The New York Rangers won’t be given much of a chance to beat the Tampa Bay Lightning to make the Stanley Cup final. That is no big surprise. The Lightning have won twice as many Stanley Cups in the last two years as the Rangers have won in the last, um, 82.
But the Rangers have made it to the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 2015 – when they lost at home to the Lightning in the seventh game – and New York seems to be getting excited, which is good for the NHL, or any other professional league, for that matter.
There really is, as the T-shirt that the high-scoring veteran forward Chris Kreider wore Tuesday to a news conference read, “no quit in New York.” The Rangers have faced elimination five times so far in the playoffs, and they have won all five games, including two Game 7s.
They scored two power-play goals in the first eight minutes and walloped the Carolina Hurricanes 6-2 in Game 7 of that series on Monday night. It was the first home playoff loss for the Canes, who had a better regular-season record than the Rangers.
“The guys love playing for this group,” said the 31-year-old Kreider, who has scored eight playoff goals after pumping in 52 goals in the regular season, easily a career high. “It’s a tight-knit group. You see the guys doing the little things to help us win hockey games. We want to keep playing.”
Kreider is the only player who was around the last time the Rangers got this far. They’d made it to the finals in 2014, only to lose to Los Angeles, and their chances of returning in 2015 looked quite good until the Lightning shut them out at Madison Square Garden in Game S7.
The goaltender of that team, Henrik Lundqvist, has retired, and the general manager Jeff Gorton is not around, either. Gorton and former team president Glen Sather wrote a weird open letter to Rangers’ fans in February 2018 in which they said that they planned to tear down an underachieving team to rebuild – but we sure do appreciate your support!
Then they got rid of five top players, including the stoic captain and defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who has since won two Cups with Tampa Bay. On Tuesday, Kreider, who seems to look at life from a different angle, called McDonagh “one of the best humans I’ve played with.”
The Rangers made the playoffs just once between 2018 and this season – and they were pushed right back out, getting swept by Carolina in the qualifying round of the 2020 playoffs in the Covid bubble in Toronto. The series finale would turn out to be Lundqvist’s last NHL game.
The Rangers sacked their coach, David Quinn, after the Rangers missed the playoffs again last year. His replacement was a guy named Gerard Gallant, nicknamed “Turk,” who was part of the NHL’s coach-recycling program. The Rangers are his fourth NHL stop.
Gallant is an old left wing who was prolific back in his day, scoring 30 goals for the Detroit Red Wings in each of four straight seasons. But his teams in Columbus and Florida made the playoffs just once in his first six seasons as coach and were ousted in the first round.
Then he was hired as the coach of the expansion Vegas Golden Knights in 2017, and, in one of the all-time sports stunners, Gallant helped make history by taking them all the way to the Stanley Cup final. He failed to win another playoff series and was out less than three years later.
So the Rangers were not expected to do much this season, but Gallant got them to play hard, and, as important, pay a price to win games, which means nasty things like blocking shots. As he said after the Game 7 victory over Carolina on Monday, “I’ve said it 100 times this year: We’re not perfect, but we find ways to win.”
They are old-fashioned, which New Yorkers really love. Their inspiration is the 28-year-old American defenseman Jacob Trouba, who ended Carolina forward Seth Jarvis’s night Monday by drilling him with a legal check in the first period. It was Trouba’s second jarring hit of the series. Both led to Rangers’ power plays because the Hurricanes retaliated.
Turk said Trouba is “not trying to hurt people out there. He just plays a heavy game.”
It has helped that the Rangers have an elite goaltender in the 26-year-old Igor Shesterkin, who grew up in Moscow and was a fourth-round draft pick in 2014 but only joined the Rangers early in 2020. He has an impressive .928 save percentage in his first NHL playoffs.
“His hockey IQ, I would say, is one of the highest on our team – and I don’t know if I’ve ever said that about a goalie on my team before, with all due respect,” said the veteran center Ryan Strome, who started his career with the rival New York Islanders but now has played for the Rangers for four seasons.
This series, which is to open Wednesday in New York, is being billed as a titanic matchup between Shesterkin and Tampa Bay goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, a 27-year-old Russian who has won 57 career playoff games, including eight of 11 this season.
The Lightning also have McDonagh and the formidable Victor Hedman on defense, among others. But Kreider has said this Rangers team reminds him of the 2014 and 2015 New York teams, who saw themselves as cockroaches.
“We just didn’t go away,” Kreider said. “We just don’t go away now. Regardless of the score, regardless of where the game is at, we just try to find our game, try to find our game, keep working.”
Whether it results in eight more victories and the Rangers’ first Stanley Cup since 1994 – 28 years ago already! – is to be determined. But these playoffs already are more fun than they have been in a few years because the Rangers, one of the Original Six, are still in them.