History on the Line for Both Warriors and Cavaliers

Once the 2017 NBA Finals are 10 minutes old, in the first quarter of Game 1 between the Warriors and the Cavaliers, LeBron James will eclipse 25,000 minutes of basketball since 2010.

This is, by far, the most minutes logged by any NBA player in that time.

The total includes regular season (19,164) and playoffs (5,826). It is not only a number that dramatically emphasizes LeBron’s dominance of the league as he makes his 7th straight appearance in the NBA Finals, it speaks to his most amazing ability:

Durability.

And maybe that’s a peek into greatness. We often focus on game-winning moments, signature performances and, of course, championships. But in order to reach that all-time great status, in order for a player to be pushed into the G.O.A.T. conversation, that one critical ability — availability — is just as important as talent.

That has been important to his incredible run of success. But how much does it factor into this year’s Finals? It may if the series goes the distance.

LeBron is criticized for employing the rest strategy during the regular season. The Cavs clearly didn’t prioritize the regular season and were content with yielding the top seed in the East to the Celtics. Why? Because what did we learn last season from the Warriors?

Winning a record 73 games doesn’t mean anything if it doesn’t end with a title.

The Warriors failed to finish that season because of Draymond Green’s antics, but let’s not forget how banged up Steph Curry was after he suffered a knee sprain in the first round of the playoffs. Curry was a shell of himself by the Finals (he shot just 40% from the field) and once the Warriors failed to close out the series after taking a 3-1 lead, Curry had little to nothing left in the tank by Game 7 (17 points on 6 for 19 shooting).

The Warriors made winning 73 games a priority and it’s reasonable to ask if that led to the failure in the Finals.

In the first Finals meeting between these teams, it was LeBron’s group that couldn’t get to the finish line. Kevin Love had his shoulder ripped out of its socket by Kelly Olynyk. Kyrie Irving’s kneecap snapped in Game 1. LeBron averaged 45.7 minutes per game in that Finals and pushed the Warriors to a six-game battle.

So here we are, for round three and both teams are as healthy as you can be as the last two teams standing in June. Between the two of them, there are 24 wins and one loss. The average margin of victory for the teams is 14.9 points per game. Neither has been truly tested.

The Warriors should be the better team. They have more depth and also added Kevin Durant, who can go head-to-head with LeBron, but won’t have to on a full-time basis. Therein lies the most critical matchup of this series.

While Green will get most of the assignment against LeBron, KD can provide occasional coverage, as well. That’s two bodies against one.

Will that wear down LeBron, who will almost certainly have to spend time defending Durant?

If the Warriors, who have had nine days off since the Western Conference Finals ended, complete a sweep, it would complete an unprecedented 16-0 run to the NBA title. That, which would include beating LeBron in his prime, could be a more historic effort than the 73-win season.

But if LeBron can overcome this loaded Golden State squad — with two former MVPs in Curry and Durant on the roster — would it not be one of the greatest achievements in NBA Finals history?

And ask yourself this: did Michael Jordan ever face an opponent like this in the championship round?

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Bosetti Looking to Find a Home With Red Bulls

Alexy Bosetti is already two days into his trial with the New York Red Bulls, but the French attacker is making an impression with the team.

Having recently turned 24-years old, Bosetti has a solid history in both Ligue 1 with Nice and on loan in Ligue 2 in France. He’s also been a part of the French national set up, making an impressive number of appearances for the U-19 and U-20 French national team. Head coach Jesse Marsch said Wednesday that Bosetti would be a wide player for the Red Bulls should he impress on his trial and sign.

Bosetti is already standing out in training for his new potential club. For a second straight day, Bosetti was fully integrated into the daily training, showing some good vision and touch in small-sided games. In scrimmage type scenarios, he was looking to switch fields and play into space. He also showed good composure on the ball.

And while he obviously isn’t as fit as the players he took to the field with, Bosetti showed flashes of attacking promise.

“I think Alexy has had two really good days with us. Positive so far, we’ll have another two days to evaluate,” Marsch said following Wednesday’s training session.

“So far I’d say it has been a good visit for him. He’s a good guy, he’s got personality which we’ll like. We’ll finish up the next couple of days and then we’ll have to make a decision.”

The Red Bulls could certainly use another attacking option, in particular, a wide player who could stretch the field and alleviate the pressure on the central attacking pieces such as Bradley Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan.

Last year, Bosetti spent time on loan with Norwegian club Sarpsborg 08, but made just two appearances.

Marsch said that at this point in the trial, which as of now will last only the week, he hasn’t touched upon that subject yet with the player.

“I haven’t gotten into too many details,” Marsh said.

“We’ve talked to him a little bit about how we play. I want to give him a chance to just get to know us a little bit before we get into his history. So far he’s likable. He’s got energy, he’s got personality.

[Red Bulls Insider Podcast EP 3: Carnell Chats Red Bulls & Shipping to the States]

Red Bulls Notes

  • Gonzalo Veron was not in training on Wednesday, but it is an issue that shouldn’t drag on as the Argentine winger is expected back in camp on Thursday. It is certainly welcome depth ahead of this weekend’s match at the Montreal Impact.

“So Gonzalo has a personal issue happening with his family but everything seems OK,” Marsch said. “He’ll be back here tomorrow.

Ironically, Bosetti would likely take up minutes at the same position that Veron has been trying to win over since signing with the club three summers ago.

