Relax And Enjoy These Playoffs, The Rangers Are Playing With House Money

The playoffs begin tonight in Montreal for the New York Rangers. Sixteen wins away from a Stanley Cup. Four losses in a series away from the golf course.

The playoffs. The great equalizer. The clean slate. The fresh start.

Each spring brings an open book. Empty, aside from the pens of which teams try to write their story. Sixteen teams enter, one team wins. There’s luck, sure. Some teams get hot, some teams run cold. Unheard of players become heroes. Depth players play key roles and turn into legends (anyone remember Ruslan Fedotenko’s 12 playoff goals in the Lightning’s Stanley Cup victory?). It’s intoxicating. It always has been.

There’s a fair amount of frustration surrounding the Rangers entrance into this year’s playoffs. Henrik Lundqvist’s age seems on the tip of every tongue. Battles about toughness and grit against skill dominate conversation. People who threw their hands up at the “unacceptable” loss to the Penguins last year gloss over the same mistakes the Rangers are making right now. Brendan Smith is on the third pairing and Dan Girardi is a top-pairing guy. Pavel Buchnevich will sit in the press box for Game 1.

Hope exists too, though. Brady Skjei has emerged as a potent threat for the defense to offense transition the Rangers need. Smith, even in a third-pairing role, is an upgrade over what the Rangers could have put out there. Ryan McDonagh wears the “C” for a reason.

Kevin Hayes (who had a great Player’s Tribune piece today), J.T. Miller and Chris Kreider all had coming out parties this year. Mika Zibanejad is a weapon that hasn’t reached his full potential yet. Rick Nash has been an underappreciated monster all year. Derek Stepan and Mats Zuccarello have infused life into this lineup. Michael Grabner has gone ice cold, but could find a heat-check mode again in the playoffs.

Oh, and Lundqvist. Spare me the nonsense about him being done. Spare me the crap about Antti Raanta being a better option. Lundqvist is a gift bestowed on a fanbase that doesn’t deserve him. The playoffs are his animal, with a competitive spirit so fierce it’s a surprise he doesn’t pull the pads off and reveal burns all over his body. I am

Montreal is flawed, just like the Rangers are. They’re a better possession team, have better metrics in SCF% and expected goals and boast their own stellar goaltender to protect them.

Beating Montreal will be no easy task, but it’s possible. Earlier in the year the Rangers smoked the competition with their defensive issues and Lundqvist’s struggles. They did it almost easily, and it was a joy to watch. That team is still in there, even if Glass’ inclusion makes them harder to find. That team can come out at any time.

Enjoy these playoffs. That’s the message here.

Not to say you shouldn’t enjoy them anyway, but the playoffs are an ... interesting event for me. Even when the Rangers are doing well the pit in your stomach never goes away. You’re worried about the other shoe dropping. Overtime is an exercise in how much stress your body can take before it shuts down for your own safety. A Game 7? Don’t get me started. A Game 7 overtime? It’s like a stress test on steroids and the strongest hallucinatory drugs you’ve ever taken.

The 2014 Stanley Cup ride was the most fun I’ve ever had as a sports fan because it was unexpected and I could enjoy it. It was house money, with the Rangers building towards something (that they threw it away it another matter entirely, at the time it was glorious). Of course that didn’t make the loss any better, but when the season ended I truly believed the team was heading in the right direction.

We can argue about whether or not that happened for days (which we’ve done enough of here and you know my stance). For right now, though, the feeling is similar. This is house money.

Sweeping changes are expected this summer. Big decisions that have been sitting on the back burner will be brought to the forefront of this administration. Jeff Gorton has been a general manager who has not done more than he’s done to this point. Alain Vigneault has been allowed to revert to old tricks, although he has shown some signs of actually learning a lesson here or there. Some days the Rangers look like they’re a team ready to move to the revolution of hockey, and other days they look like the old, grizzled forces grumbling about keeping it the same and the good ol’ days.

One thing is undeniable: They’re giving this core one last ride.

Enjoy it, even if you can see how it might end. Enjoy it because the past demands to win since the Rangers’ Stanley Cup run are dead. At least this year. We all know what this is: A hope and a prayer. And sometimes those prayers are answered.

The playoffs are a miserably wonderful experience. More often than not they end horribly for those involved but magic still happens. Martin St. Louis scored a goal on Mother’s Day less than a week after his mother tragically died. The Rangers overcame that 3-1 deficit and made the team’s first Stanley Cup run in 20 years. I’ve never experienced a moment like that before. A defining moment for a player who has had a million of them, but this one stands out a little more than the rest. If only because there was so much human on the ice that night. St. Louis wasn’t a hockey player, he was a human. We so often gloss that over, but it was unmistakable. The man grieved in front of us and for us in a way. The playoffs didn’t change that, but they made it even more revealing.

Him scoring the OT winner in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals was another amazing moment, if not as human. It was relief mixed with joy. And the threat of the other shoe. Up 3-1, but going to Montreal. They lost that game. They won Game 6. That was another moment.

What about Stepan’s overtime Game 7 winner against Washington a year later. Magma. Energy. It was as pure a moment as I can ever remember watching a hockey game. It wasn’t just like closing a book after finishing it, it was slamming it closed. The pop of the cover hitting the final page was akin to losing yourself in the rolling roar of The Garden. The series was over, with the flick of a wrist, a team died and another moved on and for that night you were on the battlefield and you lived to see another day. Smell the New York City air. Feel it. It’s warm. It’s spring. You’re still alive. You’re still dancing.

Does it sound silly? Does it look stupid on your computer screen or your phone? It doesn’t matter. I was there and it was bliss. I know that because I felt it, but I can’t describe it any other way. The memory is like a haze but it’s there. I can still remember Stepan jumping into the corner before I myself was enveloped in a group hug that seemed to stretch fifteen rows long.

The flip side? I remember that Game 7 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning. The silent train ride. I remember the sleepless night in 2014 that made me feel empty. Hockey brings more joy to my life than most things. It also brings more pain.

That pain isn’t going to go away just because the Rangers are playing with house money this year. It has to exist because if it doesn’t the joy doesn’t exist either.

So enjoy these playoffs.

At least as much as you can.