You could have interviewed each of the 17,117 people at Madison Square Garden on Opening Night and you would have been hard-pressed to find a single one who honestly believes the Rangers have a legitimate chance to win the Stanley Cup in June.
This season is about a whole different kind of belief. It is about the faith that the franchise has in its fans.
The Rangers believe that the customers will accept the long-range plan and bear the wait. The franchise is confident that the old bromide “New York will not accept a rebuilding process” is totally bogus. Management has faith that the people will keep the faith.
Maybe the Rangers will be decent this season, maybe they will be awful. They played an exciting, resilient game Thursday night but lost to the Predators, 3-2. The understanding in the front office and in the stands is that this year is not about this year. It is about a time down the road when the Rangers will be good and will stay that way.
A slew of trades last February sent a message. So did a direct mailing from management to season-ticket holders, spelling out the vision of retooling for the future. It was a fresh idea late last winter. It became more or less official at the Garden Thursday night with the start of the first full season under the new philosophy and new coach, David Quinn.
Quinn received a warm reception during pregame introductions from a crowd that was in a good mood.
The absolute nicest touch of all occurred before and during the national anthem. The late John Amirante, the renowned and beloved anthem singer, was given a tribute as his widow, children and grandchildren walked out to his old spot near the microphone. Then the Garden was filled with Amirante’s voice: “Oh say can you see . . . ”
The massive video screen showed him performing — waving his right arm at “The land of the free . . . ” — interspersed with old shots of Mark Messier, Brian Leetch, Mike Richter, Adam Graves, Jaromir Jagr and others.
All of that drove home the point that anyone here now is part of something larger than today or this season. A longer narrative is at play. The Rangers believe that their fans recognize this, too.
“I think they’re right there with us,” said defenseman Marc Staal, one of the five alternate captains on the captain-less team. “I think they’re expecting us to work hard, be competitive, stick up for each other, be a good team. We’ll see where the results go from there.”
Good for the team in being honest enough to effectively say, “Don’t expect too much right now.” Kudos for being realistic enough to admit the roster is more than just that proverbial one piece away from being a contender. Congratulations for deciding that the days of dealing a first-round draft pick and a prospect for the likes of Keith Yandle are over (full disclosure: this author wrote at the time that it was a good deal).
Which is not to say the current blueprint is foolproof. Rebuilding projects can fall flat. The Edmonton Oilers have been adding top young players — including Connor McDavid, arguably the NHL’s best talent — for years and they have been consistently lousy.
Plus, who is to say if Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton and Quinn are capable architects?
And you might wonder if there will be another fire sale at the trading deadline this season, squandering whatever playoff momentum the Rangers might have built on the back of Henrik Lundqvist, still a star goalie. He had the Garden roaring in the first period when he speared Craig Smith’s shot during a Predators power play.
“I thought we improved throughout the game,” said Lundqvist, who made 30 saves. “I like how hard we worked. I think it’s going to come.”
No matter how long this all takes or where the road goes, the team believes — and rightly so — that 17,117 per night are willing to go along for the ride.