Mike Richter

A Red Letter Day

All I want is what you want
I’m always waiting for a red letter day
Like Christmas morning when you’re a kid
Admit you love me and you always did
Baby, I’m hoping for that red letter day today

A red letter day is any day of special significance.  Of course, I was alerted to its meaning by a Pet Shop Boys song.  I can’t ever really say I used the term just for shits and giggles before now, however.

For the Rangers and specifically Henrik Lundqvist, May 13th has held special significance in their history.  According to some folks on Twitter and the Rangers forums I follow (I’d like to attribute this stat to someone, so if you can get me a link, it would be greatly appreciated), this is something interesting:

5/13/13: Henrik 35 saves, Rangers win Game 7
5/13/14: Henrik 35 saves, Rangers win Game 7
5/13/15: Henrik 35 saves, Rangers win Game 7

Two things stand out: 35 saves.  Game 7s.

If I had known that this was a series that Rangers like to extend to Game 7 if only to give us all agita, maybe I could’ve  handled a 3-1 deficit a little bit better.  But it seems like when a few of us were about to give up (namely, myself and Ranger buddy KB – we were just disgusted, and she was about to start hanging up her Ranger skates and follow the Lightning more closely, I was just pissed off they didn’t LOSE), the Rangers score.  And they score again.  And they win.  They win again.

They win again.

And the number 35 is significant or a “red letter” number if you will for the Rangers: our last Stanley Cup winning goalie WORE the number 35.

11231096_10206842438684770_2496654098570330887_n  Other red letter days in Rangers history took place that Stanley Cup winning year as well.  A team they owned in the regular season fought back, and clawed their way to a seven game series.  Only to have the Rangers win in OT in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

Kind of funny how that works.  See, in that round, a player by the name of Stephane Matteau scored that game winner in a very stressful series.

In this series, a player by the name of Derek Stepan scored the game winner.

Stephane? Stepan? Stepan! Matteau!

Backs against the wall, Captain Mark Messier makes a declaration, and backs it up with a champion’s performance.

Backs against the wall, Captain Ryan McDonagh scores a definitive goal to keep his Rangers team alive.

Back in 1994, when the Rangers were down 2-0 in what could have potentially been an elimination game against the Devils, I guess I was naive enough to think that somehow the Rangers would pull it off.  My dad on the other hand gave me the “talk” about what it’s like to be a Rangers fan.  Then they win, and I’ll never forget the Dad-man singing, “Happy days are here again.”

This year, I’m on Twitter just SKEWERING the team for not showing up in the playoffs.  I told someone in a forum that I guess he hasn’t been watching the series because this team hasn’t been demonstrative at all.  Then they score a tying goal.  Then a winning goal in OT.  And then they shut me up by winning the goddamn thing.

So I guess my point is, we have days of special significance in our lives, they stand for something important and meaningful.  For me, that day proved that I can’t ever doubt this team, ever.  Someone is going to come through, someone is going to carry the team on their back, someone is going to stand up and say, “We’re not going to take this.”

Oh, and remember that whole thing about a team owning another in the 1994 Eastern Conference playoffs?  The Rangers had a phenomenal record against New Jersey that year, yet a Game 7 was forced.

This year, Tampa Bay basically annihilated the Rangers in the regular season.  By the way, the Rangers also were Regular Season “Champs.”

What does that say?

This series is about to get really interesting.

What, you thought it ended last series??? You thought this would be easy?

MUHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

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That Was Yesterday

A lot can transpire in 18 years.  A newborn then can now not only possess a license but can vote and is graduating high school.  That same child’s parent may be wondering where the time has gone, as they give their child the keys to the family car or signs the first tuition check.  Someone may be planning their 20 year reunion from high school. A loved one may have passed away, you may be pulling six figures in a job where you were a lowly analyst 18 years ago.  You may be living in a different part of the country.  Or you may have just stayed put from where you grew up, but you don’t recall having a 36-inch waist 18 years ago.

