This is going to be a two-part series, the second of which will feature some guest writers and their take on the surprising rise and disappointing fall of the New York Rangers in this 2011/2012 season.
The NHL playoffs can be described as one word: relentless. The pace is non-stop, the play is aggressive, and there is never a moment’s peace where one can step back and take a deep breath. On that basis alone, one could argue that the New York Rangers have been in the playoffs for the entire season, starting before the season actually started. Playoffs are full of endless trials and tribulations, elated moments of victory and agonizing moments of defeat. It does not matter how it ends, and people rarely think about how it even begins. For the Rangers, it started with a 10,000 mile trek across Europe for some pre-season match-ups with local teams, culminating with two season-opening games in Stockholm, Sweden against the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks. When they returned to North America, they then had to go on an elongated break and even more road games, as Madison Square Garden’s phase one transformation had not yet been completed. It took a while for the Rangers to get going, but once they did, there was never a break. Even with some bumps in the road along the way, the Rangers managed to lose three regulation games in a row only twice in the regular season, and then once in the playoffs. They did all of this while being watched by HBO’s cameras 24 hours a day, seven days a week for the month of December, and then had to prepare for a mini-Stanley Cup game, as I refer to the Winter Classic, against the Philadelphia Flyers in Citizens Bank Ballpark, in front of 50,000 fans, a game which they won with a late comeback and some stellar goaltending.
Nothing about this season for the Rangers was ordinary. Not in the way they played, not in the way they were coached and handled, not in the end result. While some teams are never able to recover from a European swing, the Rangers used it to test their mettle, and set the stage for what would be their best regular season since 1994, and their deepest playoff run since 1997. Most people had the team penciled in for their normal mediocre 6th-8th finish, with maybe one playoff round victory and then a bouncing out in the second round. Lundqvist was going to be good, the only real guarantee, and the Rangers would get some much-needed learning experience along the way for their young core. Brad Richards was going to be amazing, while Marian Gaborik was a huge question mark, coming off an injury-riddled season where he only scored 22 goals. The Rangers defense was also the other constant, as it was entirely young and nearly all homegrown, with the exception of spare parts Steve Eminger and Jeff Woywitka being drafted by other teams. Anton Stralman was not even in the picture, nor was Stu Bickel, who had an average pre-season. Marc Staal began the season injured, then came Michael Sauer succumbing to a concussion less than 20 games in. The Rangers were now in what would appear to be dire straits, as Richards was struggling mightily and Brandon Dubinsky was irrelevant in the offensive department.
Yet the Rangers chugged along, plugging the holes as they went, and offering some on-the-job training along the way. Here, we saw the emergence of Carl Hagelin, undoubtedly the fastest player in the league, who would go on to have an impressive rookie campaign with 14 goals and 24 assists. Defenseman Michael Del Zotto, whose play was so disastrous the season earlier that it led to his banishment to the AHL, rectified himself with 10 goals and 31 assists. The Rangers young core was slowly beginning to take shape. After a slow start, newly christened captain Ryan Callahan found himself having his best season, with 29 goals and 25 assists, while continuing to be a hitting, shot-blocking machine. The Rangers also had solid seasons from Derek Stepan, Artem Anisimov, and Brian Boyle. Towards the end of the season, when all else failed, Richards was galvanized when placed back on a line with Marian Gaborik and the newcomer Hagelin. He would finish with 25 goals and 41 assists, which is not bad for someone who had no bona-fide goal scorer on his line for almost the entire season. Gaborik had a little renaissance of his own, getting back to the 40-goal plateau and recording 76 points.
