The New York Rangers are a hockey team full of Stanley Cup memories -- most of them haunting. When it has been 45 years since you have owned The Cup, that hardly is surprising.
No one knows this better than Bob Brooke. Of all the Rangers in uniform tonight, Brooke might have been the one with the horror story to top all horror stories.
"I can still see it like yesterday," he said tonight, moments after he had wiped out at least part of that memory with the overtime goal that stunned the Washington Capitals and tied the Patrick Division final at 2-2. "I can still see Billy Smith coming out to get me. Please, don't even bring it up. It still hurts."
It was 1984 at the Nassau Coliseum. Like tonight, it was overtime. Only this time, the next goal wouldn't just decide the game, it would decide the series. The opponent was the hated New York Islanders. Brooke was a rookie, fresh off the campus of Yale University and the 1984 U.S. Olympic team. He had played center at Yale, defense for the Olympic team and then been put on right wing by the Rangers.
The Islanders were four-time Stanley Cup champions and the Rangers were one overtime goal away from eliminating them. And there, suddenly, was the whole series right on Bob Brooke's stick. "I had the puck right in the slot, right there," Brooke said. "Smith came out and I should probably have shot it high. But I shot it low and he got it. He just got it."
Smith somehow got his left pad on the puck just as he somehow got to so many pucks during the Islanders' reign. A couple of minutes later, Ken Morrow scored for the Islanders and the Rangers had another tough memory to live with. Somehow, the script fit, though: Morrow who played for the miracle Olympic team of 1980 converted; Brooke who played for the soon-forgotten team in 1984, did not.
But tonight, Brooke could put at least part of that to rest. With his team desperate, trailing by 5-4 and with less than three minutes left in regulation, Brooke stationed himself to Pete Peeters' left and snapped a shot past the Washington goalie to tie the game with 2:35 left off a gorgeous pass from Brian MacLellan.
"We just kept the pressure on them," Brooke said. "When they got the shorthanded goal to go up, 5-3, I thought, 'Oh jeez, we've really got trouble . . . again.' But Willie Huber got that goal back for us so quick that it was still just a one-goal game. We just never quit. That's the way we've been throughout the playoffs. That's why we aren't playing golf yet."
When the Capitals took a 3-1 lead after one period, it certainly looked as if the Rangers would be shelving their skates and unsheathing their golf clubs by Saturday morning. Coach Ted Sator ordered his assistants out of the locker room between periods and angrily jumped on his team for careless, nonaggressive play. The Rangers responded by dropping the chippy style that had gotten them nowhere for 20 minutes. The last 42:40 of this game produced only sensational hockey.
"When we went down, 3-1, yeah, I did wonder if it wasn't going to be a repeat of the last two games," said Rangers goalie John Vanbiesbrouck. "But we came out the second period, scored right away and then just kept coming back."
"We were desperate," captain Don Maloney said. "We were in the grave up to our neck. We couldn't afford to go back to Washington down, 3-1 in games . Everyone knew that. We played with controlled desperation the last two periods. No panic, but desperation."
They were down, 3-1, and got even at 3-3. They were down, 5-3, and Brooke's goal got them even at 5-5. A team that had not won in overtime this season until Game 1 of this series, they left the ice after regulation, brimming with confidence.
"We felt like it was our game then," Brooke said. "We had worked so hard to come back, but we weren't tired. We just wanted to keep pressing."
They dominated the brief overtime, almost beating Peeters twice before Brooke's bouncing shot hit Greg Smith's skate and hopped in for the winner. "Maybe not the purest goal I've ever scored, but that's just fine," Brooke said, grinning broadly. "At first I thought Donnie Maloney had knocked it in. But I really didn't care. All I knew was it was in the net and we had come from six-feet-under to being alive again."
And, for a franchise that has so few moments like these to remember, this was one to savor. "I'll never forget losing that Islanders game and the chance I had," Brooke said, his eyes sparkling. "But I'll never forget tonight either."