If you’re wondering whether or not to watch the Eastern Conference Final, I understand your frustration. For any True Blue Ranger fan, it isn’t easy to see our former players having so much success. What makes it even worse is all four participants assuming Anton Stralman returns- played key roles in the Rangers’ Stanley Cup Final appearance in 2014.
Here we are two years later cursing out Glen Sather and Alain Vigneault. If you want to blame the salary cap, go right ahead. The bottom line is the organization mismanaged that ’13-14 roster that gave us hope. They overvalued core defensemen Dan Girardi and Marc Staal. Both make upwards of $5.5 million with no-movement clauses into the next decade. Each is in decline. I don’t blame the players, who have given their blood and guts. We all would’ve signed those contracts.
The grinding style each plays finally caught up. Especially to Girardi. The skater with the longest tenure which trails only Henrik Lundqvist. Playing through pain is something most players do. Look how battered their blue line was following the Game Seven disappointment to the Lightning in last year’s Conference Final. It at least helped explain why they fell short of their ultimate goal. It didn’t explain Vigneault’s conservative system which became too reliant on offense off transition from the stretch pass. I never had a good feeling they were winning that night despite it still being scoreless entering the third. Alex Killorn still haunts me. I can’t imagine how Lundqvist feels.
Sometimes, you can tell when it’s not gonna happen. I’m the same person who believed enough in the current roster to predict this group to a second Stanley Cup Final appearance in three years. Ultimately, I had the gutless Ducks winning it all. Oops. Speaking of teams that can’t finish. They lost a home Game Seven for the fourth consecutive time which finally cost Bruce Boudreau his job. He was hired by the Wild.
Go right ahead and tell me how wrong I was. I’m fine with admitting it. I even had the audacity to stick with my Ducks pick in the postseason preview. By then, my mind was changed on the Rangers. Instead, I had them bowing out to the Penguins, who I took in their place out of the East. With them advancing on Nick Bonino’s overtime goal from old friend Carl Hagelin and the suddenly dominant Phil Kessel, that could still happen. Speaking of Hagelin, he led the Pens in scoring against another playoff choker, the Capitals. The gritty Swede with all the speed which worked so well in Vigneault’s system paced the Pens with seven points, including a goal and two assists in their Game Six 4-3 win in sudden death.
Hagelin would be the same player who the Rangers deemed expendable last summer due to his next contract which pays him an average of $4 million-per-season thru 2019. It was understandable why they traded him at last year’s NHL Draft. Needing to re-sign Derek Stepan long-term in a cap crunch didn’t leave them much room. So, Hagelin was shipped to those Ducks for failed experiment Emerson Etem (moved to Canucks where he showed improvement). The move allowed the Rangers to move up in the second round and select Ryan Gropp, who they hope is worth it. He better be. The Ducks wound up with Julius Nattinen, Garrett Metcalf and eventually David Perron due to Hagelin not fitting under Boudreau.
Sometimes, that happens. Some systems just aren’t meant for certain players. Speaking of which, even Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin struggled mightily in that awful defensive scheme over matched former coach Mike Johnston had them playing. The Pens were not even a blip on the radar screen until GM Jim Rutherford replaced him with former Rangers’ assistant Mike Sullivan. The same guy who worked under John Tortorella and whose power plays were about as excitable as watching paint dry, turned out to be the right choice for the Pens. His no-nonsense approach lit a fire under Crosby, whose second half catapulted him to third in scoring behind Jamie Benn and Patrick Kane. The trio are up for the Hart Trophy.
It was also Sullivan, who knew Hagelin from his days spent on Broadway. So, when the Pens made the trade, they had a speedy player who doesn’t take a shift off. The work ethic of Hags was a perfect fit. Sullivan has the Pens playing a more up-tempo emphasizing speed and aggressive or relentless fore-check. He was coaching AHL affiliate Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. So, he took speedsters Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust with him. Rutherford also made a brilliant trade swapping Rob Scuderi for Trevor Daley, who for some reason didn’t fit under Joel Quenneville in Chicago. Daley has played big minutes with Kris Letang on the top pair.
