The National Hockey League Stanley Cup Finals begins tonight, with the New York Rangers at Los Angeles.
I wrote last week about my geographically unusual affinity for the Rangers, the result of being able to see Rangers games, and no one else’s, when I was growing up.
I was hoping the Stanley Cup Finals would feature the Chicago Blackhawks, which arguably are the NHL’s most popular team now, but the Hawks lost their conference final in overtime to the Kings. Though Los Angeles is no one’s idea of a hockey hotbed, the Kings won the 2012 Stanley Cup and figure to be the favorite in this series, for, among other reasons, their better record, which is why the series opens in L.A. tonight.
The Kings have one Wisconsin connection — their TV announcer. Bob Miller was one of the UW hockey radio announcers in the early ’70s. Miller left for Los Angeles after the Badgers won their first NCAA championship in 1973. (Proving once again that announcers’ careers are helped by their teams’ winning championships.) Miller was selected for the job by the legendary Chick Hearn, long-time L.A. Lakers announcer, who was asked by Kings and Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke to recommend a candidate out of a pile of audition tapes.
The Rangers have a more direct Badger connection, forward Derek Stepan, who played two years for the Badgers. (Stepan is also a second-generation Ranger; his father was drafted by the Rangers.) The Rangers’ most direct connection is probably former goaltender Mike Richter, who played two seasons for the Badgers and was the goaltender for the 1988 Olympic hockey team.
I detailed the Rangers’ history starting when I started following them. The Rangers for many years had what might be called George Steinbrenner Syndrome, except that it probably predates Steinbrenner — pick up name players and coaches, whether or not the acquisition improves things. One Stanley Cup-winning coach, Fred Shero (with Philadelphia), wasn’t able to win another. One Stanley Cup Finals-appearing coach, Roger Neilson, wasn’t able to win one in New York. Nor was Herb Brooks, of the 1980 gold medal U.S. Olympic hockey team.
The coach who did win a Stanley Cup, Mike Keenan, was in New York for one season. Keenan was of the improve-fast-but-wear-out-your-welcome style of coach, comparable perhaps to baseball’s Billy Martin (though without the legendary drinking problem). Keenan, who last month won a Russian league title, contributes his opinion:
Henrik Lundqvist is the reason the Rangers are in the Stanley Cup finals. And Henrik Lundqvist is the reason why the Stanley Cup will be coming back to New York and the Garden.
Lundqvist can win this series on his own. You need strong defensive play, you need timely scoring, you need special teams, which have worked well for the Rangers in the playoffs, but Lundqvist is the key.
I expect to see the best goaltending exhibition he has ever put on in his life. I have that much confidence in him — his leadership skills, his technical skills, his competitive skills, and he’s completely, as has the rest of the group, capable of doing whatever it takes to win.
Then I look at some of the experienced players. Martin St. Louis has inspired the group emotionally, through some of his own personal hardships, but certainly, he’s captured the room in the sense that he’s the emotional ingredient they perhaps didn’t have at the same level prior to his arrival. Not to say that Ryan Callahan didn’t have it, but St. Louis is on a mission.
St. Louis and Brad Richards have won the Cup, and that’s going to be critical because there’s going to be breaking points in every game, and in the evolution of the series itself, they will need guidance and confidence from the leadership group in the locker room.
Chris Kreider is a kid that’s come out of nowhere and continues to get better. Speed is a very, very important part of Stanley Cup championship, and Kreider brings a great deal of speed, he’s got size, he does get to the net.
Derek Stepan’s played well, Mats Zuccarello has scored some timely goals for them. They have a big centerman in Brian Boyle — he will be a big factor in this series because of his size and strength down the middle.
Rick Nash has got a skill set where he can be a game-breaker, and I’m sure that he’s up to that task. Nash has to be a big contributor here, not necessarily always scoring, but he has to create offensive opportunities that might result in somebody else getting a scoring chance or getting some goals. He’s a big, strong, determined winger, much like the wingers the Kings possess.
