By Sean Hartnett
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On Tuesday night, the New York Rangers played a perfect third period to earn their first victory in Vancouver in a very long time. You’d have to search as far back as October 11th, 1997 to find the last time the Blueshirts won at Rogers Arena.
Back in October 1997, the Rogers Arena was known as General Motors Place and it was also home to the NBA’s Vancouver Grizzlies. Yes kids, the Memphis Grizzlies used to play in Vancouver. Back then, they wore hideous aqua green jerseys and had an overweight center named Bryant ‘Big Country’ Reeves.
Okay, that’s probably enough basketball talk as in all likelihood we won’t see an NBA season in 2011-12. Allow me to take one more trip down memory lane to demonstrate to Rangers fans just how long it’s been since your team last secured a victory in Vancouver. In October 1997, Wayne Gretzky was enjoying his second season as a Ranger and Blueshirts fans were getting used to the image of former captain Mark Messier in Canucks uniform.
Messier controversially bolted the Big Apple for Vancouver that off-season to re-unite with former head coach Mike Keenan. As beloved as Messier was at Madison Square Garden, he was equally despised by fans at General Motors Place. Canucks fans loved their leader Trevor Linden and the fact that Keenan ripped the captain’s badge off Linden’s sweater to have stitched on Messier’s jersey irritated them greatly.
This was the same man who scored the series-winning goal over the Canucks in Game 7 of the 1994 Stanley Cup Finals. That combined with a drop-off in production made Messier an unpopular figure during his time in Vancouver.
To prove how long ago it was when the Rangers last won in Vancouver, Messier was lining up against his old teammates for the first time in a Canucks jersey. On that occasion, Gretzky scored a hat trick and totaled five points on the night. Defenseman Bruce Driver added two goals and Adam Graves chipped in an additional goal as the Rangers marched on to a 6-3 victory. Even Messier scored in his first appearance against his former teammates since joining the Canucks.
Fast-forward back to 2011. The present day Canucks are coming off their first Stanley Cup Finals appearance since 1994 and it isn’t just the Sedin twins that are gifted with talent. They’re a team loaded with scorers like Ryan Kesler, Alexandre Burrows and Mikael Samuelsson. Kesler is a complete two-way forward who embodies all the offensive and physical trademarks that make Vancouver such a difficult team to beat.
They possess a mix of skill and grit that not many teams around the NHL can handle and are deep on the blue line. Whether or not Roberto Luongo can return to form isn’t crucial to their plans as they carry a backup in Cory Schneider who many teams would be desperate to acquire. The Canucks are the strongest they’ve been since that classic Stanley Cup Final in 1994.
Can the same be said about the Rangers? Could this be a potential 2012 Stanley Cup Finals preview? Maybe some over-zealous fans feel that confident but I’m not ready to go that far yet. Still, the Rangers showed last night why they’re equipped to fare better than their eighth place Eastern Conference finish in 2010-11 and first round playoff exit.
Henrik Lundqvist stood tall in net against a barrage of Canucks chances, saving 40 shots on net and making 28 saves through two periods. Some Ranger fans are calling it the best ever performance by the Swedish net-minder of his 410 game career.
That ‘bend but not break mentality’ was conveyed by the entire Rangers lineup throughout the night. They were poised and patient enough not to put their heads down and allow the Canucks to make good on their early momentum. Poise is a word that also adequately describes sophomore Ranger Ryan McDonagh who put in the performance of a ten-year offensive-defenseman with his passing aptitude.
McDonagh displayed wizardry on the puck by contributing two skillful assists and adding a goal of his own in the Rangers’ 4-0 victory. All four goals came in the third period and McDonagh’s offensive play made sure the Canucks had no route back into the game.
It’s promising for a young defenseman to have such a breakthrough performance. Seeing heavyweights like Michael Rupp and Brian Boyle get on the scoresheet along with a more usual suspect in Marian Gaborik shows that the Rangers can find goals from not just their highly-paid stars.
That’s no knock on Boyle who is coming off a career year or Rupp who has scored important playoff goals in years past but rather a statement on the kind of depth the Rangers now boast. Great teams click from top-to-bottom and aren’t reliant entirely on their first liners as the Canucks and Boston Bruins demonstrated on the way to last season’s finals.
Tuesday night’s victory in Vancouver could be a glimpse of the depth and mentality needed to make a serious playoff run. The winning pieces may be finally falling into place for John Tortorella and his Rangers.
Rangers fans – how pleasing was it to see the Blueshirts achieve an improbable victory in Vancouver? Share your opinions below and send your tweets to @HartyLFC.