Never Say Die Blueshirts gave us something special

As I sit here listening to and enjoying a classic show from Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood from MSG back in February ’08 in a time I went with Dad to see them, I’m in a moment of reflection.

Love and appreciation are two of the best things you can have. There are times in life that are truly special. A birthday, a graduation, a new job, a memorable concert or even a great game. It all connects.

For us, Game Six of the Eastern Conference Final back in 2014 versus the Canadiens was that magic moment as a fan of this team. The celebration at the end in our old section 411 was awesome. High fives. Hugs. Plenty of screaming. I once captured it on one of my old mobile phones. No idea what happened to the footage.

Eight years later, it stays with you. For the fortunate long-time Ranger fans, that could be Game Six or Seven from the unbelievable Conference Finals against the Devils in ’94. Or perhaps it’s the deciding Game Seven versus the Canucks. Those who were lucky enough to be at The Garden back then know.

Fans like Anthony Cinque, who made the Stanley Cup video that came out where fans were featured. He’s become one of our favorites due to his incredible knowledge and passion for the sport. The best kind of fan of our beloved Blueshirts. I’m glad over two decades later, we still see him occasionally. Although it was Dad who did this season. I didn’t go back. Maybe next year.

I mention this because before the five-year playoff drought, there was a seven-year itch that lasted almost a decade. All due to greed. That cold stretch between ’98 through ’04 was some of the worst hockey the franchise has ever played. They would tease you to death. Yet we had fun and laughed at how bad they were. Back when MSG was fan friendly.

Not everyone is old enough to go back to those Dark Ages. Even when we had Gretzky take his final lap on a legendary career that will never be equalled, it was in an overtime loss with future Ranger Jaromir Jagr scoring the winner. That at least was special. There were many uglier nights ahead. The term, “Thrashed,” close friend Brian Sanborn used referred to the former Atlanta Thrashers. If you were there, you know.

When I look back at the ugliest moments I’ve been witness to, they include bitter losses to the Devils and Islanders where you even had rival fans feeling sorry for us. How sad. So, when they decided to commit to a rebuild with The Letter, I was good with it. It was time to say goodbye to Ryan McDonagh, Mats Zuccarello, Dan Girardi and eventually Henrik Lundqvist. All staples of those Black and Blueshirts teams we loved.

Who knew that Igor Shestyorkin would supplant Lundqvist as the next great goalie? Of course, I followed him closely just as I had Henrik before he came over from Sweden. I knew Igor was pretty good. I liked tracking our team’s top prospects. They don’t all pan out. But if the goalie lives up to expectations, it can turnaround quickly.

Gone are the gloomy days of the David Quinn Error along with the stench from the conclusion of Alain Vigneault when they stuck with him one season too long following the bitter disappointment in the playoffs five years ago. Gerard Gallant replaced Quinn and turned this team around along with Chris Drury, who got help from former architects Jeff Gorton and the always beloved John Davidson.

I can’t think of too many people who weren’t for hiring Gallant last summer. He was a guy who got dismissed by a greedy Golden Knights, who lost their identity. He had also once been left outside to fetch a taxi by the Panthers. It didn’t make sense. Here was a good coach who’s had success in the league, having guided the expansion Knights to the Stanley Cup Finals their inaugural season.

The Rangers were in need of a more experienced coach behind the bench who could be a step up from Quinn. Not that everything he did was bad. He was able to get more from Mika Zibanejad, who has now become one of the game’s better overall players. Adam Fox and Ryan Lindgren developed under his watch. Chris Kreider grew in stature to take on more of a leadership role once Marc Staal left.

Featuring Artemi Panarin, Zibanejad, Kreider, Fox and Shesterkin, who took over the reigns from Lundqvist, the pieces were in place. Even if at times Quinn made puzzling lineup decisions on where to play Filip Chytil, Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafreniere, you could see that the future was bright. At least he paired up K’Andre Miller with Jacob Trouba. A pair that improved leaps and bounds under Gallant in what turned into a great season.

It was during ’21-22 that things started to take shape. Key additions Barclay Goodrow and Ryan Reaves helped change the dynamic. Adding veteran pieces strengthened the locker room and changed the way the Rangers played. Even though they lost Sammy Blais to a serious injury, Gallant was able to get his team to buy in. They didn’t lose three games in a row in regulation until the final week after they wrapped up second place in the Metropolitan Division.