  • The case of Anatole Abang remains unclear. The Cameroonian international has seen loan deals in Denmark and now Finland canceled, putting him in a bit of limbo. He’s not currently with the club and Marsch was asked about this on Wednesday.“I don’t have anything on Abang,” Marsch said when asked about the player.
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Round Three: No Love Lost Between Cavs and Warriors

The Ali-Frazier of NBA Finals tips off Thursday night and there is no truth to the rumor that the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors will have cut men seated at the end of their respective benches.

Then again, it might not be a bad idea.

For all the incredible wealth of talent that will grace the Oracle Arena court, what makes this Finals even more tantalizing than the last two is the dastardly disdain the Cavs and Warriors have developed for one another.

Surely, although he says otherwise, it wasn’t coincidence that LeBron James, the most talented of them all, wore an Ultimate Warrior T-shirt when celebrating last year’s epic victory over what turned out to be the not-so-ultimate Warriors.

And Draymond Green, who is as subtle as firetruck barreling down 7th Avenue, issued a warning earlier this season. When asked what he would like to do to the Cavs if they were to meet for a third straight time in the Finals, Green saw red, which he often does.

“I want to completely destroy them,’’ Green said.

Green and the Warriors get their chance. It is an opportunity they have pined for since blowing a 3-1 series lead last year and losing. It marked the first time in NBA Finals’ history that a team had blown a 3-1 lead.

Even worse, if you’re a Golden State fan, it came after the Warriors had set an NBA record with 73 wins in the regular season. The loss was the equivalent of enjoying a five-star dinner only to have the soufflé collapse.

Warriors owner Joe Lacob proclaimed that Golden State was “the better team.” He has also said the Warriors had “unfinished business.”

Can’t we all just get along?

Nope. Not Cleveland and Golden State.

The Warriors beat the Cavs two years ago in six games. Cleveland was without Kevin Love, who missed the series after Boston’s Kelly Olynyk attempted to perform his version of Tommy John surgery on the Cavs’ power forward in their first-round playoff series.

Kyrie Irving was lost after the first game of the 2015 Finals with a fractured kneecap. No Irving. No Love. No contest.

The Warriors won Game 6 in Cleveland. When they returned to Cleveland last season for their first game against the Cavs in Quicken Loans Arena, Steph Curry drew first blood.

[Read More From Lenn Robbins]

“Obviously, walking in the locker room, it’ll be good memories,’’ Curry said. “Hopefully, it still smells a little bit like champagne.”

The Warriors seemed destined to go back-to-back. They were better last year than in 2015 and they had championship experience.

But Green decided to go south of the border, striking James in the groin in Game 4, which Golden State won to take a 3-1 lead.

Green was suspended for Game 5. The Warriors didn’t win another game.

James, looking to fulfill his promise to bring a title to Cleveland, was also now playing with a chip on his shoulder.

“As a competitor, I love going against Draymond and I’m all about going out there and leaving it out on the floor,’’ James said. “But when it gets a little bit more than what it should be, that’s what caused me to have words with him.’’

Klay Thompson decided the best way to put out this fire was to pour gasoline on it.

“I guess his feelings just got hurt,’’ Thompson said of James.

As for hurt feelings, nothing hurts quite as much as blowing a 3-1 lead, losing Game 7 on your home court and hearing Dennis Rodman trash talk you.

The Warriors signed Kevin Durant, making their roster the unofficial Western Conference All-Star squad. Golden State, which has been without coach Steve Kerr (back) for much of the season, went 67-15.

Cleveland, which added Kyle Korver and Deron Williams, went 51-31. The Cavs have been installed as a heavy underdog.

“The whole underdog thing is funny to me,’’ Love said. “Because, yeah, at the end of the day we are defending our title.’’

Did you hear that, Golden State? It’s Cleveland’s title, words not often written. Yes, the Warriors know who wears the crown.

“I want to completely destroy them,’’ Green said at the start of the season. “No ifs, ands or buts about it. That won’t change.

“I’m not saying we’re going to look forward to that. Like I said, there’s a long road ahead. And it’ll be a tough, tough road to get there. Nonetheless, if we get there, and they get there, I want to destroy them. Really ain’t no other way to put it.”

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Second Opportunity Beckons For Lindsay Allen

Sparks 90, Liberty 75

After the Liberty lost, 90-75, to the L.A. Sparks Tuesday night at The Garden, after the harsh reality of the daunting challenge the next few weeks pose, coach Bill Laimbeer didn’t mince words.

“It’s going to be tough,’’ Laimbeer said. “We can win some games. That is our goal, to win as many games as possible. We’ll tread water till we get our players back.

“We can’t put our heads down. The league doesn’t stop. It’s relentless. It keeps going. If you put your head down, you have a bigger problem. [We’re] trying to keep the confidence as high as possible these days.”

Confidence, that magic potion that players would pay a small fortune for, is still present in the Liberty locker room after the team fell to 2-3 on the season. But it will be tested.

Epiphanny Prince, who thrived after assuming the starting point guard job when Brittany Boyd was lost for the season with a torn left Achilles tendon, and backup center Kia Vaughn played their last game with the Liberty for at least the next 2-4 weeks.

Both players head to Europe to compete in the FIBA 2017 EuroBasket tournament. Prince will play for Russia. Vaughn will represent the Czech Republic. Prince and Vaughn said they intend to stay in touch with their Liberty teammates and coaches on a daily basis but as Prince said, “You can’t be in two places at once.”

[Robbins: Prince Took on Demons, Now Poised to Take on WNBA]

Almost at once, the Liberty has lost three of its top seven players.

