Friday, May 25, 2012

Attention Must Be Paid...

Not that Hockey is a huge drawing point in Baseball-Centric New York, but I don't know that there's a fan base in New York City that's quite as passionate about their team than Rangers Fans. I know this from having grown up a short walk from Madison Square Garden, and from having seen the City rally behind them like nothing else during their Stanley Cup Championship in 1994.

Hockey had, for many years, been given a back seat, in general, particularly following their 2004-05 lockout that killed an entire season. The fact that prior to the strike, the Rangers were pretty lousy didn't help their standing in New York, but since then, they have had some success, although you wouldn't really have noticed it unless you followed the team. This year, however, the Rangers clearly separated themselves as a powerhouse in their conference, led by goaltender Henrik Lundqvist and Free-Agent center Brad Richards, who stood out amongst a cast of mostly good players who have banded together and been another one of those teams that is, perhaps, greater as a whole than the sum of their parts. They seem to have the identity of their coach, the foul-tempered John Tortorella, whose disdain for the media is so great that his press conferences have reached legendary status for terse responses.

But as the #1 seed entering the Eastern Conference playoffs, the real test began. After falling behind 3-2 to an opportunistic Ottawa Senators team, the Rangers rallied and won game 6 on the road, and game 7 by one goal to advance. Their second round series against the Washington Capitals followed a similar path, alternating wins and losses, and featuring a triple-overtime marathon in game 3, a miracle finish in game 5, and another tense 1-goal victory in game 7.

It all seemed a prelude to the real drama that's unfolding now in the Eastern Conference Finals against the New Jersey Devils. These teams already didn't like each other, and it's now reached a fever pitch as they  prepare for a game 6 tonight. The series has unfolded in a way reminiscent to this same matchup in this same series back in 1994. 18 years ago today, the Rangers headed to New Jersey down 3 games to 2. Back then, the Rangers were led by Mark Messier, who cemented his place not just in New York sports lore, but as, perhaps, one of the greatest leaders in sports history by guaranteeing victory and then going out and netting a 3rd period Hat Trick.

Two nights later, the Rangers would erase the Devils on another legendary overtime goal by Stephane Matteau.

The point here is simply that it's not an impossible situation for the Rangers right now. But this Rangers team is not the 1994 team. There's no Mark Messier to pull their asses out of the fire. This is a Rangers team built mostly around defense, and their offense can sputter out worse than the Mets when things aren't going well. They're heading out to New Jersey once again with their entire season on the line. A victory would send them to a 7th game on Sunday, on home ice, with a crowd that will be ready to blow the roof off of Madison Square Garden. Failure means, of course, going home for the Summer, and back to the relative anonymity that Hockey tends to hold.

Most may not find much importance in this, particularly when Baseball is in full swing. But it's worth taking a moment to stop, find the NBC Sports Network, where playoff Hockey has been unceremoniously dropped, way down on your TV dial, and see how this all plays out. No team, to the best of my knowledge, has had to take to the ice as many times as the Rangers have in order to win the Stanley Cup. They've already played 19 playoff games under intensity of the highest order, and if they're going to play on, they'll have to go the distance in a 3rd consecutive series. They've come this far without breaking. But to go further, they'll need Lundqvist to channel his inner Mike Richter, and someone to step up and deliver that needed offense. Opportunities like this don't come along very often and ultimately failing just means this was another nice season. But teams shouldn't come this far and simply be ignored. The Rangers are there. It's time to give them some acknowledgment.

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