Heading into Friday night’s game, fans and the media were talking about 1994. In a series of odd coincidences, it was the same 2 teams matching up in the Eastern Conference Finals. Like 18 years ago, the Rangers were heading into game six facing elimination. Even the date for the game six was identical – May 25th. This time around, there were no guarantees by the captain.
A slow start. A multi-goal deficit after one period of play. A valiant comeback that falls short. When all was said and done Friday night it felt more like May 23rd, 2012 rather than 1994, but more hollow because unlike Wednesday, there was no next game 48 hours later.
As they have all series, the Devils’ 4th line once again came up big for them. Steve Bernier got by Marc Staal in the Devils’ defensive zone, leaving Michael Del Zotto as the lone defenseman back on the play. With Staal trying to catch up to join his partner and the 3 Devils, Bernier dished it over to Stephen Gionta, who took the initial shot on Henrik Lundqvist. Del Zotto was unable to beat Ryan Carter to the rebound. Carter put it past Lundqvist to put the Devils up 1-0 at 10:05 of the first. Ruslan Fedotenko took a tripping penalty at 12:31 and the Devils would capitalize yet again. Ilya Kovalchuk was left all alone to take a pass from Dainius Zubrus and slap it past Lundqvist to put them up 2-0.
The Rangers did not go quietly, displaying the resilience that they’ve become known for. Midway in the second Ryan McDonagh made a play to keep the puck in the offensive zone, took it deep behind Martin Brodeur’s net and attempted a wraparound. The puck slid across the crease and Fedotenko was on the doorstep to pick it up and get it past Brodeur to cut the lead in half. Four minutes later, Ryan Callahan happened to be right in front of the net at the right time to tip a Dan Girardi shot past Brodeur to even the game.
For the second game in a row, the Rangers managed to erase a deficit. Unfortunately, the result wound up the same but in a more painful fashion. Both teams failed to score in the third period, sending the game into overtime. At 1:03 a scramble to control the puck in Lundqvist’s crease following a shot by Kovalchuk ensued. Neither Lundqvist nor his teammates were able to get control to either get a whistle or move the play out of the crease. Much like Callahan was in the right place at the right time for his goal, rookie Adam Henrique was in the right when the puck squirted free behind Lundqvist. He poked it in and it was game, set match.
Questions that seemed to have been put to bed about Lundqvist being able to get it done in the playoffs after his 3-0 game 3 masterpiece are going to creep back in again as his record this postseason winds up at .500. Without him the Rangers don’t get to the playoffs, let alone to game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final. Knowing what a competitor he is and how devastated he seemed in the postgame interview, don’t think for one second he wouldn’t trade all of the personal accolades he’s accumulated over this season for that spot in the Stanley Cup Finals.
The overall youth and inexperience of the Rangers defense that was a concern of some going into to the season may have finally caught up with them. Numerous times were they caught out of position, with inadequate support from their forwards coming back to help. Players like Del Zotto, Stu Bickel and Anton Stralman all made their NHL playoff debuts this year and McDonagh had only played the 5-game series last year against Washington. With John Tortorella, trust is the name of the game to earn ice time. Both McDonagh and Girardi averaged just over 26 minutes apiece per game; Staal over 25; Del Zotto over 21; Stralman just under 17; Bickel a hair over 5 and Eminger just under 7. One has to wonder if the story may have been somewhat different had Tortorella had Michael Sauer at his disposal too.
Then there’s that little problem of offense. They scored a total of 43 goals in 20 games. Four defensemen scored 11 of them. It’s great that they contributed, but players they expected offense from didn’t always come through when it was needed most. Brad Richards went goalless against the Devils. Marian Gaborik had one in the series, the 3rd goal in game 5 that was essentially a gift from Brodeur. As offensively productive as the Devils’ 4th line was, the Rangers’ 4th line wasn’t. Brian Boyle, who had 3 goals against the Senators before suffering a concussion, was not the same upon his return; Mike Rupp was one of the more noticeable Rangers on the ice (and not just for punching Brodeur in game 4) went pointless for the entire playoffs; Brandon Prust scored a total of one goal, which has started the game 5 comeback. Carter alone has had as many as that trio had combined, with 4.
With the Washingtons, Pittsburghs, Bostons and Vancouvers out of the way, it was a wide-open, golden opportunity for the Rangers to ride down the Canyon of Heroes with the Stanley Cup in mid-June. Stars don’t always align like that and it’s disappointing to see that chance be wasted. You never want to see your team lose to anyone. When it’s a hated rival sitting 14 miles in your backyard, It hurts. A lot.
They’ve made the jump from being a team that just eked in the first 4 post-lockout years, to missing the playoffs in a shootout the last day of the season, to needing the Lightning’s help to get in to a team that posted a 51-24-7, 109-point record to earn them the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
After the game, Coach Tortorella praised his team for their tenacity, but knows that they cannot just have the mindset that reaching the Eastern Conference Finals is a satisfactory accomplishment.
“We ‘re still a young club. And we still have quite a bit to learn as far as the desperation, when you get to this third round. I just don’t want us to — and you hear it so much, and I won’t accept it. You know, you won a couple of rounds. You got into the third round. That isn’t good enough. We still have to find a way to win another round and get there.
“I just don’t want this organization to sit still and say, because, prior, it was barely getting into the playoffs, losing in the first round, maybe getting to the second round. We have to change our mindset to continue trying to be the best and learn that there’s a lot more hockey to play after you go through a couple.”
They continued to shake off the stereotype of the Rangers being an organization where overpaid, over-the-hill superstars go to finish their careers in country-club style. There are big names with big contracts, but they’ve continued to forge their gritty, hard-working identity, led by the play of their homegrown, first-year captain Callahan. Speaking of homegrown, the Rangers dressed ten players Friday night who have never know another NHL organization other than the Rangers. (The playoff roster for the 1997 team, the last to get this far, had 8, including Brian Leetch and Mike Richter, and the likes of Christian Dube, Peter Ferraro – not exactly impactful NHLers). Kreider, the college kid thrown into the fire still and needs to work on his defensive game, showed glimpses of exactly why the Rangers did not want to part with him to bring in Rick Nash from Columbus. Girardi stepped out of Staal’s shadow and finally got the League-wide attention for his play that Rangers fans knew he deserved. Ryan McDonagh made Glen Sather look like even more of a genius (and Bob Gainey more of a fool) with his play.
Barring a trade, the young core should return relatively intact and the Rangers will look this offseason to address some of their deficiencies. The door on 2012 may have closed for this last night, but the window for this group is still wide open.
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About the Author: Likes: Hockey, the New York Rangers, King Henrik, singing the Rangers goal song, "The Save", the sound skates make against ice, heckling Marty Brodeur. Dislikes: 3-point games, front-office mismanagement, Denis Potvin, overpriced arena beer. Interested? Follow me on Twitter: @CC_927