There is a moment that stands out in my head from last year. A memory I can't forget. To be fair, it's actually a compilation of moments, but since they all happen on the same night they jumble into one emotion. They blend into a single memory.
The date is May 29th -- Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals. It's Dominic Moore scoring the game's only goal, arms spread in celebration as he waits for his teammates to join him. It's the deafening roar of the crowd. It's the Henrik Lundqvist sprawling blocker save. Minutes turning into seconds, turning into moments turning into a buzzer that signifies an ending. Streamers are falling from the rafters. Lundqvist is jumping up and down. My eyes are wide, a half-smile hangs from my lips as I try to process what's happening. My father gives me a knowing smile. There is a silver trophy no one will touch. It's the feeling of a dream getting closer to turning into reality.
The crowd is delirious. The hallways outside The Garden are so full you can't even move. People are dancing and celebrating. Everyone is smiling, everyone is happy. I remember walking outside and feeling how warm it was. I was in shorts and a t-shirt. The Rangers were still playing hockey and it was warm outside. Sticky. Humid.
There's a call of those final seconds from 1994 that got buried in Sam Rosen's brilliant "and this one will last a lifetime" cry. It's the call heard outside the New York Market that begins: "on a warm June night." I finally understood what that meant. More importantly, I finally understood what it felt like. That was special.
That night was the greatest night of my sports life, without a doubt.
Those moments remain frozen in my memory as a single emotion. Soaked in the pretty glow of the spotlight we all use when we try to hold on to something that's gone.
That spotlight allows that moment to cast a shadow, however. A darkness behind it that grows longer and darker as time goes on.
That shadow is also a jumble of moments mixed into one emotion.
It's Alec Martinez scoring a goal and throwing his gloves off his hands. The silence of an opposing crowd exploding. A swarm of Kings surrounding their new hero while Lundqvist is so beside himself he turns away teammates coming to offer him their support. It's the first, sharp pain of knowing a dream died, followed by sleepless nights and thoughts about what could have been. It's getting a few steps away from the top of the mountain only to have a rock slip out from under your feet as you fall back down to the bottom. There is no adjective to describe that night. You either felt it or you didn't. There is no in between.
These two moments exist in the same reality, intertwined by their connection to one another. They're like two sides of a coin; you can't look at one without at the very least feeling the other. We never feel the pain of the Martinez goal without feeling the jubilation of the Moore goal. I can't go back to that warm night outside of Madison Square Garden --as happy as I've ever been as a sports fan -- without the constant, throbbing pain of the Martinez goal in the background.
Last year casts a shadow as well, except this shadow falls in the future, not the past. Expectations have ranged from honest to delusional in the past, but that's no longer the case. The Rangers should be expected to make a run at the Stanley Cup; and that is something new.
Those expectations become a driving force when the team is succeeding, a shield if you will, that oozes confidence. They should be atop the division. They should be winning five or six games in a row. They should be near the top of the NHL in points.
But when things slow down or the team stumbles, the expectations become a weight. The above is said quickly followed by, "but they aren't." People panic -- because that's what we do in New York -- and they yell and scream. They pick up microscopes and look at moves made in the past and what could have been done. Too few look to the future to see what can be fixed, but instead spend their time talking about what they would have done. After the fact, of course.
It's a good problem to have, in a way. It's nice to be good, and to know you're good. There is pressure, obviously, but after years of "well, I hope they make the playoffs and then we can see what happens" it's nice to have a more firm foundation to stand on. Rooting for a sports team isn't ever easy. 99% of the time you're walking away disappointed. To compensate, we bask in those moments of optimism because it's all we have to fight back with.
The summer changed this a little, though. Now the hopes and dreams are expectations and realities. If the Rangers don't get back to the Stanley Cup Final this year will be a disappointment and a failure. If they get close (say back to the Eastern Conference Finals) it will be bearable but will also come with "did the window close." If they do worse? Failure. Unless something insane happens to change this perception during the year.
That within itself is an enormous hurdle to jump, especially in the room. The leaders need to feed on that pressure or else it will consume them and everyone else with it. Vigneault will play a key role here, and his calm demeanor will go a long way in keeping things cool and collected when the waters get a little rocky. Will it be enough? Well, he succeeded last year while being screamed at in October, which is about as loud as the Rangers "fan insanity" machine got all year. So that's a good start.
The real test comes not tonight but in a few weeks, and then again and again and again. Litmus tests and barometers litter the schedule for teams with real expectations. Every matchup with the Penguins, Flyers and Canadiens (last year's playoff matchups) will be dissected beyond a reasonable doubt. The games against the Kings will be even worse.
When we wade deeper and deeper into the season remember this: Last year everything looked dark more than a few times. Doomsday criers did what they do best, and panic spread around like a plague that couldn't be stopped. Great teams rise above the darkness, the pressures and the negativity that come with true expectations. Weaker teams crumble or turn against themselves as the pressure mounts.
I remember last year like a wisp of smoke. I can kind of see it, but the more I try and touch it the more it disperses. The little things get lost in the memories as time drags on. The things I don't want to remember, though, never go away. That's how life works. The smoke wraps around my hand, and while I can't truly grab it, I can feel it. All memories are like this. Some are good, some are bad.
But some are both. Last year is a perfect example of that. The only way to make it so there is no shadow is to make the memory nothing but positive. Win the Stanley Cup and there is no shadow on those memories. In fact, any shadow that is produced covers up the negativity.
Will the Rangers be able to do that this year? Time will tell.
It always does.