You could say I've been spoiled growing up as a New York sports fan. My teams: the Yankees, the Giants and the Rangers, have all had varying degrees of success over the past two decades. I've never been a basketball buff, so I've been spared from the long-time suffering of Knicks fans. In my 23 years, the Yankees have won five World Series titles (three of which I can distinctly remember), the Giants have won two Super Bowls, and the Rangers finally captured the coveted Stanley Cup in 1994, after a 54-year drought.
Yet, I can't remember the Rangers' championship. I was only a year old. My father was lucky enough to witness that cup-clinching Game 7 at Madison Square Garden on a warm June night. The mix of excitement, anxiety, relief and jubilation gave him one of the most memorable experiences of his life. I couldn't share in that excitement, and I still feel that my sports "Mount Rushmore" is incomplete without a witnessing a New York Rangers Stanley Cup Championship.
That's not to say the Rangers have been the doormats of the NHL. In fact, they've made the playoffs in nine out of ten seasons since the lockout ended in 2005. They've advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals twice in past five seasons, including a thrilling trip to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2014, where they bowed out in in five games to the upstart Los Angeles Kings. I truly felt that this Rangers team was on its way to a Cup. I thought: They've come so close so many times; they've got to get it sooner or later.
The team's lackluster first round playoff exit this year proved me wrong. Facing the red-hot Pittsburgh Penguins (14-2 in their final 16 games entering the postseason), the Rangers offense disappeared, and all-star netminder Henrik Lundqvist was pulled twice in favor of backup Antti Raanta. Even more frustrating was the fact that Pens' starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury didn't play one minute in the series. Sidelined with concussion-like symptoms, Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan turned to two relatively inexperienced goaltenders in Jeff Zatkoff and rookie Matt Murray. The Rangers couldn't capitalize on what many teams would consider an extremely lucky break, and captured only one win against the two goaltenders in the series.
When the final horn sounded after a 6-3 game five loss on April 23, my frustration didn't give way to optimism. Despite the team's playoff success in seasons' past, I felt deep down that this year's Blueshirt squad wasn't like the others. They didn't show the same level of grit, they didn't have the same ability to bounce back from tough losses.
Perhaps this year's team was just fatigued. They battled back from 3-1 series deficits against Pittsburgh in 2014 and Washington in 2015. The playoff grind wears on every team, especially one that has played 61 such games since 2013.
Going into an offseason of uncertainty, there seems to be too many unknowns to count.
Where do I start?
What explains the mediocre play of defensive stalwarts Dan Girardi, Marc Staal and Ryan McDonagh? Can Chris Kreider and Derick Brassard bounce back from equally disappointing campaigns? Do the Rangers look towards trading underachieving forward Rick Nash, who carries a $7.8 million cap hit, despite scoring just 11 goals in 61 playoff games as a Ranger? What happens to unrestricted free agents like Dominic Moore, Viktor Stalberg and Tanner Glass? Does Eric Staal walk? Uniting with his brother Marc was nice to see, but the bromance may prove short lived. The Rangers gave up another prized prospect and draft pick for Staal, yet he's likely to leave the team in free agency.
Can the Rangers afford to re-sign power-play defenseman Keith Yandle, who will likely command more than $6 million on the open market? What about Kevin Hayes, who struggled through a sophomore slump after a promising rookie year?
Of course, I don't have answers to these questions. Head Coach Alain Vigneault's hinted at possible changes during his break-up day press conference. "There's no doubt, any time that you don't meet expectations, and you don't meet our fans' expectations, there are definitely going to be some changes as an organization," he said.
Perhaps Lundqvist himself summed up the tumultuous season best, adding, "It was definitely a year of more ups and downs as a group." Questions of age will start to creep up on Lundqvist as well, as he will be 35 years old by the time the Rangers make their playoff push next season. For a team whose goaltender is their best player, one has to wonder if the Rangers' window to win is closing rapidly as "King Henrik" ages.
For me, the lack of emotion was the most concerning aspect. The team leadership seemed rattled after losses, unable to explain what exactly went wrong. They recited all the usual sports clichés about needing to "bounce back" and "stick to our game" in order to right the ship. Yet, it never happened.
Notable was the Rangers' lack of retribution for Kris Letang's slash on Viktor Stalberg in Game 3 of the series. The Rangers had numerous opportunities to send a message to the Penguins that, despite Letang getting off without any discipline from the NHL, the Rangers wouldn't tolerate those kinds of antics. Yet, no ranger went after Letang. No one checked him into the boards, no one challenged him to a fight, no one even yapped at him from the bench. The stakes were high, and the Rangers were no-shows. They failed to play up to the blood-boiling intensity of playoff hockey. Heck, Dan Boyle showed more emotion cursing out reporters in his break-up day interview than the entire Rangers team showed all series (and much of the regular season).
Of course, the Rangers still have a solid defensive core, an all-world goaltender, and some quality young players that can build further on another 100 point regular season. The question is: Which players will remain on Broadway to see that rebuilding process through? I just hope it's not another 54 years before I finally see the Rangers hoist the Stanley Cup.