“These days with Skype, Facebook, and Instagram, you can stay in touch with anyone from anywhere in the world,’’ Vaughn said. “And we’re all on a group text. It’s a tough time to leave, but any time would have been tough.’’

The Liberty play the second game of a five-game home swing Friday night (7:30 p.m., MSG) at The Garden. They host the Dallas Wings followed by Phoenix, Atlanta, and Seattle. All have winning records as of today.

“We knew this was coming,’’ Laimbeer said. “The league doesn’t stop.”

Lindsay Allen understands that as well as anyone. The former Notre Dame All-American point guard was the Liberty’s top pick in the 2017 WNBA Draft (2nd round; 14th overall). She was the last player the team released.

With Boyd out for the season and Prince in Europe, the Liberty announced on Wednesday that it had resigned Allen. Allen started every game in her four years in South Bend.

[Photo Gallery: Liberty vs. Sparks]

She impressed the Liberty with her high IQ and better-than-expected outside shooting. Allen said she got a text from star Tina Charles after she was released. Charles told Allen to stay ready and remain confident.

“To have a player of her stature reach out to me was really humbling,’’ Allen told MSGNetworks.com. “It shows you the kind of person she is, the leader she is.

“It made me want to be a member of this organization, even more, to be surrounded by these great people and athletes. Now my job is to help this team win any way I can.’’

The Liberty need any contribution that Allen can provide. After the L.A. loss, Laimbeer said the team plays in spurts and is not playing with the discipline needed to win on a consistent basis, which can have a negative effect on overall confidence.

He preaches, on a daily basis, that if the Liberty do the little things and outwork the opponent, their talent will take over. In each of the last two losses, the Liberty have been held to 11 points in the fourth quarter.

Adversity hit and the Liberty didn’t hit back.

“Confidence is a funny thing,’’ Laimbeer said. “Each player has to find it within themselves. Sometimes it’s giving more opportunity, giving a player more opportunity and they start to show themselves. Sometimes it’s the opposite. A player gets less opportunity and they go south.

[More From Robbins’ Nest]

“You try to put in the work. Each player has to put in the work and hopefully good things happen. Collectively, this is where we’re going to be. This isn’t going to be one person saving us or one person making us fail. This is a collective group of coaches and players. We have to all stick together and get through this.”

Which brings us back to Allen. Few rookies come into the league and change a team’s fortunes. Allen clearly has a terrific skill set and potential with a capital ‘P.’ But this will be her first experience going up against the best players in the world on a nightly basis.

Allen has done her part in order to be ready. After being waived, she returned to South Bend where she worked out hard for two weeks. She graduated on Sunday, packed her dorm room belongings into a U-Haul and drove home to Maryland.

Her agent called with the news that the Liberty wanted her back. Next stop, NYC.

[Robbins’ Nest: Lindsay Allen Looking to Make a Splash With Liberty]

“Not often in life do you get a second chance,’’ Allen said. “You never want to see anyone get hurt and I know Brittany will come back strong. Piph and Kia leaving is unusual, but it’s given me this opportunity.

“I’m confident I can play in this league. I feel like the Liberty kept believing in me. Every time I step on the court, I want to show my appreciation with hustle and hard work.’’

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The Waiting Ends With ’94 Cup

Editor’s Note: On this date, June 14, back in 1994, the Rangers ended a 40-year championship drought by capturing the Stanley Cup.

Since I was there for the entire 1994 tournament, I have to start this historic look with a glance at the preceding series in which the New Jersey Devils led the New York Rangers, three games to two.

Before the magic of Game 7, the Rangers had their backs to the wall against the rival Devils.

Game 6 was a media circus. With his club on the verge of elimination, Captain Mark Messier captured the imagination of New Yorkers with a daring ploy. Messier went on record predicting a Rangers victory. It was a daring move that made front page headlines, right up to the opening face-off.

The argument on the ice – May 25, 1994 – tilted in the Devils favor in the first period, but New Jersey blew a two-goal lead setting the stage for Messier heroics.

Sure enough, the Rangers broke loose for three unanswered third-period goals to annex the game, 4-2.

Messier had made good on his promise with a hat trick, including the turning point third-period goals. As for the Devils, they showed up at The Garden for the curtain-closer and rallied in the final seconds of the third period to tie the game at 1-1.

[15 Facts About the Rangers ’94 Cup Run]

The first overtime favored the Rangers as their foe seemed content to play “The Trap” and wait for the breaks. The Devils almost had one when Mike Richter lost control of the puck at the boards behind him. Bill Guerin retrieved it, but before he could exploit the open net, his threat was defused.

Neither team scored and the game went into a heart-throbbing second overtime. This time, the Law of Averages worked in the Rangers’ favor against a rapidly tiring Devils club. 

New York moved the puck into the New Jersey zone as the Devils prepared a counter-attack, a clearing pass was intercepted by Stephane Matteau. He moved down the left side then swerved behind the net where he tried a desperation centering pass. 

For a split second, the puck was lost but then it showed up behind the red line, somehow sneaking between Martin Brodeur‘s pad and the goal post. The Rangers had won a classic.

On the winner’s side, there was sheer ecstasy. More than that, Messier had lifted himself to the legendary level of Babe Ruth when he predicted the sixth game victory and then captained his club to wins both in Game 6 and Game 7.

But for Blueshirts’ fans, the best was yet to come. They now had reached the Stanley Cup Final and, for the first time since 1979, saw the Cup only four wins away. Their opponent would be the Vancouver Canucks, who despite the presence of superstar Pavel Bure and dynamic leader Trevor Linden, seemed less threatening than the Devils.

