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  • Monday, December 24, 2012

    Greatest Rivalries: Turgeon Scores 50th as Rangers Miss Playoffs

    Rangers-Islanders, April 2, 1993, was extra-special for a lot of reasons: 1. A playoff berth was at stake: 2.The team with the NHL's best record a year earlier was up against an upstart club that didn't even make the playoffs in the previous season; and 3. The fallout from a mid-season Rangers coach-firing still smoldered among Blueshirts fans.

    In retrospect, events leading up to that dynamic New York-New York encounter still remain as gripping nearly two decades later as they did on that melodramatic night at The Garden.

    "That game," recalled Islanders defenseman Uwe Krupp, "was like we were playing for the Stanley Cup."

    Among the unfolding plots at the start of the 1992-1993 season that would profoundly influence the climactic contest were the following:

    * ROGER NEILSON VS. MARK MESSIER: Despite leading his team to first overall in the Spring of 1992, the captain had become so disenchanted with his coach that Neilson was doomed to be axed by g.m. Neil Smith. But how? And when?

    * PAT LAFONTAINE VS. JOHN PICKETT: The Islanders hero had become noticeably unhappy with his owner as well as Patty's overall situation on the Islanders. Dare g.m. Bill Torrey trade his star? And who could follow in place of a Hall of Famer like LaFontaine?

    Just about 99 and 44/100ths percent of the time it's impossible. Then there's that final percentage left and that's why Bill Torrey goes down in NHL history as a genius trader for unloading LaFontaine and -- more important -- landing an ace such as Pierre Turgeon.

    When Torrey was convinced that LaFontaine and Pickett had reached a point of no return, Bowtie Bill pulled off a magnificent trade that would benefit both his club and the Buffalo Sabres. On top of that Brent Sutter, who played for two Cup-winners in Uniondale, also had slipped in terms of his effectiveness and he, too, would become an ex-Islander.

    On October 25, 1991, LaFontaine was dispatched to Buffalo along with Randy Wood and Randy Hillier. In return the Isles received Turgeon, Benoit Hogue, Uwe Krupp and Dave McLlwain. Torrey's big trading double-dip was immediately followed with another shocker -- the popular Sutter, was dealt to Chicago along with Brad Lauer for Steve Thomas and Adam Creighton.

    (THE MAVEN'S THOUGHTS: I was very close to LaFontaine. He was the only NHL player ever to invite me to his wedding; which, by the way, was a beaut. Patty was fond of my sons, Ben and Simon, who hung out at the Coliseum while I worked the SportsChannel games. We even developed a password, "Swordfish," which was borrowed from a Marx Brothers movie, "Horsefeathers." To this day, when LaFontaine sees me the first thing out of his mouth is "Swordfish." All of which explains why on the one hand I was saddened by his departure. On the other hand, it had long been obvious that Patty wanted a change of scenery and, in that sense, I was relieved that he moved on to Buffalo.)

    Rangers general manager Neil Smith was confronted with a similar dispute; only this one on Seventh Avenue where his captain Messier often disagreed with coach Neilson. Among other complaints Mark beefed about Neilson's supposedly weak forechecking system. Assistant coach Colin Campbell observed that the feuding pair reminded him of a couple en route to a divorce. "There was that tension between them," said Campbell, "and it made you feel uneasy."

    Neilson had something going for him as the Rangers approached the 1992-1993 campaign; a season earlier he had coached the Blueshirts to the best record in the league and they came close to taking a 3-1 lead in the 1992 playoffs against defending champion Pittsburgh before losing in the end. But those successes didn't seem to impress Messier as much as other Rangers-watchers. Despite the fact that Neilson had received a three-year contract extension, the captain was not complimentary to his coach. In fact the relationship had so deteriorated during the 1992 NHL awards dinner when Messier accepted the Hart Trophy while Neilson -- who was there -- had been a candidate for coach-of-the-year.

