Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist shakes hands with Lightning counterpart Ben Bishop after Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final Friday. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
The New York Rangers have struggled on offense throughout the playoffs – and it finally spelled doom for them in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final Friday, as the Lightning scored a pair of third-period goals to win 2-0 and move on to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 2004.
In the final minutes of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final Friday, New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist sat on his team's bench, a thousand-yard stare having settled in behind his eyes, his head occasionally hanging down. You felt for him, because it wasn't his fault the Lightning eliminated the Blueshirts with a 2-0 victory. Sure, the game-winner he allowed to Tampa Bay's Alex Killorn at 1:54 of the third period wasn't the finest moment of his impressive NHL career, but the Rangers weren't unable to defend their conference championship because he let down his teammates.
No, the Rangers are now done for the year for the reason many have seen coming for a while now: their anemic offense once again made lemons out of lemonade and was unable to provide any goals in support of Lundqvist for the second time in the series. Lundqvist lived up to his end of the bargain, but the Blueshirts failed to far too often in the 2015 post-season, and on Friday, it was the end of them.
With their season on the line, the Rangers managed five shots on Bolts goalie Ben Bishop in the first period, and six in the second. Now, the Lightning didn't do much better, firing just 25 shots on Lundqvist. But the visiting team was also the better team in the even-strength possession dept. – and with the officials only handing out two penalties all night (both to the Bolts), that spelled doom for a Blueshirts roster that had too many unproductive players.
Greybeard winger Martin St-Louis had just one goal and three points in the series, and was held off the scoresheet with just one shot on net over the course of the final two games. Regular-season MVP Rick Nash amassed all of one shot on net in Game 7 and didn't register a point in five of the seven Eastern Final showdowns. Defenseman and costly trade deadline pickup Keith Yandle failed to get a shot on Bishop Friday and didn't put up at least one point in four of the seven games he played against Tampa. Chris Kreider posted two goals and four points in the Eastern Final and didn't post a single point in its final three games. And the list of the Rangers' underwhelming performances is longer than the ones noted in this paragraph.
By contrast, there's the Lightning, who punched a ticket to their first Stanley Cup Final appearance since 2004 by getting contributions on offense from throughout the lineup. In Game 7, it came from Killorn and Ondrej Palat, and they took the heat off star center Steven Stamkos (who didn't have a point or shot Friday and also didn't register a goal or assist in Game 6) and the rest of their teammates. Tyler Johnson posted another assist to give him a playoff-best 21 points in 20 games, and he finished the series with nine points in seven games. Palat's goal was his fourth of the Eastern Final and his seventh point against the Rangers.
That's what you call a total team effort, and the Rangers – despite scoring a combined 17 goals in Games 3, 4 and 6 – simply couldn't put enough of them together to continue on in the tournament. They did dominate in the faceoff circle in Game 7 (winning 40 of 64 draws), but they committed a whopping 15 turnovers (to Tampa's five) and managed only five takeaways (to Tampa's nine). They held the powerful Bolts' offense to two or fewer goals in three of the games, but won just one of them when they eked out a 2-victory in Game 1.
That was a very familiar score for the Rangers. They played nine playoff games that ended in a 2-1 decision, and won seven of them. But leaning on Lundqvist's brilliance time and again was a clear case of playing with fire. Look at the Western Final between the Hawks and Ducks, and you'll see two teams who haven't needed their goalies to steal them series. As a matter of fact, both Chicago and Anaheim have had shaky performances out of their netminders at times in this post-season – and the players in front of them have bailed them out.
The same can't be said for the Blueshirts. For three rounds, the grand majority of the bailing was done by the guy on the bench in the final minutes of Game 7 Friday with a thousand-yard stare behind his eyes and his head occasionally hanging down. And that was never going to be enough to win them a Cup.