Ready for Rick Nash and the Rangers

The last time Gary Bettman took hockey away from me I was a freshman in college. I would sit at the Capitol Coffee House at the top of Bowdoin Street, crushing the best bacon, egg and cheese in Boston and stare at the top of the ShawmutFleetCenterTDBanknorthGardenTDGarden and wonder how Bettman could do this to me now that I was living just a half of a mile from where NHL hockey normally took place.

For the first three-plus months of this season, Bettman tried to take hockey away from me again, and nearly succeeded by getting to the doorstep of canceling another full season. And because Bettman enjoys a good lockout the way I enjoy actually watching hockey, I knew entering the holidays that I would need the New York Football Giants to carry me through January to leave only the 28 days of February as the gap between sports I’m passionate about because there was a good chance the 2012-13 NHL season was gone. But the Giants didn’t cooperate and embarrassed themselves in the process, reverting back to their 2009 and 2010 ways and setting the franchise back following a Super Bowl season in a way only the Giants could. The Giants left me searching for a way to get through the cold winter months before spring training (or the period I refer to as the 59 Days Before Baseball) and March Madness and it was either finally start watching Mad Men or Parks and Recreation religiously or hope that something would come from one of the NHL/NHLPA marathon meetings. I chose the latter and put my faith in Bettman, Bill Daly (his sidekick who cares equally as little about the fans) and Donald Fehr (who at times thought he was only in the meetings to later tell the media how much Bettman sucks).

I began doubting the NHL would ever come back and even if it did, would I ever care about it the same way again? After the way it destroyed me in 2004-05, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to go through that pain again knowing that in just a few more years I would likely be in the same spot again as long as Bettman remains commissioner.

I woke up on Jan. 6 to find out the lockout had ended while I was busy sleeping and dreaming of goals like this and moments like this. Looking back I wish I had gone into a celebration combination of Theo Fleury and Teemu Selanne. I thought I would act like either of those two if the lockout ever ended, but I didn’t have much room to roll around or a stick handy to shoot down a glove that I also didn’t have. Instead I just accepted the news like I had known it was going to happen the way John Carpenter did when Regis Philbin told him he won $1 million.

We’re one day away from hockey being back and the Rangers being back for the first time since Memorial Day Weekend. We’re one day away from John Tortorella treating the media like spitters and from Stan Fischler’s postgame questioning deserving of being treated like a spitter. We’re one day away from Brian Boyle getting too much playing time and Marian Gaborik getting unnecessarily benched with the Rangers trailing. We’re one day away from Michael Del Zotto trying to be Bobby Orr on the power play and from Dan Girardi missing the net from the point. We’re one day away from Sam Rosen giving Henrik Lundqvist credit for a save on a shot he didn’t touch and from Joe Micheletti talking about the “quick release” of every player on the ice. We’re one day away from having Hank back in our lives and Rick Nash officially in our lives. We’re one day away from hockey and two weeks ago I didn’t think we would be here.

To set the scene for Saturday’s NHL Opening Day, I thought I would dissect John Tortorella’s interview on Wednesday with Mike Francesa on WFAN. Tortorella and Francesa talked over 20 minutes and usually it takes 20 seconds of talking for Tortorella to say something worthy of analyzing, so there was plenty to go around after 20 minutes.

On the shape the players are in.

“There are some guys you can see that are in really good shape and other guys are trying to find their way and other guys there’s quite a bit of work to do.”

I think by the end of the first period on Saturday we will know which players fit into Tortorella’s three categories. But if not by the end of the first period then certainly during the third period when the fatigue of 60 minutes of hockey will begin to set in and Gaborik’s legs will start to fall to a gear not seen since Mark Recchi left the league two years ago. It won’t take long to find out which players that weren’t playing overseas or in the AHL were still getting their work in and which ones were treating the lockout like Figawi.

On the usage of Henrik Lundqvist in the shortened season.

“I think once of the biggest things we’ve found with Hank is when he starts getting sloppy and we can see when he starts getting sloppy and he’s not practicing the proper way because he’s playing so many games and he’s so tired during the practice days, his game tends to slip.”

Two years ago the Rangers didn’t have a backup goalie for nearly the entire second half of the season so Henrik Lundqvist had to play every game or they wouldn’t have made the playoffs. They made the playoffs on the final day of the season and then were out of the playoffs after five games against the Capitals. It wasn’t because of Lundqvist, it was because they couldn’t score. Lundqvist was still sharp in the series against Washington despite playing in 68 games that year.

Since his rookie season, Lundqvist has played in 53, 70, 72, 70, 73, 68 and 62 games. He has been outstanding for all seven seasons, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he posted his best numbers in 2011-12 (39-18-5, 1.97, .929) in the season he played the least amount of games. I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that he won the Vezina in the same season he played the least amount of games or that the Rangers went to the conference finals in the season he played the least amount of games.

