All photos via Getty Images
Editor’s Note: The following was originally started in the Spring when there was no hockey due to the pandemic. It was completed following the Lightning winning the Stanley Cup and key Blueshirts changing rosters. A look back is about a time of excitement for New York City and the Rangers.
There really isn’t much to talk about these days. As it pertains to sports including hockey which is on hiatus like everything else due to COVID-19 pandemic, all we have to go on are highlights of the season or memories of the past.
With MSG Network doing mostly the exciting Rangers wins including Mika Zibanejad scoring five times and Artemi Panarin electrifying our fans on what would’ve been a 100 point year by a Blueshirt for the first time since Jaromir Jagr, I thought what better way to reflect back at what Jagr accomplished in ’05-06. Following the cancellation of the entire ’04-05 season, the Rangers were considered an NHL doormat by pundits. Even with Jagr, nobody expected anything outside of a predicted last place finish and 30th overall.
However, he had other ideas. With former Team President and GM Glen Sather surrounding Jagr with the kind of talented European style players that would mesh well with his game, the ’05-06 Rangers surprised many including yours truly by delivering on Number 68’s guarantee of the playoffs. With the cohesiveness of memorable top line trio of Jagr, Michael Nylander and Martin Straka, the team gelled and became much better than anyone anticipated.
Full credit goes to Sather for going out and bringing in key Czech imports Straka, Martin Rucinsky (re-signed after being acquired at the 2004 deadline), Michal Rozsival, Marek Malik and eighth round pick Petr Prucha. Along with Swedish playmaking pivot Nylander, Canadian veteran Steve Rucchin and former Hurricanes playoff hero Kevin Weekes, they really added a lot of talent, character and depth to a lineup that needed it.
When many of us were cynical about what they were doing, it became clear right away how much improved the team was. There also was a seventh round pick named Henrik Lundqvist taken in 2000 that took the city by storm in his rookie year. It was the perfect storm. The then 23-year old overtook Weekes as the starting goalie and went on to win 30 games with a 2.22 GAA, .922 save percentage and two shutouts. He was nominated for the Vezina that went to Martin Brodeur.
There were other key parts who played support roles well including Dominic Moore, Blair Betts, Jed Ortmeyer, Ryan Hollweg, Marcel Hossa, Jason Ward, Ville Nieminen, Fedor Tyutin, Tom Poti, Darius Kasparaitis and Jason Strudwick. Slats would also rent key pieces such as Petr Sykora and Sandis Ozolinsh, who is unfortunately remembered badly for his defensive gaffes including a horrible giveaway that led to a goal against.
None of it would’ve been possible without the brilliance of Jagr. At 33, he wanted the big stage of Broadway and finally got his wish prior to the lockout when the Capitals got tired of him and actually took back Anson Carter for Jagr. No disrespect to Carter, who was a good player in his own right. It was a total steal by Sather that would change the Rangers’ direction once the hard cap was instituted.
A healthy and motivated Jagr was the key to that season. He set the tone in preseason by scoring a beauty on Brodeur where he made a great power move and deke before a sweet forehand finish like the identical plays below during the regular season.
Whether it was using his size and strength to ward off defenders, finding enough room to release his lethal wrist shot, or the proper space to get off that deadly accurate one-timer on the power play, Jagr was everywhere. Having cohesive linemates like the unselfish Nylander and former Pens teammate Straka made it easier for Jagr to operate. At times, coach Tom Renney would use Rucinsky over Straka on that big line since Jagr knew him well from playing together with the Czech Republic. Don’t forget Rucinsky was a good player as well who had more of a shoot first mentality. He was always underrated throughout his NHL career.
Having good secondary options that included Rucinsky, Rucchin and rookie Prucha, who was featured prominently on the dangerous top power play unit, gave the Blueshirts balance. It also helped that grinders Moore, Betts, Ward, Hollweg and Ortmeyer played their roles well. The HMO line became a thing with fans identifying with the lunch pail work ethic Hollweg, Moore and Ortmeyer had during their shifts. Betts played mostly with Ward, who was a pleasant surprise. Hossa was okay on the third line even if he never came close to the hype or talent older brother Marian had.
