NHL playoffs: Rangers weren't ready for Bruins
The toll was more mental than physical.
The Rangers rallied from a 3-2 series deficit in the opening round and advanced with back-to-back shutout wins in the final two contests - culminating with a 5-0 rout in Game 7.
But when the time came to take on the Boston Bruins just three days later, the Rangers weren't ready. Boston outlasted Toronto in seven games in the first round, and then got the jump on New York by winning the first three games of that matchup.
"One of the things, and it falls on my shoulders, is our team's mindset going into another round," Rangers coach John Tortorella said Monday when the club packed up for the summer. "Both teams played an emotional Game 7. I don't think our mindset was ready to play another series and to the level you need to be at. It didn't have a playoff atmosphere.
The Rangers salvaged Game 4 with an overtime win at home, but were gone in Game 5 on Saturday with a 3-1 road loss.
"That's what I struggle with right now is I didn't do a good enough job in correcting and getting their mindset back to not only play at the level of a Game 7 in the first round but get ready for round 2, which is always going to be tougher," Tortorella said.
The timing was off for the entire season that didn't begin until January because of the long NHL lockout, and was chopped to 48 games in the regular season - all played against conference opponents.
The Rangers played well down the stretch to secure a postseason berth as the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference, while other divisional rivals such as New Jersey - a Stanley Cup finalist last season - and Philadelphia failed to get in.
New York believed it could make a deep run in the playoffs, and gained further confidence by knocking the Southeast Division champion Capitals in the first round despite not having home-ice advantage. But a lack of offense and an almost non-existent power play eventually proved to be too much for the Rangers to overcome.
"It's an emotional thing," Tortorella said. "You win the last two games of a first-round series, you play an emotional Game 7, you win it, and within a couple of days you're playing another series. It's not a Game 7, it's a Game 1. I thought we did enough, but as I watched us play, it wasn't enough.
"The biggest part of my job is that and how you handle your top players to get them to play."
The biggest burden fell on the shoulders of goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who was under pressure all along to be nearly perfect and compensate for the lack of goals scored at the other end. He held up well for a while, but the Rangers managed only 10 total goals in the five games against the Bruins and scored two or fewer in each one except the 4-3 win in Game 4 on Thursday night.
"The first round was great, but in the second round we didn't really match Boston," Lundqvist said. "I thought they played a great series and deserved to win.
"Every year is different, but I think losing to Boston is really disappointing. I kind of have to accept it. They played a lot better than us and they deserved it. I still think we could've done a better job, but it's history now. We just have to learn from it."
Lundqvist will factor into one of the big decisions the Rangers will have to make in the offseason. The reigning Vezina Trophy winner, who is again a finalist this year to be named the NHL's top goalie, has one year left on his contract before he can become an unrestricted free agent.
The Rangers might look to sign the 31-year-old Lundqvist to a long-term contract now before he can hit the open market in a year.
"Every year is important. It doesn't matter where you are in your career," Lundqvist said. "When you have an opportunity to go forward to win, you need to grab that opportunity. Last year was one of those years, and this year we had the team to go for it.
"I'm going to talk to my agent and we'll see. I have had such a great time here in New York. From Day One they have treated me really well and given me an opportunity to play a lot of hockey. It's been a lot of fun. I have one more year on the contract and right now I am just trying to get over this year."
That was a common theme throughout the Rangers room.
Last year, New York reached the conference finals before bowing out against New Jersey. Though through the disappointment, the feeling was that this year wasn't necessarily a regression in the growth and development of the team.
"I know the surrounding feeling here is that it was a negative season, a disappointing season. I don't buy it and I won't," Tortorella said. "There are some good things that happened. I don't think we took a step backward. I think this is a sideways step in our lineup and how things worked out.
"We played really well our last couple of months to get in, found a way to win a big series against Washington, and against Boston I thought we competed right to the end."
But everyone was in agreement that the end arrived much sooner than they wanted and felt that it would.
"We were in the conference finals last year. We had high expectations on ourselves this year. It didn't go our way, so yeah it is a step back," Lundqvist said. "It's tough to make it there, though. You can't just expect it to happen. You have to work really hard, you have to do a lot of things right, and probably have some good bounces on the way to make it there.
"We definitely hoped for better this year, but you can't just go out and expect it to happen. It's going to be a challenge every year. It doesn't matter what type of team you have."
Meanwhile, Brad Richards would like to continue his career with the Rangers. That decision was his two summers ago, but now it is out of his hands.
The former star center joined his teammates on Monday in cleaning out their lockers following their disappointing five-game loss to Boston in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The defeat struck Richards even harder because he was a healthy scratch for the final two games.
His production simply wasn't good enough to stay in the lineup. That is a far cry from July 2011 when the 33-year-old Richards signed a nine-year, $60-million deal to join the Rangers as a prized free agent.
"It's about the team and producing for the team, and it was a struggle," Tortorella said of Richards, who won the Stanley Cup with him in 2004 with Tampa Bay. "It not only hurt Brad, but more importantly it hurt the team.
"It's not all on him as far as all the things that have gone on. When you have a guy that we put into the position that we thought was going to produce, it hurts the team. We just keep on trying to get better, other guys step in, try to do some other things, and you try to find a way to win as a hockey club."
The Rangers stayed alive against Boston in Game 4, the first game Richards was held out of the lineup. They couldn't duplicate the success two days later, and were eliminated on the road.
"When it happens, you're not really understanding," Richards said of the benching. "It just wasn't a good season."
Now Richards' future with the Rangers is very much in doubt. New York could choose to buy out the remaining seven years of his contract. Each NHL team has the option of two amnesty buyouts that could be used to terminate contracts before next season or the 2014-15 season.
The buyouts will cost two-thirds of the remaining amount on a deal -- paid evenly over twice its remaining length -- and will count against the players' overall share in revenues, but not the individual team's salary cap. A buyout for Richards would cost the Rangers $24 million over 14 years.
"I didn't play the last two games of the season," Richards said. "I signed here to be a Ranger for a lot longer than a year-and-a-half. So I hope to do that.
"But I do understand what's going on. I just want to play hockey. That's all I'm worried about."
Tortorella said that no matter what happens, his relationship with Richards hasn't been changed or damaged.
The ultimate decision on what happens with the contract, however, rests in the hands of general manager Glen Sather. The team is expected to hold its organizational meetings in late June.
Richards was moved to the fourth line before he was eventually benched, but his style of play didn't fit there.
"Brad knows how I feel about him," Tortorella said. "I was not coaching him the right way playing him on the fourth line. It doesn't work, but I also could not put him in front of other people because I thought the other people were playing better.
"I think it needs to be the start of trying to jump-start him, to make him understand this isn't good enough. That's one thing about Brad Richards, I think he understands that stuff. It happened at a time that we didn't want to do it, but it is a bit of a wake-up call as far as where we are and what we expect. I believe he understands that and I do believe he will turn himself around."
The long lockout eliminated training camps for teams before the season finally began in January. Richards said he was in good shape in September when the season should have started, but that changed during the extended layoff.
Richards will have to convince the Rangers, or any other team that might be interested in signing him should New York let him go, that he is still capable of being a productive player. He was limited to 11 goals and 34 points in 46 regular-season games and then one goal in 10 postseason contests.
"I'd like to get through the summer first. Obviously I have a lot to prove," he said. "It was a roller coaster."