“Does it upset me? Yeah. It upsets everybody in the locker room,” Brad Richards said of the Madison Square Garden fans booing Rick Nash. “We’re not 15th in the league…we’re in the second round the playoffs.”
Perhaps Richards – or Nash – should switch seats with a few of those loyal, high-paying fans up in Section 408. (After all, what has Nash given the Rangers in the past four games – statistically speaking – that Dancin’ Larry couldn’t?) Up there, the Rangers’ two highest-paid players might understand the frustration.
The Blueshirts are down 3-1 to the Penguins, on the brink of another early playoff exit and have scored just two goals in the past three games. Their first line hasn’t put the puck in the net since Jacques Plante strapped on a mask, and oh, speaking of goalies, Henrik Lundqvist is the only player on this team who has consistently showed up since the playoffs began. And to top it all off, their power play, 0 for its last 36, has set a new standard for ineptitude.
Frustration is probably an understatement.
What the Rangers, especially their stars, have given the hometown fans the past two games can most generously be deemed underwhelming. In the third period of game four, with the Blueshirts in desperate need of a tying goal, they managed just four shots on net. Yes, in easily the most critical 20 minutes of this second-round series, the Rangers, their season at a crossroads, came up lame.
And the fans are supposed to cheer? Oh wouldn’t that be so motherly of them. If the Rangers are looking for unconditional love, they’re playing in the wrong city.
Winning in New York doesn’t mean getting close. Here, fans subscribe to the Ricky Bobby philosophy: if ya ain’t first, you’re last. If Richards truly believes that losing in the second round is good enough, his mind is still in Dallas. Hey, he left some of his game there too.
Forget where this team is anyway. The booing you heard last night, reserved especially for Nash and Martin St. Louis, wasn’t in response to the team falling behind 3-1 in this series. If the Rangers had actually skated with the Penguins the past two games, exchanging punch for punch along the away, some fans, regardless of the outcome, would have cheered the Blueshirts off the ice. Let’s get that straight – they were not booed because they lost.
And they were not booed collectively. Some players, the fans know, are doing the best they can with what they’ve got. Dominic Moore and Dan Carcillo were given a free pass on Wednesday night for the same reason the Florida Panthers – the 15th team in the Conference – were given a free pass all season long. Their ceiling was never all that high.
So good for Richards and the Rangers for finishing ahead of the Panthers, if that was indeed one of their team goals. Just don’t expect the Garden crowd to applaud them for it. These fans aren’t the type of parents who congratulate their kids for passing.
Sure, they did well to beat the Flyers in the first round, but since when is anything won in April? If anyone on this team expects the fans to be satisfied with a second-round appearance, perhaps they ought to sign on in Columbus where the rebuild is still young enough for progress to be made in defeat. Around here though, fans haven’t cheered for a “good run” – that is, for coming up short – since the 2005-06 season.
In the meantime, the playoffs have become an annual destination and the fans have grown hungrier and hungrier for legitimate postseason success. No longer does mere qualification satisfy their appetite. After watching the Rangers advance to the conference finals in 2012 and then, within the ensuing 18 months, pull off a pair of win-now moves for Rick Nash and Martin St. Louis, the fanbase has adjusted its expectations: Stanley Cup or bust.
Both Nash and St. Louis, who are in New York because they basically refused to play anywhere else, knew that coming in. Indeed, it’s the very reason they wanted to come here. Unlike, say, Olli Jokinen, who was traded to the Rangers at the 2010 deadline and never wanted anything to do with carrying a city’s hopes on his shoulders, Nash and St. Louis signed up for exactly that kind of responsibility.
Nash finagled his way out of Columbus because he was tired of playing in a small market. St. Louis demanded a trade here, and only here, because he was spurned by Lightning GM Steve Yzerman for the Canadian national team. But beneath their personal motivations boiled something more profound: the chance to win the Stanley Cup. The Rangers, they both figured, offered a ripe opportunity to do so.
When Nash arrived in the summer of 2012, he talked about how exited he was to play in front of the Garden crowd and experience the real pressure of winning. When St. Louis arrived at the 2014 deadline, he talked about his appreciation of the high stakes in New York and his willingness to embrace the challenge. Both of them welcomed this hero-or-scapegoat role.
I’ll be eaten alive if I don’t perform, and I accept those terms.
Well boys, here ya go.
Nash, who has looked about as threatening as a moth this spring, hasn’t scored a goal in the 2014 playoffs. (He has one goal in 23 playoff games as a New York Ranger.) Last night, he flubbed a glorious chance on a 3-on-1 before committing an egregious power play turnover that led to Brandon Sutter’s shorthanded goal. From where he is shooting the puck, Nash has become the Ranger’s very own J.R. Smith. (Extracurriculars aside)
As for St. Louis, we’ll let him speak for himself. “This was probably the worst playoff game I’ve played as long as I can remember playing,” he said of his performance in Game 4. “For some reason, I couldn’t do anything… I made poor plays and bad decisions…I was awful.” It was the culmination (at least one has to hope) of a stretch of poor play for the veteran winger, who is pointless in his last six games.
Fed up, the fans let ‘em hear it. Nash was booed lustily as he carried the puck from one end of the ice to the other early in the third. St. Louis received the same treatment shortly thereafter. And they both deserved it. After all, the fans were merely holding up their end of the deal.
Look, say what you want about the playoffs being a bad time for negative energy. Alain Vigneault, for one, appealed to the fans to be a more positive force if the Rangers make it back to The Garden for a Game 6. “Ultimately the fans can do what they want,” he said. “I prefer right now, if fans were supportive. It may not look it right now, but we’re trying our guts off here.”
But what was there to support? When the booing began, the Rangers were playing belly-up hockey in a one-goal third period game, while their superstars were blowing tires and coughing up pucks. Would Vigneault rather them sit there silently and pretend all is well? Quietly file out of the building as if the whole thing never happened? Rangers fans aren’t wired like their team’s coach.
So they exercised their right as paying customers and booed the two players that signed up for this kind of treatment in the first place. And if you listened closely, you know where it came from: the blue seats. That is, the home of the long-time fan. The chorus may have trickled down to the corporate-swathed sections at ice-level, but for the most part, the displeasure was voiced by those who care.
For a year after watching the Rangers bow out meekly to the Bruins…in five games …in the second round, here they are again, down 3-1 in the second round to a conference rival, once so close and now so far. And the fans probably could have swallowed it last night had the team put up a fight, had Nash and St. Louis countered Crosby and Malkin. They didn’t, of course, and so the fans let it out.
Richards said it made the team upset. I suppose he means disheartened, discouraged. He does not mean disgusted, for he did not watch the game in Section 408.
On a night where Nash did many things wrong, he eventually got one thing right. Asked after the game how it felt to be booed by his own fans, he replied, “It’s tough, but I understand where they’re coming from.”