It’s hard to believe that the decade is coming to a close. It wasn’t that long ago that we were meeting Theo Fleury at a book signing for his unbelievable story of conquering the demons in Playing With Fire. That photo is still saved on my Google. That was in 2009. Yep. Ten years ago.
Here we are with 2019 coming to a close soon. It’ll be Christmas next week and Chanukah comes out late. Then New Year’s Eve with your favorite Bowl games and cool hockey mixed with the World Junior Championship. The year really is ending, which means a new decade starts up in 2020. That’s a Wow moment for me.
I guess the older you get, the harder it is to realize that the more relaxed 80’s and cool 90’s are in the rear view mirror. The age of innocence is gone. I remember a time when I played on my block and in the park. Came home from school and watched Voltron and Transformers back when cartoons were on network television. Now, it’s all junk. Kids can’t be kids.
What does this have to do with things you might ask. Oh. Everything. I’m old school. I know I’m not alone here. I’m sure Hasan has similar memories of a more laid back era where anything seemed possible. Now, it’s all front and center on the internet with childish arguments and on social media. They’ll fight you over anything and hide behind a computer screen. All the stuff I know now stemming back as far as 2000 is that the internet has ruined a lot of things. Simpler times need to come back.
All that fairly stated, it’s time to reflect back on the most successful Rangers decade since those 90’s. Ironically, it’s finishing similar to that era. No. We don’t have to bury our heads in the sand waiting for the next doom and gloom move that’ll fail like the Dark Ages. Thankfully, common sense prevailed this time with a renewed commitment to a rebuild. This team doesn’t have aging stars either. But a true superstar they paid top dollar for who’s playing like a top 10 player.
That’s the good news. The bad is they’ll likely miss the playoffs for a third consecutive year. The longest such stretch since The Dark Ages between ’98 thru ’04. I don’t count 2005 due to the cancellation of that entire season which saved this franchise. Most fans don’t want to hear that. But had things stayed the same, Glen Sather would’ve continued to screw up. The salary cap forced him to change the way he built the team. With an assist from legend Jaromir Jagr and a late 2000 seventh round pick by the name of Henrik Lundqvist, the Rangers were saved.
The next decade saw them make the postseason in every year except one. From ’05-06 through ’16-17, they were one of the best teams in the NHL. They made at least the second round four times and reached three Conference Finals including their first Stanley Cup trip in 20 years. They became one of the most successful franchises during that era. The best part came during the first half of the decade spanning ’10-11 until ’14-15. They went from a first round elimination to the Alexander Ovechkin Capitals to three Eastern Conference Finals in three of the next four seasons. One with taskmaster John Tortorella and two with the more laid back Alain Vigneault. Both are still successful coaches in the league.
Thinking back, I don’t know which loss hurt more. The numbing feeling when Adam Henrique scored on a rebound to beat Henrik Lundqvist about a minute into sudden death to send the Devils to the Stanley Cup Finals in Game Six of 2012. Or the excruciating Game Seven 2-0 shutout home defeat in 2015 to the Lightning in a perplexing Conference Final that ended the last serious run. To me, I consider 2014 a positive memory for to how valiantly that team fought back from a 3-1 series deficit to stun the Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin Penguins in the second round. The heart they showed following the death of Martin St. Louis’s Mom France was unbelievable.
The way they rallied with Lundqvist having perhaps his greatest three games while St. Louis scored the emotional first goal appropriately enough on Mother’s Day in a Game Six win gave me full confidence they’d go into Pittsburgh and finish the job. Fittingly, it was some St. Louis hustle to create some more magic with Brad Richards that wound up being the series clincher in a nerve racking Game Seven they won by the skin of their teeth. The leadership which included Brian Boyle, Dominic Moore, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, Ryan McDonagh, Anton Stralman, Derick Brassard, Mats Zuccarello and American duo Derek Stepan and Chris Kreider stood up. That was a total T-E-A-M effort. Having former Cup winners Richards and St. Louis sure helped them accomplish the first ever 3-1 comeback in franchise history. So did Lundqvist, who made every clutch save and never allowed the Pens to grab another lead the final three games.
