Rangers face great playoff expectations
Henrik Lundqvist’s style — both on and off the ice — doesn’t mesh with Mike Richter. Ryan Callahan lacks a Stanley Cup title, let alone the five Mark Messier had on his resume. John Tortorella is certainly as fiery as Mike Keenan, although the two don’t look much alike.
Comparisons have certainly been drawn between this year's New York Rangers and the 1994 team, a Blue Shirt squad that excised a 54-year Stanley Cup drought.
“It’s a little early to mention ourselves with those guys,” Lundqvist told FOXSports.com. “They accomplished so much. The Rangers have such a great history and, of course, people are going to compare us. That’s always flattering and it’s an honor.”
The Rangers, who open play against the Ottawa Senators at Madison Square Garden on Thursday, finished atop the Eastern Conference standings this season for the first time since that 1994 team, two points from the President's Trophy won by the Vancouver Canucks. The years since New York's last Cup run have been fraught with missed postseasons (eight) and only one trip to the conference finals (1997).
“It’s nice not having to grind through the last month, and scratch and claw to get in,” said Rangers defenseman Marc Staal, who was on a team that lost out on the playoffs on the final day of the regular season in 2010 and part of last season’s eighth-seeded squad. “It’s a different feeling in the room. There’s more confidence. We’re more comfortable. It’s good for us.”
The biggest change roster-wise since last season, which ended in a first-round defeat to the Washington Capitals, was the addition of free-agent center Brad Richards, who's second on the team in scoring (66 points) behind a 76-point effort by a resurgent Marian Gaborik. (The signing of Mike Rupp, a gritty forward that was part of New Jersey’s 2003 title team, also shouldn’t be overlooked.) But the difference has been Lundqvist, who is a favorite to win his first Vezina Trophy, which goes to the league’s top goalie.
Like he has effortlessly done hundreds of times with shots this season, Lundqvist’s deflected the credit.
“I talked all year about this being a more mature group,” he said. “When you have a lot of young guys, especially on (defense), each year they’re improving. They understand the game better and how to approach it. It’s been a learning process. They took another step.”
Lundqvist had the highest save percentage of any clear No. 1 goalie in the league (.930) and a 1.97 goals against average, second only to Los Angeles’ Jonathan Quick among goalies with 39 or more starts. He had a career-high 39 wins this season, three shy of the mark set by Richter during the 1993-94 regular season.
“It can be argued exactly what percentage of the team’s success comes down to goaltending,” said Richter, who has taken up green initiatives since his retirement, including serving as a board member for Riverkeeper and launching his own alternative energy contracting firm. “Obviously, it’s a huge part. You’re the one guy who can have a massive bearing whether you win or lose. It’s the nature of the position. Henrik has had an amazing year and the team has been consistent as well. When the defense does break down, he seems to be there in a big way.”
Lundqvist has benefited from a somewhat improved defense and an entire team that sells out to block shots, that will only carry it so far (especially if one of those blocked shots costs a key player some time, such as the ankle injury that forced Callahan out before last year’s playoffs even started). Lundqvist has to show, like Richter did in 1994, that he can carry a team in the postseason. Only one of Lundqvist’s five trips to the postseason has he had a goals-against average lower than what he had posted during the same regular season.
“Everybody has to be more disciplined,” said Richter. “There is going to be more intensity, so it’s even more important to stay within your system. There are going to be plenty of ups and downs in the playoffs. It’s hard for somebody to say, 'Now, it’s the playoffs. Do something different.’ You just have to do what you’ve been doing. You just need to do it better.”
While the 1994 team had Messier scoring the game-winning goal in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals to set up Stephan Matteau's heroics in double overtime in Game 7, let’s not forget that Richter made arguably the biggest play of the finals as he stopped Pavel Bure on a penalty shot en route to a Game 4 victory that gave the Rangers a 3-1 series lead.
“Lundqvist is a big part of the puzzle,” said Keenan, the head coach of the 1994 team. “He’s having maybe his best year of any goaltender and he’s getting the job done. You have to have a confident goalie. It’s a big part of the game. It’s not like basketball where the ball either goes in the hoop or it doesn’t. You can get outshot and an excellent goalie can win you some games.”
Keenan, now an analyst on the NBC Sports Network, had another key to a successful playoff campaign: veteran leadership. Callahan, 27, assumed the captaincy after Chris Drury retired last offseason and the team only has six players — none of which are defensemen — 30 years of age or older; the 1994 team had 10.
“He embraced the mission,” Keenan said of Messier, who had been part of the Edmonton Oilers’ dynasty in the 1980s. “All he needed to hear was that a coach was coming in to raise what was expected from the team. He hadn’t heard that before (from a coach) in New York and that’s exactly what he embraced. He became a huge part of the success.”
Rupp, Richards and Ruslan Fedotenko are the only Cup winners on the team — each with one.
“We’re a confident group in here,” Callahan told reporters after Saturday’s game. “We’re excited about the playoffs. It’s going to be fun to get this going here.”
One of the most striking similarities is behind the bench. Both Tortorella and Keenan are two of the more outspoken and abrasive coaches in recent NHL history, although their approaches have produced results and, along the way, some fines. Tortorella, who led the Tampa Bay Lightning to the 2004 title, has run afoul of the league office a few times, most recently last week when he called the Pittsburgh Penguins “one of the most arrogant organizations in the league” after what he termed a “cheap, dirty hit” by Pens defenseman Brooks Orpik on one of his Rangers. The outburst led to a $20,000 fine.
The feeling around town isn’t too different either.
“People love when you are winning, especially in that city,” Lundqvist said. “They are all excited. They’ve been great all year.”
In about two months — less time if the Rangers don’t fulfill all the expectations in Gotham — future Rangers teams could be compared to this one.