I can’t believe it’s been 28 weeks since I was turning on MSG for the first time in months to watch the Rangers open the season in Phoenix on Oct. 3. And I can’t believe it’s been nearly just as long since I was turning off MSG and thinking about not turning it on again this season after the Rangers were embarrassed 9-2 by the Sharks on Oct. 8.
The Rangers started the season with their third and final season-opening extended road trip and went 3-6-0, getting outscored 33-15 in the process with Alain Vigneault’s offensive system heavily criticized. They returned to New York for their home opener on Oct. 29 and were shut out 2-0 by the Canadiens and after almost a month of hockey found themselves in last place. But they quickly turned it around, going 6-1-0 between Oct. 29 and Nov. 10 and looked like the Real Rangers and the team we expected to see in 2013-14 (and the team we expected to see in 2012-13 for that matter).
Following Henrik Lundqvist’s extension in the first week of December, the Rangers went into another slump, going 0-3-1 from Dec. 7 to Dec. 12, before beating the Flames in a shootout at the Garden on Dec. 15 for their first two-point game in 10 days. After that win, they went on a 16-7-2 tear until the Olympic break, winning in Chicago against the defending champions and sweeping the Stadium Series along the way.
They returned from their 20-day break with heavy rumors of a potential Ryan Callahan trade surrounding the team and after three post-break games, Callahan was gone and Martin St. Louis was a Ranger after what evolved into a mandatory move for Glen Sather. The Rangers became a better team with St. Louis, but still entered the final 10 games of the season not knowing if they would play an 83rd game this season.
Following the 1-0 loss to the Sharks, on March 16, which was part of a 1-3-0 stretch from March 11-16, I wasn’t sure if we would be here. I wasn’t sure if I would be watching Rangers playoff hockey this year or hate-watching the playoffs and simply watching because it’s playoff hockey and not because I cared who won or lost during the best time of the year. But here we are. After 82 games and highs and lows and winning streaks that not even Mike McDermott could have handled or losing streaks that not even Joey Knish could have helped dig Rangers fans out of, here we are on the eve of the postseason and the eve of the first Rangers-Flyers playoff series since the 1996-97 Eastern Conference finals.
I didn’t want the Rangers to play the Flyers in the first round, I needed the Rangers to play the Flyers in the first round. After seeing the Capitals in the first round in 2012-13, 2010-11 and 2008-09 (and the conference semis in 2011-12), I didn’t need something different in the postseason just for the sake of watching something different, I needed something different because it’s the Flyers and because Rangers-Flyers still has “the feel” of something special in an age where “the feel” is hard to find. It’s hard to describe what “the feel” is when it comes to a rivalry, whether or old of new, but you know it when you have it the way Rangers-Devils has had it and Rangers-Islanders use to have it and Bruins-Canadiens has always had it and Bruins-Canucks built it. And if Rangers-Flyers can continually give you “the feel” in the regular season after 17 years without a playoff series, imagine what it could do in a playoff series after such a drought. That’s why I needed this series to happen.
I thought after the 2007 ALDS when I wanted nothing more than the Yankees to face the Indians, I would have finally learned the “be careful what you wish for” lesson, but I apparently haven’t in asking for the Rangers to face the Flyers. I wanted no part of the Blue Jackets or the Columbus Rangers because of their 2011-12 Rangers feel (not because of their roster, but because of the way they win) and Sergei Bobrovsky. They have changed the image of what the Blue Jackets have represented since entering the league in 2000 and making just their second playoff appearance, they would have been a tough out for anyone and that includes the Penguins, who they will face. I got my wish. I got Rangers-Flyers and I can only hope it turns into Rangers-Penguins or Rangers-Blue Jackets a couple weeks from now and the hockey season continues for more than just a week or two.
I didn’t feel this good about the Rangers entering the playoffs two years ago when they were the No. 1 seed coming off a 51-win and 109-point season and with Henrik Lundqvist posting fake life numbers. But two years ago, the Rangers’ path to the Stanley Cup Final was paved like the New York Football Giants’ path to Super Bowl XLVI once the Saints were eliminated because the Bruins and Penguins were eliminated in the first round and the Flyers were gone in the second. I thought the stars had aligned with the Rangers facing the Devils in the conference finals, but the Rangers’ scoring inconsistencies (and lack of trading for Rick Nash at the deadline) were finally too much to overcome once the ridiculous bounces stopped going their way (and they still got a lot of ridiculous bounces to go their way in the six games).
On this Stanley Cup Playoffs Eve, I feel as good as I could possibly feel about the Rangers and that’s not necessarily a good thing. But like the Giants, the Rangers don’t perform well with expectations or with hype or with a bandwagon that’s gaining steam. They were embarrassed by the Bruins in the conference semis last May after everyone picked the Rangers to win the series, they couldn’t get past what seemed to be an inferior 6-seeded Devils team the year before despite being a 1-seed, the year before that they clinched the 8-seed in Game 82, the year before that they missed out on the playoffs with a Game 82 shootout loss and the year before that were an 8-seed and blew a 3-1 series lead in the first round. Nothing has ever come easy with the Rangers and I don’t expect this spring to be any different, but maybe it’s better that way.
I was 10 years old and in fifth grade for the 1996-97 conference finals when the Rangers were easily handled by the Flyers in five games. This time, 17 years later, I think it will go five games once again.
Rangers in five.