Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 12, 2018

As Playoffs Begin, For Some A Season Ends

In another sure sign that spring has arrived, the playoffs are starting for both major arena sports. The Stanley Cup playoffs began Wednesday night with three games. In the Western Conference the Winnipeg Jets, runners-up in the Central Division, beat their third-place division rivals, the Minnesota Wild, by a score of 3-2. Also out west the expansion Las Vegas Golden Knights, the surprise winners of the Pacific Division, edged the wild card L.A. Kings 1-0. Earlier in the evening, in the first game on the road to Lord Stanley’s oversized trophy, the two-time defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins buried their cross-state foes the Philadelphia Flyers 7-0. The remaining ten NHL postseason contenders are all seeing their first action as this is being written.

As the first games of the hockey playoffs were being contested the NBA was wrapping up its regular season. The eight Eastern Conference playoff teams had been identified for several days, although seeding at the bottom of the draw was uncertain until Wednesday’s final games. But in a closely packed Western Conference five teams battled for four spots over the final few days of the regular season. The eighth seed came down to a win-or-go-home game between Minnesota and Denver on Wednesday night. The Nuggets stormed back from a halftime deficit to force overtime, and then briefly led in the extra five minutes. But down the stretch all the scoring was by the Timberwolves, who claimed the last ticket to the NBA playoffs, 112-106, ending at fourteen years the league’s longest current postseason drought. The reward for Minnesota’s players is a first round date starting this weekend with the Houston Rockets, owners of a league-best 65 regular season wins.

Fans in twenty-eight cities in the U.S. and Canada will now pack arenas and cheer on their heroes on the ice or the hardcourt. At the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers, both the Target Center in Minneapolis and the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul will welcome fans of the Timberwolves and Wild, respectively. In Boston, Philadelphia, Toronto, and Washington, arenas will do double-duty, as lucky fans in those metropolises exult in the good fortune of having both their NHL and NBA franchises qualify for the postseason.

But while a majority of the teams in both leagues get to play on for at least one round, there are many arenas that have now gone dark. The faithful of fifteen NHL and fourteen NBA teams have been reduced from fans to mere spectators, their hopes for a Stanley Cup or Larry O’Brien Trophy, or even the chance to play for one, lost in the gloaming of a season to forget. Two of those teams share space in Gotham, the biggest sports stage of all, where the spotlight shines brighter than anywhere else in the land. But Madison Square Garden, the self-styled “World’s Most Famous Arena,” now has a spring calendar filled with empty dates thanks to the sorry performances of both the Rangers and Knicks.

When the Rangers won this season’s Winter Classic, beating the Buffalo Sabres 3-2 in overtime at Citi Field on New Year’s Day, the blueshirts appeared poised for their eighth straight playoff appearance and twelfth in the last thirteen years. At 21-13-5 New York was holding on to third place in the Metropolitan Division. But the Rangers won just four more games in the month of January before completely collapsing the following month. Shortly before the February trade deadline the team sent out an email to season ticket holders, letting them know that as a reward for their hefty investment for seats at MSG, management was about to blow up the roster and write off the season.

In the days that followed they shipped Michael Grabner, the team’s leading goal scorer, across the Hudson to the Devils. Forward Rick Nash and defenseman Nick Holden were dealt to the Bruins in separate deals, and then captain Ryan McDonagh and forward J.T. Miller were traded to Tampa Bay. By season’s end the Rangers had fallen below .500 at 34-39-9, their worst record in a non-lockout season in almost a decade and a half. Within hours of the team’s final regular season game, a shutout loss to the Flyers, head coach Alain Vigneault was dismissed.

Vigneault guided the Rangers to the 2014 Stanley Cup Finals in his very first season behind the bench, and his team won the Presidents’ Trophy for the best regular season record in his second. But New York was out of the postseason early the next two years, before this season’s collapse. In retrospect, the solid record through the end of the calendar year was a mirage, built on the very fine play of goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. But at age 36 the Swedish veteran couldn’t be expected to carry the team through all 82 regular season contests. When his performance tailed off after the All-Star break, none of the skaters stepped up to fill the breach.

If missing the playoffs was an unwelcome surprise for Rangers fans, their friends who occupy the same seats at the Garden for Knicks games are far more familiar with that feeling of disappointment. Still back when the season was young there was some hope that this year might be different. The Phil Jackson soap opera was over, and aging star Carmelo Anthony had been shipped to Oklahoma City. The team was building around Kristaps Porzingis, all 7’ 3” of him.

Like the Rangers the Knicks offered their faithful the illusion of success early on, staying above .500 and in the hunt for a playoff spot through Christmas. But just like their hockey cousins the Knicks began losing more than they won as the new year dawned, and then disaster struck in February. Six days into the month Porzingis went down with a torn ACL in his left knee after landing awkwardly following a dunk. New York had already fallen out of the top eight in the Eastern Conference before losing Porzingis. From that point on they won just six games while losing twenty-two. Shortly after the last of those six wins, a season-ending contest against Cleveland that was meaningless in the standings for both teams, the Knicks announced the firing of head coach Jeff Hornacek.

The springtime playoffs are getting underway, and fans with a team or even two still playing are excited and looking forward to the coming days and weeks. But those who follow the Rangers and the Knicks can only look forward to a long, slow summer of second-guessing and doubt, along with searches for new head coaches. Come next fall Lundqvist will be just that much older, and Porzingis will still be on the shelf, rehabbing his knee. With apologies to Ernest Thayer, his words about a historic failure in another game seem apropos:

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
the band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
and somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
but all is dark at MSG – Knicks and Rangers are both out.

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