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End of the Slide?

The Rangers may finally have what it takes to end their 54-year Stanley Cup drought

Nothing ever ailed a Mike Keenan team that couldn't be cured, in his opinion, by working that team harder. So it is ironic that Keenan's new office is in the shadow of a Ferris wheel, next to a miniature golf course, in a theme park called Playland.

Inside Playland's Ice Casino, where Keenan's New York Rangers practice, a set of rules has been posted to prevent the notoriously unruly youth of Rye, N.Y., a tony suburb of the Big Apple, from trashing the place, NO ROUGH-HOUSING, says one commandment, NO FAST SKATING, NO WHIPS, says another.

Since taking over as Ranger coach last April, Iron Mike has left his whip at home. As Keenan speaks of the psychologically bruised group of players he inherited, one finds oneself looking around his office for a tissue. "Their pride had been injured," he says sadly. "They had suffered a tremendous amount of embarrassment. They were in pain."

Properly so. This was largely the same crew of Blueshirts who finished first in the Patrick Division in 1991-92, only to bumble and bicker their way to a last-place finish last season. "It was a disaster," says Ranger general manager Neil Smith, who in January '93 was forced by a Mark Messier-led player putsch to fire coach Roger Neilson and replace him with interim coach Ron Smith. "The team needed a coach who would come in and kick its butt."

As it happened, there was a butt-kicking former NHL coach looking for work. Under Keenan the Rangers were 35-15-4 at week's end, tops in the NHL. Along with his tough-guy reputation, Keenan brought to New York a passion for physical fitness: Instead of hitting the showers after home games, the players often hit the exercise bikes. He actually told the Rangers he believed in them. "After a while," says defenseman Jeff Beukeboom, "it rubbed off."

Keenan is deeply committed to commitments. He speaks of the Rangers' commitment to fitness, to defense, to specialty teams, to bodychecking, to parking their cars in neat, parallel lines in the Playland parking lot. And focus. Keenan demands focus. He installed an incentive system that financially rewards the players for their performances in five-game segments to prevent them from peeking too far down the road. At the rink Keenan wants their minds on the job at all times, even during their most quotidian moments, ATTITUDE, says a sign above the urinals in the practice-rink dressing room, A LITTLE THING THAT GOES A LONG WAY.

Ranger goals at Madison Square Garden are often celebrated on the giant video screen with clips of The Honeymooners' Jackie Gleason and Art Carney doing the hucklebuck. As Ralph and Ed cavort, one wonders: How long will Keenan's New York honeymoon last? Maybe a couple of years, if history is our guide. After coaching the Philadelphia Flyers to the Stanley Cup finals twice in four years (1985 and '87), he was canned in May '88. Four years of Keenan left the Flyers fed up with his dictatorial ways and in near mutiny.

That didn't stop the Chicago Black-hawks from naming Iron Mike their coach in 1988. New York Islander forward Steve Thomas, a former Blackhawk, says, recalling those days in Chicago, "You might have a bad shift, and he would be all over you. And then he'd send you out again, and you might have another bad shift, and he'd be all over you again, maybe give you a kick in the ass. He would just grate on you and finally you'd snap. You'd turn around and just tell him, '——off.' But he'd probably be smiling inside, and he'd send you right back out there for the next shift. You got a lot of negative energy working for you."

Keenan, who added the duties of Chicago's general manager in 1990, returned to the Cup finals with the Blackhawks in '92. Five months later he was fired. Says Thomas, "Maybe the lesson he took to New York from Chicago was that you have to back off a bit. Eventually he just drove us physically and mentally insane."

"The problem with Keenan," says one NHL executive, "is he's a Marine drill sergeant, but there is no graduation date."

So far with New York, however, Keenan is patting more backsides than he's kicking. When goaltender Mike Richter struggled early in the season, at one point losing two straight games to expansion teams, Keenan kept putting him back in the net. Three months later Richter, who lives in Manhattan, is wondering where he's going to park the pickup truck he won for being MVP of last month's NHL All-Star Game.

