Yesterday afternoon, the Rangers' season came to a quick and painful end, as the team fell 54 to the Buffalo Sabres, losing its second-round playoff series to the President's Trophy winners in six hard-fought games.
But rather than boo or file to the exits muttering about the negatives, the crowd at Madison Square Garden showered their fallen heroes with love and adoration. A chant of "Let's Go, Rangers" was proceeded by an equally vociferous tribute to star goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. The Blueshirts gathered at center ice and raised their sticks to the rafters, paying homage to the fans for their unerring support with a touching act usually reserved for home-ice victories.
The Rangers have good reason to be proud of what they accomplished this year. One month before the regular season concluded, it seemed certain they would miss the playoffs, and there was even speculation in this column and elsewhere that captain Jaromir Jagr could have been dealt away at the trade deadline. But the team surged back, earning the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference and sweeping the Southeast Division-winning Atlanta Thrashers.
Similarly, against the talented Sabres, the Blueshirts never wilted, instead making it abundantly clear that they very much belonged in this series. Although Buffalo iced a much faster lineup, the Blueshirts got by with hustle and hockey smarts, with Lundqvist usually making the difference when the Sabres' speed was too much for the older and slower Rangers to handle.
Through it all, the Rangers demonstrated poise and patience not seen from Broadway's hockey team since Mark Messier and Wayne Gretzky led the club to the 1997 Eastern Conference Finals. But yesterday, the Blueshirts gave the Sabres too many high-quality scoring chances, and the disappointing result was somewhat inevitable.
"Odd-man rushes," the Rangers captain, Jaromir Jagr, lamented after the game. "We said that all series long. We just can't give it to them ... We didn't lose it; we just gave it to them. They are a great team, but they aren't better."
The Rangers actually opened the scoring in Game 6, with Michael Nylander receiving a nice crossice feed from defenseman Paul Mara and lifting a backhand over Ryan Miller at 17:10 of the first period. The Blueshirts were out-shot 118 in the period and had to kill off two minor penalties (to Brendan Shanahan); they were fortunate to head to the locker room with a 10 lead.
Early in the second stanza, the Sabres answered back, scoring twice within the first three minutes, first Dmitri Kalinin and then Jason Pominville beating Lundqvist. The quick goals temporarily deflated the crowd, but the talented Rangers' power play got the fans right back onto their collective feet.
Just more than four minutes into the second period, with Daniel Briere serving a tripping penalty, Mara fired a shot from the point past Miller to even the score. After a very disappointing 59-game stint with the Boston Bruins, Mara found new life on Broadway, largely because the Rangers head coach, Tom Renney, used him properly. In Boston, Mara was expected to play more physically, a role for which he was particularly ill suited. But in New York, Renney has correctly set Mara loose, letting him take advantage of his puck-moving skills.
Buffalo retook the lead at 7:41 into the second period, when Jochen Hecht beat Lundqvist high to the glove side. During this series, the Sabres did their best to exploit Lundqvist's weakness high shots, particularly to his left and it will be interesting to see whether he's able to adapt his game accordingly in 200708 and beyond.
Although a total of nine goals were scored in yesterday's game (after three consecutive 21 results), one particular play and resulting goal left the Rangers and their fans rightly incensed.
Just about halfway through the second period, Blueshirts rookie Ryan Callahan was elbowed in the head by the Sabres' Ales Kotalik. Rather than assessing Kotalik with the deserved penalty, the officials improbably sent Callahan off for holding. In a series filled with bad calls, it was one of the worst, and what could have been a turning point for the Rangers was instead one for Buffalo.
Buffalo forward Chris Drury, who is unquestionably one of the game's most reliable clutch performers, scored on the ensuing power play. It was the Sabres' only power play goal; meanwhile, the Blueshirts scored three power play goals on four opportunities, lending further credence to the argument that the Kotalik/Callahan missed call was a critical factor in the Rangers' loss.
The Rangers battled hard in the third period, twice cutting the Sabres' lead with power play goals (the first from Jaromir Jagr at 5:08, the second from Michael Nylander at 17:09). But a brilliant deflection of a Briere shot by Hecht gave Buffalo its fifth goal at 14:50, and it turned out to be all the Sabres needed for the victory.
No matter what adversity these Rangers faced, they kept on working, never giving up on the game until the final buzzer sounded. The Blueshirts' strong effort was a testament to Renney's leadership, who against all odds kept his team on the same page right to the bitter end.
And perhaps most impressively of all, Renney did a nice job infusing the lineup with youth as the season progressed. He got some nice performances out of Fedor Tyutin and Daniel Girardi, a pair of 23-year-old blueliners, from whom the best is still to come. And he never gave up on Marcel Hossa the first NHL coach about whom that could be said helping the talented forward make tremendous progress with his game down the stretch.
Without question, Renney has these Rangers on the right track. And with talented defenseman Marc Staal and goaltender Alvaro Montoya among the youngsters expected to compete for jobs this coming fall, the Blueshirts should be poised for an even longer playoff run in the spring of 2008.
Mr. Greenstein is the editor in chief of InsideHockey.com.