The New York Rangers headed into their first-round playoff matchup against the Pittsburgh Penguins as heavy favorites, and that seemed logical. After all, the Rangers had been consistently elite in the regular season since early December, en route to capturing the Presidents’ Trophy. The Penguins, on the other hand, struggled mightily down the stretch and almost missed the playoffs altogether. They then entered the postseason with a ravaged defense corps, as Kris Letang, Christian Ehrhoff, Olli Maata, and Derrick Pouliot were (and through the weekend, still are) all out of the lineup with injuries.
So everything seemed to be in place for the Rangers to make quick work of Pittsburgh. But of course, we now stand at a 1-1 series, because the Rangers and “quick work” simply don’t go together in the postseason.
The Curse of Game 2
In general, the Rangers seem to play better when the game at hand is more important. This isn’t particularly earth-shattering for any team, as human nature comes into play. More desperation typically leads to greater hustle, emotion, and willingness to battle. But the trend of not bringing it in playoff games where they lead the series is particularly bad with the Rangers.
How bad? Well, the Blueshirts have to look back to their championship year of 1994 for the last time they won a home Game 2, as well as the last time they won the first two games of a playoff series at home.
#Rangers have not won a Game 2 at home since the 1994 SCF. The last time they won first two games of a series at home was ECSF in ’94.
— Seth Rothman (@RothmanHockey) April 19, 2015
That’s 21 years. 21 years since a home-ice, Game 2 victory. 21 years since a 2-0 series lead as the team with home-ice advantage. Sure, we always hear the canned “We knew this wasn’t going to be easy” quotes, but the fact is the Rangers could make things a lot easier on themselves if they simply came out as hard in Game 2 as the typically do in Game 1.
After a disappointing 4-3 loss in Game 2 against Pittsburgh on Saturday, the most troubling takeaway was that the Rangers did not lose because of bad breaks. They lost because they were outplayed.
“We didn’t spend enough time in their zone like we did in the first game,” said captain Ryan McDonagh after the game. “We weren’t as sharp with the puck coming out of our zone. They were a lot more aggressive and it took us a while to find our strength of using our legs.”
There is simply no excuse for the bold portion above. It’s one thing if mistakes are made or a bad break goes against a team. It’s another to have an inferior team — even one that has Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin — play more aggressively and show more desire, and for the other team to not be able to play to its strengths in a home playoff match. But this is a predictable trend to which the Rangers have fallen victim too often.
The History Actually Gets Worse
Not only do the Rangers have this 21-year streak of not winning a Game 2 at home, but they also just recently had an awful stretch of losing in any situation where they had a chance to really put a stranglehold on a playoff series.
Prior to winning Game 2 at the Bell Centre against Montreal in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals to take a 2-0 series lead, New York had lost an astounding 13 straight games when leading in a playoff series. (On a side note, there is so much irony in the fact that this dubious streak was broken in a building where the Rangers have struggled so much over the years.)
Those 13 losses were as follows:
- 2014 Metropolitan Division Finals: Lost Game 2 at Pittsburgh to tie series at 1-1
- 2014 Metropolitan Division Semifinals: Lost Game 6 at Philadelphia to tie series at 3-3
- 2014 Metropolitan Division Semifinals: Lost Game 4 at Philadelphia to tie series at 2-2
- 2014 Metropolitan Division Semifinals: Lost Game 2 at home vs. Philadelphia to tie series at 1-1
- 2012 Eastern Conference Finals: Lost Game 4 at New Jersey to tie series at 2-2
- 2012 Eastern Conference Finals: Lost Game 2 at home vs. New Jersey to tie series at 1-1
- 2012 Eastern Conference Semifinals: Lost Game 6 at Washington to tie series at 3-3
- 2012 Eastern Conference Semifinals: Lost Game 4 at Washington to tie series at 2-2
- 2012 Eastern Conference Semifinals: Lost Game 2 at home vs. Washington to tie series at 1-1
- 2012 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals: Lost Game 4 at Ottawa to tie series at 2-2
- 2012 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals: Lost Game 2 at home vs. Ottawa to tie series at 1-1
- 2009 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals: Lost Game 6 at home vs. Washington to tie series at 3-3
- 2009 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals: Lost Game 5 at Washington to cut series lead to 3-2
After New York defeated the Capitals in a hard-fought Game 7 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Semifinals, then-Ranger Brad Richards said in a post-game interview, regarding the game’s tense finish, “…it was just kind of the way we do things. We never make it easy.” That clearly continued last season and has held true early in this postseason in Richards’ absence.
Luckily for the Rangers, they are good in Game 1s, having won four of their past five such playoff contests. And they are also good in Game 7s, with wins in each of their past five. They could, however, avoid such difficult scenarios if they took care of business early.
With their series against Pittsburgh now tied, the Rangers will likely play a strong game in Game 3. The concern, though, is how they will play if they are ahead in this series or in any later series again.