That Vigneault led team would conquer the Canadiens in the Conference Finals. McDonagh destroyed the team that drafted him with a monster series. The Rangers took the first two games up in Montreal and then split the next two to go up 3-1. Even without Carey Price, who was injured during a incidental collision with Kreider in Game One which set off the fireworks from ignorant Canadian media who ignored Alexei Emelin tripping a rushing Kreider right into Price, Montreal didn’t quit. They dug in and pulled out Game Three in overtime and then blew out the Rangers in Game Five at Bell Centre to put the pressure squarely on the Blueshirts. Prior to a hard Boyle forecheck and great pass setting up Moore’s great series winner near the conclusion of the second period, an acrobatic Lundqvist made a ridiculous save to rob Thomas Vanek. If he scores there, who knows.
They protected the 1-0 lead to get Lundqvist the shutout. It was bedlam at The Garden. It’s still the best game I’ve ever attended given the thrilling circumstances of seeing this team clinch the Wales Conference Trophy on home ice. A true wow did that really happen kind of magic moment. It was exhilaration in the stands. The first Stanley Cup appearance since 1994.
If only they had won the whole damn thing. As it turned out, Staples Center became the new house of horrors. Two goal leads blown in the third periods of Games 1 and 2. The uncalled Dwight King goaltender interference didn’t help matters. Neither did Vigneault opting to sit back and protect the lead against a bigger, stronger and more skilled opponent that wore them down in the third before putting the pin in the Ranger Voodoo doll to kill our souls in overtime. When they didn’t show up ready for a must win Game Three, it was over. Sure. They won Game Four and had a great chance at taking Game Five in Hollywood before the painful final script. What if they’d forced Game Six at MSG? I definitely think there’s a Game 7.
Instead, they failed miserably on power play chances in sudden death while Jonathan Quick stoned Kreider on a breakaway I thought he was scoring on. Then the cruel ending by of all people, Alec Martinez who also did in the Blackhawks. Go figure. It’s a sequence I’d like to forget or erase like the image of four Blueshirts standing around as Henrique put a loose puck by Lundqvist two years prior under Tortorella.
Sometimes, sports are cruel. They can break your heart. I’m still forever thankful I got to see this hexed franchise win in ’94 as a high school senior. Just to see the sheer joy it gave our Dad meant everything. I don’t know if they’ll ever get that close again as the 2014 Cup Final or third period of Game Seven in 2015 when it all went wrong. Of course, there was no Zuccarello either due to that crazy McDonagh shot he took off the helmet that nearly ended his career. It’s still astonishing that he made it all the way back. He is an inspiration and will always remain beloved in NYC.
I wish I could just throw away what happened in 2016 and 2017 with the latter proving to be the bitter end of some very good Ranger teams. I still can’t believe they lost in the second round to Ottawa and went out with a whimper at home Game Six. Yes. Sadly, we were there for the final postseason game of a heartbreaking decade. One filled with almosts instead of a fifth Stanley Cup Championship.
The window officially closed after that May night. It’s more astonishing that that Senators team nearly beat the eventual repeat champion Pens. They had to dig deep and work sudden death to win that series. Crazy. Look where they are now. Anthony Duclair is now their top finisher. How’s that for irony? The same player included in a package for Keith Yandle, who was good here in his year and a half but misused by AV. Remember how he underutilized Eric Staal? Wow. Talk about a waste.
You know. I don’t hate Vigneault. He had his way of coaching and was very successful in the Big Apple. So close to consecutive Cup appearances. The forwards simply didn’t get it done in that Game Seven. Blame whoever you want. The defense was the walking wounded with McDonagh, Girardi, Staal, Yandle and Kevin Klein all playing hurt. Had Mac been healthy, that might’ve been enough to win. Oh well.
