These last few days have provided horrific flashbacks to last season for fans of the New York Rangers, because just like last year, the Rangers had their fate in their own hands. In game 81, the Rangers needed to win the two final games of the season, both against the Philadelphia Flyers, and they were able to accomplish only half of that. With their final home game just two days before the season finale, the Rangers came through in the clutch, with a hard-fought 4-3 win that had Madison Square Garden rocking, giving a resounding cheer for the Blueshirts who then had to travel to the City of Brotherly Love to clinch a playoff berth. The scorer of the game-winning goal? Marian Gaborik, capping off a fantastic debut season on Broadway. Then the last day came, and after another well-played game that headed to a shootout, the entire Rangers’ season rested on the shoulders of Olli Jokinen, who flubbed the chance, and sent them home packing, without a playoff appearance for the first time since the lockout. Two games were all they had, two wins were all they needed.
This season, the Rangers had three games remaining, and found themselves trailing the Boston Bruins 3-0 in the second period of a game on April 4th. The crowd booed, and rightly so, but then the Rangers woke up, and scored five unanswered goals against one of the best defensive teams in the NHL to keep the season alive, but not only that, to keep it in their hands. This is more important than anything, because when you have control of your fate, all you have to do, as a team, is win. You do not have to scoreboard watch or hope for help from others. Unfortunately, last night, the Rangers ruined those chances against the 11th place Atlanta Thrashers. All they needed was a win, to get two points, and they failed miserably. There was no aggressive forecheck, no glaring scoring chances, just all around stagnant play. When the Thrashers exited the building with a 3-0 win, you can be sure that visions of last season were floating around the locker room. There is only one difference: the Rangers are not in control of their fate anymore.
Should the Carolina Hurricanes win their next two games in regulation, the Rangers season is over, even if they win tomorrow afternoon against the New Jersey Devils. There are also a bunch of other scenarios, but I will not waste time going into them because all of it should have been for naught anyway. There was no reason for this, the Rangers needed to win last night, and they failed. Just like last season, coming 0ff their biggest win of the season, they fell flat, and that will cost them.
There is no place to direct anger at, if the Rangers fall short, other than the team itself. Part of me says not to get angry, because this is a rebuilding year. The other part of me says, this team was in playoff contention all year long, has the highest paid goaltender in the league, and another $7 million goal scorer, so of course I will be angry if they come up short.
Just think, what if Lundqvist had not let in a slew of soft goals early in the season? What if Alex Frolov actually produced after signing here? What if Vinny Prospal wasn’t injured for most of the season? What if Martin Biron did not suffer a late-season practice injury? What if Sean Avery was just half as good as he was a couple of seasons ago? What if Marian Gaborik actually played like he gives a shit?
That is probably the most important of these “What if?” questions, and that is what happened to Marian Gaborik? He goes through months of being invisible, has a big game and gets everyone excited, only to disappear again. Well, Marian the Magnificent has now gone eight straight games without scoring a goal, and he only has 22 in 61 games, which equates to about a goal every three games, as opposed to last season when he averaged a goal per less than every two games. It might not seem like much, but in the long-run, they add up. It is one thing to slump, but it is another to just fall off the map and not care, which is where Gaborik is right now—skating around in circles, shooting from the perimeter, and just coasting. On the bright side, he may be due for an explosion tomorrow, since that’s what he does. After all, he hasn’t scored since March 20.
The Rangers powerplay is also to blame, even with the acquisition of Bryan McCabe who has only two goals and six assists in 18 games. After seeing him QB the powerplay, I am convinced that he is not the problem. He is not a bad player, in fact, he is the most skilled player out there who happens to be surrounded by players who are not on his level of thinking. His passes are hard, his shots are even harder, but when is someone ever in a position to do something with them? Take last night for example, with McCabe on the point and Gaborik in the right faceoff circle. McCabe released a hard fake-shot pass right to Gaborik, but the puck bounced over his stick. How is it that a player as skilled as he cannot handle a simple pass? Did he forget how to play hockey all of a sudden? Does Tortorella need to hold a fundamentals practice? These idiots skate around trying to make plays, the puck goes to McCabe, and when he passes it back, they seem like they have never seen that shiny, black, rubber disc before—it’s like they are shocked.
The shining of all examples of this ineptitude of course came on March 31 against the New York Islanders, in a game they had to win. To be honest, I don’t think anything thought the Rangers were going to lose that game, especially since they always play well on Long Island. The Rangers took a 1-0 lead despite playing sloppily, but then they somehow managed to give up six straight goals before adding one late, to fall 6-2 in their most embarrassing performance of recent memory. The killer in this one? Going a mind-numbing 0-9 on the powerplay. That’s almost the equivalent of spending an entire period with the man-advantage, only to score zero goals.
No matter what happens in these next two days, the Rangers can look at that matchup against the Islanders and say that is what did them in. For the second straight season, the Rangers can get eliminated by a division rival; first the Flyers, now the Devils (which is worse?). Even if they do lose tomorrow, the Rangers can still get in if the Hurricanes lose their last two games, but I would not count on it. Carolina is playing well and actually deserves to make the playoffs. The Rangers deserve absolutely nothing.
The Rangers just have to go out there and win tomorrow, then pray for some divine intervention. I can see the Rangers winning tomorrow, even though the Devils are going to come out firing on all cylinders since this is their playoff game this season, but what I cannot see is the Hurricanes losing their next two games. Either way, it is out of our hands. This season will be known as the one that got away, it’s that simple.