Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Seventeen Years Later: Messier Guarantee Still The One

Today marks a special anniversary. Seventeen years ago on this date 5/25/94, Mark Messier delivered on his "Guarantee" by scoring a natural hat trick in the third period for a miraculous Game 6 win- leading the Rangers over the Devils at The Meadowlands.

The Rangers avoided elimination and would go on to take the best series I've ever seen in dramatic fashion thanks to unlikely hero Stephane Matteau's double overtime goal in Game 7 at Madison Square Garden when big games still existed. Everyone knows what happened next with Messier, Conn Smythe winner Brian Leetch, Mike Richter, Adam Graves and the rest of a great Blueshirt team, preventing the underdog Canucks from coming back to win the Stanley Cup. All the controversy surrounding Mike Keenan and Neil Smith didn't matter because Messier and the rest of his focused teammates wouldn't allow it to overshadow what their goal was. A couple of lucky goalposts and one last dramatic faceoff win by Craig MacTavish following a phantom icing finally allowed the Rangers to celebrate their first Cup in 54 years. No more 1940 ever again!

Without The Captain's clutch performance in Game 6 with his team's back to the wall trailing 2-zip, there never is a fourth championship and we're still talking about Curses and jinxes. The euphoria of it all will never be forgotten by New York City and generations of Ranger fans who finally lived to see a day they never thought existed. Well, that would be June 14, 1994 with the infamous sign after the fireworks:

NOW I CAN DIE IN PEACE
All this time later as I reflect back on the nervous energy expended as a teenager hoping they'd finally win for Dad, who was a season ticket holder that had the misfortune of seeing Bobby Orr skate the Cup when the Bruins won at MSG. I'll never forget the emotion of it all. Us sitting there in that office room upstairs watching the miraculous comeback started by an Alexei Kovalev late goal in the second. Messier did the rest, taking a Leetch pass off a rush and backhanding one past kid Martin Brodeur to tie the game at two. Then, off another rush started by Leetch, there was No.11 stuffing home a rebound that put the Rangers ahead, stunning everyone. But it wasn't over. Not when the Devils got a power play and Jacques Lemaire risked pulling Brodeur with over two minutes left for a 7-on-4. But before he could be second guessed, Messier shot all the way down from 120 feet into the open net for the hat trick. The Rangers would win.

Despite all the theatrics, there still was another game to play and it was a beauty just as the series had been with Valeri Zelepukin forcing sudden death with 7.7 seconds left in regulation. I can remember feeling sick. The ups and downs of another overtime. The third of a classic Eastern Conference Final that saw Stephane Richer prevail in Game 1 and Matteau notch the first of his two in Game 3, also in double OT. This was the kind of theatre that comes around every so often. That Zelepukin would find a loose puck Claude Lemieux centered and get it past a screaming Richter, who probably just lost it thinking exactly what every Ranger fan was. It was over. The Devils tied it and now, another dramatic moment would be forever remembered for one side.

Both goalies were unbelievable with Brodeur stacking the pads on Messier and Richter stifling Bobby Holik. It was some of the greatest playoff overtime hockey ever played with each team trading chances. Before Matteau could play hero, the Devils seemed to have won it when a shot through traffic Richter lost sight of. The rebound was sitting right there before Steve Larmer saved the day with Sam Rosen screaming, "Where's the puck?" I can remember fearing the worst only to be relieved when it was in the corner. Moments later, Slava Fetisov turned the puck over in his end and Matteau pounced. He then went around the net and centered a pass for a cutting Esa Tikkanen but it never got there, instead going off Fetisov past a sliding Brodeur, touching off wild jubilation on one side and total dejection for the other.

It still ranks as one of the greatest series ever. Even if you didn't have a rooting interest, this was hockey at its pinnacle. Two evenly matched teams who gave it all they had. In sports, there are winners and losers. Neither deserved to lose. But that's not how it's written in the record books. The thing that still stands out most was when the puck went in, Dad never realized they scored until I told him saying, 'It's in,' to which he went nuts. The ceiling shook. It was all worth it.

Little did we know that Pavel Bure and Trevor Linden of the Canucks would make us even crazier in another wild series. All this time later, I still think back to that Game 6 and what Messier did. He didn't do it alone with Richter absolutely standing on his head while having his best friend the post keep our team alive. If I rank those series, Devils-Rangers wins every time. It's just how it is. That was the ultimate because it told us that they were going to win the whole damn thing!

I even got the Game 7 score right in History class, calling 3-2 after Vancouver had pushed us to the limit. Hell. Mr. Bennett even had a fun pool which almost everyone took part in. I couldn't because I was afraid I'd jinx them. I just said 3-2 and had a good feeling about it. All they had been through made me believe. And so, Leetch, Graves and Messier (even if he never touched it) would score the fateful goals that finally ended a 54-year drought. Never would've happened without May 25, 1994.

Ironically, last night when the Canucks clinched their third Cup appearance on the most unpredictable ending of a great game with Kevin Bieksa the only one who knew the puck was still in play enough to shoot a roller past an unassuming Antti Niemi, it marked another anniversary. Seventeen years ago yesterday was the last time Vancouver made the Final with Greg Adams notching the OT winner. Funny how things work sometimes. The top seeded Canucks will attempt to finally be successful this time. Good thing for them they won't see a New York opponent. :P

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