Instead, here we are with a rebuilding team in Year Two looking like it’ll be three straight seasons without the playoffs under David Quinn. It’s not easy to get back when you’ve subtracted so many players who meant so much during that era. I left out Kevin Hayes, who certainly developed well under Vigneault by becoming a responsible two-way center. He struggled in those runs, but improved leaps and bounds by the time the team moved on from him last February. He now is part of an AV Flyers team that looks destined for at least a wildcard and could make some similar noise to his New York teams.
I didn’t forget the key contributions of Artem Anisimov, Brandon Dubinsky or Rick Nash either. They are tied together due to the trade with Columbus where Torts still coaches and is trying to work miracles with while Artemi Panarin stars on Broadway. Former teammates Sergei Bobrovsky, Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel have also moved on from their astonishing first round sweep of the Lightning, who may as well be the symbol of playoff chokers for the decade. Look at the talent Jon Cooper has to work with. They’re not even in playoff position at Christmas break.
The thing about those teams that included Marian Gaborik, Carl Hagelin, Brandon Prust, Ruslan Fedotenko, Michael Del Zotto and quality backup goalies Cam Talbot and Antti Raanta, is they had a lot of pieces. But just never could get over the hump.
There are so many memorable moments. The Game Seven elimination of the Ovechkin Capitals in Washington. A huge Game Six victory at Ottawa to stave off early elimination after finishing with the East’s most points. Del Zotto finishing off the Caps in an equally tough second round highlighted by a last second Richards tying goal and a Staal overtime power play winner. Yes. He actually played PP! Or Richards to Gaborik to win a huge game in sudden death. There were a lot of magic moments vs the Caps. I bet they were glad not to see Lundqvist or 2015 second round heroes Kreider, McDonagh and Stepan in 2018 when they finally won. They still had to go through the Pens.
So, in summing up a decade of Rangers hockey, it was pretty damn good. They missed the playoffs in 2010 due to the stinking shootout in Philly in Game 82. Olli Jokinen… They would make the postseason the next seven years. There were some good runs and big games at 33rd and 8th Avenue. Believe it or not, MSG used to sound pretty lively before the renovation and escalating ticket and concession costs priced many passionate fans out of the building. They created a library by separating the real fans from celebrities. That’s all Dolan cares about now.
So, who deserves inclusion on the All Decade Team? I’m going to go 1-5 forward lines with extras. Eight D. Three goalies. And one coach. No. It won’t be Quinn. No complaints.
RANGERS ALL DECADE TEAM
Line 1: Kreider-Stepan-Zuccarello
The biggest performers of that era. All were instrumental throughout the decade including the runs. Step to CK extended it in Game Five against Braden Holtby and the Caps. Then the Step drop pass to Mac for the winner that a hustling Jesper Fast created. Yes. He was part of it too. A great move by AV moving him up. The anxiety driven third in DC where Henrik saved their bacon. Then the great face-off play with Step rebounding home the Danny G shot for the series clincher. Zucc only led the team in scoring a few times.
Line 2: Nash-Brassard-Gaborik
Big Game Brass obviously was huge during that era. What a money player he was. From anchoring Zuccarello and Benoit Pouliot on the pivotal third line in ’14 to a starring role in ’15 where no Blueshirt had more points those postseasons (’13 included). Gaborik gets here due to his two 40-goal plus seasons and clutch play vs Caps. They turned him into Brass. Nash may not have had as big an impact, but he was a very good player. If only his stick had a few more goals in it. The injuries didn’t help.
Line 3: Hagelin-Anisimov-Callahan
When you look back at the first part of the decade, it was Ryan Callahan that epitomized those Black & Blueshirt teams. He turned himself into a second line player, who could score on the power play and was a shorthanded threat. Was captain before the infamous Slats trade for St. Louis that included one too many firsts. Artem Anisimov was highly underrated. He was a solid two-way center who could hit 20 goals and play power play and penalty kill. Hagelin was the overachiever who had that great transition speed AV loved. So did Torts. He was terrific five-on-five and on the PK. He beat the Pens in sudden death of Round One in ’15. Played well vs Kings.
