The expectations at the start of the 2011-12 regular season for the New York Rangers were tepid at best. They were coming off a first-round exit and a complete whiff of the Stanley Cup Playoffs the previous two seasons, and top defenseman Marc Staal was out indefinitely with a concussion.
Seven months later, the youthful Rangers were Eastern Conference regular-season champions and appeared at times to be a team of destiny during the playoffs. They rallied from a 3-2 series deficit in the first round, came back to win Game 5 in the second round against the Capitals with a goal by Brad Richards in the final seconds of regulation and a goal from Staal in overtime, then watched goaltender Henrik Lundqvist steal two of the first three games of the conference finals against the Devils.
In the end, the Rangers simply ran out of gas, losing in six games to the Devils to end one of the more surprising seasons in recent years.
"I really like what we have here," Rangers coach John Tortorella said following his team's 3-2 overtime loss in Game 6 against the Devils on Friday night. "I don't think it will be the same. There's always changes. But what they have -- what our group has developed in their identity, their mindset -- I think showed tonight. Again, we don't get it done, but I just like the way they handle themselves."
There's a lot to like about the Rangers' future, but they will be thinking about this missed opportunity for quite some time. How did they get so close to a Stanley Cup but come up short? Here are five reasons for the Rangers' playoff demise:
RANGERS VS. DEVILS
Henrique's OT tally sends Devils to Final
By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer The New Jersey Devils are heading to their fifth Stanley Cup Final since losing to the Rangers in the Eastern Conference Finals 18 years ago. Adam Henrique's goal 1:03 into overtime was the difference in a 3-2 victory in Game 6 of the Eastern finals on Friday at Prudential Center. READ MORE ›
During the regular season, the Rangers were above average at scoring goals, getting 2.71 per game. With the team allowing 2.22 goals per game, it was more than enough to win 51 games and come within two points of capturing the Presidents' Trophy.
During the postseason, when every inch of ice around the net becomes prime real estate teams are willing to defend with their lives, the offense dried up. The Rangers averaged 2.15 goals per game in 20 contests and allowed 2.05 per game. At 5-on-5, the Rangers were simply dreadful, scoring only 27 goals (1.35 per game) after scoring 150 (1.83) in the regular season.
There were many culprits in the playoffs when it comes to passing blame.
Richards and Gaborik, who combine to hold a salary-cap hit of about $14 million, combined for one goal and four assists in six games against the Devils. Captain Ryan Callahan, who was likely playing with an injury for most of the postseason, had three goals in the final three games against the Devils but just six overall. Rookie Carl Hagelin, who had 38 points in 64 games in the regular season, had just three assists in 17 postseason games.
The offense dried up when the Rangers needed it most, and as a result, the brilliance of Lundqvist (1.82 GAA, .931 save percentage, three shutouts) was wasted in the playoffs.
How the Rangers address the situation will be one of the biggest stories of the offseason. Devils captain Zach Parise will be an unrestricted agent July 1, and perhaps the Rangers will revisit trade talks with the Columbus Blue Jackets in an attempt to land Rick Nash. If the Rangers go after Nash, there's no chance that rookie Chris Kreider, who had five goals in the playoffs, will be part of any packages.
2. The grinding Rangers were grounded down
To be clear, nary a Ranger was willing to admit that fatigue had anything to do with losing four of the final five games of the conference finals, but their inability to close out teams in the first two rounds coupled with the team's grinding style for 82 games appeared to wear the Rangers down.
The top-seeded Rangers were pushed to seven games in the first two rounds by the eighth-seeded Senators and seventh-seeded Capitals. The Rangers played their 20 postseason games over a span of 43 days and were never afforded a second full day of rest. They also played their final 21 regular-season games over 38 days before a four-day respite before the playoffs.
Whether the Rangers were sapped mentally or physically, they had six slow starts against the Devils and were only able to overcome two of them thanks to Lundqvist's pair of shutouts. In the first four games, the Rangers were on their heels for nearly the entire game, but they finally began to adjust to the Devils' attacking style in Games 5 and 6, but by then it was too late.
While some Rangers saw their play dip as the postseason moved forward, others raised their game despite playing record minutes.
With Staal out for the first 36 games of the regular season, the weight of that workload fell into the lap of Dan Girardi, who had an All-Star season. The 28-year-old Girardi logged 2,689:36 in ice time in the regular season and playoffs, about 600 more minutes than he played last season.
All Girardi did with that added responsibility was post three goals, nine assists and finished plus-6 in the postseason. Forward Artem Anisimov improved steadily during the playoffs, as did Staal.
But many Rangers appeared to finally hit a wall they could not break through against the Devils.
With a lack of support for more than two rounds, the Vezina and Hart Trophy finalist appeared poised to add the Conn Smythe Trophy to his resume. Lundqvist allowed two goals or less in 10 of 14 games over the first two rounds and only a third goal twice as those games went to overtime.
Lundqvist seemed poised to continue his heroics against the Devils. In Game 1, he had a 21-save shutout in a contest that saw the Rangers dominated for two periods before scoring three times in the third period to claim victory. Game 3 was a carbon copy, as Lundqvist once again held the fort for two periods before his teammates found their scoring touch. In that win, Lundqvist made 36 saves.
Game 3 was the end of the road for Lundqvist's sterling play. He allowed 10 goals on 74 shots (.865 save percentage) over the final three games of the series, and his teammates were unable to pick him up as he had for them throughout the playoffs.
4. It simply wasn't the Rangers' time
Throughout the history of the NHL, there is a long list of young teams on the rise that had to take their lumps in the form of crushing playoff defeats because they weren't ready to win. The Rangers learned to raise their game in the face of adversity in the first two rounds, but they were at a loss to do so against the Devils.
Would the 2010 Blackhawks have won the Stanley Cup if not for their run to the conference finals the previous season? Would the 2009 Penguins have found a way to beat the Red Wings if not for losing in the Final to Detroit the previous season? Could the 1995 Devils have emerged victorious against the highly favored Wings if not for a crushing defeat at the hands of the Rangers in the conference finals in 1994?
The Rangers have a young core, many of which never escaped the first round. Lundqvist, Staal, Callahan and Girardi had never been beyond the second round. Almost the entire roster was in uncharted territory in the third round, and it showed at times.
5. The Devils were a better team
Sometimes players or coaches will drop the old, "I thought we were the better team" after a loss. No one around the Rangers was saying that after they were eliminated by the Devils.
Depth is king in the playoffs, and the Rangers didn't have enough of it to match the Devils.
The Rangers employed a five-man defense unit throughout the playoffs with either Stu Bickel or Steve Eminger getting off the bench for about 4-6 minutes of ice time per game. While Tortorella shied away from using his sixth defenseman, Devils coach Peter DeBoer was willing to throw Peter Harrold on the ice for about 14 minutes per game.
The Devils' top players outperformed the Rangers' top players, and that includes between the pipes too. It all translated into a six-game victory for the Devils that could've been a sweep if not for Lundqvist in Games 1 and 3.