By that point, Drury made critical upgrades with the acquisitions of Andrew Copp, Frank Vatrano and Justin Braun to supply Gallant with a more complete roster that could go far in the playoffs. But even after a Vezina season from Shestyorkin, they dug out of a 3-1 series hole to rally and defeat the Penguins in a closely fought first round.

It was the way they did it that really stood out. With so many doubters who picked against them due to the battle tested Pens led by Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, the Blueshirts picked themselves off the deck to come back and win Games 5-7 to make history. No team had ever rallied from such a deficit by trailing in each pressure packed elimination game.

They did it in epic fashion. By getting a game-tying goal from Zibanejad with 5:45 left in regulation on a make shift line that included Copp and Lafreniere, they found a way to force overtime. It was Panarin who won it at 4:46 of sudden death on the power play to send the Rangers and Garden into a frenzy. His seeing eye shot snuck past Tristan Jarry, who had just returned from injury to play Game Seven. That clutch goal for a visibly banged up Panarin allowed the Rangers to believe they could make a run.

They then battled the division champion Hurricanes in a closely fought second round series. Unlike the Penguins, who opened it up more and crashed the net to make life tough on Shesterkin, the defensive minded Canes shrunk the ice. They took away time and space from Zibanejad, Kreider, Fox, Panarin, Vatrano, Ryan Strome and Copp.

Even tougher, the Rangers blew a one-goal lead after two periods to lose in tough fashion 2-1 in overtime on a goal from Ian Cole to start the series. They then couldn’t generate much offense in a 2-0 loss where former Ranger Brendan Smith scored the shorthanded winner to help Antti Raanta get the shutout. That put them in an 0-2 hole with the next two games at MSG.

With their backs to the wall, all the resilient and scrappy Blueshirts did was sweep Games 3-4 by outscoring the Hurricanes 7-2. Although Game Three was close, they got goals from Zibanejad and Kreider with Motte sealing it with an empty netter. All in support of Shestyorkin, who came up huge by making 43 saves.

In a more complete game where they jumped on the Canes, who got into penalty trouble, the Rangers easily took Game Four 4-1 to square the series. But there was no momentum due to home ice. After Zibanejad notched a power play goal to tie up Game Five late in the first period, it was all Hurricanes. Goals from Teuvo Teravainen and Andrei Svechnikov along with a dominant defense held them to just 17 shots as Carolina put the Rangers on the brink.

Facing elimination for the fourth time, they rose up to the challenge by taking Game Six at home 5-2. Never seriously threatened following first period tallies from Motte and Zibanejad on a shaky Raanta, Chytil scored twice in the second as they evened it up to send the series back to Raleigh for a do or die Game Seven.

It was during the seventh and deciding game that they played their best game. Taking advantage of undisciplined penalties by the Canes, Fox and Kreider cashed in on the power play. With Shestyorkin locked in, Strome buried a two-on-one short side on injury replacement Pyotr Kochetkov to help break it open.

A highlight reel breakaway goal from Kreider early in the third provided some cushion. Chytil would get his third goal in two games to answer a Vincent Trocheck power play goal to really finish the Canes off. Even after Max Domi tallied to cut it to two with 3:57 remaining, Copp got an empty netter to seal the big second round win.

It was a series that came down to Igor and special teams. The Rangers were better in each key area to prevail. They also had more skill and scoring depth with the Kid Line of Chytil, Lafreniere and Kakko providing offense at critical moments.

They also got strong play out of Lindgren, who battled an ankle injury throughout the playoffs. The Rangers’ warrior got stronger as it went on. So did Miller, whose poise really shined in the second round victory by teaming with Trouba to help neutralize Sebastian Aho and Teravainen. Trouba’s big hit that concussed rookie Seth Jarvis really hurt the Canes in Game Seven. He was their best forward.

The run wouldn’t have been possible without Lindgren returning in the first round with the Rangers trailing three games to one. His grit and intangibles really made a big difference on the blue line. Motte being able to return for the conclusion of that series and Goodrow doing the same for the second round really made a noticeable difference. Having those key depth players who are strong defensively and on the penalty kill were pivotal.

