I’m Feeling This

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.

 

 

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The Official Guide To Being A New York Rangers Bandwagon Fan, Part II

115279730The last time we put finger to keyboard in this space was more than two years ago. We did so in an effort to educate the Bandwagon Rangers Fan on how to properly support the team during the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals. Nearly 105 weeks later, we return to further enlighten your opportunistic, hockey-loving mind. The foe is different, the roster has changed, and the stakes are much higher. The Rangers now sit four wins closer to Lord Stanley’s Cup, which means, Bandwagon Rangers Fan, you must be a quick study. Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals begins Wednesday night at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. There is no time to procrastinate. Eternal happiness is upon us.

(If you think you recognize portions of the guide from the 2012 version, you are correct. Certain truths are forever. Martin Brodeur will always be the guy who slept with his sister-in-law, divorced his wife to marry the sister-in-law, thereby making his now ex-wife his new sister-in-law and his ex-sister-in-law his new wife. And he’s still fat.)

***

Allow me to begin by plagiarizing myself. I wrote this is in January 2012, and it remains the only time I will ever accurately articulate what playoff hockey means to a die-hard hockey fan. I hope it helps you understand:

“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.”

The NHL postseason is exhausting. It carries on for more than two months as it eats away at your personal life and crushes your professional ambition. It becomes the focal point of your existence, leaving no room for things like, you know, relaxation and happiness. So why do we do it? Why do we allow ourselves to endure it, let alone seek it out every spring? It’s very simple: The Stanley Cup.

It is the greatest trophy in sports. It carries the weight of 122 years of hockey history, and bares the names of some of the best athletes to ever grace North American soil. It is the only trophy whose name lends itself to a league’s postseason, and it is the only trophy from which you can drink champagne. That cannot be undervalued.

It is a truly beautiful, immaculate piece of silverware, and if you’re lucky Bandwagon Rangers Fan, you may see the Blueshirts lift it in a fortnight.

Now, let’s review.

New York’s hockey team is the Rangers. They are unique to New York. When people jump on the Rangers’ bandwagon they hop on it from a point of indifference, not from another team’s broken down procession. What makes it more tolerable, as well, is the fact the Rangers aren’t the Yankees, nor are they even the Giants. They have the class and nobility of those teams (Original Six club, wear classic uniforms, play in a famous building), but also have the tortured history of the Mets and Jets (one championship in the past 73 years). If you jump on the Rangers’ bandwagon during the Finals, you aren’t doing so with the expectation of winning a title; this is not a winning organization. Remember: You are a prisoner, not a front-runner.

So whether tomorrow is the first hockey game you’ve ever watched or you just want to go to a bar and get drunk and talk sports, here is your Official Guide To Being a New York Rangers Bandwagon Fan: The 2014 Edition!

Bandwagon Rangers Fan: OK, let’s start off simple. How many quarters are there in a game? How long is halftime?

The Garden Faithful: (Teeth grit)

Actually, before I answer that, let’s get the most important note out of the way: When Rangers fans chant goalie HENRIK Lundqvist’s name after a great save (this happens often), they’re chanting “HEN-RIK!” not “HEN-RY!” Take the extra gasp of air and get the “K” out. For me, that’s the easiest way to sniff out a fraud at The Garden. And someone I want to mercilessly punch in the face.

Back to your moronic question, there are three, 20-minute PERIODS in a hockey game. There are 17-minute intermissions following the first and second periods, so in effect, there are two halftimes. Unless the game goes to sudden death overtime (where the first team to score a goal wins), it will take a little more than 2.5 hours to complete.

Bandwagon Rangers Fan: Jeez, all right. What makes the Rangers a good team? Who is their best player?

