Here’s my story from The Journal News and LoHud.com today:
By Rick Carpiniello
Where the Rangers were on Friday night — in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final, a goal away from Game 7, in Game 20 of these playoffs, after winning more games (61) than any other NHL team in the regular season and playoffs combined — was remarkable.
It was remarkable considering the youth and inexperience of the Rangers, considering the difficulty they’ve had scoring goals, considering where they would realistically have been projected to finish.
This Rangers team, building toward something that should last a long time, and doing it the right way with a philosophy that emphasizes mostly home-grown talent, probably arrived a year or two earlier than expected. Certainly, the 51 regular-season wins, the No. 1 seed in the East, and being in the hunt for the Presidents’ Trophy on the final weekend of the season were surprises.
All of that was organizational nutrition — seed and fertilizer and water.
But then comes some slap, cold as the Winter Classic.
The reality of the Rangers’ ultimate fall, after surviving two difficult seven-game series and being outplayed, out-executed, by a surging Devils team for most of the third round, is this:
It will be more difficult to do it again. It will be considerably less likely that the Rangers can duplicate their regular season, and quite a formidable challenge to reach the third round of the playoffs again, never mind win it and then win one more round.
That’s not to say the Rangers couldn’t finish in the fifth or sixth seed next year and still have the same success, just as it certainly isn’t impossible for them to be first-round victims — as the Presidents’ Trophy Vancouver Canucks, the defending champion Boston Bruins, and the odds-on favorite Pittsburgh Penguins all found out in 2012.
There are no guarantees based on what happened from October in Europe through late May in Newark. None.
Doing it again is an enormous gauntlet.
That all said, the Rangers sure did loads of great things in 2011-12, and the experience will be invaluable.
“We played 20 playoff games,” Rangers coach John Tortorella said. “We played a couple of Game 7s. We’ve been in situations where we’ve had to scramble to win a series. Me personally, I’ve found — I thought there were some really good things, with some players and how they handled themselves, and I think there were some struggles with some other ones. And these are the evaluations you go through as you gain experience. We’re still a young club. And we still have quite a bit to learn as far as the desperation when you get to this third round.
“I just don’t want us — and you hear it so much and I won’t accept it — you won a couple of rounds, you get into the third round. That isn’t good enough. We still have to find a way to win another round, to get there. I just don’t want this organization to sit still and say, because (previously acceptable) was barely getting in the playoffs, losing in the first round, maybe getting to the second round. We have to change our mind-set to continue trying to be the best, and learn that there’s a lot more hockey to play after you go through a couple.”
So the postseason evaluations begin. What to make of Marian Gaborik’s single goal in the series? Is Carl Hagelin, who had zero points, a first-line player? What about the inconsistency of Michael Del Zotto and Derek Stepan? Do the third and fourth lines need more guys who can chip in, like the Devils’ bottom six forwards did? What to make of the year-long struggle on the power play? What to make of Brad Richards’ up-and-down year? Is Chris Kreider enough of a sure thing that they don’t have to spend crazy money on a Zach Parise or Rick Nash?
“It wasn’t five games,” Tortorella said. “We played a lot of playoff hockey. It was a lot of momentum swings, surges, and the best thing is you need to experience those. We didn’t finish the way we wanted to. But some guys handled it very well, some guys didn’t. I’ll be very honest with you, some guys didn’t. And those are the things we have to talk about as an organization if we’re going to continue to try to get better.
“Some really good stuff, but there’s also some things that worry me, and I’m just being totally honest with you.”
They were so close. Starting Saturday, they were so far.