The Hudson River rivalry’s roles circa 1994-95 are halfway reversed.
The New York Rangers vanquished the New Jersey Devils in the third round of the 1994 Stanley Cup playoffs on an overtime goal. The franchise’s latest installment had to endure the same vinegar in the same round in the same matchup in the same fashion this past spring.
Recall that, after Stephane Matteau beat Martin Brodeur to send the Rangers to the championship round, no two Eastern Conference rivals clashed again for that calendar year. A lockout pushed off the start of the 1994-95 season until late January.
Once given the OK to proceed with normal business, the Devils regrouped from that heartache and wrested the Cup away in late June of 1995.
By only a partial coincidence, today’s Rangers can likewise rebound en route to a 2013 title with some not-so-negligible aid from another work stoppage, which is all but set to commence this weekend.
If the NHL put its on-ice affairs on hold for the next one to three months, the reigning regular-season Eastern Conference champions can reap rewards from collectively fresher legs. They can enter a partial campaign more secure in the notion that they have flushed out the residual fatigue from a three-round, 20-game tournament run in 2012.
Therein sits one of the crucial differences between John Tortorella’s pupils and the last two Cup winners who had gone at least as far as the third round the year prior.
Before they won the 2010 title, the Chicago Blackhawks were vanquished after 17 games plus a cumulative 14 minutes and eight seconds of overtime in 2009. In addition, they had a new netminder in Antti Niemi for 2010 after riding Nikolai Khabibulin the previous spring.
With a total of 1,250:49 minutes played, the heavily leaned-on Henrik Lundqvist saw more action in the crease last spring than Cup champion and Conn Smythe-winning backstop Jonathan Quick.
Granted, that is nearly the same as Marc-Andre Fleury’s cumulative workload of 1,251:10 in 2008, when he took the Pittsburgh Penguins to within two wins of the title. Naturally, the following year, Fleury backstopped a successful finals rematch with the Detroit Red Wings.
But in the interim that was the thick of the 2008-09 regular season, the Pens were struggling. Their playoff hopes were in doubt as late as Valentine’s Day, when Dan Bylsma supplanted Michel Therrien as head coach.
With Bylsma on board for the homestretch, Pittsburgh’s performance was indubitably sparked by a mental pick-me-up. The Penguins went from 10th place in the Eastern Conference at the time of the coaching change to fourth place at the conclusion of the regular season.
For Bylsma’s first four months on the job, the recharged Penguins went an otherworldly 34-11-4 between the regular season and postseason en route to the Cup.
No such twist of fortune is in order for the Rangers. With only mild to moderate changes in his approach, Tortorella can finish this quest in his own right and Lundqvist is the only logical choice in net.
The hard-earned home ice New York garnered by playing a full 82-game slate of playoff-type hockey paid dividends through the halfway mark of the 2012 playoffs. Facing two Game 7s in as many rounds, the Rangers fed off and rewarded the home masses of Madison Square Garden.
But having played the equivalent of 15 games, what with those two series going to the limit and the overtime marathon, they simply sputtered against the Devils. They had cultivated too little out of their offense and banked too much on Lundqvist, whose human element was exploited when he logged a few minutes too many.
The Rangers can still win with roughly the same strategy and, as the first two rounds last spring verified, are heavily advised to shoot for a repeat regular-season crown in the conference. But Lundqvist especially, as well as his returning praetorian guards, could use a breather beforehand.
If they take that breather in the young phases of the coming campaign, however unintentionally, it could cost them crucial footing in the home-ice derby. That would mean risking a road confrontation in a do-or-die bout with a hungry, capable and collectively fresher rival such as Pittsburgh or Boston.
None of this is to say that a 2013 title cannot be brought to Broadway if there is, miraculously, a full NHL season. The newly acquired Rick Nash can still copilot a more productive and supportive offense and, even if he is jumping in on the fly after recovering from surgery, Marian Gaborik can lend a crucial spark in the second half.
That notwithstanding, the Blueshirts' odds of fulfillment in the coming campaign would simply improve with an extension on this offseason. They may be the only team that could use it just as much as the two reigning finalists.
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