“The wait is over. The New York Rangers are Stanley Cup champions and this one will last a lifetime.”
Never has a phrase spoken by a broadcaster been more poetic. Those words were uttered by Rangers announcer Sam Rosen on June 14 after the team won Game 7 to capture the 1994 Stanley Cup. It best describes the emotions inside Madison Square Garden and by long-suffering Ranger fans who had witnessed a lifetime of disappointment with each playoff exit.
It’s hard to imagine that 25 years have passed since that memorable season. Your immediate thoughts while watching the on-ice ceremony for the ’94 Stanley Cup champions was remembering the struggles that came in their uphill climb to reach the pinnacle atop the NHL.
The Rangers survived back-to-back grueling playoff series against the New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference Final and the Vancouver Canucks in the Stanley Cup Final. At times, it was hard to imagine them beating the odds and hoisting the Cup in the air. But if this group was going to achieve this win for the ages, then they were going to have to exorcize some of the organization’s demons along the way.
It’s too difficult to choose one moment that best defines this incredible playoff run, but I have dwindled it down to three events that were key to the 1994 Cup victory.
Messier’s “Guarantee” Cements Place in NY Sports Lore
At his initial press conference to announce the trade with the Edmonton Oilers, Mark Messier made it very clear that his decision in coming to New York was based solely on ending the franchise’s playoff drought and bringing a Stanley Cup to the Rangers for the first time since 1940. Honestly, I don’t think Messier knew the challenge that lay ahead of him.
After five games in the Eastern Conference Final, the Rangers were facing elimination down 3-2 in the series after being stonewalled by Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur in the previous two games. He allowed only two goals in back-to-back wins and looked to be unbeatable.
The famous “guarantee” quote from Messier after an off-day practice seemed so matter of fact as he calmly offered his opinion on the Rangers fate heading to Meadowlands under enormous pressure.
“I know we’re going to go in and win Game 6 and bring it back here (to the Garden) for Game 7 … We have enough talent and experience to turn the tide. That’s exactly what we’re going to do in Game 6.” –Mark Messier
His comments didn’t sound bold or desperate, but instead a leader that was confident in his team’s chances to beat the impossible odds facing them in Game 6. Messier wasn’t worried about sinking in the deep end of the organization’s pool of past playoff futility. No, I don’t think Messier himself could have imagined the impact of his “guarantee” would have on the remainder of the series.
Game 6 didn’t start out well for the road team as the Devils jumped out to a two-goal lead after the first period. The Rangers did cut the score in half with a second-period goal, but no one in attendance was prepared for what they would witness in the final period.
Messier took over the contest by not only putting his teammates, but an entire fan base on his shoulders and carried them all to victory. The most famous hat trick in Rangers playoff history began with a goal three minutes into the period to tie the game at 2-2. Then, with less than 10 minutes remaining in the game, The Captain scored the tie-breaking goal off a rebound from an Alexei Kovalev shot at the top of the face-off circle. The final goal came on an empty netter in the final minutes of the game that evened the series at three games apiece.
The New York press dubbed Messier “Captain Courageous” after his iconic performance that cemented his place as being one of the most beloved sports figures in New York. The Rangers escaped elimination, but they still needed one more victory in order to compete for a Stanley Cup title. Thankfully, Game 7 was being played at the Garden.
Matteau, Matteau, Matteau!
It’s not too often a playoff run offers two memorable broadcast calls. Who could forget Howie Rose’s magical radio call of the overtime series-winning goal in Game 7 against the Devils: “Matteau!! Matteau!! Matteau!!”
Momentum was clearly on the side of the Rangers after a thrilling Game 6 win, and it continued on an upward trend when Rangers defenseman Brian Leetch opened the scoring halfway through the second period to give the Rangers a 1-0 lead. But the celebration was put on hold momentarily when Devils forward Valeri Zelapukin scored a game-tying goal at the 18:52 mark of the third period.
The silence inside the Garden during the intermission was eerie. It felt like 18,200 people were collectively thinking, “here we go again.” They had all seen this bad movie before and the ending was still lousy. Nevertheless, the Rangers were headed to sudden-death overtime, and the way these two teams were competing on the ice, the outcome could take a while to determine.
80 minutes of hockey couldn’t settle matters, but in that second overtime period, joy was brought to Blueshirt fans everywhere. The winning goal began with a simple dump-in in the near boards where Rangers forward Stephane Matteau gained control of the puck and proceeded to go behind the Devils net to take a wraparound shot attempt that went past Brodeur and into the net. And there it was, the Rangers defeated the Devils to win the Eastern Conference title and were heading to their first Stanley Cup Final appearance since 1979.
Oh Baby, What a Save!!!
The Rangers split the first two games of the 1994 Stanley Cup Final before traveling to Vancouver and winning the next two contests to take a commanding 3-1 lead in the series. But, all of this momentum might not have occurred if “The Save” was not made. It could be the play that best defines the entire playoff run for the Rangers.
Heading into the 1994 playoffs, Rangers goalie Mike Richter had his own demons to exorcize before moving forward. Richter gave up some heartbreaking goals in past playoff appearances and had a few hiccups in earlier rounds of the ’94 playoffs. The time to define his professional career had arrived, and the only question that remained was if Richter would succeed or be overwhelmed at the moment.
The play began with Canucks forward Pavel Bure streaking into the offensive zone as Leetch desperately tried to get back to block his opponent’s path towards the net. He had no chance to accomplish this task, and instead, Leetch tripped Bure from behind. The officials needed little deliberation before awarding a penalty shot.
What a monumental decision, as the referees were giving one of the league’s most prolific goalscorers an excellent opportunity to extend his team’s lead to two goals over the Rangers, and more importantly, a path to gain momentum over the prohibitive favorite heading back to their home ice. The tension inside Vancouver Coliseum was mounting as Bure gathered himself before beginning his stride towards Richter.
He skated like a runaway freight train and looked to have beaten the Rangers goaltender with a forehand move, but out of nowhere, Richter stuck his right leg out to deny the shot. Game, set, match, as the Rangers gained the momentum needed to win Game 4 and take a 3-1 advantage back to MSG.
The 1994 Stanley Cup championship ended one of the longest droughts in professional sports history. Once that final face-off headed into the corner in Game 7, it seemed like life stopped for a moment on that summer night. Ranger fans of all ages had finally met that light at the end of the tunnel, and it was a shiny, silvery object called Lord Stanley. And no one will forget witnessing Messier lifting the cup high over his head.
Truly, this championship has lasted a lifetime.
Thomas Conroy covers the Vegas Golden Knights for The Hockey Writers Network He has been writing about sports since 2007, first as a contributor for Bleacher Report and Football Nation. Recently, Conroy was a co-editor for the Bolts Beat website on Fansided. To read more his work, please him on Twitter @tsconroy