Playoff matchups against the Penguins represented an annual rite of passage through the middle of the past decade. These were the salad days of Alain Vigneault’s reign behind the bench, in which the Blueshirts experienced their greatest success since the mid-90’s.
This mini-era-when the Rangers went to the Cup finals in 2014 then won the Presidents’ Trophy with the NHL’s best record a year later before losing the 2015 conference finals in seven games-represented the culmination of the reconstruction that had begun a decade earlier under general manager Glen Sather and was directed from behind the bench by Tom Renney, then John Tortorella, then Vigneault.
The Rangers qualified for the playoffs 11 times in the first 12 years of the hard-cap era-make that the Henrik Lundqvist Era-that commenced with the 2005-06 season. They advanced past the first round seven times and went to the conference finals on three occasions in the four-year span from 2012-15, in which they played a league-high 76 postseason contests.
There were distinct versions of that group, the Black-and-Blueshirts under Tortorella evolving into Vigneault’s multi-dimensional teams on which Lundqvist was the common denominator. By definition, the Rangers were flawed, unable to take the Cup despite becoming the only team in NHL history to overcome 3-1 series deficits in consecutive years and going 15-4 in elimination games in those four highlighted years.
But you knew pretty well what you were going to get from those teams. They were a big-game team with players who would respond, going 6-0 in Games 7… until they ultimately did not respond and until they were shut out at home in Game 7 by the Lightning in 2015 (after getting shut out at home in Game 5).
Those Rangers had pretty much been through it all, starting in 2012 when they had to come back from 3-2 against Ottawa with Game 6 on the road in a particularly nasty first round. It was that series in which Chris Kreider made his NHL debut, less than two weeks after being part of Boston College’s Frozen Four NCAA championship.
Kreider, who filled the lineup spot that opened for Game 3 after Carl Hagelin had been suspended for concussing Daniel Alfredsson with an elbow, grew with the team. He has been through it all. He was a critical component of the team that beat the Penguins in seven in 2014, took them out in five a year later then were routed out in five games themselves in 2016.
Those were the days before the NHL restricted media access to the locker room, a policy that was understandably instituted in the wake of the pandemic but remains in place for no logical reason other than to restrict access and control the message. If MLB can open clubhouses to vaccinated and boosted media, the NHL can open locker rooms.
Back then, you could get a sense of how teams felt about themselves. Now, not so much. It would have been interesting to be able to attempt to get a pulse of this group preceding this first-round series against the Penguins that opened at the Garden on Tuesday in the Blueshirts’ first playoff match in five years, but now there is reliance only on others ‘ – and interested parties’ – observations.
Vigneault’s Rangers were cool, calm and confident after years of trial (and error). Gerard Gallant’s squad hasn’t been through any of this. Mika Zibanejad, who was here for the 2017 playoffs in which the team beat Montreal in the first round before being ousted by Ottawa in the second round, is the only other player on the roster who has playoff experience while wearing a Rangers uniform. There is no precedent on which to rely – or smash – for this team.
But Kreider, who achieved a doctorate in net-front presence while emerging as a Zen-like, 52-goal-scorer after never previously having hit the 30-mark, said that he couldn’t necessarily detect a difference between this club’s ambience and that of Vigneault’s clubs.
“It’s hard to say. It feels like a long time ago now, and I was in a different position, kind of being a young guy on that team and just worried about not stepping on eggshells, ”No. 20 said before the opener. “But I think regardless of whether a team has been to the playoffs multiple years in a row, is veteran, is young, there’s always excitement this time of year.
“There are always butterflies, and guys are just excited to come to the rink and they are excited to compete and play.”
All right, there are similarities off the ice. Now we will learn whether there are similarities on the ice. But wait, there is one hypothetical dissimilarity that would be unanimously embraced. That would be winning the Stanley Cup.