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 second installment comes from our “On the Rink with Gootz” columnist Chris Hoeler, who I thank for helping me out with some additional hockey coverage this season. This article is titled, “A Step in the Right Direction”. Enjoy.
There was a scramble in front of the net as the puck bounced around, and it disappeared under Henrik Lundqvist and then reappeared on the stick of Adam Henrique. Just like that, the 2011/12 season for the New York Rangers ended as the New Jersey Devils and their fans celebrated their ticket being punched to the Stanley Cup Finals against the Los Angeles Kings. On the other side of the spectrum, the Rangers and their fans sat feeling like they had been punched in the stomach. That is the feeling you always get when your team’s season ends.
But while the pain slowly ebbs away there was so much this team did that fans can look back on. While the trip to Europe to start the season was only a few months ago, it seems like years considering how much this team developed together. One example is Ryan McDonagh, who went from a young player looking to solidify his position on the team to a top defenseman going up against the best players. Another is Dan Girardi who went from having to fill a concussed Marc Staal’s shoes to making the All-Star Team.
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.
Despite some questionable coaching decisions and lackluster performances in each game following a very important overtime win, the New York Rangers are farthest into the playoffs than they have been since 2007, when they lost to the Buffalo Sabres in six games. The first six games of this series has been a see-saw match, as no team has yet to win two in a row, and the largest margin of victory has been two goals. The team that has scored first has won every game, even after in the first five games, the opponent has tied the score at 1-1; the only exception so far being last night, when the Washington Capitals found themselves with their greatest lead of the series at 2-0. The Rangers have a habit of never making things easy. Though the playoffs are not what they used to be—the mantra of “just get in” has worked wonders—as seeding seems to mean absolutely nothing anymore, the Rangers had a hard time beating the Ottawa Senators, and have now taken the Capitals to the brink. Having lost the last two playoff match-ups against this very same team, the Rangers desperately need to get their act together with their backs against the wall on Saturday night. This series has been a microcosm of their season, where nothing ever came easy, and the Rangers always emerged on top. After two thrilling overtime wins and some spectacular play from goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, all would unfortunately be for naught if the Blueshirts cannot close out the Capitals in Game Seven two days from now, a game that has become the hottest ticket in town…quite literally.
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.
This early afternoon as Joe Benigno and Evan Roberts devoted some time to discussing the New York Rangers and their Game One victory over the Ottawa Senators last night, they mentioned how the two third period goals scored by Ottawa were detrimental to the Rangers in the overall series outlook, because it would give the Senators some life and confidence heading into Game Two tomorrow night, and that they now know they can score goals against the Rangers and have a shot at winning. However, my mindset is completely the opposite. Because the Rangers battened down the hatches and got the win, after showing some lively signs of offensive brilliance, they then got a little carried away and lackadaisical, which cost them those two goals in the final ten minutes of the third period. Of course, it was better to have that momentary lapse when up by four, then let’s say, when they were barely hanging on 1-0 early in the second period. Ottawa is a team that can strike quickly, and grab a lead before you even know it, yet it did not seem that way until the end of the game. Given all the talk of how the Rangers matched up against them so poorly, when compared to the other two possibilities they could have faced in round one (the Washington Capitals and Florida Panthers), had the last day of the NHL regular season worked out differently, the Rangers might have gotten too far ahead of themselves, and thought of this as an easy series, had they steamrolled them 4-0.
Since the lockout, the New York Rangers have been used to not getting any media coverage, save for a few weeks when they make the playoffs, when perhaps they get a corner of the back page of either the New York Post or Daily News. Even then, you will not hear any puck talk on any of the major radio stations in the area. It is almost as if the sport of hockey does not exist, especially during the regular season. There could be a multitude of reasons for this, like maybe the team having a mediocre season with no players standing out in any exceptional way. Okay, maybe then it would be understandable, but the snowball effect of ignorance one year after another has built up so much that it clouds the media’s coverage even when the team is first in the Eastern Conference, with a nine-point lead, and two points out of being in first place in the entire league. Instead, even though baseball season has been over for months, and the glory of the Super Bowl is now teetering out, we now have to see the New York Knicks and Jeremy Lin on the back page every single day, while the Rangers keep on flying to obscurity in the back of the sports section.
It has been a crazy few weeks in the New York sports scene. The Big Blue Wreckin’ Crew beat the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl, Yankees fans are drooling over the fact that A.J Burnett may be on his way out, the Knicks and their fans are caught up in “Linsanity”, Mark Sanchez asked Santonio Holmes to be his Valentine, and the Mets…well, they are the Mets. Oh yeah, and the New York Rangers just shutout the defending Stanley Cup champions on the road and now lead the Eastern Conference by nine points and have the best winning percentage in the NHL. Only the Detroit Red Wings (surprise…) are ahead of the Rangers with 80 points, but New York has three games in hand on the them; having a 21-game winning streak (and counting) at home will certainly help you get there.