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.


Rangers vs. Canadiens – Even then, even now

The New York Rangers and Montreal Canadiens appear as evenly matched for their upcoming Eastern Conference showdown as they have been throughout their long playoff history. As two of hockey’s Original Six franchises, the Rangers and Canadiens have split 14 previous matches in the NHL playoffs.

The lone Stanley Cup Final between the clubs occurred in 1979, when the Habs beat the Rangers in five games to earn their fourth straight Cup. New York won the opening game at the Montreal Forum, then the Canadiens countered with four straight wins. Montreal’s Gainey was hoisted by teammates, above, after winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as Stanely Cup Finals MVP.

That series marked the end of the Canadiens’ dynasty. Jacques Lemaire, Yvan Cournoyer and goalie Ken Dryden all retired, and coach Scotty Bowman left to coach the Buffalo Sabres.

In their first playoff meeting in 1930, Montreal won 2-0 in the semifinals and went on to capture the Stanley Cup. New York returned the favor three years later, outscoring the Canadiens 8 goals to 5 in the quarterfinals (goals scored were a playoff decider in some of the early NHL playoffs), then beating Toronto in four games (3-1) for the Cup.

In 1956, 1957 and 1986 Les Habitants beat the Rangers in the semis – each time in five games — and went on to win the championship.

The last Montreal-New York matchup happened in 1996 in the quarterfinals. The Canadiens won the first two games at Madison Square Garden, but the Rangers rallied for four straight wins.

The first one, in Game 3, was the first playoff game ever at Montreal’s Molson Center, and New York’s Adam Graves scored both goals in a 2-1 win. Alex Kovalev and Pat Verbeek each had a goal and an assist in the Rangers’ Game 6 clincher.

None of the 14 playoff series between the Canadiens and Rangers have gone the full seven games. With this series a virtual toss-up (Montreal is a slight favorite with home ice advantage), that could change.

THE PICK: What else, Rangers in seven.


75 years later, Rangers stage a big comeback

It’s only been 75 years. For the first time since 1939 and only the second time in their history, the New York Rangers have rallied from a 3-1 deficit to force a Game 7 against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

In the 1939 Series A semifinals, the Rangers were down 3-0 to the Boston Bruins, then won three straight games. However their comeback hopes were dashed in Game 7, when Mel Hill, shown at right, scored in the third overtime for a 2-1 win.

Hill was the hero of the series. He scored two other OT game-winners, including another triple overtime goal in Game One, and earned the nickname “Sudden Death.” Hill’s record of three overtime games in the same series still stands.

The Bruins went on to win the Stanley Cup that year, beating the Toronto Maple Leafs in five games. Hill scored a goal in the Cup clincher, and wound up with six goals and three assists in the playoffs.

The Rangers would go on to win the Stanley Cup in 1940, then endured a 54-year title drought before winning a dramatic seventh game against the Vancouver Canucks in 1994.


40 years later, Rangers-Bruins meet again

For the first time in 40 years, the Rangers and Bruins will do battle in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

40 years is a long time. Surprising it’s been that long since these two Original Six rivals met in a playoff series.

When the Rangers and Bruins last met in the post-season, there were only 16 teams in the NHL and half of them made the playoffs.

The year was 1973. Watergate was percolating and Richard Nixon was on the way out, the average annual income was $12,900, and Secretariat won the Triple Crown. This intrepid sportswriter was about to graduate from Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass., a Ranger fan in a sea of Bruins black and gold.

Meeting for the third time in four years, the Rangers ambushed the Bruins in five games in their 1973 first-round clash. Goalie Eddie Giacomin’s shutout in Game 4 and Calder Trophy winner Steve Vicker’s, shown above, hat trick in the 6-3 finale at Boston Garden led the Rangers to the series win.

The Bruins, led by Conn Smythe Trophy winner Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito and a star-studded cast, beat the Rangers in six games in 1972 to win the Stanley Cup. The B’s also won the Cup in 1970, knocking off the Rangers in six games in the quarterfinals.

In total, the Rangers and Bruins have met nine times in the playoffs, with the Bruins winning six of those match-up. In 1958, the Bruins beat the Rangers in a six-game semifinal.

