Saturday, May 26, 2012

Rangers Season Ends With 3-2 Loss To Devils In Game 6

It was over before it felt like it even started. After falling behind 2-0 in the first period, the Rangers rallied to tie the game in the second period before playing a scoreless third period and then heading to overtime. As has been the case all postseason long, every Rangers fan's stomach was in knots knowing that the next goal would decide the game, and more importantly, perhaps even the Rangers' season. I still hadn't even settled in when I saw a mad scramble in front of the net and before I knew it, the game was over. The series was over. The season was over. It seems like most times you have that type of chaos in the crease the ref will blow the play dead because he'll lose sight of the puck, but of course the Rangers couldn't catch that break. After all, if things came easy for the Rangers we all wouldn't have grown to love this team as much as we have this season.

I wanted to write about the game last night, but honestly, after the way it ended I just couldn't bring myself to it. It was just like the Marian Hossa overtime goal against the Penguins that eliminated the Rangers in the playoffs a few years ago, only this time it was much worse. I haven't looked at a replay of the goal to break it down, and probably won't. I'd like to go as long as possible without seeing that goal if I can. I needed some time to reflect on the game, the playoffs, and the Rangers' season as a whole and I knew anything I wrote wouldn't come across the way I wanted it to because of the sour mood I was in after the game.

Click below to read more on my thoughts on the game, the series, and the Rangers going forward.

To say it was a a bitter ending would be an understatement, and thinking about how the season ended still irritates me tremendously as I write this. I'll have much more of my thoughts to share on individual players and things the Rangers will need to improve on in the offseason within the next few days, but right now it's time to really appreciate everything this team gave us this season. The Rangers made a statement and put the rest of the league on notice that they are for real and can be an elite team for years to come. They proved that it's possible to win and go deep into the playoffs with a blue-collar style that pays crucial attention to shot blocking, positioning, and stick checking. Let's face it - the Rangers got to within two games of the Stanley Cup Finals, and they did so without getting any consistent production all postseason long from their 40-goal-scorer Marian Gaborik, and a dreadful Conference Finals performance from Brad Richards. It makes you wonder just how much farther this team could've gone if both of their top offensive guns were on their game in this series, but I guess we could sit here and play the "what if" game all day long.

The bottom line is that the Rangers accomplished a hell of a lot this season when most "experts" picked them to be a borderline playoff team who would be battling for the seventh or eighth seed in the final week of the regular season. This season was a lot like the first season after the lockout, in that the Rangers gave us all hope and a glimpse at what this team can accomplish and just what this team's identity is going to be for years to come. When John Tortorella said this team has "balls" following last night's loss, I thought that was a great way to sum up the core of this team. In addition to Henrik Lundqvist, you have the Ryan McDonaghs, Dan Girardis, Marc Staals, Brian Boyles, the Brandon Prusts, and the Ryan Callahans who are willing to do anything and everything to win a hockey game. It doesn't matter if it's Game 7 of a playoff series or Game 53 of the regular season; this team is going to block shots and treat every shift with the same amount of focus and intensity. As a fan, you really have to appreciate that attitude.

Give the Rangers credit - they didn't quit. Down 2-0 on the road with your season on the line could've rattled a lesser team, but they got it together and tied the game in the second period with two unanswered goals. But just like in Game 5, they ultimately came up short. When you're playing from behind by multiple goals you can tend to start playing like nothing matters and you have nothing to lose, and then once you tie it up that adrenaline rush wears off and it's like you suddenly realize you're right back where you started and you can't take those same risks as you did when you were trailing. To me, it seemed like that's what happened to the Rangers the last two games. It just seemed like they began playing too cautious after they came back to tie things up, and playing overly cautious eventually led to mistakes that the Devils capitalized on. You've gotta give the Devils credit for taking advantage of a few poor plays by the Rangers because it was ultimately the difference in the last two games.