And belief can take the Rangers the distance, because that’s exactly what you need, you need a sense of mission. And they’re on a mission now, just as the Kings are. Our Stanley Cup team in ’94 had that same sense of mission, and it came right from the top players, from Mark Messier and Adam Graves, and I can start naming most of them now. There has to be that sense and confidence and the feeling that they’re capable of elevating their play. …
I coached against Alain Vigneault in Calgary a lot — don’t underscore his presentation. He’s a pit bull. And he’s a competitor. And it may not look like it, but his teams play like it. His demeanor on the bench isn’t as overt or demonstrative maybe as some others. Sutter’s pretty calming as well in terms of his presentation.
Alain’s going to make some adjustments on the bench and on the fly in Games 1 and 2 and find a way to neutralize as best he can the advantage the home team has with the last changes. …
Los Angeles has a great deal of championship experience in the core group. You look at the size and strength of their team, but that starts with the centermen, they’re really strong and deep down center, they’ve got some flexibility to move some of the centermen to wings if they want to shorten their bench. They’re big, they’re strong, they’re fast, they’re deep … and they’ve got a superstar defenseman, much like Brian Leetch for us when we won the Cup, in Drew Doughty. He commands respect of everyone that plays against him, and their goaltender Jonathan Quick is outstanding.
It won’t be enough.
Keenan points out probably the number one factor to success in the playoffs — the goalie. The other, if you’re not the team with home-ice advantage, is to win one of the first two to take away home ice advantage. The Rangers’ chances of winning the Cup improve greatly if they go to New York for games three and four tied 1-1 instead of down 2-0. In the Eastern Conference final, the Rangers improbably won the first two in Montreal, and went on to win in six.
Grantland has an interesting analysis of how the Rangers’ roster was built:
It’s been an inspiring run for the Rangers, who weren’t widely considered a Cup favorite when the playoffs began. The NHL is a copycat league, so there will no doubt be plenty of teams looking at New York’s success and trying to come up with a way to duplicate the blueprint.
But those teams will run into a problem: There doesn’t seem to be one.
No team is built by following just one strategy; every roster is pieced together in a variety of ways. But with most teams, there’s at least some tendency that stands out. This year’s Canadiens have been largely built through the draft. The Kings and Bruins draft well and then trade aggressively. The Red Wings specialize in finding gems late in the draft. The Maple Leafs trade well and sign horrible free-agent deals. The Oilers draft first overall.
But no such pattern stands out with the Rangers. A look down their roster reveals key players acquired in just about every way imaginable. If there’s an overarching plan in place beyond “go out and get good players,” it’s well hidden. And needless to say, whatever they’re doing is working.
It wasn’t always this way. For years, the Rangers were the poster child for the NHL’s big spenders, throwing dollars at the biggest free agents and using their wealth to pluck aging stars out of smaller markets in trades. And as we’ll see, they still do those things. But their ability to flex their financial muscles has been limited by the salary cap, and they’ve responded with a more balanced approach …
The blockbuster: Martin St. Louis
Martin St. Louis [as of the conference finals was] the Rangers’ leading postseason scorer. That’s not bad for a guy who wasn’t even on the team three months ago, and likely wouldn’t have wound up in New York at all if Lightning GM Steve Yzerman hadn’t left him off the initial Canadian Olympic roster. That move was reportedly the final straw that led to St. Louis requesting a trade — and then using his no-trade clause to specify New York as his desired destination.
Despite the circumstances, the former MVP didn’t come cheap. The Lightning did a good job of extracting value, including then–Rangers captain Ryan Callahan and two first-round picks. But it was an example of the Rangers doing something they’ve specialized in over the years: identifying another team’s star player who wants out, and then moving aggressively to make sure he ended up landing in New York.
