Two weeks later, most hockey fans (especially Rangers fans) need no reminder of what transpired in the Stanley Cup Finals but nonetheless, here is a short recap:
After an inspired playoff run that saw two game seven victories, a comeback from down 3-1, an unparalleled display of resilience from Martin St. Louis and some of the most awe-inspiring hockey of Henrik Lundqvist’s career the Rangers fell short in five games to the Los Angeles Kings. Entering the series, analysts gave the Rangers little chance to triumph over the LA Kings and their championship pedigree. Though the blueshirts did look over matched at points during the series, it is worth noting that this underdog who wasn’t given respect throughout the lead up to the playoffs and during their magical run held their own for much of the series. The Kings were let off the hook in the first two games of the series when the Rangers blew consecutive 2-0 leads on the road. When the series ended on an overtime rebound goal from Alec Martinez, it was the third overtime game of the series, all of which resulted in Kings victories. Overtime is typically a glorified coin toss and for the Rangers to lose all three was only an embodiment of the fact that the puck seemed to bounce for the Kings all series. This is not to take away from the Kings, they did not only have the puck bouncing their way but are always in the conversation for the most talented team in the league and have one of few goalies in the league who can measure up to Lundqvist in Jonathan Quick.
The most identifiable advantage for the Kings over the Rangers was experience. The Kings seemed to be unperturbed by playing from behind and playing with the spotlight of the finals both at home and away. It is easy to identify why they carried themselves this way when you look at the overwhelming amount of playoff and finals hockey that this veteran team has played. For the Rangers, blowing those leads and being unable to pull out at least one overtime win was a clear sign of inexperience with the high competitive level of Stanley Cup Finals hockey as well as fatigue from never having played this deep into the year. The catch 22 about this situation is in order for the Rangers to get the experience needed to win they had to go through this heart wrenching series loss after a captivating run to the finals.
Now that the Rangers have gotten the sense of what that depth of the playoffs feels like, it will help them going forward with a team full of budding talents and several years left of quality goaltending. Rather than reminiscing on what happened two weeks ago and acting like the legacy of this season can be shaped that quickly, lets take a hypothetical look at two possible outcomes of this year can be and what Rangers fans will think about when they look at the newest banner in Madison Square Garden which will say “Eastern Conference Champions 2013-14.” For the proper perspective on this years legacy, lets look back at it from the day that will likely be identified as a changing of the guard and in turn the end of this era of Rangers hockey, the day Henrik Lundqvist retires. The two scenarios to shape what this year means are whether or not they have won a cup.
If the Rangers Have Won a Cup
In this scenario, the Rangers have won a Stanley Cup after just falling short in 2013-14 and before the end of their days with Lundqvist in net. In the event of the cup returning to Madison Square Garden, this season’s disappointing result will likely be mentioned as a catalyst for the Rangers success in later years. Where the Rangers had been over matched largely due to inexperience against the Kings, they can use the experience to go in as a veteran finals group and build upon the experience of playing at hockey’s top stage. A cup win would likely cement Lundqvist as the greatest netminder in Rangers history and likely put him among the top 10 or 20 in NHL history. With the youthful age of players like Hagelin, Kreider, Stepan and McDonagh, a cup win can also make the let down from losing a unique talent like Lundqvist less severe. With a cup winning pedigree permeating the organizations staple players, it will be easier to use that culture to usher in another strong age of Rangers hockey. From a future perspective in which the Rangers have eventually made it to hockey’s pinnacle, this seasons final was a necessary evil as a learning experience and that extra training that shows a team what it takes to not only make it to the finals, but win the cup. When its all said and done, this year will be looked upon far more favorably if the players who fell just short of the top spot are able to capture it as a result of their close contact with the pain of defeat this year.
If the Rangers Haven’t Won a Cup
If the Rangers fail to win the cup within a reasonable amount of years following their finals defeat, it will likely be remembered negatively as a blown opportunity. Often sports fans refer to a window in which a team has to win and for now that window seems wide open for the Rangers after being the second to last team standing quite unexpectedly. Once they lose top notch goaltending, a hallmark of many champions including this years, it will likely signal the end of this window for a championship and if they have failed to capture it, fans may remember an even smaller window that was closed quite suddenly by Alec Martinez. The legacy of this team is tied to their goalie and while he played great in the playoffs, he had his weakest performance in the finals and was out dueled by Quick. This will always be an asterisk in his career if the monkey does not come off his back in the form of another shot at hockey’s ultimate prize. As much as this season legacy lives or dies by future successes so does Lundqvist’s. Without a Stanley Cup to follow this years fall out in the near future this finals will be looked back on as a swing and a miss where the blueshirts blew two multi-goal leads, failed to step up in crunch time and went 0 for- in sudden death scenarios.
It is not just Rangers fans but all sports fan who are fickle with their conclusions. That is why as of now this years ultimate legacy and what the banner that comes along with it will mean is still very much up in the air. If the loss leads to improvement, and most importantly results, then fans will fondly remember the year the Rangers came out of nowhere and made the jump from perennial series winner to serious cup contender. If they fail to capitalize on the momentum gained from this season, they, and Lundqvist, will be seen as a team that had their shot and blew it.