I lied. Prior to the start of the Stanley Cup Final I said I wouldn’t care if the Rangers won or lost. I said I was just happy that they were there, that they were playing the last hockey of the 2013-14 season and that they had given me two additional months of hockey that I hadn’t prepared for. But 12 days ago when Ryan McDonagh hit the post, Chris Kreider couldn’t score once again on a breakaway and Rick Nash couldn’t find an open net, I knew that a Stanley Cup loss was inevitable. And when Alec Martinez started a 3-on-2 with Kyle Clifford and Tyler Toffoli that looked like it had jumped off the page of an odd-man rush textbook, finishing with a perfect create-a-rebound-opportunity shot, my fear of the inevitable was realized. Henrik Lundqvist fell to the ice as if his body had finally given out from the burden of carrying the entire Rangers team and organization through the series and the playoffs and the last nine seasons.
Finality had been in Madison Square Garden for Game 7 against the Flyers in the quarterfinals. It was with the Rangers in Pittsburgh in Game 5, traveled with them to New York for Game 6 and back to Pittsburgh again in Game 7. It never presented itself in the Eastern Conference finals, but it was there at the Garden in Game 4 of the Final and would be with them the rest of the way. Up until Martinez carried the puck from the top of the circle in his own zone, through the neutral zone and passed it to Clifford just before the Rangers’ blue line, the Rangers had overcome finality five times in the last six weeks.
In each of those five instances, I went into the game knowing that it could be the last Rangers game of the season, but once the Rangers’ season and NHL season was put on the brink starting in Game 4 of the Final, I started to get nostalgic and look back at the 2013-14 season. The firing of John Tortorella. The hiring of Alain Vigneault. The disastrous West Coast trip to start to the season. The entire embarrassing month of October. The beginning of their climb back. The Henrik Lundqvist extension. The Stadium Series. The debate on what to do with Ryan Callahan. The Ryan Callahan trade. The Martin St. Louis era. The grind to get in the playoffs. The Flyers series. The Penguins series. The Canadiens series. And then the Stanley Cup Final.
I started to think about all the things that needed to happen for the Rangers to reach the Cup for the first time since I was in second grade. I started to think about the post-postseason summer and offseason and training camp and 82-game, seven-month regular-season schedule that would need to happen before the next time playoff hockey would be back. And that’s when I realized I lied.
I realized I had lied because while getting to the Cup is certainly an achievement (especially for a team that finished fifth in the East and didn’t know if they would even be in the playoffs just a couple weeks before the playoffs started and needed to win a first-round Game 7 and overcome a 3-1 series deficit in the second round) getting that far and not winning is crushing. You never know when, or if, your team is ever going to get back to that point (Hello, Toronto) and when you’re there, you need to make the most of it. I’m sure Rangers fans in June of 1994 didn’t think it would take 20 more Junes for the Rangers to reappear in the Final. For the four obstacles I just mentioned that the Rangers had to overcome, for the Kings to reach the Final, they had to overcome a 3-0 first-round series deficit and win three road Game 7s, which included overcoming a two-goal deficit in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals to knock off the defending champions in overtime. The parlay that has to be hit to reach the Stanley Cup Final makes my head hurt to think about and the parlay that has to be hit to win it is difficult to even fathom.
The Final only lasted five games, but it felt more like a seven-game series. It felt more seven-game-ish than the series against the Flyers and Penguins felt, but that’s likely because of what was at stake. And even though history will show that the Kings won the 2013-14 Stanley Cup Final 4-1, for those who watched it and those who were invested in at as either a Rangers or Kings fan will know it was much closer. And if it wasn’t for Dan Girardi, some posts, the Rangers’ inability to score on a breakaway and blown leads in Games 1, 2 and 5, the series could have been different and the Canyon of Heroes could have been used this June for something other than a place for all the suits who work in the area to walk to buy their $12 salads for lunch.
You always think your team can contend and win a championship even if you’re being optimistic and know winning the last game of the NHL season is unrealistic. Entering the 2013-14 season I was optimistic about the Rangers’ Cup chances and as the season carried on, the dream became more and more unrealistic and the 2013-14 Rangers looked like six of the eight Rangers team since the lockout: destined for a first- or second-round exit. Down the stretch of the regular season, I kept saying, “Just get in” and once they were in and the playoffs started, I became overly confident and optimistic again, believing that because of Henrik Lundqvist the team could make a run like many other average and above-average teams had done with elite goaltending.
The Rangers’ run was because of Henrik Lundqvist, who proved to the irrational critics of the world that he could carry a team to the Final, even if once he got there, it was his own team that eventually beat him. And it will be Henrik Lundqvist who is remembered for April, May and June 2014 and for bringing the Rangers back to a place they hadn’t been in so long and close to a place they now know they can get to.
I can’t wait to try to do it all again next season.