by Paul West
For months now, one of the most perplexing things about the New York Rangers has been their ability to get in their own way. Sometimes it manifests as over-passing on power plays and odd-man rushes; sometimes it manifests as baffling turnovers in their defensive zone; sometimes it manifests as flatfooted lethargy or lack of assertiveness in front of both nets. It’s been especially mystifying in light of the fact that the Rangers have been a perennial powerhouse for several years, and by all assessments have the talent, depth and experience to win the Stanley Cup. Unfortunately, entering this postseason, doubts lingered about whether they were prepared to finally finish the journey they nearly completed in 2014.
In their current opening series against the Montreal Canadiens, Henrik Lundqvist seemed to address one lingering question as he made one spectacular save after another, singlehandedly keeping the Rangers alive for a 1-0 Game One victory. Unfortunately, in the closing stretches of Game Two, the Rangers seemed to justify every lingering doubt about their fitness for a deep playoff run. Mere seconds from going up two games to none, they failed to clear the puck from their zone and were caught out of position and scrambling as Montreal buried a game-tying shot. Worse still, the Canadiens spent almost literally the entire overtime period in the Rangers’ zone, peppering and hassling Lundqvist until they finally–seemingly inevitably–got one through, tying the series at one and stealing victory from the jaws of defeat. In Game Three, the Rangers were jittery and mistake-prone, and were predictably pummeled as a result; and even in Game Four, in which they they tied the series, a couple of opportunistic goals and more supernatural play by Lundqvist masked the fact that the Rangers continued to underperform.
Not so in Game Five.
In Game Five, the Rangers looked like the team that opened the season looking like a juggernaut. They were assertive in all three zones and in front of both nets; Dan Girardi was resurgent, wielding his physicality like a battle axe in defense of Lundqvist and the Rangers’ net. Chris Kreider showed bursts of the roaring downhill speed which has made him a key to the Rangers’ success in previous postseasons; and Rick Nash showed his continually underestimated value in from goal line to goal line, while also providing the offensive threat potential so many have clamored for from him. At last, the Rangers seem to have broken through the lingering doldrums which made them underperform at critical times–and, curiously, helped lead to a six-game playoff losing streak in games at Madison Square Garden. The Rangers often seemed as if moments and opportunities were too big for them; and their spark has come, in part, from contributors who’ve shown poise beyond their years. Rookie Pavel Buchnevich, given his long overdue chance to shine, has opened up the offense with a willingness to bully his way into the offensive zone and fire on goalie Carey Price. Brady Skej, another rookie, has continued his emergent play as a scoring defenseman who throws his weight around. Youngster Jimmy Vesey has been opportunistic and relaxed, and 25-year-old Jesper Fast has helped light a fire under the Rangers’ forecheck. Meanwhile, Lundqvist has continued to shine, making brilliant and timely saves and dispelling concerns about his late-season slump or advancing age.
Just minutes from now, the Rangers will take the ice at the Garden with a chance to advance to the next round and push one game closer to hockey’s pinnacle. The home fans have been hungry for a taste of the team that once played with such conviction on their home ice; and if the Rangers are indeed back on track, they’ll return to the top of the short list of Stanley Cup contenders.