Instead of dumping on his players this season, Keenan has regularly shielded them. Witness his reaction to a 4-3 road loss last week to the Montreal Canadiens in which New York squandered a 3-1 lead. After the game he focused not on several dopey Ranger penalties that led to Montreal goals but on what he saw as a lack of fortitude by referee Dan Marouelli. "Let's be very honest," said Keenan. "The officials were intimidated by the Montreal Forum"—a patently absurd claim on this night considering that New York's second goal, by Adam Graves, came seconds after Ranger forward Mike Gartner barreled into the crease, drive-blocking Montreal goalie Patrick Roy into the back of the net. Marouelli, however, allowed the goal.

Keenan has been able to go lighter on the Rangers than he did on his previous teams in part because of what he calls New York's "acquired assets." In other words, with franchise centerpiece Messier, 600-goal scorer Gartner, All-Star MVP Richter, former Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Brian Leetch and Graves, the NHL's most highly skilled bodyguard, the Rangers are loaded.

It's true that Keenan smashed a stick over a crossbar at a practice in October and then, disgusted by the Rangers' sloth, banished the players from the ice. "Big deal, Glen Sather has done that a hundred times," says defenseman Kevin Lowe, invoking the name of the coach he played for when he was with the Edmonton Oilers. Earlier this season Keenan benched defenseman James Patrick and banished center Darren Turcotte to the fourth line, forcing Smith to deal them. Both are now Hartford Whalers, and Patrick is remarkably unbitter about what happened in New York: "A few games into the season he called me into his office and said, 'You better start playing a lot better, or you'll be gone.' And that's what happened. I have no beef with him. I wasn't going to play under him, and here I'm playing. So I'm happy."

Twice during games Keenan benched Leetch, who has responded by improving his one-on-one defensive play. Iron Mike has given Richter numerous quick hooks, often when the goalie was playing well. "The idea there," says Ranger assistant coach Dick Todd, "is to send a message to the guys in front of Mike: 'Because of you guys, I have to put a cold goalie in.' You hope that snaps 'em out of it. It's always a risk, but Mike's a risk taker."

"A coach needs to have a dark side to get results," says Messier, New York's captain. "But if that's the only side you show your players, it gets old pretty quickly. Mike has learned a lot from his past experiences. He's been fantastic."

As have the Rangers, who at week's end had won the most games, allowed the fewest goals and enjoyed the smoothest ride in the NHL this season. With no glaring weaknesses they are the class of the league, clear favorites to win the Cup.

Such predictions, of course, petrify New York fans, accustomed as they are to the chronic disappointments suffered by their team since 1940, when the Blue-shirts last won the Cup (box, right). No one is as keenly aware of the drought as Smith, the man who has assembled this talented team and who will get zero credit for it if New York again fails to go all the way. Smith was recently given a letter, postmarked Jan. 10, 1937, written by Lester Patrick, then general manager of the Rangers, in response to a letter from a disgruntled fan.

"We are glad to accept your suggestions in the spirit in which they are given," said Smith, reading aloud from Patrick's missive. Then, affecting the voice of a frustrated Ranger fan, circa 1937, he says, "C'mon, Lestuh, we haven't won the Cup in four years! Whaddya doin'? Make a trade, Lestuh!"

Make a trade, Neil! That's a refrain Smith heard from Keenan earlier this season. Following a loss to the expansion Mighty Ducks of Anaheim on Oct. 19, Keenan fumed, "Let's be mindful of the fact that this team didn't make the playoffs a year ago."

Two weeks later Smith added 32-year-old Steve Larmer, a skilled, hard-nosed forward, and tough guy Nick Kypreos in the three-way trade with the Whalers and the Blackhawks that sent Turcotte and Patrick to Hartford. So far Larmer has fit in nicely on Messier's right wing, and Kypreos has thrown his weight around every time he has been on the ice.

Keenan now seems reasonably content with his roster, but memories of his unseemly public kvetching linger. For Smith, some say, hiring Keenan was a bit like Caesar's inviting Brutus over for a game of mumblety-peg. Keenan has been a general manager before and presumably would not mind being one again. Is Smith worried?

