldn’t see how they could proceed successfully to the next round. Plus, I located the new Commissioner, Gary Bettman, and told him that nothing but the stiffest punishment should be inflicted on Hunter. The NHL’s boss and I would debate his handling of the affair for many months thereafter. As usual, he won.)
Bettman suspended Hunter for 21 games but that hardly was balm for a wound that would have long-time negative effects on Turgeon’s career. “No punishment can undo Hunter’s actions,” explained Bettman, “or erase the competitive loss by the Islanders.”
The Commissioner alluded to the second playoff round which pitted the Islanders against the two-time Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, led by Mario Lemieux. So heavy were the odds against Arbour’s brigade that Newsday columnist Jim Smith predicted that — without the wounded Turgeon — the Islanders would not win a single game.
Likewise, the Pittsburghers agreed, until the start of Game 1. In no time at all, the Champs found the Islanders to be a surprisingly worthy foe even with an obscure forward named Greg Parks replacing superstar Turgeon. Forth and back, back and forth the competition remained intensely keen with the Isles stunning the Penguins to the core with their tenacity. With the series knotted at two games apiece, Derek King of the Isles put it both hopefully — and accurately: “I think this series is going to go seven games. And I think the seventh game is going to be a real doozie.”
(THE MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: What I found interesting about King’s comments was that Derek, as a rule, was never given to boasting. He was a low-key, witty guy but never one given to bombast nor braggadocio. Thus, when Derek made such a comment I paid closer attention. That said, beating the two-time champs still would require more than confident comments. Plus, if it ever came down to a seventh game, the match would take place at Pittsburgh’s Igloo, never a place of warm hospitality.)
Almost as if it came off the pages of a fictional novel, the Islanders saga perfectly followed an un-real script. Trailing three games to two, the Isles were restored to playoff life led by the exuberance and impudence of Darius Kasparaitis. They knocked off Pitt in Game Six in Uniondale while Kasper drove Mario Lemieux absolutely nuts starting with a gratuitous right cross to the chin, a wild elbow — that missed — and a lusty check right into the net. In the end, the 7-5 New York triumph did the virtual unthinkable, eventually lead to a Game Seven.
Among other labels, the most appropriate for the rubber game was “Igloo Upset.” But it didn’t come easy. Neither team scored in the first period, which indicated that Healy was in top form and Tom Barrasso at the other end was no slouch either. Ulf Samuellson put the home club ahead early in the middle frame but Steve Thomas put Arbour’s men back in the game with less than two minutes left in the second. Turgeon was back in the lineup but limited in ice time.
To compensate Arbour employed David Volek, a healthy scratch often during the regular season and a spare part so far in the playoffs. Whaddya know! Volek put the Isles ahead for the first time at 6:10 of the third and three minutes later Benoit Hogue made it 3-1 on a slap shot that fooled Barrasso. Poof! Just like that, The Igloo had become morgue-like.
(THE MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: In those days The Maven was a very superstitious camper. Working from a booth in the Igloo’s end arena, I was trying to figure what position I should stay in so that the Isles could protect the lead. However, my producer told me that it was time to move down to the studio to prepare for the post-game show. The Penguins were pressing when I got the call and it made me nervous; but I knew I had to head down. Just as I got up to head downstairs, Ron Francis scored for the Penguins. There were almost four minutes remaining as I went to the studio; more nervous for leaving my good luck spot than ever. As I reached the outskirts of the studio, I walked past a room where injured Islanders such as Patrick Flatley were watching the game on a small tv monitor. Yikes! Rick Tocchet scored for Pitt with a full minute remaining; the game, alas, was tied. Ugh! I blamed it all on my producer for forcing me to move from my “good luck” spot; plus I blamed myself as well for not just staying there until we had secured the win. Was I nuts!? Yeah, but that’s just the way I was in those crazy days.)
The Islanders were dismayed by Pittsburgh’s tying goal, but hardly crushed. “It was an eerie feeling in the room after the third period,” Thomas remembered. “But if you gave every guy a lie detector before the overtime, they’d tell you that no one on our team expected to lose.” Effervescent Benny Hogue seconded the motion. “Somehow,” Hogue added, “we felt that we’d find a way.”
