Post Mortem: Rangers have regrets on Breakup Day


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Breakup day came and went for a disappointed Rangers group who won’t all be back this Fall. There will no doubt be changes to a core who couldn’t get it done against the Senators in a tough six-game second round series loss.

It was the worst of the Henrik Lundqvist Era. One in which the popular 35-year old all-time franchise leader in games, wins and shutouts for a Rangers goalie wasn’t good enough to outduel Craig Anderson. Not much separated winning and losing. In a interview following the game, a dejected Lundqvist alluded to the odd man breaks and not being able to close out games in Ottawa during 6-on-5 situations where the Sens rose up in Games 2 and 5, eventually emerging victorious in sudden death.

However, Lundqvist isn’t blameless. He allowed untimely goals at critical moments which turned the tide. There was the odd Erik Karlsson winner in Game 1 which took a favorable carom off Derek Stepan and then off Lundqvist’s mask and in. That was bad luck.

In Game 2, following a Dan Girardi turnover, Lundqvist gave up the short side top to Jean-Gabriel Pageau which swung the momentum getting Ottawa within 2-1. The Rangers were still in a winning position up 5-3 when Pageau was left alone to deflect home two goals in the final 3:11 of regulation. The responsibility of Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh, who didn’t distinguish himself in the four losses. He wasn’t consistent enough for his team to win.

On the Pageau redirects, Lundqvist wasn’t to blame. When Pageau took full advantage of a bad pinch by Nick Holden going high glove on a two-on-one that trapped Stepan and Jesper Fast with only Marc Staal back, that put the Rangers behind 2-0. They easily could’ve been tied coming home and had only themselves to blame.

They could’ve mailed it in. Instead, they showed the mental fortitude and experience of a team that’s been through the playoff grind before. In playing consecutive complete games to take Games 3 and 4 by identical 4-1 scores, it looked like they had the momentum. They went back to Kanata, Ontario with the series tied 2-2 with the knowledge they could’ve taken both games in Ottawa.

That’s what made what transpired in Game 5 so devastating. They again started quickly going up 2-0 on goals from Jesper Fast and Holden, who did record two goals in the series. But just when things seemed under control, a Lundqvist misplay behind the net resulted in a huge Senators goal that got them within one. Before you knew it, Ottawa had scored three straight and had the momentum.

But a couple of strong shifts from the Rangers fourth line helped turn the tide leading up to McDonagh’s tying goal from Michael Grabner and Girardi in the final two minutes of the second period on a play set up by Kevin Hayes.

When hard working first-year forward Jimmy Vesey scored his first goal of the postseason thanks to video review confirming that his backhand was completely over the goal line despite a great effort from Anderson, it looked like the Rangers would find a way to win Game 5 despite not being perfect.

They were fine until Ottawa coach Guy Boucher pulled Anderson for a extra attacker with 1:45 left. Ottawa was on a rush started by Karlsson, who then managed to make a brilliant pass to Clarke MacArthur for a tough low shot which Lundqvist couldn’t control. What will be remembered is Derick Brassard’s immaculate goal off his leg bouncing off Tanner Glass, then Staal and finally pin balling off Brendan Smith when it was likely gonna just miss before deflecting in with Lundqvist and Staal down.

That is the unlikeliest of goals you’ll ever see. It was unlucky for sure. Even if you want to pin it on Vigneault’s curious choice of Glass over defensive forwards Fast, Grabner and even Rick Nash. Staal had been poor throughout but was put out with Smith, who had been effective most of the playoffs as a rental. It’s easy to blame the coach who had top tandem McDonagh and Girardi the previous shift. But also why did they back off so much? They gave the Sens easy access and Karlsson too much room where even at 65 percent, he did damage.

Stepan was one of the culprits. He didn’t pick up MacArthur causing the chaos. To his credit, he took full responsibility for the worst playoffs of his career. The question is what will GM Jeff Gorton decide this summer with Stepan’s no-movement clause kicking in in July? He makes an average of $6.5 million thru 2021. That’s another four years for at best a second line two-way pivot who’s plateaued. His skating is a issue. He has always gotten by on intelligence. Was he hurt? Who knows.

That’s the thing that is admirable. Stepan knew he stunk. We as fans tend to beat up players. Just watch his interview from earlier today and you’ll have a better perspective of a prideful core player who’s played 97 postseason games with the franchise since entering the NHL in ’10-11.

It is interesting how it’s always the same guys who they get in the locker room to answer the tough questions. Stepan, Nash, Lundqvist, McDonagh and Girardi, who might have played his final game for the franchise. Don’t misinterpret this. But it was Girardi who was the most consistent defenseman. He left it all out there and didn’t have many hiccups despite his skating issues and deficiencies.

Both Mika Zibanejad and Brendan Smith enjoyed their first year in New York. Zibanejad wants to improve from a consistency standpoint. Something Vigneault noted during his final press conference. He indicated that Zibanejad has the talent to be a top center. It’s about reaching that next level. He took positive steps getting more responsibility including as a trusted penalty killer. He’ll be a key restricted due a raise this summer.

As for Smith, he can test the free agent market July 1. He indicated that he would like to stay but that largely depends on length and terms. Figure four years in the neighborhood of $16-18 million gets it done. I wouldn’t go more than that. I like the physical edge he brought. That is needed going forward.

