Arthur Staple Arthur Staple

Staple, with Newsday since 1997, has covered high school sports, hockey and football.


As the memories from 1994's Eastern Conference finals bubble up before Monday night's Game 1 of Rangers-Devils for a shot at the Stanley Cup, it's worth noting what Mike Rupp said Sunday with regard to Rangers fans.

"They've been waiting quite a while for a chance like this," Rupp said. "That's what makes this a chance to be something special."

It seems ludicrous for a Ranger to talk about long-suffering fans -- the gap from 1940 to 1994 was an eternity most Rangers supporters thought would never end, as Islanders fans were all too happy to remind them -- but 18 years is a long time if you root for an elite team.

The Rangers had a wondrous season and two gut-wrenching playoff series wins. But if you're satisfied with that, John Tortorella and his confident group of Rangers would prefer you hold your applause until the end of this performance, because they don't want any complacency to set in.

"We have to learn as an organization that this is part of it . . . you've got to be real careful not to just feel this is what it is," Tortorella said. "This isn't what it is. This is halfway."

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That is as much a caution to the 18,200 who will fill the Garden with body and full voice Monday night as it is to Tortorella's players. He came in as coach three years and three months ago knowing, from his brief time here in 1999-2000 and coaching against the Rangers for eight seasons with Tampa Bay, that the work to become an elite team hadn't been done before he arrived.

The post-lockout Rangers were good, making the playoffs five years in a row and making the second round twice. Elite is something different. It is the Devils of 1994-2003, it is the Red Wings of the last 20 seasons, it is the Rangers of the first Mark Messier era.

Elite means making the final four of the NHL playoffs is to be expected, not an achievement to be celebrated.

"You see it in a lot of professional sports -- franchises that expect to win and ones with losing traditions," said Rupp, a Cleveland native who knows all too well about rooting for teams that don't project confidence. "It's not about effort, it's about finding ways to get it done.

"I feel like this is a year when it could happen here, when we could really establish that."

It has taken time under Tortorella the way it took time after Neil Smith lifted Messier from the financially sinking ship Glen Sather ran in Edmonton 20 years ago. The Rangers became a team that expected to win, starting with that 1991-92 season; after one playoff failure and one season failure (plus many, many trades that wouldn't be possible today), Messier's bunch hoisted the Cup.

"You see how the guys from that team are revered around here, and it's a feeling a lot of us would love to have," said Rupp, who came to a Devils team in 2003 that already was fully formed and did his small part to help that franchise win its third Cup. "It's something that's attainable for this team."

But only if what's been accomplished so far is seen as a couple of important, necessary steps.

This will be another grind of a series, with some ghosts from 18 years ago stirring on both sides.

These Rangers have a chance to make some new memories for fans who once thought they'd never see their team win. They have a chance to become the sort of team that expects to win, rather than one that wins every few decades.