[Ocal: The 1994 Cup Final From the Canucks’ Point of View]

The series opened in New York and Vancouver rallied to tie the score 2-2 late in the third period. To the utter deflation of The Garden crowd, Greg Adams beat Richter in overtime and the Canucks had stolen Game 1 of the Cup Final.

The Blueshirts rebounded for a 3-1 win and then swept both games in Vancouver for a three-games-to-one lead. If ever there was cause for premature rejoicing, this was it. Coming home to a wildly, madly, deafening Garden crowd should have been enough to deflate the Canucks. Writing in his book, “Losing the Edge,” author Barry Meisel summed up the feeling along Broadway as well as anyone.

“The City of New York considered Game 5 a coronation, not a contest. The Monster of MSG did not consider defeat even a remote possibility. The wildest party in 54 years was scheduled to be a few fashionable late minutes after 8 p.m on Thursday, June 9, 1994, at the corner of 33rd Street and Seventh Avenue in Manhattan. No RSVP was necessary. Meanwhile, the Police were prepared for a jubilant riot.”

Rangers and their fans expected Game 5 to be the tilt that ended their Cup drought, but the Canucks had other plans.

The riot was not to come, nor was the Rangers victory. What appeared to be a fait accompli turned into a build-up-to-a-let-down. The Canucks won 6-3, sending the series back to Vancouver. As for Game 6, it kindled the worst fears of any Rangers fan. The Canucks won 4-1, sending the series back to the Big Apple. 

‘If they beat us three straight,” said Messier, “the Canucks deserve to win the Stanley Cup.”

The Rangers took The Garden ice for Game 7, jumped to an early lead and built on it. They had a 2-0 advantage after five minutes of the second period and the situation seemed well in hand until Linden scored a shorthanded goal at 5:21. But Messier fattened the lead and the Rangers took the ice to start the third with what appeared to be a comfortable two-goal cushion.

[Infographic: 1994 Rangers Stanley Cup]

However, the ubiquitous Linden scored on a power play at 4:50 of the third, sending the Rangers into a defensive shell. Often such ultra-conservative play could be a prelude to a disaster. But the Rangers were willing to gamble.

The lead remained intact as the clock ticked down below the five-minute mark.

[More on the Rangers 90th Annivesary]

As the overflow crowd bit fingernails, held its breath and prayed, the Rangers ran through four more faceoffs in their own end before the clock ran down to 0:37.8 and then 0:28.2 following two more face-offs.

Once again the puck was iced and the last face-off was held between Craig MacTavish and Pavel Bure. The Ranger won the draw, pushing the puck into the corner where Steve Larmer pinned it against the boards.

That did it. The Rangers had won their first Stanley Cup in 54 years and their followers no longer had to listen to chants of “1940! 1940!” from their Islanders counterparts.

Editor’s Note: On this date, June 14, back in 1994, the Rangers ended a 40-year championship drought by capturing the Stanley Cup. Look back at the nerve-wracking moments during Game 7 of the Final, and the emotions felt by the Rangers and their fans when they won the Cup at The Garden.

The cheering was clocked at seven minutes minimum after which the Stanley Cup made its appearance. The time was 11:06 p.m when NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman proclaimed “Well, New York. After 54 years, your long wait is over. Mark Messier, come get the Stanley Cup!”

He did and thereby set off an endless hockey party in the Gotham. By far the most memorable was the victory parade which attracted a crowd of 1.1 million. The motorcade went up Broadway from Battery Park to City Hall where Mayor Rudolph Giuliani greeted the team.

Before and after the City Hall fete, parties sprung up all over town, from the Russian National Restaurant in Brighton Beach to The Today Show. Away from celebratory hullabaloo, a number of less-known–but no less endearing — episodes unfolded.

The day of the parade, Rangers public relations director Barry Watkins received a call informing him that a Rangers fan named Brian Bluver was at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital, desperately in need of a heart transplant.

Brian’s father, Bill, revealed that the lad was a Messier fan and asked whether Watkins could deliver the captain to cheer his son. Despite many demands for the captain, Watkins delivered Messier along with Nick Kypreos who paid a surprise bedside visit to young Bluver.

More than that, Messier brought the Stanley Cup with him and put it at the bedside while promising Brian that he would see the day the Rangers raised the Stanley Cup banner.

Just four days later, Brian received his new heart and in another seven months he was designated the Rangers’ Honorary Captain and sat on the team bench when the championship banner was lifted to the ceiling.

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Gomez Begins Coaching Journey With Islanders

Scotty Gomez‘s arrival as the Islanders‘ latest assistant coach hire did not come easily — thanks to his new boss Head Coach Doug Weight.

[Fischler: Isles Welcome Luke Richardson to Coaching Staff]

“Doug and I talked a good hour-and-a-half before we came to any agreement,” Gomez told me in a phone interview yesterday (Tuesday).

“We went over just about everything from my beliefs, how the game should be played; his thoughts and what I could bring to the Islanders’ table.”

That would be plenty, starting with a ton of experience.

Having won two Stanley Cups with the New Jersey Devils would be a starter. The two-time National Hockey League All-Star also played for the Rangers, San Jose Sharks, Florida Panthers, St. Louis Blues and Ottawa Senators.

Plus, he was tutored by Hall of Fame executive Lou Lamoriello when Lou was GM in New Jersey.

