The 1997 Rangers, Oh what could have been

Gretzky (Getty Images)

The 2019 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs have been, in a word, unpredictable. Out of the eight first-round contests, the San Jose Sharks were the only pre-series favorites to advance to the second round and that was by the narrowest of margins with the help of a controversial penalty. Seeing the myriad of staggering upsets and flat-out Cinderella stories reminds of me of a past New York Ranger team that defied the odds, proved critics wrong and darn near made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals.

The season was 1996-97. The Great One” Wayne Gretzky left St Louis to check off the final item on his “bucket list” and that was to re-join his buddy from Edmonton, Mark Messier, and play for the New York Rangers. Gretzky joined many of the heroes and stalwarts from the 1994 Stanley Cup champions to give the Blueshirts a formidable lineup. Led by head coach Colin Campbell and eventual Norris Trophy winner Brian Leetch, 1996-97 Rangers seemed locked and loaded and ready to take the Eastern Conference by storm.

The Blueshirts would struggle mightily in the season’s embryonic stage winning just three of their first 11 games. As the Thanksgiving holiday approached, the Rangers sported an unimpressive and unsightly record of 7-13-4. Remember folks, this was the era of the NHL where teams around the league tried to emulate the “Legion Of Doom” AKA the Philadelphia Flyers.

The Ranger roster may have been inundated with savvy veterans with a championship pedigree. However, the league at that time, led by players like the Hulking Flyer Eric Lindros, was big, tenacious, physical and mean. The smaller, older, slower, meeker Blueshirts looked every bit as such through the first 24 games. Then, as the end of 1996 was drawing near, the skill and moxie that this Ranger team was built on started to rise to the surface and, once the calendar flipped to 1997, the Blueshirts had clawed their way back up the standings and were one of the Eastern Conference’s most successful teams.

The Rangers went from 7-13-4 on November 23rd, 1996 to the regular season’s high water mark on February 8th, 1997 with a record of 28-21-7 and put themselves solidly in playoff position. The Blueshirts would spend the rest of the regular season trading winning streaks and losing streaks, finishing the year with 86 points which was good for fourth place in the Atlantic Division.

Their first round playoff opponent was the defending Eastern Conference champion, Florida Panthers. Not knowing which  Ranger team was going to show up, very few prognosticators felt the ambiguous hockey team from Manhattan would reign supreme over the trapping squad from South Florida.

After losing game one via a shutout and looking thoroughly outclassed, the odds of the Rangers advancing to the next round looked quite slim. Then, as if the proverbial switch was flipped, starting in game two and behind stellar goal-tending from Mike Richter and a turn-back-the-clock performance from Wayne Gretzky, the Rangers would go on to sweep the next four games culminating with a thrilling game five overtime Golden Goal on the road. Amazingly, the Rangers, left for dead by most after game one, were advancing to the next round with a gritty, gutty performance. Their opponent would be the top seed in the east and their bitter rivals from across the Hudson River, the New Jersey Devils.

Not knowing which Ranger team was going to show up, very few prognosticators felt the ambiguous hockey team from Manhattan would reign supreme over the trapping squad the Garden State. After losing game one via a shutout and looking thoroughly outclassed, the odds of the Rangers advancing to the next round looked quite slim. Then, as if the proverbial switch was flipped, starting in game two and behind stellar goal-tending from Mike Richter and a turn-back-the-clock performance from Wayne Gretzky, the Rangers would go on to sweep the next four games culminating with a thrilling game five overtime Golden Goal on the road.

Amazingly, the Rangers, left for dead by most after game one, were advancing to the next round with a gritty, gutty performance. Their opponent would be the second seed in the east and their bitter rivals from down the Jersey Turnpike, the Philadelphia Flyers.

Wait, what?!? As the great Yogi Berra said, “It’s Deja Vue All Over Again.”

The first and second round series against the Panthers and Devils were remarkably and eerily similar. Once the Rangers, the savvy veterans that they were, advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals, they were no longer considered to be an anomaly. Messier, Gretzky, Leetch, Richter, et al. had made believers out of the naysayers and this improbable playoff run had the Garden Faithful making preliminary plans for their second parade down the Canyon of Heroes in lower Manhattan in four years.

The third round series was starting to emulate the previous two battles as the Flyers looked dominant in taking the first game and then the Rangers, behind a Gretzky hat-trick, took game two sending the series back to the World’s Most Famous tied at one. Games three and four at the Garden were hard-fought and tenacious. The plethora of injuries that the Rangers sustained throughout the post-season and the sheer size and physicality of the Flyers would eventually wear down the valiant Blueshirts. The Flyers would eek out victories in both games at MSG and then take game five at home, to win the series and advance to the Stanley Cup Finals.

When the 1997 playoffs commenced, the Rangers were not expected to win a round, much less advance to the NHL’s version of the Final Four. The skill and moxie that was the cornerstone of that team carried them as far as they were going to go. The too-good Flyers and too many injuries were just too much to overcome.

As Rangerstown is well-aware, the 1997 Eastern Conference Finals loss to Philadelphia had a catastrophic, ripple affect throughout the organization. The Captain, The Messiah, Mark Messier would bolt Broadway for greener pastures in Vancouver and the next seven playoff-less springs sent the franchise into a tailspin that lasted until 2006 when Jaromir Jagr re-wrote the team’s offensive record books and a young goalie from Sweden named Henrik Lundqvist helped bring playoff hockey back to Gotham.

1997 was the Stanley Cup Championship team from 1994’s last gasp to return to glory. They gave it their all, and along with the greatest hockey player in NHL history, came within three victories of giving themselves a chance to fight for Lord Stanley’s gleaming silver chalice. We’ll never know how the would-be finals series against the eventual champion Detroit Red Wings would have resulted. But, if the Blueshirts would have remained relatively healthy and if they had just a bit more puck-luck on their side, maybe, just maybe, there would have been a fifth blue, rectangular championship banner hanging from the iconic Garden ceiling.

Featured Image  Ron Frehm, AP