Wednesday, April 22, 2009
Ode to Royalty
Many times through the years I have walked into the hallowed ground that is Madison Square Garden. I've been there maybe five times for Knicks games, mostly because my parents aren't basketball fans and they have always been particularly expensive. Since for nearly all of the decade the team has stayed in the bottom, there hasn't been much incentive for me to go back, though I should be back next season.
As for the Rangers, I've been to many games I can't even begin to count how many times I've been there. The first time I went was in October of 1993 when they played the expansion Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. That season, my parents bought season tickets (I don't know if they had them in years past) but we ended up sitting in the 200s and the Rangers lost. A month later, I was in our rightful seats in the Blue Seats (for readers not familiar, the 400s) against Vancouver and the Rangers won 6-3. From that time on, I was a blue-seater for life and whenever I have gone to Rangers games, all but once (the night they retired Andy Bathgate and Harry Howell's sweaters and ultimately Tom Renney's last game) I sit where the real Ranger fans sit. Because my parents had the season tickets, they ended up going to all the pivotal games at MSG that the Rangers played in the 1994 Stanley Cup Playoff, which I'm still bitter about not going to any games.
I went to my first playoff game in 1997 when the Rangers played the Devils in the 2nd round. My mother and I went and we actually sat in different sides of the same section upstairs. It was a 3-0 win as Mike Richter continued to steal the series from the Devils which also included this at the end. The year later, the Rangers started their seven year playoff drought all while my family had mini-plans for much of the time. We had them the first year after the lockout thus we had playoff tickets once again, but the series was a sweep at the hands of the hated Devils and I didn't get to go to a game. Last season, I ended up going to Game 3 of the Devils series, but I went alone because I could only get one ticket that was affordable. That ended with a loss on a fluke OT goal of Marc Staal's skate. Fortunately, they won the series however, lost to the Penguins in the second round. By this point, we had stopped getting mini-plans and I was cut back to maybe 2 or 3 games a season that I would go to.
This season, the Rangers have given all us Rangers fans plenty of attitude swings. At the beginning, we were shocked that they started 10-2-1 because we didn't expect them to play so well after losing Jaromir Jagr and Sean Avery, among others. Slowly but surely, we would become more and more upset watching this team take the ice. They couldn't score, they didn't play with consistent effort night in and night out, they had no semblence of a power play to the point that we just wanted to avoid short-handed goals and we wondered if there was anyway to decline a penalty. We still looked good, until the start of the 2nd half. The Rangers started by losing 12 of its first 14 games after the All-Star break. As I wrote earlier, I was there when they lost in OT to Toronto in a maddening game which the Rangers couldn't do anything on offense, yet somehow force OT to string us along. It was pretty clear that night that the team needed to make a change. Tom Renney is a good coach, as is one of the main reasons the Rangers became good again, along with Jagr and Henrik Lundqvist. The day after, Renney was fired and the Rangers hired John Tortorella to take over.
He was inheriting a mess. Glen Sather once again showed everyone how much the game has passed him by. He let go of Jagr, Marty Straka, Sean Avery, Brenden Shanahan and signed Wade Redden, a former good offensive defenseman who either lost his talent or stopped caring after the lockout, to a six-year deal; resigned Michael Rozsival, who has been propped up by Jagr; signed Markus Naslund, a forward who's showed his age, to a two-year deal; and traded for Nik Zherdev, a gifted scored who doesn't care about playing. We signed Scott Gomez and Chris Drury the year earlier and they haven't proven worth the money and Henrik Lundqvist wasn't having a typical Lundqvist season, to the point that my father would always say they won't win with him.
However, Tortorella would prove to be important as he has made this team play closer to its potential. Before, the team seemed to always have a lull and there wouldn't be any response as they would continue to play bad. Now, the lull's aren't as abundant, though this team is still able to have a no-show any given night. The acquistions of Nik Antropov, Derek Morris and the return of Sean Avery have mostly helped the Rangers, along with the great play from Ryan Callahan, Staal and Dan Girardi, to make the playoffs as a 7th seed in a series with the Caps.
The inspiration for this article was Lundqvist. He didn't have his typical season, only having a 2.44 goals against average and a .916 save pct. Terrible stats, I know. I've been defending him all year as he has to deal with a poorous defensive, a impotent offense and the need to be perfect every night for the team to be able to win. The last week of the season, the Rangers needed two wins to make the playoffs and Lundqvist was phenomenal. After beating Montreal, he was absolutely brillant against the Flyers, the save of the game occuring in the 3rd period as Hank robbed Daniel Carcillo from the tying goal. He would carry his great play into the series with the Caps, facing the likes of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Semin. For two games, he was a thorn in the Caps side and the Rangers took a 2-0 lead. They came home for Game 3, the Garden excited and noisy and the Rangers fall flat on their face losing 4-0, despite another impressive performance by the King who kept them that close. But Game 4 would be different.
I found tickets and was sitting in section 426 in the last row. The good part about those seats is you can stand all you want. The bad part is that you can see the clock when you do. Now watching a Rangers playoff game at the Garden is a completely different experience as the 18,200 announced attendance is the actual attendance for these games, no empty red seats which you could see against Nashville. It's always good whenever John Amirante is singing the national anthem and it gets the Garden crowd even louder.
This would turn out to be the best hockey game I witness in person, or at the very least, the most exciting. The Rangers came out banging, hitting everyone in sight and taking the action toward the rookie netminder Simeon Varlamov. Soon, a fluke goal from a Paul Mara shot off John Erskine's stick made it 1-0. It was good to see Drury, who's playing with either a broken wrist or hand, come out hitting and taking advantage of a goalie who hasn't learned to play the puck by scoring the second goal. Then, King Henrik took over, as the Caps had all the offense pressure for the rest of the game. Hank made save after save, bringing the crowd to its feet many times, yell HEN-RIK over and over. Early in the 3rd, Ovechkin scored on an absolute rocket to make it 2-1, which I must sidebar and say that Ovechkin is truly an unbelievable talent, always skating, never taking off a shift, willing to take a hit to make a play and will give one as well. He hit the post that had to of bent the iron. Later on, Avery made two dump penalties to force Hank to face more pressure. As the seconds ticked down, the Garden crowd stood for the final minute, one apprieciating the effort Lundqvist and the Rangers gave and hoping there wasn't a late goal to tie it. It would never come as Hank stopped all on net and we held on.
Leaving the Garden, it was gratifying to finally watch the Rangers win, since it has been awhile. But after a game like this, you can't help but think about it, talk with people while walking down the stairs, honking horns, waving towels and just keeping a look on your face that has happiness, exhaustion and relief rolled into one. That's what the Stanley Cup playoffs bring if your team is there. That's why I get puzzled and irritated when people don't respect hockey, at least for the playoffs.
Back to the Rangers, they are leading 3-1 against a team that if we have a lesser goalie, we are swept. Henrik Lundqvist is the reason the Rangers are leading this series, and have a chance to win Friday night in Washington. He's taking the best shots from the young guns of the caps and is still standing and is one win from being the survivor and a date with the Bruins. So this is my chance to say to Hank, when I read people criticizing him, including my dad, thanks for being the goalie I know you are, a great one. And rightfully earning the nickname King.
The Knicks might get LeBron James in 2010. If so, King James would only be the second King, number one belongs to Hank.