Continuing with our rankings, we get into the better years of the decade, where the Blueshirts “did everything but win”, again. In Part 2, we’ll rank the Foxwoods Final Five seasons of Rangers hockey, from 2009-10 through 2018-19. During this decade, the Rangers earned a playoff berth seven times, won nine playoff series, advanced as far as the Eastern Conference Final twice and appeared in one Stanley Cup Final.
I considered ranking this season lower, but this Ranger team had a lot of skill throughout the lineup and could seemingly score at will. The defensive issues were just as pronounced as they were during the 2015-16 season, but this edition of the Blueshirts owned their identity as a team that was willing to get into track meets, and could often win them (thank you, Henrik Lundqvist). Prior to this season, Jeff Gorton pulled off his best trade to date, sending Derick Brassard and a 7th round pick to Ottawa for Mika Zibanejad and a 2nd round pick. Of course, this team exited the playoffs earlier than it should have, with a desultory loss to the Senators (and Brassard himself) in round 2.
I’ll never forget going out to watch the first game of the lockout shortened 2013 season in January. There was seemingly NYR gear everywhere on the streets of New York, even though the team was on the road in Boston. The 2012 run to the Eastern Conference Finals and the off-season acquisition of Rick Nash imbued fans with a sense that the Rangers were ready to contend for the Stanley Cup in earnest. The Rangers hovered around .500 before another dramatic late-season push propelled them into the playoffs. Dan Girardi’s 1-0 OT winner vs. the Islanders and captain Ryan Callahan’s playoff clincher against Carolina 12 days later are two of the best and most important regular season goals of the past decade.
In terms of wins and losses, the 2014-15 season was the best of the decade. The Rangers won 53 games, amassed 113 points and took home the Presidents Trophy. By points percentage, it was the third best regular season in franchise history. And yet, it will be remembered for what it was not. This was, without a doubt, the team that was supposed to win the Stanley Cup. After a thrilling come-from-behind series win over the Caps (Stepan! In overtime!), Injuries and some highly questionable lineup choices conspired to derail the Blueshirts. Unfortunately, so many good memories are tainted by two inexcusable no-shows at home during the Conference Final: the pivotal game 5 and deciding game 7, both 2-0 losses.
The quintessential John Tortorella team, defined by hard work, defense, bruises, black eyes and of course, elite goaltending. This edition of the Rangers was truly greater than the sum of its parts, with players throughout the lineup contributing at key moments all season. It was also the team fans got to know best, thanks to the brilliant 24/7 Road to the Winter Classic series on HBO. Not only were they an entertaining team on the ice, but a genuine and funny group off of it. No matter how likable a team is, it still needs to win games, and this Ranger team won a lot: 51 times to be exact. However, the bruising style took a toll on the Rangers, who were simply out of gas by the time they reached the Eastern Conference finals, where they lost to the Devils in 6. Still, this season gave fans a collection of incredible memories: Mike Rupp’s Winter Classic double, Marian Gaborik’s triple-OT winner and Brad Richards’ 6.6 game-tying tally. What a ride.
What makes a season special is often the fact that no one really sees it coming. Fans didn’t know what to expect from the Rangers after the dismissal of John Tortorella. Alain Vigneault came in with a reputation for regular season success, and getting the most out of skilled players, but the Rangers were not a particularly high-scoring team in 2014. Their regular season was unremarkable in many ways, though a strong final stretch propelled them to a second place finish in the new Metropolitan Division. The playoff run was simply epic, chock full of the types of memories and moments that – to borrow a phrase from Sam Rosen – last a lifetime. When the Rangers came back from 3-1 down to Pittsburgh, rallying around Martin St. Louis who was mourning the loss of his mother, it really felt like the franchise’s fifth Cup was written in the stars. Unfortunately, the juggernaut that was the LA Kings stood in the way, and the Rangers, just like those great teams of the 70’s, fell just three wins short.