The Garden Faithful: That is the easiest question you’ll ask. When the Rangers win, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Sure, there are world-class talents like defenseman Ryan McDonagh, but ultimately they are a hard-working, grind-it-out team who score timely goals and defend well. With all that said, they are nothing without their goalie, Henrik Lundqvist. He is the foundation, the impetus, the locomotive, the heartbeat, the living, breathing reason the Rangers are in the Finals. He is the best goalie in the National Hockey League, and if he wins this Stanley Cup, King Henrik, as he is called, will likely go down as the greatest Ranger in the history of the franchise (Brian Leetch is also in that conversation). He is an once-in-a-lifetime talent, the type of player you look at another team and think: “Can you imagine if we had a guy like him?” And if that’s not enough, he is the most beautiful man on the face of the earth. I don’t know a heterosexual or homosexual male or female who would dispute that statement. He is truly perfect. He has won two-thirds of the goaltending “triple crown;” a gold medal in the 2006 Winter Olympics, the Vezina Trophy in 2012 (the award for best goalie in the NHL), and is now four wins away from a Stanley Cup.

True Story (according to The Daily Mail in England): Lundqvist once dated an actual Swedish princess; HE broke up with HER. He has since wed and become a father. His wife and baby daughter are beautiful, too. Naturally.

Bandwagon Rangers Fan: What’s our starting lineup?

The Garden Faithful: No NHL team has a set “starting lineup.” An average NHL shift lasts anywhere from 18-35 seconds, meaning whoever starts the game is off the ice quicker than you can choose an Instagram filter. The only player who is a fixture in a team’s starting lineup is the goalie. Everyone else is interchangeable. The players a coach selects to start the game often have an underhand message or some greater meaning; it’s similar to choosing “captains” for the coin toss in an NFL game. Take, for example, the Montreal Canadiens starting lineup in Game 6 vs the Rangers: Michel Therrien, the whining ***** of a head coach of the Canadiens, chose to start Brandon Prust, the player who broke the jaw of the Rangers’ Derek Stepan in Game 3, and was suspended two games for doing so. Prust is nothing more than a third or fourth line grinder, a guy who played an average of 12 minutes and 49 seconds a game this season. Therrien chose Prust to send a message to the Rangers; he failed. The Rangers won and Therrien remains the guy the Penguins fired during their Cup-winning season in 2009.

So yeah, the Rangers don’t have a starting lineup.

Bandwagon Rangers Fan: Who is the team’s captain? Tell me about him.

The Garden Faithful: The Rangers do not have a captain. It was Ryan Callahan, but he was traded on March 5th to the Tampa Bay Lightning in exchange for future Hall of Famer, Marty St. Louis. Why would either team make that trade, you ask? Callahan was set to become a free agent following the season and was asking for more money than the Rangers felt he was worth. St. Louis wanted out of Tampa Bay after the team’s general manager, Steve Yzerman—who also served as Team Canada’s GM for the Olympics—failed to include the 38-year-old forward in the country’s initial tournament roster. Oddly enough, St. Louis said he specifically wanted to be traded to the Rangers.

Since the trade the Rangers have sported three assistant captains: forward Brad Richards, and defensemen Dan Girardi and Marc Staal. When the team was awarded the Prince of Wales trophy for winning the Eastern Conference this past Thursday, the entire team gathered around the trophy for a picture rather than the traditional one player posing with NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly. Expect a similar situation to unfold if they win the Cup.

Rangers_Prince of WalesBandwagon Rangers Fan: Their head coach?

The Garden Faithful: Alain Vigneault. He is the polar opposite of the team’s previous head coach, John Tortorella. Vigneault is calm and collected, rarely raises his voice and shows very little emotion on the bench. Unlike Tortorella, who was fired after last season’s second-round playoff exit, AV does not shorten his bench during the playoffs, as he consistently plays four lines of forwards and three lines of defense. He does not nail a player to the bench for committing a bad penalty, and will never throw a player under the bus in the press. He is truly a player’s coach.

Bandwagon Rangers Fan: Do they have a mascot? I LOVE mascots! Does he throw t-shirts to the fans in between periods? I LOVE t-shirts!

The Garden Faithful: No, the Rangers thankfully do not have a mascot. But yes, much to my chagrin, they throw out t-shirts. The closest thing the Rangers have ever come to having a mascot was “The Chief,” a legendary Rangers fan who from roughly 1971 to 1995 wore a full Indian headdress complete with Rangers facepaint, and would “wander around Madison Square Garden shaking hands, whooping and doing a war dance.” Chief retired sometime in the mid-90′s, citing the Rangers’ 1994 Stanley Cup victory as the reason for his departure. The real reason he retired, however, has never been confirmed. Some fans say the Cleveland Indians offered him a full-time job, others say he developed split personalities and joined a Native American tribe, while most claim he ran for New York State Senate, lost, moved to Florida and died in January 2012. None of these theories have ever been confirmed, although Wikipedia supports the last one. Or at least it used to; he now died in 2009. The poor guy never got to see Ryan McDonagh in a Rangers uniform.

