RANGERS 3, CANUCKS 2FINALLY!NEW YORK (AND NHL) NEEDED THIS

NEW YORK — A bead of sweat was dripping down Jon’s forehead, from his thick, sprayed hair toward his makeup- covered cheekbone. He tried to ignore it and hold his microphone straight, but man, it was hot, damn hot. The heat seemed to burst from the subway grates and the exhaust pipes of buses that rolled past Madison Square Garden, past rows of blue-uniformed riot police, hundreds of them, just waiting, leaning on their blue barricades, wiping sweat from their foreheads. It was June 14, almost summer, the latest day in hockey history, and the fever was all over 33rd Street.

“What TV station is this guy on?” a fan asked, pointing at Jon, even as he tried to slide in behind him.

“I have no bleepin’ idea,” said his buddy.

“Let’s get in his shot.”

There were already at least 50 people in Jon’s shot, hoisting their Rangers jerseys, waving their caps. Up and down the block they marched, TV camera to TV camera, screaming, “This is the year!” trying, in that very New York way, to steal a moment of fame and slip it on like a costume. One guy held a miniature Stanley Cup, and pretended to guzzle beer.

“Yo, TV guy! Yo! Here’s what da Rain-jahs gonna do tonight aftah they win. Yo, TV guy!”

The Rain-jahs. It was all about the Rain-jahs, now. There are Yankees nights in New York City, and Mets nights, Knicks nights, baseball nights, basketball nights, but now, finally, here was a hockey night, The Night of The Rain-jahs, a night for all the guys named Sal, Nick, Lenny, Duke, the lunatics who have been coming to the Garden forever, sitting in the high blue seats, raining down their noise in the many, many years this team didn’t have a chance and worse, in the few years it did and still couldn’t win a title.

Five-and-a-half decades the Rangers had gone without a Stanley Cup, longest in the NHL. This was bad for the Apple. It was bad for hockey. All U.S. sports leagues need New York teams to win now and then, if only to ignite hatred — and thus, interest — across the rest of the country.

The Long Wait was supposed to end Tuesday, Game 7, Rangers against the upstart Vancouver Canucks, on the biggest single night the NHL has ever seen. The press coverage was massive. The TV audience was worldwide, North America, Europe, Russia. They were all gawkers, however. This was a New York party.

“Well, the players aren’t the only ones who have waited a long time for a a Stanley Cup . . . ” Jon began, TV camera humming, the bead of sweat dripping now to his collar. The crowd surged and began to scream.

“LET’S GO, RAIN-JAHS! LET’S GO, RAIN-JAHS!”

A few feet away, two middle-aged guys watched the bedlam, half-dazed.

“They don’t win tonight, I’m gonna kill myself,” one of them, a guy called Wolf, said. “They lose tonight, I kill myself and die.”

His friend, taller, with glasses, looked at him blankly.

“Good,” he said.

It was that kind of New York night, the heat, the noise, the police, the attitude, all whipped into this hurricane that touched down on the opening face-off at 8:08 p.m. So bright was the spotlight, you expected the ice to melt, until the players were left skating in a big pond.

Not that it mattered. On Tuesday, the Rangers could have walked on water. Oh, they made their fans suffer. Put them through 60 minutes of nail-biting hell, in which a 2-0 lead was cut to 2-1, and a 3-1 lead cut to 3-2, and in the final, grueling period, they had to survive more close calls than a “Die Hard” movie. With 6:36 left, Martin Gelinas fired a shot that slapped off goalie Mike Richter’s glove, and skipped toward an open net, and the entire Garden held its breath as Kevin Lowe swooped in and plucked the puck just before disaster. Three minutes later, Nathan Lafayette banged another would-be tie game off the post. Another exhale.

“That final period,” Brian Leetch, the eventual MVP, would say, “was like time stood still. To be on the verge of the greatest moment of your life, well, it doesn’t come quickly.”

Like he needs to tell Rangers fans that. Time standing still? Not a single player on this year’s roster was alive the last time the Cup came to the Apple. Some of their fathers weren’t alive. The curse! The 54-year curse! That’s all they talked about.

Until Tuesday. When the horn sounded, and fireworks exploded in the Garden, the players threw their gloves and sticks in the air, as if graduating from the hardest college of their lives.

“The pressure we were under was incredible,” said Mark Messier, the captain, whose arrival really put this franchise over the top. Fittingly, Messier scored the winning goal, and he was first to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup. Messier had done this five times before, all in Edmonton. None was as hard as this one.

“The microscope of that 1940 curse,” Messier said, “it’s tougher than anything you can imagine.”

Curses, foiled.

Yet, it would have been fitting had this championship been won by Vancouver — a seventh seed that was one game over .500 this season — because this was the year San Jose knocked out the Red Wings, and Washington beat Pittsburgh.

The truth is, the Canucks gave the NHL the best show of any team in the playoffs, seven overtime games, six victories, and a comeback in the final that defied logic.

But comebacks are a matter of perspective. Just ask the Rangers. With that final horn, they came back from the ghosts of the 1950 final, and the 1972 final, and the 1979 final, all defeats. If there’s a broken heart for every light on Broadway, then on Tuesday, they shut the lights and started over.

Inside the press room of Madison Square Garden, Leetch was told the president was on the phone. They spoke for a moment.

“America’s proud of you,” Bill Clinton said.

“Thank you,” Leetch said.

“Tell the team congratulations.”

The line was disconnected. Leetch, the first American to win the playoff MVP award, immediately turned and said, “Was that Dana Carvey?”

Only in New York. Ah, well. The truth is, hockey needed this. The last time a Stanley Cup final went to a seventh game, 1987, it was won by Edmonton, which meant the celebration took place in a city most Americans couldn’t find with a map and directions. The sad truth is, for the NHL to reach the next level of popularity, it needs a champion in a major TV market: New York, LA.

It has one now — and this will enlarge the game. Once they clean this place up.

The basketball nights will return, the baseball nights never go away, but Tuesday, the longest wait of any team and any season ended with this country’s biggest metropolis finally giving itself to hockey. The Rain-jahs! The Rain-Jahs! What an interesting picture. New York City, in the heat of summer, covered in ice.

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