When your team makes a deep run like the Rangers did, it’s not only the top guns who lead the way. It’s also about having enough high character role players who are effective and provide energy. While Zibanejad, Kreider and Fox received most of the accolades along with Panarin, it was the support provided by Copp, Vatrano, Strome (prior to pelvis injury that really limited him vs Tampa), Lafreniere, Chytil, Kakko, Motte, Goodrow and Braun that really gave the team a lift.

By getting everyone to play their roles, Turk got the franchise back to the Conference Finals for the first time in seven years. They met the championship Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final.

Early on, it looked like the Rangers would prevail. Their younger legs were noticeable early in the series. After dismantling the Lightning 6-2 in a great Game One where Chytil and Vatrano continued to score, the second game was more like how it was supposed to go. On the strength of goals from Miller, Kakko and Zibanejad, they hung on for a 3-2 win over the Bolts, who came on in the second half to make it close.

The turning point wouldn’t come until they were up by two midway through Game Three in Tampa. On power play goals from Zibanejad and Kreider, they were leading 2-0 in the second period. One more goal and they’d have surely gone up three-zip with Shestyorkin in the series.

Instead, a Trouba penalty really flipped the script. After Steven Stamkos set up Nikita Kucherov on the power play over a minute later, a second Trouba minor in the first minute of the third came back to haunt them. When Stamkos tied the game with a laser, it was all Lightning. They finally got the crushing game-winner from Ondrej Palat with 41.6 seconds left to take Game Three. That foreshadowed an even darker script full of Lightning Bolts.

After they played even better to win Game Four 4-1 with both Kucherov and Stamkos all over the score sheet with Palat, they sent the series back to MSG tied at two. It set up a pivotal Game Five on Broadway.

For a while, it really looked like the first goal would matter. When Lindgren snuck a shot past Andrei Vasilevskiy high blocker from an impossible angle with Vatrano in front, it felt like luck was on the Rangers’ side. But a Kevin Rooney clearing attempt around the boards was intercepted by Mikhail Sergachev, whose shot snuck past Shestyorkin with 2:26 left in the second to tie it up.

Predictably, the third period was carefully played by both sides. Neither wanted to make a mistake that could cause their demise. It was understandable.

The best chance came when Lindgren again had an opening in front. But his rebound of a wide Fox shot off the end boards was denied by a sprawling Vasilevskiy. Strome would get a great chance down low. But he couldn’t quite one-time the Copp backhand pass that just was a bit behind. While many clueless fans gave him a lot of crap for that miss, they had no idea how hurt he was. That would be revealed earlier the next week.

Everyone knew that the next goal would decide the intensely fought game. Unfortunately, some Lightning forecheck pressure led to a seeing eye shot from Sergachev deflecting in off of Palat for the gut wrenching winner with 1:50 left in regulation. Brandon Hagel would score into an open net with under a minute to go to send the building home.

I was so defeated that I immediately left the house and took a ride to a familiar quiet place I’d once visited in 2012. So, I missed Lafreniere losing a scrap to Stamkos and the other chaos that transpired. It didn’t matter. It was that kind of hard defeat in the biggest game this team has played since another crushing home loss to the same opponent some seven years ago.

Everyone has their own unique way in dealing with such a loss. That’s sports in a nutshell. Deep down, I knew it was over the moment Palat scored. The Lightning are a great team for a reason. They’ve won two consecutive Stanley Cups in a cap era where they lost their whole third line that included Goodrow, who was on our side. It’s a credit to that organization along with Jon Cooper that they are trying to make history against a formidable opponent in the Avalanche for a three-peat. I respect it.

Game Six would be the end of the road for our beloved heroes. Running on empty, Gallant chose to dress a banged up Strome and play Dryden Hunt with Kakko and Reaves sitting out. The less said about it, the better.

Even though the same tired questions were asked following the 2-1 defeat that saw Stamkos get one of the luckiest bounces I’ve ever seen after Vatrano tied it, they weren’t winning that game unless the top guns stepped up. They couldn’t.

That’s how well the Lightning played. There was literally no time or space for Zibanejad, Kreider, Panarin or Fox operate. Even with Gallant splitting up Zibanejad and Kreider for two periods, nothing worked. They were dominated at five-on-five by the checking line of Anthony Cirelli, Hagel and Alex Killorn. It was the play of that trio along with Stamkos between Palat and Kucherov that altered the series.

