Has there ever been a more boring start to an NHL off-season than this one? Granted, the free-agent pool might not be as deep as it has been in years past, and is only going to keep on getting thinner due to all of these mega-deals, but still, there are enough names out there for this to have been a pretty exciting few weeks in July. It’s funny that when Ryan Suter and Zach Parise actually signed, aside from the initial, “Wow! Minnesota got both!” reaction, the excitement was limited, and people stopped talking about it within two days. Now if Parise had gone to the Rangers, Flyers, or Penguins, and Suter to the Red Wings, not only would we still be talking about it, but suicide hotline workers would be raking in overtime cash.
Hello there again! It’s time to take a look at what’s going on in the wide world of hockey. From a coach at war with the writers who cover his team, to already ridiculous off-season speculation involving the New York Rangers, it’s all here, in Around the NHL! (Oh yeah, and there was a Stanley Cup Finals game played last night too.)
- It’s no secret that I cannot stand the New Jersey Devils; well, actually, it’s their fans more than the actual team. Anyway, I gave them the benefit of the doubt heading into these Stanley Cup Finals. All we heard from them during the series against the Rangers is how they, as a fan base, are growing more now than ever before, how they are finally solidifying themselves. If that’s the case, then how come Game One of the biggest series in this sport was not sold out? Not just empty seats appearing in view of the TV cameras, but a laughable amount of available seats. Example: my friend (who is a Rangers fan wanting to see some Finals action with a group of people) buying eight tickets just a few hours before puck drop, then other people posting screenshots of Ticketmaster a half hour before the game, with plenty of seats still empty. I guess this should not really be a surprise—they could not sell out against the Rangers just weeks ago, and that was with the Blueshirts buying up roughly 20% of the seats in the arena. It’s a shame for them that there aren’t more Los Angeles Kings fans living in the Garden State.
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.
With the New York Rangers only one loss away from being eliminated from the Eastern Conference Finals, the farthest point in their playoff lives since 1997, all the what-if questions will now start to rear their ugly heads. While in a few weeks, regardless of the now ominous outcome that seems likely to unfold, we will all sit back and say this season was a success, and an immense one at that, but for now, positivity must be shelved to address the current problem: why are the Rangers having such a difficult time in these playoffs? While I was angry the last time I wrote about this team, something I do not do much anymore on this blog, I just want to make it clear that no matter what happens, no one can question this team’s heart and character, but unfortunately, heart and character do not win hockey games on their own, they act as a compliment with skill and help drive teams toward winning.
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.
These past few days have just been up and down with rumors, most revolving around Columbus Blue Jackets’ superstar winger Rick Nash, with nobody seeming to know anything at all about what is really transpiring. But before all of that, we had a couple of big deals, the first being Jeff Carter dealt to Los Angeles by Columbus so he could be re-united with former drinking buddy, err…I mean, teammate from Philadelphia, Mike Richards. The return on the trade was defenseman Jack Johnson and a first round pick. With that, I would say both teams made out rather well. The Blue Jackets get some much-needed offense from the blue line, though Johnson’s defense is anything but solid (I guess you can say he’ll fit right in, then?) as he currently sits at a -12 on the season, and a -90 overall for his career. That’s scary to think about, considering the offense he has put up. Carter, meanwhile, will help a stagnant Kings’ offense, as he will personally be revitalized by playing with a big market team in a city full of night life. You can expect him and Richards to be the bash-brothers they were with the Flyers.
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:
Even though the NHL season always seems like a long a grueling one (it is), I always find myself in amazement at how fast it actually all goes by. It is January 28th, and the proverbial first half of the season has come to an end with every NHL team skating into the All Star Break for a restful few days before the playoff chase officially begins. Who would have thought at this point, that the New York Rangers would be second in the entire league and in first place in the Eastern Conference? I can guarantee no one had it pegged as such. The highest aspirations I had for the team for the regular season were what they have been for the last few years: battling for a playoff spot the entire year, and going down to the last day.
Obviously, that could still be a possibility depending on which Rangers show up when the second half starts on Tuesday against the New Jersey Devils, but for now, let us look back on a first half that has, overall, been a great one. It seems like a long time ago that the Rangers were literally traveling all over the world to play hockey games and having a bumpy start to the season. But from then until now, Ranger fans have watched a team gel and combine to form a potent force that finds ways to win. If you think about it, it is kind of amazing that the Rangers are where they are when you consider a few things. First, the defensive core has never been healthy for a long period of time. Whether it was Marc Staal starting late, or him coming back and Mike Sauer and Steve Eminger going out, the D-corps has not been at full strength.