    As Neilson biographer, Wayne Scanlan, noted in his book, Roger's World, "Messier thanked seemingly everyone in the Rangers organization, down to the arena caretakers, except Neilson. The lively New York press had a field day with the simmering feud."

    (THE MAVEN'S THOUGHTS: Messier's anti-Neilson comments essentially matched what Mark previously had told me privately over lunch during the previous Summer. By this time I couldn't imagine where the feud would lead. But it was apparent that there was no way that Roger would win this battle unless, somehow, Smith could be an effective peacemaker. Neil tried to patch the differences but they proved to be irrevocable.)

    Meanwhile, in Nassau the Islanders leading scorer and captain was gone as Torrey re-invented his 1991-1992 team with character and depth. Each of Bill's moves would prove successful, long-term, looking toward the fateful game in the Spring of 1993. What remained to be determined was how well Turgeon would replace LaFontaine and whether the supporting cast -- especially Hogue and Thomas -- would prove to be a tonic as the Isles staggered around the NHL depths. Torrey described his new players as "bigger, younger, aggressive and feisty." All true.

    As for Turgeon, although he lacked Patty's speed, Pierre was a smooth playmaker who had put up big numbers. Arbour figured that Hogue could be the Poor Man's Guy Carbonneau, noting that the latter was one of the best defensive forwards in the league. Meanwhile, Thomas brought one of the league's best shots and Creighton -- son of a former Ranger, Dave Creighton -- was 6-5 and was a scoring threat when the spirit moved him; which was not that often.

    With Sutter gone, Torrey named Patrick Flatley captain and hoped that the additions he brought to Nassau would meld with the rest of the roster. To Bill's dismay, the chemistry was slow in developing although Arbour was pleased with a second line comprised of Hogue, Flatley and Ray Ferraro. Pivoting the pair, Ferraro was playing the best hockey of his life and even earned an invitation to the 1992 All-Star Game.

    (THE MAVEN'S THOUGHTS: Apart from his playmaking skill, Ferraro impressed me as a first-rate personality. Hey, since I did the SportsChannel interviews, that mattered plenty to me. Ray alternated between being frank, funny and -- best of all -- available. Meanwhile, Flatley took his captaincy seriously and Hogue instantly became a fan favorite because of his speed and all-round amiability. Benny was Ferraro but with a French-Canadian accent.)


    Another pleasant surprise was big Krupp on defense. He used his size to advantage and also had the distinction of being the only German-born player in the NHL. He spoke perfect English and could effectively break down plays for the media. Uwe's other distinction was that he and his wife, Beate, raised sled dogs in their Greenlawn, Long Island backyard. No other player could make that statement!

    Meanwhile, a blockbuster was exploding in the board rooms. In December 1991, longtime owner Pickett revealed that he was allowing two Long Island-based investment firms to buy into the team. Stephen Walsh, Robert Rosenthal, Ralph Palleschi and Paul Greenwood essentially took over the club with Pickett an interested onlooker. "I expect to be a passive investor," said Pickett, who had saved the Isles from bankruptcy in the late 1970s. "They'll be running it."

    The four investors climbed on the Islanders bandwagon at the right time. By the second half of the 1991-1992 season, the club had jelled and soon would add two American Olympians -- defenseman Scott Lachance and forward Marty McInnis -- to the roster.

    (THE MAVEN'S THOUGHTS: I liked the speed of McInnis and also believed that he would develop into a top scorer. I was right on the first count and wrong on the second. Lachance, who was the Islanders fourth overall pick in the 1991 Draft, never climbed beyond average as a defenseman. No question; the Islanders got the wrong Scott. The one New Jersey picked just ahead of him is a sure Hall of Famer; that being Scott Niedermayer.)

    After welcoming the newcomers, the club focused on making a playoff berth. By late February 1992 the Nassaumen had climbed to within a point of reaching the post-season but then injuries intervened. Glenn Healy, whose goaltending never was better, went down with a severed right index finger that sidelined him for the homestretch. Flatley's long-term wound forced Torrey to trade Ken Baumgartner and Dave McLlwain for Daniel Marois and Claude Loiselle. Overall it was a good deal for Torrey who gained a superb defensive forward in Loiselle. While Marois was a bust, both Baumgartner and McLlwain had been useless to the club.

