This one stings. It’s going to sting for a while. The Rangers were the best team in the Eastern Conference, but the best team does not always win. Even the best teams struggle with matchups, the best teams have clunkers, the best teams hit skids. The Rangers were barely playing above .500 hockey heading into the playoffs (11-9-1 in March/April), and played .500 hockey in the playoffs. That doesn’t get it done in May.
The Rangers were victimized by matchups in the playoffs. Ottawa and Washington were the toughest draws the Rangers could get in the first round, and they wound up facing both of them. Ottawa victimized the Rangers with skill and speed, and the Rangers escaped because they were the better team. Washington, a team like the Rangers, made life difficult with great goaltending and team defense. A Joel Ward double minor helped the Rangers escape that series.
But perhaps the team that the Rangers didn’t match up against at all were the Devils. It was something no one could see coming. It’s simple really. The Devils during the regular season generally played a 1-2-2 hybrid trap. They forechecked when needed, but generally just clogged the neutral zone. They changed their style in April. As Suit mentioned in the series preview, the Devils started employing the tactic the Rangers use: the 2-1-2 aggressive forecheck. The switch worked.
The Devils beat the Rangers at their own game. They did it because they have more skill than the Rangers. While the Rangers were struggling to shut down the Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise, Adam Henrique, and Travis Zajac, the fourth line speed and skill of Ryan Carter, Steve Bernier, and Stephen Gionta killed the Rangers.
The depth of the Devils beat the Rangers. Not once did Eric Boulton, Tim Sestito or Cam Janssen dress in this series like they did in the regular season. The Devils adjusted to their opponent, and dressed speed and skill to counter the Rangers toughness. That fourth line depth is what beat the Rangers. That lack of skill is what doomed the Rangers. It shows they are still an incomplete team.
This season was a magical ride. If you told me in September that this team would lose in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Finals, I would have been thrilled. Perhaps we were spoiled by being on top of the Eastern Conference all season. Perhaps we expected more in the playoffs. But if this season taught us anything, it’s that this team is on the rise. The New York Rangers are here to stay.