The Rangers’ Window of Opportunity

Rick Nash and Henrik Lundqvist

On Thursday night, I had the Bruins-Flyers game on, but muted while I recorded Rangers podcasts and it felt weird to be watching hockey after an offseason that felt like 15 minutes. When I was done recording, I turned the sound on the game and Doc Emrick’s voice came into my living room and it was the first time I had heard Doc’s voice since he was screaming back on June 13.

“Centering pass flagged down by Greene … Played into traffic though … Starting back up with it now is Martinez in a 3-on-2 … Clifford gave it across … It’s held … And a shot … Save … Rebound … SCORE! … THE STANLEY CUP! … MARTINEZ!”

Benoit Pouliot’s centering pass was stopped by Matt Greene with 5:27 left in the second overtime. At 5:17, Alec Martinez scored the Stanley Cup-winning goal. In 10 seconds, the play to end the Rangers’ 107-game, eighth-month season transpired in what was essentially a perfect execution of a 3-on-2, ending with a goal as a result of a textbook low shot to the far side, which produced an ideal rebound to the forward going hard to the net. You could classify it as beautiful and I would if it didn’t involve ending the Rangers’ season.

Unless your team wins the last game of the entire NHL season, you are likely let down at the conclusion of their year. When your team loses the last game of the entire season and the lasting image from that moment is your franchise all-world goalie, who has been the most important player in the organization for a decade, lying face down on the ice with Alec Martinez and Kyle Clifford celebrating around him as if they had just bagged a Kodiak bear on a hunting trip, you’re not let down, you’re devastated.

The Rangers never gave me time to prepare for the finality of their season and the end of a Stanley Cup run. Sure, I realized that going into both Games 4 and 5 (and any game for the rest of the series) that there was a chance it would be the last game of the season, but they won Game 4 and led Game 5 in the third period. For the final 30 seconds of the second period and the first 7:56 of the third period of Game 5, my mind wasn’t thinking about watching the Rangers’ season end while I was in Los Angeles surrounded by a city waiting to erupt at my expense. My mind was thinking about one thing only: kill the clock. That changed when Marian Gaborik (who is in the conversation as my favorite Ranger ever) tied the game on the power play because of course Marian Gaborik would tie the game against his former team with his postseason-leading 14th goal. After that goal, for the next 46:47, my mind was back to thinking about finality, knowing that the next shot or any shot could end the season.

You can only miss so many chances to win a game. You can only hit the post so many times, have the puck deflect off a stick on its way to an open net so many times and choke on a breakaway so many times. And when you don’t capitalize on what feels like countless opportunities to win a game (or in this several games of a series), you eventually lose. History will show that the Kings beat the Rangers 4-1 in the 2013-14 Stanley Cup Final, but it didn’t feel like a five-game series. It felt like a seven-game series, which probably had to do with three of the five games going to overtime, two going to double overtime and the Rangers blowing two-goal leads in Games 1 and 2 and blowing a third-period lead in Game 5.

I was always worried that the Rangers would completely waste Henrik Lundqvist’s prime and career by surrounding him with average talent and only a long list of first- and second-round postseason exits would make up his career résumé because when you’re relying solely on your goalie for entire seasons and postseasons, one or two playoff rounds is all you can realistically expect. But I no longer worry about that after last season’s Cup run. Now I worry about Henrik Lundqvist one night standing on the Madison Square Garden ice watching his Number 30 get raised to the rafters with the 2013-14 Final being his one chance at winning the Cup.

It appears as though the front office is worried about that same thing as they have put an emphasis on building a deep organization with young, promising talent and have avoided making the same salary-cap mistakes (Hello, Ryan Callahan) they were making just three years ago (Hello, Brad Richards). Three years ago, there’s no chance Anthony Duclair makes the Rangers’ opening night roster and some veteran player with experience whose low career ceiling has already been set keeps him off the roster and sends him back to juniors. With Duclair (19), J.T. Miller (21), Jesper Fast (22) and Kevin Hayes (22) on the roster, the Rangers have four players 22 years old or younger, two 23-year-olds in Chris Kreider and John Moore and a 25-year-old captain in Ryan McDonagh. The Rangers are the youngest they have been in forever, but their success, at least for this season, will ultimately be decided by how their stars perform and not just Lundqvist and also Martin St. Louis, but their most important offensive player, who just happens to be their highest-paid player at $7.8 million per year.