Now, we have “Dancing Larry.” Prior to the first lockout (2004-05), Larry was known as “Homo Larry,” but thanks to people north of the Mason-Dixon Line coming to their senses, that derogatory nicknamed has faded away. While I personally despise him and believe he is a Mush, Larry is something of a rallying figure, as he dances to the song, “Strike It Up” by Black Box following the final TV timeout of the third period. Larry has had a rough postseason, however. On his final move—a backwards jump if you will—Larry has failed to stick the landing (twice!) and has nearly fallen down the stairs. He also smells terribly. I waited next to him on line for the bathroom during Game 4 of the Penguins series. The man reeks. But nevertheless, people enjoy his work.

Mush.

Mush.

Bandwagon Rangers Fan: What was the turning point of the season? Or have we always been destined for this?

The Garden Faithful: The Rangers were certainly not destined for this. They were an above-average team during the regular season and have rode Lundqvist and timely scoring to the Finals. For me there hasn’t been a “turning point,” but there have been moments that have saved the season. Three stick out to me:

Saturday, October 26th: The Rangers opened the season with a nine-game road trip. Heading into the final game of the cross-country tour, they had won just two games (one in Los Angeles, coincidentally) and had been eviscerated in several matches. It got so bad that backup goalie Marty Biron was forced into retirement after allowing nine goals on 47 shots in his two appearances. (Seriously, he now works for MSG as an analyst. It was sad.)

The final game of the trip came in Detroit on a rainy Saturday night. It was as close as you can get to a must-win in October, as the team was scheduled to play their home opener at The Garden on Monday night. Tied 2-2 in the final seconds of overtime, in a sign of things to come, Benoit Pouliot made a wet dream of a diving one-handed pass to send Derick Brassard on a breakaway. Brass netted his first goal of the season and the Rangers were saved from a chorus of boos at the home opener. As you can see from the team’s celebration, it was more than just your average October win.

Saturday, January 4th: After losing 5-2 to the Penguins the previous night, in a game where the commitment and effort of several key players were brought into question by the fans and media, the team responded with a 7-goal, 50-shot win in Toronto on Hockey Night in Canada. They never looked back, winning 13 of their next 18 games, as they slowly but surely locked up a spot in the postseason.

Friday, May 9th, Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals: The Rangers trailed 3-1 in a best-of-seven series against the Pittsburgh Penguins following a Game 4 loss at The Garden on May 7th. In what many hockey observers called “the worst playoff game (a team has) ever played, ” the Rangers played without emotion, somehow registering only 15 shots in what appeared to be the final home game of the season.

The following afternoon, as the team flew to Pittsburgh for Game 5, St. Louis’s mother, France, suffered a heart attack and died at the age of 63. St. Louis was notified after the team plane landed in Pittsburgh. He immediately got back on the plane and flew to Montreal to be with his father and sister. The Rangers prepared to play Game 5 without him, but on that fateful Friday afternoon rumblings spread throughout the locker room that St. Louis was flying back to Pittsburgh. The rumors were true: St. Louis played an excellent Game 5 and the Rangers dominated the Penguins in a 5-1 victory. Buoyed by the emotional lift St. Louis’ situation provided the team, the Rangers won Game 6 on Mother’s day at MSG (with St. Louis scoring the game’s first goal) and Game 7 on the road two nights later. It may be morbid to say, but everyone associated with the team will tell you the Rangers would not be where they are without St. Louis’ mother passing. It galvanized the team in a way no speech or on-ice moment could.

To read more about the Game 5 win, here is Katie Strang’s game story from that night. It is the best gamer I have ever read.

Bandwagon Rangers Fan: Who are WE playing?

The Garden Faithful: The Los Angeles Kings.

Bandwagon Rangers Fan: Who is their most hated player?

