And down go the Rangers...
Sabres 5, Rangers 4
Buffalo wins series 4-2
For the first time I can remember, I was glad to see the New York Rangers in the playoffs and playing well this season.
Growing up in Western Canada, home to hockey's purported "small markets," it's funny how the Blueshirts from Broadway came to represent the NHL's big-town baddies — the money-grubbing ghouls who took the Cup from the Canucks in 1994 and helped create the half-season lockout the following season.
That's a pretty silly, simplified way of looking at the marquee team in the United States' biggest market, but I think for a lot of Canadian hockey fans, that's the way it is.
Or was, anyway.
Not that it mattered, not for a long time. New York has been downright awful and out of it for most of the past 13 years since winning that lone championship, missing the playoffs for eight consecutive seasons before returning to the dance last year for a feeble, four-game exit at the hands of the Devils.
But without the benefits of hockey's biggest payroll, the Rangers have become somewhat of an underdog — and a (gasp) fairly well-managed one at that. GM Glen Sather has assembled a pretty workmanlike cast, especially on the blue line, and a few key additions in Brendan Shanahan and Sean Avery have dramatically increased the sandpaper content on this team.
Add in the fact that Jaromir Jagr, 35, had what was his best season in six or seven years after flaming out last April, and, well, there was a lot to like in New York this postseason. Add in a burgeoning star in goal in Henrik Lundqvist and a passionate hometown crowd packing Madison Square Gardens and that's a team I can get behind.
Or at the very least watch on television a few times a week.
Yesterday's game against the Buffalo Sabres, the top team in hockey, was a good example of these reborn Rangers, as even down 4-2 midway through the game, New York continued to press and crawl back into the game.
It eventually took a beautiful/unrepeatable redirection from Jochen Hecht with 5:10 remaining in the game to really take the wind out of the Rangers' sails (although a late marker by Michael Nylander made it interesting about two minutes later).
In fact, this series was so close that it took a buzzer beater of a goal by Chris Drury in Game 5 to keep the Rangers from taking a 3-2 lead heading home, a situation where you'd have to favour the sixth-seeded underdogs. Despite the fact Buffalo ultimately won in six games, this was as close a match-up as we'll see in Round 2, something for which coach Tom Renney and his club deserve at least a pat on the back for.
There was, for the first time in a long, long time, a lot of heart on display at MSG this spring, so much so that some of hockey's top pundits are now murmuring as to the possibility of Sather adding that one final piece — a No. 1 blueliner — and pushing his club into the 'elite' of the Eastern Conference.
Shanahan's the only key cog set to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, but given the year he enjoyed with Jagr and friends, my guess is he's there to stay for another go at it in the Big Apple.
And why not? Suddenly, things are looking up in New York.
These baddies are good again.