By Larry Brooks
April 14, 2016
Alain Vigneault frowns on the Rangers bench during their Game 1 loss.Photo: Anthony J. Causi
PITTSBURGH — Alain Vigneault should step aside. Now is the time for Bluto to deliver the message to the Rangers.
“Over? Did you say over? Nothing is over until we say it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no! And it is not over now! Because when the going gets tough … the tough get going! Who’s with me?”
Well, that’s the crux of it for the Rangers, who may have to operate without Henrik Lundqvist for at least Game 2 here on Saturday afternoon if the swelling around the franchise goaltender’s right eye doesn’t recede enough to permit him to play:
Do the Rangers believe it’s over without Lundqvist (and Ryan McDonagh, who is unlikely to play for the foreseeable future)? Do the Rangers have the will to persevere without the goaltender who essentially represents their identity and alone is whatever is left of their aura?
Do these guys who have seemed emotionally disconnected and fatigued throughout the season believe that they can overcome not only this series with or without Lundqvist, but four opponents to win the 16 games necessary to capture the chalice that has eluded them despite their best efforts?
Do they have what it takes to gut it out the way they did so often over the preceding four years, even if their best wasn’t quite good enough?
The Blueshirts sure have their excuse now if they want to use it. Sure can bemoan the fates if indeed Lundqvist is either sidelined or impaired. Sure can go home for their first early summer since 2011 and mount up as a more refreshed club next time around. Well, at least those of them can who make it through the offseason as Rangers.
Oh my. And after last year when Mats Zuccarello went down, and McDonagh played at the end with a broken foot and Dan Girardi had a bad knee and Marc Staal had a hairline fracture of the ankle?
A couple of years ago, I was talking to a Tampa resident whose interest in the sport was (and is) rather casual. But Derek Jeter wanted to know from “Hockey Man,” as he referred to this columnist, what had happened to the hometown Lightning in the playoffs.
“Swept in the first round by Montreal,” he was told.
“Well, their No. 1 goalie [Ben Bishop] was injured.”
“That’s no excuse.”
There never were any excuses acceptable for Jeter and there are no excuses in pro sports. Injuries happen. They happen in the playoffs. Teams are either good enough and committed enough to overcome them or they aren’t.
Good grief, a third-string goaltender named Jeff Zatkoff shut out the Rangers for the first 43:10 of Wednesday’s Game 1 before Derek Stepan scored with a two-man advantage in the eventual 5-2 loss to the Penguins, who adapted just fine to the unavailability of their top two netminders.
Maybe Lundqvist — who stayed in for the final 48.2 seconds of the first period after taking Marc Staal’s stick dangerously close to the eye and yielded a goal before giving way to Antti Raanta, just as the King stayed in last year and even played another full game after being struck in the throat by the shot that caused a serious vascular injury — will be able to play Saturday, or maybe he will be back for Game 3 on Tuesday in New York.
But maybe not. Maybe he will be out for the duration. Regardless, the Rangers owe it to themselves to coalesce around this measure of adversity and at the very least make it a fight the way the Canadiens did against the Blueshirts two years ago in the conference finals when Carey Price went down in Game 1 and was replaced by a neophyte named Dustin Tokarski who had previously gotten only seven NHL starts.
They owe it to themselves to incorporate more attention to detail and more desperation into their game, qualities that were lacking throughout much of the season and throughout much of Game 1, even if pretty much all of the advanced stats were in their favor on Wednesday. Honest; how many of them honestly believe they played well enough or gave enough?
The Rangers went 25 games without Lundqvist last year in the wake of that vascular injury and went 18-4-3 in his absence. Cam Talbot was outstanding carrying the load (16-4-3, .929, 2.16), but this year’s team isn’t close to last year’s in terms of either execution or commitment.
Last year’s team believed.
This year’s? Well, we will find out soon enough whether it does.
We will find out soon enough if the Rangers think that it is over.