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Closing In

The New York Rangers drew nearer to their goal of winning the Stanley Cup by taking a 2-1 series lead over Vancouver

Remember the end of the movie The Fugitive, when Harrison Ford gives himself up to the weary FBI agent played by Tommy Lee Jones? "You know what," says Jones, "I'm glad. I need the rest!"

Well, probably no team in NHL history has needed a breather as much as the New York Rangers did before their 5-1 win over the Vancouver Canucks in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals last Saturday night at the Pacific Coliseum. The Rangers had spent the previous three weeks, dating back to the start of their Eastern Conference championship series against the New Jersey Devils, frying their nerves in contests that came down to the final seconds or ended in sudden-death overtime—single and double—resulting in heart palpitations for them and windfall profits for their kids' baby-sitters.

So how did the Rangers react to Saturday's blowout, which gave them a 2-1 lead in games and put them on the cusp of the cusp of the Cup? Taking their cue from captain Mark Messier, who borrows his expressions from Easter Island totems, the Rangers trudged into the visitors' dressing room stone-faced and spouting the party line.

"Blowout?" said New York defenseman Brian Leetch, serious as an actuary even though he had scored two goals in the game to solidify his status as the most valuable player in the playoffs. "I wouldn't say that. We got some breaks for a change, but I wouldn't call it a blowout."

The Rangers, grown men who have long pooh-poohed talk of curses and bad juju, had grown suddenly superstitious. The victory in Game 3, with Game 4 scheduled for Tuesday night in Vancouver, pushed New York to within two tantalizing wins of doing what the franchise has not done in 54 years, of getting off one of the most notorious schneids in sports, of winning the Stanley Cup and thereby retiring once and for all the detested "1940!" chant with which opposing fans have bludgeoned the team for years.

All optimism aside, it wouldn't be a Ranger series without a modicum of heartbreak. After squandering the lead in the 60th minute of Game 1 of the finals, the Blueshirts blew it in the 20th minute of OT. The nauseated hush that fell on Madison Square Garden was rent by a woman who screamed, "I can't take it anymore!"

Patience, ma'am. Be comforted by the simple truth that despite dropping that game, the Rangers had, through three games, outplayed the Canucks in nine of the series' 10 periods. All that stood between Vancouver and annihilation was the goaltending of Kirk McLean, who dazzled the Rangers in Game 1 on May 31, stopping 52 of 54 shots. He was a tad more mortal two nights later in a 3-1 loss in Game 2. On Saturday he couldn't stop a Hippity Hop.

In fact, with McLean disintegrating in Game 3, it was Vancouver that began to take on the look of the jinxed. At 13:39 of the first period Leetch was holding the puck just inside the Canucks' blue line. With no one to pass to, he opted for "a little flipper," as he put it, to the left of the net. If McLean had let the puck go, it would have missed the net by two feet. But he played the puck, which took a strange bounce—a Ranger bounce!—off his blocker, caromed off the inside of his left skate and into the net.

Also bizarre was the fact that, for the second season in a row, the Cup finals may have turned on a stick foul. A year ago Marty McSorley of the Los Angeles Kings was busted for playing with an excessively curved stick blade late in Game 2 with the Kings leading the Montreal Canadiens 2-1. A victory would have given L.A. a commanding 2-0 series lead. However, the Canadiens scored on the ensuing power play, forced overtime and went on to take that game and the next three to win the Stanley Cup.

As an assassin of momentum, McSorley has nothing on Pavel Bure, Vancouver's Russian Rocket, who put an abrupt end to a first period of crackling play by the Canucks in Game 3 by driving the shaft of his stick into the face of New York defenseman Jay Wells, breaking Wells's nose and opening a trench under his left eyebrow.

Referee Andy van Hellemond—recalling, perhaps, the abuse heaped on him for failing to penalize Bure for a vicious, blindside hit that coldcocked the Dallas Stars' Shane Churla in the second round of the playoffs—unhesitatingly awarded the Rangers a five-minute power play and ejected Bure from the game. Ranger winger Glenn Anderson's game-winning goal, his second of the series, came 58 seconds after Bure got the thumb.

Bure's foul was dangerous, flagrant and stupid and represented a relapse for the Canucks' 23-year-old star, who is now in his third NHL season. Unlike in his previous two playoffs, Bure had been devastating this spring, largely due to his ability to avoid penalties wrought of frustration. "He was playing so well," said his countryman and rival, Ranger winger Alexei Kovalev. "Why did he do that?"

Bure was not convincing as he tried to explain the hit on Wells: "I think my stick slid on his shoulder and hit him in the face," he said. "I tried to use my body. I missed." Equally unpersuasive was Canuck coach and general manager Pat Quinn, who argued that a four-minute penalty on Bure would have been more appropriate, "it didn't appear that Jay was hurt too badly," said Quinn. "Our players didn't think he was cut."

