By late Sunday night (or perhaps by Monday morning), after the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings complete Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals, the New York Rangers will know their opponent for their first Stanley Cup Finals appearance in two decades.
Either way, the Rangers will be underdogs, especially with the Western Finals coming down to a single game between each of the past two Stanley Cup champions.
But whether New York plays its next two games in Chicago or Los Angeles, the Rangers figure to hang tough no matter how the final series of this year’s NHL postseason goes.
Playing just one game short of the maximum of 21 playoff games through three rounds to this point, the Rangers certainly haven’t done things the easy way. But that’s part of what has shaped their collective character to thus far overcome any challenge, while continuing to advance.
In the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, the Philadelphia Flyers answered a New York win with a victory of their own. Three times the Rangers led the series by a game, and three times the Flyers tied the series.
Yet New York refused to let Philadelphia win two games in a row and take command of the series. And when it mattered most, even after the Flyers exploded for five goals in a three-goal win in Game 6, the Rangers came back to shut Philadelphia down while allowing only a harmless third-period goal in a 2-1 series-clinching, Game 7 win.
When New York finally did lose multiple consecutive playoff games in the next round, it was three straight defeats — following a series-opening, overtime win — that put the Rangers in a seemingly insurmountable 3-1 series hole.
During that stretch, New York’s offense largely disappeared with a pair of shutout losses and a third game in which the Rangers managed just two goals.
Most thought the series was over. But not the Blueshirts.
With their backs to the wall, they responded. Three straight times. New York’s offensive attack suddenly awakened with an unexpected offensive outburst in Game 5, in Pittsburgh, during a surprisingly easy 5-1 win.
That was the first of three consecutive games in which star goalie Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers’ defense allowed only a lone goal. It also marked the turning point in which New York began to rally around the very sad and unfortunate death of France St. Louis, the mother of veteran right winger Martin St. Louis.
Facing elimination in three straight games, the Rangers kept winning until that once-impossible series deficit against the Pittsburgh Penguins was gone and they moved on in seven games for a second straight series. The second of those last three wins over the Penguins came with St. Louis fittingly paying tribute to his mother with a goal just 3:34 after the opening face-off of Game 6, to stake his team to a 1-0 lead, on Mother’s Day.
Riding that high, New York extended its winning streak to five games in a row, as the Rangers showed they could find different ways to win. First, it was a seven-goal eruption during an easy five-goal win in Game 1 of the Eastern Finals in Montreal. Next, the Rangers clamped down on the Canadiens in a 3-1 victory in Game 2.
And although New York had a tough-luck, 3-2 overtime loss at home in Game 3, the Rangers found a way to pay Montreal back with its own 3-2 overtime win in Game 4, as St. Louis continued the magical story for himself and New York by scoring the extra-time game winner.
Although the Rangers ultimately lost Game 5 back in Montreal, 7-4, they again showed their resolve with three goals in a span of just 4:24, to rally from a 4-1 deficit and tie the game.
Back home, New York demonstrated its versatility in styles. One game after losing a wild shootout on the road, the Rangers allowed just 18 shots and stymied the Canadiens’ offense in a 1-0 win to clinch their first conference title in 20 years.
Unlike in past years, New York has reinvented itself whenever it needed to throughout the 2014 playoffs.
Two years ago, the Rangers fell a couple wins short of the Eastern Finals, and last year, they lost in the Eastern Semifinals following former head coach John Tortorella’s system of trying to block every shot they could, while placing far less importance on creating scoring chances at the other end of the ice.
This year, New York’s more open game, using speed and a much improved balance between offense and defense under new head coach Alain Vigneault, has already resulted in greater postseason success and has the team well positioned to achieve the sport’s ultimate goal.
And now, as the Rangers prepare to beat one final team to try to capture their first Stanley Cup since 1994, they’ll do so with the utmost confidence that they can, a mere nine games after even they had to question whether that was possible as they took the ice in Pittsburgh.
Whether or not New York will finish its inspiring run with the franchise’s fifth Stanley Cup title (and just their second since 1940) will reveal itself over the Rangers’ next several games.
But there’s one thing we’ve seen already, that can be expected. No matter what situation New York finds itself in against either Chicago or Los Angeles, there will be no quit in these Rangers. And with the resilience and versatility they’ve already shown, they’ll certainly be more than willing to do whatever it takes in trying to win it all.