“I lick my chops…”

Where to begin? Well, how about where we started the first round. It rings more true by the day…

“We can’t wait for warm spring nights on the Hicksville train station platform, useless white towels that we use to clean up our dogs’ piss, and insufferable trials of sudden death overtime. It’s all a part of what makes the NHL season so enthralling, as the temperature rises the season reaches a pulsating crescendo, and the smells of early spring and intensity of Garden crowds leave you knowing exactly what time of year it is. It’s playoff hockey and when your team is at the center of the madness, it incarcerates your heart and mind for its duration.”

How many times have you watched the third period of Game Seven? I’m at four, and with each viewing I gain a greater appreciation for what we experienced last night. I was concerned the absolute hysterics that engulfed the Garden in the final 12 seconds wouldn’t translate to TV, but it absolutely did. Winning a big game in the regular season is fun. You cheer. You high-five. You smile. It’s two points in the standings.

Winning a Game Seven in the playoffs. At home. In a one-goal game. That’s something completely different. I absolutely LOST my shit in the game’s final moments. And I wasn’t alone. It was an out-of-body experience, something I will never forget. I was there for the clincher versus Atlanta in Game Four in ’07 and while that was fun, last night was unforgettable. I’m so grateful I got to experience it with my family and several members of The Garden Faithful.

(Not to mention the postgame celebration at The Flying Puck. I know it’s a cliche, but the beer actually tasted like water. It’s amazing the effect a celebratory mindset has on your ability to imbibe alcohol.)

As for the game itself, it wasn’t a dominating effort by any means, but that’s who the Rangers are. They score a couple goals, defend, grind, block shots, and when pucks do get on net, they have the best goalie in the world there to stop them. It was the 2011-12 Rangers in a nutshell. Is it good for the heart? No, it’s terrible. Is it a winning formula? Through 89 games, yes, it is.

Certain performances stick out. Henrik was his usual brilliant self, but for me, Marc Staal had his best game of the season. He had been improving every game since he returned from post-concussion syndrome on Jan. 2, but last night was the first time he reached “lockdown” status in my opinion. He was a rock behind the blue line, not to mention scoring the game’s first goal in the second period.

And then there was Chris Kreider. Even the biggest “Chris” fan (he’s the first player in NHL history to be called by his first name in the locker room) could not have imagined him getting crunch-time minutes in Game Seven of a playoff series, but that’s exactly what he did. “Chris” was the Rangers best forward on the ice for long stretches of the game, winning loose puck after loose puck and showing speed that very few NHL players exhibit. When other Rangers forecheck they grind in the corner, fall down, get up, grind some more. When “Chris” forechecks he wins the puck and then just skates around the rink. He was playing at a different speed than everyone else last night.

There is no statistical or visceral way of measuring if Rick Nash would have a more positive impact on this team than “Chris,” but at the moment, Rangers fans have to be pretty happy they held on to this guy.

As Torts said following the game, “I lick my chops for the future for those two kids (“Chris” and Hagelin).” (What a dawg!)

Oh, and everyone criticizing Richards and Gaborik for being “invisible” last night should take it easy. Yes, it wasn’t their best games, but Richards was an absolute force in Game Six, quarterbacking the power plays that saved the Rangers season. As for Gaborik, he didn’t contribute much to this series outside of his Game One goal, but if the Rangers are going to play into mid-June, Gaborik will have his moment. Just be happy they won a series with him only scoring once. That bodes well for future round(s).

***

Enough about that, let’s talk about the Capitals! I’m absolutely thrilled the Penguins and Bruins are out, but no series the Rangers play the rest of the way will be easy. The Caps will be no exception. This may have been the worst regular season of the Ovie Caps playoff era, but sometimes teams like that—after a string of playoff failures as the favorite— go on their “run” when you least expect it (see: 2005 Steelers, 2006 Colts, 2006 St. Louis Cardinals). Those types of runs happen least frequently in the NHL, but it’s definitely a trend to be aware of.

Braden Holtby. I don’t know. Is he legit? Did the Bruins not get enough good shots on net? He did let up a couple softies. I saw him play with the Hershey Bears in November when they played the Whale. He spent most of that night being heckled by the 400 people, 200 of whom were drunk, at the XL Center, at times responding to their insults with a “I can’t hear you” look on his face. The Whale won that night, and I have a hard time believing the losing goalie from that night’s contest will be the man whom ends the 2011-12 New York Rangers season.

For that reason, I’m going Rangers in 6.

Everyone else on the blog agrees with my prediction (I nailed Rangers in 7 vs. Ottawa, by the way!), except the always pessimistic Jason Ward who says Caps in 7, stating they’re just a more talented version of the Senators with a better home-ice advantage.

I can’t disagree with his reasoning, and that’s why this series will be so entertaining/impossibly stressful and unenjoyable.

Before we finish, here are some wonderful similarities between the 1994 and 2012 NHL Playoffs.

-The Rangers were the 1 seed.
-The Rangers played the No. 7 seed Capitals in the 2nd round.
-The Devils won their first round series in 7 games.
-The No. 1 seed in the West was knocked out in the first round.
-The Penguins lost their first round series in 6 games.
-The last game of the first round ended in double overtime.

