These Rangers have put themselves among NHL elite

New York Rangers defensemen Dan Girardi, second from

New York Rangers defensemen Dan Girardi, second from right, celebrates with teammates Artem Anisimov, left, Brad Richards, and Marc Staal, right, after scoring against the New Jersey devils during the third period of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final playoff series in Newark, N.J. (May 19, 2012) (Credit: AP )

May 25, 1994 is one of the very few historic dates in Rangers history.

If you're a fan, you know what went down that night in New Jersey 18 years ago: The Captain backed up The Guarantee. Mark Messier delivered a command performance in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals; his hat trick propelled the Rangers to a victory that evened the series with the Devils and set up Game 7 two nights later. And you certainly know the rest.

May 25, 2012 -- Friday night -- could become another big date in Rangers history, again over in Jersey, though the scene has shifted from the Meadowlands to Newark.

This time around, there are no guarantees. Messier is keeping mum in his front-office role these days, Marty Brodeur and Lou Lamoriello are the only prominent figures left on either side, and Rangers captain Ryan Callahan is not interested in making such a claim.

We'll make a guarantee for him. Win or lose Friday night, the Rangers finally have put 1994 and its legacy to rest.

As Sam Rosen said that night in June when the Rangers dispatched the Canucks in Game 7, that Stanley Cup season will last a lifetime. The franchise and its long-suffering fans needed to put "1940" and all the other derisive chants to rest, and all that went away with that wondrous, exhilarating spring.

But the glory of that Cup year barely lasted beyond the Canyon of Heroes parade. Mike Keenan wriggled out of his coaching deal and Neil Smith kept shuffling the supporting cast in search of that magical mix from 1994. Wayne Gretzky willed the Rangers to another Eastern Conference finals three years later, but then came the dark times, a swift descent back into mediocrity.

Now it's 18 May 25ths later. Another Rangers team has a chance to rally, to win two must-win games for a shot at another Cup.

But the pride in wearing the Rangers jersey already has been restored. John Tortorella -- genius, jerk, whatever you feel about him -- already has done what he was asked to do when Glen Sather hired him in February 2009: Change the culture.

It's changed, all right. The uniformity of approach, down to the coach-speak the Rangers players delivered in their locker room Thursday on the eve of their biggest game of the season -- the biggest game of most of the players' careers -- shows how much Tortorella's style has changed this franchise.

They have the best stable of young, talented defensemen in the league. They will have a mountain of salary-cap space to play with on July 1, enough to make a huge, front-loaded offer to Devils captain Zach Parise and still have enough left to bring in one or two impactful depth players.

This is a team that's going places, even if it doesn't go to a Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since Messier guaranteed Game 6 those 18 years ago.

Tortorella and his players have every right to believe they will come out with a respectable effort Friday night. "He'll have his best game tomorrow night," Tortorella said of Henrik Lundqvist. Tortorella said the same of Brad Richards, of Callahan, of all his players.

They believe in themselves and what they're doing. There's no need for guarantees or predictions; the Rangers already have guaranteed themselves a place among the NHL's better teams. That's the product of a load of hard work and a complete overhaul of an organization that has that one magical May 25 in its past and not much else to show for the last 18 seasons.

Here's a guarantee for you: There's more of those to come, even if May 25, 2012, isn't another memorable night.

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