The NHL Playoffs begin tonight - and so begins professional sports’ best championship tournament.  The next couple weeks will feature all the best hockey has to offer, without as much of the knucklehead stuff.  It’s several rounds of wire to wire back and forth exciting games, like no other sport can offer.  It’s just a better on-field (or ice) product than the others.  As a Ranger fan, I’m pretty excited that they even made it into the race for Lord Stanley’s Cup.  And as I reflect on the season it occurs to me, the league’s best TEAM, is an 8 seed – and is favored to get bounced in the first round.

Let me clear the air.  Yes, I’m bias.  Throw the sense of journalistic integrity out the window here. And I'm in no way trying to say that the Rangers are more talented than other teams and should really be a one seed.  Though I think anyone reasonable, which excludes Islander fans, would agree – The Rangers are a hell of a TEAM.  Now, understand that by ‘team,’ I don’t mean some talent-laden galaxy of stars.  I’m talking working class guys, there for one another.  The Miami Heat aren’t a team, they’re a money-fed juggernaut.  They're like the Megazord if each appendage was trying to do their own thing.  They may take down the villain, but it’s always better when the parts are working together (anyone with me on the Power Rangers reference?  No? No? …No.)  I’m not saying that money-fed juggernauts are bad.  Come on, I’m a Yankee fan.  But when it comes down to it, I’d rather be watching a TEAM.

To me, a truly great team is a group of guys who are united, willing to do whatever they can for the good of the unit.  They’ll sacrifice - shed blood, sweat and tears, relentless in their goal.  No one player is bigger than the team.  There’s a pride in the locker room, not in self, but in team.  That’s what I love to watch.  And the Rangers are the personification of it.  They share the puck – not one player on the team has dominated the goal scoring, though over fifteen guys are double digits in assists.  They stick up for each other.  I can’t tell you how many times a Ranger player has been cheap shotted, only to have four of his team mates rise to their defense.

They block shots.  I was watching a game with my Dad earlier in the season and he remarked to me that he’s never seen so many blocked shots in a game before – and he’s been watching for a while.  The more I watched the more I realized he was right, these guys are down on the ice every time a shot is taken.  Since my Dad introduced me to the game in ’94, I’d never seen a team block shots like this one.  It cost Ryan Callahan his season.  In a must win game last week against the Boston Bruins, Callahan was one of several players to lie down in front of the shot of Zdeno Chara.  That won’t mean anything to someone who doesn’t watch hockey.  But Chara’s about twelve feet tall and shoots the puck 700 miles an hour...  That may be an overstatement.

In fact, it’s a gross overstatement.  Chara’s 6’9 and shoots at over one hundred miles an hour – which is the hardest shot ever recorded.  Not only did the Ranger players get in front of his shot, they dove at it head first.  Callahan, the Ranger’s assistant captain and emotional leader, had his ankle broken blocking Chara’s shot while preserving the lead in the waning minutes a Rangers come back win jut a week ago. And what’d he do after he broke his ankle, by the way?  He finished the shift!  In a world where MLB pitchers are put on the DL because of a cut fingernail, Ryan Callahan broke his ankle, then finished the shift.  This is what the Rangers are about.

They never quit, because they refuse to let the guy next to them down.  Honestly, most of the games I watched, the Rangers got down early then battled and scraped their way back to a win late in the third period.  It’s by far the most exciting brand of hockey I’ve seen since the ’94 cup run.  Bottom line, the Rangers don’t have a lot of stars, they don’t have a lot of fantasy studs, or household names.  What they do have, though, is a group of hardworking, no quit guys who will fight until the bitter end. The Rangers will probably lose to the Capitals in the first round, but I guarantee that there is no team in the NHL will be harder working or more fun to watch.  They may get bounced early, but I guarantee they’ll fight until the end.

And that’s all I want from a team, that’s what I love to get from a team.  Sure, gun to my head, one game to win a championship; I’d probably take the talent-laden galaxy of stars.  But for an entire season, one team to root for, one team to have pride in, to identify with, I’d take a team of guys who genuinely care and feel for the game the way I do.  Look, I can’t relate to an NHL athlete, we’re in different worlds.  All I can ask them to do is show up every day and do everything they can to get the win, to have the same passion that I do.  And the Rangers have yet to let me down.  Go Rangers!