The Blueshirts may be feeling pain now, but there is a lot to be proud of this season.
The New York Rangers saw their season come to an end Friday night when they lost in double overtime to the Los Angeles Kings in Game Five on the Stanley Cup Final to lose the series 4-1. Many might look back on the series and consider it a disappointment, but this Rangers team accomplished a great deal more this season than was expected.
After a five game elimination in the Eastern Conference Semifinals to the Boston Bruins last season, the Rangers decided to part ways with head coach John Tortorella and bring in Alain Vigneault of the Vancouver Canucks. The coaches are literally complete opposites. Tortorella is a defensive minded coach, not to mention he isn’t afraid to say what he feels to his players or the media. Vigneault, on the other hand, was much more offensive minded and much less vocal than Tortorella. Scoring had been a big problem for New York for years, particularly the power play, so the thought was that a more offensive minded coach in Vigneault could be the change the team needed to be a Stanley Cup contender.
As for the team itself, not much changed in the offseason. The core of Ryan Callahan, Brad Richards, Rick Nash, Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal and of course, Henrik Lundqvist was still there, with small offseason signings like Benoit Pouliot and Dominic Moore filling in third and fourth line holes and the resigning of Mats Zuccarello after playing much of the previous season in the KHL before returning to New York.
So with that in mind, Vigneault had to implement his more offensive system into players who had drilled in their heads to play defense first and block shots for years. The first way Vigneault did that, ironically enough, was by implementing a new defensive system. Instead of playing a zone defense that they did for Tortorella, Vigneault called on the Rangers defenseman to much more man on man. The thinking there is that instead of going down to block shots, which kept the Rangers in the defensive end more often than not, if they played man to man well they would be able to steal the puck away and quickly transition in an offensive attack on the other side of the ice. It was a system that utilized the Rangers’ speed from players like Carl Hagelin and Chris Kreider and their stout defense in order to create a transition, counter attack-type offense. If they were able to score more goals and Lundqvist played just as well as he always did between the pipes, the team would be in great shape.
While on paper this system seemed like a great idea, it did not exactly sync up well from the get go. In fact, it was probably one of the most nightmarish starts a new head coach could have with a team. Because Madison Square Garden was undergoing the final year of a three-year renovation project, New York needed to start the year on a nine-game road trip, tied for the longest in NHL history. This started the Rangers out West against some of the best teams in the Western Conference, which did not bode well for the Blueshirts at all.
The Rangers defense had a hard time adjusting to the man to man defense Vigneault wanted them to play, which lead to a 1-3 record to start the season, two in which they lost 9-2 to the San Jose Sharks and 6-0 to the Anaheim Ducks. It didn’t get much better as they headed East, either. The team started the year 3-6, losing to division rivals in the New Jersey Devils, Philadelphia Flyers and Washington Capitals. And while their defense was improving a bit, the offense was nowhere to be found. The lines were in a bit of flux due to some early season injuries, and players were unable to get into a rhythm of consistent scoring.
Early on, it appeared the Rangers sacrificed solid defense for a similar offense and were getting worse results. Backup goalie Martin Biron actually ended up retiring after a rough start to the season, bringing up goalie Cam Talbot, who up to that point had no NHL experience. Ranger fans, who as New York fans always expect instant gratification, were getting restless to say the least. Forget making the playoffs, the way they were playing a .500 record seemed out of reach.
But as the Rangers returned home, things started to turn around. The Rangers improved their defense, had a much more consistent offensive attack and had fabulous goaltending from Lundqvist and rookie Cam Talbot. It was almost hard to believe that a Rangers team that started off 3-6 on the road ended up with the best away record in the NHL at 25-14-2.
The Rangers ended up second in the Metropolitan Division by making all four lines available in every game, something that was uncommon with Tortorella, and having huge role players like Zuccarello, Dominic Moore and Pouliot coming up big throughout the year. In fact, the line of Zuccarello, Derick Brassard and Pouliot was one of the most consistent throughout the year and the fourth line led by Moore with Boyle and Dorsett also provided a spark for the team. New York’s power play was in the top ten for the first time in years at one point during the season and their goals against average per game and penalty kill were top ten in the league thanks in large part to their fabulous defense and their goaltenders Lundqvist and Talbot.
