How the New York Rangers take the next step to Stanley Cup contention

TAMPA, Fla. — New York Rangers coach Gerard Gallant sat inside a conference room at Amalie Arena, discussing how his team’s surprising Stanley Cup playoffs run ended in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals. On the other side of a wall sat coach Jon Cooper, surrounded by Tampa Bay Lightning conference championship hats and riding a much different vibe.

“Gerard Gallant is going to be sitting here in not too long,” Cooper said, pointing to the victors’ podium.

It could have happened this week. The Rangers held a 2-0 series lead over Tampa Bay. Goalie Igor Shesterkin had carried his superior play from their seven-game Round 2 victory against the Carolina Hurricanes into the conference finals. He would make 49 saves in Game 3, but couldn’t stop the biggest shot of the contest: Ondrej Palat’s goal with 42 seconds remaining in regulation, brilliantly set up by Nikita Kucherov, to give the Lightning new life in the series.

This would be a common theme for the next three games. They couldn’t find that goal to tie up Game 4 after Pat Maroon’s tally early in the first, or that second goal in Game 5 that would have prevented more Palat heroics in the last two minutes of regulation, or that tying goal in Game 6 to earn overtime after Steven Stamkos answered their power-play tally in the third period.

“We played well. We battled hard. We had a chance to win all those games but they found a way to get that goal at the right time,” Gallant said.

His Tampa Bay counterpart often talks about how the Lightning’s crushing 2019 first-round sweep loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets was a transformative moment for his team. The Lightning have won 11 straight playoff series since then — Cooper quoted former Jackets coach John Tortorella as saying he created “a monster” in the victory — and learned one of their most important lessons against Columbus: Nothing is achieved unless it’s earned.

“We don’t care how it gets done. It just needs to get done,” Stamkos said.

The Lightning had lost in the conference finals two of the previous three postseasons. Their 128-point regular season in 2018-19 was one of the best in NHL history. Everything pointed to their ascension to the Stanley Cup. Four games later, they were the laughingstock of the league.

This is one of the lessons the Rangers must learn from this Eastern Conference finals loss. The expectations that the Rangers are the “next one” are already there, from Jon Cooper’s mouth to CapFriendly’s pages, which reveal a Rangers team positioned well in terms of age and salary space. The hunger to get back will be there. But success can’t be assumed.

Now comes the hard part.

Here are some of the lessons for the Rangers to take away from their loss to the Lightning in order to take that next step.

Lesson No. 1: Win the war of attrition

This is the key to most successful playoff runs. While the Rangers should be commended for their fortitude in rallying to win two playoff series in a seventh game, that expenditure of energy and wear-and-tear caught up with them against the Lightning, who were much more well-rested.

“It’s hard. When you go seven, you go seven, you go six … that was their 20th playoff game in 40 days,” Cooper said. Meanwhile, the Lightning had a nine-day break between their sweep of the Florida Panthers and the conference finals.

There’s a switch that flips for a championship-caliber team, when it knows that expending so much energy in the first two rounds can be detrimental to the later ones. The Lightning learned it in Cooper’s first journey to the Stanley Cup Final in 2015, winning a seven-game first-round series against the Detroit Red Wings, a six-game series against the Montreal Canadiens and then another seven-game series against the Rangers. The Chicago Blackhawks, who defeated them in the Cup finals, achieved a sweep of the Minnesota Wild en route to the final round.

The Lightning hadn’t played a seven-game series in the first two rounds of the playoffs since then, until the Toronto Maple Leafs pushed them to the limit this year.

“The playoffs at times can be a war of attrition,” Cooper said. “I think in the end, the layoff helped us and no layoff hurt them, and the long series. They just had to play a lot of games.”

Lesson No. 2: Don’t let your opponent off the mat

Cooper was fond of saying that he knew the series had turned “eight minutes into the second period of Game 2.” While that may be true, the Lightning lost that game and the Rangers had a 2-0 lead at 9:44 of the second period in Game 3 of the series. The Lightning rallied to win that game, and then won three straight thereafter.

Perhaps it was always going to be like this. The Lightning won two straight Stanley Cups for a reason. But champions slam the door shut when given the chance. Frequently, it’s the star players that help close it. Look at what Stamkos and Kucherov gave the Lightning in the last few games of the conference finals. The Rangers don’t have that guy. At least yet. Fingers are still crossed on Alexis Lafrenière.

GM Chris Drury was correct in his assessment about the Rangers. “There certainly has been no quit throughout the season,” he said. “I think we as a group have realized how intense the playoffs are. We certainly have shown we can play that way and handle tight and intense experiences.”

