As I sit here and punch away on the keyboard, I can’t help but wonder how it all could’ve been different. Of course, I’m thinking back to the 2014 Stanley Cup Final the Rangers lost to the Kings. The cruel ending from Alec Martinez is still fresh in my memory bank. My reaction was emptiness at the bar with coworkers.
That was the closest five-game series in Stanley Cup history. A bounce here or there and the Rangers win their first championship since 1994. A year that now annoys me because it’s like a dark cloud that hovers over our heads. Like most die hard and passionate Blueseaters, the bitter disappointment of Game Five hasn’t dissipated. Not to mention the awful officiating that went against them.
However, here we are two years later and so much is different. After watching this team come so close to a second consecutive trip to the Stanley Cup Finals, they lost another key piece off that ’13-14 team that had the right chemistry to win a Cup. After letting Brian Boyle and Anton Stralman move to Tampa where they teamed up with Ryan Callahan to get the better of our team in a hard fought seven-game gut wrenching Conference Final, the Rangers moved Carl Hagelin on the second day of last year’s NHL Draft to the Ducks for Emerson Etem while swapping their second and sixth round picks to move up and take Ryan Gropp.
As we learned, Etem never worked out here. Coach Alain Vigneault was unwilling to give a unproven former first round pick consistent minutes. Granted. Etem didn’t show much. So, he was moved to the Canucks for Nicklas Jensen and a 2017 third round pick. Of course, Etem scored against the Rangers in his Garden return. He fared better with Vancouver netting all seven goals in 39 games. Jensen recently pulled off a Peter Forsberg in the World Championships for Denmark. So, maybe there’s still hope.
Be that as it may, losing the speedy Hagelin, who has since reemerged with the Penguins after the Ducks traded him for David Perron and Adam Clendening, really hurt. Especially with Hagelin, who was the ultimate hero winning that thrilling Game Five to eliminate those Pens one year ago in the same round. This time, he was on the opposite side forming great chemistry with line mates Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel. Even though he didn’t score more than a goal which came in a Pens’ 6-2 laugher in the Game Five clincher, his line was a factor.
Astonishingly, it was that same line featuring Hagelin that torched the Capitals in the second round. Hagelin led all Pens in scoring with seven points (3-4-7) while Bonino and Kessel each had big series. While the star duo of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin combined for just a goal and four points, it was that cohesive Pittsburgh third unit that carried them to victory along with rookie Matt Murray in net.
With the Penguins battling those same Lightning, it’s pick your poison for Ranger fans. All things being equal, I’d rather see the Bolts prevail because they’re not a true rival. Even with them getting the better of us last year, I don’t hold any grudge. The bottom line is the organization made some questionable decisions with personnel. They could’ve chosen to re-sign Stralman, who is a true top pair skating defenseman. What’s more? Vigneault didn’t even fully utilize him right, rarely trying Stralman on the power play. As for Dan Boyle, that was Glen Sather. It didn’t quite work out.
Brian Boyle is a different story. He gave it all as a Black and Blueshirt, playing the same style former captain Callahan did. At least when they traded Callahan, it was for Martin St. Louis. Without him, there’s no Stanley Cup appearance. Sure. They rallied around the proud future Hall of Famer following the tragic passing of Mom France. But his leadership can’t be overemphasized. The team twice clawed back from 3-1 second round deficits for the first time in franchise history. There definitely was a void in the locker room without the now retired St. Louis.
When Boyle left for Tampa, it was because he wanted to go play with Callahan. Ironically, here we are a year later and they’re on the same checking line going up against Crosby. Ironically, it was Boyle who turned the second round series against the Islanders around. His big hit knocked Thomas Hickey down, resulting in Boyle potting the overtime winner to win an emotional Game Three at Barclays Center. It was also his diligent work along with stud defenseman Victor Hedman that held John Tavares scoreless over the last four games. The Lightning prevailed in five games. Boyle also scored in the 4-0 Game Five clincher.
