Why Not the Rangers?

New York Rangers vs. Los Angeles Kings

I can still hear the sound. As Ruben Sierra’s weak grounder on a 1-0 pitch from Alan Embree bounced slowly to Pokey Reese, the sound started. The sound was a compilation of 86 years of failure coming to a climax after coming back down 3-0 in the ALCS to the team that had caused many of those 86 years of failure. And that compilation of misery turned disbelief shook my 11th-floor dorm room in downtown Boston.

I sat in a folding camping chair in my room staring out the window with my friend Scanlon, the only other Yankees fan I knew and knew of in the 19-floor dorm, sitting in a folding camping chair to my left. The room was dark except for the flashing images of the 2004 Red Sox celebrating on the Yankee Stadium mound that illuminated our devastated faces while the hallway outside the room sounded as if the school had announced that tuition would be free for the entire four years of college. And outside the building on the streets of Boston, the sound, which I can only compare to what the end of the world would sound like, filled the entire city.

Three days prior I watched Kevin Millar work a leadoff walk against Number 42. Dave Roberts pinch ran for Millar, stole second and Bill Mueller singled him in and three innings after that, I watched Joe Torre think it would be a good idea to have Paul Quantrill pitch to David Ortiz. Red Sox fans let me know they weren’t dead, but I knew they were. For as overly confident as the city of Boston had suddenly become, I kept telling myself, “They have to win three more games before we win one.”

The next day I found tickets to Game 5 online for the price of basically my entire first-semester spending money I had saved working that summer. I figured, “I have a chance to watch the Yankees win the pennant in person in Boston” and that was enough for me to call my friend Jim and have him drive to Boston in record time using I-95 North as if it were The Brickyard along the way. I went to the then-Fleet Bank ATM next to the Park Street T stop, withdrew nearly all the money in my bank account and headed to Kenmore to meet some sketchy guy in an old Ford Explorer down a side street a few blocks from Fenway Park. After a Tom Gordon meltdown and five hours and 49 minutes of baseball, the Yankees lost again and I left Fenway wondering how I would buy beer until Christmas break, but when it came to baseball, I reassured myself, “They have to win two more games before we win one.”

The next night, Joe Torre decided he wouldn’t have anyone attempt to bunt against Curt Schilling on one leg and the night after that it all came crashing down. It was Terry Francona, who kept his team loose and got the Yankees on the run after Game 4, but it was Schilling’s question, “Why not us?” that got me thinking back then about the possibility of an historical collapse and got me thinking about it again this past Monday night.

The Rangers could have won Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. They could have won Game 2. And if they were able to protect the worst lead in hockey in either game, they would have. They could have returned to New York up 2-0 in the series against the dynasty-in-the-making Kings and even if they dropped both games at MSG, they would have been going back to L.A. with the series tied at two, and a best-of-3 scenario separating them and their first Cup in 20 years. But because of the Rangers’ frustrating play with a lead, disappointing effort in the third period and inability to finish in overtime, that hypothetical perfect picture of what could have been in this year’s Final never was.

With finality for the 2013-14 Rangers’ season looming (for a third time this postseason) after Game 3, the Rangers kept talking about how the bounces weren’t going their way and had one or two gone differently, they wouldn’t be in a 3-0 hole. They were right. Well, partially right. If Dan Girardi and Martin St. Louis didn’t try to play goalie and just let Henrik Lundqvist do his job, the job he is better at doing than anyone else in the entire world, Game 3 doesn’t go the way it did. And if the puck had bounced differently for Mats Zuccarello in Game 3 or if Chris Kreider or Carl Hagelin could successfully finish a breakaway or if NHL referees penalized goalie interference when it’s actually goalie interference and not be so quick to penalize players for it when it actually isn’t, then the Rangers wouldn’t have been looking at a 3-0 hole. In the world of “if,” the Rangers would have had a series lead after Game 3. But in that same world of “if,” I would have been asking Kevin Brown to toss a bottle of champagne to me in the Fenway stands after Game 5 and I wouldn’t have spent what is now almost a decade hating Javier Vazquez.

With the Kings’ commanding 3-0 series lead, we have heard about how well their current regime constructed the 2013-14 roster as well as the roster of the last three years and how they have become the model franchise in the NHL. Jeff Carter has been praised, Justin Williams has become a hero and Drew Doughty has become a household name because of the 3-0 lead. But those conversations and that praise wouldn’t be consuming the hockey world if the Sharks could have just won one of the final four games in the first round or if the Ducks had finished them off at home in Game 7 or if the Blackhawks had done the same. But in the same world of “if,” Alex Rodriguez’s career and entire life would have been different if Fenway Park had a real wall in right field and Tony Clark’s ground-rule double didn’t become “ground-rule” and Ruben Sierra wasn’t held at third base.

In Game 4, the bounces did go the Rangers way. It was the Rangers and Benoit Pouliot scoring on a deflection and it was Jeff Carter instead of Mats Zuccarello failing to push the puck over the goal line and it was Henrik Lundqvist’s crease and Derek Stepan’s glove saving the Rangers from allowing a heartbreaking tying goal in the final minute. The Rangers played their worst game of the Stanley Cup Final in Game 4 and came away with what is their only win of the series. They were outshot 41-19 and thoroughly dominated on even strength by the Kings, who looked like were on a 60-minute power play, controlling the play and puck possession, forcing me to watch the clock tick down slower than Mark Teixeira trying to score from first on a ball in the gap.

After the game, Henrik Lundqvist said, “We didn’t want to see the Cup coming out on our home ice,” as if the Rangers used that idea as their motivation to win. And maybe they did use it, but it was an odd thing to say considering how bad the Rangers played and the fact that aside from Lundqvist’s own effort and the help of the Hockey Gods stopping the puck on the goal line twice in the game, the Rangers did everything possible to make sure the Cup was presented to the Kings at Madison Square Garden after Game 4.

It’s been almost 10 years since I was in Boston for the 2004 ALCS and a 3-0 comeback that changed history. As I write this, I’m in Los Angeles, where I watched Game 4, surrounded by black and silver and fans wanting to see the Cup return to the beach for the second time in three years. And after Game 4 as the Rangers saluted the MSG crowd and the bar I was in at Hermosa Beach began to empty with long faces and dejected Kings fans wanting a reason to party on a Wednesday night and call out of work on a Thursday, I thought that maybe the Sports Gods decided, “We owe Neil a 3-0 series makeup call.” (Let’s hope they forgot they gave me Super Bowl XLII, which I watched in Boston.)

A few hours before Game 4, I was at a deli in Los Angeles where two Kings fans decked out in “Bow Down to the Crown” apparel spotted me wearing a Rangers shirt and said, “Sorry, man. Maybe next year,” in some what of a compassionate yet, sarcastic tone and I could hear my 18-year-old self back in 2004 in their tone. I knew they were thinking even if the Rangers won Game 4, they had to win four games before the Kings won once. And all I could think was, “They still have to win one more game.”

I can still hear the sound. I want to hear it on Wednesday night.

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