The rivals clashed three straight years beginning in 1927. In 1928, New York beat Boston 5-2 in a two-game, total-goal semifinal format, then beat the Montreal Maroons to win the Stanley Cup. The Bruins captured the Cup in 1929 when they beat the Rangers 2-0 in the finals.

In 1939, Mel “Sudden Death” Hill became a household name in New England when he scored three overtime goals to help the Bruins beat the Rangers in the semifinals and went on to win the Stanley Cup. The Rangers returned the favor in 1940, beating Boston in six games and then topping Toronto 4-2 in the Cup finals. It would be 54 years before they won another.


Stemkowski’s OT goal was one for the ages

Pete Stemkowski (21) scored in the third overtime to lift the Rangers past the Blackhawks.

When Marian Gaborik scored late in the third overtime to beat the Washington Capitals 2-1 in game three of their Eastern Conference semifinal the other night , it marked the fourth longest game in New York Rangers history, and the longest since 1939.

The last time Rangers skated this long into the night, Richard Milhous Nixon was President, gas cost 40 cents a gallon and the voting age in the USA was lowered to 18. It was 1971, April 29 to be exact.

That was the night when Pete Stemkowsi knocked in a rebound of a Teddy Irvine shot to beat the Chicago Blackhawks, 3-2, and force a seventh game.

There were no smartphones or ESPN in 1971, and computers were bigger than dinosaurs. The Rangers-Blackhawks game was televised somewhere, but not in hockey-mad New England.

However, some enterprising students at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, an industrial city in central Massachusetts, rigged up an antenna to a hi-fi system and picked up the radio broadcast out of New York..

Two score or more students, many of them New Yorkers, crowded into the tiny dorm room, and erupted like it was  Madison Square Garden when Stemkowski beat Chicago goalie Tony Esposito  to avert elimination.

It was Stemkowski’s second game-winner of the series; he also scored an OT goal in game one.

Despite the Stemmer’s heroics, the Blackhawks went on to win the seventh game, 4-2, and advanced to the Stanley Cup finals. There they lost to the Montreal Canadiens in seven games.

The Habs, led by a rookie goaltender from Cornell named Ken Dryden, had shocked the defending Cup champion Boston Bruins in seven games in the quarterfinals, then toppled the Minnesota North Stars in the semifinals.

Longest games in Rangers history

1. Montreal 2, Rangers 1, 4 OT,  (128:52), 1930.

2. Rangers 4, Montreal 3 NY, 3OT (119;32), 1932

3. Boston 2, Rangers 1, 3 OT (119:25), 1939

4. Rangers 2, Washington 1, 3OT (114:41), 2012

5. Rangers 3, Chicago 2, 3OT (101:29), 1971


LIN-stant stardom is a rare gem

Jeremy Lin made a huge jump, graduating from Harvard to achieve NBA celebrity status.

In less than two weeks, Jeremy Lin has gone from the Erie BayHawks in the D-League to LIN-finity and beyond.

He’s burst upon the scene like a supernova, eclipsing out-of-the-box scoring records legends like Bird, Magic, Jordan, Kobe and others in the process. Jeremy is a LIN-ternational celebrity.

This kind of breakthrough is extremely rare in professional sports, where  prospects are pampered, primed and projected before they’re old enough to shave.

Very few athletes slip through the cracks and become household names as quickly as Jeremy Lin.

And no, Tim Tebow doesn’t qualify. Tebow was a Heisman Trophy winner from the University of Florida, a football powerhouse. That’s a lot different than undrafted Jeremy Lin from Harvard.

Another invalid compare is Steve Nash, the veteran 16-year point guard for the Phoenix Suns. Nash, like Lin, thrived in coach Mike D’Antoni’s system. But unlike Lin, he was a first round pick in the NBA draft.

Here are some other rising sports starts through the years, LIN-instant hits so to speak. Some went on to long and glorious careers, others flamed out as suddenly as they appeared.

