Not even eleven months ago, the New York Rangers were two wins away from the Stanley Cup Final. After commanding victories over the two-time defending champions Tampa Bay Lightning, Rangers hockey was at its peak.
Then, it all went downhill.
New York proceeded to lose four games in a row and Tampa Bay advanced to their third straight Stanley Cup Final. As for the Rangers, they entered the next season with soaring expectations. Some picked them to win the Metropolitan Division, some the Eastern Conference, and some the Stanley Cup.
That dream season ended Monday night to a New Jersey Devils team people thought was a year or two away from competing. For the Rangers, it leads them into an offseason full of personnel and coaching questions along with the movement of money as the team tries to fill its roster with a small amount of money.
But what went wrong?
Throughout the season, even through the ups, there were flaws and inconsistencies among this group. In the four losses against the Devils, all negatives came to the surface.
The Rangers started the season inconsistent, and they hit a low point in December when the bottom-feeding Chicago Blackhawks walked into Madison Square Garden and humiliated them. Jacob Trouba laid out Andreas Athanasiou and it changed the Rangers’ season.
From December on, things were on the up for the Rangers. After the Blackhawks game, New York went on a seven-game winning streak, including blowing out the Vegas Golden Knights, beating the Colorado Avalanche in a shootout, and demolishing the Blackhawks (who delivered New York its low point) 7-1.
Things seemed to only get better, then New York made its first splash: Vladimir Tarasenko. When the winger scored less than three minutes into his first game with the team, it felt like magic. Tarasenko had 21 points (8 goals, 13 assists) in 31 games in New York, and he brought a presence to the locker room that the team needed.
The Rangers reached a pinnacle in late February when Patrick Kane came to town. The asking price from Chicago became too low to resist, and Chris Drury brought Showtime to New York. Kane had a tumultuous span with the Rangers, with the best moment coming in Game Two against the Devils.
Along with acquisitions Niko Mikkola and Tyler Motte, the Rangers looked like a team ready to compete for the cup. They were two wins away last season and only improved.
Then again, they never had the real pieces to win.
On paper was the most talented Rangers team in the past decade, or you can even argue two. With the core of Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider, Adam Fox, Vincent Trocheck, and more, combined with the arrivals of Tarasenko and Kane, the Rangers had a roster that no other team could say they had. But, it lacked the physicality needed to compete.
Tarasenko and Kane have never been two-way forwards, and it became evident in New York’s first-round series. In particular, Kane struggled after Game Two and brought little to no help on defense. This is where these two differed from the forward acquisitions last season in Frank Vatrano and Andrew Copp: the ability to get back and use physicality to win.
In the last month of the season, New York became a stronger defensive team, and after Game Three, this went away. The Devils walked all over New York at times, whether periodically during Game Four or Six at Madison Square Garden or Game Five or Seven, the message was clear: the Rangers did not have the defensive acumen to stop New Jersey.
Lastly, why did the Rangers fall? The answer is this – the same reason they were expected to contend for the Stanley Cup; their stars. It’s obvious that New York is one of the most talented teams in the league, and after bringing in Kane and Tarasenko, an argument could be made that they boasted the most offensive firepower in the league.
But, the offense did not show up in four out of the seven games. After going up 2-0 in the series, the Rangers scored a singular goal in both of their games at Madison Square Garden, and in the two games at Prudential Center, both with the series tied, the Rangers were shut out by a goalie who had zero playoff experience before this year.
Aside from Kreider, the Rangers’ stars were nowhere to be found. Zibanejad did not score until Game Six, Panarin did not score a single goal, Trocheck had his lone goal in Game Four, and Kane was up and down. Moreover, as the series went on, Devils’ coach Lindy Ruff put more emphasis on Adam Fox, and he continued to struggle. Fox made the key turnover in Game Seven, allowing New Jersey to strike first shorthanded.
The Rangers’ stars were the reason they lost this series. They did not show up when it mattered most and it led to a devastating collapse.
For Rangers fans, it is going to hurt for a while. This was one of the most talented Rangers teams, and losing in seven games to an arch-rival, especially when winning the first two on the road, will not go away lightly. Pile that with the fact that New York was two wins away from the Stanley Cup Final the year before, it stings even more.
What next? First, a longer offseason than Rangers fans are used to. The Blueshirts were destined for a run, but the pieces did not deliver.