Yes, I’m a proud New York native. For years, I drove with a license plate that read XWYRKR. I got a lot of unwanted attention, and a few more parking tickets that I had wanted.
Because back when I had that telltale plate, there were a lot of winning pro teams. Particularly in the winter and spring. And it reached its zenith in the spring of 1994, yes, nearly 30 years ago, when all five New York metropolitan area teams reached the post-season in the same year. As Ethan Sears of the New York Post recalled this morning:
Just how good was that two-month span in 1994?
Good enough that a summer in which the baseball season was canceled is still remembered fondly around here — and that is saying something.
No less than three intracity playoff series took place that year.
The Rangers beat the Islanders in the first round before a classic Game 7 win over the Devils in the conference finals.
In the NBA, the Rangers’ Madison Square Garden cotenants, the Knicks, beat the Nets in the first round.
The Garden hosted the Stanley Cup Final, as the Rangers broke a 54-year championship drought, and the NBA Finals, as the Knicks lost in seven games to the Rockets.
For the Rangers, Mark Messier made The Guarantee ahead of Game 6 against New Jersey and Stephane Matteau scored in Game 7.
The Knicks vanquished their demons against the Bulls and Pacers, with Patrick Ewing’s dunk sealing Game 7 over Indiana after Spike Lee’s taunting egged Reggie Miller on to score 39 points in Game 5.
That was the stuff of legend, even as NBC relegated the NBA Finals to the corner of the screen to focus on the O.J. Simpson Bronco chase.
But now, at lost last, the five-for-five post-season accomplishment has reoccurred. With a 4-2 season-ending victory over the Montreal Canadiens at their still-gleaming Belmont Park adjacent UBS Arena last night, the Islanders officially qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs to complete the field. The ‘Ders, as my longtime friend Frankie has nicknamed them, have flirted with relevance in recent years, particularly in the pandemic-impacted seasons where they made it to the conference finals. Their road there will be a bit more daunting this year, as their wild card only gives them a shot at division champion Carolina or the record-breaking Boston Bruins. That said, the Islanders have beaten the Bruins in all three prior post-season matchups, including a four-game sweep of them over Memorial Day weekend two years ago. And with a hot goaltender, as the ‘Ders currently have in Ilya Sorokin, anything is possible.
The Rangers have their own hot goalie in Igor Shesterskin, and could be headed for a reunion the Devils. The Devils have merely been THE turnaround team of the league this year, already with 47 more points than they had last year, where they finished with the #2 overall pick in the draft. They were supposed to be improved, but their degree of overachievement has left many pundits in disbelief. A Rangers-Devils matchup could easily approach the kind of fervor we saw in 1994.
As for basketball, the Nets have endured perhaps the most drama-filled season in league history, a series of disappointments and scandals befitting of the Steinbrenner-era days of their YES network partners, the Yankees, to somehow wind up with a #6 seed and a matchup with the always dramatic Philadelphia 76ers. WIth Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and ex-coach Steve Nash all gone, what’s left of this team has rallied around new coach Jacque Vaughn and the most impressive acquisition from Phoenix that came in exchange for Durant, Mikel Bridges. He’s already become a folk hero, given the creative nickname “Brooklyn”.
And the Knicks have their own storyline with their 5-4 matchup with Cleveland. Led by their fall-on-their-sword off-season acquisition Jalen Brunson, they are heading into a battle with the landing spot for their originally coveted free agent desire, Donovan Mitchell. These are two up-and-coming teams. And MSG in the spring, when fans aren’t uncumbered by layers of winter coats, can be ridiculously loud. Even at partial capacity in 2021 when a more talented Atlanta Hawks team made short work of them yet again, the Garden’s decibel level was scary. Game 3 of this series, regardless of the results of the first two in Believeland, will likely break records.
And as Sears recounts, younger fans simply have never seen anything like this:
The Knicks largely have been relegated to laughingstocks, the Nets have been afterthoughts and the Rangers have consistently fallen short of a title.
The Devils won two Cups in the early 2000s, but last won a playoff series in 2012, while the Islanders have gotten no closer than the NHL’s final four, losing to the Lightning in 2020 and 2021.
It’s still too early in the baseball season for fans to be as emotional as they often get, even if the weather in the Tri-State area is more like July than April. And football shouldn’t be as top-of-mind as it is. Aaron Rodgers is still in Green Bay, Saquon Barkley is coming back, and we’re still three months from training camp. And the New Jersey Generals are playing their USFL home games in Canton, Ohio.
So settle in, fans. It’s gonna be a busy spring. And hopefully a winning one. I’ll be the one with the far less conspicuous license plate driving people around and hopefully engaging a few in listening.