WITH THE crowd at Madison Square Garden in a frenzy after winger Carl Hagelin scored a first-period goal—a nifty midair tip-in of a bouncing rebound—to give the Rangers a 1--0 lead over the Canadiens in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals, Steven McDonald sat in his wheelchair by the glass and marveled at the volume and intensity of the fans. "Few things make me want to get up and walk," the silver-haired former NYPD detective, who was shot and paralyzed on the job in 1986, shouted over the din. "My wife, my son and Ranger games like these." McDonald isn't just any fan. He's the namesake for the team's extra-effort award, given annually to the player, chosen by fans, "who goes above and beyond the normal call of duty."
For McDonald and others whose blood runs Ranger blue, the Garden hasn't been this much fun since 1994, when captain Mark Messier promised and delivered New York's first Stanley Cup in 54 years. After winger Martin St. Louis scored the overtime winner in a 3--2 victory in Game 4 on Sunday, the Rangers—a galvanizing blend of speed, opportunism and balance—led Montreal 3--1, putting New York on the cusp of its first trip to the Cup finals since that magical run 20 years ago.
The Rangers are one of three NHL teams in the New York metropolitan area, but they are the only one with the cachet of being an Original Six franchise. As a result they are also (much to the consternation of the Devils and the Islanders) the only team that matters to most New York hockey fans, whose tastes run decidedly blue-collar, more plebeian than patrician. Star power can, and often has been, bought, but fan favor on Broadway must be earned. "The generational passion here is unreal," says Adam Graves, who scored 52 goals for the Rangers in '93--94. Even the Canadiens' leading scorer, Max Pacioretty, a native of New Canaan, Conn., 40 miles north of Manhattan, says, "When my dad took me to the Garden, that ['94] team made me want to be a hockey player."
But that magic went missing for the better part of two decades. Instead of ushering in a new era of success, New York's 1994 championship begat an extended run of malaise—the Rangers won a title but lost their identity, or rather their pre-1994 identity was restored. Where once ownership had bet high on such past-their-prime stars as Phil Esposito, Marcel Dionne and Guy Lafleur (we could go on ... and on ...), front offices post-Cup were similarly enticed by such easy fixes as Pavel Bure, Theo Fleury and Eric Lindros (again, we could go on ... and on ...) Beginning with '97--98, the Rangers missed the playoffs in seven straight seasons, and this is only the third time since '94 that they've even made it as far as the conference finals. It should be noted that the '94 champs were built with Cablevision's billions, from Messier to coach Mike Keenan, but one Cup in 73 years qualifies as a piddling return on investment. "You become a champion, and you don't know how to behave," says Neil Smith, who was the general manager in '94. "What do you dream about once the nightmares are gone?"
Unable to answer that question, team owner James Dolan (who also owns the NBA's Knicks) spent money on more than players. A three-year, $1 billion renovation of MSG completed last October included luxury boxes that priced out many hard-core fans; in 2011, the first year of construction, the price of the average season ticket shot up 23%. The Rangers also courted an upscale clientele at odds with their most passionate supporters. Celebrities in the stands are flashed on the scoreboard video screen at every game—Robert De Niro, Michael J. Fox, Matt Lauer and Sting were at Game 3—and a lobster-shrimp roll from Aquagrill chef Jeremy Marshall will set you back $19.95. The Garden looked spiffy, but it wasn't the same. Turn off the sound system and on many nights the World's Most Famous Arena would have been eerily quiet.
Things weren't much different when the 2014 playoffs began. After finishing second to the Penguins in the Metropolitan Division during the regular season, the Rangers defeated the Flyers in seven games in the opening round, then lost three of the first four to Pittsburgh in the second. New York seemed well on its way to another early and uninspired postseason exit. But that's when tragedy helped the team find its soul. The Garden hasn't been the same since.
Few nhl teams, as previously noted, have traded away futures for pasts as readily as the Rangers, who have rarely featured a star at the top of his game. In New York's history only three players (Graves, Vic Hadfield and Jaromir Jagr) have scored 50 goals in a season—each accomplishing the feat only once. Yet 25 players who have worn the Rangers' sweater have combined for 66 50-goal seasons elsewhere. Smith recalls staring at the retired jerseys hanging in the Montreal Forum in 1992. "All those guys played for the Rangers," he says. "When they were great, they played for Montreal; when they were past their primes, they played for the Rangers."
Martin St. Louis fits the profile of a typical Blueshirts star. The 38-year-old former scoring champ and league MVP came to New York from the Lightning in return for soulful captain Ryan Callahan at the trade deadline in March. In the weeks after he arrived, St. Louis produced like a typical Blueshirts star, going without a goal in his first 14 games.
