He is sitting in front of the TV and squirming as if he were watching outtakes from a Quentin Tarantino film. His New York Rangers were toying with the Boston Bruins a moment ago, but the Bruins just plunged two quick goals into his heart to cut New York's lead to 4-3. Now the seat-belt light is on, and Neil Smith is holding on for his life.
He is the president and general manager of the Stanley Cup champion Rangers, and at times Smith watches home games from a small lounge tucked behind his box in a corner high atop Madison Square Garden. From there he can make phone calls, watch replays and avoid the temptation to jump. The room is not much bigger than a washing machine, and at this point in the season Smith feels as if he has been put through the spin cycle.
"This is the part of the job that drives you crazy," said Smith, before his team held on to beat Boston 5-3 last Friday night. "It doesn't matter how many games you watch. It seems like nothing ever comes easy for us."
The Rangers took their fans to the mountaintop last June, and 10 months later they are threatening to shove them off. Last year the Rangers won the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1940, and at week's end, with eight games to go in this lockout-induced 48-game regular season, they were tied with the Hartford Whalers for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. No playoffs? No Rangers? "It's hard to believe," says New York forward Adam Graves, "but that's our goal now—make the playoffs."
New York could become the first team since the 1969-70 Montreal Canadiens to miss postseason play one year after having won the Cup. The Blueshirts' collapse would be nearly as stunning as their historic championship. This is New York. Nothing is done quietly. This team could go down in history as the NHL version of the one-championship-and-out New York Mets of the late 1980s, without the chemical additives. Iron Mike Keenan, who quit as the Rangers' coach last summer in a celebrated huff because his bonus check was one day late, wouldn't be the only one giggling if the great New York dynasty of the 1990s crumbles quicker than the regime of General Cedras.
"I'm sure everyone else is enjoying this because most people outside of New York can't stand the Rangers," says Graves. "But we're not worried. We're confident that we can finish strong and make the playoffs, and then it's a new season. You can be sure no one wants to play us in the first round."
The Rangers, who were 18-19-3 at week's end, have lost 10 games by one goal. They have scored two goals or fewer 19 times. They recently dropped 10 of 12 games, which might not be a reason to dial 911 in a normal NHL season. This isn't a normal season. With the abbreviated schedule, there is no time to sleep off the Stanley Cup hangover. "This is no different than the year following any other championship," says Mark Messier, who won five Cups with the Edmonton Oilers before coming to New York in 1991, "except that this season is shorter, so every game is huge."
"Last year everything went right for us," says goaltender Glenn Healy. "Every time we needed a big save or big goal we seemed to get it. Even the calls seemed to go our way. This year, it's the opposite."
"It went pretty quickly from euphoria to panic," says Smith. "Of course, it's not a very long trip in this city."
In two of the previous three seasons, the Rangers finished with the best record in the NHL. They won only 34 of 84 games and missed the playoffs the year in between. It was as if Tom Hanks slipped another season of Bosom Buddies between his two Oscars. "This is nothing like two years ago," says Messier. "No one is panicking. Winning the Cup gave us something to build on. We've got a lot of experienced players, and we've got excellent leadership off the ice."