If you had owned the world’s biggest vise, you could not have squeezed more thrills into a 5:16 span of the sudden death that followed. By this time, Pitt had out-shot the visitors by a more than two to one margin and the odds heavily favored the defending champs. There was only one obstacle for them, Healy. The bagpipe-playing goaltender had to be outstanding to preserve the tie; and he was flawless. Then, it happened:
Ray Ferraro collected the puck at center ice and instantly realized that he had a three-on-one break along with King on his left and Volek on the other side. After skating over the blue line, Ferraro deposited a pass to Volek who released a one-timer that flashed past Barrasso. For a split-second time appeared to stand still in a mummified Igloo. Suddenly, a frenzied collection of Islanders mobbed the jubilant Czech hero and then shared their grateful sentiments with the other hero — Healy.
(THE MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: Watching the finish from our SportsChannel studio, I was in a state of disbelief for about a half-minute after Volek’s goal; or, until I got word to hustle over to the visiting dressing room. That’s when a personal journalistic “miracle” happened to me that was roughly equivalent to the “miracle” of the Isles’ win. Along with my cameraman, I managed to squeeze into a spot just to the right of the dressing room door. Meanwhile Ginger Killian, the Islanders P.R. boss, was artfully blocking the door to ensure that nobody in the media horde got in until she got the high sign from Al Arbour. Suddenly, without any notice, as Killian had momentarily turned away, Ray Ferraro opened the door, ostensibly to see if any of his family was there. Precisely at the moment that Ray stuck his head out I stuck my microphone at him and began what emerged as one of the three best interviews of my entire career. By the time Ginger had realized what had happened, she was helpless to stop my interview. And since Ferraro had always been one of the best talkers among the players, he gave me the kind of stuff you only get once in a lifetime. It was a priceless moment in my broadcasting career.)
“Everything I asked of my players,” Arbour concluded, “they delivered.”
The joy that accompanied the win nevertheless was tempered by two not-so-pleasant bits of news. One was that Turgeon had not fully recovered from the Hunter cheap-shot and the other was news that the NHL had just done the winners a disservice. The league announced that the Islanders would not be given a respite before the next round began. After the Friday night celebration in Pittsburgh, they would have to immediately fly to Montreal and start the third playoff round on a Sunday afternoon to please the networks.
Injuries had decimated Arbour’s lineup. Travis Green was out with an eye problem while Turgeon, Flatley and Marty McInnis were less than 100 percent. While there now was talk of the Nassaumen reaching the Stanley Cup Finals, it was not to be. The 4-1 opening game loss in Montreal, was followed by a pair of heartbreaking overtime defeats. The Isles briefly stopped the bleeding with a 4-1 win in Game 4 but lost 5-2 as the Habs marched to the Final and an eventual Stanley Cup.
(THE MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: All in all it was a very satisfying season — amazing in some respects — and certainly a bang-on one in terms of our telecasts. As much of a downer was the loss to Montreal had been, all signs indicated that with the current lineup that the Isles would be a contender for a year or two.)
Ditto for the Rangers who were determined to redeem themselves in the 1993-1994 campaign; all of which leads up to the March 5, 1994 showdown and explicitly why the Islanders wound up on a treadmill to oblivion while the Rangers would win their fourth Stanley Cup.
The chief protagonists on the Isles side included their inexperienced general manager Don Maloney and number one playoff hero Glenn Healy. In one of the franchise’s all-time blunders, Maloney chose to minimize Healy’s value and decided that Ron Hextall would be more useful to the Islanders future. Hextall’s best years — mostly with Philadelphia — were in the past but he did have experience, a Bill Smith-type feistiness and an almost genetic hatred for the Rangers.
Maloney’s roster upheaval began with the acquisition of Hextall from Quebec in a complicated deal while losing Healy to the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in the Expansion Draft. Defenseman Jeff Norton was dealt to the San Jose Sharks while the rights to back-liner Jeff Finley were dealt to Ottawa. Most stunning of all, however, was the manner in which Healy was claimed by Tampa Bay and almost immediately dealt to the Rangers, of all teams!
(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: As far as Hextall was concerned, I’ve always felt that he had only two outstanding games all season after he came to the Islanders. The first was an exhibition affair with the Rangers. While the contest itself was meaningless, the goaltender won the hearts of Isles fans after a Rangers goal. Instead of leaving well enough alone, Ron reached for the puck out the net and fired it at the head of the Blueshirts scorer. The fact that he just barely missed the target didn’t really matter. It was that fiery spirit that enthralled the spectators and the fact that he was audaciously shooting at the Rangers. The other noteworthy game was during the final week of the season when he almost singlehandedly beat the Lightning in Florida to put his club into the playoffs. But the consensus from Day One on was that Maloney never should have allowed Healy to leave. The results confirm that assumption because, when all was said and done, Hextall was a failure as an Islander.)