“Lou taught me how to be a pro,” Gomer explained. “It was all about discipline and being a real player. I owe Lou a lot and he knows it.”

In selecting Gomez, Weight had a checklist of his own and, in the end, Scotty had the right round pegs for the round holes.

“Scott brings an immense amount of hockey knowledge to our coaching staff,” Weight said in a prepared statement. “His offensive instincts, expertise on the power play and the way he controlled the game with his skating and smarts.

“These are all key elements that we want implemented into our group. He can relate to today’s NHL player in an effort to bring out the best in each member of the team.”

Since Gomez played as recently as the 2015-16 season, he’s expected to work closely with the younger Islanders, possibly even prodigy Mathew Barzal, a center like Gomez, who has a good chance of making the big club.

As one Islanders executive told The Maven, “Scotty will be able to relate to the Millennials on our roster. Some of them are from a new breed of player.”

Gomez is prepared for that role. As a Devils freshman in 1999-2000, he won the Calder Memorial Trophy as rookie of the year. While Scotty was at it, he was a main cog in the New Jersey scoring machine.

Being so young on a championship team dazzled the Anchorage, Alaska native. He cites Hall of Fame defenseman Scott Stevens as one of his mentors. Others include Bobby Holik, Randy McKay and Mister Devil, himself, Ken Daneyko.

New York Hockey Journal Islanders beat writer Leo Scaglione, Jr. is another critic who endorses the Gomez hiring.

“Gomer will thrive,” said Leo. “He has an excellent coaching handbook from which to read. He learned from his coaches such as Larry Robinson, Pat Burns and Lou Lamoriello. His personality isn’t rough, but firm.”

To which Scott added: “I’m not shy.”

Asked to select which Stanley Cup team was his favorite, Scotty hesitated, knowing there was a big difference between the 2000 variety and 2003.

“Of the two Cup teams I was on,” Scotty asserted, “the first one is best. Then again, I was so excited over what was happening around me half the time I didn’t know what was going on.

“One of my teammates on that club once said to me, ‘Scotty, you don’t know how lucky you are to get a Cup-winning out of the way as a rookie in this league.’ And he was right.”

But luck was only a small part of the Gomez Saga. During his playoff tenure, he scored 101 points (29 goals, 72 assists) in 149 Cup games. Not surprisingly, he was a major element on the 2003 New Jersey champions.

Like many of his title teammates, Scott lamented the fact that the 2000 defending champions lost in seven Final games the following year to the Colorado Avalanche.

“Losing to Colorado stuck in our craw, but when we won the Cup again in 2003 that washed all the bad taste away,” Gomez said. “Just the fact that we were able to come back two years later and do it again was really something.

[Daneyko: What Does It Take to Win the Cup?]

“But the experience in 2001 and 2003 taught me a lesson, and it’s something I want to convey especially to the young guys. Playing hockey is like being on a roller coaster; you’re up, you’re down. I rode that roller coaster every which way.”

Another element the Islanders’ general staff wants Gomez to bring to the room is his innate sense of humor; to keep things light at the right time and place.

As he puts it, “I have to show not one guy on the team, but all the guys. I want to make them all better, but I won’t be there to break them.”

Then, a pause and another moment to reflect: “The bottom line is I’ll be there to help them win the Stanley Cup.”

Why not? Gomez has been there — done that!

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Rangers Have Work To Do In Evolving NHL

Pat Riley, the former coach of the Knickerbockers among others, is credited with saying, “If you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse.”

There’s something to that, and it certainly applies to the NHL, where Nos. 1 through 30 (and soon 31) are separated by a relatively slim margin, where you can be riding high for a year or a number of years, and then get caught from behind.

It happens every season, teams going from the outhouse to penthouse — or vice versa — in a league where there hasn’t been a repeat champion since Scotty Bowman’s Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and ’98 (Pittsburgh can repeat in this year’s Cup Final against Nashville, which began Monday).

And in a league where the 16th-seeded team can reach the Cup final, as Nashville has. A league where loser’s points and bonus points for skills competition victories skew standings.

[Fischler: 6 Reasons Why Pens Will Win Cup]

More proof: Nearly half the field of 16 that competed for the Cup this springtime didn’t make the playoffs last spring. So there’s that.

Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, Detroit, the Islanders, Florida, Los Angeles and Dallas were replaced in the tournament this season by Columbus, Toronto, Boston, Montreal, Ottawa, Edmonton and Calgary.

So you have to get better or you’ll get worse because somebody else will be getting better.

Which brings us to the Rangers.

I thought this year’s team, with its still-developing youth, and the three new rookies, and with much more depth and speed up front, were better than the year before. The product on ice for what amounted to 94 games, well, might not have been a lot better because some of the veterans had challenging seasons.

They went one playoff round longer this season – aided by their slide over to the Atlantic Division bracket and a first-round matchup with Montreal rather than Pittsburgh or Washington. If it was an improvement, it was slight. And arguably.

As noted, things can change quickly, and will. Teams are going to have to make hard decisions around the salary cap, around the expansion draft, and for other reasons.

Maybe the most interesting case will be Washington, where it just hasn’t worked despite all the talent, multiple coaches and GMs.

The Capitals are going to have to blow up a portion of their roster anyway because of the salary cap-explosion of unrestricted free agents (Kevin Shattenkirk, T.J. Oshie, Justin Williams, Karl Alzner and Daniel Winnik) and restricted free agents Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky, Brett Connolly, Nate Schmidt and Dmitry Orlov, plus backup goalie Philipp Grubauer.

