How the Rangers got back to the NHL playoffs

Mark Reiss has been a Rangers a season ticket holder since 2001, perched high in the blue seats with his two sons, who have grown from toddlers to adults under Madison Square Garden’s iconic ceiling.

For two decades, they watched their team fail to do the NHL playoffs almost as often as he qualified, and then on February 8, 2018, they received the famous email from the management of the Rangers. It explained the unthinkable and was a demarcation note. Their team, anchored in the heart of Manhattan and able to deploy more financial muscle than any other hockey team, was rebuilding for the future.

“I was actually ready for a reboot,” said Reiss, a coastal marine scientist. “But when you read that email, you had a hole in your stomach. It was like, ‘OK, this is going to be tough.’ »

The hard part is finally over. After four years of no playoff games to attend, Reiss, his youngest son, Matteo, and thousands of other loyal Rangers fans like them will pack the garden on Tuesday for the first home playoff game since the letter.

Reiss said in recent years he’s grown a bit impatient with the process, but as arduous as it has sometimes seemed, the outcome came with the impact of a slap shot from Artemi Panarin. The 2021-22 Rangers exceeded expectations in a stellar season under first-year coach Gerard Gallant.

The blueshirts have won 52 games and had 110 points, the most since winning 53 and winning the league best record in 2015. They fought a battle for the Metropolitan Division crown in the final week of the season and earned home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

They did it all as the second-youngest team in the playoffs, with an average age of 26.5, according to Elite Prospects, lending credence to the idea that this team is more than a one-time wonder. kick.

“They’ve brought hope to this town that they’re on the verge of winning a championship,” former Rangers player and assistant coach and analyst Joe Micheletti has told MSG Network since 2006. “They’re in contention for the Cup this year, and they’re only going to get better. Everyone can feel that.”

When the The nets have been swept away out of the NBA playoffs last month, the conversation turned to which New York team could win the next championship. Many have mentioned the Mets and the Yankees. But what about the Rangers?

“We’re a good team ready to go,” Gallant said recently, “and that’s what we want to be.

The rebuild that put the team on track was an intriguing process from the start. Big-name teams in New York rarely embark on full roster renovations, and the Rangers, under team owner James L. Dolan, seemed particularly unlikely to do so — and to acknowledge it so publicly. .

The veterans were traded, the team bought out the contract of Henrik Lundqvistthe beloved keeper, and traded for key players like Adam Fox in the draft Kaapo Kakko N°2 overall in 2019 and Alexis Lafreniere No. 1 in 2020. These two, along with fellow first-round picks K’Andre Miller, Braden Schneider and goaltender Igor Shesterkin, represent the long-term young core of a promising future. Sherkin is 26 years old. The others are under 25 years old.

But Rangers have never lost sight of the veterans either, signing Panarin as a free agent in 2019 and extending the contracts of Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider. Things seemed to be moving, albeit methodically, in a positive direction.

But then, in a stunning start, the original architects of the effort – Jeff Gorton and John Davidson – were fired after last season, and David Quinn, the coach, would soon follow them out the door. Maybe the rebuilding was a bit also methodical for Dolan. He promoted Chris Drury, the former Rangers player and young baseball star from Trumbull, Connecticut, to run the front office and speed up the process.

The firing of Quinn and the hiring of Gallant were Drury’s most significant moves, a tone that signaled to players and fans a heightened sense of urgency under a sensible coach. But Drury also tweaked a roster that Gorton had largely built. He added Ryan Reaves and Barclay Goodrow in the summer to provide some grunt, then, before the March 21 trade deadline, he acquired the likes of Frank Vatrano, Andrew Copp and Tyler Motte. Since the deadline, the Rangers have played their best hockey.

If the current list is a recipe of various ingredients prepared in phases by different cooks, Gallant is the one who pulled it all together for the presentation. Micheletti, who will call the first round of the playoffs for MSG Network, along with Sam Rosen, calls Gallant “the NHL’s most unique coach”

“He doesn’t overtrain,” Micheletti said, “and that alone is unique in this era. He keeps enough distance and lets the players lead the team. If they don’t, then he will step in. But he usually doesn’t have to because he trusts the players and they take ownership.

In 11 years with the Detroit Red Wings and Tampa Bay Lightning, Gallant, 58, played straightforward team play, scoring, assisting and throwing shoulders and punches when necessary.

His direct coaching style, hailing from that somewhat bygone era, seems to have unleashed Rangers’ potential. Gallant wants the puck to move straight down the ice, not side to side. He wants players to fight for possession and, if they lose the puck, to fight just as hard to get it back. It requires contributions from both sides of the ice, but allows players to accentuate their special talents, especially when they’re as gifted as someone like Panarin.

“It is what it is,” Gallant said recently. “Let them do what they are going to do.”

Gallant engineered one of the greatest coaching feats in any sport when he led the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, with a veteran roster, to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2018, their first season in the league. league, before losing to the Washington Capitals in five games. . Two years later, the team fired him mid-season.

In New York, he experienced a renaissance with a much younger team, but without changing his approach. Vatrano, who has scored eight goals in 22 games since joining Rangers, said when he arrived the manager’s message was simple: Be yourself.

“The most important thing is that it doesn’t limit your game,” Vatrano said. “He lets you play. If you’re an offensive guy, he wants you to make plays, but in that structure he also wants you to play smart. If you’re wrong, you know you’re wrong.

But Gallant is no howler behind the bench. It eased the tension when the going got tough, allowing the Rangers to come from behind to win 27 times this season, the second most in the NHL

It does not seem by chance that several players, including Panarin, Miller, Zibanejad and especially Kreider and Shesterkin, enjoyed years of career under the tutelage of Gallant.

Shesterkin’s fascinating growth this season is likely the key to any potential playoff success. He has the highest save percentage (.935) and lowest goals-against average (2.07) in the league. He’s the presumptive winner of the Vezina Trophy as top goalie, and the reason some see the Rangers as a threat.

“They’ve got a great mix of skills and young players, and they’ve got the goaltender,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said. “The reconstruction is complete. They are ready.”

Micheletti said that at some point this season he noticed Rangers had developed a belief that they could beat anyone in the league. The fans also understood this. Some of them, like Reiss, wonder if the Rangers’ lack of experience could be their loss in the playoffs. But at least there are playoffs.

“It’s been four years,” Reiss said, referring to the club’s promise to the fans. “I’m pretty cynical by nature. But where I’m sitting in the blue seats, what’s there to complain about?

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