I said before the game that Henrik Lundqvist would need to be his usual fantastic self in goal for the Rangers to have a chance to win, and he certainly was. Lundqvist made several big saves, some on odd-man rushes, and none of the three goals he gave up were his fault. Each goal was the result of some sort of Rangers breakdown in the defensive zone. Lundqvist needed to step up and put his team on his back, and the King definitely rose to the occasion. I never really had any doubt that he would, but it's still worth appreciating that Hank came up strong with his season on the line just a game after a complete debacle on his part. So for that, I commend him.

The Rangers announced following last night's loss that the team will be conducting their exit interviews on Monday. As I said, I'll get much more into the offseason and look back at this season on a more case-by-case basis within the next few days. For now, here are just a few of my thoughts on the end of the season:

- Two or three months ago if you asked me whether Ruslan Fedotenko would be brought back next season I would've said absolutely no how, no way. But after the way he has played, roughly, the last month and a half, I really feel like he'll be back. The Rangers wouldn't have gotten as far as they did without the postseason play of Fedotenko, and his offensive game really had just started to come around the last few games (2 G, 2 A in his last four playoff games). He's the type of veteran roleplayer that can help lead a championship-caliber team through the trenches when they need a guy to step up, and there's no doubt he did that this postseason. I was never the biggest Fedotenko fan, but I think he earned another year with the Rangers with his postseason play.

- The roles of the fifth and sixth defensemen going into next season will be very interesting. I thought Anton Stralman's play stepped up significantly over the past few months, and if he's willing to come back for a reasonable salary on a one-year deal I think the Rangers could do a lot worse than bringing him back. He scored some big goals in the playoffs and was trusted with more power play time as the postseason went along. Steve Eminger, Jeff Woywitka, and John Scott are all almost definitely gone. Stu Bickel, I think, could be brought back for very cheap and could fit that role of a seventh defenseman/thirteenth forward type of swingman who can step in every now and then for someone and add a little, to quote John Tortorella, "jam" to the lineup. The biggest question mark, however, is the health of Michael Sauer. We've heard absolutely nothing about how Sauer's recovery from his concussion is going, and if he isn't ruled 100-percent healthy within the next month or so the Rangers will likely have to begin planning their team's defense for next season without him. We shall see, however.

- The performances of Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards in the Eastern Conference Finals were absolutely dreadful. No matter who they played with it just seemed like neither guy could get into any sort of rhythm or groove all series long, with the exception of a couple of bright spots from Gaborik. People will likely point to these two guys specifically when talking about the way the offense struggled and whose responsibility it was to put this team on his back and score a big goal when they needed it the most. You won't get an argument there from me. The Rangers' offense is really defined by the play of Gaborik and Richards, and when they don't get anything going it's even harder for an offensively-starved team to score goals when they need to. All that being said, I still won't call either guy's season as a whole a disappointment. The Rangers wouldn't have gotten as far as they did without Gaborik's 40 regular season goals or Brad Richards' clutch play in the Semifinals against Washington. The Rangers have to, and will continue to lean on both guys for a majority of their offense, and they simply have to answer the call. Some fans are already calling for Gaborik to be traded, to which I ask, how are you replacing his 40 goals during the regular season? I'm someone who has always believed you can't just throw out a player's regular season performance as a result of a bad playoff run, because you just can't build a team thinking that way. You have to hope that guys like Gaborik will eventually figure it all out and learn how to carry his regular season play into the postseason.

That'll about do it for now. As far as the Stanley Cup goes, I wont' be watching the Finals. To be completely honest, I just have no desire to watch a rival team battle for a chance to win a championship after they just knocked my favorite team out of the playoffs in heartbreaking fashion a few days earlier. I suppose it would be different if the Rangers were knocked out by the Devils in the first or even second round, but that's not the case. Last night's loss still stings, and will continue to for quite sometime, and I just need to detach myself from hockey now that the Rangers are out of it. I'll be rooting for the Kings, of course, and I'll also still be updating the blog frequently with any Rangers-related news that comes through, though, so I certainly won't be vanishing or anything.

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