Eighteen years ago, the New York Rangers ended their 54-year Stanley Cup drought by defeating the Vancouver Canucks in a heated seven-game series.  Prior to that, the Rangers defeated the rival New Jersey Devils, also in a heated seven-game series, in the Eastern Conference Finals, where the word “Matteau” is a dirty word to most Devils fans to this day, though they themselves have had success in winning three cups in response while the Rangers have won none.  In that time period, the rivalries shifted from Rangers/Flyers and Rangers/Isles to Rangers/Devils.

Tonight kicks off the Rangers and Devils duking it out in the Eastern Conference Finals again, where winner continues to the Stanley Cup finals, and the other team goes home to shave.

To this Ranger fan, the only thing that remains similar to that series 18 years ago is that Martin Brodeur is still the goalie for the Devils. And even he’s 18 years older.  And that’s about it.  The ownership has changed for the Rangers, the coaches have changed, the team has certainly changed.

Sure, there are similarities.  But it’s NOT the same.

The Devils have won three cups since the last time these two teams faced off in the finals.  The storied guys that helped them on those runs with names like Scott Stevens and Ken Daneyko are long since retired.  The last cup was in 2003.  That was 10 years ago.  Eighteen years ago, the Devils were playing in the Swamp.  Now they play in a nice new arena called Prudential Center.

The Rangers have visited the Eastern Conference Finals one other time since then, and it was lackluster.  They’ve since had their storied guys not only retire, but their numbers are now enshrined.  Names like Richter, Messier, Leetch and Graves are now hanging from the rafters at the Garden, where the Rangers have stayed but the refurnishing of it makes it seem like a brand new arena.

The 1994 team was full of mercenaries and then there was Brian Leetch and Mike Richter, who came up with the team.  Neil Smith, then-GM, thought it prudent to trade away the future and try to recapture some of the Edmonton Oilers success.  This ultimately led to changes at the top, such as Glen Sather coming in and trying to do the same recipe.  Until he realized it no longer worked.

Apparently, there is some pact with Sather and James Dolan that we’re not privy to that will only happen if the Rangers make the “big” finals.  Because of that, Sather started to focus less on the free agent mercenaries and allowed the growth movement to start from within.  Guys like Lundqvist, Callahan, Girardi, sprinkled with guys like Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik.  It’s no longer Mike Keenan but John Tortorella.  Dave Checketts isn’t pissing off his talent, but it’s now

True, those guys in 1994 were very hard working.  But they were mostly established.  Messier had won several championships.  He was the Captain of all Captains.  Callahan wears his “C” with pride, but he believes in the team work ethic that clearly trickles to the rest of the team.

To think that this is some sort of “revenge” match-up, to think this is something of a “torch passing” of a fat overrated goalie to the future of goaltending, diminishes what this series is all about.  To call this is a revenge series is laughable because, I don’t know call me crazy, isn’t three cups in an eight year span one that says, “Hey, we’re not so bad either guys.”

These are two teams that have worked very hard to get to the finals, and will work harder to get to the next level.

To me, the differences are clear.  Yet most of all, 18 years ago was a long long time ago.  Nine years ago was long long time ago.  Then was then.  This is now.

Only the Names Have Changed

Back then, the names on the jerseys were Messier, Leetch, Graves, Richter.  There might have been a Gilbert or Ratelle jersey in the mix.  I might have even seen a Gartner jersey.

Now, the jerseys say Gaborik, Callahan, Richards, Lundqvist.

This, of course, is my trip to TGI Friday’s on 34th St and 8th Avenue, a few blocks north of the Garden.

Gabby the Ranger bear anxiously awaits the opening faceoff while dining at Friday's.

