Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Final thoughts on the Rangers' Stanley Cup playoff run

At first, it hurts. When the team you love to root for is eliminated from the playoffs, the pain is immediate and palpable. And so it was on Friday, when the New York Rangers' season came to end that on one hand seemed inevitable -- given their 3-1 deficit in the Stanley Cup Final to the Los Angeles Kings -- but also sudden, in that the end came in double overtime of Game 5.

As playoff series go, this might have been the closest five-gamer you'll see; of the Rangers' four losses, one was in overtime, two in double OT. All games in the series except one were decided by a single goal. A bounce in off the post instead of out -- which happened a bunch of times -- and the victory parade could well have been down the Canyon of Heroes in lower Manhattan instead of Figueroa Street in downtown L.A.

That's what made this one tough to take for Rangers fans in the moments after Alec Martinez ended it, and the image seconds later of the Kings celebrating just feet away from Henrik Lundqvist, lying face-down on the ice in despair.

But even detaching ourselves a bit, just a few days later, it's easy for Rangers fans to look back on this season with satisfaction. They came a long way from a slow start by Lundqvist and his mates under their new coach, the easy-going  Alain Vigneault. The team responded to his calm, even-keel demeanor -- a far cry from his predecessor, John Tortorella -- and began to turn it around.

At the trade deadline, they dealt popular captain Ryan Callahan to Tampa Bay for the Lightning captain, perennial All-Star Martin St. Louis. I'll admit I didn't like the trade at first; I thought it would cripple the team's chemistry down the stretch (through the whole first half of the season, I kept telling anyone who'd listen how much the Rangers missed Brandon Prust). But the more I saw how the classy St. Louis carried himself, despite not being able to contribute on the scoresheet, along with the way his younger teammates looked up to him, I was converted.

Even more so after he lost his mother four games into their second-round series with the Penguins, with the Rangers trailing 3-1. The tragic event pulled the team together in a way Vigneault described as "profound," and they went on to beat Pittsburgh in seven games, then Montreal in six in the conference finals.

There is no shame in losing to a team as good as the Kings. All playoffs long, we kept hearing how much stronger, tougher and better the West was than the East. While their talent was evident, the gap between the finalists wasn't.

This Rangers team is one its fans can be proud of. They played the right way, were likable and they created a true buzz in the city. I can only imagine what the feeling for Game 6 would have been like if Game 5 went their way.

Some of them will leave. That's the nature of the game. The NBA is the only league that's set up for teams to stay together and keep their stars. The NHL, NFL and MLB are now year-to-year entities, which is why it's so difficult for championship teams in those three sports to repeat.

I'm also reminded of my dad. He was a huge sports fan (wonder where I get it from), and loved nothing more than watching the Rangers -- he had seats in the first row behind the glass for years at the old Garden. When I was a kid, he would quickly thumb through the newspapers every June -- he faithfully bought and read the Star-Ledger, Post and Daily News every day -- and then scowl, saying, "There's no hockey in the paper." 

Well, there was plenty of hockey in the paper this June. I know how much he would have loved watching all of it and how excited he would have been. 

The same way the rest of us were.

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