How 1994 Rangers Defied Odds

“I was going to have to trade for Stephane Matteau.”

Rangers GM Neil Smith, during the 1993-94 season

Who knows whether the Rangers ever could have ended their Stanley Cup drought without Stephane Matteau?

Or Kevin Lowe, or Glenn Anderson?

What if general manager Neil Smith had retained speedy Mike Gartner instead of dealing the sharpshooter at the behest — call it nudging — of coach Mike Keenan?

Who knew that the Blueshirts would once and for all put a stop to the derisive chants of 1940, 1940, emanating from Uniondale, Long Island, where Islanders fans kept reminding the world that it was 53 years — going on 54 — without a Stanley Cup at The Garden.

“I heard the chant when I got here,” said Matteau who had been with the Chicago Blackhawks before Smith engineered the trade that would become monumental. “We all knew about the New York fans’ frustration; so long without a title.”

Yet, from the get-go, there was a sweet smell of success enveloping the Rangers as the 1993-94 NHL marathon unfolded. This was one heck of a good hockey club.

With the galvanic Keenan orchestrating from behind the bench and captain Mark Messier spreading his playoff experience around the locker room, the Seventh Avenue Skaters were accentuating the positive as they climbed the standings.

“Even before I became a Ranger, I could tell they had championship potential,” said Lowe, who would be dealt to New York in the homestretch, “I liked their lineup.”

Who wouldn’t?

With a future Hall of Fame such as Brian Leetch anchoring the defense and such aces as Steve Larmer, Alexei Kovalev and Adam Graves up front, additionally, Keenan’s corps always could count on Mike Richter to steal a game when other goalies could not.

Relentlessly, the Rangers began their conquest of the Eastern Conference with the New Jersey Devils, Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins in closest pursuit.

As a Blackhawk, Matteau had a first-hand view of the Rangers’ juggernaut-in-the-making. Although his Chicagoans drubbed the Blueshirts, 7-3, on March 18, 1994, Stephane walked out of The Garden impressed with the home team, playing without its captain.

“They had four good lines,” Matteau remembered, “and were playing without Messier who was hurt. I knew that at full health, that team was going to be tough to beat.”

But there was a caveat. Both Keenan and Smith realized that a couple of years past saw the Rangers with the best regular-season mark in the NHL. Yet, despite that accomplishment, the New Yorkers lost in the second playoff round to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

“Keenan’s Rangers were as talented as ever, but they were not getting any younger,” wrote author Tim Sullivan in Battle On The Hudson. “Teams such as Washington, Boston and New Jersey were making the NHL ocean tough to navigate.”

Seeing their team atop the standings was impressive for Rangers fans to be sure, but losing three out of their last four games — the last one to Chicago — curbed the enthusiasm.

Least enthusiastic of all was the odd couple running the roster. It was an open secret among the print and electronic media that Smith and Keenan got along about as well as Punch and Judy.

That said, and personalities aside, each — for ego-satisfying and team-oriented reasons — desperately wanted to win The Cup. With the trade deadline upon them, Smith-Keenan wielded their lineup axes. The shocker victim was 28-goal man Gartner.

“Keenan hated Gartner,” allowed Smith, “and told me, ‘If you don’t trade him, I won’t dress him.'” Smith knew he had no choice, so the GM phoned the Maple Leafs.

Gartner was dealt to Toronto for Anderson. Then, one by one, once-champion Oilers were dealt from Edmonton to Broadway: Arrivals included face-off ace Craig MacTavish, and defenseman Lowe, arguably the most underrated Ranger in the Cup run.

But Smith couldn’t put his trading brakes on and dealt right wing sniper Tony Amonte to Chicago for Matteau and rugged forward Brian Noonan. Many citizens of Rangerville complained. Meanwhile, critics supported Neil.