It’s sacrilegious you know, since I do live in New York City, to go to of all places a chain restaurant that merely serves to set itself up as a tourist trap.  Well, bear in mind that once upon a time I actually was one of those…yes, I was a tourist.  I was also 18 years old, not of legal drinking age, and when the Rangers won the Cup in 1994, my dad and I wanted to be near the celebrations.  I could only imagine what places like Mustang Harry’s or Blarney Rock were like in 1994.  All I know is, when I walk past this Friday’s, I get the warm fuzzies, knowing my dad and I were there for the final three games of the series against Vancouver which led to the moment that would last a lifetime, as Sam Rosen called it.  (And by the way, I will miss him for the rest of the playoffs, which are of course to be determined to go as long as they do with how the Rangers perform.)

So Dad and I got a chance to go to the playoffs.  We went last year, to a crushing loss in overtime to the Capitals, and I was thinking this may deja vu all over again.  See, we went to home game two (which is what these are labeled as on the ticket), and I was also coming down with a cold in 2011.  This year, I had a full blown cold, but I’m feeling better now, thank you very much.  The Rangers lost that game in overtime, when Henrik Lundqvist did his best impression of a closer in a non-save situation, as he was fronted a three goal lead, and still managed to give up four unanswered.

I hemmed and hawed.  I wanted to go to a game, but for all I know, it could have been a sweep (it won’t be) and tickets to game five would be moot.  So I threw caution to the wind, and invited Dad and we went.

Dad and I were joking around during game seven in the last series, when I said I should go back to Friday’s for old time’s sake.  Try to get some good energy.  When I told him we were going to game two, I said we should go there for a pregame.

My dad hasn’t touched alcohol in years, but he feels at home at a bar.  It’s odd because he just gravitates towards people, and well, where do people congregate?  A bar!  I drink, as you all know, but since I was under the weather, I wasn’t feeling it.  So we split an appetizer and two soft drinks.  It didn’t break the bank, but we got a kick out of the $19 cheeseburger.

Shit.  Don’t people know you can walk like eight blocks up to Shake Shack for a fraction of cost?  And it’s a far superior burger?

Dad was pretty anxious to get in, about an hour before.  He needed to get his game face on, and so did I.  I also introduced Marian Gaborik, aka Gabby Bear, to playoff hockey.  She was born in December during a game in the Team Store, so this is her first experience.  As we walked into the security bag check, the usher said, “Oh I see we’ve got our mascot here.”  He lifted her out of the bag, and she yelled, “YAAAAAAAHHHHHH!” as she’s wont to do during a game, especially after a goal.  She’s a wild one, all right, like her mom.  She loves junk food, especially french fries and chips (of any kind), is a brawler unlike her namesake.

 

The 50 or so minutes we had to kill before the game went quickly, as before I knew it, John Amirante was out psyching up the crowd during his rousing rendition of the Star Spangled Banner.

   

But I guess the rally towels they handed out as we walked into the arena were only good for show, as the Rangers quickly found themselves in a 2-0 hole.  That literally should have been a 1-0 at best deficit, but Henrik decided to get fancy at one point.  Do what you do best, Henke: guard the fucking net.

But they managed to tie it up by coming from behind, only to lose on a bullshit call with a bullshit penalty.  It was like the refs wanted to keep the Capitals in the game.  Although they were in it.

I didn’t think of this as a wrenching or crushing loss.  It was just a loss.  Not like last year as I sat there, with a bad chest cold coming on, wanting to die as they went into OT, where they shouldn’t have been anyway.  I knew the series was over, although technically, it took the Caps a game to finish that deed off.

Tonight was different.  I guess after such a stressful first round, you don’t sweat the small stuff.  You’re going to win some games, you’re going to lose some games.  Shit happens.  Both teams played equally well.  The Caps may scare me, but I think the Rangers can take ’em, and let last season seem like a fluke.  In fact, it only shows this won’t be nearly as easy as we thought.  It will be interesting.  It will be a challenge.

It will be what hockey playoffs are supposed to be.

Yet, I’ve come a long way, because I didn’t have to stay at Friday’s to watch the game, I was able to actually go to the game.

Fridays might not have changed all that much, though.  In fact, my dad pointed out the brass rail that some crazy homeless dude who got into the bar almost tore off the wall during the Rangers wins.  “He Shoots! He SCORES!” the guy kept yelling, as he was falling all over the place.

