Because I swore to not write one post on the NHL lockout last month, hockey has pretty much been invisible on this blog. That is going to change today, because I could not help but pass along these exquisite images of New York Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist, Brad Richards, Brian Boyle, and restricted free agent Michael Del Zotto, as they recently posed for Esquire during their unfortunate elongated period of free time this fall. The images were just released today, so I thank DKC for sending them over to me. Enjoy!
This is going to be a two-part series, the second of which will feature some guest writers and their take on the surprising rise and disappointing fall of the New York Rangers in this 2011/2012 season.
The NHL playoffs can be described as one word: relentless. The pace is non-stop, the play is aggressive, and there is never a moment’s peace where one can step back and take a deep breath. On that basis alone, one could argue that the New York Rangers have been in the playoffs for the entire season, starting before the season actually started. Playoffs are full of endless trials and tribulations, elated moments of victory and agonizing moments of defeat. It does not matter how it ends, and people rarely think about how it even begins. For the Rangers, it started with a 10,000 mile trek across Europe for some pre-season match-ups with local teams, culminating with two season-opening games in Stockholm, Sweden against the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks. When they returned to North America, they then had to go on an elongated break and even more road games, as Madison Square Garden’s phase one transformation had not yet been completed. It took a while for the Rangers to get going, but once they did, there was never a break. Even with some bumps in the road along the way, the Rangers managed to lose three regulation games in a row only twice in the regular season, and then once in the playoffs. They did all of this while being watched by HBO’s cameras 24 hours a day, seven days a week for the month of December, and then had to prepare for a mini-Stanley Cup game, as I refer to the Winter Classic, against the Philadelphia Flyers in Citizens Bank Ballpark, in front of 50,000 fans, a game which they won with a late comeback and some stellar goaltending.
Yes, give credit to the New Jersey Devils for coming out guns blazin’ in each of these first four Eastern Conference Finals games against the New York Rangers. You must give credit where credit is due, however, if the Rangers lose this series, a result I am now unfortunately leaning towards, even with it tied, they can only blame themselves. They never have or ever will make things easy on themselves or the fans that ardently watch them and spend exorbitant amounts of money to see them play live, because that is the curse that hovers over this team, ever since television announcer Sam Rosen bestowed on them, “This one will last a lifetime!” moments after winning the Stanley Cup in 1994. Even that team could not get it done easily, loaded with all-stars and future hall-of-famers. Comparisons have been drawn between this current team and that legendary one, and all I can do is laugh at that, because that team at least had the killer instinct. Make no mistake, I do not want this to seem like a full-throttle damning of a team that finished first in the Eastern Conference, and yes, always performs well with their backs against the wall, but that is exactly the problem. They cannot seem to focus unless they absolutely have to, such as when facing elimination or coming off an extremely poor performance.
Well, this is what we were all waiting for: the series of the year. While fans of the New York Rangers rooted wholeheartedly for the Florida Panthers, and, dare I say it, Philadelphia Flyers in the first two rounds, the New Jersey Devils’ fans cheered on the Ottawa Senators and Washington Capitals with a passion. All the ill-wishing was for naught, however, as it is only by destiny and the fate ordained to us by the Hockey Gods (with a little consideration for league economics; did you hear that sound at about 10:15 Saturday night? That was the thud of NBC Sports Corporation executives jumping up and down) that these are the two teams which will meet in the Eastern Conference Finals, the prelude to the Stanley Cup. These two teams met there once before, when the Rangers defeated them in seven games back in 1994, thanks to a double-overtime winner by Stephane Matteau, but that moment is long gone now, except for the Devils that hold onto the final shred: the only player still currently playing that was on either team, Martin Brodeur. That was his first full season, and now many think this one will be his last—either way, you can be sure that the Rangers would love nothing more than to see Brodeur’s career begin and end with a Conference Finals loss at their hands, while Brodeur will do everything in his power to have the last laugh this time.
