Agonizing Summer Ahead For Blueshirts

They said all the right things following last night’s bitter disappointment. Instead of advancing to play for the Cup a second consecutive year, the Blueshirts will pack their bags for an agonizing summer ahead. They’ll be left to wonder how they lost at MSG 2-0 to Ben Bishop and the Lightning in Game 7 allowing them to celebrate in their barn.

As it turned out, home ice didn’t matter in a bizarrely played Eastern Conference Final. The road teams won five of seven including the Lightning taking the last three games at MSG by outscoring the Rangers 10-2 with Bishop posting identical 2-0 shutouts in Game 5 and 7. The same goalie who was lit up for 17 goals at home including seven in a Game 6 rout only had to face 22 shots Friday night without any traffic. In fact, he stopped the final 48 sent his way in Tampa’s two stunning wins.

There wasn’t enough urgency from the home team. Sure. They tried. The effort wasn’t good enough against a better Lightning who dominated the neutral zone taking time and space away. Of course, coach Alain Vigneault was quick to admit that Ryan McDonagh played with a broken foot the last couple of games. There were also rumors that Marc Staal may have had a broken ankle. Who knows. How would he have even been able to skate? If he did play hurt, it might explain how ineffective he was. Of course, injuries are part of sport. They were without Mats Zuccarello the last two rounds after he took a McDonagh shot to the helmet.

The best teams find a way. For so long, this group has always answered the call. Maybe going to another seventh game even with all the history on their side was too much to ask for. Henrik Lundqvist was right when he said both teams had a equal chance to win. Despite allowing Alex Killorn’s series winner 1:54 into the third thru the wickets on a Valtteri Filppula screen, he was heroic in defeat making 23 saves including highway robberies on Jason Garrison and Tyler Johnson late in the second that kept the game scoreless. Before Ondre Palat put it away with a rocket from Johnson on a odd-man rush, he made a diving stop to give his team a chance.

It didn’t matter because they couldn’t muster enough of an attack. That much was evident even with Lundqvist on the bench for the final 3:44 where they struggled to even test Bishop with an extra man. It reminded of the power play which reverted going 0-for-2 during the first half of the second period only getting two shots. There were no rebounds and certainly no Blueshirts willing to pay the price in front to score a greasy goal. In fact, despite dominating on offensive draws they managed only six shots the whole second which was their best period. Even then, the Bolts came on the final part outshooting them 10-6 forcing Lundqvist to stand tall.

That was the story. In the close knit tight checking games they’ve been accustomed to winning, they couldn’t beat a faster, more skilled Lightning who had younger legs and were disciplined enough to eliminate the stretch pass and keep them to the perimeter. They got in passing and shooting lanes blocking 20 shots while forcing another 11 misses. Thirty-one of the Rangers’ 53 attempts never made it to Bishop. That included Keith Yandle’s five attempts with the deadline acquisition missing the net twice. Rick Nash managed only one shot and Chris Kreider two. Martin St. Louis was all but invisible with the soon to be 40-year old on the verge of retirement.

If there was a noticeable difference, it was the Lightning’s speed on the forecheck. They got in and recovered pucks while their pinching defensemen took away the wall. That forced the Rangers into mistakes like the one that led to Killorn coming off the wall and having enough strength to get a backhand off that trickled past Lundqvist, who admitted he didn’t see it until it was too late. The Bolts’ ability to move the puck quickly opened up the slot for chances. They were faster and more desperate. They won most of the battles with former Black and Blueshirt Ryan Callahan leading the way with seven shots and plenty of hustle. He outskated his former teammates.

In the biggest game of its season, the Blueshirts weren’t sharp. They were far too tentative especially against a goalie they beat routinely. It was the same script as Game 5. They weren’t instinctive enough. Shots were hard to come by. They didn’t generate enough consistent forecheck which was their bread and butter. Derek Stepan, Kreider and Jesper Fast were the most effective with Stepan and Fast getting chances while Kreider wasn’t in the right place. Nash and Game 6 hero Derick Brassard skated along with J.T. Miller but didn’t have that little extra. The third line of Carl Hagelin, Kevin Hayes and St. Louis did zilch.

Oddly, Vigneault worked in Dominic Moore and Tanner Glass due to dressing Matt Hunwick as a seventh defenseman over grinder James Sheppard. Without four lines due to McDonagh’s injury, the team wasn’t as effective. The second-year coach made a mistake not playing Hunwick the last two periods shorting his own bench. Basically, the Rangers were a man short the final 40 minutes which didn’t make much sense. It wasn’t as if Hunwick looked out of place in his six shifts. If it was his last game with the vet defenseman turning unrestricted, it was incomplete due to the coach.

Vigneault gets a lot of credit for what he’s accomplished in his first two years. Taking the team to its first Stanley Cup Final and winning a President’s Trophy while making the Final Four again is nothing to sniff at. However, his team failed to adjust at home the final six periods. Where was the same style they played to come back against the Caps? Was it that the Bolts were faster? And what about keeping an ineffective St. Louis on the top power play over Nash? They had success in the series but wouldn’t it have made sense to give your best finisher more power play time in a do or die game?

These are fair questions. You wonder how much kids Miller, Hayes and Fast can improve. Assuming he’s back, Zuccarello replaces St. Louis and moves right back into a top role. His creativity and grit were sorely missed. Glen Sather must re-sign Stepan to a long-term deal that should pay him around six million on average. Hagelin is also restricted. I would keep him as his speed is still an asset and he’s a top checker and penalty killer. He disappointed after Round One. Both Miller and Fast are Group II and will get bumped up.

For all his yeoman effort, Sheppard is probably gone. More a cap casualty. He was effective due to his physicality and energy. Plus he was versatile enough to shift to center. They missed him last night. St. Louis won’t be re-signed. It doesn’t make sense as he doesn’t have enough left. His experience and leadership will be missed. It’s a shame how it’ll end on Broadway following such a memorable run last Spring.

What else can they do? That remains a bigger question for management. One thing to consider is that this team did things the hard way. They were forced to come back from a 3-1 series deficit in the second round a second straight year. They have always needed to go the extra mile. At some point, they need to make it easier on themselves by scoring more consistently and closing series sooner. Do they have the right personnel for that? I don’t know. What I do know is it’s sad that there won’t be hockey in June.


About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included two stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil games. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has scored Berkeley Carroll basketball games since 2006 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. From players, coaches to administrators, it's a first class program. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree.
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