by Jeff Yerger
Can you feel it – that buzz in the air? For the first time in 20 years, the air smells fresher, the sky seems bluer, and the sun feels warmer, because the New York Rangers are finally back in the Stanley Cup Final. Is this real life? How did we get here? It’s been such an incredible journey, and as Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault put it, if you told me back in October… hell, even four weeks ago… that the Rangers would be the hottest team in hockey playing for the franchise’s 5th Stanley Cup in June, I’d ask what you were smoking.
The elation we die-hard Ranger fans are feeling right now is hard to explain to someone who isn’t a huge sports fan. You might get some weird looks, a scoff, a “pssh, whatever”, or a “you can’t get a tattoo of Henrik Lundqvist THERE!” from people, but we know this is a special time and it’s truly a special feeling. The Rangers are in the Stanley Cup Final… I mean, just typing those words made me giddy. There is a buzz about the city and the tri-state area that’s usually reserved for the New York Giants every four years. You can’t walk five feet without talking about the Rangers or seeing someone wearing Rangers apparel. Just the other day, on the way into the city, my friend and I struck up a conversation with this random dude only because he was wearing a Brian Leetch shirt. We spent nearly 40 minutes talking about the Rangers and their magical playoff run. For those 40 minutes, the three of us were the bestest of friends!
Being a Rangers fan is like that. Once you discover that a person is a Rangers fan, they immediately become family. It’s cool, no worries, just as long as you know who Mark Messier is. Wait, you don’t? I’ll give you a minute to do a quick Google search. It’s okay, I’ll wait. [whistles and looks around aimlessly] … [checks watch] … [Googles Mark Messier anyway, gets lost for an hour watching Messier highlights on YouTube] … woah, sorry about that, where was I?
Yes, it’s a great time to be a Ranger fan, and if you don’t want to miss out on the Blueshirt Mania, there’s plenty of room aboard the bandwagon! But before you hop along, you’re going to have to know a few things first. So, I’ve decided to make the definitive Bandwagon Guide to the 2013-14 New York Rangers. Let’s get you up to speed…
At the end of the lockout-shortened 2013 season, the New York Rangers were in a bit of turmoil. They didn’t quite capitalize on the 2011-12 team’s success, and after losing to the Boston Bruins in 5 games in the second round, the Rangers management fired then-coach John Tortorella, and replaced him with former Vancouver Canucks coach Alain Vigneault. With this transaction, the Rangers went from a shot-blocking, defensive machine to an offensive and speed-minded philosophy. I’d like to tell you that it all clicked right away, I’d also like to tell you we were one of the top teams in the East this year, but alas, it didn’t quite go that way. The Rangers struggled adapting to the new system, which in hindsight, is understandable. Patience was needed, but Ranger fans are anything but patient. It was a struggle for this team, but around December and early January, things started to click. The Power Play finally looked like a Power Play, goaltender Henrik Lundqvist (more on him later) started playing like himself again, and suddenly, the Rangers looked like a contender. Well, at least a playoff contender. In March, the Rangers made a trade deadline deal to secure their status as a playoff contender, trading beloved captain Ryan Callahan to the Tampa Bay Lightning in exchange for superstar veteran forward Martin St. Louis, who, along with center Brad Richards, won a cup in 2004 with the Bolts. The hope was, with him and Richards reunited, their chemistry from 2004 would reignite.
The Rangers opened the playoffs playing against hated rivals the Philadelphia Flyers. It was a rough series, but the Rangers prevailed in seven (and it also produced one of the greatest hockey gifs of all time). In the Second Round, the Rangers were pitted against Stanley Cup (and Pierre McGuire’s) favorites the Pittsburgh Penguins. After winning the first game by scoring twice in overtime, the Rangers suddenly found themselves down in the series 3 – 1, after a pitiful game 4 in which the Rangers were booed by their own fans (we’re not always that mean, trust me… it’s tough love). Following that dreadful performance, the next day news came out that the mother of Martin St. Louis passed away unexpectedly of a heart attack. Despite a heavy grieving heart, St. Louis decided to join his Rangers team in Pittsburgh, and from there, the team bonded out of tragedy. St. Louis provided an emotional lift the Rangers desperately needed, and scored a huge goal in Game 6 at the Garden with his family present. The Rangers came back to defeat the Pittsburgh Penguins and move on to play the Montreal Canadiens in the third round of the playoffs.
Following an emotional second round victory, the New York Rangers came out swinging in Montreal for Game 1, scoring 7 goals in an arena that has plagued the team for years. They won the first two games handily in Montreal, and in Game 4, St. Louis scored a magnificent game winner in overtime to put them up 3 – 1 in the series. Finally, in game 6 at a manic Madison Square Garden, Henrik Lundqvist stonewalled the Canadiens in a 1 – 0 shutout, securing the Rangers place in the Final. It’s truly been a hell of a run, and the previous paragraphs don’t even come close to conveying the waves of emotion we Ranger fans have been enduring these past couple weeks. It’s been fun, but there’s still a story yet to be written.