First off, congratulations to both the Ottawa Senators and New York Rangers for a thrilling, stress-inducing, and hard-fought seven game series. It truly epitomized what hockey was all about when the playoffs roll around: scoring, toughness, excitement, and timely goaltending. While all of us, I am sure, had a few minutes [or hours] removed from our lives because of how close all the games were, would you have it any other way? Of course not! The Rangers did what they were supposed to do, and it was not easy, but they find themselves advancing to the second round to face the Washington Capitals, a team I did not want to face in the first round at all, because the Rangers’ last two playoff exits have come at their hands. You could look at the situation in one of two ways: 1) The Rangers are due for a playoff win because the law of averages states that Washington cannot continue the success they have had, or 2) The Capitals just have the Rangers’ number and are in their heads, therefore they will win yet again. Either way you want to look at it, there is not time for much thinking, as Game One is tomorrow afternoon. Not having much time off will probably go to benefit the Rangers more than hurt them; after winning such an emotional game, it would be good to get right back out there as soon as possible, rather than sit around.
For the past several games, the Columbus Blue Jackets have been showing a serious interest in the New York Rangers, so much so, that on Saturday in Philadelphia, their General Manager Scott Howson was in attendance as well. While no one knows exactly who they are interested in, or if the Rangers are even willing to make a deal, we do know that something is definitely brewing, because it is not often that a team’s GM tags along to scout a game. This leaves us to speculate on who exactly could be on the move within the next couple of weeks. There are only two players on the Blue Jackets that would even come remotely close to helping them, but each one comes with some serious baggage by means of an enormous contract. They are center Jeff Carter and left wing Rick Nash. Even though the Rangers sit in first place in the Eastern Conference, they are in no doubt in need of another offensive presence, yes, even after Gaborik and Richards seem to have broken out of their funk over this past weekend. But at what cost will the Rangers act?
With the NHL Trade Deadline less than three weeks away, the excitement and speculation is already underway, as we await yet another frenzy of trades and seeing who goes where. There are plenty of names on the block, which only adds to the suspense. I am not going to bother making predictions this year, just suggestions and observations for the New York Rangers, based on what their needs are. For a first place team, they have plenty of dead weight that they could afford to lose, and plenty of places to plug a player here and there. If they want to stay in first place and actually advance past the first round this season, the Rangers are going to have to be active. This does not mean a complete overhaul by any means (since when has Sather ever done that anyway, except for the 2004 fire-sale?) but rather a series of non-blockbusters (I hesitate to use the phrase “small deals”) that will sure up the team’s flimsy offense. Below are some options, as well as some other things we must consider:
Yesterday’s game between the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers was the first meeting of the season between the two Eastern Conference powerhouses. For most of the season, these two clubs have just dominated the opposition and have vaulted themselves to the top of the league standings. It is no surprise that the Bruins are where they are, after having won a Stanley Cup this past spring and not having much of a turnover. The Rangers, however, have been a surprise for many who expected they would be battling for the sixth, seventh, or eighth spots in the East. Yes, you can count me as one of the surprised. When Marian Gaborik scored in overtime yesterday with 3.6 seconds to go, I was at work in the break room and yelled. Of course, being that many people were at my job, they were all confused and a few were afraid I think. But now that my emotions have leveled off and I have gotten a chance to watch the highlights a few times, there are a few things that have stood out:
This is not really a post-game recap, just my general thoughts on yet another amazing and magical Winter Classic that the NHL has put on for us, between the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers. Surprisingly, for what seems like the first time in the brief five-year history of the event, there were no ice malfunctions, and the passing and skating was pretty smooth early on. Though the game did slow down in the second, I would definitely rank the overall pace of this afternoon to be one of the better ones yet. And of course, there was plenty of drama with yet another photo finish—something that seems to happen every year, which I will elaborate on later.
Coming off a huge win over the Phoenix Coyotes, when Brad Richards scored the game-winning goal with .1 seconds remaining to give the New York Rangers the win and snap a two-game losing streak, the team finds themselves down a defenseman yet again, as Steve Eminger took a check and went shoulder first into the boards during the second period. While we do not know what exactly is wrong, we do know that he left the arena with his arm in a sling, and by looking at the replay, it seems as if he might have separated his shoulder. Severe or not, the Rangers are in a bind. Marc Staal has been out the entire season with post-concussion syndrome and Michael Sauer, more recently, suffered a concussion as well. The Rangers, who, at the beginning of the season, had one of the best defensive depths in the league, are now losing that by the game.