For the diehard Rangers fan, this recent audition for the future has been fun.
Neal Pionk, Rob O’Gara, John Gilmour and Ryan Sproul had their struggles, then showed enough progress to suggest a keeper or two just might come out of this revamped defense corps. Highly touted forwards Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil have shown flashes while also suffering through the adjustments to the NHL game in their limited action. Jimmy Vesey may have shown just enough to keep the club from giving up on him as a future top-nine forward.
And Chris Kreider’s late-season rise might suggest he’s a new player, with a changed approach and outlook on his career after a health scare that could have cost him more than his ability to play hockey.
All of that, however, goes away three games from now, as Madison Square Garden won’t host a Rangers playoff game for the first spring since 2010.
What do for the dyed-in-the-wool Blueshirt fan then? Trade up to a lighter shade of blue for a couple of months, of course.
Yes, it’s OK for the Rangers faithful to jump on board the Tampa Bay Lightning bandwagon. There’s no reason not to honor the past before moving on to the future.
There doesn’t have to be any shame or disloyalty in pulling for old friends to lift the Stanley Cup in June. Mac, Cally, G, Stralman and J.T. gave you all they had, didn’t they? The great rides in the springs of 2012, ’14 and ’15? Tough, committed players who deserve to finally enjoy the spoils of a championship.
Current Lightning, Ex-Rangers Not Forgotten in NYC
Too often, this just happens in sports. Were Bruins fans conflicted when Colorado Avalanche captain Joe Sakic handed Ray Bourque the Cup in June 2001, capping a 23-yearHall of Fame career, the first 21-plus of which were spent in Boston? Of course. It would be hard, however, to find many people who saw Bourque as a complete traitor, a turncoat who asked to be traded for a chance to finally win a title, and didn’t feel at least some happiness for one of their all-time players. Lifting the Cup is the dream, right?
So there’s no reason you can’t dream right along with old friends Ryan McDonagh, Ryan Callahan, Dan Girardi, Anton Stralman and J.T. Miller.
And here’s a reason why you can: A championship in Tampa will validate what many Rangers fans still believe – that the 2013-14 team did possess what could have been a championship core, that with some breaks in that nip-and-tuck Stanley Cup Final against Los Angeles, those players would have been hoisting a banner to the MSG rafters the following fall.
They certainly weren’t forgotten in the Rangers’ dressing room when the teams met Friday, when McDonagh, Girardi and Miller made their first returns to the Garden in a 7-3 Lightning rout.
“I’m sure that there will be times during the game that I’ll think about it and appreciate what they brought to the team and how they helped me,” Henrik Lundqvist told the New York Post before the game. “Mac is so new, but when Dan (left via contract buyout last summer), I thought about how good he was at shutting down the other team’s top players. Even the other night in Washington, I was thinking about how he would go up against (Alex) Ovechkin. He was such a big part of our matchups and the way we played. He was such a big part of us winning.
“You know he’s not there. At least I do. The style he played, we haven’t seen it since he left.”
Former Five Looking to Finish the Job This Time
Tampa Bay’s 108 points are second-most in the league and have the Lightning positioned as a Stanley Cup favorite. The Former Five have spoken about how they’ve moved on and have focused on fitting in with the Lightning and on the task ahead.
It’s difficult to accept that they haven’t thought about this spring as a potential redemption tour, though – and for Callahan, the chance for a run to the Final that he didn’t have in 2014. These proud athletes? Are we to believe the desire to complete the journey this time doesn’t burn within them at all?
Perhaps that disappointment will prove to be an X-factor in South Florida, coming via Broadway.
“You just pray and keep yourself motivated that you’ll have another opportunity to compete for the Cup again. Let alone make the playoffs, it’s not easy in this league,” McDonagh recently told the Sporting News of his pre-deadline trade to the Lightning. “When that next opportunity comes you want to try and seize it, learn from that feeling that you had in losing, and take that to the rink next time around and hopefully that helps you overcome and get the job done.”
The disappointment of four years ago means McDonagh isn’t putting too much stock in the Lightning’s excellent season and deep roster as any kind of guarantee of a deep playoff run. He knows that it will take their best efforts, some breaks and good health at the very least to reach the top of the mountain. Tampa Bay has fallen two points behind the Bruins for the NHL lead by going 4-6-0 in its last 10, and star center Steven Stamkos missed Sunday’s 4-1 loss to Nashville with a lower body injury. He’s day to day.
“It’s so much fun to play that kind of hockey and those kind of games, and have that kind of culture around the room,” McDonagh told the Sporting News. “It takes time to build that, and we had some similar great runs there in New York and we didn’t accomplish the ultimate goal; but there’s that same sense of feeling here that everybody wants to get that done and is willing to do whatever is possible to make sure they are as prepared as they can be.”
Former Five Still Rangers, in a Sense
McDonagh and Girardi are paired on defense in Tampa, just as they were in New York. The difference in talent between the rosters is clear, though: Unlike with the Rangers, Mac and G aren’t the top pair, with Victor Hedman and Stralman forming one of the top defensive duos in the NHL.
For Rangers fans who feel conflicted about rooting for the team that defeated their Presidents’ Trophy-winning Blueshirts in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals at MSG in 2015, effectively marking the end of that core’s best chance to hoist the Cup? It’s OK. Yes, the players you loved and watched grow into one of the best teams in franchise history are integral parts of a rival now. Some of them may look odd and out of place with that bolt across their sweaters. You miss them, especially your two former captains in Callahan and McDonagh.
Make no mistake, though, there’s still some dark Rangers blue blood coursing through the veins of Mac, Cally, G, Stralman and J.T. – and there seems little doubt that their pasts will inform their efforts this spring. After all, Bourque brought the Cup to Boston three days after his Avalanche captured the championship for a rally attended by 20,000 fans. He never stopped being a Bruin.
So don’t be afraid to root for them to win it all, Rangers fans. Part of you is still riding right along with them.
I’m a resident of the Chicago suburbs by way of White Plains, NY. I worked for the Associated Press sports department in New York City for 10 years before moving to Chicago in 2005, when the AP’s then-internet division entered into a joint venture with STATS LLC. I worked for STATS for 11 years, until 2016. Since then I’ve covered the Rangers for Elite Sports NY, a hyper-local website, writing long form features and news stories. I’m very excited to be a part of The Hockey Writers.