By Steve Silverman
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The New York Rangers will go into the Stanley Cup finals as a decided underdog against either the Los Angeles Kings or Chicago Blackhawks.
There are good and logical reasons for this, including that they are the last two teams to bring home the Stanley Cup.
Additionally, the Western Conference was dominant in the NHL this season as teams like the Kings, Blackhawks, Anaheim Ducks, St. Louis Blues and San Jose Sharks were seen as the best in the league during the regular season. The only Eastern Conference team that was given any shot against the West at the start of the playoffs was the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Boston Bruins.
The Rangers? A mere afterthought among playoff participants. They looked like first- or second-round losers, and it didn’t appear that Alain Vigneault’s crew had the gumption to rise above those expectations.
But form went out the window starting in Game 5 of the second-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Instead of seeing their season end at the CONSOL Energy Center, the Rangers played with a certain fervor that had not been seen in these parts since – dare we say – the 1994 Stanley Cup playoffs.
That’s the year that Mark Messier & Co. ended the 54-year drought and brought joy to New York City. While one can’t help but get nostalgic any time the last Rangers championship is mentioned, this year’s Rangers have written their own story.
Led by inspirational Martin St. Louis, the Rangers won the last three games against the Penguins and earned a spot in the Eastern Conference finals. They took a 3-2 edge into Thursday night’s Game 6 at Madison Square Garden, and then proceeded to play a near-perfect game and clinch the series with a 1-0 victory.
Henrik Lundqvist gets credit for the ninth postseason shutout of his career, but he correctly pointed out that his teammates made it easy for him.
The Rangers outskated and outplayed the Canadiens every step of the way, and if it wasn’t for the Habs’ outstanding rookie goalie, Dustin Tokarski, the Rangers would have won by three or four goals Thursday night.
The most impressive aspect of the Rangers’ Game 6 victory was their approach in the final period. After Dominic Moore scored late in the second period, the Rangers could have sat back and played the NHL’s version of the prevent defense and let the Canadiens take it to them.
That’s often one of the most common ways of trying to hold on to the lead, but even when it works, it is quite maddening.
The Rangers did not fall victim to this often-faulty strategy. They dominated puck possession in the third period and continued to attack Tokarski and the Canadiens’ defense. Give full credit to Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal, Anton Stralman and Dan Girardi for their aggressive defensive play. Not only did they break up Montreal rushes throughout the third period, they regularly joined the attack and poured on serious pressure.
The Rangers outshot the Canadiens 13-5 in the third period, and two of Montreal’s shots came after they pulled Tokarski.
The Habs never had a serious threat in the final period, as the Rangers found ways to shut down Rene Bourque (hat trick in Game 5), P.K. Subban (Montreal’s most dangerous shooter) and Max Pacioretty (the Habs’ best goal scorer).
The Rangers came through with their best game at the most important time. It’s possible that they could have won Game 7 at the Bell Centre, but they knew they had their best chance to clinch the series at Madison Square Garden. They seized the opportunity.
In a few days, the Stanley Cup finals will begin. Most will say that the Rangers don’t have a chance and that either the Kings or Blackhawks will dispatch them easily.
But the Rangers served notice in Game 6 that they will not be anyone’s cannon fodder. They have the best goalie in the game, they played aggressively when all the money was on the table and they can skate with either of those two Western Conference teams.
There will be ample opportunity to diagnose the finals between now and puck drop next Wednesday, but the one thing we know is that the Rangers have raised their game to a new level, and it’s one that will not be easily dismissed no matter who they face.
Follow Steve on Twitter at @ProFootballBoy
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