Every game in the Stanley Cup playoffs is a separate test in and of itself. The triple overtime win in Game 3 for the New York Rangers was just another win. Sure, it was almost two games in one but it only counted once (but it sure was memorable). And when the puck dropped in Game 4, momentum was nowhere to be found. Maybe it was hidden, or maybe momentum is fickle. But everything started over. The previous game was long forgotten once the Washington Capitals scored first. The two teams traded goals until the game was knotted at two, but as in Game 2, when Brad Richards went to the penalty box and Washington won the game on a power-play goal, a late penalty (this time by Carl Hagelin) did them in again. Yes, Ryan Callahan was tripped seconds before the game-winner, Brian Boyle had his stick slashed out of his hands and Mike Knuble committed a delay of game penalty -- though none of those infractions were called by the officials (and surely the Rangers have gotten away with much as well) -- but with the series being as even as can be, one mistake can lose a game. And Hagelin committed that penalty, no doubt. The real problem has been the Blueshirts' lack of production, not the lack of consistent officiating. There's been virtually no wiggle room in any game for the Rangers, win or lose.
And then there was Game 5. And both teams started from scratch again. But this just wasn't any Game 5. It was GAME 5! The Miracle at MSG. Washington rode their momentum by . . . allowing the first goal of the game to Anton Stralman. And even though the Capitals scored the next two goals, the Rangers set the pace and dictated the play, with the Richards/Hagelin/Marian Gaborik line buzzing all game long. But it seemed like the Blueshirts, instead of doing just enough to win, as they usually do, were going to do just enough to lose. But then it was Washington's turn to commit a late penalty (in the form of Joel Ward accidentally using Hagelin's head as a baseball). And one of the most magical moments in Ranger playoff history followed when Richards poked the puck in the net with 7.6 seconds left (the official time was changed on Tuesday), saving his team from despair. Marc Staal (after crucially breaking up a 3-on-1 late in the third) received the puck from a clean John Mitchell face-off win and finished things off less than two minutes into overtime, by rifling the puck into the back of the net. Unbelievable.
And then there was Game 6. And both teams started from scratch again. The Rangers rode their momentum by . . . allowing the first goal of the game after committing an early penalty, in the 2-1 loss. They began the game playing as if they had a Game 7 safety net, while Washington played with desperation. The Blueshirts couldn't take advantage of a four-minute power play, or any power play for that matter, they couldn't get the puck past the Capitals' shot-blockers and when they did, they couldn't solve Braden Holtby. So now it's on to Game 7, the latest test for the Rangers, who have stepped up all year to pass every test they've faced. Can they do it one more time, though?
Meanwhile, the New Jersey Devils didn't need momentum as they had domination on their side in their series vs. the Philadelphia Flyers. After falling behind 2-0 in Game 4, the Devils proceeded to steamroll over the Flyers, scoring four consecutive goals, while causing Philadelphia to become unglued, undisciplined and unruly. Claude Giroux personified his team's self-confessed "panic" with a cheap shot to Dainius Zubrus' coconut. It didn't prevent Zubrus from getting the last laugh, though, when he scored the empty-net insurance goal after previously putting home the game-winner. The victory was a nice, gift-wrapped present for Martin Brodeur on his 40th birthday. And Game 5 was more of the same. The Flyers scored first again, but it was just a tease, as New Jersey continued to have their way with their opponent. Though their first two goals may have come with a little luck on their side -- with Bryce Salvador's score assisted by a possible missed offsides call and David Clarkson's goal coming on an Ilya Bryzgalov gaffe that won't soon be forgotten in Philadelphia -- the Devils' patience and discipline played a huge hand in their series victory. When the Flyers dipped into their Broad Street Bullies bag of tricks, the Devils turned the other cheek and concentrated on playing solid, focused hockey. And it worked. And they won. Now on to face either the Rangers or Capitals.
And now on to the other top stories of the week in the world of New York sports.
All Over: It wasn't quite Willis Reed limping onto the court in 1970, but Amar'e Stoudemire dramatically returned to action on Sunday, in Game 4 vs. the Miami Heat, with his Spalding-like hand all bandaged up, one day before the Rangers produced their thriller at the Garden. But Stoudemire didn't just show up, he produced, with 20 points and 10 rebounds, riding shotgun to Carmelo Anthony's 41-point gem, to spur the New York Knicks on to victory, 89-87, keeping their season alive. After Mike Bibby drained a key three-pointer, Anthony put in the dagger with a three-pointer of his own, as he finally showed up Miami's trio of stars with a star-like performance to match what they had done. And the victory, of course, put an end to the Knicks' NBA record 13-game playoff losing streak and was their first postseason win since April 29, 2001. But the bad news was the horrific injury suffered by Baron Davis, who partially tore his patella tendon while completely tearing both his ACL and MCL. On Wednesday, with Jeremy Lin glued to the bench and not a pulling a Reed or Stoudemire, the Knicks ran out of magic, losing 106-94. Everything had to go perfectly for the Knicks to have a chance to win the series vs. the Heat, and, as it turns out, nothing came close to being perfect. Anthony scored 35 points, but he didn't have any help, with the offense, again, devolving into standing around watching their star work in isolation. There were no contributions from Steve Novak nor J.R. Smith. And they had no answers for the Heat's offense or defense. Wait until next year.