While Stralman is still trying to come back from a fractured fibula, Boyle and Callahan are front and center for the Lightning in a supporting role. Callahan continues to play the game with reckless abandon. His hit from behind on Pens’ defenseman Kris Letang resulted in a five-minute major early in Game One of the Eastern Conference Final. Callahan wasn’t ejected for the big hit due to the refs and linesmen determining that Letang wasn’t injured. He also saw Callahan coming and turned into it to draw the five-minute power play. The Pens were unable to take advantage. Letang didn’t return until later that period. Subsequently, Callahan wasn’t disciplined by the Department of Player Safety.
Despite losing starting goalie Ben Bishop to a scary leg injury where he had to be taken off on a stretcher, the Lightning were still able to take Game One 3-1. On goals from Alex Killorn, Ondrej Palat and Jonathan Drouin, they stunned the Penguins. Even though they got one back on a Patric Hornqvist power play tally with 55 seconds left in the second period, Pittsburgh was unable to beat Bolts’ backup Andrei Vasilevskiy again. The second-year netminder made 16 saves in the third to finish with 25 altogether in place of Bishop.
The Lightning are already without captain Steven Stamkos and Stralman. If Bishop is unable to return, can they still win a seven-game series against a deep Penguins roster? That remains to be seen. Originally, I took the Pens in six. One thing about these Bolts. They’re well coached by Jon Cooper, who is riding his best players. Hedman played over 27 minutes as did Letang for Pittsburgh. Tyler Johnson, Killorn, Nikita Kucherov and Palat each received over 21 minutes.
As for Boyle, he got over 18 in an expanded role that includes the occasional power play shift to use his size to screen the goalie. That’s in addition to his tight checking, key face-offs and superb penalty killing which saw him lay out and block a Malkin one-timer for one of three blocks. Not a bad night’s work from a winning player who always elevates his game in the postseason.
There was a special moment when a gritty Boyle as part of a good fourth line, set up Dominic Moore for the series clincher late in the second period against the Canadiens. On the back of Henrik Lundqvist, who made a remarkable save to preserve the 1-0 Game Six win in the 2014 Eastern Conference Final, those Blueshirts advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals. I’ll never forget how loud MSG was. It was also Boyle from Moore scoring a huge first goal in a 2-1 Game Seven win over the Pens in the previous round. A game won by Brad Richards with a power play goal in the second from St. Louis.
To win the Cup, it’s not just the stars who must step up. But also the role players who can be the difference between winning and losing. Hagelin was one of those guys. His game-breaking speed could lead to a rush in transition that quickly. A two-way forward who doesn’t take a shift off, the affable Swede was a perfect fit under Vigneault scoring 17 goals in each of his two seasons.
It was two years ago that Hags had seven goals and five helpers during that long postseason into June. He played mostly with Richards and St. Louis. When they fell short a year ago, he wound up with two goals and three assists. But his role was different. He played on the third line with rookie Kevin Hayes. The third line struggled against Tampa. Hayes had a tough time. It happens. He also was ineffective in three games against Pittsburgh before Vigneault decided to sit him for Oscar Lindberg. Much more will be expected from Hayes when he enters his third season.
The thing that gets lost is how valuable Hagelin was. His blinding speed made him dangerous. Just ask the Kings if they weren’t holding their breath when he had a shorthanded breakaway before the end of regulation in Game Five. Sad as it was to see him go, the Rangers deemed him expendable due to the salary cap. They couldn’t pay him the four million he now gets from the Penguins. Odd how things work out. I’m still a big Hagelin fan. But seeing him in that ugly black and gold jersey is just wrong.
At least the Lightning don’t play in the division. I just wish they still represented the more familiar and lovable red, white and blue. Since those guys left, the Rangers haven’t been the same. The addition of Tanner Glass, who gives an honest effort, didn’t help the fourth line. I don’t need to cite any annoying Corsi or chart to make my point. I respect Glass too much for that. Ditto Jesper Fast, who should be on the fourth line but instead is overused by Vigneault.
Maybe one day soon, the Rangers will solve their fourth line problem. When that day comes, maybe I won’t miss blood and guts players like Boyle as much as I do. Hagelin too because the penalty kill became worse than the power play. Hard facts that can’t be ignored. When you subtract key pieces, it can come back to bite you.
For those True Blue fans like myself, we are suffering at this moment. No deep playoff run. Instead, we get to watch former Black and Blueshirts battle for a chance at Lord Stanley. Oh joy.