Here’s some Rangers-related music you need on your iPod:
The New York Rangers Goal Song
The New York Rangers Victory Song
The 2013-14 Rangers Locker Room Victory Song (for some reason…)
Here are some players you need to know:
Ryan McDonagh – #27 – Defenseman
Nickname: Mack Truck
The lowdown: Since joining the Rangers in 2011 after we practically stole him from the Montreal Canadiens, Ryan McDonagh has become an absolute monster of a defenseman. Not only is the kid smart as hell defensively, but he can really contribute offensively (he has 2 goals and 10 assist thus far in the playoffs). Mack Truck is going to be a true star in this league. Look for him to continue to improve in the final round.
Mats Zuccarello – #36 – Left Wing
The lowdown: When he isn’t journeying across Middle-earth, Mats Zuccarello – a.k.a. the little Italian kid from Norway – is racking up points and creating plays like no other player on the ice. It’s incredible how well he can see a play develop. Perhaps the view at 5’7” is pretty good. The bite-sized forward will beat you with his speed and certainly isn’t afraid to fight the big boys.
Rick Nash – #61 – Left Wing
The lowdown: Despite being arguably the Rangers’ most skilled forward, Rick Nash hasn’t exactly lived up to the lofty expectations set by Ranger fans. Nevertheless, when Nash plays in the dirty areas of the ice and gets to the net as much as possible, he is an absolute force.
Derek Stepan – #21 – Center
Nickname: Steps or D-Step
The lowdown: If you watched the last few Rangers/Habs games, you might be wondering who that bionic man wearing that goofy obnoxious helmet was. Well, it was Derek Stepan, and here’s what happened: in the previous series against the Canadiens, his jaw was broken in Game 3 by former teammate and friend Brandon Prust after he blindsided Stepan with a vicious high hit. Stepan stayed in that game, despite his jaw being broken (though he didn’t know it at the time). He then had jaw surgery, missed only one game (!), and despite barely being able to talk and drink food from a straw, Stepan came back for Game 5 to score two goals. Hockey players, amirite?
Chris Kreider – #20 – Left Wing
Nickname: THE Kreider
The lowdown: Here’s another young budding star from the New York Rangers. Chris Kreider has 10 points in these playoffs (4G, 6A), but the kid has done a lot more than that. For a man his size (6’3”, 226lbs), he should NOT be allowed to be as fast as he is. And boy, is he fast, which is part of the reason the Rangers have been so successful in the post-season. Teams can’t seem to adjust to the Rangers speed, thanks to players like Kreider, Carl Hagelin, and Derek Brassard.
Brad Richards – #19 – Center
Nickname: Broadway Brad
The lowdown: Brad Richards has become the vocal veteran leader every good team needs. He leads both on the ice and off, and despite an inevitable buyout looming this summer that should send him packing and free up cap space for the Rangers, Richards is having quite a productive post-season run (5G, 6A). And to think it was only a year ago he was benched by Torts in the playoffs due to lack of production.
Martin St. Louis – #26 – Right Wing
The lowdown: Along with Richards, St. Louis has become another veteran presence in the locker room. As mentioned above, he has persevered through some pretty tough times this post season due to his mother’s passing. Yet, despite his slow adjustment to New York and his recent personal troubles, St. Louis has been arguably one of the best players this team has to offer, and he has given this Rangers team a huge emotional lift.
Dominic Moore – #28 – Center
The lowdown: If you should root for anybody this June, root for Dominic Moore. In 2012, Dominic Moore, while playing for the San Jose Sharks, left the team during a playoff run to be with his wife Katie, who had just been diagnosed with a rare form of liver cancer, a disease that ultimately ended her life in January of 2013 (you can view their story in an emotional video here). Moore did not play at all last season. Last summer, he re-signed with the Rangers (the team that originally drafted him in 2000). Today, Dominic Moore plays in the memory of his wife Katie, and along with Brian Boyle and Derek Dorsett , he is an essential part of the Rangers’ strong fourth line. On Thursday, in true poetic fashion, Moore scored the game-winning goal to send the New York Rangers to their first Stanley Cup Final in 20 years.
Henrik Lundqvist – #30 – Goaltender
Nickname: The King
The lowdown: Where do I even begin? Henrik Lundqvist, the biggest and best-dressed athlete in New York, has been the foundation of the New York Rangers for nearly 10 years. Did I mention he is also incredibly good-looking? Since first stepping on the ice for the Rangers back in 2005, Lundqvist has quickly become one of the world’s elite goaltenders. When Lundqvist is on his game (which is A LOT these days), he’s virtually impenetrable and he is on a whole other level than anyone else. Just take a look at his 2013-14 playoff stats: 12 wins (1st in the NHL), .928 Save Percentage (1st in the NHL), 2.03 Goals Against Average (2nd in the NHL), and a shutout (where he made this ridiculous save) to send his team to the Stanley Cup Final to boot. The only thing missing from his resume is a Stanley Cup.