The Waiting Ends With ’94 Cup

Since I was there for the entire 1994 tournament, I have to start this historic look with a glance at the preceding series in which the New Jersey Devils led the New York Rangers, three games to two.

Game 6 was a media circus. With his club on the verge of elimination, Captain Mark Messier captured the imagination of New Yorkers with a daring ploy. Messier went on record predicting a Rangers victory. It was a daring move that made front page headlines, right up to the opening face-off.

The argument on the ice – May 25, 1994 – tilted in the Devils favor in the first period, but New Jersey blew a two-goal lead setting the stage for Messier heroics.

Sure enough, the Rangers broke loose for three unanswered third-period goals to annex the game, 4-2.

Messier had made good on his promise with a hat trick, including the turning point third-period goals. As for the Devils, they showed up at The Garden for the curtain-closer and rallied in the final seconds of the third period to tie the game at 1-1.

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The first overtime favored the Rangers as their foe seemed content to play “The Trap” and wait for the breaks. The Devils almost had one when Mike Richter lost control of the puck at the boards behind him. Bill Guerin retrieved it, but before he could exploit the open net, his threat was defused.

Neither team scored and the game went into a heart-throbbing second overtime. This time, the Law of Averages worked in the Rangers’ favor against a rapidly tiring Devils club. 

New York moved the puck into the New Jersey zone as the Devils prepared a counter-attack, a clearing pass was intercepted by Stephane Matteau. He moved down the left side then swerved behind the net where he tried a desperation centering pass. 

For a split second, the puck was lost but then it showed up behind the red line, somehow sneaking between Martin Brodeur‘s pad and the goal post. The Rangers had won a classic.

On the winner’s side, there was sheer ecstasy. More than that, Messier had lifted himself to the legendary level of Babe Ruth when he predicted the sixth game victory and then captained his club to wins both in Game 6 and Game 7.

But for Blueshirts’ fans, the best was yet to come. They now had reached the Stanley Cup Final and, for the first time since 1979, saw the Cup only four wins away. Their opponent would be the Vancouver Canucks, who despite the presence of superstar Pavel Bure and dynamic leader Trevor Linden, seemed less threatening than the Devils.

[Ocal: The 1994 Cup Final From the Canucks’ Point of View]

The series opened in New York and Vancouver rallied to tie the score 2-2 late in the third period. To the utter deflation of The Garden crowd, Greg Adams beat Richter in overtime and the Canucks had stolen Game 1 of the Cup Final.

The Blueshirts rebounded for a 3-1 win and then swept both games in Vancouver for a three-games-to-one lead. If ever there was cause for premature rejoicing, this was it. Coming home to a wildly, madly, deafening Garden crowd should have been enough to deflate the Canucks. Writing in his book, “Losing the Edge,” author Barry Meisel summed up the feeling along Broadway as well as anyone.

“The City of New York considered Game 5 a coronation, not a contest. The Monster of MSG did not consider defeat even a remote possibility. The wildest party in 54 years was scheduled to be a few fashionable late minutes after 8 p.m on Thursday, June 9, 1994, at the corner of 33rd Street and Seventh Avenue in Manhattan. No RSVP was necessary. Meanwhile, the Police were prepared for a jubilant riot.”

The riot was not to come, nor was the Rangers victory. What appeared to be a fait accompli turned into a build-up-to-a-let-down. The Canucks won 6-3, sending the series back to Vancouver. As for Game 6, it kindled the worst fears of any Rangers fan. The Canucks won 4-1, sending the series back to the Big Apple. 

‘If they beat us three straight,” said Messier, “the Canucks deserve to win the Stanley Cup.”

The Rangers took The Garden ice for Game 7, jumped to an early lead and built on it. They had a 2-0 advantage after five minutes of the second period and the situation seemed well in hand until Linden scored a shorthanded goal at 5:21. But Messier fattened the lead and the Rangers took the ice to start the third with what appeared to be a comfortable two-goal cushion.

[Infographic: 1994 Rangers Stanley Cup]

However, the ubiquitous Linden scored on a power play at 4:50 of the third, sending the Rangers into a defensive shell. Often such ultra-conservative play could be a prelude to a disaster. But the Rangers were willing to gamble.

The lead remained intact as the clock ticked down below the five-minute mark.

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As the overflow crowd bit fingernails, held its breath and prayed, the Rangers ran through four more faceoffs in their own end before the clock ran down to 0:37.8 and then 0:28.2 following two more face-offs.

Once again the puck was iced and the last face-off was held between Craig MacTavish and Pavel Bure. The Ranger won the draw, pushing the puck into the corner where Steve Larmer pinned it against the boards.

That did it. The Rangers had won their first Stanley Cup in 54 years and their followers no longer had to listen to chants of “1940! 1940!” from their Islanders counterparts.

The cheering was clocked at seven minutes minimum after which the Stanley Cup made its appearance. The time was 11:06 p.m when NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman proclaimed “Well, New York. After 54 years, your long wait is over. Mark Messier, come get the Stanley Cup!”

He did and thereby set off an endless hockey party in the Gotham. By far the most memorable was the victory parade which attracted a crowd of 1.1 million. The motorcade went up Broadway from Battery Park to City Hall where Mayor Rudolph Giuliani greeted the team.

Before and after the City Hall fete, parties sprung up all over town, from the Russian National Restaurant in Brighton Beach to The Today Show. Away from celebratory hullabaloo, a number of less-known–but no less endearing — episodes unfolded.

The day of the parade, Rangers public relations director Barry Watkins received a call informing him that a Rangers fan named Brian Bluver was at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital, desperately in need of a heart transplant.

Brian’s father, Bill, revealed that the lad was a Messier fan and asked whether Watkins could deliver the captain to cheer his son. Despite many demands for the captain, Watkins delivered Messier along with Nick Kypreos who paid a surprise bedside visit to young Bluver.

More than that, Messier brought the Stanley Cup with him and put it at the bedside while promising Brian that he would see the day the Rangers raised the Stanley Cup banner.

Just four days later, Brian received his new heart and in another seven months he was designated the Rangers’ Honorary Captain and sat on the team bench when the championship banner was lifted to the ceiling.