Before this is all over, and the end looks really close, it is only fair to point out that the Rangers have been the best pro team in New York over the past year. They are the only one to have advanced in the postseason twice in that span, once last season and once this season.
The problem is that it is has been so hard to notice. It has been a stunningly quiet hockey season in these parts. Even their first-round series against the Flyers, despite having gone seven games, never managed to generate much volume.
The Rangers did not blow the roof off Madison Square Garden Wednesday night, either. Whenever they did something to raise hopes, they soon did something to deflate them. Their 4-2 loss to the Penguins in Game 4 was pretty much like the New York hockey season: it had its moments, but it was nothing to shout about.
Catcalls were the dominant noise, for the power play, for the lack of scoring, for Rick Nash, who remained scoreless. "It's a battle right now," Nash said, "especially when plays happen the way they did. It's all too frustrating."
Nash's one goal in 23 playoff games as a Ranger is one reason why the fans are frustrated, and letting their feelings be known.
Coach Alain Vigneault said: "The fans can do what they want. I'd prefer right now that the fans were supportive. It might not look it but we're trying our guts off here, we're trying to play our best game on the ice. It's good to have support but at the end of the day the fans can do ultimately what they want."
Now the Rangers have left themselves with only the faint hope of accomplishing something truly dramatic, rebounding from a 3-1 deficit. In the short term, it will take all they have to outdo what they did last year, a five-game second-round loss to Boston. "We just have to worry about the next one," Nash said.
Now is the time to ponder why the season never created any thunder and why the Garden crowd never sounded like a jet taking off, the way it used to during the postseason. It might be a reflection on the state of major league sports: fans and teams are focused on "the experience" more than the raw passion of an individual game. It might be a sign of what National Hockey League play has become: technical excellence trumps sharp-edged emotion.
To their credit, the Rangers did own the week in which hockey owned New York, sweeping the Devils and Islanders -- neither of whom did much to make this local hockey season interesting -- before full houses at Yankee Stadium. Full marks for rising to that occasion and for overcoming their horrid start on the West Coast and for reaching the second round.
A season of tranquility wasn't all bad. Peace was a compliment to Vigneault -- a sign that his team did not endure the upheaval that the Knicks did, a sign that he had done his job. Vigneault was hired as a soothing antidote to the volatile John Tortorella era.
(Let's face it, the coach saw to it that every day was all about Tortorella).
After the Game 7 win over the Flyers, Dan Carcillo (who had the ice-breaking goal) said, "I think A.V. did a good job of calming everyone down. Stuff on the board was pretty simple: Pass, skate, shoot, play the game."
Vigneault believes in his guys and proves it by consistently rolling four lines out there. When he was asked the other day about the way momentum ebbs and flows from shift to shift, he said, "It's part of playoff hockey and it's part of trusting your players that they'll be able to adjust to subtle little differences the other team makes. We have got good players."
Vigneault's trouble, entering last night, was that his top players had not played as well as the Penguins' top players. Part of that is reality: the Penguins' best players actually are better. The other part is that the Rangers' power play went silent at the worst time. Worse yet, the sound it evoked last night was this: "Boooooo." That was the reaction when the power play drought grew to 0-for-36, and when it allowed Brandon Sutter's tie-breaking and back-breaking shorthanded goal.
Although it appears highly unlikely, if the Rangers sweep the next three games, they will own New York. This will be a hockey season New York never will forget. For now, they have to figure out how to win one game Friday and keep from going quietly into the summer.