The Break Is Over for the Rangers and Blackhawks

The break is finally over. After 20 days without Rangers hockey, the Blueshirts return from the Olympic break without their leading scorer, but with three challenging games over the next four days. The Rangers host the Blackhawks on Thursday, head south to see the Flyers on Saturday and then back home to play the Bruins on Sunday. Now that there are just 23 games left in the season, we are officially in the stretch run and it all starts against the defending champions.

With the Rangers and Blackhawks playing for the second and last time this year, I did an email exchange with Tab Bamford of Committed Indians to talk about Patrick Kane’s performance in the Olympics, if Blackhawks fans trust Corey Crawford and what it’s like to be on top of the hockey world.

Keefe: The Olympics are over and they didn’t end the way I wanted them to for Team USA and that’s because they couldn’t score enough or actually when it came to playing Canada or Finland, they couldn’t score at all.

Patrick Kane is the face of hockey in the United States. He is the best American-born player in the NHL and was the best player on the 2014 version of Team USA. It was Kane who everyone turned to control and carry Team USA’s offense in the Olympics and lead them offensively to the gold-medal game, but he never got going. Kane seemed to hit a rough stretch just as the Olympics began and appeared to be in a funk and snake-bitten when it came to breakaways, penalty shots and shootouts as well as a couple of shots that were inches away from tying the semifinal game against Canada. But I’m sure Kane will have his goal-scoring abilities back when the NHL returns and the Blackhawks visit Madison Square Garden on Thursday night, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he had the Patrick Kane-type of game we expected in the Olympics against the Rangers.

It’s disappointing that Kane wasn’t his usual self in Sochi because had he been, Team USA could have gotten past Canada and could have ended the now 34-year drought since this country’s last gold medal. But he shared his frustration with the media after the loss to Finland and looked like one of a few Team USA players that wanted to be playing in the bronze-medal loss.

Are you disappointed with Kane’s performance in the Olympics and him missing out on the chance to become a bigger name and face for the game?

Bamford: Not at all. If you look around that USA roster, there were plenty of guys not pulling their weight, especially at the center position. Kane, like Zach Parise, needed to be a bigger part of the scoring, but Team USA simply didn’t have the horses to put together two or three quality lines that could generate consistent offense.

Keefe: Henrik Lundqvist is now in his ninth season in the NHL and out of the eight prior seasons, Lundqvist has been to the playoffs seven times, losing in the first round three times, the second round three times and the conference finals once. Any success the Rangers have had in the post-lockout era can be attributed to Lundqvist, but here in New York, casual fans or Islanders and Devils fans like to cite his Cup-less career as a reason why Lundqvist isn’t what his stats suggest, despite playing at a Vezina-worthy level since his rookie season.

I always say if the Blackhawks had Henrik Lundqvist as their goalie, it’s scary to think of the type of record they would have and the type of dynasty they could build. If the Blackhawks can have the type of regular season they had last year and then the postseason they had, winning their second Cup in four years, with Corey Crawford, it’s hard to imagine what they could do with someone like Lundqvist.

Last year in the playoffs it seemed like the Blackhawks’ biggest concern, especially in the Final against the Bruins, was how Crawford would play. Do you trust Crawford in net after having now won, or is goaltending still a concern for Blackhawks fans?

Bamford: I trust the Blackhawks’ group of defensemen and the combination of Crawford and Antti Raanta to be good enough … and that’s the key. Crawford has his moments of Vezina-caliber brilliance and others that leave you wondering how the hell he ever made an NHL roster. But, for the most part, he’s been good enough to win games. He was overused and banged up early this season and how he performs down the stretch will be important.

Keefe: I went to college in Boston and know a lot of people that were either at Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final or were watching it with the belief that the Bruins were forcing a Game 7 in the final couple minutes back in June.

What were the emotional changes like at the end of Game 6 and those 17 seconds that changed hockey history? Going from looking at a Game 7 at home for the Cup to looking at overtime to either win the Cup or go to that Game 7 to looking at winning the Cup so quickly must have been hard to handle.

Bamford: Truthfully, I think there was a lot of disbelief on both benches. To have an empty-net and tie the game is one thing, but to score again 17 seconds later to pull ahead in any game is almost unfathomable, much less in a Stanley Cup-clinching game.

Keefe: The last time the Rangers won the Stanley Cup I was in second grade. It will be 20 years this June since the Rangers beat the Canucks in seven games and the MSG Network is running out of storylines to overkill into making documentaries about from that season. The Rangers need to start making new memories since their best memories in the last 20 years are losing to Flyers in the 1996-97 conference finals and losing to the Devils in the 2011-12 conference finals.

Prior to the Blackhawks winning the Cup in 2009-10, they hadn’t been to the finals since 1991-92 and hadn’t won it all since 1960-61. But after almost 50 years without winning the Cup, the Blackhawks have now won it twice in the last four years.

What is it like to be on top of the hockey world, for someone who forgets what that feels like or means? As a Yankees fan, I have never bought into the idea of a grace period and treat every season as if the Yankees haven’t won the World Series in decades. When it comes to Blackhawks, do you believe in a grace period or would you be devastated if the season ended any other way than with the Cup back in Chicago?

Bamford: It’s surreal. You talk about the Rangers drought … the Hawks hadn’t won the Cup since 1961 before 2010. But, beyond the lack of a championship, the Blackhawks hadn’t even been relevant in almost a full generation. After they burned down a roster loaded with Hall of Famers like Chris Chelios, Ed Belfour, Steve Larmer, Denis Savard and Jeremy Roenick, fans in Chicago were left with a team that was ranked the worst in professional sports (not just hockey) by Forbes less than five years before they hoisted the Cup.

Any fan that’s been around the team for longer than five years will tell you it didn’t make sense that they were champions for a while in 2010 because of how far they had come in such a short amount of time. They were among the last place teams in wins, attendance, revenue, All-Star and postseason appearances. They couldn’t get a call back from an agent, much less sell season tickets. Now there’s a waiting list for tickets that’s thousands of names deep. In a town that had the Cubs, White Sox and Hawks all down for so long, having the Hawks rise to the top has been a wonderful experience for fans.

Keefe: I attended the Rangers-Blackhawks game in Chicago in January. It was my first time in Chicago and my first time at the United Center and it was an awesome experience that was made even better by the Rangers’ 3-2 win.

In that game, the Rangers led 2-0 after the first, but blew that lead (which came as no surprise), before Carl Hagelin broke the tie in the third. It was an encouraging win, beating the defending champions in their building, and since that game, the Rangers have gone 10-4-0 and have positioned themselves as the current 2-seed in the Metropolitan.

Before the break, the Rangers were playing their best hockey of the year (with the exception of a 2-1 home loss to the Oilers on Feb. 6). Now with what will have been 20 days off between games and without Mats Zuccarello for the next few weeks, I’m not sure what to expect from the Rangers as they return from the break.

What kind of game do you expect on Thursday night and are you concerned with how the Blackhawks will play coming off the break?

Bamford: It’s hard to know what to expect out of either of these teams with the number of Olympians returning to the ice. For Chicago, there’s looking back at the Olympics and forward to Saturday night’s outdoor game against Pittsburgh as distractions surrounding a big game against a quality opponent at MSG. The first five minutes to begin the game and the last 10 minutes of the third period will show us a lot about how ready both of these teams are for the home stretch.