NEW YORK – The sting from last season’s playoff collapse lasted a little longer for the stunned New York Rangers.
After all, they bounced back from a slump that cost coach Tom Renney his job and nearly derailed New York’s post-season hopes altogether. The infusion of fiery coach John Tortorella, the return of bad boy Sean Avery, and a couple of trade-deadline acquisitions set up a first-round matchup with the Washington Capitals that seemed less of a mismatch on the ice than on paper.
When the Rangers (43-30-9) jumped out to a 3-1 series lead, thoughts of a deep playoff run seeped into the discussion. Then it all fell apart.
The Capitals rebounded with three straight wins, knocking the Rangers out and creating a climate that made change necessary.
“Very disappointing,” said goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who posted his fourth straight 30-win season. “That’s a really good team, but to let that one go … it took a couple of weeks to get over it.”
“You try to learn from everything, but that one was a tougher experience. Hopefully it will help us move forward and help me to try to learn from it.”
New York reached the second round in each of the previous two seasons, but hasn’t won the Stanley Cup since 1994.
Enter Tortorella, this time from the start of the season, and star forward Marian Gaborik, who if he can avoid injuries could fuel an offence that became stagnant.
Gaborik spent his first eight NHL seasons with the Minnesota Wild before leaving for a five-year, US$37.5 million deal with the Rangers. He hit the 30-goal mark five times there, including a career-best 42 goals in the 2007-08 season. Hip surgery limited him to just 17 games last season, yet Gaborik registered 13 goals to nearly lift the Wild into the playoffs.
The Rangers scored only 210 goals last season, tied for the second fewest in the Eastern Conference, and were held to 11 in the playoff loss to the Capitals.
Gaborik missed the first four pre-season games with the Rangers, due to groin soreness that flared up during training camp, but came back to record two goals and two assists in the final three games.
“Expectations and pressures were there in Minnesota, but here it’s going to be a little more,” the 27-year-old Gaborik said. “It’s a new organization, a new place to play for me. I am looking forward to everything. It’s a team game. You can’t just go out there and do it all by yourself. It’s just not happening.”
Gaborik’s arrival came one day after the Rangers unloaded Scott Gomez’s big contract in a trade with the Montreal Canadiens that returned Long Island’s Christopher Higgins to New York.
Gomez was part of a big free agent tandem with captain Chris Drury that arrived in the summer of 2007 but never really clicked. Gomez didn’t mesh with Jaromir Jagr, who left before last season, and things didn’t go much better with Markus Naslund.
“It was just such a different change in styles,” Gomez said of the coaching change. “If Torts could’ve put his print on the team earlier, who knows what could’ve happened. For that style of play, you’ve got to be healthy. When you’re not 100 per cent, it’s pretty tough.”
Naslund retired during the off-season after one year with the Rangers, paving the way for Gaborik to come in as the latest key cog in a sputtering offence.
“I’ll take responsibility in that,” Gomez said of the scoring woes. “We just got into one of those funks. We were still winning hockey games, but not scoring. It was one of those years, we had never gone through it, where the puck just wasn’t going in.”
Gaborik will have some help up front with the addition of fellow free agents Ales Kotalik and veteran forward Vinny Prospal. Newcomer Enver Lisin chipped in three pre-season goals after putting up 13 last season with the Phoenix Coyotes.
Tortorella will certainly look to run an up-tempo style, while still placing an emphasis on the defensive zone. That will put increased pressure on veteran defencemen Wade Redden and Michal Rozsival, a pair of high-priced players coming off subpar seasons.
“I think a lot of guys are anxious and a little nervous, but at the same time a little excited,” Lundqvist said of playing for Tortorella. “It’s going to be fun to have him here from the start.”
Redden and Rozsival will be joined on the back end by rookie Matt Gilroy, the Hobey Baker winner last season for NCAA champion Boston University, and 19-year-old Michael Del Zotto – New York’s first-round pick in 2008.
Alexei Semenov earned a spot on the team after an impressive performance during a training camp tryout, and Marc Staal and Dan Girardi continue to grow and develop as foundations of the defence.
“It’s been a busy summer almost every year, so you kind of get used to it,” Lundqvist said. “During camp there were a lot of new faces, but after a couple of weeks when you travel together it goes pretty fast and you feel like you’ve known the guys for a pretty long time after a while because you do so much together.”