Rangers games aren’t supposed to go the way Game 1 went. The Rangers aren’t supposed to jump out to an early lead, build on that early lead, prevent a dreaded two-goal lead from slipping away and then put the game away with an entire period left to play. It’s not supposed to happen. That’s not Rangers hockey. Or at least it’s not what Rangers hockey has always been. But since Game 5 against the Penguins, Rangers hockey has changed. But here’s what would have happened if the pre-conference semis Game 5 Rangers had showed up for Saturday’s game:
The Rangers would have gotten up 2-0. Then after the Canadiens cut the lead to 2-1 (which they did), they would have scored the fourth goal of the game to tie the game at 2 with the Rangers blowing an early two-goal lead. After taking the Canadiens and their fans out of the game just 4:35 into Game 1, the Rangers would have given the Canadiens and the Bell Centre the energy and emotion they needed after exerting it all in the seven-game series with the Bruins. Then the Canadiens would have gone on to win Game 1 and the Rangers would have missed their most significant postseason opportunity in 20 years.
Game 1 was such a perfect start for the Rangers in this series that it felt weird watching it. After watching the Rangers struggle to score goals, defend leads and win games, I wasn’t prepared for a 7-2 win in Montreal. My mind and body didn’t know how to react to a dominant Rangers performance and I handled it the way someone with a ’92 Mercury Sable would feel test driving a new luxury car. “This feels great! The air conditioner turns on and pumps out cold air! All four windows go down! The clock on the dashboard isn’t stuck on 1:39 p.m. forever! The stations above 104.1 FM come in clear! I can’t believe people live like this!” For once, I knew what it was like to be a Blackhawks fan since 2009-10 or a 2013-14 regular-season Bruins fan. It felt good to win a game where you’re not asking Henrik Lundqvist to make a one-goal lead stand for 32 minutes or where you’re not wondering if the Rangers will produce an odd-man rush or get a shot off in the slot. The Rangers looked like a championship-caliber team on Saturday and have looked like one for four straight games now, starting with when their backs were against the wall in Pittsburgh for Game 5.
It was fitting that Martin St. Louis started the scoring for the Rangers after what he has been for this team and what he has meant to this team and their run since trailing 3-1 to the Penguins. And it was a perfect ending to the perfect game with Rick Nash finishing the scoring for the Rangers in what I hope was a sign of foreshadowing for what’s to come for the rest of the playoffs, given his history of scoring streaks and scoring goals in crazy bunches. But I almost don’t believe I watched Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals because not even the most optimistic, Ryan Callahan- is-better-than-Martin St. Louis, Glen Sather-can-do-no-wrong, Adam Graves’-number-deserved-to-be-retired Rangers fan thought a win like that was possible. I’m not talking about a win against the Canadiens in Montreal in the Bell Centre in the Eastern Conference finals. I’m talking about a win like that against any team in any city in any arena at any time. I’m still waiting for someone to tell me it didn’t happen the same way I’m waiting for that same person (or any person) to tell me the 2004 ALCS didn’t happen.
But unlike the 2004 ALCS, the 2003 ALCS did happen and before the Eastern Conference finals started, I compared that series to this series in an email exchange with Mike Miccoli. The Canadiens-Bruins series was essentially the Canadiens’ Cup Final for the team and for the fans. After blowing a 2-0 series lead to the Bruins in the first round of their eventual Cup run in 2010-11 and after being swept in the first round of the 2008-09 playoffs, the Bruins had taken the upper hand in the longstanding battle and the Canadiens hadn’t been able to solve the Bruins since their rebuild and resurgence in 2008-09. The Canadiens last beat the Bruins in the playoffs in 2007-08, but as the 1-seed facing a weak 8-seed, the Canadiens needed seven games to solve those Bruins. Montreal needed to beat the Bruins this year, not only to advance to this year’s conference finals, but for redemption of what happened three years ago and to redeem themselves as the big brother in the game’s best rivalry. The Canadiens played their conference semifinals series against the Bruins the way the Yankees had played the 2004 ALCS. And once the Yankees’ won the American League they had nothing left in the tank to win another series, even if it was the World Series and even if they were facing the Marlins, who needed to come back against the Cubs to get there. The Canadiens are now playing the Marlins and the Rangers have become a different team since their come back against the Penguins.
It was 11 days ago that the Penguins beat the Rangers 4-2 at the Garden and left them facing a 3-1 deficit with the series heading back to Pittsburgh. The finality of the 2013- 14 Rangers season set in after that Game 4 loss and by the time Game 5 started I had been in the initial phase of coping with the end of the hockey season for 48 hours. I started to simplify what the Rangers needed to do the way Alain Vigneault likely did to his team, telling myself “There’s at least one game left to watch this season. But if they win tonight, there will be at least one more.” The playoffs is about extending the season and surviving and advancing until the point that there’s no place left to advance to. After Game 4 against the Penguins, it looked like the Rangers’ next game would be in October and almost two weeks ago, this position didn’t seem possible.
Nine down, seven to go.