When the New York Rangers broke their seven-year playoff drought I was 17 years old. I do remember going to a couple of playoff games before the streak started, but the only thing I actually remember from any of those series was my Dad telling me how loud it was going to be. I don't remember anything else, I was too young.
So when the Rangers finally did make the playoffs in 2005-2006 I was ecstatic. The Rangers didn't just make the playoffs, they were good. Jaromir Jagr had set the single season goal scoring record with 54 and the Rangers had a rookie goalie names Henrik Lundqvist who was lighting it up. Petr Prucha was coming off a 30-goal season as a rookie. Michael Nylander and Martin Straka both had 76 points. There was no way the Rangers could lose their opening series to the Devils, right?
Even down 2-0 I remember the anticipation in The Garden. The fans were hungry. People were walking around with beer cups that read "NHL Playoffs." Let's Go Rangers chants started before warmups. The place was louder than I ever remembered. Balloons dropped during the national anthem. It was so awesome.
For 68 seconds.
Patrik Elias scored 68 seconds into the game. The Rangers never recovered. It was my first true taste of sports showing me they weren't fair. The good guys don't always win. I remember sitting in my seat thinking, "is this really happening? Are the Rangers really going to get swept? It can't end like this. Please, please, please don't let it end like this."
I looked back on those thoughts as I got older and realized it was something of an entrance into becoming a true hockey fan. The moment when something truly awful happens to the team you love, you feel terrible about yourself (even though you had nothing to do with it), it ruins a good portion of your next few days or weeks and then you pick yourself up off the floor and get ready to do it all over again next year. If you do that you're a fan. It's like the initiation into a club.
I never thought those thoughts again. I learned my lesson. Sure, when Chris Drury scored with 7.7 seconds left I thought to myself, "is this really happening? How can this be happening?" But the innocence was lost. I could believe it was happening. I just didn't want it to.
Until Game 3 on Wednesday. Throughout this postseason I've had a really good feeling about big games. Somehow I knew the Rangers were going to win Game 7 against the Flyers. I got the feeling again before both Game 6 and Game 7 against the Penguins. I felt it right before the third period started against Montreal in Game 6. And I felt it walking into The Garden before Game 3 against the Kings. That time, I was wrong.
And when Chris Kreider's breakaway attempt was stopped just 10 seconds into the third period, I reverted back to my 17-year-old self. Why is this happening? This isn't fair. This shouldn't be happening. The Rangers don't deserve this. It came to the point where I wasn't even watching the game anymore. I was staring at the ice by the blue line painted to read "Stanley Cup Final." I waited 20 years for this. Did I really wait 20 years to see Lady Luck smile on another team?
I was one of the overwhelming majority who cheered the Rangers late in the third when it was obvious the game was lost (really proud of everyone there, by the way). I walked down the stairs to go home and heard nothing. It was silent. Usually there's anger, irrational comments or something after the Rangers lose, especially in the playoffs. Not Monday. Monday there was nothing. That was sad.
I, like many of you, have probably treated the last 36 or so hours like someone waiting for a phone call they don't want to get. I'm turning sad songs off on the radio. (The All American Rejects "It Ends Tonight" came up on Pandora this morning and I actually pulled the headphones out of my phone to stop the music.) Little things that go wrong make me angrier than they should. I try not to talk at work unless it's absolutely necessary. Overhearing people talking about the Rangers makes me sad. I'm having a conversation with myself about whether or not I would watch another team raise The Stanley Cup in my building if it came to that. I haven't answered it yet.
But in that darkness there is a flicker of hope. I can't explain it. I've always had hope, always been optimistic, but this is different than just blind optimism. I actually believe the Rangers can come back in this series. I really do.
Every. Single. Bounce. Has gone to the other team in this series. Every one of them. That has to end eventually, right? The Rangers still have the best player on the ice in Lundqvist. This team has always, always, always, always played a million times better with their backs against the wall; and now their backs will be against the wall the rest of this series.
Rick Nash's luck has to turn eventually. So does Kreider's. So does the entire offense. The Kings overcame a 3-0 deficit this year, why can't the Rangers? Game 3 aside, have the Kings really been the better team this series? Do they deserve to be up 3-0? Couldn't this series just as easily be 2-1 in favor of the Rangers?
Yes, it's a hell of a hill to climb. It really is. I'm not saying it's likely, but I'm saying I believe and I don't know why. Maybe it's like that false feeling before Game 3. Maybe it's not. I do know I won't stop believe until I get the phone call that they're dead. I won't.
After all, wouldn't it be the most Rangers thing ever to lose the first three games of the Stanley Cup Final only to win in seven?