By: Michael Abitabilo
Ten days ago, Rick Nash was being booed on home ice, and his legacy was in jeopardy. Ten days ago, Brad Richards seemed on the verge of playing his last game as a Ranger, with the very real possibility of a compliance buyout looming in his future. And ten days ago, the Rangers trailed their second round series 3-1 and appeared on the verge of a disappointing end to their season. For now, though, those narratives are a thing of the past. Nash has scored in consecutive games and is being lauded for his two-way play throughout the playoffs, Richards has emerged as the leader of a captain-less team, and the Rangers are on their way back to New York with a two games to none series lead in the Eastern Conference finals.
In ten days, the Rangers have staged a remarkable turnaround on the ice that has coincided with tragedy off it. It certainly makes for a nice story to say that the sudden death of Martin St. Louis’s mother inspired the Rangers’ run, but correlation doesn’t always equal causation. There is no doubt the Rangers were deeply impacted by the death of France St. Louis, and the value of an emotional rally point should not be discounted. But after a game four in which the Rangers were dominated in almost every area, the Rangers needed to fix fundamental elements of their game to avoid elimination. They started by taking better care of the puck. In game four against the Penguins, the Rangers had 25 giveaways (in the building, it felt more like 347). The Rangers reduced that number to eight in game five, and have averaged just over ten per game since then. In addition to taking better care of the puck, the Rangers’ team defense has, for the most part, been stellar since game five against the Penguins. Make no mistake, though: the Rangers wouldn’t still be playing let alone have a 2-0 series lead were it not for the heroics of Henrik Lundqvist, who has been brilliant when necessary throughout the past five games, yielding a total of just six goals in that span.
For his part, Nash seems to have emerged from his drought. After going scoreless through his first 14 playoff games, Nash scored what was perhaps the most important seventh goal ever scored in a 7-2 victory in game one. In our Eastern Conference finals preview, we noted Nash’s tendency to score in bunches and said:
If Nash can find a way to get a goal early in the series, it could springboard him to a dominant stretch. If that happens, the Rangers will be playing in the Stanley Cup finals.
After his garbage-time goal in game one, Nash scored the game winning goal in a much closer game two. Even if the Rangers were to be eliminated by the Canadiens, at least some of the pressure has been alleviated, as Nash will not have to face a full year of questions regarding his inability to score in the playoffs.
No individual player’s narrative has changed more than Richards’s, though. Richards and the will they/won’t they drama surrounding the possibility of the Rangers buying out the remaining six years on his contract have probably been the focus of more words published on this site than any other subject (other than the population of Westeros, of course). Had the Rangers lost to the Penguins, it would have been a virtual certainty that the Rangers would buy him out and look to improve at the center position for next year. It’s a subject that will be addressed again in the off-season, but the Rangers’ and Richards’s resurgences have certainly increased the likelihood that Broadway Brad will be back in blue next year. Richards assisted on the all-important first goal in game five against the Penguins, scored the game winning goal in game seven against the Penguins and tallied the back-breaking fourth goal with just 12 seconds left in the second period of game one against Montreal.
Perhaps just as importantly, Richards has emerged as the leader of this Rangers team, which has been without a captain since trading Ryan Callahan to the Tampa Bay Lightning in exchange for St. Louis. Richards has been there before – having won a Stanley Cup with St. Louis in 2004 – and so it’s only natural for the team to rely upon his veteran presence as they go deeper into the playoffs. But Richards has also been a central figure in the St. Louis story, having been close friends with the newest Ranger since the 2000-2001 season. Along with coach Alain Vigneault, Richards has been the team’s primary spokesperson regarding the impact the passing of St. Louis’s mother has had on the team. Richards’s close friendship with the future hall-of-famer undoubtedly played a role in the team-wide embrace of St. Louis following his mother’s passing, which of course has been credited as the turning point of the Rangers’ postseason. And just like that, it seems just as feasible that Richards will be selected as the next captain of the Rangers this off-season as it does he will be bought out.
Ten days ago, Nash, Richards, and the Rangers seemed to be heading towards an off-season full of questions. Ten days ago sure seems like ancient history, doesn’t it?
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Mike Abitabilo is the co-founder of the Read Zone, and probably has another 5,000 words in him regarding Brad Richards’s contract.