It seems the New York Rangers’ first-round playoff win over the Washington Capitals took a lot more out them than it appeared.
The toll was more mental than physical.
The Rangers rallied from a 3-2 series deficit in the opening round and advanced with back-to-back shutout wins in the final two contests – culminating with a 5-0 rout in Game 7.
But when the time came to take on the Boston Bruins just three days later, the Rangers weren’t ready. Boston outlasted Toronto in seven games in the first round, and then got the jump on New York by winning the first three games of that matchup.
”One of the things, and it falls on my shoulders, is our team’s mindset going into another round,” Rangers coach John Tortorella said Monday when the club packed up for the summer. ”Both teams played an emotional Game 7. I don’t think our mindset was ready to play another series and to the level you need to be at. It didn’t have a playoff atmosphere.
The Rangers salvaged Game 4 with an overtime win at home, but were gone in Game 5 on Saturday with a 3-1 road loss.
”That’s what I struggle with right now is I didn’t do a good enough job in correcting and getting their mindset back to not only play at the level of a Game 7 in the first round but get ready for round 2, which is always going to be tougher,” Tortorella said.
The timing was off for the entire season that didn’t begin until January because of the long NHL lockout, and was chopped to 48 games in the regular season – all played against conference opponents.
The Rangers played well down the stretch to secure a postseason berth as the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference, while other divisional rivals such as New Jersey – a Stanley Cup finalist last season – and Philadelphia failed to get in.
New York believed it could make a deep run in the playoffs, and gained further confidence by knocking the Southeast Division champion Capitals in the first round despite not having home-ice advantage. But a lack of offense and an almost non-existent power play eventually proved to be too much for the Rangers to overcome.
”It’s an emotional thing,” Tortorella said. ”You win the last two games of a first-round series, you play an emotional Game 7, you win it, and within a couple of days you’re playing another series. It’s not a Game 7, it’s a Game 1. I thought we did enough, but as I watched us play, it wasn’t enough.
”The biggest part of my job is that and how you handle your top players to get them to play.”
The biggest burden fell on the shoulders of goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who was under pressure all along to be nearly perfect and compensate for the lack of goals scored at the other end. He held up well for a while, but the Rangers managed only 10 total goals in the five games against the Bruins and scored two or fewer in each one except the 4-3 win in Game 4 on Thursday night.
”The first round was great, but in the second round we didn’t really match Boston,” Lundqvist said. ”I thought they played a great series and deserved to win.
”Every year is different, but I think losing to Boston is really disappointing. I kind of have to accept it. They played a lot better than us and they deserved it. I still think we could’ve done a better job, but it’s history now. We just have to learn from it.”
Lundqvist will factor into one of the big decisions the Rangers will have to make in the offseason. The reigning Vezina Trophy winner, who is again a finalist this year to be named the NHL’s top goalie, has one year left on his contract before he can become an unrestricted free agent.
The Rangers might look to sign the 31-year-old Lundqvist to a long-term contract now before he can hit the open market in a year.
”Every year is important. It doesn’t matter where you are in your career,” Lundqvist said. ”When you have an opportunity to go forward to win, you need to grab that opportunity. Last year was one of those years, and this year we had the team to go for it.
”I’m going to talk to my agent and we’ll see. I have had such a great time here in New York. From Day One they have treated me really well and given me an opportunity to play a lot of hockey. It’s been a lot of fun. I have one more year on the contract and right now I am just trying to get over this year.”
That was a common theme throughout the Rangers room.
Last year, New York reached the conference finals before bowing out against New Jersey. Though through the disappointment, the feeling was that this year wasn’t necessarily a regression in the growth and development of the team.
”I know the surrounding feeling here is that it was a negative season, a disappointing season. I don’t buy it and I won’t,” Tortorella said. ”There are some good things that happened. I don’t think we took a step backward. I think this is a sideways step in our lineup and how things worked out.
”We played really well our last couple of months to get in, found a way to win a big series against Washington, and against Boston I thought we competed right to the end.”
But everyone was in agreement that the end arrived much sooner than they wanted and felt that it would.
”We were in the conference finals last year. We had high expectations on ourselves this year. It didn’t go our way, so yeah it is a step back,” Lundqvist said. ”It’s tough to make it there, though. You can’t just expect it to happen. You have to work really hard, you have to do a lot of things right, and probably have some good bounces on the way to make it there.
”We definitely hoped for better this year, but you can’t just go out and expect it to happen. It’s going to be a challenge every year. It doesn’t matter what type of team you have.”