I am not sleeping tonight.
As I begin flushing out this excretion of emotion, the clock is ticking towards 4:07 a.m. It’s still too early for the birds to start chirping, but it’s not nearly late enough to stop watching Derek Stepan’s game-winning, series-winning overtime goal. How many viewings is enough? It’s hard to say.
My Rangers fandom unofficially begins in the spring of 1995—the first playoff game I remember watching featured Alex Kovalev feigning death after a “slash” from the Quebec Nordiques’ Craig Wolanin, nullifying a Quebec goal and ultimately helping the Rangers win the game and series—and continues through today. There have been many great, if not ultimately dream-fulfilling moments during this time period. Adam Graves series-winning overtime goal vs the No. 1 seed Devils in 1997 is up there, the Rangers’ miracle Game 5 comeback vs the Capitals in 2012 is also in the discussion, as is Marty St. Louis’ Game 4 overtime-winner vs the Canadiens last season. They all hold a special place in my memory, but they also all pale in comparison to last night’s dramatics.
I can type the previous sentence with fierce conviction not because it was the team’s most important win of the past 21 years, but because of all that preceded it. This year’s postseason has started unlike any other in team history. The Rangers have played 12 playoff games and all 12 playoff games have been decided by one goal. There has been a devastating last-second defeat, a foursome of overtime winners, and most recently, a pair of matches in Washington where the Rangers were the better team yet scored one goal and lost two games. The No. 1 seed in the NHL, the team that was supposed to end 21 years of underachieving and close calls, was about to lose in five games in the 2nd round to an inferior opponent.
Game 5 was played last Friday night at Madison Square Garden. The Rangers were 101 seconds away from elimination when Chris Kreider finally solved the Capitals’ Rubik’s Cube of a goalie, Braden Holtby, with a shot that lacked any finesse or real intelligence, a simple one-timer that proved to be the impetus behind another 2nd-round, down-3-games-to-1, impossible-to-imagine-a-week-ago comeback. Instead of simply summarizing what happened after that Kreider goal, let’s look at the experience without a magnifying glass.
Sports are designed to break your heart. Each of the four major sports leagues in North America has at least 30 teams, all of whom put unimaginable financial resources towards winning a single trophy. The Rangers, despite their vast wealth and residence in the world’s greatest city, have won one Stanley Cup in the past 75 years. If it were not for their franchise-defining Stanley Cup win in 1994, the Rangers would hang out in the same dorm room as the Chicago Cubs, Toronto Maple Leafs, and every team from Buffalo and Cleveland. So when this current Rangers team racked up franchise-records of 53 regular season wins and 113 points, there was only one expectation for how the playoffs would end: Stanley Cup champions. With that established, to be so close to a season’s death, to have Game No. 100 of the 2014-15 season (preseason included) come down to a Score The Next Goal And You Live or Allow The Next Goal And You Die scenario, it cements Stepan’s wrist shot past the outstretched arms of Holtby as the finishing touch to the Rangers’ greatest win since June 14, 1994.
If you’re not a Rangers fan you may be thinking to yourself, “Bruh, they still need to win eight more games against teams that are much better than the team they just barely beat.” Your thought would be fair and factual, but it would not take into account the outpouring of emotion after Stepan’s winner last night. If you don’t believe me, watch the goal again, but look at the reaction of the crowd, not the players, after the puck goes in. It reminds me of a moment from last week right after Lionel Messi scored his 2nd goal against Bayern Munich, one that is analogous in its tournament-fueled importance to the goal Stepan scored last night. The camera moves to a pudgy, balding man in an Argentina national team shirt sitting in the last row of the 99,354-seat Camp Nou. He is screaming towards the Barcelona sky in pure jubilation and disbelief, looking as if his brain is going to melt and come pouring out his ears.
That’s how the Rangers fans look after Stepan’s goal. And as the normally understated yet dependably on-point Martin Tyler said after seeing the Barcelona fans in rapture, “Only football can make you feel like this.” Last night, only the Rangers could make you feel like this.