Making the Stanley Cup Playoffs for three consecutive years and winning a first-round series in two of them is a big jump for a team that had missed the postseason seven years running.
But for the New York Rangers
, this season's second-round loss to Pittsburgh showed that they've made minimal progress, at best, in their efforts to bring the Stanley Cup back to Madison Square Garden for the first time since 1994.
Unlike last spring, when the Rangers scared the Buffalo Sabres
in the second round before losing in six games, New York didn't make the big plays it needed to compete with the Penguins. After an easy five-game rout of New Jersey in the opening round, the Rangers took a 3-0 lead early in Game 1 at the Mellon Arena, only to see the Penguins rally for a 5-4 win — just the second time the Rangers had ever blown a three-goal lead in a postseason game.
The Rangers wound up losing to the Penguins in five games — and while many of their fans complained about the officiating, realistically, the Rangers weren't in the same League as the Pens, who went on to lose the Stanley Cup Final to Detroit in six games.
The Rangers finished fifth in the East with 97 points — exactly what they've averaged in the three seasons since play resumed after the work stoppage. But an improvement of three regular-season points and a one-game-faster departure from the second round is hardly what GM Glen Sather
and coach Tom Renney envisioned last summer, when the Rangers brought in free-agent centers Scot Gomez and Chris Drury
to bolster a team that had gone beyond the first round for the first time in 10 years.
Gomez had 16 goals and a team-leading 54 assists for 70 points, one behind club leader Jaromir Jagr
. Drury, coming off back-to-back 30-goal seasons for Buffalo, had 25 goals and 58 points, his lowest totals since 2003-04. He did lead the team with seven game-winners.
For 2008-09, the Rangers' biggest question is what Jagr will do. He's being courted by Russia's new league, which would love to make a splash with a big-name signing and can give him more money than he'll make in the NHL. Jagr is 36 and not the dynamic force he was a couple of years ago — his point total was his lowest in a full season since 1991-92 — but he's still the Rangers' best offensive player, as he showed by putting up 15 points in their 10 Playoff games.
The Rangers also have to decide what to do with Brendan Shanahan
and Sean Avery
. Shanahan turned 39 in January and appeared to have trouble keeping up with the speedy Penguins at times, though he was still a 23-goal scorer and a presence in the locker room. Avery, who plays with an edge (and sometimes crosses it), missed a third of the season with injuries but still had 15 goals and 33 points in 57 games, then had seven points in eight games before being sidelined with a ruptured spleen. His histrionics often hide the fact that he has speed and skill. Whether the Rangers are willing to make the investment in money and years that he wants is a big question — they were 19 games over .500 with him in the lineup.
The Rangers, who were infamous for years because of their willingness to pay big bucks to older players, are starting to develop their own talent. Brandon Dubinsky
had a solid first season, and both Ryan Callahan
and Nigel Dawes
showed they should be able to be contributors up front. Former first-round pick Mark Staal more than held his own in his first NHL season and should become an elite defensemen. Fedor Tyutin
and Dan Girardi
are two other good young defensemen.
In goal, the Rangers are set with Henrik Lundqvist
, who has gone from a throwaway seventh-round pick to one of the NHL's best netminders — he was a Vezina Trophy finalist again and tied for the League lead with 10 shutouts while posting 37 wins and a 2.23 goals-against average. Armed with a new, long-term contract, Lundqvist should give the Rangers solid goaltending for years to come.