Line 4: Hayes-Richards-Miller
All three were good contributors in their time spent on Broadway. Even though he didn’t quite live up to expectations, Richards was a key part of two runs. His clutch tying goal against Washington set up Staal’s winner. His pass for Gaborik was perfect too. Good leader, who was a big factor in the team’s rally vs Pens. Set up MSL for series winner. Both Hayes and JT Miller were good regular season players, who had trouble scoring in the playoffs. Both could be still here if the organization didn’t go in another direction. They’re doing well elsewhere.
Line 5: Dubinsky-Boyle-Moore
Okay. They’re all centers. But these three were key players for those teams. It’s easy to forget Brandon Dubinsky’s impact. He formed a nice bond with Jaromir Jagr early on before working with Callahan and even Anisimov. They were the top line in ’10-11. The Draft Line didn’t last long due to the additions of Richards and Gaborik. Who could forget the shorthanded goal Callahan and Dubinsky combined on before beating the hated Pens in OT? Eventually, Dubi and Arty went for Nash. Boyle was a junkyard dog. Scored over 20 goals under Torts with Brandon Prust and Fedotenko. He always stepped up too. Moore returned after the loss of his wife to cancer. He was a fan favorite. It was poetic that he got the clincher from Boyle to send the Rangers to the SCF.
Extras: RW Martin St. Louis, LW Brandon Prust, RW Jesper Fast, C Mika Zibanejad, LW Daniel Carcillo, RW Derek Dorsett, RW Pavel Buchnevich
It’s hard to include everyone. I had to put Marty St. Louis here when he easily could’ve been higher. He was terrific in that ’14 run scoring the huge OT winner to beat the Habs in Game 4. He struggled in his final year and just didn’t have much left. I am a huge fan of him. Prust was all hustle and grit. How about the Line Brawl that involved him, Prust and Stu Bickel along with Mike Rupp? Carcillo came up big vs his former team, the Flyers in the first round. Dorsett was a gritty fourth liner. Both Fast and Zibanejad are here on merit. Jesper is worth keeping. I love Mika. Can he stay healthy and earn another contract? Buchnevich has had solid production for a third round pick that was part of the Nash deal. However, consistency remains the issue for the talented yet defensively challenged Russian.
D Pair 1: McDonagh-Girardi
You could make the case for Anton Stralman due to how good he was in ’12 and especially ’14. Only good defenseman against LA. I’ll never get why they let him go to the Bolts. Slats replaced him with Dan Boyle, who never quite fit at the end of a superb career. Similar to how Kevin Shattenkirk couldn’t do anything right in his two years. Without Mac and G busting their ass against the top scoring lines while forming a memorable top pair, there’s no three Conference Finals or Stanley Cup trip. While McDonagh gets all the ink for how good overall he was, nobody bled more Blue than the ultimate warrior Girardi. I’m glad he went out on his terms with the Bolts.
D Pair 2: Staal-Stralman
When it finally does end for Marc Staal, he’ll be remembered more fondly by even the harshest critics, who are quick to point out his flaws. The same people who loved the heart he still has. He’s overcome a serious concussion and other injuries due to playing a lot like Girardi. There’s nothing the alternate captain won’t do. He still remains a respected team leader near the end. Stralman is one of Sather’s best moves. When he signed him, Torts didn’t know a lot about the right skating defenseman, who just needed the chance to prove himself. A smooth skater who was good at even strength, he could play power play and PK. Tampa utilized him more on the PP. He’s now in Florida.
D Pair 3: Yandle-Klein
In really assessing the decade success, these two did the most even though they weren’t in the Big Apple too long. Klein is easily forgotten even though he came over from Nashville for Del Zotto and fit in well in the AV system. Who would’ve ever thought that? He was that depth right D they needed. He scored quite a few goals and was steady. Yandle is well documented. With Sather needing another puck moving offensive defenseman, he went all in on Yandle by trading Duclair and more firsts to the Coyotes. Yandle was good in his year plus here producing points. But for some reason, AV preferred him on the third pair and second power play unit. Too bad they didn’t keep him after ’15-16, trading his rights to Florida. He’s been even better there. Will he help the Panthers get back in the playoffs?