It helped to have familiarity. Rozsival knew both Jagr and Straka from their days spent together in Pittsburgh. For as much criticism as he and Malik received, they were good Rangers. Especially Rozsival, who could supply offense from the back end due to his good right shot along with his passing. He was the last Blueshirt to lead the NHL in plus/minus going plus-35 that season. It was on the Cadillac Rangers Trivia in the last game before the stoppage due to Panarin ranking second in the league behind Ryan Graves.
In order for that ’05-06 roster to have the success they did, it came down to Jagr being the driving force. After spending the previous season playing for Omsk Avangard of the KHL in Russia, a revived No. 68 was ready to prove a lot of naysayers wrong. He delivered on his promise by not only being the unquestioned leader, but by flat out dominating opponents that special season.
The Rangers might not have had a captain. They didn’t need one. They had one of the game’s greatest superstars in Jagr, who turned back the clock to when he was once considered the best in the world starring for the Pens before Mario Lemieux returned. It’s easy to forget that Jagr won his only Hart Trophy without Lemieux in ’98-99 when he led the league in scoring with 127 points (44-83-127). It was Jagr who took the torch from a retiring Wayne Gretzky in his final game at The Garden by scoring the game-winner in overtime and beating Mike Richter. I was in the building for that.
As if to remind the hockey world who he was, an injured Jagr came back for Games Six and Seven with a serious groin injury (missed four games due to a pull that’s well documented) and willed the underdog Pens past the heavily favored Devils to a first round upset. In clutch fashion, with his team staring at elimination, Jagr scored the tying goal and overtime winner to beat Brodeur and the Devils in Game Six at the old Igloo (Civic Arena). He had some help from Straka and Alex Kovalev in the seventh game to pick off the higher seed. Both had outstanding series.
It proved that if you have a team with a prime Jagr at even 60 percent, they were a live dog. Even with Scott Stevens checking him, Scott Niedermayer and Bobby Holik playing physical, No. 68 somehow carried his team past a very talented Devils, who would win the Cup the following year.
While many observers point to Lemieux buying the Pens and giving him credit for saving the team, some have noted that it might’ve been that first round comeback led by Jagr that kept the Penguins in Pittsburgh. Even Jagr himself called those two games the most important of his career given the circumstances. Following their run to the Eastern Conference Final in ’00-01, Pittsburgh had to sell-off players including Jagr, who went to Washington. A place he never wanted to be. He didn’t play his best hockey and the team disappointed by losing in the first round once and missing the postseason altogether.
Even though he was still over a point-per-game as a Capital going 83-118-201 over 190 games, Jagr never quite fit in. After two and a half years, they traded him to the Rangers where he concluded the remainder of ’03-04 scoring 15 goals with 14 assists for 29 points in 31 games. Combined, he wound up with 74 points in 77 contests. His lowest output over a full season since he put up 69 points at age 19 in ’91-92. In fact, he paced the league with 70 points in the shortened 48 game season in ’95. A far cry from what he became with the Caps. He always wanted New York City. He finally got his wish on Jan. 23, 2004.
Following another playoff miss to make it seven straight seasons without a postseason, I started to think the Rangers were jinxed. Between all the stars they brought in from Theo Fleury to Eric Lindros to the unlucky Pavel Bure to Kovalev II which failed, it just felt like nothing would work. They even overpaid mercenary Holik after winning a bidding war with the Flyers, Leafs and Devils, who proved they didn’t need him to win a third Cup in ’02-03. One of the best moves Sather made was buying out the divisive Holik, who even though he was a good player, was never worth his salary nor the trouble due to his big mouth. That key subtraction along with no more Petr Nedved really helped create a better atmosphere.
I was excited for Lundqvist, who I followed online where he led Frolunda to the championship in Sweden. I knew he was good just by tracking him. Yet he was a seventh round draft pick. Former European scout Christian Rockstrom must’ve known something. He was very good at finding gems overseas. Maybe other teams just didn’t see it with Lundqvist. Thankfully, he was proven right. How I wish he still worked for the current team.
As remarkable and poised as Lundqvist was in that rookie season, Jagr was on another level. He had magic with Nylander, who would circle around the ice to create space and find Jagr. Whether it was Rucinsky or the very familiar Straka, that big line was a handful for opponents at five-on-five. They dominated puck possession with precision passing and the unbelievable finishing ability of Jagr, who often drew two defenders to create space for open teammates. People tend to forget how brilliant a passer he was. It’s amazing he still is playing at age 48 back home for Kladno in the Czech Republic. Too bad the world is paused.
