NEW YORK -- The New York Rangers delivered the Stanley Cup to their long-suffering organization and fans for the first time in 54 years Tuesday night.
Yesterday, they basked in the glory and tomorrow they'll take a ride down Broadway in a ticker-tape parade. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani will meet them on the steps of City Hall, as the city gives the team that finally broke "The Curse" its due.
"The attention paid to our final game was incredible," said Rangers captain Mark Messier. "I've never seen anything like it, and I've been in the game for 16 years. I've won five Stanley Cups before this and I thought I'd seen it all. I wasn't saying much, but inside I was thinking, 'This is absolutely incredible.' "
The Stanley Cup championship, won by the Rangers in a Game 7 showdown with the Vancouver Canucks, 3-2, was one of the most captivating in sports, and almost surely the biggest in NHL history.
More than 1,000 media credentials were issued for the finals -- a record by more than 50 percent.
For the first time, a U.S. president called the media room after the clinching Stanley Cup game to congratulate the Conn Smythe winner -- in this case the Rangers' Brian Leetch, the first American to win the Stanley Cup MVP.
And the ratings on ESPN, the cable sports network that televised the playoffs, was the highest ever for a hockey game.
The finals pitted a team against decades of legendary failure. And it was played before fans who seemed at the end of their rope after the Rangers had blown a 3-games-to-1 advantage.
As befits such suffering, the Rangers needed every minute of every game to finally pull it off.
"With 1.1 seconds left," said Rangers goalie Mike Richter, "I started thinking we had a chance. It's overwhelming."
One banner unfurled as the Rangers carried the Cup around Madison Square Garden read, "Now I can die in peace."
The Rangers' success also guaranteed at least two other firsts.
The team's coach Mike Keenan, often criticized for not being able to win the big one, finally did in his fourth trip to the Cup finals over 10 years.
"I don't feel any sense of redemption," said Keenan, who coached Philadelphia and Chicago to the finals without winning.
"I feel very fortunate to have the fourth opportunity," Keenan said. "I don't know how many coaches in this league have even had a chance to coach in a Stanley Cup final, and to feel like you've missed something because you didn't win it is a selfish attitude. I think it's a privilege to have the opportunity to try to win the Cup."
And for the first time in history, names of Russian players -- Alexei Kovalev, Sergei Zubov, Sergei Nemchinov and rookie Alexander Karpovtsev -- will be engraved on the Cup.
"It's an unbelievable thing," said Nemchinov, who has played three seasons with New York. "To be the first Russians on the Stanley Cup, I'm very proud."
Messier, who scored the winning goal, had been credited with holding the Rangers together while rumors persisted that Keenan had already struck a deal to become coach and general manager of the Detroit Red Wings for next season, a rumor Keenan has denied.
But after the win, Messier and his teammates said it was Keenan who brought the team together for the last game and their last try at winning the Cup with the "most powerful and inspiring speech" they had ever heard.
"[Keenan] brought us back to square one," said Rangers defenseman Kevin Lowe. "Mike said let's not forget where we came from. We're a team that a lot of people said wouldn't make the playoffs at the start of the year. Then we developed into a contender. Then we developed into a favorite. Sure, we lost a couple of hockey games, but it's been an exciting, exceptional year.
"He said, 'Grasp onto that. Remember that. And go out and play the game.' That's what we were trying to focus on, but a lot of times you can't see the forest for the trees. When Mike talked to us, everyone was able to step out and look at what's going on and say, 'Yeah, we're disappointed we're 3-3, but if we play our best game, we'll win.' "
The Rangers did play their best game, and afterward the champagne flowed in their locker room -- for the first time in 54 years.