The longer this Eastern Conference Final goes – and it will only go one more game – the more you realize what an opportunity the Rangers let get away while they were losing their grip on two late leads in the second round against Ottawa.
And if Ottawa wins Game 7 in Pittsburgh, then advances to the Stanley Cup Final or worse, if Ottawa then goes on and beats Nashville to win the Stanley Cup, the Rangers are going to be kicking themselves even harder and longer.
I’m going to be honest. I was in the camp, if not the camp leader, that the Rangers didn’t have a shot to beat the survivor of the Washington-Pittsburgh second-round series. I thought Washington-Pittsburgh was the de facto Eastern Conference Final, if not the Cup Final.
Given the way the Rangers finished the season, the way they struggled to defend around the front of their net, and the state of their penalty kill coming into the playoffs, I was picturing a series like last spring’s Rangers-Penguins first-rounder.
Now, remember, the Rangers were in that series at 1-1, and let the third period of Game 3 get away on home ice. Then, they lost in Games 4 and 5. So it was competitive for a while. Then it wasn’t.
I thought these Rangers would be more competitive than those Rangers, especially once they showed some serious guts and grit against Montreal in the first round. But I didn’t think the Rangers, or any team coming out of the Atlantic bracket, could give the Penguins or Capitals a legit run.
Well, a funny thing happened: The Penguins beat the Capitals (as usual), then the Penguins had all sorts of problems with the Senators. More problems than the Rangers had with the Senators.
Granted, Pittsburgh’s defense – and some forwards – are banged-up and probably more so than we know (Sidney Crosby?).
But the Penguins have had more difficulty with the Senators’ trap, or passive 1-3-1 or whatever you want to call it, than the Rangers had. In fact, the Rangers handled it quite well.
Which is part of the reason the Rangers should be booting themselves. For the first five games of that second-round series, the Rangers were the better team. And in some of the games, they were much better. They lost Game 1 on a late third-period fluke bank shot from the corner by Erik Karlsson, through Derek Stepan’s screen, and off Henrik Lundqvist’s crown and in.
Then you know what happened in Games 2 and 5. I don’t need to remind you (but I will so cover your eyes if you must). The Rangers blew their third two-goal lead on goals by J.G. Pageau with 3:19 and 1:02 left, and lost Game 2 on Pageau’s fourth goal of the game in double overtime. Then, after tying the series with two impressive MSG wins, the Rangers blew another late lead on a Derick Brassard bank shot with 1:26 left and Kyle Turris’s OT goal in Game 5.
The Rangers, almost impossibly, were down 3-2 despite controlling so much of the series, and they’d go down in Game 6. They’d go home in a series that they most certainly should have won.
Could the Rangers have beaten Pittsburgh? Hard to say. The Penguins – other than that 7-0 laugher in Game 5 – had to switch goalies, and have been slowed by the 1-3-1 of Ottawa. They’ve also fallen victim to some fabulous play by goalie Craig Anderson, whom the Rangers lit up for 17 goals in Games 2 through 5. Pittsburgh also plays a neutral-zone system that has given the Rangers fits over the last two years, including last spring’s playoff series.
I wouldn’t like that matchup. But the Rangers had every opportunity to get out of the Atlantic bracket, to beat an inferior Ottawa team and play Pittsburgh for the right to go to the Stanley Cup Final.
And they’ve had to sit and watch the Senators do so much with the opportunity they gifted them.
BORE ME: The Senators can take the air out of an arena and a game with the way they play. While it might be boring to you and me (it definitely bores me), it’s a thing of beauty for the Ottawa players and their fans. Reminds me of all the complaining about John Tortorella’s “boring” Rangers in 2012, the way they packed the defensive zone and blocked shots.
Roger Neilson’s Rangers would throw wet blankets over games, once causing then-Boston coach Mike Milbury to be apoplectic following a Rangers’ win at the Boston Garden. Neilson’s Florida Panthers got to a Stanley Cup Final playing that way, and we all know how the Devils built a dynasty playing that style.
So the Senators’ Clarke MacArthur said, per NHL.com’s Dan Rosen, that the plan for Game 7 would be to “bore them out of the building.”
Ottawa coach Dan Boucher confirmed, “I think we just need to stick to what we are, what we’ve been doing, and our strengths. The minute we try to fall into the other team’s strengths, we’re done, and I think that’s our main focus.”
KING SURVIVES A TACKLE: You probably saw the big, enthusiastic body-blast Team Sweden’s William Nylander used to level Lundqvist after the goalie’s shootout save on Mitch Marner to clinch the World Championship title.
On the Rangers’ website, Lundqvist explained the takedown to Matt Calamia:
“I saw him coming and I thought maybe (it would be) a little jump,” Lundqvist laughed. “But he jumped so high there was no way to stand my ground.
“My first thought was ‘I got this’ and my second thought was ‘I don’t got this.’ Then you just pile on there and everyone is just screaming.”
Good story, worth a read.
HAPPY ANNIVERSARY: Today marks 23 years since Mark Messier’s famous “Guarantee” game and he never said “guarantee” by the way. It was Game 6 of the 1994 Eastern Conference Final against the Devils at the Meadowlands.
Things get lost in the magic Messier produced. He assisted on Alexei Kovalev’s goal with 1:11 left in the second period to cut the Devils lead to 2-1, then scored three third-period goals to force a Game 7 two nights later at The Garden.
First, to me, was the play of Mike Richter, who could not be blamed for the breakdowns and caroms that gave the Devils the 2-0 lead in the first period. Richter was sensational throughout and didn’t allow another goal, despite the Rangers being badly outplayed for more than half the game. Some of that bad play got worse after Mike Keenan called a first-period timeout and said nothing to his players, leaving the discussion to Messier.
I also remember Esa Tikkanen taking a tripping penalty shortly after the Kovalev goal, which could have swung the game back to the Devils if not for Richter and a penalty-kill led by Brian Leetch, who also had a tremendous game. Then, after Messier’s second goal gave the Rangers a 3-2 lead, Glenn Anderson took an undisciplined slashing penalty with 2:49 left. During that kill, with Martin Brodeur on the bench for a Devils 6-on-4, Messier back-handed the clinching goal the length of the ice, into the empty net.
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT: Rangers prospect Igor Shestyorkin was named the goalie on the KHL’s first All-Star team. Many believe Shestyorkin, a fourth-round Rangers draft pick in 2014, will ultimately inherit Lundqvist’s job.