April 23, 2016
(Photo: Gene Puskar/AP)
PITTSBURGH — This was more than just a season ending. This was more than just defeat and disappointment.
The Rangers’ 6-3 loss to the Penguins in Game 5 of their first-round playoff series on Saturday afternoon at Consol Energy Center was the work of the past nine months going up in inglorious flames.
Fireworks shot off into the damp skies of Western Pennsylvania to tell the world these Blueshirts were not good enough — not good enough to beat the Penguins, not good enough to advance out of the first round, and not good enough from top to bottom of the lineup to think this offseason can go without seismic changes.
But maybe more damning were the words of their franchise goalie, the man who previously had carried them through these types of must-win games. Henrik Lundqvist watched the third period from under a hat, sitting at the end of the bench, mercifully pulled for the second straight game when his teammates and his confidence abandoned him in stunning fashion.
“In the second period, it was a feeling of embarrassment to give up that many goals,” he said, having surrendered four goals in the disastrous second, six total on 23 shots through 40 minutes. “But also a sense of hopelessness, not being able to come up with saves.”
How much of this loss is on Lundqvist and how much was on his defensively inept teammates hardly matters. Same can be said for the 5-0 blowout defeat they suffered in Game 4 on Thursday at the Garden, when Lundqvist was yanked after giving up four goals on 18 shots in 26:04 of work.
He could have been superhuman and the Penguins still would have wiped the floor with the Blueshirts. The struggles that plagued them throughout the inconsistent regular season did not disappear once the postseason started. After eliminating the Penguins in each of the past two tournaments, this time Lundqvist was unable to clean up the mess.
“I think we played a team that was smarter, better — and [got] better goaltending,” Lundqvist said.
So Lundqvist thought he was outplayed by 22-year-old rookie Matt Murray for the final three games of the series after it was third-stringer Jeff Zatkoff for the first two. How’s that for a wake-up call?
But really, it was the guys in front of him who were so much worse than they had been in making it to three of the past four conference finals. The core group is getting older and slower, and it was ugly to watch. Those Rangers teams that were fast and pushed the pace and defended leads with grit and aplomb, they no longer exist.
“That’s what we used to do for teams,” said forward Derick Brassard, who was minus-2 in another desultory performance. “They did it to us now.”
Not surprisingly, the Rangers came out flying, getting on the board when Rick Nash tipped a Dan Girardi shot for a 1-0 lead just 69 seconds in. But also not surprising was the Penguins pushing back, getting one from old friend Carl Hagelin at 9:50 to tie it. Dominic Moore gave the Rangers a 2-1 lead at 10:35 of the first, but then the Penguins’ historically great power play equalized with Phil Kessel’s third of the series, taking a 2-2 tie into the second.
That’s when it all fell apart. Just over five minutes in, the bad Keith Yandle reared his head, turning it over and then chasing all around his zone as Bryan Rust was left wide open at the back post for the first of his two goals, taking a 3-2 lead. Then Brassard was pushed off the puck by Matt Cullen, who made it 4-2. The Rangers got overaggressive, and Conor Sheary and Rust piled on to make it 6-2 before the second period could even end.
“It’s a feeling we’re not used to this early on,” said defenseman Marc Staal, whose reunion with brother Eric failed miserably. “We got beat by a better team. They were better than us, all series.”
Now it’s a summer to think about it, and for the Rangers management to regroup. A lot of long days and nights lay ahead, with decisions to be made. And this series, and the way it ended, sitting there as an indictment of how horribly wrong it all went.
“We didn’t have any answers for anything,” Brassard said. “It’s a brutal way to lose.”