You cannot win if you do not score. In any sport, under any circumstances, that is how it goes. You can have the greatest defensive scheme with the most possession ever, and the best you would ever manage without scoring is a draw. The New York Rangers will not be returning to the Stanley Cup Finals for the second consecutive year. Their All-Star, all-world, all-universe, all-Jill Pellegrini goaltender, Henrik Lundqvist, will again go into the offseason without a Cup to his name, or more appropriately without his name on the Cup, the one honor that eludes him and the one which allows anyone else into the conversation of best goalie of this generation. No, the Tampa Bay Lightning make their return to the Finals, over a decade since they won their only Cup, to face the Chicago Blackhawks, and not a tear is to be shed for New York. Sympathy is the devil there.
I’ve shared the following with numerous friends since Friday night, when I spent the second and third periods of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals on a plane traveling from Charlotte to New York. Without a WiFi connection in the air, do you know how I found out that the Rangers had not emerged victorious? The lights of the Empire State Building shone a standard white as we flew into LaGuardia, a tell because they would have been some combination of red, white and blue otherwise. Below, in the city that never sleeps, and isn’t afraid to complain about it, thousands of disappointed people filed out of Madison Square Garden, their hopes of a next generation 1994 dashed once again at the hands of a dastardly opponent touched by angelic scoring flair and an uncompromising bear of a goaltender.
The story of the series was, necessarily, the Rangers’ Tupperware-tight defense against the Lightning’s blitzkrieg offense, the latter being the NHL’s best in the regular season. It didn’t hurt the watchability of these games that many of the players involved, including St. Louis, Anton Stralman, Brian Boyle and Ryan Callahan, had formerly played for the other team prior to a trade deadline deal last season – cut to Bill Simmons dubbing this Lightning squad as “the zombie Rangers,” if Simmons still had a job with ESPN, and if he cared a lick about hockey beyond Boston.
Of course, as the series developed, so, too, did the subplots. Tampa Bay’s offense was a roller coaster from Game 1 onward. The Rangers couldn’t win at Madison Square Garden, despite having won the President’s Trophy for the best record in the league which gave them home-ice throughout the playoffs, which, theoretically, gave them an advantage. Ben Bishop was diamond tough, and then talcum powder. The typically unflappable Lundqvist couldn’t see a puck to save his life. Where art thou, Rick Nash? Et tu, Martin St. Louis?
Tampa Bay’s triplets line, consisting of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov, scored approximately 500 goals apiece and accounted for, again approximately, 10,000 points total in this series. Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh played with a broken foot for “a few games,” which is like driving a car with three wheels for “a few hundred miles.” New York’s power play looked like its penalty kill, which is all well and good when you’re trying to prevent goals but not as great when you need to score them.
They say that defense wins championships, but it becomes awfully hard to quantify idioms over blocked passing lanes and cheeky, well-timed line changes. In a game of infinitesimal errors leading to K2-sized opportunities, the Lightning capitalized while the Rangers collapsed. Tampa Bay deserves all the credit it can get, particularly to the 6’7″ redwood known as Ben Bishop for staring down Lundqvist and calling his bluffs, time and again.
Granted, they probably shouldn’t have been here in the first place. Remember when they were two minutes from being eliminated in the previous round, down 3-1 in the series, only to have Chris Kreider save them from that unholy condition? Washington had every reason to expect a spot in the Eastern Conference Finals, only to have it dissolve bit by bit as the Rangers clawed their way back from the edge. Handing the NHL’s best and most visible players, Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, consecutive playoff series losses lends a team a certain confidence, even while playing with a Kings-sized chip on its shoulder.
Upon closing out the first round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins in a cool five games, NBC’s Doc Emrick, a magnificent luminary among great hockey commentators, rhetorically asked something along the lines of, “Is this finally the Rangers’ year? It sure feels like it…” Being the product of an Irish-Catholic upbringing, my superstitious senses rang like an air raid siren telling us to crawl under our desks and pray for a false alarm or a swift end. Rangers fans mercilessly received neither. Every win became a stroke of luck, and every loss seemed to show the true Rangers, a great regular season team that wore out in the playoffs and seemed only to show up when they absolutely had to.
It’s been the mark of the New York Rangers for the last few seasons to drag as many series as possible to seven games, usually facing and staving off elimination multiple times in a single postseason. Playing like that is reckless, even if uncontrollable, and it inevitably catches up to you. Of the three recent playoff losses which stick out in my memory the most, this one may rival the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals loss to the tri-state rival New Jersey Devils, if only because that team did not quite have the weight of expectation that this one had. Hell, the 2014 Rangers weren’t even supposed to be in the Finals, overmatched against a hot and hungry Los Angeles Kings team that disposed of them in five games. But the reason Emrick’s proclamation hurt so much was because, for once, it really did feel like the Rangers’ year. The last time New York won the President’s Trophy, of course, was 1994.
So now, darkness falls in Madison Square Garden, at least until the next Eric Clapton concert. It is still too soon to take away any great big answers to any great big questions about this team, this season or these players, but though I preach at the Cathedral of St. Henrik, I’m no fool or sucka MC. Lundqvist is 33, and even as hockey players can stand to play effectively for a longer term than, say, soccer or basketball players, he is not immortal, and time stubbornly continues to push forward. St. Louis has probably played his last game as a New York Ranger, and naturally, it came against the team with which he won a Stanley Cup all those years ago.
At best, Lundqvist and the core of this team – McDonagh, Derek Stepan, Mark Staal, maybe even Nash – can win a Stanley Cup and fulfill the omnipresent redemption narrative so common in sports. At worst, as Filip Bondy of The Daily News wrote, Lundqvist becomes Patrick Ewing, a generational talent who saves an entire sport in New York without delivering completely on the covenant you sign when you become a hero in the city. Without a notable second star, Ewing dragged the Knicks to the brink of championships, coming tantalizingly close against Hakeem Olajuwon’s Houston Rockets in 1994. Without a transcendent playoff scoring talent (eyes burning as they gaze upon you, the engulfed skeleton of Rick Nash), Lundqvist is performing miracles on ice, but, as is proven season after gut-wrenching, heartbreaking season, hockey is not a one-player sport. You cannot win if you do not score.