The Garden Faithful: In my opinion the Kings do not have THAT guy (although by the end of Game One, I’m sure we’ll find someone). No one on the team has a history of cheap shots or gooning it up, so I would say Jeff Carter and Mike Richards. Both are former Flyers and will always be infected with the Philadelphia virus. The Rangers historically owned the players that many 20-something-year-old Flyers fans referred to as the “Coke Brothers of Philadelphia.” Richard’s affinity for The White Line is so well-known that players openly taunt him about it during games.

Bandwagon Rangers Fan: Have the Kings played anyone good in the playoffs? I bet they’re so overrated, right?

The Garden Faithful: Yes and most certainly no. The Kings have won three classic seven-game series. They came back from a 3-0 series deficit to beat the San Jose Sharks in Round One (it was only the fourth time in NHL history a 3-0 deficit had been overturned), beat the team with the best regular season record in the Western Conference, the Anaheim Ducks, in Round Two, and just knocked off the defending Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks in Round Three. The Kings won all three Game 7s on the road, a task no team in NHL history had previously completed. They are big and fast with arguably the best defenseman on the planet in Drew Doughty. Their goalie, Jonathan Quick, is one of the tops in the sport, but he did struggle against the Blackhawks and is prone to allowing the occasional howler.

Bandwagon Rangers Fan: Let me guess: The Rangers and Kings got to the Finals by spending the most money. Typical big-market teams outspending everyone else. I’m really so si…

The Garden Faithful: No, you dimwit.  There is a salary cap in the NHL, meaning the Rangers can’t simply buy a championship. In fact, the NHL instituting a salary cap was good for the Rangers because it made them focus on scouting and drafting rather than signing old, overpriced free agents to monster contracts. Here is an unofficial list of the Rangers’ 12 most important players this postseason and how they got them.

1. Henrik Lundqvist (Draft), 2. Ryan McDonagh (Trade), 3. Dan Girardi (Undrafted free agent), 4. Marc Staal (Draft), 5. A seven-way tie between forwards Rick Nash (Trade…more on him later), Chris Kreider (Draft), Derick Brassard (Trade), Marty St. Louis (Trade), Brad Richards (Free Agent), Mats Zuccarello (Undrafted free agent), and Carl Hagelin (Draft)

That’s only one free agent! Despite not having won a Cup in his 14 seasons as the team’s general manager, Glen Sather deserves a lot of credit for the way he put this team together.

Bandwagon Rangers Fan: How many Stanley Cups have the Rangers won? Have they come close any other seasons?

The Garden Faithful:  The Rangers have won four Stanley Cups, most recently in 1994; it is the team’s only championship in the past 73 (hopefully not going on 74) years. The organization’s other Cups came in 1928, 1933, and of course, 1940. It’s not a proud history. Here are the other seasons in which they have come close, but ultimately ripped your heart out.

1950: Forced out of MSG by the circus, the Rangers had to play Games 1 and 4-7 on the road in Detroit, and Games 2 and 3 “at home” in Toronto. In spite of their nomadic existence, the Rangers led the series 3-2 after five games. The Blueshirts held two-goal advantages in Games 6 and 7, only to let the leads slip away both nights. Game 7 was decided in double overtime, when American Pete Babando netted the first Cup-winning, sudden death goal in NHL history. In the excitement that followed, Red Wings captain Ted Lindsay decided to hoist the Cup above his head and take a lap with it around the rink. No player had ever previously celebrated this way, and no player has failed to celebrate this way since. History was made at the Rangers’ expense.

1972: Widely considered the best Rangers team to not win the Cup, the Blueshirts boasted the franchise’s best-ever points per game average, earning 109 points in 78 games (this was before shootouts, too!). The team was dealt an awful blow when leading points-scorer, Jean Ratelle, suffered a broken ankle with 16 games left in the regular season. Ratelle would return for the Cup Final, but was a shadow of his midseason self. The Bruins and an in-his-prime Bobby Orr won the series in six games.

1979: Similar to this year’s team, the Rangers had an above-average regular season and rode a hot goalie (John Davidson) to the Stanley Cup Finals, beating the rival Islanders in a classic six-game series along the way. The Blueshirts won Game 1 of the Finals at the Montreal Forum prompting widespread belief THIS was it! It wasn’t. They lost the next four games.

