Rangers look to rekindle spirit of '94

ByJohnette Howard ESPN logo
Thursday, April 16, 2015

GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- Twenty-one years have passed, but the current New York Rangers are never far from reminders of the team whose footsteps they hope to match. They see the photographs and lists about the Rangers' fabled 1994 Stanley Cup team on the walls of their Westchester County training center, and the hallways at Madison Square Garden. Every time they walk in the dressing room, they go past a framed photo of goaltender Mike Richter making a save and defenseman Brian Leetch -- his face always the picture of calm -- riding some winger off the puck.

They know the famous photo of Mark Messier, the most revered Rangers star of them all for the way he delivered on his Guarantee, then accepted the '94 Cup at center ice with that steam-shovel jaw of his dropped wide open as he giddily nodded his head and laughed and laughed.

They've been in the Garden when Stephane Matteau is re-introduced and the roars still ring out so loudly it seems unimaginable that it's really been two decades since his game-winning goal snapped back the net against the Devils in double-overtime of Game 7, prompting Howie Rose's call for the ages that is still repeated around these parts, "Matteau! Matteau! Matteau!" Why? Because the Rangers were finally going to the Cup finals, thanks to the journeyman winger that bounced among five other teams too.

"I only played 85 games with the Rangers but it seems like I played a thousand," Matteau has said. "I'm totally a blue guy now. ... The fans treat me like nobody else. They treat me even better than in my hometown."

"But that's what the playoffs do: create great moments," current Rangers defenseman Marc Staal says.

This Rangers team, which begins its first-round playoff series Thursday at the Garden against the always dangerous Pittsburgh Penguins, isn't trying to break a drought as epic as the 54-year wait for a championship that the '94 team finally snapped to free the franchise of the mocking "1940" chants that followed them everywhere.

But the current two-decade wait is no small thing, either. Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist and many key members of this year's team have been on a dogged three-year quest of their own that has a lot of similarities to the up-and-down, incremental steps the Messier team had to endure before finally winning the Cup.

Then, like now, anticipation was high. They had the best record in the league. Pressure was white-capping. How long could the window of opportunity last? How many cracks at winning it all do you get?

"Yeah, I've probably talked to Mark and Richter and Leetch about [winning] it, but they really don't have to say much, you know?" Lundqvist said after practice Tuesday with a laugh. "You see the footage. You talk to the trainers who are still here and worked for those teams. And I remember how excited our fans were last year when we came so close to winning the Cup. There was so much intensity. It was just so fun. It inspires you to come back and work even harder to win it."

Both teams -- the '94 club and this Rangers team -- won the Presidents' Trophy for leading the league in points to establish themselves as favorites.

Both teams' long climbs started with a playoff disappointment. The '92 Rangers were upset in their second-round series against Pittsburgh and the great Mario Lemieux, who went on to win the championship.

The 2012 Rangers, featuring Lundqvist and Staal, Ryan McDonagh and rookie newcomer Chris Kreider, who arrived straight off Boston College's NCAA title run having never played an NHL game, lost a grueling Game 6 in the conference final to the Devils to also miss the Cup final.

Then both clubs underwent coaching changes that had a mutinous aspect to them. It was known Messier didn't see eye-to-eye with Roger Neilson, who was fired less than halfway into the '92-93 season despite being two games over .500 at the time and replaced by interim coach Ron Smith, who was not the answer.

The Rangers fired hot-tempered John Tortorella in 2013 following their conference semifinals loss to the Bruins, in part because a slew of team mainstays disparaged his methods and mind games in their postseason exit interviews. They looked hollow-eyed and grim, beat up and miserable by the time that joyless playoff run was done.

At both junctures, the new coaches the Rangers hired had led their previous teams to the Stanley Cup finals -- Mike Keenan with Chicago and Philly, and Alain Vigneault with Vancouver. But neither had won it all when he joined the Rangers.

The team Keenan inherited seemed like a more finished product. It was coming off that disastrous 1992-93 season that left the Garden crowd booing the club during its 1-11 nosedive at the end of the year, but it had Messier, who'd already won five Cups and two league MVP awards by then. Leetch was the league's best defenseman. Richter was the No. 1 goalie.

Vigneault has had to navigate different challenges, like the delicate job of making sure this year's Rangers club didn't suffer a hangover from losing in last year's Cup final, or lapse into the habit of treating the regular season like a necessary evil, a mere undercard, in the long grind to get back to the postseason.

And Vigneault managed everything splendidly. He should get strong consideration for Coach of the Year. He's rarely put a footfall wrong.

He and his staff brought along young players like Kevin Hayes, J.T. Miller, and Jesper Fast and helped Rick Nash restore his confidence. He insisted the Rangers could still win with backup Cam Talbot filling in for the eight weeks Lundqvist was out after taking a scary shot to the throat that left him with a vascular injury that could've been life-threatening if left undiagnosed. And the Rangers not only won. For long stretches they've been the best team in a highly competitive league.

Vigneault is as self-contained and calm as Keenan and Tortorella are sharp-tongued and brash. Vigneault doesn't talk a whole lot publicly, but what he does say is firm, succinct and tone-setting. He always seems in control, always throws off the feeling that he has carefully thought through every eventuality and prepared for every scenario. He often has this little smirk that suggests he might even have a few things up his sleeve that will win his club a few games.

The result, so far, has been a Rangers club that throws off the same quiet confidence Vigneault does.

Pressure and doubt rarely seems to get to him. Or his team.

"We know we're good," captain McDonagh says.

Not that it's been easy getting back to this point.

In a rare expansive moment after the Rangers clinched the best point total in the league, Vigneault allowed himself to brag about this club. He talked about how some experts predicted they'd have to fight just to get into the playoffs because of some of the roster changes they made.

Tuesday, he noted how last year's Stanley Cup champions, the Los Angeles Kings, missed the postseason and last year's Presidents' Trophy winner, Boston, didn't make the playoffs for the first time in eight years. (Wednesday, the Bruins responded by firing GM Peter Chiarelli just four years after winning the Cup and two years after losing in the 2013 final.)

So, does Vigneault believe the Rangers can make a run to the final again?

"The game doesn't change," he said. "This group is without a doubt experienced, it's battle-tested. We're one of the 16 teams that has chance."

He talked about Nash's rebound to a 42-goal season after scoring only three in the entire playoffs a year ago.

Asked about Lundqvist's readiness for this playoff run, Vigneault broke into a trust-me smile and said, "Hank's back."

The Penguins still have former Cup winners like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury. They're a dangerous team. The coming weeks will be another blood-and-guts grind, as Messier's Rangers found out in their '92 and '94 runs before they finally won the Cup.

But the Rangers also have a concrete idea what lies at the end of the rainbow if you win it here in New York. They got their own whiff of it during their near-miss last year.

Lundqvist, who has won just about everything else there is to win -- the Olympic gold medal for Sweden, championships back home, Rangers' team MVP awards and the Vezina Trophy for being the best goalkeeper in the NHL -- is eager to begin.

He is 33 now, the same age that Messier was when he won the Cup in New York. But unlike Messier, who won five Cups in Edmonton, Lundqvist is still chasing his first. And it has often been a Sisyphean quest.

Lundqvist was asked this week if perhaps his missed time due to injury would be a "good" thing because he begins the playoffs fresher than ever before. Lundqvist laughed and said, "Ask me in two months."

He meant if the Rangers survive four playoff series and get to enjoy a ticker-tape parade down the Canyon of Heroes. The same happy ending the '94 team finally got.

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