Remember, nobody thought the 2014 New York Rangers were going to make any noise either. This version is quite similar in many ways.
There were the Blueshirts of October and November, who rarely failed to pick up two points on a given night and jumped out to an enormous lead in the east. Following this apex were the doldrums, a place in which Henrik Lundqvist’s career looked to be in dire straits.
All that matters now is what they can do starting the second week of April. It wasn’t all too long ago that a Blueshirts team of yesteryear was in an awfully similar situation.
There really was something special about that team. The 2013-14 New York Rangers represents the squad that, without a doubt, is the highlight of my Rangertown fandom thus far. The 2014 playoff Blueshirts were able to make it all the way to the end of the rainbow, only to see their destiny and dynasty crumble in the City of Broken Dreams. They willed themselves into the Stanley Cup Finals purely off of grit, unwavering perseverance and bonding over unfortunate tragedy.
Oh, and elite goaltending from Henrik Lundqvist may have factored in too.
But before the Rangers’ 2-1 first round Game 7 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers, the passionate comeback from being down three games to one to Pittsburgh following the death of Marty St. Louis’ mother and Dominic Moore scoring the only goal in a conference clinching Game 6, the Rangers were hardly considered a true threat to get through the East.
They finished the season as Metropolitan Division runner-ups, 13 points behind the Pittsburgh Penguins. However, all three playoff teams from the stacked Atlantic Division that year had more points than New York, including the Presidents’ Trophy winning Boston Bruins. Expectations throughout Gotham were not exactly soaring and objectively speaking, the Rangers looked like a solid team whose ceiling was to potentially create a tough second-round matchup for the Boston Bruins.
That Rangers team, like the 2016-17 club, we’ve watched struggle for more than a month, simply could not string together wins consistently at home. They finished with a 20-17-4 record at the Garden, while going 25-14-2 away from NYC. With five games remaining in the regular season, this Rangers team sits at 19-16-3 at home and 27-10-2 on the road. This is a striking parallel to the team that roared through the playoffs by feeding off harsh crowds and enemy territory.
That team, though, was able to take care of business and win three of four home games in the first round against Philadelphia when they needed to break through to the second round. Although they could not replicate home dominance later in the playoffs, Marty St. Louis galvanized the entire hockey world with his special goal on Mother’s Day and the Rangers most convincingly had the look of destiny until meeting up with the Los Angeles Kings. Seriously, try watching it without getting emotional—impossible.
This time around, they won’t be able to bank on a late-season spark-plug with a knack for scoring timely goals.
While Brendan Smith has played decent hockey overall, the Rangers are going to have to look within for inspiration. There is a chance such inspiration could come from the man who is by far the longest tenured Ranger, the King himself.
Henrik Lundqvist has given his entire hockey career and more than a decade of his life pouring every ounce of his all-world goaltending into Gotham for chances, like the one coming soon, to make the run. While Lundqvist did not look all too great on the West Coast in his two games back from injury, there is still time for him to round back into playoff form. And Ranger fans know exactly what that playoff form can look like.
Should this scenario occur, Hank could become the inspiration point for a core group that knows it may not have all too many more shots at getting a ring for the King.
In order to make this happen though, Dan Girardi will have to harken back and find at least some semblance of his pre-Stanley Cup Finals Game 1 turnover, along with the rest of the defensemen. The Rangers have finally got their power play looking coherent, just in time for their collective defensive responsibility to fall off a cliff. The 2014 team found success through their ability to skate with the speed teams, yet also adapt to physical play. The one player whose ability and role is sorely missed at the moment is Anton Stralman, who played 21 solid, steady minutes of hockey on average during each playoff game.
Add in the fact that Marc Staal and Girardi are not what they once were and you see where the main issue lies. Although I certainly would not put John Moore in the same class as Brady Skjei, who could seriously impact the team’s chances.
Some real similarities exist between the team that went to the Cup and this current squad. There are the lowered expectations of the fans, fearlessness and dominance on the road, and (potential) offensive contributions up and down the lines to name a few.
What set the prior team apart was their unwillingness to cave in the face of adversity. Time will tell whether this team has a mental makeup akin to the 2014 Rangers. Fortunately, we won’t have to wait very long to find out.