But changes were made during the season to this Rangers team, drastic changes. It all started when the Rangers pick up Daniel Carcillo off of waivers from the Kings after Derek Dorsett went down with a long term injury. Not only did Carcillo fill his role well, he also scored the game winner for the Rangers in their Stadium Series game versus the Islanders at Yankee Stadium and came up clutch for the Rangers in their playoff run as well.
Another big move was shipping Michael Del Zotto to the Nashville Predators for defenseman Kevin Klein. A sound defenseman, Klein fit his third line defensive pair spot very well. He proved to be much more trustworthy than Del Zotto defensively, and had a pretty decent slap shot that picked him up a few points during the regular season.
But the biggest move of all came on deadline day, when the Rangers parted ways with captain Ryan Callahan and acquired Martin St. Louis from the Tampa Bay Lightning. With Callahan most likely leaving in the offseason, the Rangers went out and picked up a veteran in St. Louis who not only would provide leadership in the locker room in Callahan’s absence, but would provide an offensive spark with his former line mate Brad Richards. St. Louis only scored one goal in his short regular season with the Rangers, but had seven assists in his 19 games, showing that he was a valuable asset offensively.
If the Rangers season was surprising after their horrid start to the season, the playoffs were nothing short of a fairytale. The Rangers defeated the archrival Philadelphia Flyers in a hard fought seven game series that featured the classic win, loss, win, loss series that Ranger fans were used to throughout the last few years. The Rangers then took on the Penguins in the Eastern Conference Semifinal, but fell into a 3-1 series hole.
It seemed to be déjà vu of last year, but then the Rangers were hit with some terrible news. France St. Louis, the mother of Martin St. Louis, had passed away the day before Game 5 was played. St. Louis went home to be with his family, but returned to play with his team in Game 5. The Rangers were able to channel St. Louis’ emotion, and take the next three games of the series, with St. Louis scoring on Mother’s Day in Game 6, to stun the Penguins.
The Rangers then played the Montreal Canadiens in the Eastern Conference Finals, stunning them by taking the first two games on the road in Montreal, a place where they and Henrik Lundqvist had struggled for years. The Rangers ended up winning the series in six games to advance to the Stanley Cup Final. Even though the Rangers ended up losing in the Cup Final in five games to the Kings, two were in double overtime and one was in overtime. A few bounces go the Rangers way and it is a completely different series.
But even with a loss in the Cup Final, this team should not hang their heads. With a first year head coach and having traded their captain in the middle of the season, the Rangers were able to reach a place they hadn’t been in 20 years: the Stanley Cup Final. People thought the 2011-12 run to the Eastern Conference Finals was special, but this Rangers team blew that season out of the water.
From the heartfelt story of Dominic Moore returning to the NHL after taking a year off to mourn his deceased wife, Katie, to the retiring of Biron and the emergence of Talbot as a formidable backup goaltender, to the emotional roller coaster St. Louis had during the Eastern Conference Semifinals and beyond, the 2013-14 New York Rangers were a very special team.
The Rangers have a great deal to think about this offseason. With five restricted free agents (including Brassard, Kreider and Zuccarello) and six unrestricted free agents (including Pouliot, Dominic Moore, Brain Boyle and Anton Stralman) on the roster and a compliance buyout they plan to utilize to clear up some cap space, this Rangers team could look very different come October. The 2011-12 team was broken up after their run and it did not end up panning out next season. If I were Glen Sather, I wouldn’t do the same to this team. The resiliency, heart and passion they showed throughout the season and the playoffs was admirable, and the Rangers should look to resign as many of these free agents as possible in order to keep the chemistry on the team and try and make it back to the Cup Final once again.
Only time will tell if this year is a sign of things to come for this Rangers team. But if you ask me, the future is bright and the sky is the limit for the Blueshirts. Rangerstown might be sad now, but they should feel very confident going forward.