Eighteen years ago today, the New York Rangers were in real peril. Down 3-2 in the series after a humiliating 4-1 lost at home to the New Jersey Devils, Captain Mark Messier had a conversation with New York’s beat writers. In an effort to instill confidence in his team, Messier boldly was trying to say that he believed they would win. Instead, when he said, “We’ll win tonight,” and that is exactly what the New York Post printed on the back page.
It fired up one team on the ice, but it wasn’t the Rangers. It was the Devils who came out storming the goal that Rangers goalie Mike Richter defended well until Devils defenseman Scott Neidermeyer’s pass for Bill Guerin was deflected past Richter by Rangers’ center Sergei Nemchinov. A couple minutes later, former Rangers Bernie Nichols sent a pass out to Neidermeyer at the point for a one timer that Claude Lemiuex would tip in. As ESPN’s Bill Clement pointed out, “The Devils are all over the Rangers.”
The second period was more of the same. Richter kept the Devils at bay, including a shot by Devils’ defenseman Tommy Albelin that hit his teammate Tom Chorske’s skate in the crease that would have been a goal. After that, Rangers coach Mike Keenan called a timeout where no words were said, but as if to define his career, Mark Messier stood up with a passion that made legend. Late in the second period, Messier took the puck up ice and dropped it for Alexei Kovalev that led to a slap shot goal.
It’s the third period that made Messier’s story legend. Trailing by a goal, Messier to a pass by Alexei Kovalev and backhanded it past Devils rookie goaltender Martin Brodeur. Then in a 4-on-4 situation, Kovalev and eventual Conn Smythe winner Brian Leetch started up ice. Kovalev took a Leetch drop pass for a slap shot that caromed to Messier to put home. With the Devils on a Power Play and Brodeur on the bench, John MacLean centered the puck, but Messier intercepted it and fired it into the empty net for the Natural Hat Trick.
There aren’t many times where players guarantee wins and come up with a big performance. When Joe Namath won MVP of Super Bowl III, he didn’t throw a touchdown pass. In this case, the Devils were all over Rangers and they should have lost, but with their backs to the wall, Messier delivered a performance that put him into New York Sports lore. As it turns out, the Devils would win their first Stanley Cup the next season.