Well Rangers fans, that’s it, another season in the books. It took some time for last week’s loss to finally sink in but what an exciting last few months it’s been for the fans. With the team forced into playing playoff type hockey since March, the intensity made it almost feel like ’94 all over again; well without the Cup of course. Still, looking back, do you think this past season was a success or just another dismal chapter in the franchise’s history? For me, once the pains of defeat finally subsided, I was able to look back on the season with fond memories and realize that the franchise took another giant step towards their ultimate goal of becoming a Cup contender. Don’t forget that for almost a decade it had become a habit for fans to just sign off on another failed season and begin dreading the start of the next. But there is something different about this year’s finale. For the first time in a long time both the players and fans are positive. In fact, there is more than just a positive feeling floating around Ranger Land, but there’s a quiet confidence and an excitement for what’s in store next season. During the team’s final interviews with the media last Tuesday, every player stated a genuine belief that the New York Rangers can compete as a serious contender for Lord Stanley’s prize next spring. This is music to fans ears. When was the last time that a Rangers player could speak confidently about the team’s chances for the upcoming season on “break up day”, and actually have the fans and the media believe them? Over the last four months something magical happened to the Rangers and their fans. During that span a genuine belief that the team could win began developing. And although their season came to an end after losing to the Buffalo Sabres last Sunday, the team’s work ethic and never say die attitude has kept that belief alive for next year.
Coming into this season the expectations of both the fans and the team were higher than they’ve been in awhile. Making the playoffs was last year’s goal and although a trip to the finals in June still seemed out of reach, the team was expected to at least make some noise in this year’s post season. But there were vast differences between last year’s team and this year’s squad. After seven consecutive seasons without a playoff appearance, the 2005/06 Rangers had one obvious goal in mind. With little pressure or expectations, that team was able to fly under the radar and create a winning attitude that would eventually lead them to achieve that goal. But still that team was a team built to make the post season, but did not have the necessary ingredients needed to make a serious run once they got there. When they were swept by the Devils in four straight games it was definitely disappointing, but it wasn’t shocking either. At no point in time did that Rangers team overcome any adversity. When the pressure was on, they folded. And because they had played so well at the start of the season their first “big game” challenges didn’t actually come until the final weeks when they had an opportunity to clinch the Atlantic Division title, but failed to do so by losing their final five games. Stumbling into the post season with little confidence and a list of injuries to key players, the Rangers were an easy victim for their rivals from Jersey. But at season’s end, even with their embarrassing exit from the post season, the Rangers had essentially completed their ultimate goal of reaching the playoffs.
Coming into this year with a few new faces and some added, and much needed, experience, the expectations for the team were much greater. Whereas last year’s team was built to make the post season, this year’s team was built for greater success once they got there. But the team started out slow and by the midway point it appeared that the club might miss the playoffs all together, while taking a step back in terms of its development. But after some key acquisitions in February and both the coach and the captain stating that the Blueshirts had what it takes to win, the team began to take charge. With everyone counting the Rangers out they began believing in themselves and managed to scrape their way back into the playoff picture. Game by game the team began playing harder and hungrier than they had in any of their previous. And by the final week they had clinched the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference for the second straight year.
Even with their impressive finale to the regular season many were still skeptical of how the team would respond in the post season against the South West Division Champion Atlanta Thrashers. But from the drop of the puck in game 1 it was pure domination by the Rangers. Despite what many critics had believed before the series started, the Rangers were able to apply the same game plan that had gotten them there and in return they were able to shock the Thrashers in a four game sweep. Even with their impressive first round victory there was still a strong belief that the Rangers weren’t as good as the victory indicated, but that Atlanta was just that bad. In the next round facing the Buffalo Sabres, who were the regular season’s Presidents Trophy Winner, and a team most considered the best in the league, no one gave the Rangers much of a chance.
After game one it seemed that the sentiments expressed in favor of Buffalo would hold true. The Sabres were showing to be too fast and experienced for the Rangers and it appeared that the Blueshirts season was coming to an end. Despite a much better effort in game two, the Rangers still fell short and headed back to New York down 2-0 in the series. It began to feel as if this year’s team was doomed to end its season the same way as the previous one. But like they had done so over the course of the past two months, the Rangers responded and won games three and four to tie the series, scare the Sabres, and reinstate a genuine feeling of belief amongst the fans that had been gone for a decade. It was at this point in time, following game four, that the Rangers reached a level of being recognized as a contender and began being taken seriously. The Sabres were still favoured, but the Rangers forced the hockey world to take notice and recognize that hockey was back in New York.
The modern Rangers would no longer let the notions of past failures define who they were and what they were going to try and accomplish. But like all great champions the Rangers would not be able taste greatness before they learned the art of defeat. The Sabres would battle back and win games 5 and 6 in exciting fashion and end the Rangers season. But for the first time in a long time, it was clear that even in defeat a decade of embarrassment was being omitted by the team’s courageous effort. In the end, the Rangers team that had taken a step back at the halfway point had now taken two steps forward while reinstating a winning attitude amongst players and a belief amongst fans.
Even without a Stanley Cup appearance this year’s season was still a huge success. For instance, when was the last time Rangers fans were proud of their team? When was the last time the Rangers ended a season fighting to the bitter end? For years fans prayed for a team that would play hard each and every night. A team that would believe they could win and were genuinely disappointed when they didn’t. Finally, after a decade of frustration the fans were granted their wish. Too many years went by where Rangers fans were disappointed in how their team lost, not because they lost. This team believed they could win the Cup even when everyone else counted them out. And even though they lost in the end, their goal from the start of the season was more than achieved. They not only made noise in the playoffs, they changed the attitude of the franchise and how it’s now viewed by outsiders.
The country club days for players in New York are over. The Blueshirts faithful finally have a team to proud of and hopeful for. We as fans were forced to suffer for far too long, and so now even in defeat, remember the strides this franchise has made. Remember back to the days when the quickest a Rangers player would move would be in the direction of their envelope on pay day. Those days are over. During the All Star break last February when the Rangers were slipping in the standings their coach Tom Reney stated that his team was going to try and forge a story that the people of New York would never forget. Just because they lost this year does not mean that the story is over. Its only just began. This year was just the intro and you can be sure there is plenty more to come.
Over the next few days, weeks and months I will be evaluating the season that was and the season that soon will be. There are many questions that Rangers management will be faced with this summer. Who should they sign, who should they resign, and how will any of these signings affect the teams youth movement? There is a lot to be evaluated and analyzed in the coming days. But for now just relax and enjoy what was a successful season. Things are bright on Broadway and the Blueshirts faithful has a lot to look forward to.
Please leave any comments and be sure to check out my other Rangers and hockey related blog entries.