Based on the NHL regular season, the Stanley Cup Playoffs have been a big surprise. In the West, the Chicago Blackhawks and the Los Angeles Kings, the 5th and 6th seeds, are battling for a ticket to the Finals, while the 5th seeded New York Rangers are up 2-1 over the Montreal Canadiens in the East.
Matthew Futterman is covering the Rangers’ unexpected run to the Stanley Cup Finals for the Wall Street Journal, and he spoke with Bill Littlefield.
BL: New York was trounced by Boston in the second round of the 2013 playoffs, after which their head coach was fired though he had four years left on his five-year deal. In March, the Rangers traded their team captain for a 38-year-old player. These things are not usually indications of a team on the rise. What’s going on?
MF: I think what’s mainly going on is that you’ve got a bunch of guys who are not the usual Broadway stars that we’re used to seeing in New York, and they’re just playing great together.
BL: This explains perhaps why you recently wrote, “I’m closing in on the end of my fourth decade of Ranger fandom, and this might be the only truly well-constructed team I’ve experienced”.
MF: Well, we’re used to seeing in New York these imports of guys on the wrong side of their career. So, we get Wayne Gretzky in the late 90s, and we get Guy Lafleur when he can barely skate from blue line to blue line. Every year there’s another guy who’s sort of collecting the last few paychecks and selling tickets for the Rangers. So it’s a little disappointing.BL: You know, it just occurred to me that the Rangers are owned by James Dolan, who also owns the New York Knicks. Any chance that this run of competence might carry over to the city’s NBA team?
MF: I’d say it only carries over if he takes a completely hands-off attitude, now that he’s got Phil Jackson. The advantage they’ve had in the last five years is: Dolan accepts that he knows nothing about hockey, so he has to let his hockey guys take the reigns for the most part. He roots for them, he loves the Rangers, but he doesn’t know more than the next guy, so he lets his hockey people do it. Basketball, he kind of thinks that he actually knows something about the game, and that’s the problem.
BL: The Rangers last won the Stanley Cup back in 1994. The other pro teams in New York have not exactly been tearing it up lately. Have New Yorkers responded well to the Rangers’ success this season?MF: You know, I think they’re still trying to figure it out. It seems a little quiet. It was a little different in ‘94, you had Mark Messier, who was this huge star. These Rangers, they have one matinee idol: Henrik Lundqvist. He does fashion spreads, he’s sort of, as I’ve said, the essence of “New York cool” at the moment, in the way that only a handful of athletes ever get to that point. But they don’t really have that sort of transcendental superstar, so people are still trying to figure out, like, “Oh yeah, I guess I should pay attention to this team, they might actually be in the Finals.” So it’s a little weird, but if this team gets to the Stanley Cup Finals I think people will pay attention.
BL: Well, if this team gets to the Stanley Cup Finals, do they win the Stanley Cup?
MF: I think that’s a little dependent on who’s on the other side of the ice. I feel pretty good about the Kings, [I’m] not terribly worried about the Kings. I’m a little afraid of the Blackhawks, in the same way that I was terrified of the Bruins, and will be eternally thankful for the Canadiens knocking them off in the second round because I was not optimistic that the Rangers were gonna be able to do this. And I should add that the Rangers are just about the only team that I still actually care about as a fan. I think it’s probably because I’ve very rarely covered hockey in my career, and that’s somewhat intentional because I sort of am able to hang onto this one team that I still root for, purely.