The Rangers and Lightning will battle it out to get to Stanley Cup Final.
The Rangers are now one of only four teams left playing hockey, and one of only two teams most people want to see hanging around.
The NHL and NBC will never, ever admit this, but of course we know the truth: Rangers versus Blackhawks would be a dream Stanley Cup Final, a pairing of Original Six teams from major markets that might do wonders for the sport. There’s only been one other O-Six final in the last 36 years. The classic uniforms alone would be enough to drum up interest, even before you add Henrik Lundqvist, Patrick Kane and turncoat Brad Richards.
RELATED: BREAKING DOWN RANGERS VS. LIGHTNING
First, though, the Rangers need to do everyone a big favor and get rid of the Tampa Bay Lightning. It’s not that the Lightning is boring. The team is young, exciting, scoring at a rate nearly 50% higher than the Rangers in these playoffs, while Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov each has more goals than any Blueshirt. This is a solid team with a core of ex-Rangers – Ryan Callahan, Brian Boyle and Anton Stralman – to give them experience and heart.
Tampa Bay played to 98% capacity this season, thumped the Rangers during the regular season and knocked out the Canadiens in the playoffs. The Lightning is about the only sports franchise worth watching in that city, and has every legal right to participate in the conference final.
It’s just that Tampa Bay is in Florida, where it is difficult to maintain so much as a single ice cube in your Coke, and represents only the 18th largest market in America. What happens in Tampa Bay stays in Tampa Bay – only because people outside Tampa Bay don’t want to hear about it. Things aren’t exactly hopping down there, sports-wise. When the Yanks played inside rickety Tropicana Field this week, attendance was so bad it looked like White Sox at Camden Yards all over again.
Unfortunately, it appears the Lightning and the people of Tampa are not quite ready to do the right thing, to surrender and leave the playoffs to real NHL teams.
“It’s always amazing to me, you think you’re superior because you’re from New York,” fired back Gary Shelton, the long-time Tampa newspaper columnist and creator of garysheltonsports.com. “The guy who sells hot dogs on the sidewalk thinks he’s the valedictorian of Columbia.
“It is true we are a bit of a sports outpost,” Shelton confessed. “But the Lightning is kind of the last vestige of pride for this town. They are young, they are fun and seem to have a future. Our other teams, you just don’t know about. The Lightning is the last thing in the driveway you can be proud of, and now here comes Marty and his new bunch.”
That would be Marty St. Louis, considered one of the greatest players ever to lace up his skate boots in Tampa. St. Louis scored big goals in the biggest games, when the Lightning was winning a Stanley Cup for John Tortorella in 2004.
Not that the Lightning has always been that good, or even sustainable. The franchise floated into and out of deep debt while operated by a series of absentee owners – a mysterious Japanese investor, Takashi Okubo; a southern football owner, Art Williams, labelled “Jed Clampett” by many in the league; William Davidson, the Pistons’ owner who seemed to have little interest in hockey; Oren Koules, producer of the “Saw” film series.
Things are different now. The current owner, Jeffrey Vinik, is viewed as something of a savior.
“Vinik is like a god down here,” Shelton said. “He’s done everything right.”
Meanwhile, in Dolan-Land, the Rangers are in the midst of a seize-the-moment spring, the sort of opportunity that arrives about once per generation for this franchise. If Mark Messier, Brian Leech and Mike Richter hadn’t grabbed the dragon by the tail, the Rangers would be on a 75-year run of futility right now and only an octogenarian would have any memory of a Stanley Cup for the Blueshirts.
That 1994 team made the most of its opportunity, turned those playoffs into a nationwide viewing event. That can happen again, with the telegenically correct Finals.
That would not be Tampa Bay versus Anaheim.
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