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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly New York Rangers
Heart-Pounding, Jaw-Dropping, and Gut-Wrenching Moments from New York Rangers History
By Steve Zipay
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2008 Steve Zipay
All rights reserved.
Just as baseball greatness is measured by World Series victories, having a team and its roster engraved on Lord Stanley's silver cup is the high point of an NHL franchise. Rangers names are etched four times on the sport's vaunted trophy, and the roads to the pinnacle are among the sweetest paths for this Original Six franchise, which has traveled hills and valleys over eight decades of competition.
The waning years of the 1920s were roaring for the Rangers.
In their inaugural 1926–1927 season, the Rangers finished an impressive 25–13–6. Right wing Bill Cook won the Art Ross Trophy with a league-high 33 goals, but the Rangers were ousted by the Boston Bruins in the opening round of the playoffs.
In their second campaign, the Rangers finished barely over .500 at 19–16–9, second in the American Division. But they advanced to the Finals by beating the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Boston Bruins, each in two games.
All the games in the best-of-five final series against the Montreal Maroons were scheduled for the Montreal Forum because the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus — a major cash-cow spring event at Madison Square Garden — was booked.
They were blanked 2–0 in the opener, but on April 7, the two teams played one of the most unforgettable games in hockey history.
The teams were scoreless halfway through the second period when Maroons forward Nels Stewart's shot struck Rangers netminder Lorne Chabot above the left eye. With no substitute, coach Lester Patrick — a 44-year-old former defenseman — donned the goaltending equipment.
Amazingly, Patrick held off the Maroons for the rest of the period, and in the third, Cook, the team's first captain, gave the Rangers a 1–0 lead. The Maroons scored to tie the game after two beautiful saves by Patrick, and sent the game into overtime — the first in Rangers history.
But Frank Boucher, the playmaking center on the Rangers' number-one line, stole the puck and scored the winner at 7:05 of the sudden-death session. The players lifted Patrick, who had been rebuffed when he first tried to "borrow" Alex Connell, an Ottawa Senators goalie who was watching from the stands, onto their shoulders and paraded around the rink.
The Rangers won two of the next three games, including the clincher on April 14, 1928, when Boucher again scored the deciding goal, and in their second season, the Rangers sipped from the silver bowl.
While the players returned to their homes in Canada, Patrick returned to New York and was given a hero's welcome, including a press conference on the steps of City Hall with media-savvy mayor Jimmy Walker, who had previously ordered a tickertape parade to celebrate Charles Lindbergh's transatlantic flight and posed with Babe Ruth after the Yankees slugger rapped his 60th homer.
In the public's eye, the Rangers were a glittering success.
For the five seasons following the 1928 Cup victory, the Rangers were contenders. They advanced to the Finals twice and the semis once before bowing out.
Boucher, the Cooks (Fred, or "Bun," and Bill, who was 37 and won his second Ross Trophy), and defenseman Ching Johnson formed the core of the club, which finished third in the American Division at 23–17–8. But other stars were showing their age, and some were shipped out. Goaltender Lorne Chabot was replaced by Glasgow-born Andy Aitkenhead, who played all 48 games in the 1932–1933 season. Defenseman Earl Siebert replaced Taffy Abel.
In the playoffs, the Rangers first outlasted the Canadiens and then the Detroit Falcons, by virtue of total goals in each of the two-game series. Aitkenhead shut out the Falcons 2–0 in their first matchup.
Then it was on to Toronto to face the Maple Leafs and their highscoring Kid Line of Charlie Conacher, Joe Primeau, and Busher Jackson in the best-of-five Finals.
The circus was on Broadway again, but at least the Rangers made the best of their one home game, beating the Leafs at the Garden 5–1 in Game 1 on April 4, with the so-called A-Line of Frank Boucher and the brothers Cook providing the offense. The next three games were in Toronto, with the Rangers ahead 2–0, the Leafs won the third game 3–2, but lost star Ace Bailey with torn cartilage in his knee.
Game 4, on April 13, 1933, turned out to be the clincher and another overtime thriller.
The teams were scoreless after three periods, with Aitkenhead continuing his brilliant play. In all, he allowed only 13 goals in eight games.
The decisive goal came after two Leafs — Alex Levinsky and Bill Thoms — were whistled for penalties, giving the Blueshirts a two-man advantage.
Bill Cook ended the contest after a pass from Butch Keeling at 7:34, and the win also drew the curtain on an era for the Rangers. The aging A-Line soon would be derailed with trades, and the team retooled under its new president, John Reed Kilpatrick.
The 1932–1933 trophy was known as the Forgotten Cup. Not only wasn't it formally presented to the team until November 11, 1933, the championship came between the more famous first and third Cups.
It began with the Powerhouse Line, continued with the Bread Line, and so on through the menu. This was probably the most complete and well-balanced club in Rangers history.
The main course, or the Powerhouse Line, was right wing Bryan Hextall, left wing Lynn Patrick (Lester's eldest son), and center Phillipe (Phil) Watson, who finished first, second, and third in league scoring, respectively.