Don't be silly, he says, pointing out that in his five years on the job he has hired Larry Pleau, Gord Stellick and Martin Madden—all former NHL general managers—to work for the Rangers. "My job here is to put in place the best coach and the best players I can," he says. "If you don't hire someone because you're nervous that they know more than you, then you don't belong in your job."

In New York, Keenan has been reunited with Messier, who played for him in the 1987 and '91 Canada Cups. These two, who possess a pair of the most menacing glowers in all of sport, spare one another their most withering looks. They enjoy a far more cordial relationship than Messier had with Neilson, who answered Messier's second-guessing last season by questioning the captain's leadership.

After absorbing more criticism in '92-93 than at any other time in his career, Messier came into this season with something to prove. Whereas in previous summers his off-season conditioning program consisted of waterskiing, golf and sporadic weightlifting, last summer, he says, "I decided to follow the team's regimen." He had a gym installed in his Hilton Head, S.C., condo—"about 20 machines, some Cybex, some other stuff"—and used them all. At 33 he remains formidably sculpted and capable of carrying a team. Since coming back from a sprained right wrist on Jan. 8, Messier has been one of the league's hottest players, piling up 21 points, including 10 goals, in his last 12 games through Sunday.

"I've never seen him skate this well, and I've played with him for five years," says Graves, who was with Messier on the Oilers and is now his left wing. For his part, Graves roams the ice, challenging anyone who so much as frowns at Messier, the man who was greeted, upon his 1991 arrival in New York, as the Messiah.

When Smith signed Graves as a restricted free agent two years ago, few observers appreciated the magnitude of the coup. In his first 83 shots as a Ranger, Graves scored twice. Things got so bad that his mother, Lynda, suggested he try shooting with his eyes closed. He must have done something drastic. After scoring 23 goals in his first 217 NHL games, Graves through last week had scored 99 in his last 218 and led the Rangers with 37 goals this season. Last month he was one of four Rangers in the All-Star Game.

Whereas Graves's confidence has climbed steadily throughout his career, Richter's has soared, plunged and been rebuilt. After three solid years in New York, Richter went 13-19-3 last season, losing five of his last six starts. He began this season 0-4.

Keenan was unfazed. He had clearly decided in the preseason that Richter would be his successor to Ed Belfour and Ron Hextall, former Keenan goalies who had logged 65-plus games a season. Three weeks into this season, backup Glenn Healy was 4-1 and playing circles around Richter. But Keenan's mind was made up: He stayed with Richter, who got his first win on Oct. 24, against the Los Angeles Kings. Since then he has gone 25-3-4 through Sunday.

"It's like Casey Stengel said," says Keenan, simultaneously mangling and misattributing a Yogi Berra malaprop. "This game is 50-50: 90 percent physical and 10 percent mental.' Michael just had to have someone believe in him."

Spoken like a true SNAG—Sensitive New Age Guy. As mellow as he has been so far this season, Keenan has still gotten scary a few times. "Every so often his eyes get the Look," says Todd, the assistant coach, "and then it's, Look out!"

Keenan had the Look on Feb. 3 as the Rangers' bus sat in a traffic jam in Boston. Minutes passed, the bus did not move. Game time was a mere hour and 55 minutes away. In a steely voice Keenan asked the driver, "Is this the only way to the Garden?"

Hint taken. The driver yanked the wheel, jumped a curb, sped down a shoulder, took an illegal left turn, ran a yellow light and cut off a line of traffic that had the right of way. Within five minutes the Rangers were filing into Boston Garden. "I'm telling you," says Todd, "the Look can get you places."

That's the plan. The Rangers need to get someplace they haven't been in 54 years.



Sergei Nemchinov and the Rangers have prevailed no matter what position they've been put in.



While Gartner (above) has been scoring goals for New York, Richter has been stopping them.



With Keenan (above right) behind the bench, Messier (11) has been Captain Fantastic.



[See caption above.]