Probably the smartest decision Sullivan made was taking Kessel away from Crosby and trying him with Bonino and Hagelin. With Malkin missing the last few games of the season, the trio found instant chemistry. Kessel is a player who needs the puck. But also his passing skills have always been overlooked. Maybe due to that lethal shot. He’s been the Pens’ best skater this postseason, leading them in scoring with 12 points (5-7-12). That included a pair of goals in Tuesday’s clincher. Plus a huge assist on Bonino’s OT winner. His pass for Hagelin in front set up a dangerous shot that a sliding Braden Holtby stopped. But Bonino steered home the rebound sending the Pens to a Conference Final against the Lightning.
Speaking of the Bolts, they have a few familiar faces who were on that 2014 roster. There’s Brian Boyle, who became public enemy number one after his crunching hit knocked Thomas Hickey off the puck, eventually leading to Boyle’s overtime winner in Game Three against the Islanders. He also scored in Tampa’s 4-0 Game Five clincher. Of course, Boyle is playing with buddy Ryan Callahan, who still plays the same balls out style that made him a fan favorite as a Black & Blueshirt. Traded for Martin St. Louis that fateful deadline day in 2014, Callahan eventually re-signed with the Bolts for a similar contract he couldn’t quite get from Sather. It worked out well for both sides.
The death of St. Louis’ Mom France inspired the Rangers to rally for the first time in franchise history from a 3-1 deficit to beat the Pens in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. So popular was St. Louis after he came over that the team all showed up to his Mom’s funeral and rallied around the proud veteran who won a Stanley Cup with Tampa in ’04. There was the emotional St. Louis goal in that Mother’s Day win when MSG exploded. No way were they losing that game. Then the nerve racking Game Seven with St. Louis setting up Brad Richards for the series winner on the power play. Lundqvist did the rest making some memorable saves to carry the team to victory.
St. Louis would also score that awesome OT winner on a perfect Hagelin pass to win Game Four. The Hagelin hustle paid off. But the St. Louis finish was sweet, going top shelf on Montreal backup Dustin Tokarski. The Rangers would prevail in six with the difference a Brian Boyle feed from behind the net to another inspiring vet Dominic Moore, who returned to his first team after sitting out a year due to the sad death of his wife Katie due to liver cancer. It was fitting. Moore also frustrated Crosby a round earlier with Boyle and Derek Dorsett. A fourth line that did a bit of everything.
That’s where the Rangers went wrong. They watched as Callahan recruited Boyle to Tampa. Boyle wasn’t wanted here. Nor did he want to return. Instead, Tanner Glass was signed for three years. It’s not his fault. He isn’t Boyle. After a bad first year, he had a better second season scoring four times with three assists and 66 penalty minutes. Sadly, he was one of the more consistent forwards in his four games than bigger stars against Pittsburgh.
It was also the Lightning who wanted Stralman, valuing his strong puck possession acumen and defensive play. He left the Rangers without even an offer, essentially getting the same money as Dan Boyle. The elder Boyle who signed for two years likely played his last game. A 5-0 humiliation in Game Four at the hands of the Pen, which told you they were done. It didn’t quite work out. Sure. Boyle had his moments. He was one of the team’s best defensemen in last year’s playoffs scoring three times with seven helpers. He played well against his former team. Boyle scored some flashy goals this past season even getting to 10 which led all Ranger blue liners. His departure was a loud one on break up day, roasting New York Post scribe Larry Brooks. I can’t fault him. Brooks is a grade A asshole who buries players he covers. A disturbing trend we’re seeing from more beat writers.
Meanwhile, Stralman has missed the first two rounds with a broken fibula. His first two seasons in Tampa have been a huge success. After hardly ever being used on the power play by Vigneault, Bolts’ coach Jon Cooper didn’t hesitate to try him with success. Fourteen of a career high 39 points (9-30-39) came on the man-advantage in ’14-15. He added a goal and eight helpers while teaming with workhorse Victor Hedman to form one of the league’s best top pairs. They got the better of the Rangers shutting them out 2-0 in Game Seven. An identical score as Game Five. The Lightning won three of four games at MSG including that fateful seventh game. Once unheard of.
Since losing the final three home playoff games in 2015, the Rangers have dropped five straight at The Garden. That included a 3-1 loss in Game Three and the forgettable 5-0 debacle in Game Four. Opponents have outscored them 18-3 on home ice. It hurts even typing it. To lose that badly at MSG is sad. To get shutout twice by Ben Bishop and muster one freaking goal in the last four games is despicable. That’s 12 periods.
