If I close my eyes I can remember almost everything about that night at the Garden.
The tension is what pushes to the front of the memory, because it was present in full force; sucking the air out of my lungs and forcing my heart to beat a million times a minute. The hope comes next, but it’s a tiny voice comparative to the tension. The NHL playoffs doesn’t breed hope so much as hope is born within the dark well of fear. Every goal is a relief. Every win is another breath. Every round advanced is another reason to smile, at least for one more night.
I will not tell you that the 2015 run to the Eastern Conference Final was fun. 2014 was fun because it was unexpected. That tension and pressure? That didn’t exist in 2014 because the Rangers simply weren’t supposed to be there. 2015 was a different story. They were supposed to win. They were supposed to advance. They were supposed to change the ending.
The added pressure created tension. The Rangers blowing by Pittsburgh in five games added to said pressure. Going down 3-1 to Washington (and then coming within a minute of bowing out of the playoffs in the Second Round) made it almost suffocating.
So I found myself in my regular seat at Madison Square Garden in Game 7 during overtime. I remember that my head was in my hands after the icing and I remember that I had a stomach ache that had nothing to do with me actually not feeling well. I remember my thigh muscles twitching to stand every time I thought the Rangers were going to score. I remember my heart skipping a beat when Alexander Ovechkin turned the corner and tried to bank one over Henrik Lundqvist’s pads. I remember taking a deep breath — or trying to.
I remember all that.
Before we go further I will tell you this: I was six when the Rangers won the Stanley Cup in 1994. The only actual memory I have of that playoff run was when Mike Richter pulled the puck out of the net and tried to say it didn’t go in. I remember that and nothing else.
I tell you that because Stepan scoring the goal in overtime in Game 7 was the greatest Rangers moment I have ever lived through.
It surpassed Martin St. Louis scoring the OT winner in Game 4 against Montreal the year before for one reason: There was such a moment of finality to Stepan’s winner. There’s just something about a Game 7 overtime winner.
The moment was magma. It was pure electricity. It wasn’t just winning, it was winning after being down 3-1. It was another enormous middle finger to a rival who we have seen too often in the playoffs thanks to a strange seeding system. It was what makes hockey great. It’s what makes hockey playoffs irresistible.
It was also so very Derek Stepan. It was the biggest goal in recent memory for an organization that has seen a lot of them, a moment that should have elevated him above the nonsense that was thrown his way while he was here. And it was a moment forgotten because “he’s not a playoff performer.” Don’t think too hard on how that logic applies, you might hurt yourself trying to understand it.
I am very sad to see Stepan go. This is a world where there is a segment of this fanbase that trips over themselves to defend bad players because of their “heart,” will also go just as far to attack players because of their incorrect recency bias.
Stepan was criminally underrated in New York. He was absolutely a first-line center that made the Rangers better every time he played. He played a fantastic game in his own end, did the dirty little things that everyone loves to forget, scored 50ish points a year, and was still somehow disliked. The groups of people demanding Stepan was traded after the playoffs were probably the same people who booed Rick Nash in the playoffs, thought Henrik Lundqvist was washed up, and “didn’t need charts” to see that Dan Girardi was, in fact, a top-pairing defenseman (among other narratives). To simplify it: It’s impossible to please everyone, but it’s far more impossible to please people who can’t be pleased.
Stepan was a joy to watch in New York. He was one of the first prospects to come through the system and turn into a dynamic player for the Rangers after the dark ages. I understand the motives to trade him, but I never thought Stepan had to be traded. There’s an enormous difference there — which we discussed on the podcast last week.
The trade leaves the Rangers with a big hole to fill. There is uncertainty around the Rangers’ future because Stepan is no longer here. I have bought into the ideology behind why Gorton traded him — to avoid financial issues down the road, moving a player a year too early than a year too late, and bringing in critical picks and prospects to re-stock the farm. From a business perspective I totally understand.
That doesn’t mean my heart has to like it, though. And it doesn’t.
You were everything and anything anyone could have ever expected from you, Derek. No matter what some of the louder voices say.
Thanks for everything, it was awesome.