Stanley Cup Finally in Rangers' Reach


Neil Smith pointed out a man standing at the entrance to the corridor leading to the Rangers' locker room. More specifically, he noted the name on the uniformed guard's chest. It was Stanley.

"That's where we're going," he said. Actually, the Rangers are staying put. It's the Stanley Cup that's on the move. Starting Monday, the most celebrated trophy in North American sports will be on display in the lobby of the New York Hilton, headquarters for the NHL's championship series beginning Tuesday night in Madison Square Garden.

For the first time in 15 years, New York City will be playing host to the playoff finals. And, while the Cup will be shipped to Vancouver for Games 3 and 4 starting next weekend, there is an excellent chance the Rangers soon will be parading the silver vessel up Broadway. It may be the best chance the old franchise has had since 1940.

It's not just the fact that the Blueshirts compiled the best record in the league during the regular season or that they will enjoy home-ice advantage over the Canucks in the best-of-seven series. More significantly, the manner in which they overcame the relentless New Jersey Devils in their Eastern Conference showdown suggested that nothing so ephemeral as a jinx or a curse was to stop the Ranges from their objective. They were too tough, too talented, too driven to stop now.

They had to be all of the above to oust the Devils in a classic series that ended in the final hour of Friday night. But not before exhausting participants and spectators alike. The Rangers, who appeared to have secured a 1-0 victory in regulation, needed a second overtime to subdue an opponent that pushed them to the limit, and 24 minutes and 24 seconds beyond.

On such occasions, it is not uncommon for the winners to graciously state that neither team deserved to lose. Smith, the general manager who assembled the best hockey team money can buy, did better than that.

"There shouldn't be a winner," he said early Saturday moring, reflecting on one of the most competitive, compelling playoff series in any sport that New York witnessed. "It should be a team made up of half Rangers and half Devils. But I'm glad it's us."

Don't expect the NHL to be terribly unhappy either. Not only does New York provide a grander setting for the Cup than a swamp in an adjoining state but the Rangers boast some of the brightest stars in the sport. An, in the semifinal analysis, they were the difference between nerve-wracking triumph and a potentially devastating defeat.

After captain Mark Messier rallied the team from 2-0 deficit in the final 22 minutes of Game 6 with one of the great clutch performances in NHL history, Brian Leetch scored a spectacular goal midway through the second period on Friday night and Mike Richter preserved the slim margin for the next 30 minutes. But with 18,200 fans on their feet and counting down the final seconds, the Devils' Valeri Zelepukin jabbed the puck under Richter's left pad from directly in front of the crease. The ensuing suspense was almost too much to bear.

"I thought about not watching (overtime)," said Smith, whose observation post is high above the Garden ice. "I was really convinced the way the team was playing that we would win. But you just live with fear. You keep saying, 'They won't do it to us again.' Then you think, 'Cripes, it's like the first game.' "

The tone for the series was set in Game 1 when the Devils' Claude Lemieux scored with less than a minute left in regulation to tie the score at 3, making possible Stephane Richer's winning goal in the second overtime. It put the Rangers on notice that the team they defeated in all six meetings during the regular season would be no pushover. And it provided the opening act in one of the most fascinating and emotionally wrenching sports dramas in memory.

Considering the nature of the beginning, only a truly theatrical finish would be suitable. "If you could decide what was the best thing that could happen," Richter acknowledged later, "you'd say seventh game, double overtime, we win. I was thinking last night it would be great to win, 9-0. But then I realized it would be better to go into overtime."

Better for hockey perhaps. Better for the television audience. But certainly not better for print journalists on deadline or for the blood pressure of the partisans in he arena.

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