What made him so tough that year was he shot the puck well. On one goal where he beat Brodeur on a power play, the Devils gave him time and space. He didn’t hesitate firing a laser by Brodeur from the circle. That moment was vintage Jagr. He didn’t deke or make a bunch of moves. All he did was take the deadly wrist shot and it whizzed by Brodeur’s glove. It was legend beating legend.
He looked to score more that season. Jagr also had that extra hop in his step. This was a highly motivated superstar who was out for redemption. Especially with most of the talk centered around Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin. Dion Phaneuf was also great in his first year. That was a unique rookie class you likely won’t ever see again. Especially when you factor in Lundqvist, who MSG quickly took to.
That’s what missing a season did. As detrimental as it was financially, it made ’05-06 great. The hockey was exciting due to rule changes that included no two line pass, delay of game, the Brodeur rule that limited goalies behind the net, more emphasis on obstruction and the shootout. The new rules opened up the game and created more offense. Plus by making the blueline thicker, that meant it was harder for team defenses to clear the zone, leading to more sustained forecheck. Players could tag up too to get back onside making for a faster transition.
As fun as it was to follow the new faces Crosby and Ovechkin, the most exciting player that year was good old Number 68, Jaromir Jagr. Playing his first full season as a Blueshirt, he lit up Broadway like nobody had ever done before. The unique chemistry he had with Nylander and Straka made the trio a nightmare. Their combination of speed, skating and skill was on full display. But while Straka and Nylander were perfect complements, everytime Jagr had the puck, you could feel the electricity throughout the building. He was so locked in that it looked like he was hell bent on delivering on his promise.
With fellow Czechs Malik and Rozsival, who in particular gets no love from foolish fans, the five man unit often played together by design. It was like watching an Olympic team or the Russian Five. You had four Czechs and one Swede, who was a great playmaker. Nobody will ever accuse Nylander of being selfish. God knows how many times I wanted him to shoot the puck. But with Jagr in full beast mode, who could blame him, Straka or Rozsival for deferring to one of the greatest players in NHL history?
It was truly a sight to behold. From the first game, a 5-3 road win over the Flyers, Jagr set the tone by scoring a pair of power play goals in the third period of the comeback victory. He finished with three points.
Following consecutive tough overtime defeats to the Canadiens and Devils with the latter Lundqvist’s NHL debut in enemy territory at the old Continental Airlines Arena, Jagr heated up with eight goals in the next six games including a hat trick at the Islanders in a frustrating one goal loss at Nassau Coliseum. He also sniped a beauty past Brodeur in a home win earlier in that stretch. A satisfying triumph that gave Lundqvist his first victory. Little did we know that he would become the winningest goalie in franchise history.
Looking back on history is fun. Hank was just starting out and certainly had a unique rivalry with the legendary Brodeur. He would win more than he would lose during the all-time regular season match-ups between the pair of great number 30’s for the Hudson rivals. I’m sure he would trade the bitter 2012 Conference Final loss with some of those victories. Brodeur won two of three playoff series head-to-head versus Lundqvist.
To be honest, May 25, 2012 still hurts. I went for a walk in the park afterwards winding up at my public school yard in the dark for a while. Truthfully, when I reflect back on that memory, I don’t think the Rangers were the better team.
Close Jersey buddy Robert Davis was right. So, I congratulated him in a phone call that night. His team eventually lost to the despised Kings for the Stanley Cup. Something we would also experience two years later in excruciating fashion. I hate that one more. It was the closest five-game Final I can think of. I think Rob and Hasan share similar views on their team’s six-game loss. Oh, the twisted irony. If there’s one thing Devils and Rangers fans can agree on, it’s our complete disdain for the Kings. I hate Cartman.
Getting back to that ’05-06 season, the Rangers had to prove themselves. A good start wouldn’t be enough. They had to sustain a level of consistency not seen in the Big Apple since Mark Messier and Gretzky teamed up with Brian Leetch, Mike Richter and Adam Graves to lead the ’96-97 team to the Eastern Conference Final. Don’t forget Esa Tikkanen either. He was clutch that Spring.