But instead of “TGI Fridays” it’s branded as “Fridays.”  The names on the jerseys may show Messier, Leetch or Richter, but there are Callahan, Gaborik and Lundqvist.

A new generation, but same old Rangers fans.  And only the names have changed on the back of the jerseys.  The excitement and the heart of playoff hockey still rings true 18 years later.

The Unsung Hero

In baseball, some positions often are called “premium” or positions that can easily be “platooned.”  As an example, the 1986 Mets had a “platoon” at second base between Tim Teufel and Wally Backman (now, ironically, coaches within the Mets system).  It’s easy to get away with platoons at positions up the middle of the infield, and yet at catcher, a so-called “premium position,” there’s less guesswork.  Gary Carter was possibly one of the best defensive (not to mention offensive) catchers of his generation, and the Mets were lucky enough to have him.  At a premium position, it’s tougher to platoon since you technically need that strong play at every moment you can.  When Carter was hurt for a spell in ’86, Ed Hearn jumped in.  Hearn, though, was purely a “backup” catcher.  And there was technically enough offense to cover where he lacked in it.  Same goes for Barry Lyons the next season.  Or Todd Pratt and Jason Phillips when they, at one point or another, backed-up starter and All-Star Mike Piazza.

Hockey is different.  The elite goaltenders are few and far between, and more of the game hinges on their spectacular play.  They need to be smart, they need to be agile, and furthermore they need to combine all that to stand on their heads at times to make saves.  We’ve been fortunate that in the past, Mike Richter was one of those guys for the New York Rangers.  His back-up in the 1993-94 Stanley Cup run was Glenn Healy — a guy who could have by most standards been a starter someplace else.  As lucky as we Ranger fans are to have Henrik Lundqvist as our starter, it was a foregone conclusion that he needed a break every now and then, since a majority of the success of the team in 2010-11 was based on his performance.

Yes, hockey folks, a backup is just as a important for the goaltender spot on teams as their starter.  And luckily, the unsung hero of this 2011-12 team is none other than Marty Biron.  It’s comforting when your #1 goalie isn’t in the game that the backup can do a hell of a job not only filling in, but winning.

In baseball, the pitcher gets the stress of the whole win-loss thing, but some will argue that the W/L stat is one of the most overrated, while WHIP or ERA can provide a better picture.  In hockey though, much rides on the success and bulletproofness of a goalie.  Our King Henrik may be the guy we want starting every night, but John Tortorella has the right idea to give Biron the starts since theoretically, we’d rather save those crucial starts for the star goalie when it’s truly critical (like later in the season and in the playoffs).

The number of games Biron has started may skew the sample set a bit, but right now he’s sporting a 2.06 Goals-Against-Average (GAA), very respectable in its own right.  Our own Henke is according to the leaderboards fourth with 1.92 (the gold standard seems to be right around 1.90).  True Biron’s only played in 11 games, but it’s better to not give up many goals in those small amount of games, am I right?  As for others in this same position, the Boston Bruins have Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask in almost a straight platoon, and very similar numbers.

I’m the only one who has thought that Marty Biron’s performance has gone above and beyond the call of duty.  Blueshirt Banter believes the Rangers are doing right with Henke and Biron. Tortorella gave his vote of confidence by starting Biron three out of seven games as late as last month, not only spelling the rumors of giving Henke regular rest, but to give Biron some credit that he’s doing a good job.  Lastly, the Rangers have a lot of depth — at many positions.  NHL.com has eight reasons why the Rangers are in first — depth is one of them, Marian Gaborik’s performance is another, but Biron’s performance has given them a comfort level that they can still lean on Lundqvist, but it’s not as evident as it has been.

