The moment Andrew MacDonald’s shot went past Henrik Lundqvist at 7:28 of the first period, my emotions that had been filled of positive anticipation were deflated and left me feeling like the Camp Hope campers watching Lars destroy “The Blob” in Heavyweights. “Here we go again” is the G-rated version of what I thought with the Flyers celebrating in front of a quickly quieted Garden. Another playoff game the Rangers were trailing in and trailing early in and another game where it looked like even if Henrik Lundqvist stood on his head, it wouldn’t be enough.
My thoughts and feelings after the game were an overreaction to just 7:28 of a seven-game series, but they were thoughts and feelings that I had been trained to experience since the 2008-09 season when John Tortorella became the head coach. I had learned to except the fact that one goal might be all the Rangers would get in postseason games during Tortorella’s tenure and under Tortorella’s system. In the 44 playoff games Tortorella coached the Rangers for from 2008-09 to 2012-13, the Rangers scored 78 goals or 1.77 goals per game. So I was within reason to be worried about the opening minutes of Game 1.
But then at 10:53 of the first period, Mats Zuccarello scored to tie the game and after a sloppy start to the game, the Rangers went on to dominate play for the rest of the game and my early feelings about not being able to score crept back in as I started to envision a game in which the Rangers would control the play and possession and hold a ridiculous margin in shots, but still find a way to lose the game 2-1 either in the third period or in overtime. And then Brad Richards turned back the clock to the pre-2011-12 season offseason or even to the 2003-04 playoffs and led the Rangers to a win.
I predicted the Rangers would win the series in five games, but after Thursday night’s game it feels like I might have underestimated the Rangers with that prediction.
– The last playoff game Brad Richards played in was the Rangers’ 2-1 Game 3 loss to the Bruins last May 21. At the time, we didn’t know that Tortorella would decide to scratch his supposed good friend, who won the Conn Smythe and the Cup for the coach, who would likely be out of the league as a head coach without the 2003-04 playoffs on his resume. But when Tortorella decided to start teaching lessons and make examples of former playoff MVPs and a Ranger who wears an “A” with the Rangers’ season on the line it felt like that 2-1 Game 3 loss would be the last time we would see Richards in a Rangers jersey. Thankfully, it wasn’t.
Richards’ power-play goal gave the Rangers a 2-1 lead at 8:22 of the third period (and turned out to be the game-winner) and his assists at 9:09 and 15:52 sealed the deal. For what seemed like the first time in a long time and the first of just a few times, he looked comfortable on the point on the power play, taking charge of the unit and controlling the play during the double minor.
Glen Sather decided not to buy out Richards contract before this season and gave him a chance to play under Alain Vigneault and play in an offensive system that could return him to his pre-Rangers form and bring out the best in what was once a point-per-game (or better) player. And on Thursday night, after a 20-31-51 regular season, Richards repaid Sather for not buying him out, even if he will never be able to repay him for his nine-year, $60 million contract.
– With the Rangers leading 4-1 in the final minutes and the game in the bag, I started to think about the job Sather had done in turning the team into a strictly blue-collar, rely-on-Lundqvist team into a finesse team and one that can beat you offensively, defensively (at times) and in goal. The Ryan Callahan trade played a big part in erasing the way the Rangers played to how they play now and completed the transition of the Tortorella Rangers to the Vigneault Rangers, (even if Callahan was came up with Tom Renney as head coach, he was textbook Tortorella system player). While I don’t usually credit Sather for the job he has (and rightfully so) he did a good job in building the 2013-14 Rangers. Though I realize I might be a little too high on them after just one playoff game and this could all change by Easter afternoon.
– When Martin St. Louis was traded to the Rangers, I thought he would play with Rick Nash, mainly because I wanted him to. Pair your best scorer with your best playmaker. Sure, it might create a bit of a balance issue, but you could finally create a line that other teams have to prepare for and defend against and a line that makes the opposition and their fans think “Oh eff, THAT line is out there.” It’s been a while since the Rangers had a line like that ever since Jaromir Jagr left the team.
I thought a line of St. Louis, Nash and Brad Richards would make the most sense given the history and chemistry and positions, even if it would create even more unbalance. But having Derek Stepan as the center for St. Louis and Nash was good enough. And after the second time of trying St. Louis with Nash since the March 5 date, it looks like Vigneault is going to keep them together and it’s the right move.
– If the Rangers don’t win the Stanley Cup, Henrik Lundqvist will take the brunt of the blame. He always does. Despite the 1.77 goals per playoff game during the Tortorella era, it’s still on Lundqvist when the Rangers are eliminated. The Rangers went 19-25 in the playoffs under Tortorella and in those 25 playoff losses, the Rangers scored 36 goals or 1.44 goals per game. Here is the breakdown by goals scored in the losses and how many times they scored each amount of goals:
0 goals: 5
1 goal: 9
2 goals: 8
3 goals: 3
4 or more goals: 0
That’s 14 playoff losses when the Rangers couldn’t score more than one goal and 22 when they couldn’t score more than two, so if Henrik Lundqvist wasn’t going to be perfect in every postseason game, he had to be pretty close to it for the Rangers to win. And even then, it wasn’t enough.
But in Game 1 of the 2013-14 playoffs with the 2013-14 Rangers under a different head coach, Lundqvist didn’t need to be perfect or even close to it. The Flyers only had 15 shots and Lundqvist stopped 14 of them and was basically given the night off after having a week off. It was as if the Rangers stole a win without having to use their ace and when you figure that Lundqvist will steal AT LEAST one game in this series, getting by without needing to rely on him in one game, especially Game 1, could be the difference in the series.
One down, 15 to go.