TAMPA, Fla. — The numbers will be picked over. One even-strength goal in four games. The first four-game losing streak of the entire season. Just 2-8 on the road in the playoffs. Zero points from Mika Zibanejad in the final three games. Ditto, Adam Fox.
The decisions will be picked over too. Kaapo Kakko, having at the very least a solid-to-good playoff, sitting in the press box with a bunch of hockey writers while the Rangers played the final period with 11 forwards — and really only played the entirety of Game 6 with 11 1 /2 forwards, given how compromised Ryan Strome was all night.
But ultimately, this impressive Rangers run came down to three different goals in three different games. All in the final 6:32 of the third period, all to give the Lightning the lead, all adding up to a three-peat drive that continues on for the Lightning, while the Rangers, with all their flaws and the numbers and the decisions , are left to wonder what might have been.
“They did it, we didn’t,” Chris Kreider said Saturday night. “We did it in the first round and the second round.”
This was a great season for the Rangers, with a new general manager, new coaching staff and, after the trade deadline, a handful of new faces. They posted the third-best record in franchise history to get back to the playoffs after a five-year absence (bubble qualifying round aside), then posted two impressive comebacks to advance past the Penguins and Hurricanes.
Then came two more impressive games to open this series and you could dare to dream. Up 2-0 in Game 3, the Final felt close. Six days later, they were done after a 2-1 loss in Game 6. Done in by Ondrej Palat’s Game 3 winner with 41.6 seconds to go, by Palat’s shin-pad deflection to win Game 5 with 1:50 left and Saturday, Steven Stamkos’ winner off his thigh with 6:32 to play.
Game 6 wasn’t close by the numbers — 63-45 Tampa Bay in total shot attempts — or by the eye test, or any other measurement. The Lightning smelled blood after pulling out Game 5 at the Garden and were on the Rangers from the start. Igor Shesterkin did his usual best to keep his team afloat, offsetting a surprising Stamkos goal off the rush in the second with half a dozen robberies throughout the night until Frank Vatrano tied it on a power play with 6:53 to play.
The good feeling lasted about 15 seconds. That’s how long it took for a center-ice faceoff, a couple of passes in the neutral zone, a Rangers dump-in and then a rush out of nothing — Jacob Trouba caught flat-footed at the Tampa Bay blue line as Palat fed Nikita Kucherov out of the zone, Stamkos flying by Trouba to receive a pass, a Shesterkin save and then a juggled puck floating into the net.
“We tied the game, we were in a good spot,” Gerard Gallant said, “then they went down and scored again. We battled hard, came back and tied the game, they come down, get a two-on-one and put it in the net.”
There wasn’t enough push after that. Zibanejad rejected any fatigue excuse, with Saturday marking 20 playoff games in 40 days. It’s hard to believe they weren’t a bit worn down, not just by the schedule but also by the key Rangers playing through injury. And the two-time defending champs, who not only know how to clamp down with a late lead but also how to strike when they need to.
“It’s a lot of hockey in a short amount of time,” Trouba said. “A lot of guys with some courageous efforts, playing through some things.”
Gallant curiously declined to get into his decision to scratch Kakko for Dryden Hunt, who threw a few hits and otherwise did little in 10:58 of ice time. “Today’s not the time,” Gallant said. Strome was noticeably limping on his way out of the arena Saturday morning and briefly left the pregame warmups before returning. Gallant said he could see Strome laboring from his first shift of Game 6 and Strome left after the second period and just 8:42 of ice time.
Kakko is a restricted free agent this offseason after an injury-plagued down year. That he was in street clothes for the last playoff game doesn’t bode well for whatever contract talks will come or whether Chris Drury and Gallant believe the 2019 No. 2 pick has a place on the team, though you would think the Rangers need Kakko for his potential and his low contract cost for at least next season.
Strome hobbling through what was likely his last game as a Ranger wasn’t ideal either. He wasn’t as consistent as you’d want before his injury, but the Rangers scored three goals in the final three games — Game 4 without Strome and Games 5 and 6 with him hobbled.
There will be a lot to digest from this season and lots to dissect in what will be a huge offseason for Drury. His moves in his first season as GM worked out tremendously well, even as the Pavel Buchnevich–Sammy Blais trade and spending a third-rounder plus an extension for Ryan Reaves, who was also in street clothes for Game 6, were maligned deals from last offseason.
The Rangers won the trade deadline with the Andrew Copp, Vatrano, Tyler Motte and Justin Braun acquisitions. All four played regular and sometimes key roles in this playoff run. But the Rangers can’t keep more than one, possibly two, of those four, so the team will look different when it convenes for training camp in September.
The Rangers will have to carry the lessons they learned this year, this postseason and especially this series. Three coin-flip games came up tails every time.
“We could have been done in five games in that first round, but we battled,” Fox said. “It took everyone. It’s a nice, young mix of guys in this room and a good mix of older guys as well. A great locker room. It was a lot of good experience. You wish for a better ending but definitely promising for our team.”
(Top photo of Steven Stamkos and Igor Shesterkin: Kim Klement/USA Today)