The 1990s: A look back at the last time the Rangers were elite

Hello. You may remember me from such fanposts as....shit, I don't remember what they were called. Click my name and look them up. I've had a couple, though.

Anyway, I'm realizing that it's been over twenty years since the Rangers began what everyone thought would be a great run in the 1990s....and for the most part, they were one of the most successful teams in the league from 1990-1997, and easily it was the best period in Rangers history since the early-mid 1970s (you'd have to go back to the inception of the franchise, from 1927 until World War II to find a similar period of excellence. Yeah. I know. Not easy being a fan of this franchise)

I also realize that most of you whippersnappers were either not alive or crawling around in diapers, and therefore grew up dealing with the misery of 1998-2004, and the meh years from post lockout until now.

It amazes me to think that you guys look at the 1990s the way I look at the 1970s, so I figured I'd do a quick recap of how good things were, and how this is a hopeful replication of that period (albeit with more championships).

And maybe some day twenty years from now, one of you kids will tell similar stories to the next generation of whippersnappers while I'm eating my porridge in the home.

1989-90: Trader Phil Esposito is gone. Michel Bergeron is gone. In their place: former Islander and Red Wing scout Neil Smith as GM, and defensive coach and captain video whiz Roger Neilson behind the bench.

They also have a budding superstar in Brian Leetch, a strong goaltender in John Vanbiesbrouck, and other veteran luminaries such as John Ogrodnick, Brian Mullen and Kelly Kisio. And they still have Ron Greschner, in what would be his final season, marred by injuries.

Amazingly, the Rangers win the Patrick Division (with 85 points, no less....not much of a feat until you consider only one team hit 100 points that year, but hey, a title is a title) playing a defense-first safe game as per Neilson, and make a massive splash before the trade deadline (completing both moves during all-star weekend, no less): Bernie Nicholls arrives from Los Angeles for Tomas Sandstrom and Tony Granato, and Mike Gartner is acquired for Ulf Dahlen.

Because it's the Rangers, March arrives with a disaster: Brian Leetch breaks his ankle and is done for the year. The Rangers knock off the Islanders in a five game first round matchup (punctuated by a vicious game one, in which James Patrick and Chris Nilan sandwich Pat LaFontaine, giving him the first concussion of his career. The ambulance carrying him to the hospital is rocked by fans as it leaves the building). Al Arbour sends out his goon squad in the final seconds of the game with orders to fight everyone, and Neilson can't get his tough guys on the ice before the gloves drop. Vukota and Baumgartner pound Jeff Bloemberg and Kris King as John Davidson calls out Arbour as 'garbage for doing this'.

Advancing to the second round, the Rangers square off with the juggernaut 78 point Washington Capitals. But the Caps have a secret weapon: John Druce, who decides that this second round matchup is the perfect time to showcase his never before noticed goal scoring skills. He scores 637 goals in five games, and ends the Rangers' season. Still, a division title for the first time in almost fifty years isn't terrible. And with a healthy Leetch next year....

1990-91: You think March 2012 was a swoon? The Rangers go from top in the division to second place after a hard charge by the Penguins (electrified by the Ron Francis-Ulf Samuelsson trade) vaults them into first place at the end of the year by three points.

Instead of a matchup with the Devils in the first round, the Rangers get the Capitals again. Even with home ice, the Rangers roll over and die, barely putting up a fight in game five at home, and putting up no fight at all in game six at the Cap Center. In desperation, recently signed college players Tony Amonte and Doug Weight are inserted into the lineup. It helps not at all.

Famously, Neil Smith has a meltdown post-game, vowing that he will change the culture of the franchise because he's enraged with the lack of effort. Veterans will go, and he has a list of who's first. The collective media yawns: We've heard this song before.

1991-92: A few months after the Washington debacle, Neil Smith signs Adam Graves. Compensation is sent back to Edmonton in the form of Troy Mallette. Smith reasons Graves won a Cup a year ago and can provide veteran leadership, even at the tender age of 23. Graves promptly gets #11, because Kelly Kisio is exiled to the expansion San Jose Sharks, and mostly because he worships Mark Messier.

The season opens in Boston with a loss. Fearful of another lost season, he goes shopping in Edmonton again, this time landing some guy named Messier. The media responds: Oh, good, another washed up veteran. The guy was hurt most of last year. Guy Lafluer redux. Marcel Dionne part two.

Instead of being afraid of curses and not discussing the Cup, Messier insists on a poster of the Stanley Cup being hung in the locker room for players to see. He reorganizes the dressing room so everyone has eye contact with everyone else. He arranges team get togethers to foster a bond among players, an alien concept for this franchise. He demands respect for the sweater. He bangs Madonna. He owns New York more than any other individual athlete in the city since Reggie Jackson.

He also has a couple of private issues with Neilson regarding the play it safe mentality. It's not how you win, he says. And points to his resume (five championships) versus Neilson's (zero championships) as proof.

A ten day lockout before the end of the season derails the momentum the team had been building with a ridiculously strong March, but end up with the President's Trophy (as the only 100 point team in the league), and they struggle through a seven game win against the Devils in round one (punctuated with the first ever game seven at Madison Square Garden. Soak that one up).

Then come the Penguins. Mario Lemieux's "broken wrist" from an Adam Graves slash. The contract Lemieux alleges was put on him by Neilson which he found out about thanks to an FBI investigation. Graves being suspended and threatened with death in Pittsburgh by the ever-brilliant fanbase which discovered hockey when the Penguins won the year before. Ron Francis' sixty foot slapshot. Ugh.

The season ends on a horrible note, well short of expectations. A division title and a regular season championship are nice and all, and we all take solace knowing the pieces are in place: this team will contend in 1993.

