By David Hes (Marfar)
We take you back to the last game of the regular season for — the NY Giants. They were to play the hated Cowboys for first place in the NFC East and a guaranteed spot in the playoffs. Days before that game, I told other passionate Giants’ fans who, like me, live and die with Big Blue, that no matter what happens the rest of the way, playoffs included, this is the most important game of the season. It will determine whether this season was successful (if we win) or not (if we lose, perish the thought). The Giants won convincingly, although with a usual scare or two to which we are so accustomed, and as far as I was concerned, whatever success they were to have in the playoffs would be “gravy” because their season was already successful. No matter what, they improved from the year before and made the playoffs, when anything can happen. Each of the next four games had me excited with anticipation, but none, including the Super Bowl, left me feeling quite as nervous as I was before and during the Cowboys encounter.
Now for the Rangers. The most important games for the Rangers this season were Games 6 & 7 vs. Ottawa. We had not been able to move past the first round of the playoffs for a few years and, especially having attained the No. 1 seed in the East, we needed to justify our regular season success by showing we are good enough to win a playoff round, especially against the eighth-seeded Senators. Vancouver’s falling to the Kings in five would serve as no excuse.
The nature of the playoffs in every sport is that whatever weaknesses you showed during the regular season will almost invariably come back to bite you in post-season play. And sure enough, the lack of offensive firepower we saw too often during the season was starting to hurt vs. the Sens. We lost Game 5 at home 2-0 and absolutely had to somehow win the next two. If we lost either, the season would have to be characterized as a failure, despite our 109 points and top seed in the East achievements.
Well, you know the rest. The Rangers took over the second period in Game 6 with some help from the refs, as they scored the go-ahead goal on a 5-on-3 and then played a dominant Game 7, not reflected by the final score of 2-1, in front of a raucous crowd at MSG. And, yes, no matter what happened from this point onward, our season would have to be characterized as successful.
Our Rangers were outplayed in much of the series vs. the Caps, who I didn’t expect to be able to take us to seven games. After Game 1, I felt we had what it takes to beat the Devils, mainly our considerable advantage in goal. But Game 2 left me with the feeling that we would not be able to contain the Devils’ forecheck. I told my buddies we can only beat NJ if Lundqvist steals the series. He couldn’t and he didn’t. And despite John Totorella’s claims to the contrary, I thought the Rangers started to wear down as the playoffs progressed, probably due to their having to exert too much energy to win games all season long.
Where do we go from here? Rangers fans like myself have a lot to look forward to. In addition to top-notch goaltending presumably for years to come as Henrik is only approaching prime age for a goalie; three superb defensemen in McDonough, Staal and Girardi; two of the fastest young skaters in the league in Hagelin and Kreider; an inspirational captain who plays the game as hard as anyone and is equally capable in all facets of the game when healthy; and other skillful but still developing forwards, I love our organizational philosophy. We must continue to build with size, energy and youth.
My list of untouchables includes Kreider, who has yet to play a regular-season game and is the best looking Rangers prospect I have seen, having followed them since the mid ’60s. Add to the list Hagelin, Callahan, Richards, Boyle (concussions take time to overcome), Prust (invaluable as a checker and on the PK and must be resigned), McDonough (great already and on his way to becoming dominant), Staal, Girardi, Del Zotto (mistake prone but at 21 years old has a world of potential) and Lundqvist. I guess I should include Tim Erixon on this list as well.
Biggest needs? A Beukeboom type defenseman. Unfortunately, Michael Sauer who could fill this role, may not play again. Another scorer. Yes, Gaborik did score 41 goals but can he be counted on when the going gets tough? Despite gutting his way through the playoffs with a very painful injury, I’m still not convinced he’s a clutch playoff performer when healthy. I’m willing to part with any of my non-untouchables in a package for Rick Nash and to acquire another forward or two with proven scoring ability. And forget Zach Parise. He’ll play on Broadway over Lamoriello’s dead body.
As for our power play, quicker puck movement must be one of the main aspects of the game we work on during training camp. This will make our power play that much more effective, and allow us to clear our zone more easily when being forechecked 5-on-5. As we watch the Finals, quick puck movement is the reason the Kings aren’t being pinned in their zone as the Rangers were for extended periods of time.
The Rangers gave us many thrills this past season. Certainly I can go into the off-season with eager anticipation. My hope is that Mr. Sather sees his team’s strengths and weaknesses through similar lenses with which I view them.