It just had to be Pittsburgh, didn’t it? Then again, saying “it had to be” and following that with nearly any Eastern Conference playoff team – Washington, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, Detroit, the other New York team – would carry the same air of inevitability. Sooner or later, one of these teams was going to fell the New York Rangers, who have been on the business end of a Sisyphean task for the last half-decade.
Almost mercifully, the window of realistic Stanley Cup contention seems to have closed definitively for this era of Rangers hockey, opening a new aperture full of uncertainty. For players like Dan Boyle and Keith Yandle, the future seems unlikely to include diagonal letters and the collective nonchalance of Madison Square Garden. Nothing left to do but clean out the locker and move on to new, gray pastures. For someone like Henrik Lundqvist, however, the boulder remains, and the mountain only gets taller and steeper with each passing revolution about the sun.
On Saturday afternoon, the New York Rangers dazed their way to a 6-3 defeat in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference opening round against the Pittsburgh Penguins. I know this not because I watched the third period – I didn’t bother, as the weather outside was delightful and inversely proportional to the Rangers’ play – but because I received the score alert to my phone. Unlike in previous years, the end of this playoff run feels like the end of the whole kit and caboodle.
Despite the best efforts of a well-meaning front office, one that benefits from the minimal involvement of James Dolan, unlike their Garden counterparts the Knicks, the Rangers skated their way to a disappointing, but not unforeseen, first round exit. After a white-hot start to the season, one which saw fan expectations predictably shatter ozone layers on their way to another galaxy.
Look, it’s not like we haven’t been here before: the 2012 team shouldn’t have gotten as far as it did, eventually falling to the despised New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference Finals. In 2014, the classic hot goalie narrative took over as Lundqvist played some of his best hockey ever en route to the Finals, where an incredible lack of puck luck – and the ever-so-slightly superior goalie play of Jonathan Quick – doomed the Blueshirts. Last year, the Tampa Bay Lightning uprooted a sample from the Redwood Forest, stuck him in goal and charged past New York.
Each time they lost, the Rangers and their fans felt that erstwhile Dodgers/Cubs/Mets “Wait ’til next year!” sensation, equal parts frustration, resentment, anger and, most importantly, hope. This time, however, there is a listlessness, a dull acceptance that this is how it is, forever, whatever, Amen.
The same routine we’ve seen play out time and again accompanied this season, like completing a game of hockey Mad Libs: play good defense, score just enough to look competent, trade for a highly-regarded (but likely burnt out) veteran, rely on Henrik Lundqvist. Wash, rinse, repeat, and then land in the fire against an overqualified opponent just in time for the clock to strike midnight.
These Rangers never felt terribly convincing; their propensity to let go of leads in the third period and lack of impressive performances against good opponents spoke to a hollow team resting on its laurels, even earlier than in any of the last several seasons.
Catching a break against the Penguins didn’t prove to be a break at all, as Marc-Andre Fleury’s concussion allowed for the dual emergence of Matt Murray and Jeff Zatkoff, who obligingly laid a wall of bricks in front of the Pittsburgh goal. It’s not often a team loses a Stanley Cup-winning netminder and gets better, but that’s how good Pittsburgh has been all season.
As always, the nervous curiosity turns to Lundqvist, the full-on Patrick Ewing proxy of this generation of New York sports fans. For all intents and purposes, and by a lot of measures, Lundqvist has been the best goalie in the NHL for the last decade. But then, the paradox lies in the generally-accepted notion that hot goalies lead to Stanley Cups. Could it be that Lundqvist was just never hot enough° at the right time, or could it be that – and I’m about to tread on some really, really sensitive territory here – Lundqvist was just never quite good enough on his own to bring a Cup to the Garden?
It’s pretty straw, to be fair. No goalie, not Brodeur, not Roy, not Dryden, has ever won a championship by himself. It’s always due to the timely contributions of teammates, the likes of which Lundqvist far too rarely saw from his. Lundqvist is 34 now, and goalies tend to be more durable than other positions. He still has some juice left, but how many more times can we say that before he runs dry? Surely he is asking himself the same questions when staring hockey mortality, and immortality, in the face.
As for the Rangers around him, the question of what to do falls on Jeff Gorton and Glen Sather. Blowing it up entirely seems like the logical route, given a lack of draft picks and top prospects due to the aforementioned trades for veterans, but that likely requires more time than Lundqvist has. A small but thorough housecleaning, complete with figuring out how to deal with restricted free agents Chris Kreider, Kevin Hayes and J.T. Miller, may be most convenient, but doing just enough to stay reasonably competitive doesn’t put this team any closer to a Stanley Cup, even if that doesn’t carry it farther away either.
In his philosophical work The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus – a goaltender in his own right, albeit in a different sport – confronted the question of life’s absurdity, the futile pursuit of meaning in an inherently meaningless existence, and whether suicide was truly the most reasonable option given that. Is a self-induced death the best way to address a world devoid of meaning? “No,” he wrote. “It requires revolt.”
°Jill Pellegrini’s personal taste notwithstanding, of course.