Finally, Blueshirts are back in the Finals

Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist exults as the Rangers advance to the Stanley Cup Finals.

I began following the New York Rangers in grammar school. Back then there were just six teams in the NHL, and yet the Rangers missed the playoffs eight of nine seasons between 1958 and 1966. They weren’t very good….or else they weren’t quite good enough…and those would become  prevailing themes as I followed the Blueshirts through the years.

I went to my first hockey game in 1967, just days before Christmas, at the old Madison Square Garden on Eighth Avenue. The Rangers got blanked by the Boston Bruins that night, but the team was on the rise, thanks primarily to goalie Eddie Giacomin.

In 1972, the Rangers, fueled by superb goaltending and the GAG (goal a game) line of Jean Ratelle, Rod Gilbert and Vic Hadfield made the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in my lifetime. There they lost to Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito and the Bruins in six games.

Several years later Espo was traded to the Rangers, and with John Davidson between the pipes the  Broadway Blues knocked off the Islanders and made it to the Finals in 1979, only to lose to the Montreal Canadiens in five.

The Islanders dominated the early 80s winning four straight Stanley Cups. Meanwhile the Rangers title drought continued, often to the accompaniment of 1940 chants in visiting arenas.

The Messiah delivers

Before the 1991-92 season began, the Rangers acquired Mark Messier, below, from the Edmonton Oilers with the express purpose of delivering a Stanley Cup. And the Messiah delivered, with help from defenseman Brian Leetch, goalie Mike Richter and a stellar supporting cast.

I was in the house on June 14, 1994, when the Rangers ended a 54-year jinx, defeating the Vancouver Canucks in Game 7 to win their first Cup since 1940. That night, a fan in the Garden unfurled a banner that read “Now I can die in peace.” We all felt that way.

But not even the great Wayne Gretzy could bring another championship to the Rangers. After reaching the Eastern Conference finals in 1997, the Rangers missed the playoffs seven years in a row.

A rookie goalie named Henrik Lundqvist arrived in 2005, and backstopped the Rangers to their first playoff appearance since 1997. The Rangers gradually built a team to support Lundqvist, making a big trade to acquire sniper Martin St. Louis just before the trading deadline, and now they are back in the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in 20 years.

Some playoff runs are expected. The 1994 Rangers had the best record in the NHL during the regular season, and were favored to win the Cup. This year’s team has been a surprise, taking New York fans along for the ride. New York has become RangerTown.

After beating the Flyers in the first round, the Rangers rallied from a 3-1 deficit to beat the Penguins, then topped the Canadiens in six to advance to the Finals. They’re now on the doorstop, on the verge of making hockey history.

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