The longer we’re stuck inside and limited in what we can actually do in public, the harder it is to think about hockey. Maybe that’s why this is taking so long. I definitely hit a roadblock. I’ve done a lot more creative writing on my other blog. Something I’ve gotten back to.
Here’s what I remember about that year. Jagr was unstoppable. He put up two long point streaks as he continued to pace everyone in scoring. The chemistry he had with Nylander was something to behold. It didn’t matter if it was Rucinsky or Straka, who eventually stayed intact with that dynamic top line. One thing I forgot is that Jagr and Nylander were teammates in Washington. They knew each other as did Straka from the Pittsburgh days. That had to help.
If opponents took penalties, the Rangers power play punished them. Most of the damage was done by the top unit featuring Jagr, whose 24 power play goals still are a franchise record for a single season. They ranked ninth overall clicking at 18.78 percent. It was almost an all Czech unit with the exception of Nylander. You had Straka, Rozsival, Jagr, Nylander and a popular kid named Prucha, whose right shot was a perfect complement to the lethal Jagr. He usually set up in the slot and pumped in 16 on the power play. In fact, I completely forgot that it’s Petr Prucha who is the only Rangers draft pick to hit 30 goals in a season this century. Prior to him, you have to go all the way back to Tony Amonte, who scored 33 in ’92-93.
One of the reasons for the success of the ’05-06 roster were the contributions of the fourth line. In fact, a complimentary Jagr went out of his way to praise the HMO Line of Hollweg, Moore and Ortmeyer for their consistent work ethic. They got the jersey dirty and forechecked opponents while finishing checks. Of course, the physical Hollweg was the leader in that department. He wasn’t in there for his scoring. He delivered big hits and was a willing combatant when it was time to be accountable and defend teammates. Colton Orr was added for that reason. Ortmeyer was the junkyard dog with his hardworking style appreciated by fans. Moore always was the best skater of the trio who could chip in some goals while winning key draws and killing penalties.
Essentially, with Betts anchoring the third line usually with underrated plugger Ward and Marcel Hossa, who chipped in 10 goals along with Ward, you had a solid bottom six. They weren’t going to blow you away. But what they lacked in talent they made up for in grit and determination.
When they weren’t scoring power play goals, the Blueshirts under Renney were outworking opponents at five-on-five. An area the puck possession dominant Jagr excelled at. He, Straka and Nylander could skate circles around opponents and play keep away. The amount of skating, forechecking and passing they did was due to their unique skill. Usually, fellow Czech tandem Malik and Rozsival were out with that first line as basically a five man unit. It was like watching an Olympic team. The East/West style worked well.
Throw in the heady two-way play of second line center Rucchin and the team was complete. Even though much of the heavy lifting relied upon the Jagr, Nylander and Straka unit, people forget that Rucinsky was over a point-per-game with 55 points over 52 games. An injury hindered him and forced Sather to go out and acquire former Devil Petr Sykora from the Ducks for rookie defenseman Max Kondratiev. He was a good fit netting 16 goals and 15 assists in 40 games. With the better scoring Sykora added to the mix, feisty winger Nieminen was sacrificed in a trade to San Jose.
As brilliant as Jagr and rookie Lundqvist were, one of the highlights of that season was the wild and crazy 15 round shootout win over the Caps at home. Yes, we were there for it up in Section 411. It was so unpredictable that Strudwick evened it up a second time to set up this gem from Marek Malik, as called by MSG’s Mike Crispino.
Two things stand out. Bryan Muir had put Washington up 3-2. A journeyman defenseman, who decided to shoot and go stick side on Lundqvist in the top of the 14th. Then with the Caps bench celebrating and everyone thinking it was over (at least in our section), Renney sends out Strudwick to take the tying shot. He was basically the sixth defenseman who played physical and was a great team guy. He really was better as an extra, but started most of the year on the blueline. That’s probably why they went and got Ozolinsh, who despite good offensive numbers, was a disaster. No way did we think Strudwick would tie it. He used the same move and shot as Muir to surprise Olaf Kolzig.
The rest is history. Lundqvist shut the door on Matt Bradley, whose five-hole attempt was kicked aside. He used to be money down low. That set the stage for the man I called Big Bird. Malik was so tall that I thought it was a good nickname. As you watch the replay, you wonder if that move would be allowed today. I say yes. It didn’t look like he stopped. That he had the wherewithal to put the puck between the legs and beat a stunned Kolzig and then give a I had it all the way look at the bench is still classic. It was pretty daring as the late great Robin Williams would echo in Dead Poet’s Society as Mr. Keating about the phone call from God.
