If Pat Quinn is to be believed, the Vancouver Canucks can skip the formalities and simply hand the Stanley Cup to the New York Rangers.
Do the Rangers have weaknesses? “If they do, I’m not sure where,” said Quinn, the Canucks’ coach and general manager. “They have strong forwards, a couple of mobile defensemen, defenders who have been around for a long time and (goalie Mike) Richter has been on a roll. . . . I know some of our guys are going to be tight when they get out there. This city is so hungry, the fans are going to try to will their team to a Stanley Cup.”
How does he plan to shut down Ranger center Mark Messier? “I don’t know that you can,” Quinn said. “He’s been awesome in the playoffs. What he’s done is the stuff that myths are made of.”
Might the Canucks’ size give them an edge? “We’ve got some skill, but not as much experience as the Rangers,” Quinn said. “We’ve got good scorers, solid goaltending and some experience. Those are the things that have gotten us this far and whether they’re good enough to beat New York, I don’t know.”
The Canucks are firmly embracing the role of underdogs in the best-of-seven finals, which begin tonight at Madison Square Garden.
“We haven’t got much choice,” team captain Trevor Linden said. “Look at the experience and the talent they have. They’re supposed to be here. We’re not. There were six teams better than us in (the Western) conference. But that doesn’t mean we want it less than they do. We deserve to be here.”
After a 41-40-3 season, the Canucks upset the Flames in the first round by winning three consecutive overtime games. They disposed of the Dallas Stars in five games and rode the hot hand of right wing Pavel Bure, who had a playoff-high 13 goals, to a five-game victory over Toronto.
After those results, the Rangers don’t buy Quinn’s line.
“We’re not playing a team that’s an 85-point team,” Messier said. “We recognize that and we won’t get drawn into a false sense of security. If you’re in the Stanley Cup finals, the regular season doesn’t matter. You’re playing with confidence.”
The Rangers, who had a league-leading 54 victories and 112 points, have had progressively tougher playoff sledding. After sweeping the Islanders, they went five games with the Capitals and needed double overtime to shake off the Devils in a seven-game Eastern Conference final.
“You know you’re not getting to the finals without paying a price of some kind,” said Ranger Coach Mike Keenan, who is 0-3 in his previous tries at the Cup with Philadelphia and Chicago. “Vancouver faced a test real early in the first round and dodged a bullet three times. I think we learned from going through a tough, emotional series (against New Jersey).”
They learned they must remain disciplined when opponents try to outmuscle them, as the Devils did and as the Canucks undoubtedly will do.
Vancouver has a physically imposing team. Its top line, of Trevor Linden centering for Bure and left wing Greg Adams, provides most of the offensive spark, but 5-foot-8 flyweight center Cliff Ronning has been productive with Sergio Momesso and Martin Gelinas. On the third line, left wing Russ Courtnall finishes for center Nathan LaFayette. The fourth line can dig and hit, with Gino Odjick or Shawn Antoski to the left of John McIntyre and Tim Hunter.
Defensemen Jeff Brown and Bret Hedican, acquired from St. Louis in the Petr Nedved deal, get the puck out of their end quickly. Dave Babych and Gerald Diduck are hard hitters, and the third pair, of Jyrki Lumme with Dana Murzyn or Brian Glynn, has held its own.
Goalie Kirk McLean is 0-7-2 against the Rangers in his career, but he isn’t worried about his past failures. What’s more relevant is his .932 save percentage this spring. “To get to this point, we’ve been through a lot of pressure situations and we’ve been able to deal with that,” he said.
Keenan wouldn’t say if he will deal with Bure by having Esa Tikkanen shadow the speedy winger with the quick, deadly shot. But Tikkanen, Craig MacTavish and Brian Noonan will probably be on the ice whenever Bure is.
“He’s certainly a skilled player and has the ability to bring people out of their seats,” Keenan said. “On the rush, he’s very difficult to stop. You give him time and space and he makes it difficult for everybody.”
The Rangers will be difficult to stop. Graves, Messier’s left wing, had only four points against New Jersey, but he’s too tenacious to be silent for long. Keenan put Alexei Kovalev on their right side during the Devil series, but Glenn Anderson will probably go back there and Kovalev will center for Stephane Matteau and Steve Larmer.
Defenseman Brian Leetch has been involved in 11 of the Rangers’ 16 power-play goals, using his one-on-one skills when a sore shoulder weakened his shot from the point. He and the aggressive Jeff Beukeboom form a balanced pair. Sergei Zubov, also skilled offensively, complements veteran Kevin Lowe. However, Lowe suffered a shoulder injury last Friday and his status is questionable tonight. If he can’t play, Doug Lidster, Jay Wells and Alexander Karpovtsev will get more ice time.