The attempt to develop players in the team's farm system, begun by Patrick, was evident in the Bread Line of left wing Alex Shibicky (22) and brothers Neil (a center) and Mac Colville (a right wing).
With Mac only 20 and Neil just 22 when the trio was assembled in the 1936–1937 season, the threesome was the youngest in the league, and, according to reporters, was the "bread and butter" of the roster. And, remember, this was during the Depression, so over at St. Malachy's Roman Catholic Church a block away from the Garden, real bread lines were common.
Rounding out the feared offense was Wilfred "Dutch" Hiller, a left wing who was the fastest skater in the league; playmaking center Alf "the Embalmer" Pike; and right wing Clint "Snuffy" Smith, an elusive forward and faceoff specialist. Anchoring the defense was the captain, Art "the Trapper" Coulter, an outdoors-man, and goaltender Davey Kerr, who would win the Vezina Trophy. Kilby MacDonald, a spare forward, was named rookie of the year.
Although the team won just once in their first eight games (with three losses and four ties), it then caught fire. They were unbeaten in the next 17 games (14 wins and three ties). A 2–1 loss to Chicago finally snapped the string.
In the first round of the playoffs, the Rangers edged the second-best team, the Bruins, 4 games to 2, with Kerr posting 1–0 shutouts in Games 4 and 5.
The Maple Leafs were the final obstacle. The Rangers won the first two at the Garden, 2–1 — when Pike beat goalkeeper Turk Broda at 15:30 of overtime — and 6–2. Because of the circus, the remainder of the Finals would be played in Toronto, and behind Broda, the Leafs took the next two games 2–1 and 3–0.
Muzz Patrick, who had scored only two goals in the 48-game regular season, ended Game 5 in overtime for a 2–1 win. In Game 6, the Leafs jumped out to a 2–0 lead, but third-period scores by Neil Colville and Pike knotted the game.
In overtime again, Hiller outmuscled a defenseman behind the net and flung a pass to Hextall at the blue line. Watson found Hextall, and, "It was kind of a fast play, bang-bang, just like that," Watson recalled years later. "Bryan came burning in like an elephant" and beat Broda with a high, hard backhander to the goalie's right. The team celebrated with champagne and the Cup in the Royal York Hotel in Toronto.
The players appreciated the talent and depth of the team, and Coulter said it could have been a dynasty had it not been for the circus, which forced them out of town — not only for games. Patrick took the team to Atlantic City for grueling workouts. "That alone cost us at least three Stanley Cups," said Coulter. "We won one, but we should have had four."
As it turned out, the next one would be 54 years away.
The drought seemed as if it would never end. The Rangers had climbed to the Finals in 1950, 1972, and 1979, but were denied the prize. So this run would be the most exhilarating and satisfying of all.
After finishing the regular season at the top of the NHL with 112 points, the Rangers met the Islanders, who only clinched a playoff berth in the next-to-last game of the season. Since 1975 the two archrivals had faced off in the postseason seven times, with Islanders winning five of those series.
Not this time.
The Rangers dominated and swept the series in four straight games, which included two back-to-back 6–0 shutouts at Madison Square Garden, and a total score of 22–3.
Following that rout, the Rangers knocked off the Washington Capitals to set up what would be two seven-game thrillers against the New Jersey Devils and the Vancouver Canucks.
In a spectacular series highlighted by captain Mark Messier's guarantee of a win prior to Game 6, the Devils took Game 1 in overtime, but goaltender Mike Richter blanked the Devils in Game 2. Stephane Matteau scored in double-overtime to cap Game 3. But the Devils won Games 4 and 5, the latter by a commanding 4–1, and the Rangers were on the edge of the postseason abyss.
Then, taking a page from the great leaders in sports, Messier — who became even more of a mythic figure with his ensuing performance — audaciously promised a Game 6 victory in New Jersey to force a Game 7 at the Garden.
"We know we have to win it," he said. "We can win it, and we are going to win it."
Messier backed up his words in the most dramatic fashion possible. With the Devils ahead 2–0, the "Messiah" provided an assist and then scored three straight goals in the third period, the last into an empty net with 1:45 to play. "Game 6 was an incredible individual feat by Mark," Mike Keenan, the Rangers coach, said. "Historically, among the greatest ever."
It appeared that the Rangers would eliminate the Devils in regulation in Game 7, but Valeri Zelepukin scored with 7.7 seconds left to force overtime. The Rangers outshot the Devils 15–7 in the first extra stanza. Incredibly, at 4:24 of the second overtime, it was Matteau emerging the hero again, banging the puck off goalie Martin Brodeur's stick and in, ending a classic matchup.
Richter was outstanding in the finale as well, turning away the first 23 New Jersey shots and all eight in overtime. But the Pennsylvania netminder's best — and equally outstanding performances from Messier and Brian Leetch — was yet to come.