But it’s not good enough to play well in the face of adversity. You have to overcome it. And to do so means scoring more than one goal in each of your last three playoff losses.

Lesson No. 3: Build on your strengths, diminish weaknesses

There was perfect symmetry to the end of the Rangers’ playoff run. Game 6 saw Shesterkin play another mind-blowing game, making a highlight reel’s worth of saves; and it saw the Rangers score their only goal on the power play, finishing with a 32.1% conversion rate, the best of the postseason.

It turns out the regular season was a harbinger. The Rangers were defined as a team that was dragged to the playoffs by their Hart Trophy-nominated goalie and their elite power play, which compensated for insufficient 5-on-5 play. In the Eastern Conference finals, the Rangers scored two even-strength goals after the first period of Game 2.

Gallant said the Lightning are “a big, big defensive team,” and that’s true. He also said the Rangers’ inability to score at even strength was a product of fatigue, which is only partially true. They earned 47% of the 5-on-5 shot attempts in the regular season; they earned 44.9% of the shot attempts in the playoffs. They earned 47% of the expected goals in the regular season; they earned 39.2% of the expected goals in the playoffs.

They were who we thought they were: a team with an all-world goalie, an exceptional power play and four lines that get beaten at even strength.

“Let’s be honest: When you have a [great] goaltender, it can hide some flaws on your team,” Cooper said. “I’ll be the first to stand in line and raise my hand and say that [Andrei] Vasilevskiy has done that for us. When you break down, you need someone there that can keep you in games.”

What comes next

Now the good news: The Rangers have both a very solid foundation on which to build, and the cap flexibility with which to do that building.

It starts with Shesterkin. He makes $5,666,667 annually against the salary cap through 2024-25, a deal that looks more brilliant by the save.

“This was my first real look at him. He’s got all of the poise. He reminds me of our guy. He gives their team a ton of confidence. He’s a difference-maker,” Cooper said.

Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Adam Fox is 24 and signed through 2028-29 with a $9.5 million annual cap hit — another brilliant Drury contract. Fox’s defense partner Ryan Lindgren is just 24 and makes $3 million annually against the cap next two seasons before becoming an RFA. K’Andre Miller, 22, is a restricted free agent. They have two other strong young defensemen in Braden Schneider, 20, who played 43 regular-season games for them and 20 more in the playoffs; Nils Lundkvist, 21, who saw 25 games of action this season; and Zac Jones, 21, who’s been up in the NHL for parts of two seasons.

Up front, these playoffs signaled the arrival of Filip Chytil, 22, as an offensive force. Lafrenière, 20, showed so many flashes of all-round exceptional play. (It remains to be seen where they go with Kaapo Kakko, their “Kid Line” linemate and a restricted free agent who was a scratch in Game 6.) The veteran stars are in their prime: Mika Zibanejad, a star by any measure, is 29; Chris Kreider is 31, but still has his wheels; and Artemi Panarin is 30.

According to CapFriendly, the Rangers have $13,458,531 million in open cap space this offseason. Some of that will be earmarked for bringing back players. Will they sign trade deadline pickup Andrew Copp? And if so, what does that mean for center Ryan Strome, who is Panarin’s preferred pivot? Do they bring back Tyler Motte and Frank Vatrano, the latter having been a top-line player for them in the playoffs?

“When you have the core they have up front and some of the defensemen they have coming and they have the goaltender, it’s a pretty good recipe to have,” Cooper said.

Now they just need to find the right ingredients to elevate the dish. There’s been talk about trying to trade for Vancouver Canucks forward J.T. Miller, a strong 5-on-5 player who played for them from 2012-13 to the trade deadline in 2017-18. Perhaps they continue their pursuit of star players while they’re a distance from the salary-cap ceiling. Heck, steal from the best: Palat is an unrestricted free agent this summer.

One thing is certain: The focus is now the Stanley Cup. Any echoes from “the letter” and the team’s expedited rebuild — having Panarin and Fox fall into their laps, a couple of draft lottery wins, and the emergence of Shesterkin really sped things up, eh? — are gone. You saw it in the devastated faces of the players after Game 6.

“I feel like denying this right now. It’s just empty. I don’t want it to be over,” Zibanejad said.

The Lightning have shown how to regain feeling and focus from the numbness. They’ve also shown that being “the next one” isn’t good enough. The Rangers must address their flaws both internally and with more external help. They must learn their lessons from this run, which had as much good fortune — such as the injuries suffered by the Penguins and Hurricanes — as it had dominating play.

Do that, and it will be Gerard Gallant sitting at the table with the championship hats, rather than the one with him lamenting a season that fell short.

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