the sports section

The Rangers Are Done Being Underdogs

Igor Shesterkin looks on during the national anthem prior to Game 5 against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Madison Square Garden on Thursday. Photo: Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images

The New York Rangers’ season ended on Saturday night with a 2-1 loss to the Lightning, and it’s only natural to feel like they let something slip away. They won the first two games of the Eastern Conference Final while playing their best hockey of the year, then jumped out to a 2-0 lead in game three before Tampa Bay took command and never let up. There are some moments that will haunt fans all summer: Ryan Strome whiffing on the puck with a wide-open in net in game five, the deflating Jacob Trouba penalty that disrupted a four-minute power play in the third period of game three, or the long-range Steven Stamkos shot that beat Igor Shesterkin for the Lightning’s first goal in game six — a weaker shot than any number of ones Shesterkin successfully turned away. Tampa Bay won four straight games and deserved every one of them; by the end of the series they were a clear step faster than the Rangers. (Maybe two steps.) But it wouldn’t have taken much to swing the series the other way, or at least gotten it back to Madison Square Garden for a game seven on Tuesday night.

Yet as far as season-ending losses go, this one’s pretty easy to take. Make no mistake, Tampa badly outplayed the Rangers in the deciding game, and as has so often been the case this season, Shesterkin kept his team in a game that easily could have been a blowout. But the Rangers weren’t supposed to even make the playoffs this season in the eyes of many experts. They weren’t supposed to rally back from a 3-1 series hole against Pittsburgh in round one. And they weren’t supposed to come back against Carolina after losing the first two games of that series, especially since it would mean having to beat a team that until game seven hadn’t yet lost a playoff game at home this year. That the Rangers were playing Tampa Bay at all, and that they seemed to have a realistic hope of ending the Lightning’s incredible streak of ten straight series victories, is a remarkable achievement for any team, let alone one that tore their roster nearly all the way down just four years ago. In short, this year’s Rangers weren’t supposed to be this damn fun.

Part of what made the vibes around this team so good was the satisfaction of a plan coming together, and much faster than anyone expected. Watching a team exceed expectations is one of the delights of sports fandom. The term “playing with house money” gets thrown around a lot in situations like this, but it’s the right idea here. Once they escaped the first round (and maybe even just by getting there at all), the Rangers had already had a season to celebrate. There were any number of games in this postseason where there was little logical reason to think they’d pull out a win, except for the fact that they’d been defying the odds and proving critics wrong at every turn. Even after some ugly losses, they gave fans permission to hope against hope, and then to do it all again a couple days later.

But the thing with a season like this is you only get one of them. The Rangers will enter next season with the weight of expectations for the first time in years. They’ll be expected to do what they just did, or at least something close to it. Because their roster is so young, it’ll be expected that being one year older will mean they’ll be one year better. The organization has a few decisions to make in terms of next season’s roster, but the core that fueled this year’s run will likely more or less return. And because they showed how they can outplay their projections, no one will take them lightly next year, no matter what shortcomings the numbers may point to.

This isn’t a bad thing, exactly. It comes with the territory of being competitive. But part of the fun of this team was the feeling that all of this wasn’t supposed to be happening yet — that the rebuilding process was getting results sooner than it was supposed to. It was a rare freebie of a season, all upside and almost no way to truly disappoint. It made the playoffs unusually fun: Normally postseason hockey is altogether terrifying, the wins more relief than anything else. But the relative lack of pressure allowed fans to soak in all the things that made this team a blast to follow all season: the sublime goaltending of Shesterkin. The one-timers firing off the stick of Mika Zibanejad from his favorite spot on the power play. The emergence of Chris Kreider as a captain in all but name. The playoffs gave fans a game-seven nail-biter and a game-seven rout. And they also showed fans flashes of growth from some of the young players who will go a long way to determining exactly how good this team will ultimately be.

As the page turns to the offseason, that’s the one I’ll be thinking most about.

The Rangers played more than 1,200 minutes in this postseason, but the single defining minute came in game one of the Eastern Conference Final against the Lightning. It may not sound like much to a casual observer of the sport, but in that minute, the Rangers kept the Lightning pinned in their zone with a series of keep-ins and corralled loose pucks. The crowd at the Garden grew louder with each one and ultimately exploded when the relentless pressure led to a Filip Chytil goal that gave the Rangers a 4-2 lead.

Much has been made in the past few weeks about the so-called “kid line” of Chytil, Alexis Lafrenière, and Kaapo Kakko. All three are former first-round picks, and though all are also still young, none has yet distinguished himself as a star-caliber player. At times in the playoffs, they were the Rangers’ best line, even if at other times, they were either split up or seldom used. (Kakko didn’t even crack the lineup for Saturday’s game six.) But with the core of the team basically locked into place, and with the salary cap limiting their options, much of the Rangers’ upside resides with these three players — or with the return they can bring in if team president Chris Drury decides to test the trade market. Was that incredible minute — one that fans quickly took to calling simply, “the Shift” — a sign of an even brighter future? Was it a glimpse at the key to this team taking an even bigger step forward next year? We won’t know the answer for a while. But we do know already that next season will feel very different either way.

The Rangers Are Done Being Underdogs