One week ago, there was one minute and 41 seconds left in the Rangers’ season. Trailing the Capitals 1-0 with 1:41 left in the third period of Game 5, the realization that the Presidents’ Trophy season was going to end in the second round after just 10 postseason games started to set in. And I thought of Mike McDermott narrating in Rounders.
“I’ve often seen these people, these squares, at the table. Short-stacked and long odds against, all their outs gone, one last card in the deck that can help them. I used to wonder how they could let themselves get into such bad shape … and how the hell they thought they could turn it around.”
The Rangers had one out left. They had to find a way to tie the game and either pull a Blackhawks’ Game 6 of the 2012-13 Stanley Cup Final and score twice in the final minute of the game or win it in overtime. And like Mikey McD, I wondered, “How could this Rangers team, the best Rangers team in 21 years, let themselves get into such bad shape?”
Chris Kreider scored at 18:19 of the third period to save the season and at 9:37 of overtime, Ryan McDonagh extended. Two days later, the Rangers solved Braden Holtby with four goals and then hung on for dear life in the final minutes of a 4-3 win. Three days after that, the Rangers overcame an Alex Ovechkin goal and 1-0 deficit to win in overtime, win a Game 7 on May 13 once again and be the first team in the history of the NHL to overcome a 3-1 series deficit in back-to-back seasons.
Before Game 7, I wrote about how every Stanley Cup-winning team must have a “championship moment” on their way to the Cup and if the Rangers are to win the Cup for the first time in 21 years, it’s going to be nearly impossible to top the odds that overcame in the second-round series against Washington.
The Penguins’ offseason is now 21 days old and the Capitals’ is two days old. For the third time in four years, the Rangers are in the conference finals, and the only thing standing in their way of returning to the Stanley Cup Final is the one team I wanted no part of this postseason: the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Rangers went 0-3 against the Lightning this year. They lost 5-1 (Nov. 17), 4-3 (Nov. 26) and 6-3 (Dec. 1) and were outscored 15-7 in those three games, but those games did all come in a span of 14 days at a time when the Rangers were banged up and not the Rangers we see today. The Rangers didn’t become the current form of their team until the second week of December.
The main problem with the Lightning is that I was the Trade Ryan Callahan for Martin St. Louis Club President and then I also served as the Don’t Overpay and Re-sign Brian Boyle, Benoit Pouliot and Anton Stralman Club President. (To my credit, I didn’t know Glen Sather was going to sign Tanner Glass or give a ridiculous extension to Marc Staal after having already given one to Dan Girardi.)
A series against the Lightning is challenging enough without the idea of having to watch Callahan, Boyle and Stralman advance to the Final and play for the Cup at the expense of the Rangers. That would be too much to take. A little like watching Marian Gaborik carry the Kings to the Stanley Cup against the Rangers a little over a year after the Rangers traded him to Columbus because John Tortorella didn’t like him. I’m petrified of this series and what a Rangers series loss will mean.
The only thing keeping me from locking myself in my apartment until this series is over (and if ends poorly staying locked in my apartment for the next year) is that Henrik Lundqvist is a Ranger. It’s been 34 days since the regular season ended and there’s still a season for the Rangers because of Henrik Lundqvist the way there has been a postseason for the Rangers every season but one since the 2004-05 lockout because of Henrik Lundqvist. He has once again been the best player on a team picked by many to reach the Final and finish the job they couldn’t last season and he’s been everything and more this postseason. As long as Lundqvist is in net, I will always like the Rangers’ chances.
I picked the Rangers to beat the Penguins in six and they did it in five. I picked the Rangers to beat the Capitals in six and they did it in seven. Both times I was wrong, but the result worked out in the end. So why change something that works?
Rangers in six.