    Despite the spate of injuries, Torrey's moves enabled his skaters to compile the NHL's second-best record in the second half of the schedule although they did miss the playoffs.  "From the All-Star break on," said Arbour, "this club gained a whole lot of respect and a whole lot of confidence." Nor did they seem to miss LaFontaine!

    During the off-season, Bowtie Bill added Euoprean muscle, trading his eighth overall Draft pick and a second-rounder to Toronto for the Maple Leafs fifth overall selection. The prize was a Lithuanian bodychecking whiz named Darius Kasparaitis. "We paid a steep price," the g.m. explained, "but we know it's worth it. Darius has a fire that can be infectious." Following a not-forgotten Steve Thomas tip, Torrey also signed big Russian defenseman Vladimir Malakhov for the 1992-1993 season.

    (THE MAVEN'S THOUGHTS: We were excited about the two European defensemen. Granted, we didn't know a heckuva lot about them but just the advance notices were positive enough to provide hope. "Kasper" became an instant fan favorite. I loved the guy; his big smile and his even bigger -- really, throwback -- hip checks. Darius' bodychecks drove stars such as Messier and Mario Lemieux nuts. Even Rangers MSG Network analyst John Davidson went out of his way to rip Kasper' s -- allegedly illegal? -- hip blocks. But all that did was make the Islander want to do more; which he gladly did.)

    During the first half of 1992-1993, gears still were not neatly meshing in Uniondale. The club played 24 of its first 38 games on the road and hung unenthusiastically around the .500 mark. Finally, after a players-only meeting in mid-November, the Islanders began to see the light. Kasparaitis' crunching checks kept the opposition distracted while Malakhov proved a wonder as a power play point man. Krupp and Lachance also turned out to be an effective duet on defense. Big points were now were coming fast off Turgeon's stick; Pierre, unlike LaFontaine, had become a less flamboyant hero than Patty but a fans idol nonetheless.

    "Pierre is different than most superstars," explained Steve Thomas. "He doesn't know how good he is. So when I have the chance, I remind him." Reporters covering the team didn't need reminders. Turgeon was being talked up as a potential winner of the Hart (MVP) and Lady Byng (quality play-good conduct) trophies.

    On the bench, Arbour showed why he would become the second-winningest coach in NHL history; behind Scotty Bowman. Among Al's more positive moves was creating a "Kid Line" of Travis Green, Marty McInnis and Brad Dalgarno which successfully was employed to thwart opponent's top lines. "The Kid Line," said Hogue, "is an inspiration to us." A playoff berth in 1992-1993 suddenly became a possibility, especially when one considers the turmoil surrounding the two most notable Rangers, named Roger and Mark.

    A Neison-Messier peace parlay early in the 1992-1993 season unraveled and that meant one of the two eventually would have to go. Meanwhile, injuries -- including Mark's bad back -- led to a crippling slump. Desperately, Neilson privately consulted with some of Messier's pals -- including Adam Graves -- about patching things with Mark but Roger never told the captain who soon would learn about those talks. It was one of Roger's most egregious errors and by the 41st game of the season, Neilson had become an ex-Rangers coach with Ron Smith moving up as interim head coach.

    (THE MAVEN'S THOUGHTS: I hated seeing Neilson leave; especially under those circumstances. He'd always be one of the hockey guys who'd give you all the time in the world just to schmooze. Knowing Neil Smith as I did, I realized that this was as difficult a move as a young g.m. could make. Neil candidly admitted, "I was devastated. I could hardly pick my head up to tell Roger. I hated myself for it." As for Ron Smith, he was a smart cookie but his Rangers cookies were crumbling all around him.)