Sometimes, you simply get beat. In the end, the Lightning proved they were the better team. But as they protected their one-goal lead to advance to a third straight Stanley Cup Finals, all I could think about was how proud I was of our team.

It was on display during the handshake line between the two teams. You could see the respect shown by the Lightning players and coaches with Cooper later paying a high compliment to what the Rangers did. Going seven in the first two rounds and then having the champs on the ropes was admirable. They just didn’t have enough left to get it done.

Let’s not forget where this team was. They weren’t in the playoffs the last five years. I don’t count the silly Qualifying Series they got blitzed in two long years ago. That really feels like longer due to how the time has moved. That was then. This is now.

I’ll readily admit that I struggled to find the words to finish this post. I needed some time off to compose my thoughts. I also only caught half of Game One the other night. It is much harder to watch the Stanley Cup when the Rangers were so close. It’s definitely a great match-up. I’d like to see the Lightning make history. I respect the heck out of that franchise. They’re built the way our team is going to be.

I feel like most of the true fans of our team have class. We aren’t bitter sore losers like another unnamed rival team who are stuck in the past. That’s not me anyway.

In some poetic way, I was actually relieved there was no game on June 14th due to ESPN. That would’ve been unbearable. I also hope Sean McDonough never works this far again for hockey. He isn’t exciting enough to be the lead announcer. Ray Ferraro is great in his role. Despite the foolish nature that he’s anti Ranger. Gee wiz.

I have nothing but praise for how the leaders of this team handled this season. They never panicked. Seeing Zibanejad become the trusted top center who can lead the way in such big games was great. He and Kreider were the definition of on an off ice leaders of our T-E-A-M.

So too were Fox, Trouba, Strome and Lindgren, who deserves an ‘A’ on his jersey. He leads by example on the ice. Kind of like Jeff Beukeboom and Dan Girardi.

I excluded Panarin because he had an unsteady postseason. While he did have the clutch series clicher against the Pens, and wound up with 16 points, he was too predictable. Whether it was due to the rumored shoulder issue he had, Panarin was too hesitant to shoot the puck and turned the puck over far too much. He’s likely going to have a new center with Strome likely gone. More is expected of our highest paid star player.

With Drury already making moves in the off-season by re-signing Vitaly Kravtsov to a one-year, $875,000 one-way deal and getting Blais re-upped for a shade over $1.5 million, he’s proactive. That’s positive. He isn’t wasting no time getting started.

I’ll be curious to see what happens with Kakko, who’s a restricted free agent this summer. He expressed disappointment with being a scratch for the final game and wants to use it as motivation. Good. He shouldn’t get more than a bridge deal around $2 million per. Prove yourself.

We know certain players won’t be back. The organization has tough decisions ahead with a choice between Strome and the younger Copp, who should get a little more due to his age and versatility. He fit in well. So did Vatrano. At best, maybe they can bring back half of the four key veteran forwards. I would lean towards Copp and Motte, who brings an element to the bottom line that’s needed.

I’m also interested to see if Drury can dump Patrik Nemeth and his $2.5 million salary by adding either a pick or prospect to free up necessary space. He was a bust. They’ll still need a veteran D to help Braden Schneider and either Zac Jones or Matthew Robertson.

Alex Georgiev will move on. Only restricted this summer before he can turn unrestricted next year, he won’t be back. They can either see if a team is interested in coughing up a mid-round pick and then extend him, or turn him loose. There might not be much interest due to that scenario. Likely destinations are Edmonton, Detroit, Montreal and Buffalo.

It’s going to be strange for a while. It’s definitely different without being able to watch the Rangers play a big game. This run was truly special. It’s too bad they can’t keep everyone. But with the salary cap only increasing by a million up to $82.5 million, that’s the reality.

Is Kravtsov really going to return or will Drury trade him? He can’t have a lot of value. It might make more sense to keep him and see what he is capable of in training camp and beyond. We’ll see. I don’t see Kakko going anywhere. Not unless there’s another young player coming back like Kirby Dach.

Thanks again go out to the Rangers for a great season. #NoQuitInNY


About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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