It seems the recipe for a good hockey team is to have a strong net minder.  This much is true.  I make no bones that I watch this team with a lot of excitement and enthusiasm, and they portray that on the ice each night, even on crappy nights.   To me, though, Marty Biron is one of the reasons why they are performing the way they are.  Perhaps the stepping up of Ryan Callahan as the “true” captain of the team, the pressure of free agent signing Bradley Richards is nonexistent, and likewise the pressure off Henrik Lundqvist having to be on this A-game every single night is out the window.  Marty Biron deserves a lot of credit for why the Rangers are where they are right now, and hopefully it’s the base for the future of this team for the year as well.

Dirty Laundry

A little bit of loyalty goes a long way...for fans AND players.

I was 13 years old when I first had my heart broken.  True story.  My dad called me after school one day and said, there’s a rumor the Rangers might trade Tony Granato.

WHAAAAAAAAAAAAATTTTT?????  I had to calm myself down and take a walk around my suburban neighborhood.  I had become a Ranger fan for good earlier that year (1989), when my dad took me to see some dude named Mario Lemieux play for the Pittsburgh Penguins against the New York Rangers, where another dude named Brian Leetch scored a shorthanded goal.  Hard to believe I was sitting in an arena with future hockey hall of famers, yet when I was thumbing through the program I saw two pictures that made my heart soar as a teeny-bopper 13 year old: Tony Granato and John Vanbiesbrouck.  Granato was also another rookie who came up along with Brian Leetch — defenseman of the future — and Beezer was a fan fave.

But to trade *my* favorite player and the hottest guy on the team?  Heart wrenching.  I could only imagine what my mom might have gone through when the Beatles broke up, as a girl of 14.

Yet, it prepared me.  Granato was traded, and the Rangers ended up winning the Cup a few years later on the back of hard workers like Mark Messier, Mike Richter, Adam Graves and Brian Leetch.  Leetch, who should have been a Ranger-lifer, was traded in the last few years of his career, but still came back to hoist his number to the rafters.

Cutting ties with Beezer was easier to take when it happened (especially since I loved Mike Richter). When my crush Gregg Jefferies was traded for Bret Saberhagen, my dad called me to break the news.  Expecting a shriek, I said, “Well, it’s Saberhagen.  He’s good.”  My objectivity kept me grounded.  And I learned to not get attached to certain players.

And that my friends, is our lesson of the day: you root for the name on the front of the jersey, not on the back.

Gone are the days, as Frank at NY Fan in South Jersey, of the Cal Ripkens and Tony Gwynns of the world: baseball greats who are synonymous with the teams for which they played.  I don’t count the Yankees’ “core” of Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera because they overpay for the first two and Mo is a freak of nature.  Pretty much, we have the Houston Astros, whose Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell (to a lesser extent Lance Berkman) who are all over the leaderboards for the team but were also there for a generation, and Atlanta Braves’ Larry Jones.  Don’t give me the “Big Three” as an example: Tom Glavine left for the hated Mets (to them, not to me, of course) at one point and Greg Maddux, hypocrite who wanted to stay with the Cubs but opted for money, fame and championship caliber baseball in Atlanta.  Not like I can blame him.  I’m sure many of us would do the same thing.

The concept of the “hometown discount” is dead.  I would say you heard it here first, though many on Twitter said so today and even our very own Metstradamus said as much yesterday.  The Mets lost Jose Reyes, but this isn’t a team known for cultivating their own talent and keeping their homegrown players.  It should not surprise us nor should it be unexpected that this would happen.  Steve Keane at Kranepool Society said that he knew the Mets wouldn’t sign Reyes, and as he said a few months ago on our Kult of Mets Personalities podcast, that he actually thought Alderson HOPED someone would give Reyes a six-year contract.  Someone did, and we see the fallout from that.  We can only hope that it turns out to be a 20/20 hindsight good move.

Yet, I was surprised…nay, SHOCKED, really…that Albert Pujols left the Cardinals.  Yes, I know he and the Cards couldn’t come to an agreement before the season.  But I also know that people counted the Cards out when Wainwright was hurt.  And hey, did you hear who won the World Series this year?

