1952. Not exactly a banner year for the New York Rangers. Through the calendar year, the Blueshirts had more ties than wins. (You do remember ties, don’t you?) Sure, there were a couple of promising young players on the roster. Gump Worsley came up and would go on to win the Calder Trophy. A couple of kids from the Guelph Bitmores would make their debuts and eventually get their names and numbers hoisted to the Garden rafters. But despite the nascent promise, this wasn’t a team to write home about. The franchise was mired in a stretch where they would miss the playoffs five years in a row, and in 11 of 13 seasons, something not even John Muckler could accomplish. Bear in mind that, in the Original Six era, only two teams missed the playoffs every year, so the odds of a streak like that happening randomly are about .02 percent. This was a bad team. Nevertheless, the number 1952 holds a special place in Rangers history. Or, I should say, 19:52.
Eight seconds to go (or fewer). Be it by sheer coincidence, divine intervention or otherwise, three goals scored with this timestamp in the third period have shaped the last 20 years of franchise history. Over the course of 20 years, it wouldn’t be unusual for a team to have three, four, even five goals for and against with the same timestamp through all of those box scores from all of those games. But to see them all in later-round playoff games? For them all to be franchise-shifting goals in some way? That strikes me as rather unusual.
May 27, 1994. Those of us old enough will forever remember where we were for this game. Some of you were at the Garden. Many more of you were watching on TV. I was at the then-brand-new movie theater at the Menlo Park Mall seeing The Flintstones, that live action abonimation with John Goodman. Why would any sensible Ranger fan do that, especially on that night? Superstition, of course. My mother firmly believed that if the family watched the game, the Rangers would lose. So we went to the movies instead, and I was deprived the opportunity to watch live what many pundits believe was the greatest game ever played—and because the Rangers won, it’s still pretty difficult to fault her for the decision.
We all know the story here. Brian Leetch scored on one of the all-time great stickhandling moves to go up 1-0. There was some great end-to-end action but no one broke through. With Marty Brodeur on the bench late in the 3rd, the Devils get a couple of whacks at it in the crease, and somehow Valeri Zelepukin slipped the puck under Mike Richter’s left pad with 7.7 seconds to go. 19:52 of the 3rd. Stephane Matteau’s winner later that night is one of the two or three most important goals in the history of the franchise, but in a sense the Zelepukin goal was just as pivotal in shaping the team’s future. For one thing, the heightened drama in the game created by the late tally capped what was already one of the great playoff series ever, in turn cementing the Rangers-Devils rivalry as one of the game’s most fierce and for many fans displacing the Islanders as the team’s archenemy. More importantly, the final outcome of the game validated the virtue of the trades Neil Smith made at the deadline ten weeks prior, the moves that saw key youth like Tony Amonte moved away for “winners” like Matteau. This set the tone for an organizational philosophy that set the franchise back for ten years. As great a moment as the Matteau goal was, I can’t help but think that the team would have been better off in the long term if the Rangers had won this game 1-0 in regulation.
May 4, 2007. I was at the Garden for this one, even though the game itself wasn’t, thanks to a team-sponsored viewing party, and the building was buzzing like it was a home game. Even though the Rangers were the No. 6 seed, this team had the feel of something special heading into the playoffs. Remember that they finished the season on a 17-6-5 run, starting with the night (in New Jersey, ironically) that Sean Avery first appeared in a Rangers uniform, and helped in no small part by the acquisition of Paul Mara’s beard. They breezed through a clearly weaker Thrashers team and found themselves facing the Presidents’ Trophy winners, the Buffalo Sabres, in the Conference semifinals.
The Rangers looked overmatched through most of the series, but they were playing scrappily enough that they gave themselves a chance to win. Game 2 (a Buffalo win) and Game 3 (Michal Rozsival’s double overtime winner) were close enough for either team to win, but the Rangers looked defensively composed in Game 4, and hopes were high heading into Game 5 with the series tied. The game didn’t disappoint, either. Hank out-dueled fellow second-year phenom Ryan Miller for most of the night, and as the game went scoreless late into the third, it seemed like the Rangers were getting the better chances. Martin Straka finally broke through with a little over three minutes to go, and the Rangers went into shutdown mode. When they iced the puck with 16 seconds to go, the crowd back at MSG was on their feet. Except Michael Nylander, who ordinarily wouldn’t have been taking a late-game defensive zone draw, was stuck in that role because of the icing. Needless to say, he lost the faceoff and the Rangers couldn’t regain control of the puck. Chris Drury got to a loose rebound a few seconds later and beat Hank short side to tie the game with 7.7 seconds to go. 19:52 of the 3rd. Those numbers again. I felt that the series was over then and there (despite what Carp might say about momentum). Max Afinogenov won it in overtime, and the Sabres were dominant in closing the series out in Game 6.
More importantly, this game signaled that, despite the excitement over the late-season run, the Rangers were still more than a few pieces away, and ended up as a harbinger of the inevitable dismantling of the Jagr-era team. Moreover, it was very likely the main reason Glen Sather gave Drury a $35 million contract less than two months later. Despite Drury’s health issues and often inconsistency on the ice, his locker room leadership helped shape the character that would emerge as a key over the last two seasons, and clearly influenced his successor, Ryan Callahan. It may have taken until this past year to truly pay dividends, but I do believe that the Rangers were better off for the Drury signing.
May 7, 2012. I was at the Garden for this one too, except this time the action played out right in front of me instead of on the scoreboard. Tied at 1-1 after two tentative periods, my neighbor down the row from me dropped a pearl of wisdom. “This is one of those games where we need the hockey gods. If it’s going to be our year, we’ll need a couple of those games to go our way.” Not 15 minutes later, after John Carlson had already given the Capitals a 2-1 lead, with the building already pretty deflated, Nicklas Backstrom managed to find some open ice in the slot, and it looked like he was about to put the Rangers away. But then something funny happened, perhaps the hockey gods intervening, and he hit the post. I turned around to the aforementioned neighbor and said, “How do you like that for hockey gods? We got this one.” Not that I really believed my statement though. When Joe Tolleson announced over the PA that Joel Ward had in fact taken a double minor with 21 seconds left, my reaction was something along the lines of “Big byfuglien deal.”
But then Del Zotto’s shot got miraculously redirected to Callahan— just to Braden Holtby’s right—who took one whack at it, two whacks at it, three whacks at it. Brad Richards found a way to beat Holtby’s catching glove to the puck and shoot it right at Carlson, backing Holtby up in the crease in a last ditch effort. The puck found a way to squirm behind Carlson’s arm, off the far post and in, and the Garden exploded. With 6.6 seconds to go. Lost in the pandemonium was that the on-ice officials added another second back on the clock, so officially the equalizer was scored with 7.7 seconds left. 19:52 of the 3rd. Those numbers again. Except this time it was the Rangers tying it up. Marc Staal won it early in OT (and while we’re on it, I can’t understand why it isn’t standard for the point men to play the opposite sides on the power play, something that clearly contributed to the goal), and five days later the Rangers were in the Conference finals for the first time in 15 years.
So how did this goal impact the Rangers future? Surely, we don’t know yet, but by all accounts, that future is much brighter than it has been in recent memory. Here’s to hoping that in a few years we’ll look back on Richards’ equalizer as the goal that gave Sather the direction on the final pieces to build a Cup winner!