NBA

John Starks bagged groceries for a time after high school and played for three junior colleges. He went undrafted out of Oklahoma State, and like Lin spent one year at Golden State before signing with the Knicks in 1990,

Starks, right, broke his arm in practice attempting to dunk over Patrick Ewing. Eventually he became a starter at shooting guard and made the NBA All-Star team in 1994.

That year, the Knicks made the NBA Finals, where they lost Game 7 to the Houston Rockets when Starks shot  2-for-18.

Long-time Boston Globe sportswriter Bob Ryan, who recently announced he is retiring following the London Olympics, compared Lin to Billy Ray Bates.

A third-round pick from Kentucky State in the 1978 NBA draft, Bates was cut by the Rockets, but emerged two years later with the Portland Trailblazers.

Bates went on to have two solid seasons with Portland, but by 1983 his career was finished.

NFL

Considered one of the best undrafted players of all time, Kurt Warner was cut by the Packers in 1994 and wound up stocking grocery shelves for $5.50 an hour in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

Warner also played Arena League football and was a graduate assistant at his alma mater, Northern Iowa, before joining the St. Louis Rams in 1998.

One year later, Warner passed for a record 414 yards and was named Super Bowl MVP when the Rams beat the Tennessee Titans.

Warner was a two-time NFL MVP (1999 and 2001) and was named to the Pro Bowl four times. He still holds the top three passing yardage records for the Super Bowl.

MLB

Several pitchers achieved instant star status, including Mark “The Bird” Fidrych of the 1976 Tigers and Fernando Valenzuela of the 1981 Dodgers. Valenzuela won both the National League Cy Young and Rookie of the Year awards, and finished his career in 1997, 173 victories later.

Fidrych, left, won 19 games and was named American League Rookie of the Year. He would win just 10 more times before he career ended in 1980.

That same year, Joe Charboneau broke in with the Cleveland Indians, and was voted AL Rookie of the Year  after belting 23 home runs and batting .289. He wound up playing just 70 more games in the majors, his career finished in 1982 before his 27th birthday.

Kevin Mass made a big splash with the Yankees in 1990 when he hit 10 homers in his first 72 at bats, the best start in baseball history. Clearly a one-hit wonder, Maas was shuffling between the majors and minors two years later, and wound up playing in Japan.

Another Yankee outfielder, Shane Spencer, “The Home Run Dispenser,” had a brilliant September in 1998 for a World Championship team. However,  Spencer never lived up to the promise of that meteoric start.

Bob “Hurricane” Hazle had an amazing start with the 1957 Milwaukee Braves, hitting .403 as a late call-up to help his club win the National League pennant. A year later, he was out of baseball.

NHL

Don Murdoch scored eight goals for the Rangers in his first three games, including five in one game. He was on a pace to set the single-season rookie goal-scoring record when an ankle injury ended his year. During the off-season he was busted for cocaine possession, and suspended by the NHL.

Murdoch played 320 career games, but never came close to living up to the promise of  his first season,


In the 70s, These Bruins Were Kings

Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito and the rest of the Bruins were hockey royalty in the early 70s.

In the early 70s, the Boston Bruins were the kings of New England and the toasts of the hockey world. Bobby Orr and The Animals. The Big, Bad Bruins.

They won the Stanley Cup in 1970 and again in 1972, and reached the finals in 1974 before losing to the Philadelphia Flyers. In all, they played in five Stanley Cup finals between 1970 and 1978.

The Bruins are back in the finals again this year, and if they go on to beat the Vancouver Canucks, they will hoist the Stanley Cup for the first time in 39 years.

Back in the early 70s, the Bruins held their pre-season training camp in Fitchburg, a former paper, tool works and clothing milltown on the banks of the Nashua River, about an hour or so outside of Boston in Central Massachusetts.

Those were the days. Here are four tales of the Fitchburg Bruins from Septembers in the 70s.

1974: A Cherry on Top

As the leaves began to turn in September of 1974, a young cub sportswriter arrived on the scene with the Fitchburg Sentinel. It was his first real newspaper job, and one of his first assignments was to cover the Boston Bruins training camp.