Wells, meanwhile, was in the Ranger dressing room with four stitches on his face and his nose out of joint, literally. "I grabbed it and squeezed it and put it back in [place]. It gave a little crunch and popped right in," said Wells, who bore no apparent grudge against Bure, saying only, "He's a feisty little bugger."

And a wealthy one. Earlier in the week had come the reports that Bure had agreed to a four-year, $22.5 million contract extension that makes him hockey's third-highest-paid player, behind Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. Then came reports that before either Game 6 or Game 7 of Vancouver's first-round series against the Calgary Flames, Bure's agent, Ron Salcer, had delivered an ultimatum to Quinn: Sign Bure immediately or the Rocket would not play that night. Salcer has dismissed the story as "fiction," but it is supported by one NHL executive who told SI he got the information from a member of Vancouver's front office. True or not, a contract agreement was reached soon thereafter.

Bure would have had to boycott the first two games of the finals to be less conspicuous than he was, mustering one meager assist. His woes were blamed, in part, on a lingering flu. But what most ailed Bure was an acute case of eleven-itis. Before the series, Ranger coach Mike Keenan decided that rather than sic shadowing specialist Esa Tikkanen on the Rocket, he would check Bure's line with Messier's. The result: Number 11 manhandled Trevor Linden, Bure's center, and Bure saw the puck far less than he usually does. On Saturday his frustration boiled over.

Messier, 33 and closing out his 15th pro season, is an inspiration to thirtysomethings everywhere. He is logging 25 minutes of ice time per game in the playoffs and motoring past men 10 years his junior. "Fatigue?" says the veteran of 196 playoff games. "There's no fatigue this time of year."

Messier can be credited with delivering the Rangers into the Cup finals—and perhaps sparing Keenan a summer of second-guessing. With his team trailing 2-0 in the first period in Game 4 of the conference finals against the Devils, Keenan reacted oddly, yanking goalie Mike Richter and benching several veterans. After these maneuvers failed and the Rangers lost 3-1, Keenan reported that the benched players were injured, an admission that, if true, violated hockey's unwritten playoff rule: Injuries are top secret. Going public with a player's ailment is tantamount to putting a bull's-eye on him.

Keenan, who has coached three underdog teams to appearances—and losses—in the Stanley Cup finals (the Philadelphia Flyers in '85 and '87 and the Chicago Blackhawks in '92), seemed less sure of himself behind the bench of a prohibitive favorite. "His ultimate dream would be to win the Stanley Cup without players," one of Keenan's former players told the Toronto Sun. "He wants to find a way to have people say that the Rangers were coached to a Stanley Cup."

Says New York's backup goalie Glenn Healy, "Keenan won't make one save, he won't score a single goal. It will be us players who win or lose this whole shebang." And, indeed, it was Messier, who after audaciously guaranteeing victory, a la Joe Namath, in Game 6 in New Jersey, provided a third-period hat trick to force a seventh game, which New York won in double OT on Stèphane Matteau's goal.

Matteau came to the club on March 21 in one of the five deals struck by New York general manager Neil Smith at the trading deadline. At the time, the Rangers had 94 points and were in first place overall. Why the major makeover? Smith, who took the Ranger job in 1989, described the pre-trading-deadline Rangers as "a good regular-season team," whereas the post-trading-deadline edition was bigger, meaner and better suited for "the war," as Smith refers to the postseason.

Smith, who has acquired every player on New York's roster except Leetch and Richter, is a wunderkind among NHL general managers. He was 28 when he got the job of director of professional scouting for the Detroit Red Wings and 35 when he replaced Phil Esposito as the Rangers' G.M. Smith's first order of business in New York was to track down the surviving members of the 1940 Cup-winning team—there were seven—and present them with commemorative gold rings. Rather than shun the Rangers' often painful history, Smith has made himself a student of it. In fact, he interrupted a between-periods press-box interview last Saturday to watch a Canadian Broadcasting Company segment on the '40 Rangers. "Look! I have that picture on my wall," he said. "That's the Tudor Room at the Royal York—that's where they had the party celebrating the Cup."

A craggy-faced octogenarian appeared on the screen. "That's David Hiller," burbled Smith. "I gave him his ring!"

The '94 Rangers went on to beat the Canucks that night. Two more wins and Smith would be able to hand out a lot more jewelry.



A shot by a sprawling Kovalev finished off a 5-1 rout for the Rangers in game 3 against a shaky McLean.



Ranger fans were pumped after Doug Lidster (6, above) scored in Game 2 and Anderson (36) got the winner on Messier's feed.



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In Game 2, Bure (above, right) teed off on the Rangers' Jeff Beukeboom, who also got in the way of Geoff Courtnall (left).