I have never panicked when it comes to this Rangers’ season. I have worried about it. Well, I worried once about it. I worried about this Rangers’ season with 1:42 left in Game 5 against the Capitals. The Rangers had scored one goal in Games 3 and 4 combined and were being shut out once again Game 5. There were only 102 seconds left in the season for them to save their season, but luckily, they did with 101 seconds left in the game. After that game, I never felt worried again in the series. Not in Game 6 and not in Game 7 and I certainly never panicked.
After the Rangers’ Game 3 loss to the Lightning, it felt like every Rangers fan believed the season was over, the same way most did after Game 4 against the Capitals and Game 4 against the Penguins last season. Sure, in Game 3, the Rangers had blown a two-goal lead just like they had in the 2013-14 Stanley Cup Final, and after overcoming a two-goal deficit of their own in the same game, they lost in overtime. No one wanted to stop and think that if they won Game 4, they would be right where they needed to be with a split in Tampa Bay, and it would be the same result as winning Game 3 and losing Game 4, everyone just wanted to give their instant analysis that the Rangers were done because no Stanley Cup champion has ever lost a game in the playoffs or trailed in a series.
The blame game started with Henrik Lundqvist on Wednesday night because it was Lundqvist who had allowed the long overtime goal from Nikita Kucherov, which happened about a minute after Lundqvist had stopped a J.T. Brown breakaway (Lundqvist would have been better off letting the breakaway attempt in and losing then). Rick Nash’s postseason effort was once again called into question following another scoreless game and Martin St. Louis’ decline was brought to the forefront. No one cared to wonder why the Rangers’ defense was allowing odd-man rushes seemingly every time down the ice, the loss was all on Lundqvist and Nash and St. Louis. The loss was on the stars.
There was nothing to complain about after Game 4 when Lundqvist allowed just one goal on 39 shots (the Rangers only had 24 shots), Nash scored twice and St. Louis scored for the first time this postseason in a 5-1 win. Everything was happy in New York (I mean Rangerstown). There was nothing to complain about for 48 hours with a home game in Game 5 on tap and the Rangers coming off their most impressive game of the postseason.
Sunday’s Game 5 was the worst imaginable performance from the Rangers given the point in the series, the setting for the game and their effort in the previous game. Coming off their most impressive win of the playoffs just two days earlier, the game we saw from the Rangers on Sunday night wasn’t even a possibility in my mind. How could that Rangers team in Tampa Bay on Friday night be the same Rangers team two nights later in New York? How could the team that had scored nine goals in two games against Ben Bishop and the Lightning defense, not score in a pivotal Game 5 at home, and not even not score, but not even come close to scoring?
It didn’t matter that Lundqvist stood on his head again and the only two pucks that got by him were because of the Rangers’ defense allowing a deep 3-on-2 to and somehow allowing arguably the best pure goal scorer in the WORLD to sit wide open at the top of the crease on the power play.
Game 5 felt like any Rangers playoff game from 2004-05 to 2011-12 where scoring once felt impossible and scoring twice was impossible. And like those postseasons, even if Lundqvist were actually superhuman and could have stopped all of the Lightning’s shots and denied all of their wide-open, in-the-slot scoring chances, the Rangers would have lost eventually. They weren’t scoring on Sunday night if that game was played for another period or another four hours.
I thought the Eastern Conference finals run in 2011-12 meant the future would mean no more wondering which Rangers team would show up on a given night, but then in 2012-13, the same old Rangers showed up against the Bruins in the second round. And after last year’s improbable Final run I thought, “OK, now I really won’t have to worry about which Rangers team will show up in the future,” but that’s clearly not the case after Sunday’s embarrassment.
The Rangers never make things easy and they weren’t about to start in this series against the Lightning. This team has successfully handled every form of adversity they have been dealt this season and have played with the finality of the end of the season three times and won every time, and now they need to do it for a fourth time (and then a fifth).
Tonight will be the Rangers’ 100th game this season and it could be the last. Tomorrow could be Day 1 off a four-plus month offseason and the first day of another summer of wondering when Rangers fans will stop having to live off the moments of the 1993-94 playoffs. But it won’t be.
I didn’t panic when the Rangers lost Game 2 at home to the Penguins or when they lost Game 1 to the Capitals or when they trailed 3-1 in the series. I didn’t panic when they were run out of MSG in Game 2 against the Lightning or when they blew Game 3, and I’m not going to panic now even after the most miserable effort in the biggest game of the 2014-15 season. The Rangers will win Game 6. They have to.