So much of the success of 2014 was due to Vigneault’s emphasis of rolling four lines. He believed in playing everyone. That Spring, he had a similar cohesive trio to the Pens’ Hagelin, Bonino, Kessel. It starred Mats Zuccarello, Derick Brassard and Benoit Pouliot. Behind Derek Stepan and Richards, they were the third line. A great skating, fore-checking and play making line, they drove possession and scored big goals. Hagelin played with Richards on the second line. He had similar success with better players scoring seven goals and five assists with Richards and St. Louis. Nash mostly saw time with Stepan and Chris Kreider.
To those naysayers who say it’s the Pens’ system, wrong. Hockey is about chemistry. It’s that line of Hagelin, Bonino and Kessel that’s doing the most damage. In a six-game series win over a excellent Caps team picked by many to win the Cup following a record breaking season, the combo of Crosby and Malkin combined for one goal and three assists. Neither had big series. They were carried by Hagelin (3-4-7), Bonino (2-3-5) and Kessel (2-3-5). In fact, Bonino has as many points (10) as Crosby through the first two rounds. The same guy who had nine goals and 20 assists in 63 regular season games.
I recall many in the blogosphere laughing at the Blackhawks for adding Michal Handzus from the Sharks in 2013. How did that work out? Zeus wound up playing a key role on the second line notching three goals and eight helpers, helping the Hawks win the Cup. Sometimes, offense comes from unlikely sources. It depends on the make up of the team. Look how poorly Evgeny Kuznetsov played this postseason. The Caps’ leading scorer had only two points. Nicklas Backstrom finished with 11 but most of the production came in a first round win over the Flyers. The only game he was effective in was during Washington’s comeback from three down last night, setting up T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams to get them within one.
Unlike Sullivan, Caps’ coach Barry Trotz never found the right combination. The best he could do was flip Backstrom and Kuznetsov with minimal success. In a series star Alex Ovechkin still put up seven points (2-5-7), the Great Eight didn’t get enough support. The Pens did a excellent job marking him. Whenever the Caps deferred to him on the power play, it didn’t work. Notice the one time Ovechkin switched sides with John Carlson, he set up Carlson’s tying power play goal to finally take advantage of all the Pens’ self inflicted penalties. Though the two delay of games couldn’t be anymore different. The Bonino one was incidental. The rule needs to be adjusted. There should be room for more interpretation.
Most curious was Trotz’ odd decision to send out his checking forwards for the final part of the power play. That was their chance to win the game. Instead, the former Nashville coach went the conservative route, playing for overtime. I don’t care if you’re down five and come back to tie. You don’t play for sudden death in the other team’s building. You go for it. Look how different the teams played. The Pens went for it after blowing a three-goal lead. They looked loose and ready. The Caps were tentative and looked scared to make a mistake.
Listening to Crosby in the post game, he admitted that none of them had ever been in that situation. However, Kessel had experienced it with Toronto blowing a three-goal lead against Boston before losing in overtime of Game Seven on a Patrice Bergeron tally. Crosby made sure to note that a lot of the Pens were fresh due to the work of the penalty killers. The Caps mostly used their top two lines and looked gassed. They had nothing left.
Holtby made some great saves but also had help from a diving Jay Beagle, who saved a goal. It only prevented the inevitable. He could only do so much as the faster and more relentless Pens finally got the winner. A play started by Kessel from behind the net to Hagelin, who the whole game was dangerous. He even scored a power play goal on a Brooks Orpik double minor. Hagelin deflected home a point shot for a 3-0 lead. Kessel had scored earlier when the Caps penalty kill turned into the Rangers. The Pens scored on both halves. They let down for a moment and it was 3-2 off a nice Justin Williams finish from around the net on a Backstrom feed, beating Matt Murray high to the glove side.
Still, if not for the barrage of penalties, the game never reaches overtime. Murray still made a bunch of big saves prior to Carlson’s bomb from Ovechkin. Carlson by the way had a point in all six games. He had as many points as Ovechkin for the playoffs. Each finished with five goals and seven assists for 12 points. Oshie was the best Cap in the series scoring five times including his Game One hat trick with the wrap around winning it on a video review. He proved to be a very effective player, totaling seven of his 10 points in the second round.
