There have only been two golden ages at Madison Square Garden, when the New York Knicks and New York Rangers were both perennial contenders, making it to the finals of their respective leagues, if not both being crowned champions in the same era. There were a few other years that featured a smattering of success here and there, but the two teams' good fortune didn't necessarily overlap. The Rangers lost the Stanley Cup Finals in 1950, and the Knicks lost three consecutive finals the following three seasons, but the Rangers didn't qualify for the postseason those years. The late 1970s and into the '80s, both teams made playoff runs here and there but the '79 Rangers were the only team to contend for a championship, and the Knicks didn't even make the playoffs that season.
The first successful run at the Garden by both teams began in the 1966-'67 season, when the two Garden tenants made the playoffs for the first of nine straight seasons. Maybe the era really began when the Knicks drafted Willis Reed or traded for Dave DeBusschere or when Eddie Giacomin joined the Rangers or when Rod Gilbert suggested that the Blueshirts sign his childhood friend, Jean Ratelle. The Knicks made it to the finals three out four seasons, 1970, '72 and '73, winning two World Championships, and they went to the Eastern Conference Finals six years in a row ('69-'74). Meanwhile, the Rangers lost the Stanley Cup Finals to the Boston Bruins in '72 (the same year the Knicks lost to the Lakers in the Finals), derailed by Jean Ratelle's broken ankle and the heroics of Bobby Orr, and they made it all the way to the semi-finals (the equivalent of a conference final) from 1971 to '74. The era ended with the retirements of Reed and DeBusschere, the waiving of Giacomin and the trades of Vic Hadfield, Brad Park and Ratelle. The overtime goal by J.P. Parise in the 1975 playoffs was the final shovelful of dirt put on the grave of that golden age. But both teams were legitimate powerhouses in their respective leagues for years and featured a plethora of Hall of Famers on their rosters, from Reed, DeBusschere, Walt Frazier, Earl Monroe and Bill Bradley to Gilbert, Park, Giacomin and Ratelle.
A decade-and-a-half later, in the 1990s, the Knicks and Rangers were once again simultaneous contenders. Though the Rangers made the playoffs for three consecutive years, it wasn't until the fall of '91, when Mark Messier arrived in a trade from the Edmonton Oilers, that they truly became one of the best teams in the NHL, which lasted for the next six seasons (or until, coincidentally, when Messier left town). They won the President's Trophy in '92, for having the best overall record in the league, missed the playoffs altogether the following year, but, of course, won the Stanley Cup that will last a lifetime in the spring of '94. After getting knocked out of the playoffs before the conference finals the next two years, they added Wayne Gretzky in '97, went to the Eastern Conference Finals, but fell two wins short of another Finals appearance, Messier left for Vancouver and the Blueshirts fell off a cliff, missing the playoffs the next seven seasons. The Knicks also had a resurgence that began in the late 1980s and peaked in the '90s. With a tough, physical team and Patrick Ewing at center, they went to two NBA Finals, in '94 and '99, but lost both, and went to a pair of other Eastern Conference Finals ('93 and '00), but Ewing's guarantees weren't as on the money as Messier's. Ewing followed Messier out West, with the center going to Seattle, and things slowly fell apart for the Knicks.
Unless Henrik Lundqvist gets hit by a car crossing Seventh Avenue, the Rangers are set up for success for years to come, no matter what type of playoff run they make this year, with a young defensive corps and almost every key forward still in his twenties. Brad Richards is the only indispensable Ranger over 30, and he's only 31. They don't win with smoke and mirrors or count on the play of a couple of superstars, but the foundation of their success is old-fashioned hard work and individual accountability with everyone buying into the team concept and accepting their role. So it's really up to the Knicks whether we'll see two teams competing consistently in the near future. Coming into the year, they had higher expectations than the Rangers, but their season has been a roller-coaster ride, highlighted by the emergence of Jeremy Lin, who has transformed the team and changed the way they'll view the future of the franchise. It's up to Mike D'Antoni to get all the pieces to fit together and find a way for Lin to click with Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire. But the core players of the team are all under 30, and with the improved play of Landry Fields and Jared Jeffries, along with Iman Shumpert, Steve Novak and J.R. Smith, not to mention Tyson Chandler anchoring the defense, the team now has plenty of depth. It's a big "if," but if they can figure out how to play as a cohesive unit, the way the Rangers have, the Knicks could just be in the beginning stages of a half-decade or so competitive run.
We may be jumping the gun by suggesting we're in for another late '60s/first-half-of-the-'70s or 1990s-type golden age, with both the Knicks and Rangers consistently playing for conference or league championships, but for the first time since 1997, both teams are built and ready to contend with young or in-their-prime players, and both finally have high expectations that they just may be able to meet. There have actually been more Madison Square Gardens than golden ages at the assorted arenas, so we can dream, can't we?