Rangers’ Postseason Bubble Bursts

Of course it came down to a shootout. And of course it was the play of Henrik Lundqvist that allowed the Rangers to even get that far. But in the end, the same problem the Rangers dealt with all season wound up ending their season in Game 82: scoring goals.

Sunday’s loss to the Flyers was a one-game summary of the Rangers’ season. The team’s inability to score goals, hold leads and produce any sort of attack in the offensive zone was masked by the play of Lundqvist. The Rangers had spent the last three weeks trying to make people believe they were a changed team, and a team that was capable of running the table and pulling off a first-round stunner in the playoffs. But when it mattered most, they were the same old Rangers, and if you didn’t see this ending coming, then you haven’t been paying attention.

I went back and read everything I have written about the team over the last couple of months, and if you took the word “Rangers” out of every story, you’d think each story was about a different team. The Rangers spent the last two months toying with the emotions of the tri-state area and they spent the last few weeks causing more side effects than some prescription drugs advertised during 4 a.m. infomercials.

After I proclaimed the Rangers finished on March 22, following their Sunday loss to the Bruins, the Rangers began the final stretch of 10 games in which they had a 6.9 percent chance of making the playoffs. Not even a 7-1-2 finish was enough for a team that started the season 7-1-1 and wrapped it up in nearly the same fashion. In the end, the Rangers were one goal and one point short of making the playoffs, and they built up the final weeks of the season for nothing.

On March 26, the day after the Rangers completed their improbable third-period comeback against the Devils (the game that would have been used as the turning point in the memorable run had they beaten the Flyers), I wrote the following:

“It would have been easier if the Rangers finished the season like the 2008 Yankees. In 2008, the Yankees folded pre-flop, saving themselves and their fans from emotional heartache and disaster. I’d rather the Rangers went away like the 2008 Yankees rather than the 2008 Mets, who lasted all the way until the river before coming up short. But it’s the Rangers we’re talking about, and being led on and strung along is in their DNA. In all likelihood, the season will come down to the final weekend against the Flyers.”

And it did come down the final weekend. It came down to the final game and the final attempt in a shootout loss. But the Rangers didn’t finish the season like 2008 Yankees or Mets. They finished it like the 2007 Phillies. That is, if the Phillies had lost on the final day of the season.

Part of me is glad the Rangers missed the postseason and staved off embarrassment in the first round. This team was not worthy of a second season, and they weren’t even worthy of having the final game of their season matter. In order to even have a win-or-go home scenario on the last day of the year, the Rangers had to win seven of nine, and have the Flyers basically do the opposite. Not exactly the traditional formula for success of playoff-caliber teams.

Sunday was a typical Rangers game. They managed only one goal, on a deflection, and hoped Henrik Lundqvist could stand on his head for 60 minutes. And if John Tortorella didn’t have Artem Anisimov and Brian Boyle (who was playing in his first game since the loss to the Bruins 21 days ago), killing a penalty in the third period of 1-0 must-win game, then I would be writing about the magical March and April of the 2009-10 Rangers rather than the devastating tease they turned out to be. But that special teams decision is on the great John Tortorella.

Many people are upset that the Rangers’ season ended in a shootout. But for anyone that watched Sunday’s game, a shootout was the only chance the Rangers had at leaving Philadelphia with two points. The shot differential (22) was almost greater than the Rangers total shots (25). The Rangers looked miserable on their only two power plays, and they were unable to produce any forecheck during even strength. They didn’t have a legitimate scoring chance in the third period and the only time Marian Gaborik’s name was mentioned by the commentators was when he went offside on a potential odd-man rush. In other words, the shootout was a gift for the Rangers and they couldn’t even take advantage of that.

No one should be mad that the Rangers’ season came to an end in a shootout. If Henrik Lundqvist makes one more stop and Olli Jokinen doesn’t try to slide the puck threw a closed five-hole, then Rangers fans would be praising the shootout. More importantly, if the shootout doesn’t exist, then the Rangers season would have ended anyways. Under the old NHL rules, the game would have ended in a tie with both teams receiving a point, and the Flyers would have still gotten in. So let’s be thankful that the Rangers managed to even get that far.

I always say if Henrik Lundqvist were on the Capitals or Penguins, there would be no point of a postseason because whichever team had Hank would be unstoppable. If Lundqvist weren’t on the Rangers, they would be a last place team and that is not an opinion or assumption. That is a fact. Lundqvist has been the MVP of the team each season post-lockout and with the amount of effort he exerts each game, his career will probably burn out well before it’s supposed to. He hasn’t had the luxury of sitting behind an elite defense like cross-town rival Martin Brodeur, or the luxury of hiding behind an elite offense like Marc-Andre Fleury. Lundqvist was once again the best player on a bad team, a team in which saving 46 of 47 shots isn’t even enough to win.

The Rangers might have technically finished one point out of the playoffs, but they finished well short of the point total needed to be a threat in the postseason. One point would have gotten them an extra four games against the Capitals. Another 10-plus points would have made them an actual a contender. Despite having an elite goalie in Lundqvist and a superstar scorer in Gaborik, two vital tools for true contenders, the drop-off in talent after those two was too drastic for the Blueshirts to overcome.

Barring a miracle greater than what the Rangers were trying to accomplish Sunday, Glen Sather will return to the front office next season. He is probably already at a poolside bar in Hawaii enjoying the offseason and working the phones to see what aging veterans from the 1998-99 All-Star team are available, but in reality he needs to find a way to compliment Lundqvist and Gaborik. It is obvious that not even Lundqvist can survive without support in front of him and the necessary help on defense. As for Gaborik, he finished the season leading the Rangers in goals with 42 and assists with 44. If he had an actual playmaker on his side rather than the 58 points and 38 assists of Vinny Prospal (who shouldn’t be any team’s second-best scorer at this point in his career), it’s hard to fathom what type of numbers Gaborik is capable of putting up.

Rangers fans deserve better than what Sather has to offer. They deserve more than Sather’s big midseason acquisition Olli Jokinen ending the season. They deserve a team they can be proud and a team that can clinch a playoff berth without needing an overtime period and shootout in Game 82 of the season.

All I asked for was the Rangers to make the final weekend against the Flyers to matter, and I got my wish. I should have asked for more.