My column from The Journal News and lohud.com:
By Rick Carpiniello
Ten years ago, the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup.
Since then, a bunch of guys from that team have come through the Rangers — current ex-Bolts Brad Richards and Martin St. Louis, and others such as Vinny Prospal and Ruslan Fedotenko, and of course coach John Tortorella.
And all of them explained a similar phenomenon about that team in Tampa: They had no clue that they could or would win the Cup.
“It just all fell into place,” said Tortorella, who used the “no clue” phrase directly. “We didn’t think the year we won it, in ‘04, that we were ready.
“You never know.”
You don’t, ever. Often a powerhouse team wins it, far more often than an upstart. But even those powerhouse teams don’t know.
These Rangers are like those Bolts. You’d have had to be a know-nothing to really think, especially as this season started to unfold, that they could get a sniff of the Stanley Cup. Not with their virtually superstar-less roster. Not with the road here seemingly blocked by Boston and Pittsburgh. Certainly not after losing those three games in a row, the third in horrid fashion, to the Penguins.
But here they are. You never know.
The celebration going on around this team, too, is deserved. Remember, though, that it’s easy to forget teams that get to the final and lose — think Minnesota North Stars, Vancouver or, in more recent years, Edmonton and, yes, the Calgary team that lost to Tampa in Game 7 in ‘04.
This being the 20th anniversary and all of, well, you know, even that team didn’t know. Revisionist history says that Rangers team — an absolutely loaded roster that got better as the season transpired — was expected to win and had to win and did win.
But that’s not entirely true, either. That team was coming off a nightmare non-playoff 1992-93, a power struggle between captain Mark Messier and coach Roger Neilson, injuries galore and one of the gross underachiever seasons in NHL history. That team had roadblocks too — the Pittsburgh Penguins, who had won in ‘91 and ‘92 and were shocked by the Islanders in ‘93. The Detroit Red Wings, who would soon become a dynasty, went out in a shocking first round to No. 8 seed San Jose.
Before those blocks fell, and after, that team wasn’t a shoo-in. It started to run through the season in impressive fashion, and when Neil Smith made the James Patrick/Darren Turcotte deal that brought Steve Larmer and Nick Kypreos, it sure looked like a contender.
I started to write about that then. People scoffed. It’s the Rangers. Something will happen. For sure, you were never sure. Even goalie Mike Richter was suspect to that point, people not wanting to forget the long goal he had allowed to Ron Francis in Pittsburgh in ‘92.
When Smith made the spate of deadline deals — bringing in Craig MacTavish, Stephane Matteau, Brian Noonan and Glenn Anderson — I wrote that I thought they’d win it. More people scoffed. I was also contributing to The Hockey News at the time, and the guffaws from Canada were unmistakable.
Point is, that team won — and barely, having so many close calls in the final two rounds that easily could have gone the other way — and that team was far more of a sure thing than this one ever was.
This Rangers team doesn’t have Messier, Brian Leetch, Richter, Adam Graves, Larmer, Kevin Lowe, all of those veteran leaders and great players and overall size, skill or toughness. Heck, this Rangers team doesn’t have a forward who would be on the top line of that team.
It has progressed, though, and these Rangers have shown guts — far from perfect, but an ability to win the most important games.
This team is much more similar to Tampa in 2004 than the Rangers 10 years earlier.
It still doesn’t know. You never know.
The Rangers go back to work Sunday, after two days to enjoy their Eastern Conference championship and rest up their bangs and bruises (broken jaws, shoulder injuries, etc) before the Stanley Cup final.
They have not been on the ice since the Game 6 1-0 victory over Montreal. Sunday they return to their practice facility to begin preparation for either Los Angeles or Chicago.
“It’s … good for us to get a couple of days to recharge,” Henrik Lundqvist said. “I think, mentally, too, to let it sink in a little bit and enjoy it.
“Then you start preparing for the next challenge. We’re going to play against a really good team. It’s about, for us in the room, to remind each other that this is such a special moment that you have to grab it. You have to make sure you’re ready and play your absolute best. You’re not going to get that many opportunities.
“I’ve been here for nine years. This is my first final. Now it’s all about preparing the fright way and try to leave it all out there.”
When Brad Richards was asked the same question, he jokingly replied, “Yeah. Same thing.”
Photo by Getty Images.