Williams showed for the elimination games, scoring in each. Marcus Johansson had seven points (2-5-7), tying Williams. Beagle not only made the great defensive play but scored three goals. He has always been a solid secondary scorer who is strong on draws. The issue for the Caps was Kuznetsov’s disappearing act. Andre Burakovsky also couldn’t hit the net scoring only once in 12 games. Jason Chimera, who usually shows for such moments, only mustered a goal and helper. Tom Wilson wasn’t any better with only an assist while scaring no one. Mike Richards showed that he could still play but he didn’t register a point and his shots often missed the target.
Maybe the Caps weren’t as good as thought. They cruised to 56 wins and 120 points without ever being seriously challenged. Anyone who followed the Pens closely down the stretch knew they would be trouble in the second round. It’s why I picked them in six. If only I hadn’t been so gullible actually believing in Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry to get it done in Anaheim. I’ve still yet to see Backstrom have a good second round. He vanished against the Rangers too. Maybe he should just be known as Geico for those commercials.
Watching Ovechkin explain away another second round disappointment was sad. “It sucks,” he told the media in the Caps’ locker room. There really wasn’t much else to add. We’re looking at one of the greatest players to play the game in our generation. A seven-time 50-goal scorer and three-time league MVP. And yet at age 30, the electrifying Russian with the awesome personality who lets you in, may never win a Cup. He might suffer the same cruel fate as Lundqvist, who is four years older. In the ’09 second round seven-game defeat to Crosby and the Pens, Ovechkin finished with 11 goals and 10 assists totaling 21 points in 14 games. Who could ever forget how he torched the Rangers for a hat trick in that 3-1 comeback? What a player. Since, he has never scored more than five goals in any postseason.
The Caps have been to the second round five times in the Ovechkin Era. They still have yet to advance to a Conference Final. A dark cloud that hangs over the state capital for a franchise that’s never won a Cup. While they are done for the summer, the Blues try to win a third game at Dallas tonight. If they do, St. Louis can make the Western Conference Final and await either Nashville or San Jose. Two other teams that have never won a Cup. The Blues haven’t either. In fact, they haven’t been back to the Stanley Cup Final since 1970 when they were swept by the Bruins with Bobby Orr scoring the memorable overtime goal while being captured in mid-air celebrating it. St. Louis appeared in three straight SCF as a expansion team.
Ovechkin and Lundqvist aren’t the only jinxed players without a championship. Sharks’ tandem Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau were the first two picks in the 1997 Draft. Since Thornton came over in a trade from the Bruins during ’05-06, the Sharks have suffered some awful playoff losses. The worst being to the Kings in 2014 when they blew a 3-0 series lead. LA also rallied from a 3-2 deficit to beat the Ducks and then stunned the Hawks in sudden death on Alec Martinez’ OT winner. The same Martinez who is etched in Ranger fans’ memories for the same sad reason. I watched that Game Five at the bar with friends. It still hurts.
As for the Sharks, by exacting revenge on the Kings in a satisfying five-game first round win, they look to have the best chance to finally win one. But the Predators have proven resilient fighting back from a 2-0 deficit which included that triple overtime epic that Mike Fisher won in Game Four. Following a Sharks’ Game Five blowout, the Preds again showed playoff mettle with James Neal sending Game Six to sudden death. Viktor Arvidsson won it with a backhand that surprised Martin Jones. In the only series where the home team has won every game, Game Seven is at San Jose. The pressure will be immense on the Sharks tomorrow night. With a roster featuring Thornton, Marleau, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture and Brent Burns, they must win. If they don’t, they’ll never hear the end of it.
So, what to expect. At this point, chaos. All I know is when the puck drops for Lightning vs Penguins, there will be an awful lot of crowing from our fans. I won’t be one of them. I’m going for the boys in Tampa. As much as I love Hagelin, I can’t root for the Pens. I got plenty of friends from Pittsburgh.
The Bolts are easier to pull for because they have Boyle and Cally. Plus if Stralman returns, I am a huge fan. Sure. Some can be bitter due to last year. Put the blame where it belongs. I will never consider the Lightning a huge rival. I just hope I’m wrong about the next round. Look how wrong I was about the Bolts without Stralman and Steven Stamkos. There’s still hope.