I lobbied for Rick Nash in New York. I was willing to trade Chris Kreider and the whole farm for him at the 2011-12 deadline to bring him to the No. 1 overall team in the East and try to end what was then an 18-year championship drought. The Rangers didn’t make the move (well, not until July) and lost in the Eastern Conference finals when the lucky-bounce goals stopped being a reliable source for them. And because I’m the president of the Rick Nash Fan Club, I haven’t said a negative thing about Nash through his first two season, 109 regular-season games and 37 postseason games with the Rangers, but that could change. That could change if Nash turns in a lackluster offensive season after his three-goal playoff performance and the Rangers somehow don’t reach the playoffs. I doubt that will happen, so it might not change until the playoffs when Nash will be evaluated like every other high-paid star in New York has been since the start of time.

In the 2011-12 playoffs I kept waiting for Nash to come around. I thought if the Rangers could get by the higher-seeded Capitals and overcome series deficits of 2-0 and 3-2 and win a Game 7 on the road without Nash scoring once in the seven games that they could get by the Bruins if his drought ended in the second round. Nash did score against the Bruins, but only once, and the Rangers lost in five games.

This past postseason, I was once again left waiting for Nash to come around. I thought if the Rangers could get past the Flyers in seven games without Nash scoring, they could beat the Rangers is his drought ended in the second round. And then when he went scoreless in seven games against the Penguins and the team was still able to overcome a 3-1 series deficit, I thought they could beat the Canadiens if his drought ended in the conference finals. Nash scored three goals against the Canadiens and the Rangers won in six games and I thought if he could stay hot for the Cup Final, the Rangers could win it all. He went pointless against the Kings and the Rangers lost in five games. Henrik Lundqvist has continually taken the Rangers as far as any goalie can take a team and even farther than anyone could have imagined a goalie could take an offensive-challenged team and now it’s time for Rick Nash to live up to his name and abilities and past and contract and carry them the rest of the way because I can’t protect him forever.

At the beginning of the playoffs, I knew the Rangers had to get by the Flyers and once they did I thought there was a chance they could beat the Penguins after the Game 1 win on the road. When they were faced with a 3-1 series deficit, I realized the season was likely over and just wanted them to extend it as long as possible. Then when they came back against the Penguins I was ecstatic that they were in the Eastern Conference finals, which seemed impossible a few days prior, and it seemed like the season could be considered successful no matter what happened against the Canadiens. Then when the Rangers routed the Habs in Game 1 and Carey Price went down for the series, I realized they had to win the series. I thought if they could get past the Canadiens and get to the Cup Final, I once again wouldn’t care about the series outcome because they had given me extra weeks of unexpected playoff hockey in a season that was nearly lost after looking like the stereotypical first- or second-round exit Rangers team all year. When they got to the Final and led Games 1 and 2 by two goals before blowing both games, my mindset changed. I wanted the Cup and wanted it desperately because the gap between the Western Conference winner and the Rangers wasn’t as big as everyone had been led to believe and I knew they could win it. And when I started to think back to every bounce and call and break that had to go their way to reach the Final, that hadn’t in the 20 years since since their last Final appearance, I realized it could be another 20 years until they would be in this spot again.

The odds are stacked against the Rangers to get back to Final because they’re stacked against every team when it comes to playing for and winning the Cup. You only get so many seasons in which injuries don’t ruin your year and when every playoff series presents a favorable matchup and when everything breaks right and falls perfectly on the way to playing for the Cup. Last year was one of those seasons for the Rangers and hopefully we won’t have to wait another 20 years for the next one. But I don’t think we will because for the first time in forever, getting back to the Stanley Cup Final doesn’t feel impossible.