Not just because Ottawa, overwhelmed and overmatched during the first two games at Madison Square Garden, barged into the Rangers’ arena and snatched a victory to advance to the third round for the first time since 2007. Or because of the favorable draw that dropped the Rangers into a less imposing side of the playoff bracket, thus guaranteeing they would avoid the three best teams — Washington, Pittsburgh and Columbus — until the conference finals, a stage that eludes them yet again.
The Rangers led Ottawa for nearly three full games — half the series — and won only twice. Their first three defeats came by one goal, and they were winning at some point in each. Twice in Ottawa, including Game 5 on Saturday, the Rangers bungled late leads after the Senators pulled goaltender Craig Anderson for an extra attacker, and they went on to lose in overtime. On Tuesday, they allowed two first-period goals and mangled four power plays, including three in the first 12 minutes 35 seconds.
“I don’t know if I’ve really ever gone through a series like this where we seemed to shoot ourselves in the foot as far as closing games out or not playing well in crucial situations,” said the Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh, who slowed his team’s push by committing a late penalty. “We have nobody to blame but ourselves, and that’s the truth of the situation.”
These are the moments that remained raw Tuesday in the immediate aftermath. The Rangers will analyze and discuss them for days, weeks, in exit interviews and honest conversations among themselves. The chances were there — Chris Kreider, after scoring 53 seconds into the third period to pull the Rangers to within a goal, flubbed a pass from Mika Zibanejad and later tipped a rebound wide in the final minute — and then they were not.
With two days to simmer after losing Game 5 in overtime, the Rangers projected confidence. Speaking late Tuesday morning, Coach Alain Vigneault was asked which approach he favored before an elimination game: stressing the magnitude or not even mentioning it. Neither, he said.
When the Rangers convened for their pregame meeting, they talked about process but not outcome — they would cherish the moment. On the short path between the dressing room and the ice, their quest for mindfulness lapsed. McDonagh sounded a menacing premonition earlier in the day when he said that he hoped his teammates understood that they could not expect to thump Ottawa, as they did in Games 3 and 4 at the Garden, just by showing up, and he echoed it afterward.
“We were all pretty focused in here, saying the right things,” McDonagh said. “But it’s a difference between saying and doing, and that showed up on the ice.”
Ottawa played with a sense of purpose that exposed the Rangers’ sloppiness. The Senators’ passes connected, and their shots reached the net, and Anderson, who finished with 37 saves, saw the pucks that slipped through the barricade.
At the opposite end, Lundqvist battled through screens — such as the one set by Mike Hoffman, who deflected an Erik Karlsson shot to open the scoring at 4:27 — and dealt with defensive malfunction. Two and a half minutes after Zibanejad scored in the second to narrow the deficit to 2-1, Karlsson darted between two Rangers in the low slot and banged in a pass from Bobby Ryan.
The third period zipped along in Ottawa’s zone, the Rangers prodding and surging before pulling Lundqvist for the final 1:25. They probed for a goal that would never come — that had come twice for the Senators in six-on-five situations — and with 6.2 seconds left, Jean-Gabriel Pageau scored into an empty net, and the Ottawa bench rejoiced. Lundqvist, who had been 10-1 with a 1.05 goals against average and a .965 save percentage in his previous 11 elimination games at the Garden, skated slowly back toward his cage and whacked the crossbar with his stick.
“Sometimes it’s not about playing your best game,” Lundqvist said. “It’s about finding a way to win games, and they did that better than we did.”
Across the past seven seasons, the Rangers have played 16 playoff series, winning nine, but never the ultimate. They have now lost their past three games when facing elimination, puncturing the aura of invincibility that they — and Lundqvist — had once cultivated. Now they are left to ponder how that, and so much more, disappeared.
Continue reading the main story