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The New York Rangers find themselves in a do or die situation tonight in Game 6 back in "The Rock."
Some of us can't help but throw around comparisons to 1994, 18 years ago to the day to be exact, when the Rangers found themselves in the identical situation. That Ranger team had played to taunting chants of 1940 (the length of the Rangers Cup drought) throughout that series. The taunting would continue until it the naysayers were hushed forever when the Stanley Cup was paraded around Madison Square Garden ice by Captain Mark Messier and his teammates following a 3-2 Game 7 win over the Vancouver Canucks.
It was a thrilling Cup Final to say the least, but the NY Rangers encountered a huge mountain to climb in the form of Martin Brodeur and the NJ Devils before they could hope to compete for Lord Stanley's hardware. With their backs against the wall, the Rangers travelled through the Lincoln Tunnel to the 'Swamp' of the Meadowlands where the New Jersey Devils flourished. Captain Mark Messier called his shot by guaranteeing a victory that would send the series back to Madison Square Garden for Game 7. It was a bold move by the man that became known as Captain Courageous and arguably the greatest leader in the history of the game.
While the situation that the Rangers (and Devils) find themselves in tonight is exactly the same as it was 18 years ago to the day, almost everything else is different. I say "almost" because Martin Brodeur has been down this road before. He was terrific in the 1994 series but beaten by a superior Ranger team at the time. His level of play has been equally outstanding throughout this series and is just one win away from returning to the Stanley Cup Final for the fifth time.
While Mark Messier is sure to be in the Prudential Center tonight, it will not be the Moose that Martin Brodeur and the Devils will have to contend with but a much different NY Ranger team. There will be no guarantees tonight from anyone even though those are the things that folklore is made of. I remember it well because I was the referee assigned to Game 6 in the Meadowlands this day in 1994 when Messier took the game on his back and made good on his guarantee.
This is my account from on the ice and in the official's dressing room of Game 6 in '94 as I wrote it in The Final Call.
"To their credit the Ranger fans suffered from the same frustration as the players and deserved full marks for loyalty. The Islander dynasty years added salt to the wounds caused by the Ranger Cup drought since 1940. The Rangers dust bowl draught finally ended in the form of a rainmaker by the name of Mark Messier, one the greatest leaders the game has ever known. On the verge of elimination at the hands of the NJ Devils on the day of Game 6 of the '94 Eastern Conference Finals the Ranger captain boldly promised a victory. The headline, "We'll Win Tonight" in the New York papers that day documented Messier's claim.
At the end of the second period I also made a bold prediction, not issued to the world through the media but to my linesmen, Pat Dapuzzo and Gerard Gauthier in the privacy of the officials' dressing room. I said stick a fork in them - this Ranger team is done. The first and second periods were all New Jersey.
Martin Brodeur looked unbeatable until Alex Kovalev found a minor chink in the Devils' goalie armor with just 1:41 left in the second period. I didn't think the Rangers would solve him beyond that nor did I believe they had enough gas left in the tank to pull this one out on the road. They would start the third period on the penalty kill with Esa Tikkanen in the box for kneeing Stephane Richer with 1:09 remaining in the second period. It would be the last time I would ever doubt the words of Mark Messier.
Mark Messier took the game on his back and tied it up as he slid a backhander past Brodeur just 2:48 into the third. Just five minutes into the period the Rangers had outshot the Devils 6-2. We had a new game going! Mess scored the go ahead goal by pouncing on a rebound at 12:12 and the Rangers wouldn't look back from that point. With 2:49 left in the third, Glenn Anderson of the Rangers two handed Bernie Nichols and took a slashing penalty. With 1:53 left in the period and 1:04 remaining on the power play, Jacques Lemaire called a timeout with a faceoff in the Ranger zone to the right of Mike Richter. Messier drew the puck back to his defenseman at the bottom of the faceoff circle who moved the puck behind the goal to the other corner. John McLean of the Devils got to the puck first and tried to center a pass to the front of the net but it went through the intended target and right onto Messier's stick in the slot. 'Mess' turned with the puck and fired a shot right into the heart of the Devils' unguarded cage. Mark Messier made good on his "called shot" by scoring his first hat trick as a NY Ranger (a natural one at that) to force game seven two nights later back in Madison Square Garden. Mark Messier's feat in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final has been described as one of the greatest individual efforts in the history of the game. Witnessing the herculean effort put forth by 'Captain Courageous' that night certainly made a believer out of me when only 20 minutes before I had all but written them off.
Back in Madison Square Garden two nights later, the NY Rangers advanced to the Stanley Cup Final on the strength of Stephane Matteau's goal scored in double overtime. The Ranger would have an opportunity to silence the chants of "1940" once and for all."
There will be no guarantees coming from Mark Messier or any of the current Ranger players tonight in the Prudential Center. 'The Rock' that the NY Rangers have to climb will be in the form of 40 year old future Hockey Hall of Fame goalkeeper Martin Brodeur and a very committed team of Devils in front of him. I will be watching with interest to see if one of the Ranger players provides the leadership or takes the game on his back the way the Captain did in '94.
Tonight, the outcome is too unpredictable for anyone to guarantee.
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