I was fully expecting to post here in celebration of a Rangers’ win in Game 6 of the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but such was not to be. It was very clear from the outset that they were missing some key ingredient, the focus and energy they needed to win a game they had to win to stave off a miserable end to a moderately successful regular season and build on a quality performance in the first round in dispatching the Montreal Canadiens.
They frankly did not deserve to win, in spite of a couple of spurts of excitement for fans desperate for a bit of heart and effort, on home ice, in a must-win game. But whatever they needed wasn’t there. They just didn’t have the will. Ottawa, on the other hand, rose to the occasion, following their game plan to a T, making the blocks and scoring the goals required to win. The Rangers, alas, did not.
All day – actually, ever since they lost game 5 on Saturday afternoon, a contest they should have won, that they actually earned but could not nail shut – I’ve had a feeling of what could only be described as ambivalence. I’ve wanted to feel excited but there was something not quite right in my gut. And then I watched them come out in the first period without a lick of urgency and give up two goals without an answer despite three power plays, failing miserably to get through the neutral zone while playing defense like shredded linen. It frankly made me felt a little sick to my stomach.
Second period, I waited for the spark. It was sorely missing until more than halfway through the period, when finally it came, in the form of the team’s living sparkplug, Mats Zuccarello (who had earlier gotten bloodied by a high stick from his very best friend who now plays for the other team, earning four minutes of power play time that the Rangers summarily wasted), made a beautiful pass to Mika Zibanejad and the boys were on the board. But it didn’t take long for that happy balloon to burst when the best defenseman in the NHL – and in this series – Erik Karlsson made an all-world play to score the eventual winning goal after breaking up the Rangers’ two-on-one in his own zone.
There was a brief moment early in the third period when it looked like they might tie things up. Darian and I, watching side by side on the coach, in unison, screamed “YEAH!” when Chris Krieder did what we always want Chris Krieder to do (but which he doesn’t do often enough) and scored a gorgeous runaway-freight-train breakaway goal. But another failed power play and a tightening up by the Senators – who, it must be said, played exactly the kind of game they needed to play to win and were the better team all night – and time ran out on the Blueshirts. I was hoping that there would be some sort of karmic justice, where the Rangers would come back to tie the game in the last minute and then win in overtime, just like the Sens had done to them in Games 2 and 5, even though the Rangers were the better team in those games and deserved to win them. But the hockey gods had other plans for the Rangers, and the Rangers themselves couldn’t rise to the challenge. THE END.
I don’t like to watch the post-mortems when the Rangers lose, so I don’t know what any of them had to say for themselves. There was no explanation, no justification for an entire team to just completely choke, to be unable to match a stellar effort by the opponent with one of their own to put together a playoff game for the fans at MSG to remember. I’m sure I’ve written before in one of my many blog posts about the Rangers how mystifying I find it when an entire team kind of sucks simultaneously. Could no one – not one of the 18 skaters and one goaltender on the ice at any one time – put the team on his back and carry them forward in this most crucial of games?
I’ve noticed recently that I’m just not as enthusiastic about the Rangers or professional hockey in general as I used to be, even during this 2016-17 season when the boys had some good stretches of exciting hockey. But during the last couple of months, the Rangers were complacent, content to sit in the playoff position that would enable them to cross over into the “weaker” division. They started well in the first round; although they threw up a real stinker of a Game 3 in the Garden, they were able to find their collective heart and spine and string together three convincing, mature victories over Montreal. This second series against the underdog Ottawa Senators has been a different story, however, with the late-game defeats on the road (after having been such a strong road team all season long) even though they outplayed their opponents for at least 55 minutes out of 60. Problem was, it was those last five minutes that cost them.
I’ve begun to question the value of sports in general. I mean, I know it’s an entertainment alternative, just like movies, Broadway theater, opera and ballet, rock concerts and stand-up comedy jams – just another way for humans to enjoyably spend their time, attention and lots and lots of money. But somehow people get really invested in sports, identifying with the individual athletes and teams to the point of obsession. I’ve often described myself as a “die-hard Ranger fan” (what does that MEAN, actually, “die-hard fan”? That I’m willing to die for my team, like a soldier for her country?) When I was working full time and had more disposable income, I actually invested in a partial season ticket plan for a couple of years, ten games a year at the Garden. The seats weren’t great but it was a fun thing to do with my kid, who I had always wanted to inculcate as a fellow Ranger fan, and we got invited to events like a “Bowling with the Blueshirts” night and meet-and-greets with Rangers alumni.
I can’t really explain my diminished enthusiasm. There are quite a few players I like on the current team, and for the most part they had a good season. But there is some piece missing, some spark, that has made hockey not as much fun for me to watch anymore. Perhaps it’s because other aspects of my life have moved to the forefront and have left less room for things like listening to Marek v. Wyshynski podcasts or ravenously reading every article after a win. Maybe I fear they are destined to be an also-ran for the foreseeable future and their proverbial “window” has closed. I’ve loved Henrik Lundqvist for a long time and he is unquestionably the best goalie the Rangers have ever had, but for the past couple of seasons, there’s been something almost bratty and petulant about him. You can see it in his body language on the ice, the way he yells at his teammates or throws up his arms in frustration. I know it’s valued as intensity, and everyone says he’s the most competitive guy they know, but it’s beginning to bug me a little. And lots of other Rangers have failed to live up to their advertised potential (Rick Nash and Derek Stepan come to mind), or have outlived their usefulness (Dan Girardi and Mark Staal on the blue line, for example).
Ultimately, I am left disappointed, like I have been every year since 1994 and like I probably will be for years to come. So now I’ll pulling for the Washington Capitals, a perennial also-ran team themselves, although they have to get through the injury-plagued Pittsburgh Penguins first. But maybe the answer is to invest a lot less of my limited time in the New York Rangers. Hockey can be fun once in awhile, but I don’t have to live and breathe it anymore. (But check this space in October – you never know. I say basically the same thing every year.)