    Buoyed by the Rangers woes, the Islanders playoff drive increased in its intensity. Such subtle factors as Loiselle's penalty-killing and all-round abrasive style were very positive elements for Arbour and inspired Flatley to observe, "Claude is one of the most annoying players in the league; and that's a compliment."

    If one game could be pinpointed as the positive turning point of the season for Arbour it took place on February 20, 1993 when Bill Smith's Number 31 jersey was permanently raised to the Coliseum rafters prior to a game with the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins. Before the match, Captain Flatley addressed his teammates. "I said, 'Let's win it for Billy,'" Flats remembered, "but the guys wouldn't buy that. They said, 'The hell with him, let's win it for ourselves.'" And they did, winning 4-2.

    (THE MAVEN'S THOUGHTS: For some reason -- apart from the Rangers -- Pittsburgh topped the list of most-disliked teams not only for the Islanders players, themselves, but for those of us in the SportsChannel contingent. While we admired Mario Lemieux's skill we weren't particularly crazy about his attitude on and off the ice. In games he always seemed to be complaining about something. And off ice there was a bit of the prima donna about him. Plus, beating the two-time Stanley Cup champs gave everyone a special kick. Who knew what would happen in the playoffs? The post-season still was a dream at this point in the schedule.)

    Down the homestretch, from February 27-March 9, the Islanders won five straight games; the first four by one goal and the last by killing off a six-against-three disadvantage to hold on and beat the Flyers, 4-2. Now the playoff race looked like it was crafted by a Hollywood scriptwriter. No less than four teams -- Isles, Rangers, Capitals, Devils -- were battling for the final three Patrick Division playoff spots. Not having made the playoffs since 1990, the Nassaumen definitely were the most motivated of the contenders. Alas, it all would come down to the marvelously-timed confrontation on April 2, 1993 at The Garden.

    Think about it, what could be more dramatic when it comes to a Rangers-Islanders rivalry than a single game that likely would determine a playoff berth between the two teams? It was the talk of the town and naturally tension ran high long before the players even took their pre-game workouts. In terms of the homestretch race, the firing of Neilson didn't seem to help the Blueshirts. They had lost four straight under Ron Smith and sat one point behind the visitors. If ever the Rangers had a regular season must game to win, this was it.

    (THE MAVEN'S THOUGHTS: When you follow a team -- as I then was doing with the Islanders -- and it fails to make the playoffs for two straight years, a feeling of no-confidence surrounds it until that outfit actually proves that it has the goods to get over the hump. Plus, the Rangers entered the match having been 14-3-3 in their last 20 games against the Isles as MSG. That explains why we on the Isles SportsChannel side were pessimistic. After all, the Rangers were home and overdue to escape their slump. Also on my mind was the anti-Neilson comments Messier had made to me a long time ago but not that long ago that I had forgotten about them. Still, it seemed hard to believe that the Rangers would cave. In any case, I was as pumped as I ever had been before a telecast and I knew -- no matter which team won -- that this would be a classic encounter. There would be no build-up to a letdown on this night in Manhattan.)

    Classic contests often can be defined by uncertainty and that element certainly played into the drama as the Islanders played early confident hockey. They missed taking the lead when Turgeon beat Mike Richter but watched the puck bounce harmlessly off the goal post. Undaunted, Arbour's troops continued pressing and gained a two-man advantage late in the period. Derek King, one of the most un-appreciated Islanders, lifted his club into the lead during the five-on-three power play. At last there was a breakthrough. After taking a Turgeon feed in the slot, King lifted a 15-foot wrister over Richter's glove and under the crossbar at 18:25 of the first period. 1-0, Long Island.

    Vlad Malakhov, the hulking Isles defenseman, gave Glenn Healy a two-goal cushion in the second but now the see-saw moved in the Rangers direction when Eddie Olczyk put one past Healy. The Rangers' red light ignited The Garden crowd that roared for just one more. It didn't happen in the second period which ended with the Nassau skaters up 2-1.

