By Sean Hartnett
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The Rangers’ season ended with a whimper rather than a roar.
At bare minimum, this team owed it to its fans to play like possessed madmen on Tuesday night in the hope of keeping its season alive. Instead, the Rangers sleepwalked for the first two periods of a must-win Game 6 against the Senators and ended up getting what they deserved.
The Blueshirts put in a listless, sloppy, turnover-plagued performance over the first two periods of the eventual 4-2 defeat, and only began to show a real push-back in the early minutes of the third.
Staring at a two-goal deficit and with their season on the line, you knew the Rangers would somehow mount a charge, but it came far too late. Captain Ryan McDonagh spoke with honesty after his team’s season came to an end on Madison Square Garden ice.
“We came out slow,” McDonagh said. “It’s as simple as that. We can’t put ourselves in a hole, but we did and I don’t know why. We were all pretty focused in here, saying the right things. But it’s a difference between saying and doing, and that showed up on the ice.”
Hockey is a game of mistakes and the Rangers made many of them. The Blueshirts blew a two-goal lead with 3:19 left in the third period of Game 2, eventually losing in double overtime. They repeated the script in Game 5, giving away a one-goal lead with 1:26 remaining in regulation and losing in overtime.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever gone through a series like this where we seemed to shoot ourselves in the foot as far as closing games out or not playing well in crucial situations,” McDonagh said. “We have nobody to blame but ourselves and that’s the truth of the situation.”
Head coach Alain Vigneault was often outfoxed by his counterpart on the Ottawa bench, Guy Boucher, and frequently made head-scratching defensive deployments in late-game situations. Vigneault leaned too heavily on underperforming veterans Marc Staal and Dan Girardi. The Brady Skjei-Brendan Smith pairing played excellent for most of the series, but was held to third-pairing minutes and was pinned to the bench at crucial times.
Vigneault kept unlimited faith in Derek Stepan, J.T. Miller and Kevin Hayes, even when their games went south, and refused to offer increased minutes to hotter hands in Oscar Lindberg, Michael Grabner and Jimmy Vesey.
Stepan finished the series with six points in 12 games. The 26-year-old center only recorded a single power play point this postseason despite averaging 2:49 of ice time per game in man-advantage situations. Stepan is looked to by fans and teammates as a leader. His skates looked slow and he just couldn’t seem to get his game going.
“Individually, I’m disappointed and ashamed and flat-out embarrassed,” Stepan said. “It kills me that I was not able to find my game.”
Hayes and Miller were key components to the Rangers’ attack during the regular season, but fizzled in the playoffs. Each produced just three points in 12 games. Neither recorded a power play point. The Rangers finished the playoffs with a dreadful 7.7 percent success rate on the man advantage.
Their power play went 0-for-4 in Game 6, even after Derick Brassard took a four-minute double-minor for high-sticking Mats Zuccarello. So many passes went into skates; so many times they gave away the puck cheaply.
Most of all, the Rangers lost this series because they gifted the Sens goals with little resistance. The emotion and desperation level just wasn’t there.
“We couldn’t battle back. It’s tough now to talk about it. This whole series in general, I think we kinda gave it away,” Zuccarello said. “We had leads and we had games in our hand and we gave it away easy. That’s tough right now to swallow.”
The playoffs ended yet again with all-world goaltender Henrik Lundqvist sitting at his dressing room stall with his head in his hands. It was another postseason where Lundqvist’s magnificent efforts were wasted. The 35-year-old netminder finished with a .927 save percentage and a 2.25 goals-against average.
“I think we played well enough to win a lot of games here,” Lundqvist said. “We talked about it during the season that sometimes it is not about playing your best game; it is about finding a way to win games. (The Senators) did that better than we did. But I thought we played really well. We put ourselves in a position to win almost every game. We just didn’t get it done. The last few minutes there in a couple of games, like I said, it hurt us there really bad in the series. We believed until the end that we could pull it off. Like you saw, we had a great third period, a great push, but we came up short. It’s going to hurt for a while.
“Right now, all you feel is disappointment and it’s a numb feeling,” he continuted. “It’s not a great feeling. You realize how much work and how many hours you put into this to put yourself in this spot to get this chance. You started in July, last summer, to start to train and to prepare. It was right there for us. Obviously, the next week or so you are going to analyze your own game and analyze what we did as a group and personally, see what we could have done better, and learn from it.”
Lundqvist always takes an inward look at what he could have done better to get this team over the hump, but all of these postseason exits have never been his fault. He has given everything in his body and soul for this franchise. Once again, his teammates owed him better and failed to hold up their end of the bargain.
This isn’t on you, Hank.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey