Editor's Note: This post was written after the conclusion of the NYR series against Pittsburgh and prior to the start of the ECF vs Montreal. It originally appeared at Boiled Sports.
I have an unhealthy obsession with hockey, specifically with the New York Rangers. I blame my father for this, as he was a Ranger fan starting in the 1960s and was able to procure very hard to get season ticket starting in 1983. He got them because he now had someone to go with regularly – me, at the ripe old age of eight.
It sounds weird when I say I’ve been a Rangers fan for over thirty years, but it’s true. We didn’t save the ticket to my first game (we weren’t sentimental like that), but one has to assume it was in that fall of ’83. New York was a different place back then, Times Square being a haven to crime, drugs and unfettered prostitution. I remember my dad telling me to look the other way as we walked past a flasher. Yes, right there on a midtown NYC street. It seems kind of unfathomable today, as the city was cleaned up immensely under Rudy Giuliani.
Over those thirty-plus years, we’ve seen a lot of hockey and, as my dad likes to put it, a lot of bad hockey. The Rangers have always had moments of success and talent, but those moments are far overshadowed by the many years of futility. Or, when things did seem to be lined up to go their way, they would always find the banana peel.
Things changed, of course, and it was when I was a senior in high school. In 1994, the Rangers managed to win the Stanley Cup for the first time in 54 years. It was cathartic and I felt like I’d seen a lot more than 12 seasons of Rangers hockey at the time. Well, after a few more exciting years (including having Gretzky in his waning years), the Rangers settled into a long stretch of futility. They missed the playoffs for seven straight seasons, from ’98-’04.
Seven…straight…seasons. In a league where 16 teams make the playoffs.
Then the NHL lockout that wiped out the entire ’04-’05 season happened. Then suddenly the Rangers were a decently-run organization again, largely thanks to the new salary cap (ironic that the big market team got a lot better when forced to not spend like drunken idiots).
They began winning games again and though fans like me were under no illusion that they were a title contender, they were so fun to watch. This continued, as young players were developed through the draft and smart trades, with the occasional smart trade or signing. The made incremental progress – kind of like we frequently ask why Purdue can’t – and were visibly getting better. After several years making the playoffs and typically advancing a round deep or so, in the 2011-2012 season, the Rangers finished with the overall number 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. In true Rangers style (they’re more like the Chicago Cubs than everyone ever admits) they kept finding ways to make things hard on themselves. They advanced in the 1-8 matchup in seven games (after trailing 3-2). They advanced in seven in round two. Then they reached the conference finals for the first time since 1997, which turned out to be Wayne Gretzky’s final playoff series and a complete wipeout against the Philadelphia Flyers. For the Rangers, this was like getting kicked in the balls.
But in 2012, the Rangers still had the 1-seed and had beaten the 8 seed, the 7 seed and now had to play the 6-seed NJ Devils. Holy crap, it actually was reasonable to think the Rangers could make the flipping Finals. They even went ahead two games to one against the Devil Dogs. I remember thinking, this could actually happen… they could play for the Cup again in my lifetime.
However, the Rangers were worn out. They had struggled through two arduous seven game series and done so playing a brutal, punishing style of defense, which included blocked tons of shots and trying to score one or two goals and then clinging on for dear life. One writer referred to this approach as being in a gunfight where your approach was to wear a vest and absorb all the bullets in the hopes that one ricocheted off yourself and hit the opponent. It felt like a struggle and the Rangers succumbed in three close games to lose the series in six. The Devils barely showed up in the Finals against the Western Conference 8-seed. So the Rangers had a shot at playing seeds of 8, 7, 6, and 8. Does a path in such a difficult title to win get any looser than that? Possibly not.
And yet it felt surreal to think about my lifelong favorite team playing for the right to go to the Finals. To see them leading the series and two wins away from the semi-glory land. In fact, it felt too good to be true, as though allowing myself to dream was a sure way to be disappointed. And sure enough, the Devils tore the dream away and ended the Rangers’ season.
Last year, the Rangers fell back to the pack and though they advanced to the second round, they were easily conquered by the Bruins and their coach was fired. It was time for a new approach.
This season began poorly, but the Rangers recovered to play very strongly in the second half the season, earning a respectable seed in the new NHL playoff structure. The eked their way through the first round, defeating the hated Flyers, and then settled in against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Ah, the Pens.
In the history of the Rangers, they had never beaten the Penguins in a playoff series. One of those times was two years before they won the Stanley Cup. The 1992 Rangers were the best team in the NHL and finally considered a legit contender. Nobody remembers this team because two years later they won it all. However, that 1992 team faced the Penguins in the second round and was handled easily, despite injuring Mario Lemieux and knocking him out of the series. Karma, some said.
After winning Game 1 of this series, the Rangers went into a weird sort of hibernation and were shut out in back to back games to fall behind 2-1. I was at the second shutout and the Rangers outshot the Pens 35-15 at home and lost 2-0. As we left, I declared the series over. I’m not one of those fans who "quits" on my team, but I’d seen this play before and I knew how it ended. This was only further cemented the following game as the Rangers found themselves down 3-1 in the series and heading back to Pittsburgh. It couldn’t have been more over, and I and many Rangers may not have admitted it, but we were secretly ready to be put out of our misery.
Naturally, the Rangers can’t do anything the easy way, so they dominated Game 5 and won, 5-1.
"This is what they do," I said to my wife. "They’ll do just enough to lure me back in and then they’ll lay a giant egg and crush me….again. Why have I done this for thirty years?" She simply smiled, trying to understand but undoubtedly pitying what an idiot I am.
Then the Rangers played a ridiculously strong game at home in Game 6, before a raucous Madison Square Garden crowd who knew there was nothing to lose. The Rangers hadn’t been in that position in a while…where now every win was gravy. Sure, there is a hunger to win from this fanbase, but when it felt over against a team the Rangers never beat and in a position (down 3-1) that they’ve never recovered from in their history, well, now any wins would be fun. And seeing Pittsburgh unravel would be arguably even more fun.
I’ve watched a lot of pro sports in my life and many playoff series. And I’m a big believer in momentum to the extent of "getting in someone’s head." I think that if a team cannot close out a decent opponent, the window closes quicker than logic would say. Sure, up 3-1 you have three chances. But do you really? If it gets to a Game 7, you both have a chance and if you don’t close them out before that, then your opponent fully believes that you can be toppled and that they’re "choking." And believing goes a long way. Sure, a lucky bounce changes everything, but the Rangers scoring first in Game 7 on the road had to get right into the Penguins’ heads.
Before I knew it, it was the third period and the Rangers had a 2-1 lead. The clock ticked down, they continued to be unable to do it the easy way, and then…suddenly…time was up. The Rangers had somehow, inexplicably won. I sat there in my recliner not believing it and saying it aloud over and over. My favorite team, my team who always breaks my heart (except for once when they barely won a Stanley Cup after nearly stopping my heart two decades ago) finding a way to do things that were not only a huge challenge… not only something that is uncommon (coming back from 3-1 and doing it on the road for 2 of the 3 necessary)…but things that they had never before done in their history.
Never before had the New York Rangers recovered from 3-1 down. When they have gone down 3-1, they were always toast. Always. They never showed life like this. From Games 5-7 they truly looked like a different team – that’s never happened before, and rarely happens in general. Why would they be suddenly different? They’d never beaten the Pens in the playoffs. Ever. They’d never really been close. I picked them officially on Twitter to lose this series in six – not because I didn’t think they could beat Pittsburgh (I did think they had a better all-around team) but because losing to Pittsburgh in the playoffs is all I’ve ever known. Beating the Penguins was like seeing a unicorn – sure, maybe it’s out there but I had no idea how beautiful it might be. I had only wondered.
Now it has happened. And while the Rangers are only halfway to a Cup title, they are 2/3 of the way to getting to the Finals, which would be a thrill in and of itself. Similar to the way getting to the Super Bowl or the Final Four or the World Series feels, it’s an accomplishment in itself. Of course you want to win it all, but being one of the final teams standing is also tremendous fun.
Are they any closer than they were two years ago or in 1997? No, not yet. But maybe things are different this time. In 1994, they were undoubtedly the best team out there and they struggled to seal the deal. As a result, anytime they’ve been competitive, it’s felt like not nearly enough because they weren’t the unquestionable best – even when they were the best, it was still a close shave.
But now they do crazy things. They come back from down 3-1. They beat teams they’ve never beaten. They beat that team in their own building. Things are possible. The shackles of limitations seem different now, perhaps gone. I’m not saying I expect them to even win this next series, but I do know that no matter what happens, they won’t be out of it until it’s over and the handshakes are happening. And that is pretty exciting.
They’ve hooked me in even further. I didn’t know it was possible.