Usually at this time of the year, the Rangers are on the bubble for a playoff spot. Every game feels like a Game 7 and every night is spent scoreboard watching around the league and checking in on the other barely-above-.500 teams to see if they lost or to make sure none of them received a loser point. Since the full-season lockout in 2004-05, the Rangers have reached the playoffs in nine of the 10 years, but in nearly all of those years, they didn’t clinch until the final days of the season. Here is the game the Rangers clinched a playoff berth since 2004-05:
2013-14: Game 79
2012-13: Game 47 (48-game shortened season)
2011-12: Game 72
2010-11: Game 82
2009-10: Missed playoffs
2008-09: Game 81
2007-08: Game 80
2006-07: Game 81
2005-06: Game 75
The only season the Rangers missed the playoffs (2009-10) came down to a shootout against the Flyers in Game 82 with both teams battling for the 8-seed. The Flyers won. (Thanks, Olli Jokinen.) The 2011-12 season, in which they finished first in the Eastern Conference has been the one exception in the post-lockout/Henrik Lundqvist era. Until this year.
It feels weird to know on March 4 that the Rangers are going to the playoffs unless Willie Randolph takes over for Alain Vigneault. We have known for weeks that the Rangers are going to the playoffs and from now until Game 82 on April 11 in Washington is just about staying healthy, continuing to play well and seeding. But in this year’s Eastern Conference where all eight playoff teams could reach the Stanley Cup Final, seeding doesn’t matter and hoping to play one team over another is pointless. And that’s what makes Sunday’s Anthony Duclair-Keith Yandle trade even more stunning.
I was always worried that Glen Sather would waste Henrik Lundqvist’s prime and career by building mediocre teams around him and wasting the chance at having a Vezina-winning franchise goalie. I figured Lundqvist’s career would come and go and we would be stuck watching another Mike Dunham-esque era eventually, always waiting for another Lundqvist to come around. But over the last few years, as that young defensive core grew into reliable and stable veterans, Sather has turned over the forwards on the team to build a consistent source of offense. And magically, the Rangers made it to the Stanley Cup Final last year and have appeared in two of the last three Eastern Conference finals. But on Sunday, Glen Sather proved he is well aware of the situation he has in front of him. He knows that Lundqvist’s time as an all-world goalie isn’t going to last forever and that now is the time to capitalize on the primes of the core of Rangers to do what hasn’t been done in 21 years.
Three years ago at the trade deadline I was willing to walk to Columbus and carry Rick Nash back to New York. He was the missing piece to the 2011-12 Rangers and I would have given up Chris Kreider and the entire farm to have had him for the stretch run and playoffs. When I first heard about the Sather’s decision to trade Anthony Duclair for Keith Yandle I didn’t agree with the decision. You want to give up on your 19-year-old top and NHL-ready-now prospect for a couple months of Yandle this season and next season, but maybe not even all of next season because he will be an unrestricted free agent and a year from now he will be in trade rumors like Mats Zuccarello? You want to put all of your chips in the middle in a season in which the East has overtaken the West as the stronger conference and getting out of the first round isn’t even a guarantee? Basically you want to mortgage the future for right now? Then I thought back to three years ago when I was on Google Maps searching for walking directions from New York to Columbus and I joined Sather’s side.
The Rangers have a window right now to win the Stanley Cup. They came within a couple of blown two-goal leads and three overtime losses of doing it last year. But last year no one saw the Rangers reaching the Cup Final. Not when they needed seven games to eliminate the Flyers. Not when they trailed the Penguins 3-1. And not when they had to play the Canadiens, who have owned them in Montreal, in the Eastern Conference finals with the first two games in Montreal. Last year’s run was unexpected. The Cup Final loss to the Kings was painful because the Rangers had Games 1, 2 and 5 and lost them all, but the Cup Final loss to the Kings wasn’t viewed as a disappointment because it had been 20 years since the Rangers’ last Final appearance. But when you reach the Eastern Conference finals in two of three years and reach the Cup Final and prove you belonged there, there’s only one thing left to do: win the Cup.
A Stanley Cup Final this season won’t be good enough. Even in a year in which the Rangers would have had to eliminate three teams off a list that includes Montreal, Tampa Bay, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Boston, Washington and the Islanders it won’t be good enough. I don’t know how long this window will last and I don’t know when the next one will be. Look at the Bruins: they won the Cup in 2010-11, reached the Final in 2012-13 and were supposed to be back there in 2013-14. Now they are in a weird state where they don’t know if they should be trying to rebuild or trying to contend and they’re on the playoff bubble as the 8-seed. Ten months ago when they were leading the Canadiens 3-2 in the Eastern Conference semifinals, I thought we might be looking at a possible dynasty in Boston. Now they’re trying to fight off the Panthers for a playoff berth.
It’s a little uncomfortable having the Rangers be “the team to beat” in the Eastern Conference. Even when they were the 1-seed in 2011-12, it was still the defending champion Bruins’ and also the Penguins’ conference. The Rangers had earned the most points in the East, but they weren’t the best team. Right now the Rangers are the best team in the East and might be the best team in the league. A healthy Blackhawks team and a firing-on-all-cylinders Kings team would have a say in that, but the Rangers are in the conversation and that’s something that hasn’t been the case for 21 years.
The Rangers have never been good when they have had expectations and they haven’t had expectations like this since some of the numbers in the MSG rafters were still playing. But they also haven’t had a team like this and a team built to win it all since those numbers were still playing. Last year was fun, but this year is business and only a championship will be good enough for these Rangers.