By Kevin Schultz of SNY Islanders Point Blank
Easter came early this year, and for the first time in recent memory it didn't coincide with the other important April holiday on Long Island, Rangers Elimination Day.
There are two annual rites of spring in the New York hockey world; the first is the day that the Islanders are mathematically eliminated from the playoffs and the second is when the Rangers suffer an early playoff exit.
Of course, one of those plans didn't go as quietly into the night as it normally does this year. It took three rounds and 20 games — (cough) the Islanders won a Cup in 20 games or less three times (cough) — but the Rangers finally succumbed to being the playoff team we know and love.
But, like clockwork, you didn't let us lose too much sleep over it.
Sure, I bet you're thinking that sounds like sour grapes. But you know how many Islander fans will buy a T-shirt this summer that says 'we didn't make the playoffs?'
The same amount of Ranger fans that will buy a 'we got trounced by our rival in the conference finals' shirt.
Rangers fans can go on and on about how terrible the Islanders are — and they've been pretty bad — but all that's really backed up by is that the Rangers are really good at being mediocre. It's like Patrick Stefan and Craig Smith in an empty net scoring contest: nobody wins.
In New York, it all depends on how you prefer your lackluster hockey. If you're partial to Long Island, you like getting your inevitable disappointment done with early on in the season knowing full well nothing after Feb. 1 is going to mean anything. In Manhattan, you can have your hopes strung out for a while, grasping to those few straws of hope until an opposing team that understands playoff hockey puts the final nail in the coffin. Hockey season in New York is a lot like life; you're doomed no matter what so it's just a matter of how you go out.
Both teams have had their Stanley Cups. The Islanders had a dynasty that's historic but now well in the rearview mirror, with Mike Bossy now doing NY Auto Giant ads (yet somehow WBAB still plays the same music). The Rangers last Cup is now 18 years removed, something that even makes this 25 year old who remembers it well feel old. That means all the kids turning 21 and now of drinking age in New York likely have better memories of Bobby Holik and Theo Fleury than they do Neil Smith or Mark Messier. That one, lonely Cup getting further in the rearview couldn't be more of a welcome sight. It's easily one of the more annoying and totally bizarre of recent times (I mean f.f.s., 62 combined regular season and playoff goals from… ADAM GRAVES?!). It's that weird bizarro time in the hockey world when we all got tricked into thinking Neil Smith was actually competent…
(Cue obligatory visual aides)
The Rangers, let's note, lost to a team with a sparkly vampire on its coaching staff. Forget that 'Crosby is a vampire' meme because it was all a ploy to direct attention away from Adam Oates.
On a Tuesday night this past January, the Rangers beat the Nashville Predators 3-0 at Madison Square Garden. It was a notable game. That sentence has literally never been written about a January hockey game in New York.
You could be trekking out to the Coliseum through a blizzard to see the Islanders struggle to stay out of the basement, a yearly ritual on the Island. Or in the city, you may be braving the smelly, crowded humanity that is Penn Station to see the Rangers continually teeter on the edge of the playoff picture in their seemingly never-ending mediocrity.
But this year, this January, there was something special in the air. The Rangers were 10 games over .500 at home, had the most points in the league, and were excited about shutting out the playoff contending Predators (who had played on Long Island the night before but I'm sure back-to-back games don't effect performance at all) and what happens?
The King Himself comes down from atop the tower to show how proud he was of his peasants knights.
For the pertinent quotes, please allow me to defer to the Times' SBJ/SBD's Chris Botta:
The giddiness over the league-leading Rangers' latest victory, 3-0 over Nashville on Tuesday night, led to an impromptu cameo appearance by the team owner James L. Dolan at Coach John Tortorella's postgame news conference.
An overjoyed Dolan said he was "proud" of the organization, particularly of General Manager Glen Sather — "Mr. Sather," Dolan called him — for his rebuilding efforts after failed free-agent signings. Dolan shared a story: a few years ago, he gave Sather a gift (he would not say what it was). Dolan told Sather to return it to him after the Rangers won the Stanley Cup.
"I think we're pretty close to getting that thing back," Dolan said of the gift.
With visions of 1994 dancing in his head, the owner who had managed to keep his hands off the day-to-day of the Rangers couldn't help himself. Knicks fans know the drill all too well. The Knickerbockers are the favored team in the MSG hierarchy and it shows with how much Dolan meddles in the team's operations (see: Hiring and persistent lack of firing of Thomas, Isaiah and Trade for Anthony, Carmello). Somewhere along the line, Dolan realized the Rangers were best left to hockey guys or just got bored with the whole thing and after getting it wrong a dozen times, Sather finally did build the team right.
Sather built from the draft instead of throwing crazy money at every free agent ever as he did for nearly a decade. Old dogs learn slightly new tricks… Eventually. Maybe. He only threw money at a select group of free agents, many of whom panned out (Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik), and his most important home-grown players (Henrik Lundqvist and Ryan Callahan). But there were still the awful free agent signings that the Rangers always had mixed in (Chris Drury, Scott Gomez and Wade Redden to be specific). The difference was (#1) this time the supporting cast was good enough to get the job done anyway and (#2) Sather was able to get rid of his mistakes.
Sather convinced Chris Drury playing golf year-round was a great idea and a lot better than weighing the Rangers down another year. Lastly, how can we forget, Sather got Bob Gainey to take Scott Gomez and that absurd contract off his hands and even got Ryan McDonagh in return. (Oh man, remember that one time when Chris Higgins was the centerpiece of a trade?).
Things continued falling into place. Tom Renney got run out of town and it turns out John Tortorella was just what the doctor ordered, even if Sean Avery's return wasn't. This year, Avery was optioned to the Whale and eventually retired leading to this picture, which I don't even need to caption.
They made it past the 7th and 8th seeds in the conference. Vancouver and Boston can't say that!
And so ends the worst playoff season I've had to endure in a long time. Ratings may be up but this was excruciating to watch. Having to endure four Atlantic Division teams not named the Islanders making the playoffs, hordes of drunk (and more often than not angry) Ranger fans in Penn Station during my commute home and Mike Milbury still, somehow, someway on my television set (seriously, he's the NHL's version of Matt Millen except Millen admits his follies and doesn't go off the handle every other day) this has been the worst playoffs ever.
Well I shouldn't use hyperbole. It's not the worst ever. That title goes to 1994.
But the Rangers will be back next year and will be just as good. There's no one on the roster they should be overly concerned about when it comes to free agency. They've got a great core of young players — Chris Krieder practically got them through the second round by himself — and were absolutely the best team in the league when they had a lead (and no, I'm not going to bother looking up any statistics to prove that one since this is a roast).
The media will continue to playfully bat their eyes at John Tortorella's every word — all three of his words — and King Henrik will still carry them through at least 5,000 games a year. God help them if Lundqvist ever turns into an average goaltender.
And as is tradition in the New York hockey world, Marty Brodeur always gets the last laugh.Jimmy Wellington
(Ed. Note: Blah blah blah should have been a Devils fan … please recall we ask bloggers for the Eulogies before the playoffs, and Schultz is friggin' hilarious. So there.)
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