The Rangers’ Cup Run Doesn’t Feel Real

Henrik Lundqvist

When your team is facing finality and losing, the clock seems to tick away faster than normal as if the Hockey Gods set the periods to “5 minutes” EA Sports-style. And when your team has a chance at a fourth win in a series and a chance to advance, and in this case advance to the Stanley Cup Finals (I can’t say Final without hating myself) for the first time in 20 years, the clock seems to drag on as if time is standing still. On Thursday night, in the third period of Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, time stood still.

Twenty-two days ago, the Rangers faced a 3-1 series deficit to the Metropolitan Division-winning Penguins after losing three consecutive games, including two at home and two by way of shutout. The 2013-14 Rangers’ season was on the brink of destruction, (The Hockey News’ Ken Campbell said it was actually over), and the Rangers were headed to Pittsburgh for Game 5 where everyone expected a postgame handshake to take place. But the handshake didn’t take place. Well, it did eventually, just not that night. It took place six nights later following Game 7 in Pittsburgh where the Rangers held on to a one-goal lead for 32 minutes and four seconds just like they did on Thursday night in Game 6 against the Canadiens for 21 minutes and 53 seconds.

After earning the 1-seed in the Eastern Conference in 2011-12, the Rangers made it to the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 1996-97, but they did so with a Freddy Garcia-esque smoke-and-mirrors act. The Rangers only won the regular season because of Henrik Lundqvist’s historical Vezina year and because of their amazing ability to come back and win games in the final minutes or minute or even second as well as in overtime and shootouts. They needed Games 7s in the first and second rounds to get past the 8-seeded Senators and 7-seeded Capitals to make it to the conference finals and once the the bounces stopped going their way, the Devils ended their season. The 2011-12 Rangers were never as good as their record suggested and they were never as deep as they were trick people into believing. That Rangers team was missing one player to move them over the top and that player was Rick Nash.

At the 2011-12 trade deadline I was willing to give up anything and everything to pry Nash from the Blue Jackets and that included Chris Kreider. I told WFAN’s Steve Somers my feelings about Nash and he disagreed, thinking that keeping an NCAA standout was better than making a move in a special season for a proven elite scorer. I told WFAN’s Brian Monzo my feelings about Nash and he disagreed too, but eventually came around to see that seasons like the Rangers’ 2011-12 one don’t happen to often and when they do, you need to be prepared to go all in. The Rangers weren’t. They waited and eventually landed Nash five months later in July, long after the Devils had eliminated them because they didn’t have another elite scoring option to turn to with Marian Gaborik playing through the playoffs with a torn labrum.

The Rangers needed all but one game to clinch a playoff berth in 2013-14 and then when they did make it, they needed to overcome a 2-0 series deficit to the Capitals and win another Game 7 against them to advance. They entered their conference semis series with the Bruins as the favorites and five games later they left as embarrassed losers wondering where the direction of the franchise was headed and if they would ever be anything more than a first- or second-round playoff team with Glen Sather at the helm. But it took that five-game loss to the Bruins for Sather to make the first of his two most significant moves in his 14 years with the Rangers.

It was a year ago Thursday, the day of Game 6, that Sather fired John Tortorella after he lost the team and inexplicably benched his supposed “good friend” for the final two games of the season. (I still believe Lundqvist told Sather he wouldn’t sign an extension with the team if Tortorella stayed.) On Thursday night while the Rangers were holding off the Canadiens and winning the Prince of Wales Trophy, I like to think that John Tortorella spent his night watching Game 6 at an Applebee’s in Massachusetts, where he was of course given a shot of Wild Turkey on the house after Dominic Moore’s goal and then given a few more when time ran out on the Canadiens’ season. And I would also like to think that Tortorella stumbled out of that Applebee’s with a stain from a disgusting low-grade meat rack of ribs on his shirt and into some minor league level strip club where he drowned his sorrows using money from the five-year deal Mike Gillis gave him in Vancouver.

