To be a fan of the New York Rangers has historically been difficult. Older fans will remember an era of the six-team NHL, especially the 40s, 50s and early 60s, when more often than not they’d finish without an appearance in the playoffs, difficult considering two-thirds of the league did so at the time. And save for one gloriously aberrative season in 1993-94 when the gutty Brian Leetch, the exemplary Mark Messier, the graceful Mike Richter and the pure luck of Stephane Matteau converged to lead the ‘Gers to the best record in hockey and yes, the Stanley Cup, it’s mostly been one disappointment after another.
I came to my own fandom shortly after the league’s first expansion in 1967, an era where the 400 level seats at the Garden were both available and reasonably priced, and on occasion they’d even win a playoff round or two. I celebrated that inspiring triumph on that hot summer night where they finally knocked a 54-year-old monkey off their backs with a seventh game triumph over the Vancouver Canucks.
But this is now the 30th anniversary of that championship. That’s a generation. I grew up hearing the taunts of Islanders fans singing NINETEEN FORTY, commemorating the year the most recent Cup prior to that had been won. There’s probably some creative internet troll out there somewhere that could easily update that to NINETY FOUR, DWEEB, or something like that.
So forgive me and some other long-suffering fans for being more than a little excited–and surprised–to wake up as the 2023-24 NHL season hits the quarter pole to acknowledge that even after a disapponting loss to the struggling Buffalo Sabres last night at MSG, the New York Rangers are tied for the best record in the entire National Hockey League.
For many doubters, it is a feather in the cap of those who chose to go against the grain and cheer the appointment of Peter Laviolette as coach. As the NEW YORK POST’s outstanding and engaging Mollie Walker lamented last summer when he was hired, there were many doubting Thomases, not to mention a few Arthurs and Dons:
Though other legitimate options, such as ex-Predators coach John Hynes, emerged, Laviolette was identified early on in the process after the 58-year-old had been dismissed from the Capitals in mid-April.
Laviolette may not be the ground-breaking hire fans yearn for.
It’s understandably difficult to get excited about a coach who either hasn’t qualified for the postseason or made it out of the first round in five years.
What no one can argue with, however, is the big picture of Laviolette’s NHL coaching career and his overall track record.
He has led not one, not two, but three different organizations to the Stanley Cup Final — winning it all with the Carolina Hurricanes in just his fourth season as a NHL head coach in 2005-06.
And as Walker updated in her write-up of this weekend’s stirring victory over one of the other 31-point teams at this juncture, their respective maturity and composure is both earned and tempered:
The Rangers view themselves as a veteran team, and they have acted accordingly.
That is why there was not one declaration about the club’s big-picture success this season from any player following their notable 7-4 win over the Bruins on Saturday afternoon at the Garden. It was just Game No. 19 of 82, in which they came to the rink to do their job and happened to do it well against a reputable opponent.
There was no grand reflection on their NHL-best 15-3-1 record and .816 points percentage.
This team has felt the highs of an impromptu run to the conference final, the lows of an unexpected first-round exit and the burden that comes with starting over season after season in the midst of a championship window.
The truth is, the Stanley Cup isn’t awarded in November.
These Rangers know that and are maintaining the necessary level-headed approach to make it to when it’s actually hoisted in June.
Last year, the Rangers made a late-season rush on high-profile veterans, pulling off trades for veteran Blackhawks star Patrick Kane and the Blues’ prolific Vladimir Tarasenko in a push to end their drought. That push lasted all of five post-season games and the firing of coach Gerard Gallant. Both Kane and Tarasenko have moved on, Tarasenko now in Ottawa and Kane in purgatory.
And this year, they’re missing even more leadership and talent, as Walker further reminds:
A franchise-record 15 wins through the first 19 games of a season is no small feat, but the real accomplishment is that they’ve done it without two key players in nine of those contests.
Not only have the Rangers been without their No. 1 defenseman, Adam Fox, and their second-line center, Filip Chytil, but this is the first real significant injury blow the team has endured in quite some time.
In last night’s loss to the Sabres, defenseman Kaapo Kakko joined the list.
But another veteran, former Kings goalie Jonathan Quick, has stepped up as a stopper, and Laviolette is quick to heap praise on others as well:
“I think there’s been really good leadership in the room, (i)t starts with Jacob Trouba, who has been an absolute warrior for our team. With regard to him, he played really well [Saturday], but he did that on top of 28 minutes in a really physical game [the day before in Philadelphia]. That’s the captain of your team, setting the tone [Friday] and then backing it up with another great performance. “I think that that stems through the room to the other leaders and that trickles down to a guy like Will Cuylle, who you saw went to battle [Friday]. I do think that that’s set inside of the room, starts with guys like Trouba, Mika [Zibanejad], [Chris Kreider], [Artemi Panarin], [Vincent Trocheck].”
Sure, it’s a LONG way to next summer. The Rockefeller Center Christmas tree isn’t even lit yet. A long, cold winter awaits. But with New York’s basketball teams struggling, its baseball teams dormant, its football teams borderline unwatchable and the Islanders and Devils mediocre so far, it’s the Rangers who are perhaps the one reason for any excitement among pro sports fans in the Tri-State area at the moment.
So you go right ahead and cheer, all of you in the Blues. Violet(te)’s the color of royalty, you know.