NHL playoff win is Penguins miracle, not Rangers curse


PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Penguins don't want to hear that the New York Rangers are cursed. They don't want to hear how the Rangers, who haven't won the Stanley Cup in 52 years, blew another playoff series.

"When you consider what we've done, to beat this team with the players we had missing, it's an unbelievable feat," Penguins left wing Kevin Stevens said after Pittsburgh's series-clinching 5-1 victory last night over the Rangers in Game 6 of the Patrick Division finals. "We beat their best without our best.

"Nobody should say they blew it," he added. "We won."

And they now have beaten the NHL's two best teams, the Rangers and Washington Capitals, after trailing in both series. They don't know if the best -- another Stanley Cup -- is ahead, but the Rangers know for sure it isn't.

The Penguins play host to the Boston Bruins Sunday night in Game 1 of the Wales Conference finals. The Campbell Conference finals begin Saturday when Edmonton visits Chicago.

Penguins goalie Tom Barrasso, the first star last night, said: "I TC don't think they blew it; I think we beat them. I don't think anyone can point to any area on their team and say that cost them, and I don't think it can be said they didn't perform, and I don't think they could have been overconfident. We just beat them."

The Penguins did it against all odds. They did it against the proudest Rangers team in a decade. They did it without getting a single goal from Mario Lemieux, Joe Mullen and Bob Errey. They did it with a goalie, Barrasso, who had been berated by his own fans. And they did it with a line from their farm club in Muskegon.

The Penguins did everything right. And all the Rangers did wrong was to make the Penguins mad. Not mad, but furious when Lemieux, then Mullen, crumpled to the ice in Game 2 -- and, just for good measure, Errey went down in Game 4.

If the Rangers thought they could bully or cripple the Penguins, they made a serious miscalculation.

"We didn't have to say much to each other after Game 2," defenseman Larry Murphy said. "We got all we needed by reading the newspapers. We were told that winning would be impossible without them. The rallying point was when Mario and Joey got hurt. Everybody wanted a piece of winning after that."

Said center Ron Francis, who was huge in this series with seven goals and five assists: "Everybody knew we had a big task to replace Mario and Joey. That's how we approached the series."

The Rangers were the NHL's regular-season champions with a 50-25-5 record and were favored to win their first Stanley Cup since 1940. They dominated Pittsburgh 5-2-0 in the regular season, and when Lemieux and Mullen were knocked out of the series with injuries in Game 2, it seemed inconceivable they could lose.

Instead, they lost three of the next four games to a team forced to call up three players from the minors just to field four full lines.

This was truly a miracle on ice.

"They came back from adversity," Rangers goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck said. "We can learn from that."

"They're obviously a pretty gutty team," Rangers forward Mike Gartner said. "They lose the best player in the world and still come out and play great. They're playing very well -- and they'll be even better when Lemieux gets back."

That could be as early as the conference finals, though the doctors say Lemieux should be out a few more weeks. The Rangers will be playing golf -- or playing mind games.

"We said from the start that anything less than the finals and the Stanley Cup would be a disappointment," Gartner said. "We don't feel any differently now. It's going to take a long time to get over this."

If the Penguins had any doubt that they could overcome the team with the best record in the NHL, it was wiped out in Game 4. And again, it was adversity that made the Penguins believe in themselves.

"We were down two goals, and the Rangers had a five-minute power play," said right wing Rick Tocchet, who had two goals and an assist last night. "If the rallying point was in Game 2, that was the turning point."

The Penguins survived that penalty and evened the series at 2-2 by winning 5-4 in overtime. With their confidence from that five-minute penalty, they ran off three straight victories.

"After I saw us come back in the fourth game," coach Scotty Bowman said, "I knew we had a chance. I knew that if we got the fifth game, it was likely we'd grab the sixth."

After this experience, the Penguins will be even tougher to beat in the Wales Conference final.

"Maybe we didn't think we were as good as any team in the league without Mario and Joey," said Tocchet. "But we believe it now."

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