But raise your hand if you thought if there was such a thing as “company loyalty” left in baseball, there was such a thing as a “hometown discount,” that Pujols would have typified that.   **RAISES BOTH HANDS AND FEET**  Yeah, I am that chick.  I hear all these great stories about the fans in St. Louis, how loyal they are, how every player LOVES playing there, no one ever wants to leave.  Even careers get rejuvenated in St. Lou.  Look at Berkman, who seemed like he left his best years behind in Houston.  Even though Pitchers Hit 8th told me that Pujols pretty much stated he wasn’t looking for a hometown discount, I didn’t believe it.

There is Larry Jones.  There is Derek Jeter.  But these guys are exceptions to the rule that the name on the back of the jersey does not trump the name on the front of the jersey (yet, if you talked to Jeter’s GM Brian Cashman last year, he made negotiations uncomfortable by telling Jeter to get another offer better than the one they were offering).

I was 13 years old when I learned my lesson.  That you’re only as good as the team you play on, and if you can get a better return in value, then that happens too.  I’m not saying we can’t get attached to our favorite players (I am accepting of losing Reyes, but I will still miss him and wonder “what could have been”), but if we realize that we root for a larger entity as fans — the “laundry” — we’ll save ourselves much pain and anguish in the long-run.

Proceed With Caution

The Rangers are proceeding “with caution” in regards to Marc Staal’s concussion symptoms.  What surprises me is that post-concussion syndrome stuff is being addressed from a hit he took on the ice in February (by his brother, ironically), and he sat all summer with this.  I mean, nothing against Staal, I hope he takes care of himself and is back on the ice before we know it.  My problem, though, is with the treatment, not just of hockey players but of players who are prone to concussions, specifically due to big hits and subsequent brain injuries.

I know I discussed this the other day in my post on hockey’s dark side.  But it’s not just hockey, football players get concussions as a matter of course almost and now even baseball players (notably, Jason Bay in 2010 ran into a wall and missed the entire season, and it took him a good half-season to get back into things, and even Ryan Church who was on the Mets in 2008 flew cross-country with a brain injury before experiencing post-concussion symptoms) are joining in on the non-fun.

I guess because of Eric Lindros, and two of my favorite players of all-time Pat LaFontaine and ’94 Ranger great Mike Richter had to retire prematurely due to post-concussion syndrome, I am a little gunshy about hearing things like “proceeding with caution” (which is a good thing) to “flying with the team to Stockholm” (bad thing), which is what they are talking about doing with Staal.  Look, I know Staal’s health is critical to the team’s health.  But if they are truly to proceed with caution, wouldn’t flying to Stockholm be in effect a bad idea? I would hate, you know, to see the Rangers put money over the health of one of their best players.

Maybe I’m just being overly cautious myself or feeling that way anyway, since a blogger-with-shitty-opinions’ opinions don’t weigh much on the organizational health of my favorite hockey team.  I guess in a summer where several hockey players died tragically indirectly or perhaps more directly to head injuries sustained on the ice, and former NFL player Dave Duerson took his own life with a suicide note attached saying to donate his brain to the NFL Bank…causing other NFL alums and writers to speak out on behalf of players who become depressed because of diminished capacity after suffering long-term concussion effects, and causing non-pro levels to listen with care about potential backlash due to concussive symptoms…I mean, these are “tough guys” who are supposed to take it “like a man” and not complain, but the truth is, these guys are hurting.  It’s in their nature to not speak up, or therefore look like a pansy.  The fact of the matter is, it is a problem, and someone needs to think about it.

Perhaps it is I,though, who is thinking overly cautious, or putting a value on the effects of this stuff.  I guess when I’ve seen so much of this in all the sports I watch, and then cringe each time Jason Bay has to get too close to a wall, or Mike Richter has to retire before his time…I guess I can think that flying Staal across the ocean to play in two games when he’s been sitting on this injury for SEVEN MONTHS is a bit excessive and he can sit out the first few games of the season.