Sunday, June 15, 2014

PRIDE

Dad & Espo with the Stanley Cup
First and foremost, a very happy Father's Day to my Dad and all Dads' out there. I'm sure we all owe our Dads' something and I'm no exception. In addition to all the things my Dad has done for me he introduced me to the great game of Ice Hockey. I won every game he attended. I got my passion for all out effort to win from him.

OK, hello New York and everywhere else, I'm Bird and you're in the Birdcage at hockeybird.com. Just days ago the los Angeles Kings defeated the New York Rangers in game five of the Stanley Cup finals in double overtime. It was the second double overtime of the series and the third overtime, all in L.A. Unfortunately the Rangers lost all three. The Pundits and talking heads I taunted on twitter proved to be right, Kings in 5. You were right and I was wrong. Feel better now? But you have to admit, a bounce here or there and not only would we be looking forward to a game six, the Rangers could have been leading the series. None of you saw that coming.

Congratulations to the L.A. Kings for one hell of an historic Stanley Cup championship. To come back in round one down 0-3 was incredible. They won game seven on the road to capture the second round. Follow that with a game seven win in Chicago to knock off the defending champs and you have a history making trek of epic proportions in a quest for the Cup. While at times the Kings made mistakes they earned their "bounces" with tremendous effort. They fought for every puck, competed in each battle and at times outplayed the Rangers. They worked hard for it, deserved it and won it it outright. The Kings are the Stanley Cup Champions.

It is with great pride that I look at this 2013-14 New York Ranger season.

There will be time to discuss Richards, Dan G's tough final performance and the other topics some fans have already been violently tweeting and posting. Right now I'm going to concentrate and appreciate the positives about this season. Face it, after the opening road trip and the struggles early on, did any of you think we'd be playing in June? Be honest. I know I was preaching patience as the new coach and system had to be fully absorbed by the players and that takes time but it sure didn't look like a Cup run team.

I for one didn't support the firing of John Tortorella. The coaching change added too many variables for me to feel a warm and fuzzy about a championship. It was going to take time and I wasn't convinced it would happen quickly enough. Heck, I wasn't sure they'd make the playoffs during the early part of the season.

So, why am I feeling pride about our New York Rangers?

1. Cam Talbot - I didn't know much about this kid and "good" Marty Biron had been pretty steady as a back up. Turns out I felt as if there was little to NO drop off when the kid was between the pipes. Quite the opposite, Talbot seemed to give the team and it's fans a lift. That's not something a back up keeper normally does. With the compressed schedule and the King representing Sweden in every one of their Olympic games Cam would become a very important reason the Rangers won home ice in round one.

2. Ryan McDonagh - We knew he was good but it was this season that ryan emerged as a legit Norris kinda D-man. His confidence level combined with the coaches system change allowed for some offence and more often than not, in a big spot. Mac D is becoming a leader and a go to player on this team. Despite the shoulder injury, Ryan was a warrior and will get even better.

3. Henrik Lundqvist - He's is worth every penny of the contract he signed in the opening weeks of the season. Those who complained then about the dollar amount or the length as arm chair GMs are silent now. Despite some early trouble employing a tweak to his style, the King set all kinds of New York Ranger records for a goaltender surpassing Mike Richter and Eddie Giacomin in various stats. I noticed that Hanke now will come out and challenge a shooter at times previously spent deep in his crease. A wonderful addition to an already awesome toolbox Lundqvist brings to each game. If only he could improve his stick handling, the only area of weakness left.......he could still be getting better!

I've mentioned many times that this is Hanks' team, I don't care who wears the C or A. He is the leader and inspiration of the Rangers. It's his post game comments that speak for the team and he is quite the intelligent interviewee. To get this close to the only thing in life that eludes him should only make him more dedicated and determined next season. The King is not done with his quest for the Grail.

4. The Trade - It's not a comfortable discussion when describing the effect the trade of New York Rangers captain Ryan Callahan had on the team. Cally didn't become the captain and the fan favorite at the Worlds Most Famous Arena by accident. His hard work ethic was indeed infectious. He lead by example. His smaller physical stature was overcome by his giant heart......and the fans connected. During the first half of the season I struggled to identify the team identity. Who were they? What kind of team are they? Cally was as close to an identity as the Rangers had (besides save by Lundqvist). At the time of the trade I was of the opinion that the Bolts had clearly won with the picks being the poorest part of the deal. I stated that St. Louis "was not the Butch Goring of 2014".