It worked for guys like Eric Lindros, Jaromir Jagr, and (going even further back) Mark Messier. And it also worked for current Rangers winger Rick Nash, who came over from Columbus in a 2012 deal under somewhat similar circumstances.
The marquee free agent: Brad Richards
No NHL team has been as active as the Glen Sather–era Rangers when it comes to spending big money on free agents. The sheer volume of names is impressive: Bobby Holik, Scott Gomez, Chris Drury, Darius Kasparaitis, Wade Redden … whenever there was an offseason bidding war, the Rangers were right in the middle of it. And they usually won.
That held true again in the summer of 2011, when the free-agent class basically consisted of just one major name: Brad Richards, the former Lightning and Stars center who’d been about a point-per-game player over recent years. The Rangers were widely assumed to be the front-runners, and they got their man, thanks to a nine-year, $58.5 million offer.
The deal was a throwback to the team’s big-spending ways, but with a modern wrinkle — it was heavily front-loaded, with several low-salary years tacked on to the end to keep the cap hit low. Given that Richards was already on the backside of his career at 31 years old, it seemed like the Rangers were gambling on a few good years up front to offset the contract’s later seasons (and maybe also banking on a wink-nudge agreement that Richards would retire midway through the deal).
So far, Richards has largely lived up to expectations. His 0.72 points-per-game with the Rangers is down from his career average, but still in borderline first-line territory. But he struggled in last year’s playoffs and was scratched by then-coach John Tortorella in a move that made headlines and led to suspicion the Rangers would make him a buyout casualty. That didn’t happen, and so far Richards has put up 11 points through three rounds while centering the team’s most productive line. …
The robbery: Ryan McDonagh
Sorry, Habs fans. We have to talk about it.
When New York signed [Scott] Gomez to a seven-year, $51.5 million deal in 2007, it was easy to be skeptical just based on the Rangers’ track record alone. But Gomez was a well-respected player, posting solid offensive numbers and playing a reliable defensive game. He had two Cup rings from his time in New Jersey, and the Rangers were stealing him away from a divisional rival. After the first two years of the deal, though, some of the luster had worn off. Gomez had been fine, but at a $7 million–plus cap hit, his name was starting to crop up in the dreaded “worst contracts” discussions.
And that’s when the Canadiens stepped in, making an inexplicable deal to acquire Gomez that will go down as one of the worst in recent league history. In fairness, Montreal needed a center and had the cap room to make the move, and Gomez was still reasonably productive. With five years left on his deal, taking a chance on him was risky, but not indefensible. If the Canadiens were simply sending a few spare parts to New York in exchange for taking on what was left of Gomez’s deal, the move would have made some sense.
But instead, they negotiated a seven-player deal that cost them McDonagh, a former first-round pick and one of the team’s best prospects. By now, you know how that turned out. Gomez had one decent year in Montreal, and then hit an extended slump that at one point saw him go a full calendar year between goals. The Canadiens bought him out last year.
Meanwhile, McDonagh was a Ranger regular by 2010 and has established himself as one of the league’s best young defensemen.
The first-round pick: Chris Kreider
Conventional wisdom says today’s contenders need to be built largely through the draft, especially with blue-chip prospects obtained with high draft picks that often come from years of losing. A quick look through the list of recent Cup winners supports that theory — each of the last five champions, and 16 of the last 18, have featured at least one player the team drafted with a top-three choice.
But the Rangers apparently missed that memo, because their roster is remarkably short on their own first-round picks. Their recent draft history is littered with first-round busts like Hugh Jessiman, Bob Sanguinetti, and Pavel Brendl (plus one tragedy in Alexei Cherepanov). That’s left them with only three players on the current roster who were Rangers first-round picks: Kreider, Marc Staal, and J.T. Miller.
But while none of those players is a franchise-defining pick like Jonathan Toews or Drew Doughty, all three have contributed. Staal is a dependable defensive presence who logs 20 minutes a night, while the 21-year-old Miller has chipped in when called upon as a roster fill-in.
