Shh! Rangers can win the Stanley Cup but nobody wants you to know!
Flying under the radar in New York City, the media capital of the universe seems about likely as cows flying over the moon, yet somehow the New York Rangers, with the best winning percentage in the National Hockey League approaching February, have managed to accomplish exactly that.
The past Sunday edition of New York’s Daily News featured a column by Mike Lupica, currently the best-known sportswriter in NYC newspapers and also an employee of ESPN, stating that the struggling New York Knicks desperately needed the New York Giants to win the NFC Championship game to take the Big Apple’s media spotlight off of the disappointing, 6-10 Knicks. Lupica went on to write:
“Oh man, if they [The Giants] lose, that becomes a problem for the Knicks because then there is way too much sports down time between now and when pitchers and catchers report. At which point there is no good place to put the big-city spotlight except on Mr. Dolan’s fancy basketball team.”
I read this column thinking the obvious thought of, “Um, what about Mr. Dolan’s fancy first-place hockey team?”
For those uninformed, the aforementioned Mr. Dolan is James Dolan, owner of both the New York Rangers and the New York Knicks. A man who, just a week ago, made headlines himself by announcing to the press that the Rangers were “pretty close” to winning another Stanley Cup. Immediately after which, Rangers’ head coach John Tortorella took the mike and retorted, “I have my owner up here talking about a Stanley Cup. That’s a bunch of bull****.”
A cunning coach, both in on-ice philosophy and off-ice psychology, the last thing Tortorella wants is for opponents to circle the date they are playing his team, an instance more likely for a team whose owner is boasting of imminent championships. Thus, Tortorella had the gumption to admonish his boss and quickly douse any flickering flames of possibly perceived Rangers hubris.
Rangers hubris which, apparently, would go virtually ignored by the mainstream media, as personified by New York’s fancy Mr. Lupica.
Lupica rues “no good place” for the New York sports-media spotlight in between football and baseball except for basketball. Yet, the Rangers, like the Knicks, sell out Madison Square Garden for the entire season. And when was the last time the Knicks had a game watched by as many eyes either live or world-wide as this past month’s Winter Classic, in which the Rangers came back for a stunning and thrilling 3-2 victory against their hated rivals the Philadelphia Flyers in a packed-to-the-gills Citizens Bank Park? Well, the answer to that question would be a resounding never ever. Like many in the mainstream sports media, Lupica’s column spotlights only that the problem lies not with where to shine the sports-media spotlight, but with the writers holding that very media spotlight.
While this might be upsetting to fans of both the Rangers and of hockey itself, it is this very same anonymity which Coach Tortorella craves. If Tortorella has his way, the Rangers would not make the back-pages of New York tabloids until they win this year’s Stanley Cup, also a possibility which the coach likens to the fecal matter of bulls, but beginning to seem like a very real possibility.
The day before Lupica’s Sunday column, the Rangers had a Saturday matinee game in Boston against the defending Stanley Cup champion Bruins. The two teams were battling for the top spot in the NHL Eastern Conference, the Rangers with a record of 29-12-4 and 62 points, Boston with a record of 30-13-1 and 61 points.
The game lived up to its billing, a thrilling, edge-of-your seat affair which served as a microcosm for the Broadway Blueshirts’ stellar season. Arguably the best goaltender alive right now, Henrik Lundqvist sparkled in net, stopping 32 of 34 shots from the high-octane Bruins’ attack. Dan Girardi showed why he is deserving of Norris Trophy candidacy on the blueline with an absolutely amazing defensive game added to an assist in the second period. Ryan Callahan showed why he is one of the top young captains in the NHL, opening the scoring with his 16th goal and leading the Rangers shot-blocking brigade, as the team blocked a remarkable 22 shots in the contest. Marion Gaborik scored his 24th goal, the Rangers second of the game, which proved enough to send the game into overtime in Boston’s sold-out and raucous TD Arena.
In overtime, Boston’s Andrew Ference took the Bruins’ game-plan of roughing up the smaller Rangers too far, with a dirty hit from behind which knocked New York’s breakthrough, top-pairing defenseman, Ryan McDonagh, senseless and out of the game. Ference was served with a five-minute major penalty (and ultimately, a three-game suspension) for the cheap shot.
Instead of retaliating with goonery of their own, the Rangers responded in the best possible way, as Gaborik potted his second goal of the game with just 3.6 seconds remaining in the contest, vaulting New York to a 3-2 victory and the top of the Eastern Conference standings.
After the scintillating affair was over and the ice had cleared, any knowledgeable member of the sports-media could tell you one thing: these Rangers are legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.
In addition to Lundqvist, Girardi, Callahan, Gaborik and McDonagh, they are loaded with not just talented players, but players who play equally hard on both the offensive and defensive sides of the puck. Mark Staal, just recovering from concussion-related symptoms, is a top-pairing defenseman when healthy. Center Brad Richards has shown a penchant for scoring huge goals at opportune times. Winger Derek Stepan might be the breakthrough player of the NHL this year — graceful enough to thread a cross-ice saucer pass onto a line-mate’s stick-blade and gritty enough to go head-first blocking shots with the game on the line. As a team, the 22 shots the Rangers blocked versus Boston were not the exception for this tough team of Rangers, rather they were the rule.
The 2011-12 Rangers are proving to be a virtuous reflection of the great city they play in; a tough, lunch-pail group of grinders who refuse to back down to anyone or anything. They might not sparkle and shine in the spotlight like the Broadway they play a few blocks away from, but that is precisely how their coach prefers it. And if the Mike Lupicas and ESPNs and mindless mainstream sports media refuse to notice? They can just keep writing about cows flying over the moon, as the Rangers continue to fly under the radar while piling up victories.