With a new-look lineup that includes the highly rated teenage forwards Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil, the Rangers were eliminated from playoff contention on Tuesday. Now, they are playing games without postseason implications for the first time since 2004, the closing days of Mark Messier’s career.
This is uncharted territory for goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who made the playoffs in 11 of his first 12 seasons, the only previous miss coming on the final day of 2009-10 season in a shootout loss at Philadelphia.
“It has been a challenging time for everyone,” he said. “This is our group now. It’s up to us to figure out how we want to finish this.”
At 36, Lundqvist has three years left on a seven-year, $59.5 million contract extension he signed in December 2013, and he has vowed to finish his career as a Ranger.
Yet he acknowledged that it is not be easy to glance across the ice and see defensemen who protected him through countless battles now wearing opposition colors.
Credit Julie Jacobson/Associated Press
“It’s hard to describe the feeling,” Lundqvist said. “It’s part of the game. It happens. You accept it.”
McDonagh’s departure marked the second time in four years the Rangers traded their captain to the Lightning. They exchanged Ryan Callahan for Martin St. Louis at the deadline in 2014, and the move helped the Rangers reached the Stanley Cup final. Anton Stralman, a key defenseman on the Rangers squad that lost in those finals to the Los Angeles Kings, also plays for the Lightning now.
McDonagh, who because of an injury did not play his first game with Tampa until March 10, is again paired with Girardi for the Lightning, the second-best team in the Eastern Conference.
Miller, a somewhat surprising inclusion in the fire sale, has thrived with Tampa Bay, with eight goals and six assists in 14 games.
The Rangers are playing with spark since the roster reshuffle, which included the demotion of the high-priced defenseman Brendan Smith and season-ending knee surgery in January for defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, last summer’s major free-agent addition.
Their blueline corps now includes the newcomers Neal Pionk, John Gilmour and Rob O’Gara, all of whom have impressed General Manager Jeff Gorton.
But the Rangers still face many question marks heading into their early off-season. Lundqvist’s understudy for next season is to be determined, though 22-year-old Alexandar Georgiev made a strong case for consideration in his 10 recent appearances. The Rangers also acquired numerous prospects in their various trades, and they currently have seven picks in the first three rounds of the June draft, including three first-round selections.
“I think we’re just starting the process,” Gorton said. “We have a lot of work to do.”
Forward Chris Kreider, who missed 24 games because of a blood clot that required rib resection surgery, has been buoyed by the work ethic and enthusiasm displayed by the lineup since his return in late February.
“Those guys, the little experience they have in them, they work hard and they want to get better every day,” he said. “Regardless of how old you are, the team’s going to lean on you at some point and you’re going to have to be a leader.”
The veteran Marc Staal, who has been a Ranger for 11 seasons, has become a mentor to Pionk, 22.
Now second to Lundqvist in seniority, Staal, 31, has earned particular praise from Coach Alain Vigneault for his leadership. Staal exhaled slowly when asked to evaluate this uncharacteristic upheaval.
“I have nothing to compare this season to on a personal level,” he said. “This is a first-time thing.”