Sleepwalking into the Playoffs

I am mystified by the New York Rangers.

They had multiple opportunities to put what Coach Alain Vigneault calls the “checkmark” by their name as permanently in possession of a playoff spot, against non-playoff teams Carolina and Buffalo last week, but somehow fell into deep holes in both games from which they were not able to recover, despite turning on the boosters in the latter stages of  each contest.  If this is an indication of the Rangers’ thinking that they can just generate offense at will and score goals in bunches when they let inferior teams (let alone equal or superior teams) get ahead of them, well, I suppose these games have been “wake up” calls (although you wouldn’t have thought they’d need TWO “wake up” calls, but I guess we’re all guilty of pressing the snooze button occasionally).

Fortunately, they finally had some success against the lowly Columbus Blue Jackets and the limping Tampa Bay Lightning last night and tonight in back-to-back games, getting the checkmark and solidifying third place, but having blown home ice advantage despite being in second place for much of the season.  In fact, the Tampa game tonight started off perilously like the two games against Carolina and Buffalo, with the Rangers going down by two goals and being thoroughly outplayed and outshot in the first period.  But the boys found their legs, and Henrik kept them in it (as he often does), Derek Stepan has stepped up his game for sure, and Chris Krieder has emerged from the fog he’s been in all season to show some signs of the brilliance his physical gifts allow him, and they managed to put the Lightning to bed.

Unlike their closest competitors, the Penguins and Islanders, the Rangers had been reasonably healthy.  Well, at least to our knowledge – teams have a tendency to hide the bumps and bruises at this time of year; but as long as the boys can still lace up the boots and know which direction to skate in, they’ll be out on the ice for every game – and at least until last night, when our captain and arguably our best defenseman suffered some sort of “upper body injury” (i.e., RIGHT HAND) and is unlikely to be 100% by the time the playoffs begin next week.  And then tonight, in the waning minutes of a 3-2 game, former Ranger and current Bolt Brian Boyle used his behemoth body to shove Dan Girardi into the boards, which resulted in a groggy “G” having to be helped off the ice, looking much the worse for his collision with the boards.  But in general, missing key players due to injuries can’t be the Rangers’ excuse.

My mother used to recite a nursery rhyme to me when I was being a naughty kid:  “There was a little girl who had a little curl/Right in the middle of her forehead/And when she was good, she was very, very good/But when she was bad, she was horrid.”  The 2015-16 New York Rangers are the little girl with the curl.  They’ve put up masterful efforts (beating the Blues and the Stars, two of the Western Conference’s strongest teams, “in their own barns”, as Derek Stepan likes to say), assembling an impressive 26-9-4 home record through 80 games and sending the fans home happy most nights (except, of course, for the one night Darian and I were there and also one game that Darian went to with a friend; in both of those games, as if to spite those of us low-rent fans who can only afford to attend a couple of in-person games a season, the Rangers stunk up the place).

But when they should be revving up to head into the playoffs – the REAL season – as strong as they can be, with confidence, clicking on all cylinders after a season of getting their timing down and familiarizing themselves with one another, they suddenly got LAZY, careless, unwilling to show the killer instinct that teams need at this time of year.  Even King Henrik, usually a dependable stalwart, has looked somewhat disinterested and pissy.

Maybe it’s all a ruse.  After all, these same Rangers, with very few new pieces, have gone deep into the playoffs in four of the last five seasons.  They must have learned some lessons.  They MUST know what they need to do.  So maybe they’re playing a rope-a-dope game with their opponents, pretending to be less-than-stellar so they can surprise the Pens and the Caps, like “Where were THESE Rangers all season long?”  Well, clearly they were saving themselves for the playoffs.  That’s what I’m hoping, anyway, even if it might be a bit delusional.

Check back with me in a couple of weeks to see what kind of mood I’m in where Rangers and playoff hockey is concerned.  It’s so embarrassing to me that the Rangers’ performance has an actual effect on my demeanor and state of mind for the entire day after.  As I’ve said previously [“Hockey:  An Obsession”, 4/21/15 – note that it was around this same time LAST season, when the boys were well on their way to making me suffer on their way to being eliminated by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Conference Finals), being so invested in something over which I have ABSOLUTELY NO CONTROL borders on insanity.  But I wouldn’t have it any other way, and I’ve even infected my child with the same affliction (although she fortunately only has a mild form).

And I must admit, they have looked much better the last two games (or at least for 5 of the 6 periods).  Their special teams are sharper than they’ve been all season, which is a real boon, especially in the playoffs when the teams are more on par with one another and the coaches often engage in chess matches.  An opportunity on the power play – or, alternatively, a huge penalty kill – can make a huge difference in the outcome of a game.

As always, I’m looking forward to the “second season.”  Rangers beat writer Steve Zipay of Newsday quoted Van Morrison lyrics to describe the upcoming playoff season:  “You make it to spring / And there’s no bed of roses / Just more hard work and bad company . . . “ (Steve Zipay, “As always, expectations high for Rangers come playoff time”, Newsday, 4/2/16, http://www.newsday.com/sports/columnists/steve-zipay/as-always-expectations-high-for-rangers-come-playoff-time-1.11646333).  There are sudden death moments and epic one-on-one battles over the course of up to seven straight games against the same opponent.  The NHL playoffs provide some of the most exciting sports action of ANY kind, no matter how the Rangers fare, although of course I’m a believer!  If not now, when?

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