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Original Six Outsiders: Trying to Make Sense of Meaningless March Hockey

In a historically down year for the majority of Original Six teams, blue blood franchises are forging into the unfamiliar territory of meaningless March hockey.

Dan Girardi was scratching his head in the visiting locker room at Barclays Center last week, thinking about the weirdness of his current surroundings after a wild 7-6 win over the Islanders. A few weeks ago, the Lightning defenseman had just awoke from a pregame nap and turned on TSN’s trade deadline coverage when news broke that Tampa Bay had acquired Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller from the Rangers, where Girardi spent most of the last 11 seasons before getting bought out last summer. And now here they were together again, from Blueshirts to blue shirts, reunited in time for the Stanley Cup chase.

“Obviously,” said Girardi, “I’m not complaining.”

Nor should he, of course. The “FOR SALE” billboard had been displayed in midtown Manhattan ever since Rangers brass released a letter announcing their upcoming rebuild on Feb. 8. No shame in taking advantage. Boston moseyed through and plucked defenseman Nick Holden, then returned five days later to coax away Rick Nash. History’s first trade between the Rangers and Devils saw Michael Grabner shipped across the Hudson, where the speedster not only gained trivia factoid status but 11 points in the standings. Miller and McDonagh learned their fates as the clock struck 3 p.m. for the March 1 deadline, one last move squeezed before the buzzer, sending them from lottery to luxury with the Eastern Conference-leading Lightning.

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The result has been predictable for the Rangers; after Capitals winger T.J. Oshie told NBCSN's Joe Micheletti that he expected a “pretty hard game” from a New York team “looking to make some impressions for next year” on Monday night, Washington scored four in the first period and won 4-2. But at least they’re not alone in their misery. For the first time ever, the Rangers (33-34-8), Blackhawks (31-36-10), Canadiens (28-37-12) and Red Wings (27-37-11) will all miss the playoffs in the same spring, Original Six blue bloods who have fallen on uncommonly hard times. “It’s not easy,” says Canadiens coach Claude Julien, a few days after his team was eliminated from postseason contention. “But it’s something that has to be done right now.”

Patrick Sharp gets it. He was standing in the same spot as Girardi on Saturday, both literally inside the Barclays Center locker room over the weekend and figuratively, thinking about the last time Chicago missed the playoffs. That was exactly a decade ago, the rookie season of the Kane and Toews era, before the three Stanley Cups and modern dynasty talk. Sharp recalls the “uncomfortable feeling” of playing meaningless hockey in March. And yet, he says, dour stretches like these “really helped me moving forward.”

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The hope is that youngsters like Alex DeBrincat, as well as recently signed rookies Victor Ejdsell and Dylan Sikura, will eventually feel the same way. Results don’t matter, but games still do. “Whether it’s a similar group or not next season, I think it’s important to finish strong,” Kane says. “We’ve got a lot of young guys, guys that haven’t really been part of a winning culture in here. Last year we had a good season but didn’t win a game in the playoffs. This year has been a tough go. You’ve got to make sure it’s not becoming okay in here just to lose games and going to the next one, no matter what time it is. Try to finish strong and feel good about ourselves.”

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The Blackhawks sold too—Ryan Hartman to Nashville, Michal Kempny to Washington, Tommy Wingels to Boston—though not as full-throated as the Rangers. Montreal similarly scored a few future draft picks, plus prospects in the Tomas Plekanec deal with Toronto and young defenseman Mike Reilly from Minnesota. When playoffs are taken off the table, asset accumulation becomes the reluctant consolation prize. “That’s what everybody tries to do now,” Julien says. “You don’t want to ruin what you have. You want to add to it. And sometimes you have to part with people you don’t want to part with. From the outside, it may look a lot easier than it is. But there are tough decisions that have to be made.”

Until GM Marc Bergevin can tackle personnel decisions this summer, Julien must mine optimism from the little things. No other choice, really. Like winger Nikita Scherbak scoring shorthanded against Pittsburgh (even though the 22-year-old celebrated with all the enthusiasm of Eeyore). Or defenseman Noah Juulsen, 20, getting an extended crack at marking Sidney Crosby in the same game. This is Julien’s first full losing season since ‘00-01 when he helmed the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs. He remembers those days well. “I grew so much from that,” he says. “This year, it’s about understanding we have a lot of young players, teaching and being patient with these guys, hoping that when we turn the corner, these tough times will have paid off for us.”

A few blocks from Broadway, the Rangers are using these final weeks for open auditions. Summoned from AHL Hartford to face the Metro Division-leading Capitals, top prospects Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil responded by delivering their first NHL goal and first NHL point, respectively. But blessed with bushels of cap space, extra first-rounders from the Nash and McDonagh-Miller deals, and King Henrik Lundqvist still atop his blue-painted throne, the team shouldn’t be down for long. As it stands, four teams should clinch playoff berths after missing out last season, not counting the expansion revelation that are the Vegas Golden Knights.

“Just speaks to the parity in the NHL,” Kane says. “I guess it gives you some confidence knowing that it’s not that tough of a turnaround.”