Track records can be meaningful and, in the Rangers case, encouraging. They had a wealth of experience. The problem with that kind of thinking is that it assumes everything always will be the way it has been. And as Ryan McDonagh said earlier Tuesday, “Experience can only go so far.”
It could not carry the Rangers into a conference final or even a Game 7. It could not take them as far as Erik Karlsson took the Senators, again illustrating the first rule of sports: having the best player is the greatest advantage.
The Senators knocked the Rangers out of the postseason Tuesday night, despite the statistics that had all but assured everyone that the Rangers were a cinch to win such a big game because they had so much big-game experience. That’s the rub. The defining feature of this whole series, which ended in Game 6 Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden, was that the Rangers did not play as if they were the more experienced team.
Time after time, they were outplayed at the most crucial times. That was especially true Tuesday night, when the Senators jumped out to a 2-0 lead and took the air out of the Garden. Ottawa’s team took the air out of Madison Square Garden with its defensive trap. After the Rangers did pump life back in, cutting their deficit to 2-1 in the second period, Karlsson ripped a shot past Henrik Lundqvist—a shot that proved decisive in sending the Rangers into the summer.
“We played well enough to win a lot of games here. Sometimes it’s not about playing your best game. It’s about finding a way to win games,” Lundqvist said.
Rick Nash never will forget how the Rangers gave up late goals and late leads—things that a savvy team is not supposed to do. “It’s tough. For me it’s disappointing, when you have a team that’s this good and you have an opportunity like we did,” he said. “What hits me the most is thinking back: Game 1, four minutes left; Game 2, three minutes left; Game 5, one minute 30? Those are games we have to close out and came back to haunt us.”
Perhaps it was a case of too much experience on the Rangers’ part. These playoffs seemed like a grind, rather than a thrilling joy ride this time around, which was perhaps the last go-round for a core that has been a postseason stalwart but not a champion.
So much had been made of their experience in these situations, and with reason, if you looked at the numbers. In the six seasons that Lundqvist, McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, Derek Stepan and Mats Zuccarello have been together, they had gone 13-4 (entering Tuesday night) in Games 6 and 7 of playoff series. In their previous nine Games 6 and 7, they had been 8-1.
They had won 46 playoff games since 2012, second only to the Blackhawks. They Rangers had won nine series, second to none.
All of it meant nothing. The Senators had more verve, and they had the best player in Karlsson. The Rangers had no one with the elan of Jean-Gabriel Pageau, who had four goals in Game 2 and clinched the series with the empty-netter Tuesday night. When the Rangers faced the choice of steady heads vs. young legs, Alain Vigneault usually relied on the former. It didn’t work.
“I don’t know if you can say if we were the better team because they won, at the end of the day. You’ve got to give them credit. They got the job done,” Nash said. “We had lots of leads in games, especially on the road and we didn’t close it out.”
What it might have done was close out the era of this core group. You can easily guess that management might believe that this group has gone as far as it can, that some new blood is needed. Sounds like a good idea because experience couldn’t take them as far as they wanted to go.