While Maloney was re-designing the Islanders, Neil Smith relentlessly was converting his Rangers into a powerful sextet. With Mike Keenan as the bench dynamo and Mark Messier displaying what had once been his Edmonton-type leadership, the Blueshirts were off and running toward the top of the NHL. By the beginning or March 1994, there was no question that the Seventh Avenue Skaters had become a Stanley Cup threat while it appeared very likely that the Islanders actually would miss the post-season.
If the Isles enjoyed any solace heading into the March 5th encounter on the Island it was their continued dominance of the Rangers in Uniondale. Heading into the fateful match, the Blueshirts record at the Coliseum was a dismal 0-12-3. Their last victory had been accomplished on October 28, 1989.
Certainly, the prospects were bright for Keenan’s club and, conversely not so hot for Arbour & Co. On the previous night (March 4), the teams had tied, 3-3, at The Garden but Hextall looked like a sieve once more. Many observers wondered about the starting goaltenders. Or, as the New York Times put it: “Will Arbour come back with Hextall who gave up three weak goals in the first period before being replaced. Will Keenan start Mike Richter, or will he give the nod to Glenn Healy, the former Islander who hasn’t started against his old team in four games this season?”
(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: By this time in the season it had become apparent beyond a shadow of a doubt that Hextall — as an Islander — was a mistake. On the other side, Healy had proven to be an able aide to Mike Richter. Which only showed just how strong the Rangers had become in goal while the Islanders had been mediocre in that department.)
Sure enough, Keenan opted for Healy while Arbour stuck with Hextall. In the end, neither move proved to be fortuitous. As for the rivalry, make no mistake the disparity in the standings hardly diminished the heat. Right off the opening face-off the Islanders Brad Dalgarno gashed the Blueshirts Adam Graves just below the left eye while Dalgarno inexplicably escaped without a penalty although Graves had a simple explanation: “It’s just part of the game.”
The wound hardly affected Graves who potted the game’s first two goals; the first at 10:47 of the first period was a wrist shot from the slot and the second a conversion of a rebound from defenseman Kevin Lowe’s initial drive. Graves also got even with Dalgarno later in the tilt with a not-so-subtle slash.
As for wounds, Healy soon would suffer hurt feelings after erroneously wandering from the net to clear a loose puck. Healy missed, Benoit Hogue followed up and scored. Furious, Keenan signaled Healy to return to the Rangers bench. After just a little more than 11minutes of the game, the Rangers coach had seen enough of Healy and unceremoniously gave his back-up the hook. Glenn hardly kept his displeasure to himself and when he reached the bench the coach and goalie exchanged words.
Keenan: “There was no discussion whatsoever. Glenn asked if he was coming out because of the mistake he made and I didn’t say one word.”
Healy: “I offered just a kind ‘hello’ to Mike! I don’t play for my coach; I play for myself and my teammates.”
For a time it appeared that the Isles supremacy over the Rangers in Uniondale would hold; especially with a 4-3 lead. But Arbour needed a better game from Hextall than he had received the previous night and it was not to be as the Rangers rebounded to tie the count, 4-4. Finally, with only 63 seconds remaining in the third period the visitors had possession on a power play. Taking a pass from Graves, point defenseman Sergei Zubov fired at Hextall but the puck caromed off the leg of Kasparaitis and into the net.
The faltering Islanders win streak over the Blueshirts at the Coliseum was ended. At this point in time all that coach Arbour could hope for was a playoff berth, which did materialize in the final week of the season. However, it proved little solace once the post-season began. As luck would have the Rangers and Isles met in the first playoff round and in no time at all — just four games — it was over and the Isles were out.
(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: What mattered on the Islanders side was that the March 5th defeat was symptomatic of a team in a tailspin. In all the years that I had been doing the SportsChannel Islanders games, I never experienced such a hopeless quartet of games because of the Rangers overall power and the Islanders ineptitude — with the accent on Hextall. Letting Healy go to the Ranges was a Maloney mistake for which he could never atone.)