Phil Esposito has strong ties to the Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Rangers, yet there’s no question which team the Hall-of-Famer is rooting for with a trip to the National Hockey League’s Stanley Cup Final on the line.
“I’ve got the emotions about the Rangers, no doubt about that,” the 73-year-old Esposito, whose 717 goals are sixth in NHL history, said in a telephone interview. “I was cheering for them against the Capitals, but the sacrifices I made to get the Lightning started in 1990, 1991 and ’92 were so huge. It’s like I gave birth to them.”
Esposito played 18 years in the NHL -- including with the Rangers over his final six seasons from 1975-81 -- and helped led New York into the 1979 Stanley Cup Final by tallying 20 points in 18 games at the age of 37. He was the Rangers’ general manager from 1986-89 and coached the team for 45 games.
Esposito’s connections to the Lightning run deeper, as he was a force behind bringing the organization to Tampa as an expansion team in 1992.
Esposito, who was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1984, was president and GM of the Lightning through 1998. His contributions to the franchise are commemorated by a bronze statue -- he holds a hockey stick while wearing a business suit and tie with the Lightning logo -- that was unveiled outside the Tampa Bay Times Forum in 2011. Today he remains the team’s radio color commentator.
“I’m a Lightning person; I sacrificed an awful lot for the team and I’d like them to win,” said Esposito, who captured NHL titles as a Boston Bruins player in 1970 and 1972. “But if they can’t win and the Rangers beat us, then I’d like to see the Rangers win the Stanley Cup.”
The Rangers host Game 1 of the best-of-seven Eastern Conference finals today, with Game 2 at New York’s Madison Square Garden on May 18. The series then shifts to Tampa for games three and four.
Esposito said the key to the series will be the goaltending matchup between New York’s Henrik Lundqvist and Tampa Bay’s 6-foot-7 Ben Bishop. Lundqvist has a 1.60 goals-against average in the postseason, when all 12 of the Rangers’ games have been decided by one goal. Bishop has a 1.81 goals-against average.
“Bishop has been fabulous,” Esposito said. “He’s had a couple of bad games, but for the most part he’s been terrific and Lundqvist has been unbelievable.”
The Rangers reached the Eastern Conference finals by winning their final three games against the Washington Capitals to erase a 3-1 series deficit. They twice won 2-1 in overtime, including in the decisive Game 7 on Wednesday. It was the Rangers’ 14th consecutive postseason game decided by one goal, an NHL record.
“You know everything is on the line,” Lundqvist said after improving his Game 7 record to 6-1 all-time. “You know one mistake and it’s all over or you are moving on.”
Although the Rangers have won three games in a row, Esposito said there is no momentum at the start of a new playoff series and against a new team.
While he knows which team he wants to face the Anaheim Ducks or Chicago Blackhawks, Esposito said he enters the series with no idea which one will advance out of the East.
“They’re that tight and that close,” he said. “I don’t know how you can say this team or that team is definitely going to win.”