From Tortorella’s firing, Sather hired Alain Vigneault, who was given what seemed like all the tools to win with the Canucks, but couldn’t, blowing a 2-0 series lead in the only Cup he reached in Vancouver. I was skeptical of the Vigneault hiring, wondering why the Rangers would want to immediately give a chance, and a five-year deal chance, to someone with Vigneault’s lackluster resume. And when the Rangers started the season 3-7-0 and were 20-20-2 on Jan. 3, I began to envy Vigneault knowing he would eventually be collecting checks from the Rangers while fishing or playing golf every day, laughing that he could get a five-year deal so quickly following the failures with the Canucks. But Vigneault stayed the course and stuck with his system as the Rangers slowly but surely adapted it and understood it and eventually the wins started to come the way they did for him in Vancouver. However it wasn’t until the most significant decision of Sather’s tenure as Rangers general manager when the season completely changed and that’s because the Rangers completely changed.

Ryan Callahan was never the face of the Rangers. He was a fan favorite in the way that any blue-collar player on any NHL team is beloved (kind of like the way Brandon Prust was in New York), but he was never the face of the team or the organization despite having the “C” on his jersey. If anything, he was the heart of the team, while Number 30 in net was (and has been and still is) the brain of the team.

When Callahan opened his negotiations with the Rangers last offseason by starting at eight years, $60 million, he traded himself. The Rangers were never going to pay a third-liner, first-line star money, even if they could afford it, but with Nash and Richards’ contracts and Lundqvist’s extension they couldn’t. Callahan wouldn’t compromise even as Sather’s offer stupidly rose and he came dangerously close to destroying the Rangers’ cap for the rest of Lundqvist’s career, so Sather traded him for Martin St. Louis. And with that trade, Sather transformed a team with a strictly blue-collar image into a team that could play a finesse style as well as play the defense-first, shot-blocking style the Rangers played since the Jaromir Jagr era ended six years ago.

Since the end of that era, while the team changed, the roster turned over, the coaches changed and changed again and changed again and Sather continued to pour money into aging veterans who couldn’t score and kept trying to build a young defensive core that couldn’t defend, Henrik Lunqvist remained the same. He showed up every game and stood on his head for most, single-handedly carried the team to the playoffs and gave the Rangers hope and promise that maybe someday he would be given the right team around him to play for the Cup, so he wouldn’t have a career that reminiscent of Don Mattingly’s.

I always worried that the Rangers would waste Lundqvist’s prime by making the wrong personnel decisions and believed it would happen after they didn’t trade for Nash at the 2011-12 deadline and let that season and the conference finals get away from them. I thought Lundqvist would be an old man and a shell of himself by the time the Rangers had the depth and secondary scoring and legitimate defense to win games without needing him to give up one goal or less.

I thought this team could be the team that could accompany Lundqvist to the promised land, but I didn’t believe it. And 22 days ago I started to wonder what Lundqvist must think knowing that Marc-Andre Fleury has won the Cup and played for it twice or that Corey Crawford’s name is etched into it. I envisioned Lundqvist one day giving a speech on “Henrik Lundqvist Night” at the Garden and his¬†achievements and accolades being announced by Sam Rosen with his Number 30 being raised and the rafters to sit alongside Mike Richter’s Number 35 forever without ever having had the chance to play for the Cup.

The way Game 6 ended felt right. The 1-0 win has become the textbook example of postseason success for the Rangers in the Henrik Lundqvist era where the team has asked him to stand on his head and protect one goal, so it was fitting that it was a 1-0 win that puts them in the Stanley Cup Finals. Lundqvist didn’t necessarily have to stand on his head the way he has in every other 1-0 win for this team, but he made the big save when he had to in the 18-shot shutout and he was given a lead entering the third period, asked to close it out and he did.

Over the last 22 days, Lundqvist has been himself. He’s been the same goalie he’s been his entire career even though people want to make this nine-game run out to be something more than it has been from the King. These are the same people who believe he has to win it all to prove himself in a sport with a 20-player roster in which he can’t provide offense or play defense as if he’s somehow playing golf or tennis. Now Lundqvist has a chance to end this ridiculous reasoning and end the unfair criticism forever. He has a chance to play for the Cup.

The Rangers are going to play for the Stanley Cup for the first time since I was in second grade. Right now it doesn’t feel real, but on Wednesday it will.