As for the one guarantee at season’s beginning, Henrik Lundqvist, he too had his best year, falling just shy of 40 wins, going 39-18-5, with a minuscule 1.97 GAA. The Rangers had tried a different strategy with him, and that was giving more games to backup goalie Martin Biron, a decision that paid dividends in the playoffs, during two seven-game series to start the post-season. Even Biron had a comeback, after being injured the previous year. He went 12-6-2. Rest was obviously key for the Rangers, because while Lundqvist usually wore down towards the end of the first round, he was able to last as long as he could, going three rounds this season, standing on his head for two-shutouts in what would be his final round. But alas, he received no offensive help, despite the myriad of shot blocking in front of him.
The Rangers struggled to score goals all season long, which led the one-time “Safe is Death” coach John Tortorella to preach defense first. The Rangers turned into a self-less, shot-blocking automaton. Lanes were always crowded and bodies were always flying in front of pucks. The Rangers took the body, and bruised their way to a 51 win season and first place finish, falling just one point shy of the Vancouver Canucks for the President’s Trophy. This was playoff hockey at its finest, yet it was also their downfall.
There is a reason why teams play an open style in the regular season, then tighten up for the playoffs, and essentially, play as the Rangers had been all season long. The reason is that although this punishing style is indeed effective, it also punishes their bodies as well. After 82 games and an additional 20 in the playoffs, the Blueshirts were simply running on empty. They barely got through the Ottawa Senators and Washington Capitals in the first two rounds, not to mention the highly emotional two Game Seven’s that capped off each of those (a testament to mental skill more than physical) and were spent by the time the New Jersey Devils came around, running on pure adrenaline for the first game. The two games they won they should not have, stolen by their goaltender. Then, in the two games the Rangers decided to show up following those two wins, it was Lundqvist’s turn to struggle. That’s what it all came down to: the cogs in the machine not working beautifully in unison as they had been all along. It was an adversity that no team could fight through. An entire season coming down to simple fatigue and exhaustion. The only set of legs not victim to this was rookie call-up Chris Kreider, signed out of college just before the first round. We witnessed the birth of a star in these playoffs, as he recorded five goals and two assists, while playing in big spots and given a boatload of responsibility. Talk about baptism by fire.
Perhaps things could have changed if offense was acquired at the trade deadline as many were hoping for. While Rick Nash would have been a nice addition, to add some goals and alleviate the pressure on the defense, wouldn’t trading for him have been cutting off the nose to spite the face? The asking price for him was astronomical, including forwards, Del Zotto or McDonagh, prospects and draft picks. The Rangers would have been more hurt by him in the long run than helped by the few goals he probably would have scored, not to mention the long-term risk of absorbing a contract as big as his, and all that for a player who has played in four career playoff games in nine seasons. With him out of the question, maybe they could have pursued other cheaper options, such as secondary scoring and some help for the blueline, without cutting their wrists in doing so. We will never really know.
With all said and done, this season was an immense success in every facet, even if it takes a while to realize. While there are absolutely no guarantees this team will ever get this far again, the future is bright. Gaborik, Richards and Lundqvist will still be in their primes for another few seasons, while the core has barely even reached theirs’. While it is unfortunate, the saying that sometimes good teams have to lose before they can win is true. This, perhaps, was a necessary part of the learning curve, for both the team and coaching staff. They now know what will and will not work for the long-haul. There is plenty to be done in the off-season, a few acquisitions [and departures] that need to be made. We will wait on discussing those for at least a month or so when free agency gets near. For now, I just wanted to thank the New York Rangers for their best season since I’ve been cognizant of the sport of hockey—I was three in 1994 and barely remember the 1997 run. I first started really watching and caring about hockey in 1999, right before Wayne Gretzky retired. So you can say, most of my life as a Rangers fan has been filled with losing and miserable seasons. I am almost used to it. However, I am still here and not going anywhere, though I will welcome this summer as a nice respite from all the action. It was nice to have gotten far for a change, and even nicer to be so close to the Stanley Cup that we could dream about it and be realistic in doing so. I don’t want to say, “Maybe next year”, but why not. For the first time in a long time we can leave a losing season and know the future is bright. There have not been many of those in recent years, but this is certainly one of them.