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Stanley Cup Playoffs Flashback: May 23, 1994

Rangers were pressed to brink of elimnation with stunning Game 5 loss

Saturday, 05.23.2009 / 6:23 PM / 15th Anniversary of 1994
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Stanley Cup Playoffs Flashback: May 23, 1994
By Jim Cerny, newyorkrangers.com

When the Rangers dropped Game 4 of the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals, it clearly knocked the wind out of their sails. However, when the Rangers were rocked 4-1 by the Devils in Game 5 on this date 15 years ago, their ship nearly capsized.

The loss in Game 5 pushed the Rangers to the point of elimination for the first time in the 1994 post-season, as they now trailed the best-of-seven series 3-2 with the Devils looking to finish it off on home ice in Game 6.

Sergei Zubov and the Rangers ran into unexpected resistance from Tom Chorske and the Devils in Game 5 of the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals at MSG.
A thoroughly outstanding defensive effort by New Jersey, coupled with some major mistakes by the Rangers, sealed the Blueshirts’ fate in the fifth contest of this hard-fought series. And to add insult to injury, former Rangers’ center Bernie Nicholls -- who had been suspended the previous match after an egregious cross-check on Alex Kovalev in Game 3 -- netted a pair of goals for the Devils in Game 5, including a shorthanded tally to open the scoring.

With The Garden Faithful roaring at ear-splitting decibel levels, the Rangers nearly scored just under five minutes into the contest, but Craig MacTavish shoveled his shot wide of an open net with Devils goalie Martin Brodeur badly out of position. Moments later New Jersey’s Tommy Albelin was whistled for a high-sticking penalty and the Rangers, off to a quick start, seemed poised to build upon the momentum by heading to the power play.

Brian Leetch, who had been benched for long stretches of time in Game 4, was back in his usual role of quarterbacking the power play in Game 5, but he turned the puck over at the blueline to New Jersey’s Claude Lemieux about 90 seconds into the man-advantage, leading to the first score of the night.

Lemieux broke down the right wing and fired a slap shot that was stopped by Rangers goaltender Mike Richter. Nicholls, though, wormed away from Kovalev’s check and tapped the rebound into the open net, and the Devils had the hugely important first goal of the game, scored shorthanded nonetheless, just 6:49 into the first period.

After Lemieux’s score, the Devils dropped into their neutral zone trap, just as they had so successfully done in their Game 4 victory at The Meadowlands, and stymied one Rangers’ rush after another. When the Blueshirts finally did gain the offensive zone, Brodeur was exceedingly sharp between the pipes.

Game 5 was shaping up to be a near exact replay of the previous contest, with the Devils routinely frustrating the Rangers while holding a one-goal lead after two periods of play. New Jersey was content and patient in choosing their offensive rushes. And when they did produce scoring chances they were of a high quality.

Richter, though, was sharp in goal for the Rangers, after having been pulled in the first period of Game 4 two nights prior. Richter stoned Scott Niedermeyer and Stephane Richer during a wild goalmouth scramble late in the first, and came up with big-time saves on Richer and Albelin during the second period.

Richter wasn’t given any help at all from his teammates on the goal that turned the match decidedly in New Jersey’s favor early in the third period. Defenseman Alexander Karpovtsev’s attempted clear hit the side of a goal post, and the puck proceeded to skitter along the goal line. A desperate Richter dove fully extended with his glove out to stop the rolling puck, but rugged Devils’ forward Mike Peluso raced in and jammed Richter’s glove and the puck over the goal line at the 2:36 mark to give New Jersey a 2-0 lead.

The Garden was silent, and the Rangers were clearly deflated by the sudden turn of events. The Devils stormed forward and added third period goals from Nicholls at 10:37 and Tom Chorske at 13:58 to make it 4-0.

The scary truth was settling in. The Presidents’ Trophy-winning Rangers, who posted 52 wins and 112 points during the regular season, and who blew out the Islanders and Capitals in the first two rounds of the playoffs, were about to be one loss away from having their Stanley Cup dreams shattered by their cross-river rivals.

Esa Tikkanen drove a long slap shot past Brodeur with 3:27 left on the clock, but it was far from a meaningful goal. The jubilant Devils skated off the MSG ice with a huge road victory that left the Rangers facing not only elimination in the series, but their long tortured past, as well.

Yet again the tabloid columnists dusted off their “same old Rangers” story lines. 54 years since the last Stanley Cup, the Rangers were not only battling an extremely talented and disciplined Devils’ team. No, there were ghosts of past playoff failures being resurrected by the second.

Newsday’s headline the next day said it all, “Rangers 1 Game Away From Annual Failure”.

Inside the Rangers’ dressing room after Game 5, past Cup winners like Adam Graves and Kevin Lowe and MacTavish spoke bravely about the fact that all champions are pushed to their limits at some point and respond in a positive fashion.

But the harsh truth was that the Devils were clearly the better team in every facet of the game for the past 120 minutes of the series, and they were now heading back home looking the part of a confident club ready to pull the plug on the Rangers’ season.

Somehow, someway, the Rangers needed some thing or some one to make a difference in their favor in Game 6.

It was going to be time for The Captain to deliver on the promise that arrived with him and his five Stanley Cup rings two seasons prior.