With the upcoming Las Vegas Expansion Draft, the organization has some tough decisions to make. Do they explore a trade for Antti Raanta, who has one year left on his current deal. The Blackhawks knew they would lose Scott Darling and got back a third round pick from the Hurricanes, who rewarded him with a new contract.

What about Fast, Grabner and Oscar Lindberg? Two could be gone. Hopefully, they retain the gritty Fast, who always steps up at playoff time. I would love to keep the other two but it seems unlikely. Lindberg really showed improvement in the second half following hip surgery. If he goes, that won’t be easy to replace.

Lundqvist certainly was there like always just like after every win and loss. There also was the noteworthy moment where Stepan came over during a stoppage and tried to calm down the emotional netminder after he chewed out Brady Skjei. Maybe that was a indication that he wasn’t as locked in. He definitely took blame for not making the extra save such as on Game 5 Ottawa hero Kyle Turris, who after a nice move around Girardi was able to beat Lundqvist five-hole on a very stoppable shot that gave the Sens a 3-2 series lead.

There were a couple of goals he could’ve had in Game 6 with Mark Stone going short side top on a odd-man break and Karlsson able to beat him short side off a Bobby Ryan pass for the series clincher. A play which a trailing Kreider made a coverage mistake on chasing Ryan instead of staying with Karlsson. Even though Kreider got it back 59 seconds into the third to make it 3-2, he wasn’t consistent enough. Vigneault expressed disappointment over him. Lundqvist gave credit to the Sens who deserve to be where they are. But definitely mentioned how he must change his preparation due to being older. ┬áBefore a break, he’ll join twin brother Joel and Sweden in the world championships.

Mats Zuccarello showed frustration by mentioning that he felt they controlled most of the first four games and could’ve swept the series. He’s not wrong. Of course, the Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award winner did his part sending a flying Zibanejad in on Anderson for a pretty breakaway goal top shelf that cut it to 2-1 before Karlsson’s back breaker.

As for Vigneault, he would like to add a young defenseman and move Skjei up into a more prominent role. What that means is he’ll become a top four after a successful first season. Something that must happen for the franchise to have any success in the future. The coach leaned too heavily on McDonagh, who isn’t in the class of Karlsson, Drew Doughty, Duncan Keith or Victor Hedman. That doesn’t mean he’s not good. It just means he needs more help.

What that means I don’t know. New York Post’s Larry Brooks has indicated that the Rangers don’t think Kevin Shattenkirk is a fit. His inconsistent postseason for the once again disappointing Caps who did it again last night, didn’t help. His skating and right shot are a plus including the power play where the Rangers again struggled yet had one more power play goal than the Senators. But seeing him get taken off the puck by Patric Hornqvist whose goal finished the Caps with Alexander Ovechkin floating, wasn’t a lasting impression.

Maybe the Rangers look elsewhere for that right defenseman they so desperately need. But that could mean trading players and prospects for top target Jacob Trouba, which should get strong consideration. Perhaps Justin Faulk from Carolina even though I can’t see them trading him with their rebuild so close.

Vigneault also felt shocked that his team isn’t still playing. A thought that is common to frustrated fans and media. He also said one player will be having off-season surgery. Who that is remains to be seen. My guess is Nash or maybe J.T. Miller, who got banged around in the Montreal series.

MSG’s Amanda Borges had a full report on the final day with highlights. She did a great job all year for Rangers Live. Hopefully, we get to see more of her next year.

One final thought. As disappointing a conclusion as Tuesday was, just imagine being a Caps fan. To see your team win convincingly Games 5 and 6 looking like they would finally conquer their second round demons. Then come up small in a 2-0 home Game 7 shutout loss against series MVP Marc-Andre Fleury. That game may as well have been borrowed from the awful conclusion against Tampa Bay at home in the unpredictable 2015 Eastern Conference Final.

We may be suffering right now. Me a lot more from awful allergies. But most of us saw our team win a Stanley Cup in 1994. I feel for the younger generation fans who haven’t. I don’t mean the annoying arrogant ‘experts’ either. But the loyal younger fan who supports every player that wears our colors. They deserve to experience it. 2014 feels like a very long time ago.

Lundqvist deserves it more than anyone. While uneducated haters get off on his postseason failures, here’s a newsflash for you. Our team didn’t need a tank to become competitive. Our goalie was a seventh round pick and is going to the Hockey Hall of Fame. He’s never been surrounded with Hall of Fame talent either. That’s the breaks.

The Rangers teams are mostly made up of good players. Not great ones. Big difference. The year they traded for future Hall of Famer Martin St. Louis, the team rallied around him following the tragic death of his Mom France, showing more character, determination and heart than any Rangers team since that loaded ’94 championship roster which featured Mark Messier, Brian Leetch, Sergei Zubov, Adam Graves, Alexei Kovalev and Mike Richter. All five skaters were better than anyone in this current group.

You need talent to win. The Blackhawks have three superstars in the top 100. The Penguins should have two in there if not for the Canadian bias against Evgeni Malkin. The Ducks have Ryan Getzlaf dominating the playoffs as I predicted. The Predators have the best defense and three forwards better than what the Rangers have in support of Pekka Rinne. The Senators boast the best defenseman in the sport.

So, it’s easy to point to this team’s shortcomings. They have to get younger and better moving forward.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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