The Cup finalist Predators are going to have to make a move with one of their top four defensemen or lose one for nothing to the expansion draft. Ottawa has 11 unrestricted free agents, though none of them of the major variety.

Rangers’ GM Jeff Gorton has to maneuver his protected list for the expansion draft – and still likely will lose a player he wants to keep. Then he has to do some upgrading, most notably on defense.

[Carpiniello: As Expansion Draft Looms, Who Will Rangers Protect]

The Rangers have only two unrestricted free agents – defenseman Brendan Smith and winger Tanner Glass.

No doubt they would love to get Smith re-signed. He will come with a pretty hefty price tag: A 28-year-old, in-his-prime defensive defenseman with bite in his game who, despite being a lefty, is very comfortable on the right side; and one coming off a strong playoff performance in a league where everybody needs defensemen.

Glass, who just completed his three-year contract and spent a lot of the last two seasons in the minors, you’d have to think will be allowed to walk.

Mika Zibanejad, who made $2.625 million last year and is arbitration eligible, is their most notable restricted free agent along with Jesper Fast (a bargain at $900,000 last year) and Oscar Lindberg ($650,000).

The Rangers are going to have to decide (probably have already decided) whether they want to keep, and thus make qualifying offers to Brandon Pirri, Matt Puempel, and/or Adam Clendening.

Gorton’s got work to do. The Rangers have been one of the league’s best teams since 2011-12. They have room to get better in 2017-18. Or they can get worse.

ABOUT LAST NIGHT

Some bizarre Game 1 of the Cup Final – Pittsburgh has an early Nashville goal disallowed by micro evidence of a video challenge, gets a 5-on-3 goal, gets a goal off a Predators’ knee, and goes 37 minutes without a shot on goal, blows a 3-0 lead, somehow breaks a late 3-3 tie, and wins 5-3. Nashville’s got to have gained a lot of confidence from that game. Pittsburgh, up 1-0 in the series, needs to destroy the video.

Since the Cup Final became a best-of-seven in 1939, the Game 1 winner has won the Cup 77.9 percent of the time (60 of 77 series), including each of the last five Cups.

TALE OF TWO CUP COACHES

Not only is this the first Stanley Cup Final between two American-born coaches, but also the two Cup coaches both came, to small degrees, through the Rangers. Mike Sullivan, of course, was John Tortorella’s assistant here.

Peter Laviolette played 12 NHL games (no points, six penalty minutes) as a Ranger during the final year of the Phil EspositoMichel Bergeron regime, 1988-89. I believe that myself and Helene Elliott of the L.A. Times are the only remaining NHL journalists to have covered his entire career.

I never really got to know Sullivan, who is 7-0 in playoff series as Penguins coach. That’s just the way it is/was during the Tortorella regime. The news media never got to interact with Sullivan, other than the one time he was up for some head coaching jobs and Torts let him speak to us. I got to know pretty much every other assistant coach to some degree over the years, including Tortorella when he was an assistant to John Muckler. But not Sully.

USA-USA

Speaking of the first Stanley Cup Final between two American-born coaches, did you know the Penguins have 10 American players on their roster; Nashville just three?

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Marsch and Red Bulls Hailing “Taxi’s” Efforts

Two years removed from the tournament itself, few fans remember that the tiny island of Jamaica was an invited guest nation competing at Copa America 2015.

The oldest — and many believe the most fiercely contested — international football competition on Earth has long been dominated by perennial South American powers Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina (although without a title since 1993), and in recent years Chile. The role of a Jamaican national team in this setting is akin to that of the visiting team at a college football homecoming. Glad to have you. Prepare to lose. By a lot.

There was no upset on June 20, 2015 as heavily-favored Argentina defeated the Reggae Boyz 1-0 to advance to the quarterfinals of the tournament in a game that was supposed to serve as a celebration of the 100th appearance for Argentina by the world’s greatest player. Yet by night’s end, having witnessed Goliath’s inability to dominate David, more than a few observers were left with a single query.

Who is this defender that seems to have Lionel Messi in his pocket?

At the time Kemar Lawrence was 22 years old, starting left back for the New York Red Bulls. While some believed he was ticketed for Europe, “Taxi” as he is nicknamed, was a largely unknown entity throughout the soccer universe. He remains in MLS today.

Fast forward to Saturday night at Red Bull Arena and a counterattack by one of the best transition teams in Major League Soccer. A ball played wide to New England striker Kei Kamara saw Lawrence in need to make up 15 yards in order to break up a scoring opportunity. To the delight of the holiday weekend crowd, he succeeds.

[Red Bulls 2, Revolution 1]

“He’s playing the best he’s ever played,” said head coach Jesse Marsch. “It’s just a series of consecutive games that he takes care of things defensively first, then find a way to be dangerous in attack and make some plays. It’s great to see.”

Fourteen games into his team’s season, there is a strong argument to be made that Lawrence has been the team’s MVP.

“I think for the last six weeks, Kemar has easily been our best player,” said Bradley Wright-Phillips, after scoring his sixth goal of the season and his 75th all-time in a brief MLS career that’s already seen him win the league’s Golden Boot as leading scorer twice. “He is very hard to deal with, and not just going forward.”

The game’s best defenders still like to factor into scoring, and Lawrence played a role in both goals of New York’s 2-1 victory over the Revolution. Earning the primary assist on Daniel Royer’s game-winning goal means that of Lawrence’s nine career MLS points, seven have been achieved on game-winning plays. He is an impact player a year removed from what can only be described as a disappointing 2016.

