The New York Rangers wisely stayed away from any Mark Messier-like guarantees going into Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final. Not that it would have made any difference.
Because the thing about an athlete guaranteeing a result is it’s basically meaningless. It was meaningless when Messier did it 18 years ago and would have been meaningless had the Rangers done it again this spring. Yes, the fact the Rangers ended up winning Game 6 against the New Jersey Devils that spring on their way to their first Stanley Cup in 54 years cemented Messier’s reputation as one of the greatest leaders in the NHL history, particularly after he backed up his guarantee with a hat trick in the pivotal game. But if the Rangers had lost and Messier had been minus-3 with no shots, would he have been barred from the Hall of Fame?
More to the point, if Brad Richards were to guarantee a victory in Game 6 only to see his team lose, would he be run out of Gotham City on a rail? Would he offer to give the Rangers back the $12 million he got this season in the first year of his nine-year, $60 million contract? No and no. When there is absolutely no accountability attached and there is no downside to making them, it’s easy to offer those kinds of guarantees.
What the Rangers actually need much more out of Richards and goalie Henrik Lundqvist in Game 6 – and Game 7, if they extend it that far – are Messier-like performances, not words.
The Rangers are a triumph of the collective – of that there is absolutely no doubt. But for them to advance to the Stanley Cup final against the Los Angeles Kings, their two highest-profile players simply have to be better. Much better, because neither of them has been good enough lately.
Richards was, quite simply, a disaster in his own end in the Rangers’ loss to the Devils in Game 5, so much so that his best scoring opportunity came when he fired the puck into Lundqvist in an attempt to rim it around the end boards. What’s worse is he has just three assists in the series.
Richards is a Conn Smythe Trophy winner and came to the Rangers with a history of producing his best when the stakes were the highest, but Game 5 was a complete anomaly. Not only did he fail to generate anything offensively, but his blown defensive assignment was one of the main reasons the Devils’ fourth line – with a big assist from Ilya Kovalchuk – got the better of the Rangers’ top line on the game-winning goal.
Perhaps it’s not entirely fair, but Richards must lead the way at both ends of the ice. None of the $12 million he made this season is paid to him during the playoffs, but the reality is the Rangers signed Richards to that outrageous, salary cap-circumventing contract last summer precisely for these moments. And it’s up to him to deliver. If he doesn’t, he’ll have a lot more to answer for than if he made a guarantee and it didn’t turn out for him and the Rangers.
As far as Lundqvist is concerned, it’s not at all a stretch to say the next game (and perhaps the one after that) could be career-defining moments. Again, perhaps that’s not fair either. But the fact remains this Rangers team is far too limp offensively to afford anything but spectacular goaltending in every playoff game. And if Lundqvist doesn’t deliver now, he runs the risk of being the Mike Gartner of goaltenders. For all the greatness he has exhibited in the regular season – and this past one might have been the best of them all – prior to this year he hadn’t managed to get the Rangers past the second round of the playoffs.
Lundqvist turned 30 in March and who knows whether he’ll ever get this close to winning the Stanley Cup again? Let’s face it, the Rangers are hardly a special team at the moment. Despite finishing first in the Eastern Conference on the strength of coaching, defensive play and goaltending, they required seven games to get past the seventh and eighth seeds and if they topple the Devils, will have gone the distance in three consecutive rounds. They have had trouble stringing back-to-back victories together in each series in these playoffs and even if they do manage to pull this off and win a Stanley Cup, they’ll rank right there with the 2006 Carolina Hurricanes and the 2007 Anaheim Ducks among the most mediocre champions in NHL history.
And it’s difficult in today’s parity-driven NHL to see the Rangers reeling off a bunch of long playoff runs in the next few years. This team simply doesn’t produce enough offense to be considered truly elite and it’s starting to catch up to them.
In all the obsession over recycling the Messier quote from 18 years ago, nobody seemed too willing to recall a quote from John Tortorella from the 2006 playoffs when he was with the Tampa Bay Lightning and goalie John Grahame allowed five goals on 20 shots and four goals on 17 shots in consecutive games against the Ottawa Senators. “We’re tired of the 25 percent rule,” he said. “We need an occasional…save.”
Lundqvist, who adhered to the 25 percent rule in Game 5, obviously doesn’t deserve the same treatment from Tortorella. But he and Richards had better lead the way for the Rangers. If they don’t, and the Rangers lose, history will not be terribly kind to either of them.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN’s other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.