The New York Rangers gave it their best shot in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final Saturday night in Tampa Bay, but unfortunately for them, they were up against a Lightning team that showed everyone what a modern-day Stanley Cup dynasty team looks like.
The Bolts dominated the puck possession game, leaned on superstar goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, and got two timely goals from star forward Steven Stamkos to win 2-1 and eliminate the Blueshirts from the playoffs.
While there no doubt will be thousands of Rangers fans waking up with a case of the sads today, there are positives to take away from New York’s playoff run this spring. They might not be on Tampa’s level just yet, but they do have many components of a championship-caliber team that can do even more damage next season.
Start with the Rangers’ goaltending: Igor Shesterkin was fantastic for the grand majority of the post-season, and demonstrated why he’s a Hart Trophy finalist as the NHL’s most valuable player. Had the Blueshirts moved on to the Cup Final, he would’ve garnered votes as playoff MVP as well.
On Saturday, he allowed the Lightning’s first goal after being screened, but he gave his team a chance to win. It’s simply unfortunate for him he was up against an equally superb netminder in Vasilevskiy. But Shesterkin will almost assuredly be as much of a high-impact player in the years to come, and you need that to be a consistent Cup competitor.
You also need a first-rate defenseman, like Bolts star Victor Hedman to anchor the back end and jump into the play as an offensive weapon. The Rangers have one of those in Norris Trophy winner Adam Fox; the 24-year-oldn was a point-per-game playoff performer for New York this spring, with 18 assists and 23 points in 20 games. His best days also are ahead, and, surrounded by D-men like Jacob Trouba and K’Andre Miller, Fox will be leading a defense corps that can be a difference-maker.
The Rangers also have a terrific veteran star forward on the same level as Stamkos. His name is Artemi Panarin, and although Panarin didn’t thrive in the playoffs the way he did in the regular season, he still had 16 points in 20 games. He,and fellow Rangers forwards Mika Zibanejad (24 points in 20 games) and Chris Kreider (10 goals and 16 points in 20 games) will be back next season, and ready to drive the Rangers’ offense once again.
And then, of course, there are New York’s young forwards, Alexis Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko; the latter was a healthy scratch for Game Six, but Lafreniere is just 20 years old and Kakko is only 21. They’ll learn from their experience and be much more of a post-season threat next year.
As we all should be well-aware by now, winning a Cup is a learning, lengthy process. Before ascending to the heights they’ve been at for three years running, the Lightning had their share of letdowns and underachievements. They had to go through growing pains – emphasis on pain – just like the Rangers are going through at the moment. When you get this far into the playoffs and fall short, there’s a hunger instilled in you that smart coaches and GMs use to their benefit for subsequent seasons.
That’s where the Rangers are at now. They were impressive in knocking off Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round, and then outlasting the Metropolitan Division-champion Carolina Hurricanes in Round Two. Nothing less than at least a trip to next year’s Eastern Finals will suffice for the Rangers next season, and that’s a positive. But they have the foundation of a future Cup-winner, and now it’s about biding their time and capitalizing on their next shot at winning it all.