1992-93: Or not.

The Rangers nearly trade half their team for Eric Lindros. Smith brings in more depth players resulting in numerous healthy scratches, odd player lineup decisions, and general unhappiness in the locker room. Messier and Neilson's feud goes public. Neilson is fired. Messier catches hell. Leetch damages a nerve in his shoulder. The team muddles on. Leetch returns. Leetch breaks his ankle on a patch of 'black ice' (more commonly known as being too fucking drunk to step out of a cab properly).

The Rangers lose 92 consecutive games in March and April and miss the playoffs, finishing in last place in the division. Messier is booed in the home finale, and fans bombard WFAN with calls demanding he be traded, along with Leetch.

Neil Smith vows changes. The media reminds him he gave this speech two years ago. But this time, he says, I really, really mean it.

1993-94: We know all about this. blah blah blah Presidents Trophy blah blah Guarantee blah blah Matteau blah blah This one will last a lifetime.

1994-95: An owner's lockout derails the start of the season, which is good because Adam Graves would have missed the first half of the season following back surgery anyway. The season is saved in January. Messier gets locked into a contract dispute and only signs hours before the home opener.

Meanwhile, Keenan is off to St. Louis, along with Brian Noonan and Esa Tikkanen. Craig MacTavish is in Philadelphia. Depth issues surface as the team reaps what was sewn in the 1994 deadline deals, highlighted by the fact that Mark Osborne has a roster spot. Also, Petr Nedved gets under Messier's skin by not competing hard enough, and new coach Colin Campbell unsuccessfully tries burying him under the LIRR station.

With a short season, a poorly stocked farm system, and a team still dealing with a championship hangover, they look very much in danger of being the first defending champion to miss the playoffs since the 1970 Montreal Canadiens.

Then Smith trades a first round pick (pfft, like he needs to draft players) to Hartford for Pat Verbeek, and things turn around. Verbeek slots in on the right wing with Messier and Graves, Kovalev returns to pivot the second line, although problems surface when Mike Richter returns to his horrible 1993 form and winds up splitting time with Glenn Healy.

They back into the playoffs late, and as the eighth seed face off against the emerging powerhouse Colorado Avalanche Quebec Nordiques. Of course, the Nordiques have a problem: Jocelyn Thibault and Stephane Fiset are their goaltenders.

In a grueling six game series, the Rangers prevail, but are so exhausted and undermanned they have almost no chance against the big, rebuilt Flyers. The first two games are decided in overtime in Philly, wasting a hat trick by Leetch, and the Rangers go down in four straight.

Neil Smith vows to make changes to compete with bigger, more physical teams like the Flyers and Devils. Everyone rolls their eyes.

1995-96: We shouldn't have rolled our eyes. Smith trades Zubov and Nedved to Pittsburgh for Samuelsson and Robitaille. Who replaces Zubov? Bruce Driver.

There's still enough talent on the roster to hold on to first place for most of the year, until (stop me if you've heard this one) a March swoon vaults the Flyers into first place.

Neil Smith is not happy with the swoon and decides he needs more veterans on the team. Goodbye, Norstrom and Laperriere. Hello, Churla, Kurri and McSorley.

A first round matchup looms with the Montreal Canadiens, the last time the Rangers have home ice advantage in a playoff series until this year. They drop the first two games at the Garden, and everyone figures they're doomed since the Forum is their chamber of horrors. Instead, they win the next two in Montreal, dominate game five, and knock off Montreal in six.

Of course, they play the Penguins in round two, and Jagr scores 55 points in a five game Penguins romp. The now old and slow Rangers can't keep pace with the Penguins speed.

McSorley finally gets back for his backchecking assignment twenty minutes after the last Penguins goal is scored.

Well. That was interesting.

Amonte and Weight are developing into very good players. Zubov is kicking ass in Pittsburgh. But we did win that Cup so it was worth it....right? I mean, the team is old, sure, most of the prospects are gone, but they're still competitive.

96 points and a second place finish is nothing to sneeze at. Hell, only four teams had a better record all year.

1996-97: Neil Smith is not happy. There are still a few players under 30 on the team. He rectifies this by signing Wayne Gretzky.

And Pat Flatley.

Pat Verbeek, meanwhile, walks off for greener pastures in Dallas.

It's mostly a not so great season, with a regression to 86 points and a fifth seed matchup with the Panthers. Which they win in overtime of game five.

Next up: the Devils, who won the Atlantic division and finished 18 points ahead of the Rangers. Adam Graves knocks them out with an OT goal in game five.

Along the way, injuries pile up. Kovalev is hurt. Niklas Sundstrom is hurt. Pat Flatley is hurt. Leetch's shoulder is dislocated, but he plays on. Russ Courtnall plays meaningful minutes with Wayne Gretzky. I repeat: Russ Courtnall. Playing with Gretzky.

Dallas Eakins goes from spare defenseman to third line forward.

Dallas Eakins.

You want a comparable? He makes Woywitka look like Paul Coffey. And he's playing big minutes in the playoffs.

The Cinderella fun run ends against a much better Flyers team in the conference finals.

Two months later, Messier is a Vancouver Canuck, and Neil Smith proved he had no backup plan. He was on the unemployment line three years later.

So. Eight seasons from 1990-1997. Three division Titles. Two Presidents Trophies. One Stanley Cup. Two conference finals appearances.Two seasons with fifty wins.

By comparison, in the same stretch the Red Wings have four division titles, one Presidents Trophy, One Stanley Cup, two finals appearances, one season with fifty wins (the insane 62 win season in 1995-96).

That's a pretty damned good run.

Of course, over the next decade, the only similarities between the franchises were that they were members of the NHL.

Here's hoping this is the start of something better.

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