Almost 20 thousand in attendance, or at least those who had stayed for the full 60 minutes, booed as the Rangers left the ice for what seemed like the last time until a fresh season almost six months away. After being shut out by the Penguins in consecutive games the blueshirts had fallen into a 3-1 hole with a home loss that was far worse than the 4-2 final score. Three weeks, seven wins and more than 540 minutes of hockey later, the New York Rangers are the Eastern Conference Champions and headed to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in two decades.
For the Rangers, making the important leap from perpetual playoff presence to cup contender was no easy feat but was exactly what transpired in finishing off the Montreal Canadiens in 6-games, the first series this playoffs that the Rangers have ended ahead of schedule. The task ahead is not for the faint of heart as two former cup champions battle out west. Before examining that matchup, it is worth looking back on what got the Rangers past the Habs in a grueling original six matchup.
Another Days Work for The King:
During the post game celebrations in the Rangers locker room and the presentation of the Broadway Hat, it is almost a tradition for the previous recepient to mention how Henrik Lundqvist could get the nod as the teams most valuable player just about every night. This was the case once again in the Eastern Conference Finals where King Henrik managed to pitch a shutout in a game 6 situation which felt like a must win with the looming threat of returning to the Bell Centre for a game 7. 200 feet away from Lundqvist was Dustin Tokarski, a 24-year-old who was in the midst of his first NHL playoff games and was nothing short of impressive though his team did not prevail. En route to his first Stanley Cup finals berth, Lundqvist broke the third significant Rangers goaltending record this season becoming the winningest playoff goalie in franchise history with 42 wins. It will take 46 wins to add a Stanley Cup to his already stellar resume. This top-notch performance came after being pulled in the playoffs for the second time this year in game 5. His struggling play did not carry over at all and Lundqvist displayed mental strength to will his team to a narrow 1-0 lead which included a mind blowing save with the blocker, providing a “remember that save” moment when later in the period Dominic Moore scored what would become the game winning goal.
Vigneault’s Top Four Lines:
In the Canadiens series, as well as the previous two, the Rangers were able to outlast opponents by shying away from the old model of having a top line play top minutes and continue in descending order to the checking line. Instead, the first year coach of the Rangers has gotten production out of all four units and the most productive line has shifted on a nightly basis. This was never more evident than game 6 when the only goal of the game was scored by the Rangers checking line. Rolling all four lines with confidence and watching them outperform opponents has been the calling card of Alain Vigneault’s first playoff run behind the Rangers bench. The extraordinary depth has also provided the biggest advantage for the Rangers this postseason and could very well be the reason they spend the summer with Lord Stanley. For now, the Rangers ability to use all four lines in just about any situation has been the x-factor in their success in late April and May. With injuries keeping Brassard and Stepan out for games this series, the Rangers relied on stalwart veteran Dominic Moore to fill the roles directly in an effort to not disturb the chemistry in the other units. Now, at full strength for the time being, the blueshirts will look to keep this unpredictable reliability of rolling four deep with success going into the finals.
Defense Wins Championships:
The Rangers unsung heroes have been the men on the blue line who have been among the top units all season but elevated their game to another level against the Canadiens. Led by likely future captain, Ryan McDonagh, this unit has earned recognition and praise from the hockey world as they shine on the largest stage thus far. Marc Staal has become a lock down defenseman who nearly never makes a mistake. Dan Girardi has provided a perfect combination with Ryan McDonagh as a defensive minded veteran who is a phenomonal shot blocker and has a high hockey IQ. The rest of the Rangers defensive corps have come together through trade, waivers and free agency to fill out a formidable unit. Klein will never be the superstar Martin St. Louis has become but is a valuable piece added to the puzzle by Glen Sather mid season. Anton Stralman has become adept at pinching just at the right time and was a steal off the waiver wire last season. John Moore has been productive along with Brassard and Dorsett, allowing the trade for Gaborik to seem like a smart move despite Gabby’s recent playoff renaissance. Raphael Diaz has a been a great flex option as the seventh defenseman and will see important game one minutes after the suspension to John Moore. This unit will likely need to lead the way in the next series as they have all playoffs as some of the top offensive players in the league await next round.
In the immortal words of Howie Rose, “The Rangers have one more hill to climb.” For now, whether that hill features Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews or Jonathan Quick and Anze Kopitar is uncertain. Regardless of who is up next, it is sure to the be the Rangers’ toughest matchup this year. But then again, the Rangers have been underdogs in the last two series and that has not stopped them from making it this far.