Ex-Philadelphia Flyer-turned tv analyst Bill Clement deleted the doubters with this new X-Ray of the Rangers. “What Neil Smith did was pick up players who knew how to win; the more of those the better.”

The potential winning core consisted of ex-Oilers who had won Cups alongside Wayne Gretzky. Messier, Graves, Lowe, MacTavish, Esa Tikkanen, Anderson and Jeff Beukeboom.

As expected, the Rangers finished first overall with 112 points, six more than runner-up New Jersey. Keenan then translated that juggernaut mentality to the ice.

(Personal Note: I had been covering the Islanders that season and was impressed with the manner that coach Al Arbour had maneuvered his team into a playoff berth. I figured that if Ron Hextall could get hot in goal, the Isles just might upset the Blueshirts.)

The opening round was a Rangers rout with a Capital R. Hextall proved to be a disaster both at The Garden as Keenan’s crew redundantly won the first two games. 6-0, 6-0. At Nassau, the Islanders were wiped out by a combined score of 10-3.

Next up were the Washington Capitals who went down in five games. Sought so intensely by Keenan, Matteau had begun to grasp the challenge already facing himself and his teammates, with more pressure to come.

“It took me a while to learn the kind of pressure we had on us to win The Cup,” Matteau said.

Now, the fun began; if you call a pressure-cooker atmosphere fun. It was what author Tim Sullivan called “Battle On The Hudson — The Rangers-Devils And the NHL’s Greatest Series Ever.” Then, a pause and he added,

“Hockey mattered in New York unlike it ever had before. The New York media wrapped its long arms around this story.”

It was David (Devils) and Goliath (Rangers) on ice with New Jersey surging to a 3-2 series lead and potential series-clincher in Game 6 at The Meadowlands.

“We had a feeling we’d win every night,” said Devils center Bernie Nicholls. “Of course we didn’t every night but that was the feeling we had.”

(Personal Note: Two hours before game time, Rangers publicist Barry Watkins corralled me and said that Keenan wanted to talk privately with me. Sure enough, we huddled in an empty room and Mike — a personal friend — just wanted to let off steam; unusual as the case may have been. Such an episode never happened to me before or since in my career.)

By that time Messier’s prediction that his club would win had been splashed all over the papers and airwaves. What’s more, Captain Mark delivered and his vow with a hat trick that spearheaded the Rangers come from behind triumph.

“We believed Mark,” said Rangers grunt forward Nick Kypreos. “He was the guy we leaned on the most.”

Game 7 at The Garden went down in history as one of the all-time classics. The Rangers had it in the bag nursing a one-goal lead down to the final minute of the third; make that final seconds.

But the Devils won the face-off, with Valeri Zelepukin tying the game with 7.7 seconds left. The ensuing overtime was not for the faint of heart with chances at both ends, forcing a second sudden death.

(Personal Note: Being part of the Devils’ broadcast team, I naturally was rooting for New Jersey. But as the second OT unfolded it was clear that the Rangers were constantly on the attack and the Devils were content to merely clear the zone and await another New York thrust. I knew the Law of Averages would rule against Jacques Lemaire‘s team.)

Sure enough, the Blueshirts’ Matteau won the puck race behind the Devils’ goal and scored on his legendary wraparound. The Rangers were en route to the Finals against Vancouver.

If the Devils-Rangers series led to a letdown in the Final round, that didn’t last long. With the Keenan-men leading the series 3-1 and Game 5 on Garden ice, everyone and his Uncle Dudley figured that the Cup drought would end.

It, of course, did not. Vancouver rallied to win at home in Game 6, forcing the climactic final bout at The Garden. “Vancouver was very, very good,” said Graves. “We knew we had our hands full.”

And so they did because the visitors never quit, trailing 3-2 before MacTavish won the final face-off — ending, once and for all, the 1940, 1940 chant that had haunted Gotham fans for too, too long.

Or, as MSG’s eternal Rangers play-by-play man Sam Rosen summed it up: