NEW YORK, N.Y. – It is easy to neatly package what plagued the New York Rangers last season and kept them from returning to the playoffs: inconsistency.
It’s a broad term that encompasses every aspect of the club. Sometimes the offence hit a rut, other times there were defensive lapses—including some sputtering play from overworked goalie Henrik Lundqvist—and the lack of discipline that led to too many opposition power plays.
The Rangers made it a habit in recent seasons to languish through the schedule and hover around the danger zone between sixth and 10th place in the Eastern Conference. As games dwindled, the light often turned on and forced the team to start fighting for post-season survival.
There is no simple reason why this has happened. Blame can’t even be placed on specific philosophy or a certain coaching staff because the same thing has occurred with current boss John Tortorella, general manager Glen Sather, and former coach Tom Renney behind the bench.
New York made the playoffs in four straight seasons before missing out last year in Tortorella’s first full year in charge. But in those post-season appearances, the Rangers have gotten out of the first round only twice, and never beyond that since 1997.
The Rangers held a 3-1 series lead over Washington in the first round in 2009 but lost the final three games. As bad as that felt, Lundqvist said the pain didn’t compare to last season’s flameout.
“This was worse,” Lundqvist said, “because you work the whole year to get there and then you start over. When you reach the playoffs, you reach goal one. Now we didn’t even reach goal one.
“We let too many games slip away during the year. Being that close, it really hurt. The difference between missing the playoffs and having a good run is small. The teams are so close to each other. You can’t take anything for granted.”
Tortorella already plans to cut back on Lundqvist’s activity. The Swedish Olympian played in 73 of 82 games last season, in addition to his work at the Vancouver Games, and has appeared in at least 70 games in all but one of his five NHL seasons.
With veteran Martin Biron on board on Lundqvist’s backup, Tortorella be more comfortable in giving Lundqvist some rest—limiting him to perhaps 65 games.
“I’m certainly not going to go too far the other way and not let Hank get into a groove,” Tortorella said. “You’ve got to be careful there, you’ve got to allow him to play and get himself going. I never go too far ahead as far as the goaltending is concerned.
“Hank’s going to be there early on here because it’s spread out and then we’ll see where it goes from there.”
Lundqvist will never be one to ask for a break, but he admits he does see the potential benefits.
“I’m just going to work hard. I love to play,” he said. “Whatever he decides, we’ll go with it. In the long run it will help me, it will help the team. Me and Marty will be a great team together and work well in practice and push each other to play really well in games. Hopefully we will make the playoffs and I will feel fresh and we’ll make a great run there.”
The Rangers nearly got in last season.
After a late-season push and a win in the opener of a home-and-home series with Philadelphia, New York needed only to beat the Flyers again in the final game to sneak in as the No. 8 seed. The Rangers got the game into a shootout, but were eliminated there when former forward Olli Jokinen failed to score on the team’s last attempt.
New York finished with 87 points, one fewer than Philadelphia and Montreal, who claimed the seventh and eighth playoff spots and then both made runs to the conference finals.
“I am confident we’re coming back and everybody will want to work extremely hard to bounce back from last year. But you can never promise anything because the league is so tight,” Lundqvist said.
The Rangers are already starting at a disadvantage because captain Chris Drury and fellow forward Vinny Prospal are beginning the season on the injured list. Drury should be back from his broken finger within the first few weeks. Prospal will likely be out longer because of a knee injury.
“I don’t expect him for a little bit here,” Tortorella said. “He’s an important guy for us, but that is such an iffy situation right we can’t depend on that. We need to move on. Not to disrespect Vinny but we need to understand that we need to be playing without him right now.”
Adding free-agent forward Alexander Frolov to the top line alongside leading scorer Marian Gaborik will surely be a boost to the offence, but the Rangers still haven’t found a solid centre to make a perfect trio. Lack of depth at centre has hurt the Rangers since the days of Jaromir Jagr.
Veteran forward Ruslan Fedotenko made the team during a training camp tryout and will provide depth. The Rangers are also excited to see the debut of top prospect Derek Stepan.
“I’m not going to make predictions, I’m not in that part of the business,” Tortorella said. “The group is together, I think we’re familiar. I think the additions of an experienced backup goalie, Frolov we hope is going to score some goals and help Gabby, Stepan has stepped up.
“The bottom line is the kids are intact, our core is still here and they’re going to improve as we go along.”