(Editor’s note: our friend jpp is in Traverse City for the prospects tournament. He’s planning to send us some notes and observations during the tournament).
The Rangers are good, real good.
Believe it, BELIEVE in it, revel in it, & enjoy it.
This is the golden age of Rangers hockey that the ’90s Rangers team could have and should have been.
They say perception is 9/10ths of reality. And I know all too well how many Rangers fan and hockey enthusiasts consider the Rangers to be a middling organization, far more intent on putting together a team good enough to make the playoffs and cash in on the rewards of a few more home-game playoff paydays than in shaping and being a perennial Stanley Cup contender.
But I choose to look at the Rangers’ success since the lockout of ’04-05, and Henrik Lundqvist’s arrival in this way: during this era the Rangers have made the playoffs every year except the 2009-10 season — eight times in nine seasons. And this is not a perception; this is stone cold fact. Or reality.
I choose to look at how the team over-achieved as this core’s tenure as Rangers began.
They nearly took out the No. 1 seed Buffalo Sabres in the ’06-07 playoffs with a veteran team, getting major contributions from some no-name rookies named Dan Girardi and Ryan Callahan who infused a jolt of ballsiness that screamed, “I don’t care who you are, we’re here to play hard and win.” They had a three games to one lead on the No. 1 seed Washington Capitals in the ’08-09 playoffs, before the Caps made a goalie change which saved their season. Two years later they were a double-OT goal away from tying their series with the No. 1 seed Caps at 2-2, in a series where the tides had been turning before that Jason Chimera goal.
The next year they became the league’s example of how hard-work and will, and a “never take a shift off” attitude can turn a team with a puncher’s chance into the No. 1 team in the conference, one point shy of the Presidents’ Trophy for best record in the league. That team won two Game 7s and were an OT goal away from hosting Game 7 at MSG for a chance to play for the Cup. (A work ethic that three years later, many teams are trying to emulate; the Columbus Blue Jackets being the prime example of this style of play).
The next year, in a lockout-shortened season which wiped out their coaches’ all-important tone-setting training camp and which became with a team whose depth had been gutted, righted the ship, replaced some of that depth, and won a third seven-game series against the Caps after being down two games to none and three games to two before losing to the Stanley Cup runner-up Boston Bruins.
New coach, new system, a compromised training camp, a dreadful start, and questions about whether this team or the players were any good at anything other then playing defense and blocking shots. That team ended up as the second seed in their division, a team that beat a pesky Flyers group in seven games and went on to grace us with one of the most memorable and surprising comebacks in NHL history to beat Sidney Crosby, Geno Malkin and the vaunted Pittsburgh Penguins. The same team that beat the Canadians and the ghosts of the Montreal (not to mention the entire whiny Montreal media/fan contingent) in six games. A team that gave the Stanley Cup champion LA Kings all they could handle. Three double-overtime games, and some luck others would call horrible officiating, was all that stood between the teams, regardless of what the public opinion was.
That team is this team. This team is gearing up for another go around. The main group has already begun skating as a group on their own and the new-blood hopefuls kicked off their auditions last night.
I had the pleasure of getting to watch the come-up in person an awful lot. And there were very definitive reasons why I saw this coming, the Rangers becoming a perennial Cup contender. I’ll name three of them.
1) I knew then, we had an abundance of riches in defense, Staal and Girardi, Mac and Michael Sauer, MDZ. Young players who played top minutes against top players. At present, the Rangers and the Chicago Blackhawks have the top two defenses in the league, and I think the Rangers are soon to be the best defensive group in the league (which hinges on Marc Staal and the Rangers coming to a long-term contract agreement).
2) Because of their goaltending and defensive corps, the Rangers forwards started to believe that if they played a team defense, defense-first game which emphasized competing each and every shift as if they knew doing so would lead to success and their share of goals, and that belief turned into results and experience that sticks with them to this day. (No matter what team they are now playing for).
Combine those factors with the fact that the Rangers best players are young and are getting better, and their forwards are more offensively gifted then in prior years; and I repeat the Rangers are good, real good.
The proof is in the pudding, and the pudding tastes like this:
In the last three seasons the Rangers have won:
122 regular season games
6 playoff rounds
5 game 7s
In sports, you are what your records say you are.
Oh and before I forget, that third definitive reason for why I knew this was coming.
WE GOT HANK.
Photos by Getty Images.