Listening to Crispino on that late November evening is still special. He was the jack of all trades for MSG. He did everything from SportsDesk to high school sports with Mike Quick to some Knicks and Rangers. I miss him. I met him once in Bristol. He was a nice guy. JD saying, “I’ve seen it all”, was perfect. He was obviously speechless. Who knew that year would be his last in the booth for both MSG and national games which moved to NBC after runs with ABC and Fox where he teamed up with legendary play by play man Doc Emrick? For Davidson, he wanted to move to the front office and has since had successful stints in St. Louis, Columbus and now back with the Blueshirts.
Throughout ’05-06, Jagr recorded three hat tricks. The first at the Islanders in a ugly 5-4 loss at Nassau Coliseum. The second at Pittsburgh where he did in his former team in a 6-1 rout. The third came in a 6-3 home win over the Flyers. So, Number 68 did it against division rivals. In that special season, his three hat tricks were one better than his Caps career. The final three goal game of his brilliant Hall of Fame career came as a Devil nine years later at age 42 in a 5-2 win over the Flyers. I wonder if the nearly nine years he went between hat tricks is a NHL record.
In his illustrious career, Jagr recorded 16 hat tricks. Ten came as a Penguin. Only one came in the postseason when he victimized the Rangers in the Eastern Conference Semifinal on May 11, 1996. That was the series he and Mario Lemieux took apart the Rangers. Of course, he’s best remembered for tormenting the ’91-92 team in the same round. That included a penalty shot in which he undressed John Vanbiesbrouck on ironically May 11, 1992. Four years prior to that three goal game. He also as noted above won Gretzky’s final game in overtime. It’s no wonder I purchased a home white CCM Penguins Jagr replica with an alternate at Gerry Cosby’s once after a game. It didn’t cost more than a Benjamin. Think about that in today’s overpriced world of jerseys. I will never buy a jersey now. Too expensive. Not as good either as CCM or Starter.
As a team, the Rangers had four hat tricks. The only other one came off the stick of Jagr pal Straka, who did in the Isles en route to a 5-1 victory on Mar. 29, 2006. I can still remember it. Jagr set it up. It was a nice play and sweet finish from Straka. Another popular player who was a good Ranger. In his three years spent on Broadway, Marty recorded 65 goals, 122 assists and a total of 187 points over 224 games. His first two seasons, he posted consecutive years of at least 70 points or more going 51-95-146 in 159 games. He was a superb skater who could be trusted by the coaching staff to play in any situation. Straka was always a underrated player who had a good 15-year NHL career before returning home to play for hometown of Plzen, Czech Republic. He wound up with 717 points (254-460-717) in 954 games with six teams (Pens, Sens, Isles, Panthers, Pens, Kings, Rangers) including Pittsburgh twice.
It’s interesting to note that Nylander was over a point-per-game in the two years spent in Manhattan. As Jagr’s center, the creative playmaking forward enjoyed his most success. After finishing second in team scoring with 79 points (23-56-79) during ’05-06, he had a career best ’06-07 achieving career marks in goals (26), assists (57) and points (83). He finished his NHL career in Washington where injuries affected his production. Like Straka, Nylander was a good player who totaled a respectable 679 points (209-470-679) over 920 games. He also moved around a lot from Hartford to Calgary to Tampa Bay to Chicago to Washington to Boston to New York and then back to DC before concluding his pro career back home in Sweden. Now, his older son William Nylander is producing for the Maple Leafs. Alex is trying to figure out with his second team in Chicago.
Ironically, the cohesive NYR trio all played into their 40’s with Jagr remaining the only one who’s still active at the ripe old age of 48. Will he fulfill his prophecy and play at 50 like Gordie Howe? Honestly, I wish they would make an exception for Jagr and induct him into the Hockey Hall of Fame. He has belonged for a while. His last NHL season lasted 20 games with Calgary in ’17-18. That doesn’t matter. He’s a living legend whose 1921 points rank second on the all-time list behind The Great One. In 1733 games, Jagr totaled 766 goals and 1155 assists for 1921 points to zip past Howe and Mark Messier. Howe was inducted in 1972 a year after he first retired before playing in the WHA and eventually returning to the NHL as a Hartford Whaler.