St. Louis had gone without a point in his previous six playoff games when, the day after New York's Game 4 loss to the Penguins on May 7, his mother, France, died unexpectedly at age 63 of a heart attack. St. Louis flew home to Quebec to see his family but returned for Game 5 on May 9 in Pittsburgh, a 5--1 Rangers win. To hear his teammates tell it, St. Louis's mere presence—he did not score—shook them from their slumber. In fact, the key to the victory was that New York was much stronger and more secure with the puck. In Game 4 the Rangers had committed 25 turnovers to the Penguins' eight. In Game 5 the two teams had eight turnovers apiece. It was also about that time that goalie Henrik Lundqvist became nearly unbeatable. "We flipped a switch," says wing Mats Zuccarello. "I believe it was each guy saying, Marty is here. What excuse do I have? I know he inspired me."
Back in New York for Game 6 on May 11, the crowd that had booed the Rangers after their listless performance in Game 4 chanted St. Louis's name from his opening shift. He obliged with the first goal of a 3--1 win, then collected the puck as a souvenir, something players normally do only when they score milestone goals. But this was special—it was Mother's Day. In New York's 2--1 Game 7 victory he assisted on center Brad Richards's game-winner. After his OT winner against Montreal on Sunday, St. Louis had scored a point (four goals, three assists) in six straight games. Between Games 1 and 2 in Montreal, St. Louis spoke at France's funeral in Laval, Que. The entire Rangers team attended. He is playing for her. His teammates say they are playing for him.
IF THESE Rangers are different, the change begins with their coach. Since being hired last June to replace John Tortorella, Alain Vigneault has provided a sunny contrast to his grumpy predecessor, who once said he took Hagelin off the power play because "he stinks." Vigneault, on the other hand, when asked in March about St. Louis's struggles, smiled and said, "I turned him into a defensive specialist. It's part of my devious plan."
The former coach of the Canucks—Vigneault and Tortorella traded jobs last summer—inherited a roster that was fast, mobile and smart. Vigneault preached puck possession, encouraged creativity and allowed defensemen to join the rush. Defensively he wanted his team to force opposing puckhandlers toward the boards and to use its speed to defend rather than play the sort of zone defense that depends on shot blocking. The Rangers were 21st in the NHL this season in blocks after ranking among the top six in each of the previous three.
Early in the season, before the knack for changing assignments was instinctive, New York's defense was often caught overloading one side of the ice as opposing forwards crisscrossed. The Rangers won two of their first eight games, including consecutive road losses to the Sharks and the Ducks in October in which they gave up a combined 15 goals. Vigneault did not panic. Richards, a former Conn Smythe winner who had been benched by Tortorella during last year's playoffs, recalls what he didn't hear from the Rangers' new coach on that trip to San Jose and Anaheim. "No screaming and yelling," he says. "He knew we could figure things out."
Vigneault has spread around both playing time and responsibility. Whereas the Rangers were defined by their captain in 1994, the coach did not name a new captain after Callahan was dealt away in March. "You don't need a letter to lead," says Vigneault. Homegrown prospects such as speedy wing Chris Kreider, 23, and mobile defenseman Ryan McDonagh, 24, have blossomed under Vigneault's more wide-open approach to the game. Kreider fell in and out of favor under Tortorella's exacting defensive scheme. Kreider's collision with the Canadiens' Carey Price in Game 1—on a play in which Kreider had blown past Montreal defenseman Alexei Emelin—knocked the goalie out of the playoffs with a right-leg injury and changed the dynamic of the series.
McDonagh is the only New York player among the NHL's top 30 in playoff ice time. More than anyone else, he embodies how this team is different from any other in the last 20 years: He came to the Rangers in 2009 in a multiplayer trade that sent high-priced 29-year-old center Scott Gomez to the Canadiens, then was nurtured through the farm system.
McDonagh's superb two-way play has not only been key to New York's success but has also earned him a turn in a postgame dressing-room ritual. An outline of the Stanley Cup hangs on a wall between words of inspiration from McDonald: ABOVE AND BEYOND. EARN IT. After each victory a player places one of 16 puzzle pieces—one for each playoff win needed for a championship—to complete the picture of the Cup. What for two decades has been nothing more than a vague idea is now taking shape.
Homegrown prospects Kreider (20) and McDonagh (27) have blossomed under Vigneault's wide-open approach to the game.
Players who have scored 50 goals in a season at least once in their careers and also played for the Rangers.
Players who have scored 50 goals in a season for the Rangers in the club's 87-year history: Adam Graves, Vic Hadfield and Jaromir Jagr.
Postseason save percentage for New York goalie Henrik Lundqvist, tops for all starters.
Photograph by Al Tielemans Sports Illustrated
SIGHT, UNSEEN The OT winner that St. Louis blew past a flinching Dustin Tokarski in Game 4 was the winger's fourth goal in the last six games.
[See caption above]
ROB TRINGALI FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (CROWD)
RISING AS ONE Seven days after the entire team attended the funeral for St. Louis's mother in Laval, Que., New York fans celebrated his Game 4 goal, which put the Rangers on the verge of their first trip to the Cup finals since 1994.
CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/REUTERS (FUNERAL)
[See caption above]
CHARLES LABERGE FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (KREIDER)
BRUCE BENNETT/GETTY IMAGES (MCDONAGH)