Lawrence didn’t register a single point last season, and the growing perception was that we’d seen the best of him. That would mean Messi simply had an off night at Copa America, and that the Red Bulls blew a chance to sell a player whose value abroad had long ago peaked.

Lawrence plays a position that is not placed at a premium by too many observers of our league. A glance at MLS Best XI and All-Star teams through the years often reveal lineups that include three center backs, five midfielders and two forwards. It’s silly to believe that a team’s most potent weapon on any given night can’t come from the position made famous by the likes of Roberto Carlos, Paolo Maldini, and Philipp Lahm.

What are Juventus’ chances Saturday in the UEFA Champions League Final against Real Madrid without a strong game from Dani Alves?

Saturday’s victory was the Red Bulls’ sixth of the season, enabling the club to get back to .500, remain above the playoff line in the East, and restore its confidence with four Eastern Conference opponents on the schedule between now and July 5 (not including NYC in the U.S. Open Cup Fourth Round on June 14). You can count the number of players who’ve elevated their game from the 2016 first place finishers in the East on one hand.

Individually, it is Lawrence who’s provided the biggest bounce back.

The team will most definitely lose his services for games that coincide with the CONCACAF Gold Cup this summer, as Lawrence is a virtual lock to be selected for the Jamaica side that competes in the tournament beginning July 9. He called his grandmother, Norma Seymour, who died earlier this year, “his best friend,” and is still coming to grips with the loss.

[More From Cangy’s Corner]

“He started out slow, had a couple of personal things he had to fight through with his family,” adds Marsch. “We’ve all here [at Red Bulls] had such a high belief in Kemar and his personality, and his talent. I’m really proud of him. I’m really happy for him. Hopefully, we won’t miss him too much this summer with Jamaica.”

Long forgotten is two years ago in which he earned a Group Stage Best XI nod in a tournament that featured the best South American born players in the world. A youth coach gave Lawrence his nickname and to this day he’s not sure why.

Today this “Taxi’s” meter is running. And it’s been a wonderful watch.

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Libs Face Early Season Test Against Defending Champs

It is way too early to label any one game as the most important of the season for the Liberty.

But Tuesday night’s game against the Los Angeles Sparks is the most important to date.

After splitting a two-game West Coast trip, which Liberty coach Bill Laimbeer felt should have been a sweep, the reigning WNBA champs come to The Garden (7 p.m., ESPN2).

There is no better measuring stick than playing the champs.

And this will be the last game the Liberty will play for several weeks without point guard Epiphanny Prince and reserve center Kia Vaughn, both of whom are headed to Europe for the FIBA 2017 EuroBasket tournament.

The Liberty (2-2) already lost starting point guard Brittany Boyd to a torn Achilles tendon, suffered in the second game of the season. Prince stepped into the starting lineup and proved she is fully recovered from a torn right ACL suffered in 2015.

[Robbins: Prince Took on Demons, Now Poised to Take on WNBA]

After LA, it’s no Boyd, no Prince. Lots of question marks at point guard.

“It’s going to be a tough road,’’ Laimbeer said. “We’re a little inexperienced there and we’re going to have to work our way through it.’’

The Liberty can sign replacement players while Prince, who will play for Russia, and Vaughn, who will play for the Czech Republic, are overseas.

The last cut the Liberty made was top draft pick Lindsay Allen, the All-American point guard from Notre Dame. She impressed in training camp and the preseason, but the Liberty are built to win now and almost any rookie was going to have a hard time cracking the roster.

It would make sense for the Liberty to bring back Allen. Replacing Vaughn in the short term will not be easy. There simply aren’t proven, talented post players waiting to be signed.

Bria Hartley, who the Liberty acquired in an offseason deal with the Washington Mystics, can play the point but is more of a combo guard. Hartley is just four months removed from giving birth to her first child and is still regaining her top form. She’s averaging about 10 minutes per game with six assists and three turnovers.

“I think that she’s still getting her basketball game back underneath her now,’’ Laimbeer said. “She’s making progress, but she still has a way to go. She’s working on it every day.’’

[Robbins: New Mom Hartley Balancing Motherhood & Career]

The question Laimbeer and the staff must consider is whether Sugar Rodgers or perhaps Shavonte Zellous can provide some minutes at point guard. It’s not an ideal solution, but losing two of the top seven rotation players for what could be a month is far from ideal.

Rodgers has picked up where she left off last season when she emerged as one of the league’s best shooting guards. She’s averaging 14 points on 40.7-percent shooting (11-of-27) on 3s.

Rodgers is playing with tremendous confidence. Moving her to point might detract from her offensive game.

Zellous, the emotional spark plug of the team, has seven assists and seven turnovers. She is a smart player and a terrific defender, but not a natural point guard.

“All players have to step up and this point,’’ Laimbeer said. “I’m not going to single anybody out. All players have to elevate their game because we’re going to be a little shorthanded.’’

That won’t be the case against Los Angeles (2-2). The Sparks will be playing the final game of a three-game East Coast road swing. That could work in the Liberty’s favor.

What might work against them is that the Sparks, who opened 11-0 last season, have lost the first two games of this swing. No team, especially a champion, wants to fly home – cross country, no less – having been swept on a road trip.

That’s LA’s problem. The Liberty have their own concerns.

Laimbeer said the intensity and physicality have improved with each game. The players have embraced his narrative of seeking to be the hardest working team in the league.