Meanwhile, the speedy Kreider missed the first 10 games of the postseason with a hand injury, but has been a steady contributor since returning. He’s had a pair if multipoint games and put up four points in the Montreal series. And of course, Habs fans will point to his collision with Carey Price as a defining moment in the series.
The late-round steal: Henrik Lundqvist
While the Rangers’ success rate with first-round picks has been underwhelming, they struck gold in the late rounds of the 2000 draft. That’s when they used the 205th pick on Lundqvist, a relatively unheralded Swedish goaltender. In a draft that featured NHL busts like Mathieu Chouinard, Brent Krahn, and first-overall pick Rick DiPietro, a total of 21 goalies had their names called before Lundqvist did.
He wasn’t the first goaltender picked by the Rangers — that honor went to Brandon Snee, who never made it past the ECHL. And he didn’t even manage to be the first member of his own family taken — that was his twin brother, Joel, a forward picked by the Stars in the third round.
Lundqvist didn’t make his NHL debut until five years after he was drafted, but he established himself as an elite goaltender almost immediately. He finished in the Vezina voting in each of his first three seasons and finally won the award in 2012. He seems likely to be remembered as the top goaltender in Rangers franchise history. …
The undrafted free agent: Dan Girardi
Lundqvist may have had to wait around all day, but at least he got his name called. Not so for Rangers’ alternate captain Dan Girardi, who went undrafted in 2003 and eventually signed as a free agent with the Rangers’ AHL affiliate.
He’s gone on to become a top-pairing mainstay in New York. In 2011-12, he made the All-Star team while leading the league in minutes, and has been a steady defensive presence over the course of an NHL career that’s now in its eighth season. Not bad for a guy every team in the league passed on. Girardi has some company as a key Ranger who went undrafted — forward Mats Zuccarello, who led the team in regular-season scoring, was also passed over. He didn’t even sign an NHL deal until he was 22.
Want a reason to root for the Rangers? Read about Dominic Moore, whose goal in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals got the Rangers to tonight:
There’s is nothing that can take away the pain that New York Rangers forward Dominic Moore has felt in the last couple of years, but what happened Thursday should have at least offered a temporary reprieve for the NHL journeyman.
Moore scored the only goal in the Rangers’ Game 6 win over the Montreal Canadiens, which clinched the Blueshirts’ first Stanley Cup Final appearance in two decades. By all accounts, it couldn’t have happened to a better guy.
For those unfamiliar with Moore’s story, he’s been through hell and back. He lost his wife, Katie, to a rare form of liver cancer in January of 2013. In a move that no one could blame him for, Moore decided to sit out the 2013 season coming out of the NHL lockout. The heartbreaking story was documented on an episode of ESPN’s “E:60″ earlier this season.
The 33-year-old decided he’d return for the 2013-14 season, and he signed with the Rangers in July. Moore has played for nine different teams during his career, but going back to the Rangers was a return to the team he started with when he broke into the NHL during the 2003-04 season.
Moore had a serviceable year on the Rangers’ fourth line. He appeared in 73 games, scoring six goals to go along with 12 assists. He helped add to New York’s forward depth — a big reason they’re going to play for the Cup starting Wednesday. He’s been even better in the playoffs, tallying three goals and four assists. His third goal, coming on Thursday night against Montreal, was the biggest of his career. …
One of the best parts about Moore’s story is that his teammates swear by him. Moore is close friends with all-world goalie Henrik Lundqvist, and Lundqvist was there beside him as Moore went through that extremely difficult time.
His other teammates have gotten a chance to see what kind of player and person Moore is over the course of the season, and you won’t find anyone saying anything bad about him. “To get that game-winner, it couldn’t happen to a better guy. He deserved that one,” Rangers forward Mats Zuccarello said, also according to NHL.com. “He’s been working hard all year and been a great teammate. It was nice to see him get that.”
Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault said Thursday night that he thinks Moore has been able to find “refuge” in going to the rink and being around his teammates every day. That certainly was apparent in Game 6.
There is, of course, a long-standing animus toward New York teams among fans of non-New York teams. (Similar to the long-standing animus toward L.A. teams among fans of non-L.A. teams.) The New York Post’s Mike Vaccaro writes a nice analysis of what happens when a Noo Yawk team is a winnah:
It is quite simple, of course: 20 years ago [Adam] Graves and three other names and numbers flanking him in the ceiling from his blue crew — Mark Messier’s 11, Brian Leetch’s 2 and Mike Richter’s 35 — won a Stanley Cup championship, outlasted the Vancouver Canucks in a gritty seven-game series, delivered generations of Rangers fans to the mountaintop…
And have been celebrating ever since.
Been celebrated ever since.
“It goes without saying that not a day goes by without somebody telling me how much that Cup meant to them,” Graves said. “But I’m not lying when I tell you that rarely a few HOURS go by without someone wanting to share that. It’s incredible, how much that means. And still means.”
Ours is a demanding town. Ours is an exacting town. We boo you when you strike out, and we kill you when you throw an interception. We are quick to fire you when we think you’ve lost your team, quicker to exile you when we think you’ve lost a step. Maybe it shouldn’t be that way. Tough. It IS that way. Babe Ruth was booed. Joe DiMaggio was booed. Phil Simms was booed. Clyde Frazier was booed.
But here’s the thing: we are also a town that will embrace you forever if once, just once, you prove yourself equal to our expectation. You win a championship? It doesn’t matter if you’re a star (Joe Namath, Eli Manning, Tom Seaver, Willis Reed) or a sub (Phil McConkey, Art Shamsky, Mike Riordan, Brian Doyle), you’ll never buy a beer in this town again, never buy a meal with your own money, and never walk more than two blocks without the love of a grateful city parting your path.
“Winning here isn’t like winning anywhere else,” said Reggie Jackson, who knew about winning like few athletes do. “It’s amazing, times a thousand.”
So that is what awaits these 2014 Rangers, if only they can win four games across the next 14 days in any combination, using as much or as little of this Stanley Cup final as necessary. For now, for many, these are just anonymous names found mostly in agate type — Moore, Zuccarello, Richards, Girardi, Boyle — with a few bold-faced names — ST. LOUIS! LUNDQVIST! — sprinkled in.
Get those four wins, though?
“Your legacy,” Graves said, “is written in concrete.”
Or in cloth. Graves was a terrific player, and he scored 52 goals for those ’94 Rangers; Vic Hadfield was essentially the same player. Brad Park (Hall of Famer, 14 All-Star games) had essentially the same career as Brian Leetch (Hall of Famer, 15 All-Star games, two Norris Trophies – without Bobby Orr perennially in the way, as Park had).
But Hadfield doesn’t share 11 in those eternal rafters, and Park doesn’t share 2 with Leetch. Why? Because unlike those ’94 Rangers, the ’72 club that captured so many imaginations and spawned so many hockey fans couldn’t seize on its one chance at the Cup, falling two games shy against the Bruins.
Make no mistake, that ’72 team and those players are still warmly received when they come back to the Garden, same as the ’79 team is. They are still cornerstones of the Rangers’ history book. But there IS a difference. Yes, ours is a demanding town. But you give us a reason to love you, we can become Tuscaloosa in a big hurry.
And we stay that way forever.
Pregame postscript: NBC is carrying game 1 of the series tonight. But NBC will not have its lead hockey announcer, Mike Emrick, due to the death of Emrick’s father-in-law. Tonight’s play-by-play announcer will be Kenny Albert, the Rangers’ radio voice, who also announces football for Fox. Shades of Ray Scott calling the 1965 World Series for NBC and the 1965 NFL championship for CBS.