It is Canada’s game, played on frozen ponds and inside cozy rinks. But hockey has a smashmouth side. The game is gritty, boisterous and brash. The ice, the din, the horns — the prairie sport suits the city well.
And nearly two decades after players named Matteau and Messier last led the Rangers to the Stanley Cup, New York is falling in love again.
In a metropolis known for cacophony in close spaces, hockey ought to be more than a niche sport. The Rangers are making it so. They deposed the Washington Capitals 2-1 in a taut Game 7 at Madison Square Garden Saturday night, and they did so in a way that the locals loved.
New York fans expect their teams to win, and there was an appropriately overdog method in how the Rangers clinched a spot in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Brad Richards, signed to be a playoff hero, played like one. The $60-million man needed only 92 seconds to put New York ahead for good, as he beat Braden Holtby with a scalding one-timer from the left wing.
Henrik Lundqvist, arguably the best goaltender on the planet, displayed his Vezina bona fides. The lone Washington goal came after the Blueshirts took a quasi-comfortable two-goal lead in the third. Aside from that, the handsome Swede absorbed or deflected all the rubber that came his way.
John Tortorella, the most abrasive coach in hockey, lived up to his reputation with another frosty postgame news conference. But let’s try to heed his “request” to be left out of the hype surrounding the Rangers’ encounter with the rival New Jersey Devils. After all, his players are the ones who have gutted through two black-and-blue rounds culminating in one-goal seventh games.
Gotham’s spotlight should be theirs to enjoy — at least until Game 1 against the Devils Monday night.
“Everybody likes a winner, you know?” said veteran winger Ruslan Fedotenko, when asked to explain the city’s embrace. “We had a good season, points-wise. Everybody likes winners. Nobody likes losers. I think that’s it. We sacrifice our bodies, blocking shots. We go hard. We play physical, with (Ryan) Callahan and everybody else.
“That’s what I believe. That’s my opinion. But I guess maybe that would be a great question for fans.”
Perhaps a survey is in order. But the 18,200 of them stated their opinion quite clearly Saturday night.
In a big-event town, it was no surprise that the stars came out. Cyndi Lauper made a JumboTron appearance, swirling two white towels over her head. Jude Law was there. And John McEnroe, the most New York of them all, stood before the camera and unbuttoned his Oxford to reveal a blue T-shirt with the traditional R-A-N-G-E-R-S diagonal lettering.
The noise was constant — earsplitting in many moments, nervous at others, but perpetually there: A merciless cheer when Washington’s Brooks Laich fell in a heap after putting his leg in front of Dan Girardi’s laser, followed by heartfelt applause for their own Fedotenko when he did the same. One portion of the crowd took aim at Capitals star Alex Ovechkin with the unimaginative standard — “Ov-ie sucks!” — until they were rebuked by one of their own. “We’re not Devils fans!” the fan scolded his neighbors. “So shut up!” And they did.
The approval of a Manhattan crowd does not come easily, but the Rangers have earned it with equal parts toughness and flash. As the highest overall seed left, they are supposed to win, and the ability to meet one’s expectations is a valued and necessary trait for successful New York sports teams. Ask the Yankees.
“We have a confident group in here,” Callahan said. “We know what we can accomplish. We realize that if we stick to our game plan, we can play with anybody.”
The Capitals were a nice story. Ovechkin, the mercurial star, put his ego on hiatus for the betterment of the team during these playoffs, accepting less ice time in exchange for more blocked-shot bruises. Holtby was presented with the opportunity to clinch one of the greatest weeks in the history of North American manhood — become a father Thursday, win a Game 7 at MSG Saturday — and played gallantly.
Yet, the first shot Holtby saw (or more accurately didn’t see) ended up in the back of his net. It was a rude welcome for a young man who spent the vast majority of this season tending net for the AHL’s Hershey Bears. But that’s New York, right? There is no easing into it here, certainly not for a 22-year-old from Saskatchewan.
Now the NHL has been gifted a conference final that shouldn’t pose much of a challenge for the league’s marketing department: New York vs. New Jersey, megalopolis vs. suburb, big money vs. low budget, governors Cuomo vs. Christie (the prequel). For the patriotic among you, the respective captains — New York’s Callahan and New Jersey’s Zach Parise — might be the co-favorites to wear the “C” for Team USA at the next Olympics.
“It’s going to be intense,” Callahan said of the Rangers-Devils rivalry. “They always play us hard. We play them hard. It seems like there’s no love lost between us. It’s going to be fun.”
A Stanley Cup final between New York and Los Angeles could be one round away. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was unavailable to comment about that possibility, as he was likely busy turning triple-lutz, double-toe loops.
Still, Rangers fans would be wise not to take the Devils lightly. New Jersey is the fresher team, having played 12 games in this postseason to New York’s 14. The Rangers scrambled in their own zone far too often in Game 7, taking icings and tempting fate with an interminable shift midway through the second period. The Rangers were unable to get a fresh unit onto the ice because of the long change, and it seemed as if the Capitals were on the power play.
At times Saturday, the Rangers looked like a tired team. And they probably were. With less than 48 hours before the puck drops again, there isn’t enough time to recuperate.
But as the last skaters shuffled through the handshake line, the full-throated sellout crowd didn’t seem too preoccupied with the Devils. They clamored for something more, something they haven’t had since 1994, something that could soon return to the most hallowed indoor address in American sports.
WE WANT THE CUP! WE WANT THE CUP! WE WANT THE CUP!
In the city where life is a perpetual struggle to be heard, hockey is finding its voice.