The New York Rangers added another page to their long history on May 13, 2014 with a 2-1 game 7 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins in round 2 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The win capped one of the most improbable comebacks in recent memory, and marked the first time a Rangers team has ever won a playoff series after falling behind three games to one. This series has everyone asking, “How did they do it?” Indeed, how did the Rangers come back against one of the most powerful offensive teams in the NHL and win three straight games? Let’s take a closer look and see what we can uncover.
Pushed to the Brink
The series started with a bang for the Rangers. Fresh off a game 7 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers, they stormed into Pittsburgh and rode a strong first period to a 3-2 overtime win. This game, though, was really less about the Rangers dominating and more about the Penguins failing to show up. The Penguins did more than just show up for the following games, though–they manhandled the Rangers en route to back-to-back shutout victories in games 2 and 3. The Rangers desperately needed a solid performance in game 4 to avoid falling behind three games to one. Instead, they responded with their worst overall game of the entire series. Their play in game 4 was listless, disjointed and uninspired. Their recent schedule (containing a stretch of 5 games in 7 days) seemed to have caught up to them. They looked every bit like a tired and defeated team resigned to an inevitable playoff exit.
It’s hard to fathom exactly how bad things looked for the Blueshirts at this point. Their power play was 0-for-15 during the series’ first 4 games, with a longer 0-for-36 drought extending back through game 2 of their first round series against the Flyers. Even worse, they had allowed a short-handed goal and multiple “jack-in-the-box” goals (where the Penguin exiting the penalty box immediately scored, usually on a breakaway). The Rangers’ power play was more of a liability than an advantage, and you can see that in the replay of Brandon Sutter’s shorthanded goal from game 4. This was rock bottom for the Blueshirts’ PP:
There has not, in the history of hockey, ever been a worse zone entry attempt on the PP than what the #Rangers just did.
— Joshua Smith (@joshsmith29) May 8, 2014
This was not an isolated event, either–games 2 through 4 were littered with plays just as bad for the Rangers. So how was a team that was that flustered able to right their ship enough to turn a seemingly insurmountable 3-1 series deficit into a win?
Rangers Rally Around St. Louis
On May 8, the day after game 4, Martin St. Louis received some truly awful news: his mother, France, had passed away from a heart attack at the age of 63. St. Louis immediately flew back home to Montreal to be with his family, and hockey was suddenly much less important.
After talking through the situation with his family, Marty decided that he would return to Pittsburgh and play in game 5.
“Him and his dad both agreed that his mom would want him to be here, and that’s what he did,” shared [Rangers coach Alain] Vigneault. “We had a good talk last night, and at the end of the day my message to him was there are more important things than hockey and you have to do what is right, you have to take care of your dad; but they got up this morning, they talked, and they sorted it out, and he’s here.”
Fueled by emotion and desperation, the Rangers turned in their best game of the series that night, and won 5-1, led by Derick Brassard’s two goals. Even their power play was a weapon again, as they scored on two out of three PP chances. After the game, Marc Staal presented the Broadway Hat to St. Louis.
The Rangers Comeback Continues
The Rangers’ emotion carried through to game 6 as well, but the team was now playing a much more complete game. Anyone who has played competitive sports can tell you that emotions have a shelf life–they can provide a short-term boost, but in order to maintain momentum over the long run, a team needs something more. The Rangers provided that in game 6. The emotion was obvious–the game was played on Mother’s Day, and Martin St. Louis’ family was in attendance. He also scored the game’s first goal, but the Rangers were able to carry the game from there. Henrik Lundqvist continued his streak of turning in huge performances in elimination games, turning aside 36 out of 37 Penguin shots to secure a 3-1 victory and send the series back to Pittsburgh for a game 7. Now the Penguins looked like the rattled team, and the Rangers looked focused and disciplined. Could that trend continue for another game?
The final game of the series featured back-and-forth action nearly from start to finish. Brian Boyle struck first for the Rangers, finishing a 3-on-2 rush by sliding the puck deftly through the 5-hole of Pens goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. In the second period, the Penguins answered, as Jussi Jokinen pounced on a long rebound and drove it past Lundqvist. That would be the only puck to find its way to the back of the Rangers’ net, though. The Rangers would add one more goal in the final period–from Brad Richards, and on the power play, of all things. From there, “King” Henrik Lundqvist carried the play and dragged the Rangers to victory nearly single-handedly. He was able to turn aside everything else the Pens threw at him, including a flurry in the game’s final minutes that saw him making multiple highlight reel saves, at times without the benefit of a stick. After what seemed like an eternity of relentless Penguin offensive pressure, the final horn sounded and the Rangers comeback was complete.
How Did They Do it?
So the question remains: how did the Rangers comeback happen? The easy answer is that the tragedy of Martin St. Louis’ mother’s death brought this team together and fueled them to fight for each other. While it’s certainly a part of the story, it’s by no means the entire story. Here’s the breakdown of the “perfect storm” that led to the Rangers comeback:
- Tragedy Into Triumph: Without a doubt, the personal tragedy suffered by Marty St. Louis was felt by every member of the Rangers. Even though he had only been a member of the team for two months (he was acquired at the March 5 trade deadline for then-captain Ryan Callahan), St. Louis’ decision to rejoin them and fight with his new teammates sent a strong message to everyone. They responded and became more like a family than a team as the series went on.
- The Pittsburgh Penguins: It may be hard for Rangers fans to hear, but this comeback doesn’t happen if the Rangers are playing the Boston Bruins or the Chicago Blackhawks. The Penguins simply did not have the “killer instinct” to put this series away while they were ahead. Coach Dan Bylsma also relied too heavily on Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and it was obvious that they were worn down by the time the series ended. Ironically, the Penguin who was the biggest question mark heading into the series–goalie Marc-Andre Fleury–was one of the most solid.
- The Return of Chris Kreider: Make no mistake, the Rangers sorely missed Chris Kreider. The rookie LW had been sidelined for over a month with a broken hand, and made his return in game 4. It’s no coincidence that Kreider scored the Rangers first power play goal in 36 attempts. His return to the first line gave the Rangers a fresh pair of legs when they most needed them. Kreider’s combination of speed and power is an integral part of the Rangers’ high tempo attack, and his value to the team cannot be overstated. While he was certainly not the only part to the Rangers comeback, he definitely played a major role.
- King Henrik: Simply put, Henrik Lundqvist stole this series for the New York Rangers. The Rangers were heavily outshot in games 6 and 7, and no Ranger stood taller in those two games than Lundqvist. With their season on the line, Lundqvist shut the door time and time again. Over the Rangers last 12 elimination games, his record is 10-2 with a GAA of 1.32 and a .957 save percentage. He was at his absolute best in the final five minutes of game 7, stopping wave after wave of Pittsburgh shots to seal his 5th consecutive game 7 win. No goalie in NHL history had done that before.
Put all that together, and you’re left with a Rangers comeback that ranks among the best in franchise history. But there’s no time to sit back and savor it right now–especially since they’re only halfway to the ultimate goal of winning the Stanley Cup.