Let’s hope we can add “The New York Rangers won the Stanley Cup” to that list in a few weeks.

I’m Going to Cry: The 2011-12 NHL Playoffs

Please?

On Jan. 30, in this space, I wrote:

“We can’t wait for warm spring nights on the Hicksville train station platform, useless white towels that we use to clean up our dogs’ piss, and insufferable trials of sudden death overtime. It’s all a part of what makes the NHL season so enthralling, as the temperature rises the season reaches a pulsating crescendo, and the smells of early spring and intensity of Garden crowds leave you knowing exactly what time of year it is. It’s playoff hockey and when your team is at the center of the madness, it incarcerates your heart and mind for its duration.”

At the time I penned that graf I was a dreamer. The playoffs were not a reality, simply a faraway idea that was fun to fantasize about. Now, less than 72 hours away from the most anticipated NHL postseason of my life (I was just starting to wipe my own ass in April 1994), I’m terrified. I don’t want to think about it, let alone write about it.

My fear is not borne from the chance I jinx the Rangers—I wish I had that kind of power—but rather something much deeper. Something that I’ve never experienced in my 15 or so years following the Rangers: I’m in love.

***

There is no definition of love. It is one of the most ambiguous terms in the English language, a feeling and emotion that people can spend their entire lives trying to identify and feel. As it is often said about matters so visceral, when you finally experience it, you’ll know you’ve found it.

And that’s how I feel about the 2011-12 New York Rangers. I thought I loved the ’96-97 Rangers; I loved Bugs Bunny. I thought I loved the ’05-06 Rangers; I loved not having a losing team. I thought I loved the ’10-11 Rangers; I loved what I knew was to come.

The ’11-12 Rangers? I love them. I began falling for the team in late December, as 24/7 made the players “real” people who we could relate to. We saw them leaving on “business trips” saying goodbye to their wives and children, commuting to work on the subway, and eating dinner together how you do with your family and friends. They suddenly transformed from celebrities to ordinary dudes (well, most of them anyway; Henrik will always be royalty), guys you could relate to on an everyday basis. And then they started winning, kept winning, and did not stop winning. I’d be lying if I said winning doesn’t foster adoration, but in the case of this team, a five-seed and no home-ice advantage would not change how I feel about them. There were obviously bumps in the road, but those obstacles only made me love them more. I’ve never felt a team care as much about the fans as we do about them. With this team, I know the love is mutual.

“It’s been an honor to wear this jersey for three years… I mean, how blessed are we to be able to do it here in this city?… It’s a hard feeling to describe, you get goose bumps… The guys in this room, the fans, the city we are in, it’s pretty surreal sometimes. I gotta pinch myself. We are fortunate to be here.” –Brian Boyle

Case. In. Point.

***

Getting back to what I said earlier, yeah, I’m terrified. I ripped at least 20 nervous farts at work during the third period of the division-clinching game against the Flyers, so I’m downright scared to know what will happen in a playoff overtime. I’m getting that nervous pit in my stomach just writing this. Will the Rangers play too tentatively in a sudden-death situation? I can easily see them splitting the first six games of the Ottawa series, losing all three games in overtime. Ugh. See? I can’t do this.

With that said, I feel anything less than a conference finals appearance is a disappointment. If the first round plays out how many of us anticipate, with the Rangers, Bruins, Penguins and Devils advancing, there’s no reason the Rangers can’t win seven-game series against Ottawa and New Jersey. Once you get to a final four with Pittsburgh and presumably some combination of Vancouver, St. Louis, Nashville and Detroit, you can’t expect to win. You can be optimistic, but an expectation of victory would not be fair.

Reasons I’m Optimistic for a Long Playoff Run: Henrik, Callahan’s clutchness, Gabby’s consistency, Not Their First Rodeo mentality, stud defensemen, willing to play physically, effective penalty kill, home-ice advantage, gutsy team, great chemistry, respond well to adversity.

Reasons I’m Making Vacation Plans for Memorial Day Weekend: Henrik post-first round failures, lack of scoring depth, Torts giving Rupp big minutes, fatigue, referees, NHL rooting for Penguins, blocking too many shots, still too young, Torts outcoaching himself.

Will the positives outweigh the negatives? I’m not sure. Will my nervous poops outweigh the Stanley Cup? Probably.

Will I cry when the playoffs are over? Absolutely. Win or lose.

I’ll always love the 2011-12 New York Rangers.

First Round Predictions

Thomas Pock: Rangers in 7

Anson Carter: Rangers in 6

Jamie Lundmark: Rangers in 6

Petr Nedved: Rangers in 5

Jason Ward: Senators in 6

Ward’s explanation: Heart says Rangers, brain says Sens. The formula for regular season success of “grind it out hockey” will not translate to wins in the postseason. Spezza, Karlsson, Alfredsson, and Michalek trump the Rangers’ top talent. In tight playoff games I just don’t see the Rangers being able to put the biscuit in the basket when it matters.