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Skate-Offs

The NHL returned to business on Wednesday night with the opening of the 2005-06 season after the sport suffered through an ugly one-year absence. I've had an odd relationship with hockey, which has fluctuated between my second and fourth-favorite sports, usually depending on how good the Rangers, a franchise with a history more tormented than the Mets, were.

I also covered the sport at the minor-league level for almost three full seasons during my tenure as a sportswriter in New Jersey. Hockey is a challenging sport to write about because the action happens so fast that it's hard to describe with accuracy and with flair (particularly without benefit of full-fledged instant replay in the minors), but I feel like I did a decent job on the beat, particularly in covering the human-interest angles (Human-interest is an issue with hockey ,in that there aren't a lot of interested humans, at least in the United States, but that's another topic for another day.) So I'll take a few minutes today to share a hockey walk-off story. Or would the more appropriate phrase be "skate-off?"

It would be easy to write about the 1994 Rangers and their run to the Stanley Cup, but I've been there and done that, so instead, I thought I'd talk about the unexpected run of the 1985-86 Rangers team, whose success was overshadowed by the eventual championship run of the 1986 Mets.

There was no reason during the regular season to think that the 1985-86 Rangers were going to be anything special. The Rangers had broken their fair share of hearts many times over since last winning the Stanley Cup in 1940. My dad was in Madison Square Garden when Pete Stemkowski beat the Blackhawks with a triple-overtime goal, putting the Rangers a game away from a Stanley Cup Finals they would never reach (the Blackhawks won the series in seven games) and when the Boston Bruins skated off the Garden ice with the championship trophy. The appreciation for torment was passed along to me at a young age. Though I'm too young to remember the run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1979 (thwarted by the Canadiens), I still tend to react with anger when I hear discussions regarding the Islanders 80s dynasty (one of my earliest hockey memories: My dad lifting me up when Don Maloney scored in the final seconds of regulation to tie the decisive Game 5 of the opening round of the 1984 playoffs...Ken Morrow scored in overtime to end that still-bitter defeat).

The 1985-86 Rangers put their fans through some particularly disgusting defeats that season. I don't recall the specifics, but I do remember a couple of backup goalies- Terry Kleisinger and Ron Scott, giving away a couple of games early in the season, which led to John Vanbiesbrouck eventually appearing in 61 games. The Rangers, buoyed by a late-season arrival of scoring forward Pierre Larouche, were fortunate just to make the playoffs. doing so by just two points. They finished fourth in the Patrick Division at 36-38-6.

Hockey is a game ripe for upsets and somehow the Rangers managed to pull of a huge one, beating a far-superior Flyers team in the opening round of the playoffs. The Flyers won 53 games during the regular season but the Rangers had a hot goalie and Vanbiesbrouck carried the team to a surprising five-game upset.

The Washington Capitals, a 50-win team, were the Rangers next opponents and the chance of beating another dominant team seemed slim, particularly in Game 1 when the Capitals took a 3-1 lead. The Rangers were not a good comeback team that season, but somehow they battled back in this one, scoring a shorthanded tally late in the second and another goal midway through the third to even the score at 3-3, leading into overtime.

The game story from the Washington Post that served as a brain-refresher for this piece reminded me not only of the Rangers overtime struggles (winless in their last 21 overtimes, including 11 defeats) but Washington's overtime successes (unbeaten in 25 extra-sessions), so the numbers were due to catch up with both teams eventually. Fortunately for the Rangers, it happened to be this night.

Hockey playoff overtimes can be quite lengthy but this one lasted only 76 seconds. I remember only the last few. The Rangers had obtained a forward named Brian MacLellan from the Los Angeles Kings about one-third of the way through the season and MacLellan hadn't done much to distinguish himself prior to this game. What stood out about MacLellan was his size- 6-feet-3 inches, 210 pounds- and his speed, or lack thereof (I'm wondering if Piazzaesque would be a good description). There are moments in an athlete's life in which the adrenaline kick pushes them to superhuman feats. MacLellan had one of those moments at a very good time.

My remembrance of this particular magic moment begins with MacLellan taking a pass along the sideboards near center ice, but newspaper reports confirm only part of this (the part of his being near center ice). They enhanced my visual recollection, letting me know that MacLellan set the play up with a blocked shot. Sprung loose up ice, MacLellan took the feed and put on as much of a speed burst as his body would allow. MacLellan beat Capitals goalie Pete Peeters on the breakaway by whipping the puck through Peeters legs. I got another pick-me-up from my dad after this one (the unexpected nature of the goal led to a huge emotional burst). He noted to me afterwards that MacLellan had skated "like he never had before" to ensure that he'd have a good breakaway chance.

The Rangers beat the Capitals in overtime again, later in the series, in equally stunning fashion, when Bob Brooke scored off a giveaway by Washington defenseman Scott Stevens, who would recover to have much future success. They beat Washington in the series rather handily, which was a pretty remarkable accomplishment. I'm convinced that the only reason the Rangers didn't win the Stanley Cup that season was because they had the misfortune of running into the best goalie ever, a cocky Montreal Canadiens rookie named Patrick Roy, in the conference finals, which they lost in five games (including a heartbreaking skate-off loss in OT).

The run predated the Mets dominance slightly that season, and I think New Yorkers are quick to forget it because it was overshadowed by the Mets and the Rangers team that won the Stanley Cup in 1994. They're my version of the 1973 Mets-- a team that for a short span came through in a mighty, magical fashion.

True Metlellans know...The Rangers played three overtime playoff games in the 1985-86 playoffs. All three of them, oddly enough, came on days in which the Mets did not play

Comments

Metstradamus said…
The tragedy of that run back then was that I didn't have cable TV to watch it. The odd game or two was on channel 9, which is how I got hooked in the first place. But I followed the Rangers mostly on the radio, outside of the odd game that I snuck to a friend's house for.

And that was the playoff run that started the haunting derisive chant pointed at a visiting player...as the Garden chanted "Peeeeee-teeeeeers!!! Peeeeeeee-teeeeeeeers!!!" for Pete Peeters. And in the next round: "Ruuuuuuuuu-aaaaaaaah!!! Ruuuuuuuu-aaaaaaah!!!" for Patrick Roy when everyone thought it was pronounced differently. And it was funny because in the '86 Series, when the Fenway crowd started their "Dar-ryl" chant, the first thing I thought was "What a cheap imitation of the Pee-ters chant" which to me was much more together and MUCH more haunting.

That 85-86 team was smallish, but could skate all night. Outside of Roy, I didn't think the Rangers were all that worse than Montreal. They wouldn't have beaten Calgary though if they had made it that far. But those Rangers were still a great story, and that was still a great run.

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