The New York Rangers enter Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals at New Jersey on May 25 needing a win to avoid a premature end to one of the best seasons in franchise history after a painful Game 5 loss at home.
Sound familiar? It’s the circumstance the Blueshirts find themselves in after a 5-3 loss to the Devils on Wednesday night. But it’s also the scenario they faced exactly 18 years ago, when they lost Game 5 of the conference finals to the Devils at Madison Square Garden and needed to win Game 6 on the road to keep their season alive.
The one element the 1994 team had that this one lacks is Mark Messier.
Just as another New York sports icon, Joe Namath, had guaranteed victory a generation earlier, Messier publicly guaranteed that the Rangers weren’t going to lose – and like Namath 25 years earlier, he backed up his words with actions.
In the 2007 book “Game of My Life: The New York Rangers,” Messier recounted his memories of one of the signature performances of his career and outlined the reasons behind perhaps the most famous guarantee in hockey history:
“When we got down in the series, and especially going back to New Jersey for Game 6, I was trying to figure out a way to instill the confidence we had shown all year against New Jersey. I felt that it would be a great way to let my players know that I believed we could go in there and win Game 6, because we had beaten them six times, and beaten them three times in their building. I thought that if they got up in the morning and saw that I believed we could beat them, that it would be a great way to help us with our confidence. It was a little underestimation on my part that 20 million other New Yorkers, and the New Jersey Devils, would read it, too.
“I was so focused on our team and what we needed to do that it really didn’t matter to me at that point. I would say that I got so locked in and so focused that I didn’t think about that. When I got up the next morning and saw the guarantee in the paper, at that point it didn’t matter, because our chances of winning the Stanley Cup were so close, and we really needed to win that game to avoid elimination. But more importantly, I thought we had the team that could win it that year. I thought we were able to win that year, and I thought we were the best team still left playing – and we needed to figure out a way to win that game.”
Not that it was going to be easy. The Devils had finished second in the East to the Rangers and were on their way to becoming one of the NHL’s elite franchises. All they needed for their first trip to the Stanley Cup Final was one more win – and they came out flying, taking a 2-0 lead into the late stages of the second period and outplaying the Rangers all over the ice.
“Everybody remembers the hat trick and the guarantee, but without (Mike) Richter early, we probably don’t win that game. Mike was great all through the game, but especially early in the game. The Devils came out flying, but Mike gave us a chance to win. The Devils were a great team, and they were playing as well as us, or better at that particular point, and we had to figure out a way to play better. It wasn’t that we were playing poorly; it was that the Devils were playing really, really well. They really had us under the gun, and they came out in Game 6 and played unbelievable hockey, but Richter held us in there until we were able to score late in the second period – to at least make it 2-1 going into the third period and give us some life going into the locker room. That’s exactly what happened.
“We realized that we had been outplayed severely to that point, and to be down only 2-1 was a real big turning point. Playing with a 2-1 lead and trying to close out a team can be a really tough position to be in, especially for a team like New Jersey that didn’t have a lot of experience. They maybe tried to protect it a little too much. We had to throw everything we had at them, and the momentum of the game changed.
“They were a very young team and (Martin) Brodeur was a very young goalie. They had a few guys with some experience, but I’m not sure if they had anyone who had won a Stanley Cup. That (experience) is certainly one element of a team that’s important, but experience isn’t everything – you can see that in today’s game. But we did have the experience to handle some of the adversity we had gone thorough. And we got lucky – we got some unbelievable goaltending and because of the experience we had, we were able to keep our focus and do what we had to do.
“We came out in the third period and we knew we had to put more pressure at them. Brodeur was playing great, so we knew we needed to drive to the net and hopefully create some rebounds. That’s just what we started to do. Their defense was keeping us out on the perimeter, and so we wanted to penetrate a little deeper and throw the puck at the net from any angle that we could and make sure we had other people going to the net. My first goal was perhaps a little bit lucky, I think (defenseman Ken) Daneyko had me angled going toward the boards, but I was able to slip a backhander though Brodeur’s legs at a funny angle. He might not have been expecting it.
The second goal, (Alex) Kovalev came over the blue line and got the puck to the net, and I got the rebound, just like we had talked about between periods. The third one was an empty-netter at the end of the game.”
Instead of going home for the summer, the Rangers returned to Madison Square Garden for an epic Game 7.
“It was a good feeling – but we didn’t have long to relish it. All we had done was send the series back to the Garden, and we knew that Game 7 was no sure thing. If that would have been the last game and we’d won the Stanley Cup – that would have been a great feeling. Other than the fact that we were going back home and we had lived to play another day, it was a pretty short-lived celebration. We knew they weren’t going to roll over in Game 7 – they probably felt like they had let one get away and were probably a little mad at themselves and probably a little more determined. We knew Game 7 was going to be a tough game, especially some of the guys who had a little more experience and had been there.”
The Rangers won Game 7 on Stephane Matteau’s second double-overtime goal of the series. They went on to beat Vancouver in seven games for the Cup, with Messier getting the goal that proved to be the winner.
Ryan Callahan now wears the “C” that became synonymous with No. 11. The Rangers wouldn’t mind if Callahan could emulate his inner Messier on Friday night.