That year, the Boston Bruins were a force to be reckoned with, picked by many experts to win the Cup as they began training camp for the upcoming 1974-75 NHL season. The nucleus of their Stanley Cup championship squads  — featuring all-time defenseman Bobby Orr, scoring machine Phil Esposito and captain Johnny Bucyk — was still intact.

Don Cherry, often called Grapes, was the Bruins new head coach, taking over for Bep Gudolin. Cherry always has an agenda, which carried through in his colorful interview sessions. He was bursting with notable quotables as he talked about his talented Bruins, the Fitchburg night life, and Blue, his bull terrier.

Known for flamboyant dress and staunch Canadian patriotism, Cherry guided the Bruins for five seasons, and took them to the Stanley Cup finals in 1977 and 1978, where they twice lost to the Montreal Canadiens. Cherry was fired after a too-many-men-on-the ice penalty late in the game enabled Montreal to tie the score and eventually knock out Boston in the seventh game of the 1979 semifinals.

Cherry, coached the Colorado Rockies in 1979-80, then went on to a highly successful career as a hockey commentator with CBC Television. He was recently voted as the seventh greatest Canadian on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s television special, The Greatest Canadian.

In goal for the Bruins that camp was young Gilles Gilbert, coming off an outstanding year in his first full season that carried all the way through the playoffs. Gilbert was valiant in defeat when the Bruins lost the sixth and deciding game to the Flyers, 1-0, in the 1974 Stanley Cup finals.

Gilles was fun to speak with, but it was difficult to understand his French Canadian accent, even for a guy who took French in high school.

And forward Terry O’Reilly was on the fast track to success with the 1974-75 Bruins. When the Sentinel reporter interviewed O’Reilly, he mentioned that his father was a milkman. Sounded familiar to the reporter, who drove a milk truck before working for the newspaper.

1975: Patty Hearst, Espo and Orr

On September 18, 1975, publishing heiress turned urban guerilla Patty Hearst, victim of a bizarre kidnap by the Symbionese Liberation Party, was found by federal US agents following one of the most extensive manhunts in history.

That same afternoon, a columnist from the Fitchburg Sentinel & Leominster Enterprise parked his car in a field on the New England farm of noted philanthropist George R. Wallace, Jr. Phil Esposito, all-star center of the Boston Bruins, pulled up next in a Mercedes.

Both were heading for a clambake at the Wallace farm, an event to fete the Bruins, who trained at the George R. Wallace Civic Center.

As they walked up to the barn to join Bruins players, coaches and local politicians and luminaries from Fitchburg, Esposito turned to the reporter and said, “Did you hear? They found Patty Hearst.”

Moments later another Bruins player, all-star defenseman Bobby Orr, emerged from an apple orchard on Wallace’s farm. Orr was limping noticeably. Espo, concerned about this teammate, asked him if he was all right. Orr smiled, but admitted the knee was bothering him.

Little did Orr — or Espo, the reporter and the clambakers — suspect it at the time, but Orr’s his brilliant career was just about over at age 27. A few days later, Orr was sidelined and had knee surgery.

He would play just 10 games for the Bruins in 1975. Orr would never skate for the Bruins again, playing 26 games for the Chicago Black Hawks between 1976-77 and 1978-79 before retiring, his brilliant career over at age 30.

Orr played a full 80 games during his final season in 1974-75, scoring a career-high 46 goals, and won his second Art Ross scoring trophy as he led the NHL in both assists with 89 and points with 135. He was never the same player after 1975,  when he won a record eighth straight Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman.

During his Koufaxian-like career which began with a Calder Trophy as an 18-year-old NHL Rookie of the Year in 1966-67, the Parry Sound, Ontario, native was the best hockey player ever. Orr redefined the position of defenseman and led the Bruins to Stanley Cups in 1970 and 1972.

In 1970 he became the only player ever to sweep the league’s top awards — Norris, Ross, Hart Memorial as regular season MVP and Conn Smythe as playoff MP — and scored the Stanley Cup winning goal in overtime, flying through the air to complete a four-game sweep of the St. Louis Blues.

