I’m trying to come up with the right words. But can’t. It’s so hard when the team you root for all year puts you through the ringer. I knew that Game 7 wasn’t a lock despite all the history on our side. That along with a President’s Trophy were meaningless. So too was the home ice with the Rangers losing their last three games at MSG by getting outscored 10-2 including 2-0 shutouts in Game 5 and Game 7.
Lights out. The Lightning are moving on to the Stanley Cup Final after doing an about face by dominating another road game. The final score said 2-0 but anyone who watched knew better. The Rangers generated nothing in 60 minutes. In fact, they did the unthinkable not scoring in the final six periods at home. Home disadvantage.
They never supported Henrik Lundqvist, who was blameless on Alex Killorn’s winner which he admitted he never picked up with Valtteri Filppula screening in front. Once Ondrej Palat converted a three-on-two from Tyler Johnson off a Kevin Hayes turnover, it was over. There would be no Garden party on this night. No more perfect record at MSG in Game 7’s. No goals. And no offense to speak of. Even when they got the only two power plays despite one being a tacky call.
The way the game was played, I knew they were in trouble. Tampa Bay played the perfect road game. Going back to a more defensive oriented style which resulted in turnovers and allowed them to forecheck and force Lundqvist into some difficult stops, the Bolts were the superior team. They also had an advantage with coach Alain Vigneault forced to dress Matt Hunwick as a seventh defenseman over grinder James Sheppard due to the injury status of Ryan McDonagh. That became a big story with the Rangers captain not taking a shift until late in the first after going to the locker room with trainer Jim Ramsay.
Something was off when they came out before intros. Why else would Hunwick be dressed for his first game since Round 1 over Sheppard? As it turned out, Vigneault revealed afterwards that McDonagh played with a broken foot the last two games. He was even a question mark for tonight which probably better explained why Hunwick played over Sheppard reducing the Blueshirts to 11 forwards. The polar opposite of what Vigneault prefers because he couldn’t roll four lines.
What made it worse was that once McDonagh returned, Hunwick never left the bench basically making them a man short. He only got six shifts (4:17). McDonagh still took 25 shifts playing 17:33. He definitely wasn’t skating as well and was hesitant to shoot the puck. The one time he did was at the tail end of a power play when he got a good shot on Ben Bishop, who kicked it out with Chris Kreider missing a rebound wide. Bishop had a weird series going 3-1 at MSG posting two shutouts while allowing only four goals. He struggled at home giving up 17. That about explains how odd the Eastern Conference Final was.
Maybe that’s why I didn’t feel confident going in. The way the entire series was played, you couldn’t predict what was gonna happen. Maybe Tampa coach Jon Cooper knew when he said his team is young and they don’t know any better. And as he and Killorn, who ironically felt the Rangers were due to lose a Game 7, they played like Game 6 didn’t matter. The extra day off had to help their psyche. They played terrific defensively blocking 20 shots while keeping the Blueshirts to the perimeter allowing Bishop to stop all 22 shots. He never was forced to make a difficult save.
Credit must be given to the Lightning. They were the better team. As hard as it is to admit, they out-Rangered the Rangers to take the series and did it in enemy territory by scoring twice in the third to silence the Garden. History didn’t mean a thing to the Bolts who were led by Ryan Callahan. Remember him? The former Blueshirt had a tremendous game registering a game high seven shots. He was all over the ice forcing Lundqvist into some tough stops. Callahan was his team’s best player also in Game 6.
Of course, former Rangers Anton Stralman and Brian Boyle had strong defensive games. In fact, Stralman was on for the final four minutes helping the Lightning shut it down even with Vigneault pulling Lundqvist for an extra attacker with 3:44 left. The sad aspect is they didn’t even get a sniff. That’s how locked in the Bolts were. Victor Hedman doing his part along with the forwards who all came back and made life difficult.
Even now, it’s hard to believe they got shutout by identical scores in Games 5 and 7. At least we didn’t go to this one. We went to Game 5 and that was bad enough. I can’t imagine how fans must’ve felt walking out of there. As soon as Killorn was somehow able to get that tricky backhand off beating Lundqvist at 1:54 of the third, the game was over. So too was the series once Palat scored with one of those deadly accurate wrist shots top shelf off a Johnson feed that made it 2-0 with 8:43 remaining.
It’s going to be a long summer. One that will leave many questions asked. Was their last best chance to win a Cup with Lundqvist, who’s not getting any younger? He’ll be 34 next Spring. How many times can the King be asked to carry this team? As was proven yet again, he can only do so much. Look at some of the acrobatic saves he made the first two periods yet some idiots had the audacity to blame him for Killorn’s winner. What great fans. I feel sorry for him because he always lays it on the line. Maybe if his team could actually figure out how to play at home and win more comfortably, they might still be playing. Instead, it’s another Cup-less summer.
The defense wasn’t good enough with Marc Staal in particular dreadful. McDonagh at least showed despite his injury and god knows what Dan Girardi played with. Kevin Klein wasn’t the same after he returned. Their best defensemen were the two guys everyone targeted. Dan Boyle and Keith Yandle. They provided offense in this series and did the job. Staal might want to do some soul searching because he was badly exposed against a faster skating opponent.
It’s hard for me to get on the forwards. I thought Derek Stepan, Kreider, Derick Brassard, Rick Nash, Jesper Fast, J.T. Miller and Carl Hagelin all competed. There just wasn’t much room. Especially for Nash, who managed only one shot. He was guarded tightly and even when he tried to skate to open ice, it was quickly covered. Stepan made some good passes in the third to set up chances when they were down a goal but they weren’t cashed in on due in large part to a Lightning-like D.
Not having Sheppard adversely affected the rotation. Vigneault wasn’t able to roll four lines and on both Lightning goals, had different personnel caught out including ole reliable Dominic Moore for both which is so unlike him. On a night where they dominated on faceoffs (40-and-24) particularly in the offensive zone in a better played second period, it didn’t matter. At the end of the day, the Bolts were better and now await the winner between tomorrow’s Game 7 of Hawks and Ducks.
A pretty sad conclusion to a very good season. Just not great. That can’t be used now. While it’s easy to say it was a failure because they didn’t win, only one team does. For the 21st consecutive year, it won’t be the Blueshirts. They’ll be left pondering what could’ve been.
BONY 3 Stars:
3rd Star-Ben Bishop, Bolts (22 save shutout-2nd of series, saw everything)
2nd Star-Henrik Lundqvist, NYR (23 saves incl. 10/10 in 2nd-only reason it wasn’t a blowout)
1st Star-Alex Killorn, Bolts (scored series winner with 18:06 left in 3rd, overlooked forward had big impact)