With the Knicks and the Rangers both in the playoffs this year, the world's most famous arena is hosting relevant postseason play again
Midway through the first overtime in Wednesday's Game 4 of the first-round series between the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals, Alex Ovechkin got loose on a breakaway and bore down on the New York net. The two-time MVP tried to fool Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist with a wrist shot to his glove side, but the indomitable Swede snared the wrister to keep the game knotted 3 to 3.
The Rangers were still alive, and the 18,200 fans at Madison Square Garden let loose a roar that shook the rafters of the World's Most Famous Arena. Relevant postseason games were back at the Garden, and it's been a long time coming.
Of the dozens of professional basketball and hockey arenas dotted across the United States and Canada, MSG stands alone as an iconic sports venue. Originally opened in 1879, the Garden moved to its current location above Penn Station in 1968. Since then, it's been host to Ali-Frazier I, "And here comes Willis!", two Knicks championships, the Rangers' historic Stanley Cup triumph in 1994, and about 75 Rolling Stones concerts (in fact, the only thing that's stayed the same during the Garden's 43-year run is Mick Jagger).
The biggest stars in sports have always had something special for the Garden. Michael Jordan put up gaudy scoring numbers every time he visited, including an epic 55-point game just weeks into his first comeback in 1995. Bobby Orr scored a Stanley Cup-winning goal there in 1972. Kobe Bryant holds the MSG single-game scoring record with 61 points, set two days before LeBron James racked up an even more awe-inspiring stat line (52 points, nine rebounds, and 11 assists). And as other famous stadiums like the Boston Garden and the Los Angeles Forum met the wrecking ball or faded into obscurity, the Garden stood alone in an era of corporate stadium names and cookie-cutter designs.
But for the last decade, the Garden faithful have been shortchanged come spring. The Rangers endured a nine-year playoff drought that ended in 2006, and they haven't seriously contended for a Stanley Cup in half a generation. The Knicks, meanwhile, lurched through the 2000s under the incompetent hands of Isiah Thomas, with the blessing of the even more incompetent James Dolan. The Garden has hosted more Barbara Streisand concerts than meaningful playoff games since Y2K, and basketball and hockey as a whole have suffered for it.
Why? Because playoff games at MSG have a gravitas forged through nearly half a century of win-or-go-home contests, last-minute heroics, and scintillating individual performances. The atmosphere is a little more charged, the opponents a little more tense, the great opponents a little more on their game. As ESPN's Bill Simmons wrote in 2007: "The real tragedy of Isiah's catastrophic tenure is that we were robbed of some monster basketball crowds. The Knicks should always be good, if only to show every other fan base how it's done."
Same goes for the Rangers, whose fans put on a show Wednesday night after Capitals' coach Bruce Boudreau foolishly said, "It's not that loud in there." As New York built a 3-0 lead, the fans' mocking chant grew louder and louder. "CAN YOU HEAR US??" they bellowed, and from the rueful expression on Boudreau's face it was obvious that he could hear them loud and clear.
The Rangers eventually lost the game in double overtime, falling into a 3-1 series hole that will be hard to climb out of. But the roars from Lundqvist's save are still reverberating. The Knicks take center stage tomorrow against the Boston Celtics, with Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire ready to be buoyed by 18,000+ Garden diehards. For the first time since '97, both teams are playing games when they count. Playoff action is back in New York, and it feels like it never left.