NEW YORK -- At long last, 54 years of New York Rangers' frustration and superstition came to an end last night, when the Rangers won the Stanley Cup, ended a curse that dated to 1940 and allowed their loyal fans to go home deliriously happy.
In Game 7 of the championship series, the Rangers regained the dominance they had demonstrated throughout the regular season and beat the Vancouver Canucks, 3-2.
The Cup was hoisted over sweating Rangers heads, given kisses and paraded around the ice, as the 18,200 packing Madison Square Garden chanted "1940."
The fans, dancing in the aisles from the moment Conn Smyth Trophy winner Brian Leetch scored the first goal in the first period, could contain neither their smiles nor their tears.
The Canucks, underdogs from the beginning, gave this game everything they had, but on this night, nothing could stop New York.
"We believed in ourselves, and we stayed together through everything," said Leetch, the first American-born MVP winner. "No one knows how much we wanted to win Game 7. We wanted to win in the worst way."
The Rangers had heard that their coach, Mike Keenan, was going to desert them for Detroit after this series was over.
They had heard that they would be known as the biggest chokers in pro sports history if they failed to win, after having forged a 3-1 lead and then being forced to a final, deciding Game 7.
"I said before the game that we 'can't be afraid to slay the dragon,' " said Rangers captain Mark Messier, who won his sixth Stanley Cup. "There is no way to compare this championship with the five we had in Edmonton. In Edmonton, we started as 17- and 18-year-olds, and five years later we won the Cup.
"Half the time, we didn't know what we were doing, but we were always building positively for the future.
"Here, there was 54 years of things gone bad. The hurdles did make this the biggest challenge in pro sports."
Last night Leetch, Adam Graves and Messier, New York's three biggest stars who had been under-achievers for six games in this series, stepped forward and pushed the Rangers to a 3-1 lead, and goalie Mike Richter made it stand up.
Richter, who kept the Rangers close in their three losses, used a goal post and 28 saves last night to secure this championship.
Any of those stops could have been the difference, as could the stop made by the post on Nathan LaFayette's shot with 5:35 to go.
"We were within a goal post of tying this up and going to overtime," said Vancouver captain Trevor Linden, who had both Canucks goals. "Right now, there is nothing but an empty feeling."
From the beginning this was a tightly contested game.
"This was the chance of a lifetime," said Vancouver's Pavel Bure. "You never know if you'll have another one. It's disappointing, but Richter played very well."
So did Vancouver's Kirk McLean. But when defenseman Sergei Zubov got the puck to Messier and Messier drew McLean to him, the goalie didn't have a chance. Messier sent the puck to Leetch, who swatted it in the back door for a 1-0 Rangers lead with 8:58 left in the opening period.
The goal ended a two-game scoring drought for Leetch.
The game got more physical after that. Body checks were seen " and heard, plexiglass shaken and behind the Vancouver net the Rangers and Canucks paired off for hand-to-hand combat.
The officials seemed disinclined to call much of anything, but at 5:57, the whistle blew. Canucks defenseman Jyrki Lumme was called for cross checking, putting the Rangers on the power play.
Forty-two seconds later, Graves, the Rangers' leading scorer in the regular season who had been shut out in the championship series, beat McLean.
The Rangers were up 2-0, and the game was only 14:45 old.
Vancouver had two terrific chances in the period. With six minutes gone, the Canucks could have gotten on the board first, when Shawn Antoski and Tim Hunter carried the puck into the crease, only to be stopped by Richter.
And then with 2:23 to play, Bure skated circles around the Rangers net, only to leave the puck on the doorstep, a situation that drove him to pound the boards in frustration when he returned to the bench.
Vancouver closed in in the second period on a short-handed goal by Linden with 14:39 to play.
After Messier ended a mad scramble in front of the Vancouver net with 13:29 gone in the second, Linden answered again in the third.
But that would be the last goal for Vancouver, and Messier's goal -- his second of the series -- stood up as the game-winner.
"I've heard all that 1940 stuff," said Rangers defenseman Jay Wells. "And I've heard that 1940 chant. It's nice to have the Cup back here for us and for all our fans. It's nice. It's like the Holy Grail in a lot of guys' minds, and you think about all the dedication, all the hard work, all the blood, the sweat. We were fighting for this one thing all year. For the Cup. And now it's ours, and it was worth all of it."
Vancouver .. 0 1 1 -- 2
N.Y. Rangers 2 1 0 -- 3
First period--1, New York, Leetch 11 (Zubov, Messier), 11:02. 2, New York, Graves 10 (Kovalev, Zubov), 14:45 (pp). Penalties--Lumme, Van (cross-checking), 14:03; Hedican, Van (roughing), 18:50; Tikkanen, NY (roughing), 18:50.
Second period--3, Vancouver, Linden 11 (Glynn, Bure), 5:21 (sh). 4, New York, Messier 12 (Graves, Noonan), 13:29 (pp). Penalties--Brown, Van (interference), 4:39; Babych, Van (tripping), 12:46; Messier, NY (hooking), 16:39.
Third period--5, Vancouver, Linden 12 (Courtnall, Ronning), 4:50 (pp). Penalties--Tikkanen, NY (hooking), 4:16; Linden, Van (roughing), 10:55; MacTavish, NY (roughing), 10:55.
Shots on goal--Vancouver 9-12-9--30. New York 12-14-9--35. Power-play opportunities--Vancouver 1 of 2; New York 2 of 3. Goalies--Vancouver, McLean, 15-9 (35 shots-32 saves). New York, Richter, 16-7 (30-28). A--18,200. Referee--Terry Gregson. Linesmen--Kevin Collins, Ray Scapinello.
STANLEY CUP FINALS
* NEW YORK vs. VANCOUVER (Rangers win series, 4-3) .. .. .. .. .. Results Gm. 1: Canucks 3, Rangers 2, OT
2: Rangers 3, Canucks 1
Gm. 3: Rangers 5, Canucks 1
Gm. 4: Rangers 4, Canucks 2
Gm. 5: Canucks 6, Rangers 3
Gm. 6: Canucks 4, Rangers 1
Gm. 7: Rangers 3, Canucks 2