Rangers see Caps surging STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS

May 01, 1994|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Sun Staff Writer

RYE, N.Y. -- New York Rangers coach Mike Keenan sits in his office in the Playland Ice Casino contemplating the question.

The defending Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadiens are gone from the playoffs, and so are the Pittsburgh Penguins, two-time Cup winners who were among the favorites this season.

Can Keenan see the road to the Stanley Cup opening up before his eyes?

"You can't even assume that," he said, as a film of Game 7 in the New Jersey-Buffalo series played on a nearby television. "You have to play your next opponent. Many things are out of your control and all you can do is play on and try to play through them."

The Rangers' next opponent is the Washington Capitals -- not the New Jersey Devils, who ousted Buffalo, 2-1, in that seventh game Friday night.

But Keenan will have you believe he and his team will have a lot of work to do to get by the Capitals in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal series that begins tonight at Madison Square Garden.

Keenan says little about his team and what it has to do to move on. But he is eager to talk about the Capitals and how they've changed since the last time the Rangers played them, on March 9.

"I don't know exactly when it happened -- only the players in their locker room know that -- but there is an emotional element involved with them that wasn't there before," Keenan said. "Emotion is part of the formula. The other parts are physical talent and mental skills, and I can't measure that from here."

The Rangers play with purpose and extreme discipline. Keenan says his team also has an emotional element, although it may not be as pronounced as Washington's.

In the four-game sweep of the New York Islanders in the first round, Keenan said he thought he saw "passion."

Watching Washington win its series in six games, he saw building momentum.

"Their confidence levels have gone up with each victory," he said. "They've done something they weren't expected to do and they're playing from a different role. At this time of year, you're an underdog, a contender or a favorite.

"We're the No. 1 team in the league. We're the favorite. That carries different pressures, demands and expectations from those of an underdog. As an underdog you can play with no fear of failure.

"Theoretically, they're still the underdog, but the most important thing is their perception, and their perception of themselves changed in that last series.

"They know it's not the most talented but the best team in the spring that wins, and we certainly don't have an overconfident attitude."

And neither, it seems, do their fans.

If Capitals followers think they've had it bad during the team's 20 years of existence, consider the long-suffering Rangers fans. It's been 54 years since the Rangers won a Stanley Cup.

Then again, the Caps have never won one. At this point, their fans might be willing to put a 50-year mortgage on their future if it meant winning one Cup.

The Rangers' last championship came in 1940. Since then, hockey historians will tell you, they've been done in by everything from World War II, which broke up the 1940 team, to Conn Smythe, the Rangers' first general manager, who, legend has it, put a curse on the team when he was fired.

There is a sense of deja vu as Keenan and his players defend themselves against history, the same way the Capitals were defending themselves last week when faced with a 3-1 lead in games and a reputation for blowing 3-1 leads.

"I've been here six years, longer than anyone else," said Rangers defenseman Brian Leetch. "Some guys have only been here 20 games. But all of us want to be the 25 or 30 players who end [the title drought]. It's a motivating factor more than anything."

The Rangers say there are no mysteries here. Their goaltending, special teams and sound neutral zone play will chase any ghosts away.

"Destiny doesn't win or lose championships," said Rangers captain Mark Messier. "Even the teams who won the Cup, who say they were destined to win it, look back at what they did and see the common bond is hard work.

"I believe in hard work. I've never seen an old building or a player from 1940 score or prevent us from scoring a goal."

Messier and many of his Rangers teammates have won the Stanley Cup. In fact, there are so many former members of the championship Edmonton Oilers teams on the Rangers roster, they could be Oilers East.

"I haven't been here long enough to know what a Ranger is," said Glenn Anderson, who was traded to the Rangers from Toronto on March 21, and, like Messier and Kevin Lowe, has five Stanley Cup rings. "I've heard the stuff being said, but sports is funny. Any team can knock off another any night. That's what makes it fun."

Anderson, though, sounds the only discordant note in the Rangers' locker room. He remembers his Cup years with the Oilers when he, Messier, Lowe and Craig MacTavish (three rings) were all teammates for the first time.

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