    Does any Rangers fan remember Peter Andersson? That's a toughie. He entered the game with only three goals over the entire season but coach Smith inserted him on the power play alongside Messier and Tony Amonte as the third period approached its mid-point. In this game at least, Andersson became a memorable Blueshirt. His 50-foot blast more resembled a pinball as it caromed off the skates of Islanders Brian Mullen and Uwe Krupp before skimming past Healy. It was 2-2 -- anybody's game -- and all signs suggested that the next goal would be the winner in regulation or sudden-death.

    Each netminder shone in the final minutes of the pulsating third period. Healy made superior saves on Amonte and Darren Turcotte while Richter produced a memorable glove stop on defenseman Tom Kurvers' 20-foot drive from the left circle. Neither club cracked as the buzzer sounded while setting the stage for a dramatic extra session.

    (THE MAVEN'S THOUGHTS: On the SportsChannel (Islanders) side, we remained nervous, mostly because we knew that the Rangers had a terrific home record against our guys and -- no less important -- had rebounded from the two-goal deficit. But I knew that there was plenty of angst in the home dressing room. The Blueshirts were under pressure because they had plummeted from their previous 105-point season. What's more, if they were to lose this game the club would be the first franchise since the 1969-70 Canadiens to miss the playoffs after having the league's best overall record in the previous campaign. Either way, the upcoming moments were not for the faint of heart.)

    Who would score the sudden-death winner? The chief offensive protagonists were Turgeon, who had 49 goals so far on the season, and Messier who had freely admitted that he didn't want to end his second season as a Ranger with such a downer as an OT defeat which inevitably would dump his club out of playoff contention.

    In overtime Captain Mark had his chances to be the Blueshirts hero; two good ones, in fact -- on two-man rushes. Healy beat him on the first and on the second, young center Travis Green intercepted a pass by the captain. Although he didn't know it at the time, Green was about to launch a counterattack that eventually would produce the winning goal. Green, now coaching the Western Hockey League's Portland Winterhawks, dispatched a pass to Brian Mullen who fired the rubber into the Rangers zone. it would never come out. Amonte made a clearing attempt but Malakhov was at the right point where the Islander D-man intercepted the disk.

    (THE MAVEN'S THOUGHTS: Standing between the Islanders bench, watching the play, I felt as if I could touch Malakhov's right shoulder. I wanted to tell him to shoot the puck. But instead Vlad faked a shot and then centered the cookie for Turgeon. I sensed big things although Pierre's shot then went wide. Now the puck was back with Malakhov again. I couldn't figure what he should do -- or would do.)

    The big Russian backhanded the puck to Dalgarno on the opposite side of the goal crease. With the Rangers defense in disarray, Turgeon planted himself in front of the net within sight of Dalgarno who found him with a perfect pass. "I just took a whack at it," Turgeon recalled. The flip shot eluded Richter at 3:41 for Pierre's 50th goal. "I was lucky," Turgeon allowed in his post-game review, "but I'll take forty like that. Getting my 50th in this kind of situation was really special."

    Torrey, Arbour and their bunch went bananas while Healy cautioned that the Isles still had not clinched a playoff berth. "But," the goalie added, "it does put us in control."

    It sure did, catapulting the Isles to a third place finish while the Rangers only won a single game through the rest of the homestretch and missed the playoffs. Days later, Messier would clean out his stall and tell the press: "Right now I don't feel like playing another game in my entire life. My mind's about ready to explode."

    (THE MAVEN'S THOUGHTS: Having been associated with Islanders telecasts for 18 seasons up until this very special game, I can assure you that it was -- in its own many-faceted way -- the most exciting regular season game I ever experienced, especially in terms of Turgeon's supplanting LaFontaine as the new Nassau hero. Conversely -- and curiously -- the defeat was therapeutic for the Rangers. As a result of his club missing the post-season, Neil Smith imported Mike Keenan as new head coach for 1993-1994. A year later the Blueshirts won their fourth Stanley Cup.)

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