The following year Orr recorded a plus/minus of 124, best in NHL history and quite likely the most unbreakable record in hockey. Only one other player, Larry Robinson of Montreal, ever had a plus/minus over 100 in a season.

Orr broke the mold of the defensive-minded defenseman, winning two scoring titles and leading the NHL in assists on five separate occasions. He won three consecutive MVPs (1970-71-72) and was also the playoff MVP in 1972, when the Bruins defeated the New York Rangers in six games to win their last Stanley Cup.

And the columnist still swears that although Wayne Gretzky may have been The Great One, Bobby Orr was The Greatest

1977: George Plimpton in Goal

Two years later, in September of 1977, change was in the air in Fitchburg. The sportswriter had a daughter now. Orr was gone, finishing out his career with the Chicago Blackhawks. And Espo had been traded to the Rangers exactly 50 days after Patty Hearst was captured. In the blockbuster trade, Espo and Carol Vadnais were sent to new York for Brad Park, Jean Ratelle and Joe Zanussi.

Gerry Cheevers, the goalie hero the last two Bruins Stanley Cup championships was back. Cheevers would lead the Bruins back to the finals in both 1977 and 1978, where they would twice fall to the Montreal Canadiens.

Training camp had a different twist this year. A tall, gangly fellow arrived in camp to play goaltender. George Plimpton was his name, and he was going to mind the nets for the Bruins in an exhibition game.

Plimpton was a participatory journalist, best known for Paper Lion, a book about this attempts to quarterback the Detroit Lions in a pre-season game. He was preparing to write Open Net, a professional amateur in the world of big-time hockey.

During the first day at camp, Plimpton went through the ritual of putting on the goalie gear. He described the leg pads as each weighing “about the same as an Underwood typewriter.”

Don Cherry gave Plimpton some strange reassurance.  “You’ll be OK, I mean you’re going to live. I’ve never seen a goalie get a serious injury — even before the time of the masks.”

In a book of many great lines, one of the best lines in Open Net stemmed from a conversation Plimpton had with Bruins defenseman Rick Smith. Smith told the story of a fan in the old Boston who yelled at referee King Clancy in a foghorn voice, “We got a place here in Massachusetts, Clancy that’s named after you. It’s called Mahblehead.”

Plimpton trained with the Bruins for several weeks, the played reasonably well in a brief stint against the Flyers, even stopping a penalty shot by Reggie Leach.

As if they were intent on proving they were playing this game for real — even an exhibition game in which George Plimpton appeared — the Bruins and Flyers brawled several times and amassed 266 penalty minutes between them. Eighteen players were ejected by referee Wally Harris.

1978: The Turk in the Tank

In the early autumn of 1978, Derek Sanderson was sitting in a dark corner of the Peter Pan bar in Fitchburg. The sportswriter and his buddy could see him. He was dead drunk.

The Turk could barely stand, and between trying to pick up waitresses, pick a fight, and do more shots of tequila, Sanderson was out of it. Earlier that day he had been cut by the Bruins, his once promising hockey career finished.

Sanderson had been an integral part of the Bruins team that won the Cup in 1970 and 1972. One of the most highly regarded penalty killers and face-off men in hockey, he set up Bobby Orr’s overtime goal in 1970 against the St. Louis  Blues that gave the Bruins their first championship in 29 years.

After the 1972 season, Sanderson signed a contract with the Philadelphia Blazers of the newly-formed World Hockey Association. His $2.6 million salary surpassed that of Brazilian soccer star, Pelé, making him the highest-paid athlete in the world at the time.

Not even the Turk could live up to that billing, and before the end of the season the Blazers bought out Sanderson’s contract for $1 million.

Sanderson returned to the Bruins, and was later traded to the Rangers. Hobbled by knee injuries and frequent bouts with alcohol and drug abuse, Sanderson finished his career with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1978.

He tried a comeback with the Bruins that season, flunked out, and wound up drunk in the Peter Pan.

This story has a happy ending. The Turk conquered his demons. and became a popular broadcaster with the Bruins.

Today, Derek Sanderson is involved with a variety of charitable organizations and makes a number of guest appearances at charitable events to help raise awareness of alcohol and drugs.