The problem is with only 48 games, it’s going to be hard to get Lundqvist rest. Andy Brickley likes to talk about how “points are a premium” at the end of the year (though someone should tell Brick that all the games are worth the same amount of points) and that’s in a normal year. This year is anything, but normal and that’s why Lundqvist has to play just about every single game. Thanks, Hank. I owe you one.

On getting off to a fast start.

“I think we need to win all 48 games … I want to win every game right away.”

Joe Girardi might think John Tortorella is nuts for trying to win every game, but I think it’s a good plan. The Rangers will play their 48 games in 99 days and in their seven January games they will see face Boston twice, Pittsburgh twice, Philadelphia twice and Toronto once. Those seven games will happen in 12 days, including two sets of back-to-backs. Again, that’s seven games in the first 12 days of the year! This is going to be fun, but it’s also going to be a mess, which leads us to…

On how the game will be impacted by the layoff.

“In the two end zones I think there’s going to be more penalties. I think that’s where the level of conditioning is not there right now.”

Tortorella used the word “sloppy” a few times during the interview to go along with this quote, which to me screams, “Turnovers!” And when you think of sloppy play and turnovers and penalties you think of goals. And when you think of goals you think of overs! I have never bet an over in an NHL game in my life, but that might change as early as Saturday. (Unless Vegas wants to start throwing some 6.5 over/unders out there.)

If Tortorella is right about the excessive penalties then that means power plays. The Rangers’ power play has been their downfall for as long as I can remember. At times it’s comical that any company would want to sponsor a Rangers power play and have their brand and name associated with such a disaster, but I think it’s going to be different this season. Why? Because of this guy…

On the Rangers’ outlook after getting Rick Nash.

“I think a big step for our team this year is to handle the expectations. We make the Nash deal and a lot of people think we take the next step as an organization and rightfully so.”

I’m still excited for Rangers fans not as familiar with Rick Nash to see him play the way I envy anyone about to watch Friday Night Lights or Game of Thrones for the first time. There’s a reason Nash played on the first line for Team Canada at the 2010 Olympics and why I was willing to give up the farm and then some for him last February and why I pleaded with WFAN’s Steve Somers to come around and see things from my perspective. Rick Nash is that good and starting Saturday he will finally have something to play for in a city worth playing for.

On the Rangers’ expectations this season.

“We’re going to play our style. Our team will be ready to play, but a lot of things have to happen right and a number of things happened right last year and it always doesn’t during a year.”

Tortorella just keeps setting me up. My biggest thing with wanting Rick Nash so, so, so, so, so, so badly was that the Rangers are built to win right now. Sure, they are also set up nicely for the future with a young core and defense, but they are really built to win right now. And I mean right now as in last year and now this year and next year. Prior to last season the Rangers hadn’t been out of the first round of the playoffs since 2007-08 and they hadn’t been to the conference finals since 1996-97. Chances like last year don’t come around all the time (unless you’re the Red Wings) and Henrik Lundqvist isn’t going to be in his prime forever. How many years are the Rangers willing to sacrifice of Lundqvist’s prime before going all in? Thankfully, the answer is now zero because of the deal for Nash.

Tortorella’s most telling line in the whole interview was that “it always doesn’t during a year” when it comes to things happening right. The Rangers won a lot of one-goal games and had a lot of bounces go their way in the regular season (I mean a lot of bounces) and things only got even better for them in the postseason, winning two Game 7s and overcoming multiple-goal deficits and completing last-second comebacks. Those breaks aren’t always going to go your way, so let’s just hope the Nash move didn’t come one season to late.

On the media picking the Rangers as a contender.

“I don’t care what people are picking. I’m not one of those guys to get involved in that. We’re going to go about it one day at a time and we’ll see where we land as we go through this.”

Ah, there’s the John Tortorella we know. Now if only Larry Brooks had asked him this question maybe I would have had the opportunity to write “(expletive)” when transcribing.

On if the Rangers can win the Stanley Cup.

“Before you can win, you need to believe that you are going to win.”

Two years ago when the Rangers were hoping to beat the Capitals in the quarterfinals without scoring a goal you could just sense that the team knew that if Lundqvist didn’t post a shutout then they were most likely not going to win. And if Lundqvist gave up one goal then they definitely weren’t going to win. But last postseason you saw a team that took the ice believing it could win and believing it could win even without scoring the first goal of the game.

A lot has changed for the Rangers since the Capitals silenced the Bruce Boudreau chants at MSG and embarrassed a fan base. After that series it felt like Henrik Lundqvist would one day raise his number 30 to the Garden rafters without a Cup to his name like Don Mattingly putting his number 23 in Monument Park without a World Series. It doesn’t feel like that anymore.