In the opener of the Finals in Vancouver, Leetch set up two goals, but the Canucks prevailed in overtime. After an empty-netter in the 3–1 victory in Game 3, Leetch scored twice in a 5–1 romp in Game 3.
It didn't stop there. In Game 4, with the Blueshirts trailing 2–0 in the first period, Leetch lit the lamp at 4:03 of the second period and added helpers on the next three Rangers goals for a four-point night and a 4–2 triumph.
Leetch's dominance notwithstanding, it was Richter's incredible split save, stopping a penalty shot by "the Russian Rocket," Pavel Bure, with his right skate at 6:31 of the second period, that kept the game in reach.
With the Rangers ahead in the series 3–1, the Garden faithful were sky-high for Game 5, chanting, "We want the Cup," but were silenced by a 6–3 Vancouver win. The Canucks won again to tie the series in Canada, and on June 14, all of New York and the hockey world was watching.
Leetch beat Canucks goaltender Kirk McLean for a 1–0 lead in the first period, and Messier potted a rebound in the second to extend the margin to 3–1. The Rangers held on to win 3–2, sparking a joyous celebration that the Garden had never witnessed — and hasn't since.
"Bure and MacTavish with one and six-tenths seconds to go," longtime Rangers voice Marv Albert reported from the radio booth. "The puck is dropped. MacTavish controls, and it's all over! The New York Rangers have won the Stanley Cup ... something that most people thought they would never hear in their lifetime. And the Rangers pour onto the ice to pound each other. Mike Richter being congratulated. And they are going wild at Madison Square Garden!"
Said Rod Gilbert, the former Rangers right wing who was pounding the Plexiglas in glee: "I lost my voice in both French and English."
Leetch was named MVP, and the demons of a painful halfcentury had been vanquished. As the players skated around with the Cup, one middle-aged fan underscored the relief of a generation of fans with a sign.
It read: "Now I Can Die in Peace."
THE NEAR MISSES
In hockey, the ultimate success, the culmination of many a boyhood dream, is hoisting the Stanley Cup. The Rangers often had high-quality teams that just fell slightly short. Here are the stories of three near-misses.
Coached by Lynn Patrick, this group of Rangers scored the fewest goals in the six-team circuit, but finished fourth in the regular season, thanks to the play of goaltender Chuck Rayner, who teammates called "the Lone Ranger."
In the first round of the playoffs, the Rangers upset Montreal 4–1, helped by five goals from Pentti Lund, a Finnish forward who had won the Calder Trophy. The Ringling Brothers circus was again booked at Madison Square Garden in April, and the Rangers were evicted for the Finals. The Rangers chose to play two "home" games against the Detroit Red Wings at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto.
At the Olympia in Detroit, the Wings — playing without their injured star Gordie Howe — captured Game 1, 4–1. In Toronto, the teams split, but the Rangers took Games 4 and 5 on overtime goals by Don Raleigh. "They seemed like a team of destiny," said Max McNab, a Red Wings center.
It certainly looked that way when the Rangers led 3–1 early in the second period in Game 6 and 4–3 early in the third. But the desperate Detroit Red Wings tied it on Ted Lindsay's goal at 4:13, and won it on a goal by Sid Abel at 10:34. In the decisive Game 7, on goals by Allan Stanley and Tony Leswick, the Blueshirts led 2–0, but the teams were tied 3–3 after two periods, then three, and even after the first overtime.
A utility forward by the name of Pete Babando won the Cup for Detroit. George Gee won a faceoff from Buddy O'Connor in the circle to Rayner's right and drew the puck to Babando at the top of the circle. Babando's shot hit a player, changed direction, and zipped past Rayner into the far corner of the net. "I didn't see it until it was coming right through, about two inches off the ice," said Rayner.
Said Raleigh: "In sports, you win or you don't. Nobody remembers how close you come."
Well, Rayner remembered. "Not a day goes by that I don't think about that goal," Rayner said a long time later, reflecting on the loss. "What a shame that was. Just one goal, and there never would have been a 54-year drought."
Under coach Emile "the Cat" Francis, the Rangers made the playoffs from the 1966–1967 season through the next nine years. The 1971–1972 squad was the cream of the crop.
Rod Gilbert, the right wing who broke in with the Rangers in 1960, had 43 goals and 54 assists that season and proclaimed it "our best team."
With Gilbert's G-A-G (Goal-a-Game) Line leading the way, the club ended the season at a terrific 48–17–13. And with Gilbert, left wing Vic Hadfield (50 goals, 56 assists), center Jean Ratelle (46–63), defenseman Brad Park, and goaltender Ed Giacomin starring, the team was poised for their first Cup since 1940.
Things were rolling along until Ratelle was struck by a Dale Rolfe shot that fractured his ankle with 17 games left in the regular season. Although Ratelle was not the same swift playmaker in the postseason, the Rangers edged Montreal in the first round and swept the Blackhawks in four games.
Excerpted from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly New York Rangers by Steve Zipay. Copyright © 2008 Steve Zipay. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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