Bandwagon Rangers Fan: When things go badly, who is the guy the fans turn on? There’s always that guy. Who is he?

The Garden Faithful: This is an easy one: Rick Nash. “Slim” has led the Blueshirts in goals scored in each of his two regular seasons in New York, but has been conspicuously absent from the goal column during the postseason. He failed to score in the team’s first 14 playoff games this season, and scored just once in 12 playoff games last season. Yes, he scored three goals during the Canadiens series (and his defensive play has never been stronger), but you never get the sense he is “back.” Nash looks weak on the puck, his shot frequently off-target, and most disconcerting of all, he looks disinterested in the offensive zone. Nash has only five goals in 36 career playoff games (compared to 336 goals in 783 regular season games), and has never scored a postseason goal at The Garden. If the Rangers have any chance of winning this series, Nash must score on both sides of the continent.

Bandwagon Rangers Fan: I always hear fans whistling at the games, and then they yell, “Let’s Run Trucks!” What the hell does that mean?

The Garden Faithful: They’re chanting “Potvin (pronounced “Pot-Van”) Sucks!” you idiot. Here’s your explanation.

FLOW.

FLOW.

Bandwagon Rangers Fan: If I’m ever in a social setting watching them play, what are some lines I can say to sound smart? And what shouldn’t I say?

The Garden Faithful: Good question. What you should say is…

If the Rangers are winning…”As long as Henrik plays this way we can’t lose!”

At any point in the game…”Gotta get the next goal.”

If Mats Zuccarello scores… “ZUUUUUUUUC!”

If Derek Stepan scores… “He’s been so much better since he had his jaw broken!”

If Rick Nash scores… “I told you he’d come around!”

If Rick Nash isn’t scoring…”Nash has been invisible! Where is he? Probably ordering more Mr. Chow!”

If they’re sitting on a one-goal game with 10 minutes left in the third period: “Where is the nearest toilet?”

If the Rangers are ahead 5-0 and dominating the game: …That’s not going to happen. Don’t worry.

What you shouldn’t say is…

“I don’t like Henrik’s hair.”

“I can’t find the puck (as you’re staring at your phone).”

Ever… “We better score in the third quarter!”

When NBC shows that bald guy standing between the glass at rink level… “That Pierre McGuire seems like he’d be a really trustworthy babysitter. I would definitely trust him coaching my adolescent son.”

Also… “Why has no one hired Pierre? It seems like he’d make a great coach!”

If the Rangers power play is struggling… “I really wish we still had that Del Zotto guy.”

If it’s tied late in the game… “I hope this doesn’t go to a shootout.”

On other players…”The Canadiens: That’s a team that plays the game the right way. So much class and honor. They NEVER complain or dive.”

If the Rangers take an early lead…”This is going to be easy.”

On the referees…”I just think it’s rude to chant “Assss-hole!” after a bad call.”

If the Rangers are losing late in the third period…”Oh well. It’s just a game.”

Bandwagon Rangers Fan: Fine, be a dick about it. Umm, do they have an official victory song? I need to memorize the lyrics!

The Garden Faithful: Yes, they do. There’s the Rangers’ traditional victory song (which sounds like it should be the music to a “Bugs Bunny Goes To Washington” cartoon where he waves to droves of adoring fans in front of the Washington Monument). It does have lyrics but you won’t have time to memorize them.

And during the playoffs, thanks to NHL.com’s spectacular locker room celebration videos, we’ve learned the Rangers love listening to Maxine Nightingale’s “Right Back Where We Started From.” The players undoubtedly discovered the song thanks to the greatest hockey—and arguably sports—movie of all-time, Slapshot. The London native definitely had hockey players in mind when she recorded it in 1975…

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The Garden Faithful: That’s all the time we have, folks. Please pass along this document to all the bandwagon Rangers fans you know. If you’re only now starting to watch our boys play, please do so with a good head on your shoulders. And follow us @GardenFaithful. We’re almost Twitter Verified!

Prediction: Tears. Uncontrollable tears.

You should love whatever Margot Robbie loves.

You should love whatever Margot Robbie loves.