Jungleland

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History is not kind to losers. History will not remember the 2013-’14 New York Rangers. The names of the Los Angeles Kings will be etched into the Stanley Cup ring, and eventually that ring, and those players’ names, will find their way into an eternal resting spot in the Hockey Hall of Fame. These Rangers will not have that luxury. There might arise a Wikipedia page detailing their abysmal start, the mid-season trade of a beloved captain and their improbable run to the Stanley Cup Finals, but that’s the best anyone can hope for now. Poetic justice means nothing on the ice, and even if these Rangers deserved to win the Stanley Cup, or at least to suffer a slower death than the five games they got against the Kings, they found themselves in this reality, in this dimension, with nothing but a stream of black-and-white ticker tape and the memories of a wild season to welcome them to obsolescence.

As I sit here, I am not even half an hour removed from having watched a rebound goal in double-overtime by Alec Martinez end the Rangers’ season. It was frustratingly fitting, really, the way that it happened. Henrik Lundqvist, the undisputed king of New York-area sports, made an incredible, acrobatic save, his defensemen were unable to clear the puck, Martinez was allowed in on goal and finished in dominating, decisive fashion. For much of these Finals, these playoffs and this season, if the Rangers lost, it typically happened in some variation of that fashion. It’s been the story of the last few seasons: when the Rangers win, it’s because of King Henrik, and when they lose, it is the result of missed opportunities, ill-timed turnovers and a lack of focus.

In truth, the Rangers weren’t even supposed to be here. After firing the boiling pot of oil that is John Tortorella following last season’s playoff exit, New York hired former Montreal Canadiens and Vancouver Canucks coach Alain Vigneault, who had directed the Canucks to a losing effort in the 2010-’11 Stanley Cup Final. The preseason foreshadowed difficulties which would haunt the team all year, as the Rangers went 2-for-22 on the power play in their last three games. Even so, they entered the season with high expectations but started 3-6-0 in their first nine games. Nothing was going right, and it seemed that, the Rangers would struggle even to make the playoffs.

If there was a cross-sport comparison to be made here, the New York Rangers’ season would most resemble that of the Indiana Pacers, but in reverse. The Rangers’ horrendous start gave way to a franchise-altering trade which sent away an important piece (Captain Ryan Callahan, New York’s answer to Danny Granger), and the acquisition of Martin St. Louis from Tampa Bay seemed to right the ship. Lundqvist, who had previously seemed uncharacteristically tactless in goal, returned to his stalwart ways, and the Rangers made enough of a final push to finish second in the Metropolitan Division of the Eastern Conference, earning a playoff series against the Philadelphia Flyers.

A hard-fought, seven-game series against the Flyers gave way to a hard-fought, seven-game series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, during which the Rangers recovered from down 3-1 to win for the first time in franchise history. The Eastern Conference Finals contained a fair share of controversy, from Chris Kreider’s dangerous dismissal of Carey Price to Derek Stepan’s broken jaw at the hands of a former comrade. In six games, the Rangers dispatched of the Montreal Canadiens and found themselves headed to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1994.

At that point, it became more than “we’re just glad to be here.” Fans, detractors and analysts figured that whoever came out of the Western Conference would be too strong, would score too many goals and had too good of a goaltender for the Rangers to stand a chance. As a Rangers fan, I didn’t want to believe it. IMG_3241 As someone who had watched plenty of the Western Conference Finals, I almost had no choice. The defenders were all too big, the forwards all too fast, the goalies (dare I even think it?) more prepared for the moment than King Henrik. It seemed unreasonable to expect anything but a slaughter.

For two games, I watched as the Rangers suffered at the hands of bad officiating, expert Kings puck-handling and a Lady Luck who found the City of Angels more appealing than the Big Apple. Bounces went the way of Los Angeles. Overtimes started to pile up, with fatigue setting in on everyone. Hot-handed goalies win Cups, and though Lundqvist had found his spark, he had also found his equal in Jonathan Quick.

For every save Quick made, Lundqvist had to make two. On three separate occasions in the first two games, the Rangers lost two-goal leads, though it wasn’t entirely due to their play. Injustice befell New York in Game 2, when a non-call on goalie interference allowed the Kings to cut a two-goal deficit to one, which they eventually erased and overcame.  A frustrated Lundqvist noted his disappointment in the officials on the goal after the game. The Rangers became listless in Game 3, surrendering three goals on home ice and looking as if they had already booked postseason vacations.

Game 4 gave hope. So-called “puck luck” finally seemed to be on New York’s side, with two separate potential game-tying goals halting on the shaved ice of the goal line after sneaking past Lundqvist. A hope which had felt so foreign after Game 3 returned. If it was any team which could unseat the Kings, it was the Rangers, led by a king of their own. The series returned to Los Angeles for Game 5, where the Rangers had played their best hockey anyway. “One shift, one period, one game” became the mantra. All they needed were a few lucky bounces and a spectacular performance from Lundqvist, which was to be expected, and the Rangers could bring the series back to Madison Square Garden with a Stanley Cup title reasonably within grasp.

