Revisiting New York Rangers memorable 1997 playoff victory over Florida Panthers

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On Apr. 17, 1997, the New York Rangers visited the Florid Panthers for Game 1 of their Eastern Conference Quarter-Finals matchup at Miami Arena. Not only was it the first meeting between the two franchises in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and only one ahead of the 2024 Eastern Conference Final, it was a special time in franchise history.

Rangers captain Mark Messier was about to embark on the final playoff run of his Hall of Fame career. Incredibly, the six-time Stanley Cup champions did not play in the postseason over the final seven seasons of his career (three seasons with Vancouver Canucks, four more with Rangers).

Also, Wayne Gretzky was making his Broadway postseason debut. Like Messier, it would the final one of “The Great One’s” illustrious career. And former goaltending partners Mike Richter and John Vanbiesbrouck were going head-to-head for the first time in the playoffs.

After being swept by the Colorado Avalanche in the 1996 Stanley Cup Final, the Panthers (35-28-19) finished three points better (89-86) than the Rangers (38-34-10) in the Atlantic Division standings in the 1996-97 regular season. Florida’s leading scorer was a former Rangers forward, Ray Sheppard (60 points), while Gretzky finished fourth in the Art Ross race, with 97 points.

Those Panthers were the Cinderella team of the 1996 playoffs, backstopped by Vanbiesbrouck’s excellence. The Blueshirts lineup boasted four future Hall of Famers: Gretzky, Messier, Brian Leetch, and Luc Robitaille.

Let’s take a look back at how the 1997 first-round playoff series between the Rangers and Panthers played out.

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Rangers split first two games on road in 1997 series

NHL: USA TODAY Sports-Archive
RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports Credit: RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports

New York began their march to the 1997 Eastern Conference Final by being shut out 3-0 in their first playoff game on Apr. 17, 1997. Vanbiesbrouck, a one-time Vezina Trophy winner with the Rangers, made 34 saves against his former teammates, outdueling Richter, who finished the with 25 saves and a .893 save percentage. Each of the three goals were scored in the second period. Florida’s Johan Garpenlov and Kirk Muller scored on the power play, followed by Rob Niedermayer lighting the lamp late in the frame at even strength. Robert Svehla earned an assist on all three goals.

Gretzky tallied New York’s first goal of the postseason in the second period of Game 2, and finished the contest with a goal and an assist. Shortly after Gretzky opened the scoring, Esa Tikkanen put the visitors up 2-0 with a power-play goal set up by Adam Graves and Messier. Just three minutes into the third, Robitaille extended the lead to 3-0, which held up as the final score. Richter finished with 31 saves, returning the shutout favor.

Overtime heroics, Gretzky hat trick put Panthers on brink

Back at Madison Square Garden for Game 3, the Rangers blew a 2-0 first-period lead and rallied back from a 3-2 deficit in the dying seconds of the third period to force overtime. Mike Eastwood gave New York a 1-0 lead, followed by Robitaille’s second of the series. After three second-period goals by Florida, two of which came on the power play, the Blueshirts were down to the final 20 seconds when Robitaille tied the contest up 3-3 at 19:41 with helpers from Messier and Gretzky.

In overtime, Tikkanen, a five-time Stanley Cup winner, notched his third career overtime goal to give the Blueshirts a 4-3 win. Between the pipes, Vanbiesbrouck was busy again, stopping 41 out of 45 shots (.911 save percentage). Richter made 36 saves (.923 save percentage) for his fourth playoff overtime win.

With a chance to put a stranglehold on the series in Game 4,the Rangers delivered in front of the home fans, who saw Gretzky’s signature game as a Ranger. After Niedermayer opened the scoring for the Panthers with another power-play goal in the first period, The Great One took control of the game with a natural hat trick in the second period, scoring at 3:07 (power play), 6:46 and 9:30 to give New York a 3-1 lead.

Five different skaters earned assists on Gretzky’s first postseason hat trick since Game 7 of the Clarence Campbell Conference Final in May 1993. According to StatHead.com, Game 4 was his second career hat trick against Vanbiesbrouck, who surrendered three goals to Gretzky in a Nov. 4, 1987, contest between the Edmonton Oilers and Rangers at Northlands Coliseum.

The Panthers didn’t go quietly in Game 4, though. David Nemirovsky scored just 1:40 into the third period, forcing the Rangers to hang on for a 3-2 victory and 3-1 lead in the series.

Rangers advance in Game 5 overtime thriller

Messier opened Game 5 with a goal just 39 seconds in, but Florida tied the contest 1-1 before the end of the first period. The Captain reestablished the visitor’s lead with 16 seconds left in the second period before Sheppard tallied another power-play goal for the Panthers in the third, ultimately forcing overtime.

Three days after playing overtime hero in Game 3, Tikkanen picked up the final playoff overtime winner of his career at 12:02, sending the Rangers into the second round of the 1997 Stanley Cup Playoffs with a 4-1 series win on Apr. 25, 1997.

Richter was solid in the series, with a .938 save percentage and 2.00 goals-against average. Vanbiesbrouck was nearly as good good, finishing with a .929 save percentage and 2.60 GAA. Gretzky led all players with six points (four goals, two assists). Svehla was Florida’s leading scorer with a goal and four helpers. After getting shut out in Game 1, the Rangers only trailed two other times in the series for 32:52.

Following the series win, the Rangers defeated the New Jersey Devils in five games in the second round before losing to the Philadelphia Flyers in five games in the Eastern Conference Final.

Interestingly, the Panthers played only three playoff series (2000, 2012, 2016) over the next 23 seasons.

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