With one final chance to salvage a season gone wrong, the Rangers scored an early goal in their final regular season game and hoped to ride a red hot goalie into the postseason.
Problem was, they needed another tally and their popgun attack simply wasn’t up to the challenge. Too bad, because their goaltender most certainly was.
John Tortorella had recently commented that while the play of the team’s fourth line had been a revelation the last few weeks, “Your fourth line can’t be your best line.”
Unfortunately, once again on Sunday it was, as Jody Shelly scored off a deflection just 3:27 in and, for a fleeting moment, it looked as though the Rangers might be off and running. However, after getting out shot 18-4 in the first period and 30 to 13 after two, all the Rangers were doing was running in the wrong direction.
Their leading scorer and offensive workhorse all season, Marion Gaborik was quiet with just two shots on Sunday and the rest of Rangers were simply outworked almost all afternoon.
“They played better than we did but Hank kept us in it,” Gaborik explained after the 2-1 loss in Philadelphia ended his first season as a Ranger. “I’m disappointed for him that we couldn’t generate any offense. This is a terrible feeling.”
A familiar refrain all season, as Lundqvist once again played with no margin for error and was gallant in defeat. After starting 73 of the team’s 82 games this season, Lundqvist saved his best for last.
“Going into the shootout, I was pretty beat up,” said Lundqvist, who faced 47 Flyers shots, many from the slot area. “It was a tough, intense game, but I tried to focus and tried to be patient, but they made two good moves. The season is over and it sucks.”
Lundqvist, heroic all game on Sunday, looked fatigued during the shootout—particularly on Claude Giroux’s five-holer that ultimately gave the Flyers the win. With a chance to keep the season alive, Olli Jokinen’s backhand slider in the shootout didn’t find a hole on Brian Boucher and the Wachovia Center erupted in celebration. The Flyers were in and the Rangers were not.
“They played with the puck all day,” began a somber John Tortorella. “You have to have the puck to generate offense and we just didn’t have it much. They came at us pretty good all day but Henrik gave us a chance.”
As painful as the loss Sunday in Philly was to digest, there was a moment earlier in the week in Buffalo that will also haunt the Rangers all summer. In their only other loss in the final 10 games, the Sabres’ Ryan Miller robbed Gaborik of the tying goal in the second period with one of the saves of the season and shortly thereafter the Sabres scored for a two-goal lead on their way to a damaging 5-2 loss for the Blueshirts. If the Rangers win that one, the point on Sunday would have landed them a playoff spot.
After opening the season 7-0 the Rangers went on a 7-1-2 streak to close it out and set up Sunday’s winner-take-all finale. While the loss knocked them out of the playoffs, it was their disappointing 24-32-9 record in between that really did them in.
“We were inconsistent all season,” Chris Drury explained after the game in Philly. “It shouldn’t have come down to this.”
But it did and after three curious player choices in the shootout in Eric Christensen, P.A. Parenteau and Olli Jokinen, the Rangers had burned all of their nine lives. When asked about potentially regretting the decision to pass over Gaborik for the shootout, Tortorella responded with a stern, one-word answer in, “No.”
The beleaguered head coach has a lot more than that decision to ponder in the coming weeks as his grip on the job is a little looser than it was a few days ago. For a club that clearly considered themselves Stanley Cup contenders after signing Gaborik during the summer, a playoff-less season at the Garden is a bitter pill to swallow.
The Rangers’ fourth line of Artem Anisimov, Jody Shelley and Brandon Prust had 18 points in the team’s last 10 games. The fact they were by far the club’s best combination the last few weeks speaks volumes about why they are out of the playoffs.
Outshot 47-25 for the game, the Rangers generated little offense all afternoon and had no chances at any of the many rebounds Boucher left in his crease. It seemed the one time all day that they did crash the net, they scored, as Shelley’s nifty deflection gave them a 1-0 lead just over three minutes in.
The shootout really accented just how popgun an attack the Rangers have compared to Philly as the shifty Daniel Briere and Claude Giroux scored while Lundqvist stopped the crafty Mike Richards. And the Flyers still had leading scorer Jeff Carter and veteran sniper Simon Gagne on the bench.
That their season ended with Jokinen trying a way-too-cutsie backhand move on Boucher was almost fitting. Apparently Gaborik was slated to shoot fourth, which begs the question: If you’re slotting him fourth, why not just make your leading scorer one of the first three? “Torts told me I would go fourth—that was his decision. I guess we ran out of time though,” was all Gaborik was saying after the game.
Marc Staal was a stalwart on defense, particularly in the last month, and his team-leading 29:16 of ice time on Sunday was Herculean. Other than Lundqvist, the Rangers best player on Sunday.
After re-injuring his knee in the game on Friday taking a run at Chris Pronger, Ryan Callahan could not go on Sunday. Having both he and Sean Avery out of the line-up was a big blow as the Rangers simply didn’t match the Flyers physically, especially in the fist two periods.
NHL playoffs start Wednesday night with Ottawa at Pittsburgh (Versus); Philadelphia at New Jersey (MSG); Detroit at Phoenix (Versus) and Colorado at San Jose (Versus).