One thing that still irks me is that they voted for Joe Thornton over Jagr for League MVP. Nothing against Jumbo Joe, who was remarkable for the Sharks following a trade with the Bruins. As great as he was putting up 92 points (20-72-92) in 58 games with San Jose to beat out Jagr for the Art Ross with 125 points (29-96-125), he won the Hart Trophy after being dealt to a better roster. Jagr scoring 54 goals and adding 69 assists for 123 points on a team that was written off by everyone is more impressive. The 54 goals were his most since age 23 when he notched a career best 62 with Pittsburgh in ’95-96. He willed the Rangers to the playoffs and made everyone better.
It’s amazing that Jagr led the league in scoring five times and only took home one Hart. Though in ’95, he shared the scoring title with Eric Lindros, who won the MVP for leading the Flyers back to the postseason. It’s not like he lost to bad players. He was beaten out by Lindros, Dominik Hasek, Chris Pronger and Joe Sakic. Four Hall of Famers. Thornton will also be inducted whenever he calls it a career. All this time later and he decides he wants to keep playing and chase a Cup in Toronto. Good luck. They’re a jinxed franchise.
At least Jagr was recognized by his peers who voted for him as the Pearson winner. Now the Ted Lindsay Award. If the players acknowledge you for the kind of season you had, that is as good as it gets. I wish they would’ve recognized Artemi Panarin for what he achieved on a similar Rangers team in his first year. Instead, Leon Draisaitl swept the Hart and Lindsay. Oh well.
In thinking about that ’05-06 season, the hockey the Rangers played was fun to watch. They were an exciting team thanks to the brilliance of Jagr, who was so good with Nylander and Straka that it felt like they had played together as a line for years. Ditto for fellow Czechs Malik and Rozsival. Jagr also seemed to love setting up Prucha on the power play. It’s a shame Prucha was phased out by Renney due to the addition of Hall of Famer Brendan Shanahan the following year. As much as I enjoyed Shanahan, I don’t think Prucha was handled correctly. He would ultimately wind up with the Coyotes in a deal that netted rental Derek Morris. I didn’t like the trade as they also parted with Nigel Dawes and Dmitri Kalinin. Overpayment even if Dawes wound up becoming a big scorer in the KHL. Prucha wasn’t as fortunate with post concussion symptoms ending his career.
Our section along with many other fans loved Prucha due to his willingness to stand up for teammates. He wasn’t the biggest in stature, but he had a ton of heart. No wonder you had diehard fans with Prucha monikers on Twitter and Prucha No. 25 Rangers jerseys. Funny. We liked the grit of Ortmeyer and physicality of Hollweg. That’s the two Blueshirts we got. But I would trade a Hollweg for a blue Prucha. That’s how much I liked him.
As memorable a year as ’05-06 was, it didn’t end well. Following a determined Lundqvist stoning Olli Jokinen of Finland to clinch Olympic gold for Sweden in Torino, he had an injury and was never quite the same. The team slumped towards the finish and shockingly let the surging Devils pass them. A match-up that looked like it would be the Rangers with home ice advantage took a 180 in favor of the Devils. I knew the way they ended the regular season how the first round series would go. No. I didn’t predict a sweep with Jagr injuring himself after foolishly going after future teammate Scott Gomez in a lopsided 6-1 defeat in a ugly Game One.
With Lundqvist and Jagr both hurt, they were cooked. Weekes got a start in the disappointing sweep. It didn’t go well. Nobody could score without Jagr. Sykora in particular had awful luck versus his old team. He must’ve hit the post six or seven times. Anything that could go wrong did. They were outscored 17-2 in the first three games. At least they put up a fight in Game Four losing 4-2. Ironically, it was the fan favorite Ortmeyer who gave them their only lead in the series late in the first period.
But the Devils were too good as they got the next four goals with Patrik Elias lighting the lamp twice in a dominant performance. He put up 11 points in the four games. He and Gomez had a field day. Brodeur hardly broke a sweat as the Devils outscored the Blueshirts 21-4 in the four game sweep. Yikes.
