The NHL announced this morning that the Atlanta Thrashers had been bought by True North Sports and Entertainment, which plans to move the team to Winnipeg. This would give the nation of Canada its seventh team in the league and the city of Winnipeg has a major hockey team for the first time since 1996. So how are the New York Rangers involved in this transition?
Well, for one, the team is remaining in the Eastern Conference’s Southeast Division for the 2011-12 season, so the teams will meet up to four times in the regular season. Secondly, the Rangers were the last team to eliminate the Thrashers from the playoffs in the franchise’s last appearance in postseason play back in 2007. It looks like New York will hold that title for the rest of time because it doesn’t look like the city of Atlanta can hold an NHL team. For you Whovians out there, lets go into the TARDIS and travel back in time a few years.
The #6 Rangers returned to the playoffs a year after being swept by the rival New Jersey Devils. The Thrashers came in as Southeast Division champs and held the #3 seed in the East. Since division winners occupy the first three seeds, Atlanta got the nod over Ottawa and Pittsburgh, who both had eight more points than the Thrashers. Ottawa wound up representing the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Finals, losing to the Anaheim Ducks in five games. The Rangers squad was led by two legendary veterans, Brendan Shanahan and Jaromir Jagr and the team was on their way back from mediocrity. Atlanta appeared in the playoffs for the first time in their eight year history (7 seasons because of the lockout) led by electric scorer Ilya Kovalchuk.
New York won Game 1 on the road for their first playoff win since 1997. They struck for two goals within four minutes of each other near the end of the 1st period. The next five tallies were alternated by each team, giving the Blueshirts a 4-3 victory. One of the strangest plays I’ve ever seen in a hockey game occurred in Game 2 and who else, but Sean Avery, was in the middle of it. After a Henrik Lundqvist save, the Rangers were on a rush and Avery dumped the puck in off the back boards, chasing Atlanta netminder Johan Hedberg to go after the loose puck. Hedberg was playing because starter Kari Lehtonen was pulled in the first game. The puck took a strange bounce off a metal supporter that held the boards together, right in front of the net where Avery slammed it home for a goal. Shanahan scored the game-winner with four minutes left to give the Rangers a 2-1 win and 2-0 series lead. Off to New York we go!
Michael Nylander scored 32 seconds into Game 3 and that’s how the night went for Atlanta and Lehtonen, who was once again in net after sitting out a game. Six more followed and the Rangers were on the verge of a sweep with a 7-0 dismantling of Atlanta. Then coach Bob Hartley swapped goalies again for Game 4 and nothing worked for the Thrashers during the series. The Rangers scored three unanswered goals in the final 22 minutes to send Madison Square Garden into a frenzy. New York swept the best-of-7 series and won a playoff matchup for the first time in a decade. That was the last time an Atlanta-based NHL team saw the playoffs.
New York lost a heartbreaking series to Buffalo the next round, a series that the Rangers had in their grasp, but let it slip away in typical Rangers fashion. I fully believe that they would have made the Stanley Cup Finals that year had they beaten Buffalo because they had the team to go up against Ottawa, another team that has disappointed their fanbase year after year. Only four players from that team remains with the club, forwards Ryan Callahan and Avery, Lundqvist, and defenseman Dan Girardi.
I feel for the people of Atlanta because this is the second time a hockey franchise was taken away. The Atlanta Flames spent eight years (compared to the Thrashers eleven) in the city before being moved to Calgary in 1980. There were definitely people in that area that cared for the team, but not enough. The ownership ran that franchise into the ground and it’s 100% their fault the team has to relocate, not the fans. Living on Long Island, I know how it feels to see a hockey team that doesn’t garner enough interest and is owned by a guy that shouldn’t run a sports team. Yes, the Rangers are my team, but I’m ten minutes away from the Islanders’ arena and it’s like they aren’t here. Don’t expect this to be the last move, as hockey-starved cities like Quebec and Hartford, are waiting in the wings.
Of course, this could all be a moot-point if the NHL’s board of governors votes this down on June 21st, but it’s very likely it’ll happen. The board must have a 75 percent vote to confirm the sale of the Thrashers franchise and a 50 percent vote for relocation and the two basically go hand-in-hand. The people of Winnipeg cannot be more excited to have a team in their city once again, but just imagine the heartbreak if the vote isn’t passed? Don’t worry, Manitobans, you’ll get your NHL team in three weeks.