By Steve Lichtenstein
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Out before Memorial Day.
For those of us who live and die through our fandom of the metropolitan area professional NBA and NHL teams, we have more reason to mourn today.
It was all so sudden, mostly because of the mammoth expectations we placed on our favorite teams this season.
The tears being shed within the fan community aren’t flowing from the fact that there won’t be any ticker-tape parade down Broadway (or Atlantic Avenue or some street in Newark) next month. No, we were always well aware of the stacked competition our boys were in line to face, particularly on the court in Miami and the ice in Pittsburgh.
Surely, though, we knew in our hearts that someone would break through to at least mount a serious challenge for a title that has eluded this area in these sports since the Devils’ last Stanley Cup in 2003.
But the Rangers’ 3-1 loss in Boston on Saturday, which knocked New York out in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinals 4-1, assured that none would even get past the second round.
For fans of the Blueshirts (not that I count myself as one), it was a bitterly disappointing end to a season that looked to be so promising but never got on track after the NHL’s long lockout put the game on ice.
They were expected to be Cup contenders, having added high-scoring winger Rick Nash to a club that was only six wins short of glory last year.
But they were outplayed, outcoached, out-everythinged by Boston, which owned the walls and the puck for the vast majority of the series. Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist played like a King, but saw his all-time playoff mark drop to a pedestrian 30-37.
Rangers coach John Tortorella gave Boston due credit, even if in passing he mentioned the detrimental effect injuries to key players had on the outcome (laughably equating Ryane Clowe, who scored a whopping three goals in 12 games since his trade-deadline acquisition, to Boston’s elite power forward Milan Lucic, and Marc Staal, a fine defender, to Zdeno Chara, Boston’s perennial Norris Trophy candidate. When Boston was forced to add not one, not two, but three defensemen to the lineup due to injuries, they plucked Torey Krug, who scored four goals in the five games, from obscurity. When Anton Stralman went down, the Rangers added decrepit Roman Hamrlik, who gifted the Bruins the go-ahead goal on Saturday).
If anyone had a right to lament the injury bug, it was the Garden’s co-tenants.
The Knicks, many of whom laughed at Father Time while amassing 54 wins during the regular season, just did not have enough in the tank to outlast the hungrier Pacers in the second round last week.
Injuries, both real (Carmelo Anthony’s shoulder and Tyson Chandler’s neck) and maybe imagined (J.R. Smith’s psyche and whatever caused Jason Kidd’s shooting mechanics to fall off a cliff), to irreplaceable personnel put New York’s offense in a bind.
What a shame, since most New Yorkers were primed for a promised matchup with the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals. The Knicks split their regular season series with the defending champs through superior ball movement, which kept their turnovers down and three-point shooting percentage up, two key ingredients in the recipe for beating the Heat. Oh, how the Garden would have been thunderous had they met last night in Game 3.
It never got that opportunity, as Indiana slew the Knicks in six games.
At least the Knicks got out of the first round, which is more than can be said for the Nets, the posterboys for overhyped underachievers.
Despite their high-profile move to Brooklyn, the Nets remained the area’s ugly stepchild. They never established any home court advantage at the pristine Barclays Center, which came back to haunt them in Game 7 of their first-round series with injury-depleted Chicago.
They also burned through two coaches, with still no successor in sight for the recently terminated P.J. Carlesimo.
Carlesimo took over for Avery Johnson with the Nets at 14-14 and righted the ship by going 35-19 to close the regular season. But then came Game 4 in Chicago, where the Nets gagged away a 14-point lead in the final three minutes and lost in double overtime. After the Game 7 loss, there was no way he was coming back.
Some have commented that it was owner Mikhail Prokhorov’s unreasonable expectations of a championship that undermined what should be looked at as a successful campaign. Two things: This season is only a success if you ignore the fact that the Nets purposely tanked their final seasons in New Jersey so Prokhorov could invest about $330 million in player contracts last summer to remake the roster. And no one—I repeat, NO ONE—reasonably believed the Nets as currently constructed could take down Miami four times in seven tries. At least not without a plane crash.
But they should have beaten the Bulls, whose injury list was almost as lengthy as their active roster. I’m still not over it.
There was a possibility for a feel-good story this postseason if you went further east to Nassau Coliseum, where the Islanders finally grew up to nail down a playoff spot after a five-year absence. Hart Trophy finalist John Tavares led a group of fast forwards who were the antithesis of the play-it-safe Rangers.
But that one also blew a chance for a happy ending. The Islanders encountered the top-seed Penguins when they were ripe for an upset, thanks to Pittsburgh goalie’s Marc-Andre Fleury’s bout with the yips. Unfortunately, Evgeni Nabokov, Fleury’s counterpart in the Islanders’ net, was not much better and the Penguins won two overtime games in the Coliseum, including the Game 6 clincher, to escape to the second round.
Then there’s the Devils, who somehow missed all the excitement this time by limping to an 11th place finish in the East. Ironic, since Lou Lamoriello’s boys came the closest of any of these teams to sipping champagne a year ago, losing to the Kings in the Stanley Cup finals.
Which we would have gladly taken from any of the above teams this year. Instead, we fans are bereft of any rooting interest as the NBA and NHL playoffs dominate the screen this Memorial Day and beyond.
All we can say is: Rest in peace, the 2012-13 Knicks, Nets, Rangers, Islanders and Devils. We look forward to your reincarnations in about five months.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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