NEW YORK – The captain of the New York Rangers walked to his spot in the dressing room after practice Thursday, wading through waves of reporters waiting for the sound byte that would connect 18 years of history. Surrounded by spotlights and cameras and notebooks and recorders, he stood tall, spoke confidently and guaranteed …
This is Ryan Callahan, not Mark Messier. He said "we need to win," not "we will win." This is 2012, not 1994.
This series between the Rangers and New Jersey Devils has its own drama, its own potential historical significance, for all the parallels with the last time the Battle of the Hudson was fought in the Eastern Conference final. Reach too deep into the past, and you're just reaching.
If the Rangers find a way to win Games 6 and 7, they will become the first team in NHL history to win three straight seven-game series. They will become the first to take the full 21 games to reach the Stanley Cup final. No one has taken more than 19 games since the league went to four best-of-seven rounds in 1987, according to STATS LLC.
That would not parallel '94. It would be unparalleled.
"No disrespect to history, but we're worried about ourselves," said Rangers center Brad Richards. "We want to create our own story."
Rangers fans in need of hope – and media in need of an undeniably good story – have reason to reach. The Rangers have lost two straight to the Devils and face a 3-2 series deficit, just as in '94. Game 6 will be May 25 in New Jersey, just as in '94. Game 7 would be May 27 at Madison Square Garden, just as in '94.
Messier made it seem like destiny 18 years ago. The day before Game 6, he said: "I know we are going to go in there and win Game 6. We know we have to win it. We feel we can win it and we are going to win it." In the morning, the New York Post headline blared: "WE'LL WIN TONIGHT." And that night, Messier scored a third-period hat trick as the Rangers won, 4-2. They went on to win the series and the Stanley Cup.
But that was then. This is now. "In '94, I still had hair. It was that long ago," said Devils coach Pete DeBoer. (Sigh. In '94, I still had hair, too.) So much has changed. The Devils have left the Meadowlands for a new rink in Newark. Toddlers and teenagers have grown up to become the players, and the players have grown old and retired, with one notable exception.
"I know if you guys look at it, it looks the same," said Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur, the last player left from those days, a 22-year-old rookie turned 40-year-old veteran. "But it's different teams and a different way of playing the game."
It's a different way of covering the game, too.
New York Post reporter Mark Everson remembers asking Messier a simple question and Messier giving a simple answer. "I think it was something to the effect of, 'What do you guys have to do to come back from this?' " Everson said. "His answer was, 'We'll win.' He was ready. He had figured out what he was going to say. He was pretty matter-of-fact and kind of quiet." Other reporters who covered that series remember debating whether what Messier said really constituted a guarantee, before finally deciding, hey, he said it.
If you think the guarantee blew up then, consider that the Devils of that time claim they didn't even put it on their bulletin board. "We didn't even know before the game ended that he made a guarantee," Brodeur said.
Now imagine if Messier had done that today. Reporters would have tweeted his quote seconds after the words left his mouth. Puck Daddy would have posted a blog on Yahoo! Sports minutes later, complete with video. It would have become an all-consuming topic in the 24-hour news cycle.
Athletes still make guarantees. Athletes still make mission statements that come off as guarantees or that can be twisted into guarantees. In the emotional aftermath of the 5-3 loss in Game 5, Rangers defenseman Marc Staal said: "We'll be fine. We'll regroup, get back and get the next one." There you go. Headline: "WE'LL GET IT TONIGHT."
But the Rangers want no part of this storyline, and rightly so. Messier said what he said and had to back it up. If someone pulled a Messier now, he not only would have to back up his own words, he'd have to live up to Messier's legend, too. Asked if there was any way anyone in his dressing room would do what Messier did, Richards laughed.
"I don't think so," Richards said.
Why do we really remember Messier's guarantee? Because of the headline and the hat trick and the win, of course. Because it was rare. "Babe Ruth called his shot," said Rangers winger Mike Rupp. "That's right there, too. I don't think too many people do it."
But we also remember it because of the rest of the story. Had Stephane Matteau not beaten Brodeur on a wraparound in double overtime of Game 7, had the Rangers not gone on to win the Cup – their first since 1940, still their only one since 1940 – "WE'LL WIN TONIGHT" would have meant only that the Rangers won that night. It would have been reduced to a footnote.
Whether it's a Messier or a Matteau, the Rangers need somebody to make a magical moment, and they need to do something that has never been done before. "That's what's awesome about this time of year," said Rupp, a grinder who scored the Cup-winning goal for the Devils in 2003. "It doesn't matter where you are as far as the fourth line or first line. We're all pulling the same way. Someone's going to come through and be a hero for some team. Those are things that people will remember."
We'll see whether these Rangers go down in history. Though they played well in Game 5 despite the loss, they still have been the weaker team for most of the series. They still haven't scored four goals since Game 1 of Round 1. They still have led after two periods only four times in 19 playoff games. They still have given goaltender Henrik Lundqvist little margin for error. They still have scraped by, going 10-9, taking the longest path and thus the longest odds.
When there is so much parity, and the games are so tight, and the puck is bouncing off sticks and shinpads and skates, and so much is unpredictable, and you let it come down to one night, there are no guarantees.
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