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

NEW YORK — A bead of sweat was working its way down Jon’s forehead, dripping from his thick, sprayed hair and toward his cheekbone. He tried to ignore it and held his microphone straight, but man, it was hot, damn hot. The heat seemed to burst from the subway grates and the restaurant fans and the exhaust pipes of buses that rolled past Madison Square Garden, past the rows of blue-uniformed riot police, hundreds of them, just waiting, leaning on their barricades, wiping their foreheads. It was June 14, the latest day in hockey history, and the fever was on 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 had marched, for the last hour, TV camera to TV camera, screaming, “This is the year!” howling like beasts, trying, in that very New York way, to steal a moment of fame and pull 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 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.

Five-and-a-half decades the Rangers had gone without a Stanley Cup, longest drought in the league. This was bad for the Apple. It was bad for the game. 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, Stanley Cup finals, 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, for this was a New York party. Along Eighth Avenue and down Broadway they came, fans in T-shirts, in black dresses, in seersucker suits, celebrities, dock workers. The Rain-jahs! The Rain-jahs!

“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 into his sport coat collar. The crowd surged to get into the picture. “LET’S GO, RAIN- JAHS! LET’S GO RAIN-JAHS!”

A few feet away, two middle-aged guys watched the bedlam, half-dazed. They wore T-shirts that read “New York Rangers, 1994 Stanley Cup Champions.”

“They don’t win tonight, I’m just 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 swirled into this hurricane that exploded when the players burst from the tunnels to flashing lasers and deafening applause. So bright was this focus, you expected the ice to melt, until they were skating in a big pond.

Not that it would have mattered. On Tuesday night, the Rangers might 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. In the final grueling period, they survived more close calls than “The Perils Of Pauline.” With 6:36 left in the game, Vancouver’s Martin Gelinas fired a shot that slapped off goalie Mike Richter’s glove, and skipped toward an open net, and the whole Garden inhaled as Kevin Lowe swooped in and plucked it out just before disaster. And even in the closing seconds, the Canucks were battling in front of the Rangers’ net with the tenacity of a trapped animal.

It was that kind of night. But what did you expect? How else could the Rangers win? No other team has ever had the black cloud that followed this team. 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 even alive. The curse! The curse! That’s all they talked about here.

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

Curses, foiled.

True, it would have been fitting if this series had been won by Vancouver
— a team that was two games away from a losing record this season — because this was the year the playoffs saw the San Jose Sharks, eighth seed, knock out the Red Wings, first seed, and the Washington Capitals, seventh seed, beat

the Pittsburgh Penguins, second seed, and the Canucks, of course, beat Calgary, Dallas and Toronto, all higher seeds.

But Vancouver did enough just getting this far. It surprised the hockey world, and justified the patience it has shown both coach/GM Pat Quinn and goaltender Kirk McLean — both of whom the fans wanted hung in the regular season.

The Canucks never quit, and were never intimidated, not even in the final minutes, as the Rangers’ fans tried to scream their team to a victory. 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 finals that defied logic, including two wins in the Garden.

But on Tuesday, the Garden had the last laugh. They buried 1979, and 1972, and 1950, and if there’s a broken heart for every light on Broadway, then Tuesday, they shut the lights and started over. Captain Mark Messier was hugging coach Mike Keenan and, moments later, skating around the Garden ice with the Cup that had become a Holy Grail.

“STANLEY CUP! STANLEY CUP!” the fans shouted.

The truth is, hockey needed this. The last time a Stanley Cup final went to a seventh game, 1987, it was played in Edmonton, and won by Edmonton, which meant the joyous celebration took place in a city most Americans couldn’t find if you gave them a map and directions. It was good for western Canada; it did little to enlarge the game. The truth is, for hockey to jump to the next level, it needs a champion in a major market, New York, LA.

This will enlarge the game. As soon as this place calms down. The basketball nights will return, the baseball nights will never go away, but Tuesday, the longest wait of any team and any season came to an end, with the biggest city in this country finally giving itself over to hockey. The Rain-jahs! The Rain-Jahs! The Night of The Rain-Jahs! What an interesting picture. New York City, in the heat of summer, covered in ice.

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