Extras: LD Michael Del Zotto, LD Brady Skjei, RD Tony DeAngelo D Steve Eminger
Both Del Zotto and Skjei are similar in that they’re former first round picks that started well early and then dropped off. It’s so easy to omit MDZ from the ’12 run to the Conference Final. But he had his best season and helped close out the Caps. If only the night life didn’t become such a distraction. I’m glad he got it and stayed in the league. Now, he plays more chippy in Anaheim. Skjei had a great first year putting up goals and points while not looking overwhelmed in the playoffs. But AV knew. He protected Skjei from tougher assignments by having him on the third pair. He remains decent offensively but an enigma defensively. Tony DeAngelo is here because there’s not much else on the right-side and he’s developed offensively where he can contribute both at even strength and power play. Too bad he’s likely gone. It could be a big mistake. Steve Eminger makes it over Bickel because he was a better depth D who could adequately fill in. A solid citizen.
Starting Goalie: Henrik Lundqvist
King Henrik as he’s affectionately known certainly has been the backbone of some good Rangers teams that went far. In his Vezina year, he was the main reason they finished first in the East. Money performances in elimination games the first two rounds vs Sens and Caps. Disappointing that he got outplayed by Martin Brodeur. Used to rack up 30 wins or better and the shutouts that remain stuck on 63. Terrific in ’14 going 5-1 in elimination games with his stellar play turning around the Pens series. If only he had been better in overtime vs Kings. Did it again to the Caps to help key the second 3-1 comeback in two consecutive years. The goalie duel between him and Holtby was memorable. It’s unfortunate how it ended at MSG. It’s been downhill since the sour elimination to Craig Anderson and Ottawa.
Backup One: Cam Talbot
Without his brilliant goaltending filling in for a seriously injured Lundqvist due to him taking a dangerous shot off the neck that could’ve ended his life, there’s no President’s Trophy in ’14-15. Talbot was splendid for those two months backstopping the team to first place. He handled everything so well. A excellent interview. It’s too bad he didn’t find similar success elsewhere. He had one big season with Edmonton getting them to the playoffs, but couldn’t duplicate it. Cam will always have a special place in my heart. The backup in Calgary.
Backup Two: Antti Raanta
Acquired from Chicago to replace Talbot, Raanta had a similar good run as the understudy to Hank. When you look at all the success Ranger backups have had, the credit goes to goalie coach Benoit Allaire. He works well with whoever he gets improving them. Even Steve Valiquette would agree. Raanta lasted a couple of years before moving to Arizona. Injuries have put him behind Darcy Kuemper. He could be a starter for someone. Currently the number one with Kuemper week to week.
Extra: Alexandar Georgiev
He’s been here for a little over two years after being signed as a free agent. The Bulgarian bear is cool between the pipes and plays a stand up style similar to Brodeur. He’s had good success since last February putting up better numbers than Henrik. But is the 23-year old the odd man out once Igor Shesterkin is ready? It’s a dicey situation. I like his poise and attitude which doesn’t change following tough games.
Head Coach: Alain Vigneault
As good as his predecessor Tortorella was at setting up the foundation for the team to contend, the more laid back Vigneault was able to take the next step by guiding the Blueshirts to the Stanley Cup Final in 2014. They had to go seven to edge the Flyers and then showed sheer determination and focus to rally from 3-1 down to beat the Pens for the first time. Defeated AV’s former team Montreal in six. If only he’d been more aggressive in those third periods in LA, we could be talking about a Stanley Cup. Was outcoached by Cooper in a gut wrenching ECF and the same by Guy Boucher in the ’17 Conference Semis. He still was very successful even though it ended badly. Now trying to do the same with Flyers.
Well, that’ll finally do it. Not a moment too soon with the Rangers returning tonight from holiday break to play Carolina. Any disagreements? Vent away. Happy Holidays! 🎅