Cue Game 5. The Kings struck first, the Rangers tied and led through power play and shorthanded goals before former Ranger Marian Gaborik, a symbol of recent New York playoff futility and failure to produce under pressure, re-tied the game, forcing yet another overtime. Four shots, two apiece, went off the goalposts in both overtimes. The players’ uniforms were all dark with sweat, undoubtedly adding to the weight they already felt given the situation.

It would take a Herculean effort from either team to finish off the other; if ever hockey resembled a classic heavyweight boxing match, this was the time. These two teams had beaten each other beyond oblivion. Though the books will read that this series only went five games, in truth, it actually went for almost six in ice time, and to fans of either team, it felt like many more eternities. When the final shot slid into the left side of Lundqvist’s impenetrable kingdom, it came almost as a relief. The inevitability of a Los Angeles Stanley Cup victory, a predestined end to all who cared to comment, came to fruition. A dethroned king, one without a crown, gave way to a swift one who now has two.

*     *     *

It has become painfully obvious in the wake of two lockouts over the course of the last decade that the NHL is the last and least of the four major North American sports. Ask a casual, all-inclusive sports fan about T.J. Oshie, and you’re likely to receive a response either running parallel to the plotline of Rocky IV or having something to do with Enterprise Rent-A-Car. What you probably won’t hear about is how he led a formidable St. Louis Blues team to the playoffs in the midst of a 60-point season.

What a lot of innocent observers will note, however, is that playoff hockey is among the best playoffs, if not the best outright. Every game becomes a testament to toughness, a battle of strength and composure which rewards cunning and punishes inattentiveness. The voice of Doc Emrick has been the soundtrack to so many spring contests between long-forgotten teams, and people clamor for more overtimes, more outstanding saves, more shorthanded goals.

This NHL playoffs season set a record, with 93 games played in total through all rounds of both conferences. The Rangers played two seven-game and one six-game series, ensuring a lack of rust along with probable fatigue. Their counterparts, the Kings, played three seven-game series themselves, including coming from down three games to none in the opening round against the San Jose Sharks. For this reason, maybe, the Kings knew better than to breathe any more life into the Rangers than they had in Game 4.

A friend of mine, also a Rangers fan, just texted me, “I hate being invested in sports.” The sentiment rings true with anyone who has lived vicariously through a group of young men or women on their journey to the pinnacle of their trade. For Rangers fans, this type of moment is rare. It had been twenty years since the fabled Cup run of 1994, led by Mark Messier. Two years ago, we watched New York’s wings melt in the sun against the New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference Finals. Tortorella overstayed his welcome. So did Gaborik. Captain Callahan had to go. When we came back against the Penguins, the light revealed itself at the end of the tunnel. This was our moment, finally. And yet, it so clearly wasn’t, not ever.

It isn’t just that Martinez’s goal was another ill-handled play in front of the net. It isn’t just that Gaborik, of all people, scored the tying goal. It isn’t just the clear injustices of Games 2 and 5, or any of the debatable ones in between. It isn’t just that 38-year-old Martin St. Louis played, and scored, on Mother’s Day following his own mother’s death just days prior. It isn’t just that defeating the Penguins felt like the ultimate victory, only to discover that the sweetest-tasting fruits lay ahead. It isn’t just that Brad Stevens has likely played his last game in a New York Rangers uniform, or that anointed savior and provider of goals Rick Nash contributed exactly zero points, not goals, in the Final.

It’s all of this, and the feeling that a window of opportunity has closed as quickly as it opened. With Lundqvist, all things are possible, but who knows what kind of changes, if any, the team will make to give him support. The Kings have had their time, Rangers fans selfishly and foolishly thought, and now is ours. Can’t the Broadway Blueshirts, probably the least hated of any New York-based team in sport, bring a championship parade to Manhattan? It’s only fair. It’s only right.

We were wrong.

Naturally, I shouldn’t be complaining. I am fortunate enough for the Rangers to have at least won a championship in my lifetime, even if it happened when I was barely cognizant and had much greater concerns. Maple Leafs fans continue to wait. In 46 seasons of existence, the Phoenix Suns have never won a championship. Bills fans watched their team reach four consecutive Super Bowls, only to lose them all. The Cubs, of course, are the benchmark of inefficacy. Really, I’m lucky, and for a team like this to have made it this far is a mark of serendipitous circumstance, and I should just be happy to have been along for the ride.

It is during times like this, though, that history is so harsh. The Los Angeles Kings won the 2014 Stanley Cup in five games: that is how hockey will choose to remember this season. Nevermind the valiant efforts of all their opponents, the Rangers included, or the countless minutes of overtime, or the shaved ice saves. The Kings re-assumed their throne, and the Rangers, like every other team in the NHL, retreat to an offseason in which they will think of the many missed opportunities, the tipped goal chances and key errors. As much as we want to believe in poetic justice, and as much as hockey stands next to soccer as the most poetically just sports, sometimes the best team simply overcomes everything else. What’s right is right, and what’s fair is fair, but above that, what’s good is good, and always will be.

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