I don’t know why, but a clearly ailing Jagr gave it a go in the final game. Everyone knew he needed shoulder surgery. But there was No. 68 lining up at the beginning of the game. He only lasted 49 seconds. One big hit finished his year. When he got helped off, the building saluted him for his special season. He deserved it. Players always play hurt in the hockey playoffs. They’ll play with broken bones, muscle tears and broken body parts. That’s why we love the sport. These men are warriors. The series was over. But Jagr still wanted to play at way less than 100 percent. Crazy.
When it finally ended even with Rucchin scoring a late power play goal to make it respectable, the Garden Faithful saluted the team. “Let’s Go Rangers”, chants echoed throughout MSG. It was still loud. This team gave the fans something they hadn’t had in a while. A real season with lots of highlights and a postseason. It might’ve ended badly. But you felt hopeful thanks to the core which included a 24-year old Lundqvist, who would start a impressive streak of consecutive playoff starts that didn’t end until Game Three of the Play In Series against Carolina. Igor Shesterkin finally ended the reign of the now 38-year old former Ranger, who signed with the Capitals.
It’s funny to think about hockey without No. 30 in Manhattan. Lundqvist accomplished so much in his brilliant 15-year Rangers career. He holds all the goalie records for the Original Six franchise. Back in 2005, he was just starting out as a unknown seventh round draft pick that only some of us were aware of. The only thing missing from his resume is a Cup. He’s going to chase it with old rival Alex Ovechkin in Washington DC. Go figure.
As for ’05-06, the team sent out a DVD of that season full of highlights. I still have it. Even though they had better moments ahead including avenging the four game humiliation against the Devils two years later along with three trips to the Conference Final and a historic comeback from 3-1 down versus the Pens and Caps in consecutive second rounds, that year will always stand out. It brought meaningful hockey back to The Garden. The crowds were alive before the renovation. Jagr was electric in his three-plus year Broadway stint. I wish they could’ve reached a Stanley Cup Final with him. I wouldn’t have bet against him. The best they did were two first round wins and a close call in a gut wrenching second round loss to Buffalo in 2007.
There was plenty ahead. It all culminated in the 3-1 comeback to conquer the Crosby Pens and then beat the pesky Canadiens minus Carey Price to advance to the Stanley Cup Final in 2014. Their first appearance in 20 years. It would’ve been perfect had they won. Twenty years after Messier delivered the Cup back to 33rd and 7th.
That team had it all. Brian Leetch was the first American born player to win the Conn Smythe. Mike Richter was brilliant. Adam Graves scored clutch goals and broke Vic Hadfield’s club record with 52 goals. Sergei Zubov was remarkable leading the team in scoring with 89 points while feathering a perfect no look feed for a Leetch goal that set the tone in Game Seven versus the Canucks. Alex Kovalev dangled and dazzled. Without that goal on Brodeur in Game Six late in period two, no Messier natural hat trick. No championship.
Maybe it’s true that Lundqvist never had that kind of supporting cast around him. But they sure tried. Jagr. Shanahan. Markus Naslund. Nik Zherdev. Marian Gaborik. Brad Richards. Rick Nash. Martin St. Louis. Keith Yandle. If Mats Zuccarello is healthy in 2015, do the Rangers win the Cup? We’ll never know.
Whenever we get hockey again, it’s gonna be weird. Lundqvist will be wearing a Caps No. 35 jersey now that he can. Richter’s number was unavailable. Marc Staal will likely be wearing his No. 18 on the Red Wings. Jesper Fast will wear a Hurricanes jersey. Strange times. But Alexis Lafreniere will debut No. 13. It’ll sell like hotcakes for those who can afford it. I’ll wait.
A New Era is upon us. Similar to 15 years ago when King Henrik came in. Except the names are different. Lafreniere. Kaapo Kakko. Adam Fox. Ryan Lindgren. Tony DeAngelo. Mike Zibanejad. Panarin. Chris Kreider, who is the last link to those teams last decade. Wow. Zibanejad just missed out. Pavel Buchnevich. Filip Chytil. Shesterkin. Alex Georgiev. Jacob Trouba. Eventually Vitaly Kravtsov, who continues to show promise in the KHL while starring for Traktor Chelyabinsk. Maybe one day, Nils Lundkvist and K’Andre Miller. Another Lundkvist but spelt differently.
Whatever the future holds is this new abnormal, I’ll always remember 2005-06. The year hockey returned to the Big Apple.