Do that, he says, and talent takes over.

But with the imminent departures of Prince and Vaughn, Laimbeer and Liberty fans might not know exactly what they have until mid-July when the duo return from Europe and have to time to assimilate to the team.

First things first – get over the .500 mark and then face life without two key players. Neither task will be easy.

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Stanley Cup Final: Here’s Who’ll Win and Why

This spring was to be the open season for winning The Stanley Cup.

And why not?

Washington’s Capitals emerged as much a “favorite” as anyone. But, we all know that the Caps always find trouble in the playoffs, especially against Pittsburgh.

As for the defending champions, the Penguins, recent history has told us that no team wins two Cups in succession because of attrition, overconfidence and a tough foe in the Final.

The Blackhawks appealed to a bloc of analysts since their core included Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Corey Crawford and an assortment of former champs. But, they exited faster than the breeze in The Windy City.

Ironically, of the nine-member The Hockey News sage editorial panel nobody — not a single voter — selected the Predators as a potential winner.

So, here we are with the Final Round about to begin in Pittsburgh and it pits the amazing current titleholders against the equally stunning Predators.

Talk about an odd couple — hockey-style — well this Pens-Preds finale takes the cake; if not The Cup.

I won’t waste any more of your time; The Maven picks Pittsburgh in six. And here’s why:

1. SIDNEY CROSBY: The erstwhile Sid The Kid has grown up — big-time. He takes punishment without whining; plays tough without concern of suspensions and just happens to still be the world’s best player. And this, despite his many concussions.

2. EVGENI MALKIN: As long as there’s a container of No-Doz in his locker to remind him that this is the Final, the Russian Hulk will add a bullish dimension that Crosby lacks and, by the way, does not need — thanks to Malkin.

3. MIKE SULLIVAN: Man, oh, man has this onetime aide to John Tortorella proven that, yes, a coach sure can make a difference. So far, the New Englander successfully has steered his sextet through more adversity than Captain Bligh on HMS Bounty.

4. PHIL KESSEL: Never in the history of hockey has a player looked less like a super-scorer yet scores like one than this Is-He-Ever-In-Shape right wing. On his game, Kessel completes a Big Three of Crosby-Malkin-Kessel that you wouldn’t wish against any goalie, Pekka Rinne included.

5. MATT MURRAY: He may not yet be a Patrick Roy, Martin Brodeur nor Georges Vezina but Double M proved last spring he’s top-notch. And when he replaced Marc-Andre Fleury in the Ottawa series, Murray virtually guaranteed his club a trip to the Final.

6. SPEAR-CARRIERS: Under the Sullivan orchestration, supporting actors suddenly emerge as stars when least expected. Exhibit A is Chris Kunitz in double-OT against Ottawa in Game 7. Then there are the likes of Nick Bonino, Justin Schultz and Matt Cullen, just to name a few.

Which is not to dismiss the Predators out of hand. That would be foolish and unfair to coach Peter Laviolette and his band of warriors.

Anyone who picks Nashville to win its first Stanley Cup can make a good case for such a rare happening and you won’t get arrested for it either. Here’s why:

1. MOTIVATION: From Memphis to Chattanooga, the entire state of Tennessee has become hockey-mad. This lovely infection has seeped into the Preds dressing room. So far, it has produced a rare breed of gung-ho hockey. It will produce extraordinary efforts.

2. FILIP FORSBERG: If this Sweet Swede was playing in either New York or Toronto, he would be the NHL’s headline-grabber. In the meantime, he’s become the heart and soul of the club and as clutch a performer as you’ll ever see on an expansion team.

3. PEKKA RINNE: The one time, perennial Vezina Trophy-finalist has found his previously-lost form and could out-goal Murray; providing he hasn’t lost anything since the Anaheim series. He also has loads more experienced than Double M.

4. P.K. SUBBAN: Granted he’s not a Norris Trophy candidate, but when it comes to effervescence and the ability to prod teammates to even better efforts, this defenseman ranks with the best. His sidekicks such as Roman Josi and Mattias Ekholm aren’t too shabby either.

[Boyle: Preds D-Men Carrying Rinne to Strong Postseason]

5. PETER LAVIOLETTE: The slick-haired mentor has a track record that’s the envy of many bench bosses. Getting Nashville to the Cup Final for the first time is as solid a credit as anything for voting Pistol Pete coach of the year.

6. SPEAR-CARRIERS: Pittsburgh isn’t the only team with under-the-radar chaps who can break open a game. Don’t look beyond previously-hidden Colton Sissons when it comes to a suddenly-arrived delivery man.

BOTTOM LINE: When a club such as Nashville loses its top center, Ryan Johansen, I can’t imagine it beating a playoff-savvy club paced by Crosby and Malkin. So, I repeat; Penguins in six.

MINORITY OPINION: My buddy, Gus Vic, who sees things clearly and who sees them whole when it comes to Cup Final results, disagrees with my view and favor’s Nashville.

Here’s Vic’s view:

  • “The Preds backline has done more to supplement offense than any team since the Capitals with Al Iafrate, Sylvain Cote, Calle Johansson and Kevin Hatcher.”
  • “Up front, Nashville has the ability of every skater to play aggressive, in-your-face hockey. The mileage they’ve gotten from Austin Watson, Colin Wilson and Colton Sissons is exactly the type of DNA championship teams need.”
  • “Plus, I like the speed pressure game of Peter Laviolette. Finally, I pick the Predators because it just feels like new blood is waiting to be crowned.”
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