I was wrong.

When Marty walked into the locker room, the effect it had on each and every player was something that is hard to articulate without a prior point of reference. I'm sure it was a "you had to be there" kinda moment. But it's effect was clear as day. In that moment, Marty became a New York Ranger and the New York Rangers became a team. I wrote sometime during the second half of the season that the team needed a "chip on their shoulder" and when Rick nash visited his old mates, had a few goals and a fight, I thought that might do it. It didn't. Even Dom Moores' courage wasn't enough to galvanize this team. Marty walking into that locker room did just that.

The Game Six win on Mother's Day vs the Pittsburgh Penguins was as an emotional event in the game of hockey as I have witnessed. The video that went viral where Marty talks about being a Ranger says it all. His loss and subsequent support from his teammates transformed the Rangers into a band of brothers, focused on the mission and fighting for each other. Had the Rangers won the Cup you could have put an exclamation point on this trade. While this was a good a hockey related feeling I've had in quite some time, the picks still bother me a bit.

5. Beating Pennsylvania - Division realignment doesn't bother me much and the playoff format seemed to work great this season, league wide. Hockey fans were treated to one of the best playoff season in years as fan as excitement goes. I loathe the name Metro-Division but I'll get over it I guess. Rivalries with the Islanders and Devils remain very healthy and the Outdoor Classic's were a hit (except that the NHL and Rovio stole the name Hockeybird from me). Unlike many fans of the Rangers, it's the Flyers whom I despise the most. Read this post from before the season even ended. I correctly predicted exactly how the season would end and the result of the first round. Well, I got one thing wrong. the Rangers lost game six. The first round win over the Flyers would have been satisfying had that been the end of our run right there. There is no team on the planet that I take greater pleasure seeing lose. It's only better when the Rangers do it.

The Ice Chickens on the other hand are a different story. Some of you may know that I lived in Pittsburgh and worked at WXXP 100.7 back in the mid 80s. I loved it there and still have friends in that great city. My original dislike for the Pens stemmed from jealousy and frustration. The Lemieux years I guess. The Graves suspension. But since Sid the Kid came and the ice chickens became the team they are now my disdain has fomented and multiplied. Most of the hockey world had already penciled in the Penguins in the eastern Conference finals before the series even began. It would be quite sweet to knock the Mighty Penguins off. Falling behind 1-3 was deflating to say the least. I'm sure like most of you when we heard the news about Marty's Mom, not only was the series lost but it was no longer important. Winning game seven completed a dramatic comeback for the ages. The series itself could be the focus of a book or movie. Emotionally drained yet oddly satisfied the Rangers and the fans were going to the Conference finals. Beating both teams from Pennsylvania in game sevens made this a great season for me. Had nothing else good occured, it was a great year!

6. The Stanley Cup - Canada's only playoff team was already in the finals after knocking off the big bad Bruins in seven. After all, they had the gold medal winning goalie and they're the Montreal Canadiens fer christs sake. It's their birthright. OK, in fairness.......had Price not been injured it's very possible the Habs win but in no way did the kid they played lose the series for them. The injury changed the series but in the end the Rangers won in six. For the first time in 20 years, the Rangers were headed to the finals!

Look, it hurts. To get this close and not win is a bit painful. The Rangers should have won game one. It was the one game they held an advantage as the kings had just won an emotional game seven vs the Blackhawks.....the defending Cup Champs. Sure, Quick stopped the puck but there were chances, goals to be had. After game two the Rangers had not lost in regulation but had nothing to show for it. A bounce one way or another and the series could be different. That's hockey.

Game three leaves a bad taste in my mouth as the refs blew a call that changed the game and the series. While not fair it is over and done with. Game four allowed for the team to give it's fans (and themselves) something to be proud of. They won a Stanley Cup playoff game at Madison Square Garden. They prevented that Cup being awarded on home ice. they extended the series and brought hope when there was none. The Rangers showed pride. Yes, the Kings scored in double overtime in game five to win the Cup but you and I both know that game could just as easily been won by the Rangers.

Back in High School my team began each practice and game warm up with PRIDE jumping jacks. A reminder that if you try your best, no matter the result you hold your head up with pride.

The New York Rangers and their fans should and can hold their heads up with pride. It was a great season. It was a great playoff run. It was great hockey.

Thanks guys, I had a blast sharing the season with you here and on Twitter.

----}- Bird
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