Life After Mariano: Did the injury to Mariano Rivera emphasize the fact that the New York Yankees are filled with thirtysomething (and fortysomething) players and may be too old? Or are they just experienced? (And with Andy Pettitte starting Sunday, which category will he fall under?) Is this another slow start that will be overcome as usual? Or is this the beginning of a real decline? Those are the questions the Bombers will eventually answer as the season rolls on. After opening up their post-Rivera era with a four-game split in Kansas City, with the team alternating "They're fine!"/"They're in trouble!" games, they got their first real glimpse of how the absence of their legendary closer will affect the team in Tuesday's 5-3 win over the Tampa Bay Rays. Entering the ninth after seven solid innings from Ivan Nova and two home runs from Raul Ibanez, the Yankees handed the ball over to David Robertson, as he received his first chance at replacing the great Mariano. And Robertson looked more John Franco than Mariano Rivera, loading the bases before getting out of his own jam, but that's been Roberson's M.O. all along. But on Wednesday, Robertson wasn't so lucky, doing his Heathcliff Slocumb impersonation this time around. After a pitcher's duel between Jeff Niemann and a cattle call of Yankee hurlers, Robertson set fire to the game, coughing up four runs, blowing the win for his team. There was of course another save opportunity on Wednesday, but this time Rafael Soriano got a shot at it and he came through with the save (though he let in a run). The star of the 5-3 victory was CC Sabathia, who in eight innings of stellar work had more trouble with his own third baseman, Eduardo Nunez, than he did with the Tampa Bay lineup. On a final note, with the army of Yankee announcers employed by YES, can they just ditch them all except for two? Last weekend in Kansas City, the booth was whittled down to David Cone and Ken Singleton, and the duo was a breath of fresh air -- insightful, informative and humorous. It was a formula that worked. (And a final, final note: Brett Gardner reaggravated his elbow strain on Thursday, and won't be returning anytime soon.)
A Sweet Sweep: After coming within one bullpen implosion of sweeping the Arizona Diamondbacks over the weekend (keyed by solid starts by Johan Santana and R.A. Dickey, and the hot bats of Andres Torres, Daniel Murphy and David Wright, but Ruben Tejada had to go on the DL with a strained quad), the New York Mets won in dramatic fashion a la the Rangers and Knicks (though not as important as their wins, of course) on Monday night when rookie Jordany Valdespin notched his first career hit with a ninth-inning, pinch-hit three-run homer that defeated the Philadelphia Phillies (and the homer occurred only seconds after Richards' goal, giving Met/Ranger fans a minute of glory that will be savored for a while). And the victory came against Roy Halladay and Jonathan Papelbon to boot (and almost three years to the day of Omir Santos' electrifying long ball off the former Boston Red Sox closer at Fenway). The bad news in this one: Josh Thole was creamed by Ty Wigginton, and had to join Tejada on the DL. But the Met catcher somehow hung onto the ball, for a crucial out at the plate, which set up Valdespin's heroics. On Tuesday, the Mets put the finishing touches on a resilient, comeback 7-4 victory just minutes after the Devils eliminated the Flyers (putting Philadelphia fans into a depression, and giving Met/Devil fans their special moment). The Mets climbed out of a 4-0 hole with one two-out, run-scoring hit after another, and they let the Phillies play the buffoon for a change when the home team botched a rundown, allowing Kirk Nieuwenhuis to score. And they completed the sweep on Wednesday, winning 10-6, sparked by a late-game offensive explosion, highlighted by a possibly-coming-out-of-his-slump Ike Davis' home run, double and three RBIs. The Mets' roster is filled with players fighting for their major league careers, and the result is a hungry, hustling team, as opposed to a few previous editions of the Mets who possessed the unfortunate characteristic of complacency. Terry Collins and complacency just don't mix, though.
Eli the Comedian: No, I haven't watched SNL in years, so maybe this was just a down episode, but it's kind of sad when Eli Manning is the funniest person on the show. The highlight was the Little Brother faux commercial -- "Aren't you Eli Manning?" "I'm your biggest %#$%# nightmare!"
And that's the New York week that was.