Winning Cup a tough road ahead for scoring-challenged Rangers

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist
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Six of Lundqvist's eight playoff wins this postseason have been by one goal. (Getty Images)  
Six of Lundqvist's eight playoff wins this postseason have been by one goal. (Getty Images)  

NEW YORK -- Maybe this is déjà vu all over again. Maybe it's 1994 for the New York Rangers -- or 2004 for its head coach, John Tortorella, and star player Brad Richards.

But I don't think so.

The Rangers aren't so much a team of destiny as they are a club hitched to the back of a marvelous goaltender, Vezina finalist Henrik Lundqvist, and while that's not all that bad I don't see how it makes this 1994 all over again.

That's when the Rangers won their last Stanley Cup, and, with New Jersey next up, it's beginning to feel a lot like 18 years ago. Then the Rangers broke New Jersey's heart in the playoffs. Then the Rangers had a torrid goaltender. Then the Rangers seemed a team of destiny.

Only one difference: That team could score. This one? Uh, not so much.

In fact, Saturday's 2-1 defeat of the Washington Capitals in the seventh and deciding game of the Eastern Conference semifinals marked the 13th straight time the Rangers failed to produce more than three goals in a contest, and, sorry, folks, but that's not how you win a Cup.

I know, it was enough to push the Rangers past Ottawa in seven games, and it was good enough to push them past Washington in seven, too. But how much longer can this last? I mean, let's say they survive New Jersey. In all likelihood, they draw Los Angeles, and, no, I don't like their chances vs. a team that buried Vancouver and St. Louis.

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Of course, that's where Lundqvist comes in. He's "The King" of New York, and he played like it Saturday night when he made 22 saves -- 11 in the second period -- and dropped his goals-against average in the playoffs to a gaudy 1.68 and his save percentage to .937.

"I felt sharp," he said afterward. "I felt like I was seeing the puck."

He was, making a series of critical stops in the second period as New York clung to a one-goal lead. There was a close call where the Caps' Alexander Semin took a feed and skated in alone on Lundqvist, only to be denied. There was another stretch where the Caps controlled the puck in the New York end for nearly two minutes, with the Rangers and their goalie holding on.

"I was nervous," said Lundqvist, who hasn't allowed more than three goals in any of his 14 playoff starts, "but, at the same time, it was exciting. I thought we did a good job of holding our focus."

They did a better job in the third period, especially after the Caps closed the gap to one and went on their only power play. But instead of applying the heat, Washington was unable to solve New York's penalty-killing unit, with the Rangers producing the best scoring chances and Washington wilting.

"That was one of our better periods [in the series]," said coach Tortorella, who won the 2004 Stanley Cup with Tampa Bay. "We held our composure and just kept attacking."

And they won.

But they won because they know how to play defense and because they had the hot goalie. And they won because they scored first, with Richards -- the Conn Smythe winner on that 2004 Tampa Bay team -- producing a goal only 1:32 into the game.

I mention that because the club that scored first in this series always won. Always. And it did again Saturday as the Rangers ran their Game 7 playoff record in franchise history to 5-0 at Madison Square Garden, 2-0 this season, and won their 11th game of the playoffs by one goal.

But let's be honest: They overcame an opponent that played a lot like themselves, confident in its defense, confident in a terrific young goalie and careful not to make mistakes. I know Washington can beat you with guys like Alex Ovechkin, Jason Chimera, Nicklas Backstrom and Semin, but goalie Braden Holtby was its best weapon -- and he damned near put the Capitals in the conference final.

Maybe that's why Lundqvist admitted later that getting past Washington was "a big relief." But it's not the Washington Capitals that will define this New York team. It's the New Jersey Devils, and, if New York puts them away, whichever team is left from the Western Conference.

But this just in: Since the NHL in 1968 expanded the playoffs beyond two rounds no team has won the Stanley Cup after playing 14 games in its first two series -- which means the odds just got steeper for New York.

"We're still in the middle of trying to prove we can be one of the elite teams," Tortorella said. "Where your legacy is made is the playoffs. So I'd like to see what happens in the next couple of weeks."

So would I. I'd like to see if the Rangers can score more than two goals a game. I'd like to see if they can lean on someone other than Lundqvist. I'd like to see if they can survive and make it 1994 all over again.

But I have my doubts.

"You make a big deal that we don't score goals," Tortorella told reporters. "But I think our defense played its ass off against a very talented team; a very offensive team."

It did. But that's not the issue. Hockey isn't a one-dimensional game. At some point, someone must start producing scores. At some point, the power play must kick in. At some point, Lundqvist must catch a break.

That happened during the season when the Rangers were the second best team in hockey and numero uno in the Eastern Conference. It must happen again.

Or else.

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