By Steve Kallas
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So what happened to the New York Rangers? Did they take a step back this year? Well, coach John Tortorella says no, but the correct answer — from goalie Henrik Lundqvist — is yes.
HENRIK LUNDQVIST PLAYED GREAT
You can’t put a lot of blame on world-class goalie Lundqvist for the Rangers’ defeat in five games at the hands of the Boston Bruins. At times, even in losing efforts, he was brilliant. After a performance for the ages in Game 6 against the Washington Capitals (facing elimination) and a second consecutive shutout in Game 7, Lundqvist was great against the Bruins. He played out of his mind in Game 1 (a 3-2 loss in OT), in Game 3 (a 2-1 loss) and even in the ^ame 4 overtime win despite surrendering three goals.
At times, Lundqvist looked like he was the target in a shooting gallery, reminding old-time Rangers fans of poor Gump Worsley, who often seemed shell-shocked playing goalie for the Rangers in the 1950s and early 1960s (before becoming a four-time Stanley Cup champion and Hall of Famer with Montreal). It says here that the Bruins could have scored almost twice as many goals as they did in the five games if not for the great play of King Henrik.
SO WHO CAN YOU BLAME?
Well, there’s plenty of blame to go around.
“Some of the responsibility falls on me,” Tortorella said after the defeat. “It’s a big part of my job to get your top players to play consistently, and I couldn’t do that. We tried, and so I need to take some responsibility and try to get them in those spots to help us here. I thought that hurt us a little bit.”
The problem with being an offensive player on the Rangers is this: It seems like many of them are looking over their shoulders and playing scared, afraid to make a defensive mistake because they know that they will be relegated to the fourth line or even benched. So young players like Chris Kreider or star — or former star — veterans like Brad Richards or Rick Nash often seemed to play cautiously, afraid to make a mistake.
This also translated to the woeful power play, which was about 15 percent in the regular season and fell to an almost unbelievable 9 percent in the playoffs. It seems to this writer that scoring — like hitting in baseball — is contagious, with the converse of that also being true. So it snowballed on the Rangers this year, and it even frustrated their goalie. After the Game 1 OT loss to the Bruins, Lundqvist said, “Can I score? No.”
And it wasn’t just scoring goals. In the pivotal Game 3, with 3:47 left in regulation and the score tied, there was a key face-off to the left of Lundqvist. It was Derick Brassard against Bruins center Gregory Campbell of the Bruins. When Campbell got thrown out of the face-off and tough winger Shawn Thornton came in to take the draw, you had to like the Rangers’ chances of winning the face-off and controlling the puck. But Thornton won it as clean as you can win one, and the Bruins kept the puck in the Rangers’ end and scored what proved to be the weird game winner 16 seconds later. That should never happen.
So it’s the coach and it’s the offense, but it’s also, to a lesser extent, the goalie. Why?
Well King Henrik, now 30-37 in the playoffs — including a poor 4-11 in OT playoff games — seems to be frustrated in the long-term and the short-term. Now speaking in the past tense about the Rangers — “You know, I had such a great time here in New York,” he said — Lundqvist may have had enough of having to perform miracles in net to stay even or get a little ahead.
You could clearly see his frustration in Game 5 against the Bruins when, after giving up the go-ahead goal, he skated 30 or so feet out of the crease. It seemed he realized that the game and the series were over, and he banged his stick against the crossbar when it was over.
In the days of Worsley, a great goalie like the Gumper could go and get his due — and his Cups. Would King Henrik, with one year left on his contract, consider going to a top team with a better offense to win his Cup?
Rangers fans can only shudder at the thought.
SO WHAT ABOUT THE COACH?
Well, what about Tortorella? He long ago alienated the media, but that’s pretty much irrelevant. Do the players still listen, care and perform under his “tough” coaching?
The answer, at least with respect to scoring goals, is a resounding “no.” In addition, throwing players under the bus, like with his public comments about Carl Hagelin’s ability on the power play, isn’t going to win him any fans in the locker room.
And what about the goalie? Quiet and soft-spoken but a big star both on and off the ice in New York City, his future is the future of the Rangers.
The future of the Rangers does not depend on the coach.
So Tortorella, with one more year as well on his contract, has one more year to make a deep run in the playoffs. Otherwise there’s a very good chance that he won’t be back after that.
And if the goalie leaves and the coach stays, it will be some lean, trying times for the New York Rangers.
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