Sat 26 May 2012
There will be no repeat of the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals. The fourth time proved to be the downfall of the New York Rangers after they staved off elimination games three previous times. The Rangers descent into playoff abyss was, once again, keyed by their inability to get off to a good start, never mind a great start.
What was the Rangers problem during the first periods of the last two games? Were they not ready for the Devils onslaught or was it a case of the Devils just executing their game plan better than the Rangers?
“No, we know they’re coming. Give them some credit. T hey did it through the whole Playoffs. And they’re a pretty good hockey club. They’re a balanced team. And they were a pretty good team,” Rangers coach John Tortorella explained.
“So we talk about it. We try to get our footing. We struggled a little bit there.”
The easiest, and most simplistic, answer to the Devils big starts in the first period come down to New Jersey playing opportunistic hockey – and that is no knock against them. The Devils seemed to be able to make the Rangers pay for every mistake they made.
The beginning of the end of the Rangers season occurred midway through the first period as the Devils fourth line again proved to be a thorn in the side of the Blueshirts. New Jersey capitalized on Marc Staal’s inability to keep the puck in at the left point.
Ryan Carter eventually converted on the Devils three-on-one rush as New Jersey’s fourth struck for its ninth goal of the playoffs. The most disconcerting thing on the goal was not Staal getting caught flat-footed because he hustled back. The problem was the three Rangers forwards who did not bust it to try and cover/recover on the play.
The Rangers faced a steep uphill climb because the team that scored the first goal in the Rangers previous 13 games won the game. Carter’s goal would eventually stretch that streak to 14 games.
Less than four minutes later that uphill climb got even steeper when Ilya Kovalchuk converted on just the third Devils power play goal of the series. The goal featured undisciplined play all around – from Ruslan Fedotenko taking a tripping penalty in the offensive zone to the Rangers penalty killers who got caught with poor ice balance and defensive zone coverage as they broke their penalty killing box while chasing the puck.
Just like Game 5, the Rangers opened the second period with a renewed purpose and a sense of urgency that was missing in the first period. If there is going to be one lingering question that needs to be answered during the summer it is that – why did the Rangers have to spot the Devils a couple of goals and about 20 minutes of play before playing their game?
Part of the answer might stem from the Rangers fatigue. I know that Tortorella and the players would not buy into the Rangers being a tired team. Physically, they were probably no more tired than the devils or any other team that has to slog their way through the marathon that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
However, there has to be a mental fatigue that comes into play – especially the way the Rangers playoff games have been going. Because of the Rangers inconsistent offense, every game becomes three periods of overtime hockey.
I don’t care how much talent a team has, I don’t care how many battle-tested players you have, and I don’t care how physically fit a team is, playing each period as if it was sudden death is going to take a lot out of a team – and might explain the Rangers tentative starts.
Visions of 1994 started dancing in the minds of the Rangers faithful as they erased the two goal deficit in less than four minutes midway through the second period.
The Rangers first goal showed that the Blueshirts underutilized attacking plays from behind the net on Martin Brodeur as Ruslan Fedotenko converted on a pass from behind the net from Ryan McDonagh.
Ryan Callahan knotted the game as the Rangers used some old-fashioned hockey sense. The Blueshirts won a faceoff to the right of Brodeur, moved the puck quickly, and converted when Dan Girardi’s shot deflected in off Callahan’s leg.
For those keeping score, the 2012 Rangers (like the 1994 Rangers) erased a Devils 2-0 lead on goals from a Russian player (Fedotenko and Alexei Kovalev in 1994) and their captain (Callahan and Mark Messier in 1994). Sadly for the Rangers and their fans, that would be the last link to their 1994 comeback.
The most overlooked part of the Rangers comebacks in the last two games is one that is to overlook, but is a critical point that needs to be made. It was imperative that the Rangers not only tie the score, but they needed to get ahead. Teams expend so much energy trying to get back into the game they need a lead in order to combat the inevitable lull that comes after the comeback.
This idea is more prevalent in basketball where big lead swings happen with regularity, but is still valid when you look at the Rangers – especially in Game 5 when they did level out after drawing even.
The Rangers nearly did take that lead midway through the third period while on a power play that nearly became a five-on-three, but the officials ruled that they Devils did not shoot the puck directly into the crowd.
As it was, the Rangers had Game 6 on the stick of Brad Richards who was unable to elevate his rebound shot with 9:15 remaining in regulation.
The Rangers continued to press the action at the start of overtime and caused a scramble in front of Brodeur. Unfortunately, the ensuing scramble at the other end of the ice on the next rush would end the Rangers season as Adam Henrique etched his name next to that of Stephan Matteau.
In addition to scoring the goal that sends the New Jersey Devils to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since 2003, it was Henrique who scored the double overtime goal in Game 7 against the Florida Panthers.
While it comes to no comfort to the Rangers or their fans, Devils coach Peter DeBoer recognized just how tough the Devils final step to the Stanley Cup was.
“First, credit to the New York Rangers. For me, from day one of the season through to the end of the Playoffs here, for them, the hardest working team I think in the NHL. And they gave us everything we could handle,” DeBoer admitted. “It was the same story every night. We’d win the first period; they’d win the second. Whoever won the third or the overtime would win the game.”