The 2017-18 Rangers’ season can be split into six acts.
The first act saw the team start the season 3-7-2; causing a panic amongst the fanbase and leading to rumors Alain Vigneault would be fired.
The second act came out of nowhere. A third period comeback against the Vegas Golden Knights on Halloween at MSG kickstarted a stretch of brilliance from the Blueshirts. And especially from Henrik Lundqvist.
From Halloween through New Year’s Day, the Rangers went 18-6-3; establishing themselves as a force to be reckoned with. And, of course, Lundqvist led the charge.
Of the Rangers’ 27 games from Halloween through New year’s Day, Lundqvist started 24. That’s quite the impressive workload for any goalie, let alone one on the verge of turning 36.
In that stretch, Hank went 16-5-2 and gave up two goals or fewer 14 times; establishing himself as a serious contender for both the Vezina and Hart Trophies.
But as quickly as that success came, it went away.
The third act started immediately after the Rangers beat the Buffalo Sabres in the NHL’s annual Winter Classic.
From January 3rd against Chicago, through February 7th, the team went 4-11-0 and generally looked as bad as their record indicated, despite contrary thoughts from Vigneault.
The head coach began to parrot the same phrase over and over; “we’re better than our record indicates. We’re just not getting the breaks we need.”
Of course, this abysmal stretch gave birth to two distinct events.
One was the open deterioration of Vigneault’s relationship with Lundqvist.
The other, was the now infamous letter management wrote to the fans on February 8th.
But before getting into the letter, here’s a quick explanation of what happened between Lundqvist and Vigneault.
Vigneault said the team needed it’s goaltending — AKA Lundqvist — to step up and improve. Now, Lundqvist being the proud man he is, didn’t take too kindly to Vigneault’s words; especially since AV said it to the press during multiple pre- and post-game interviews.
It all came to a head during the weekend of February 17 and 18.
In the first half of a back-to-back set, Lundqvist started against the Senators in Ottawa. And his defense left him out to hang and dry on enough occasions that he surrendered five goals on 27 shots; getting pulled midway through the third period.
An extremely animated Lundqvist was seen barking towards the coach that he wanted to stay in the game. But Vigneault being the bench boss, removed his star goalie. And Lundqvist showed his displeasure by storming straight to the locker room rather than sit on the bench as is customary.
After the game, Lundqvist very curtly told the media, “I just want to play.”
Careful what you wish for.
The next day, back home against the Flyers, Henrik received the start. And Vigneault made it very clear he didn’t like Lundqvist’s actions and words from the day before.
Therefore, Vigneault left Lundqvist in for the entire game’ allowing Hank to absorb a brutal seven goal thrashing.
Since then, both sides have tried to play nice, but the damage was done.
Getting back to the infamous letter.
GM Jeff Gorton and Team President Glen Sather released a letter to the fanbase on February 8th that stated they were essentially waving the white flag on the season and they would be focused on carrying out a full on rebuild of the team.
With management having publicly surrendered the season, many players were unsettled. And it showed in the team’s performance.
From the day of the letter, through the NHL’s annual Trade Deadline (February 26th) the team went into a 2-6-1 tailspin; dropping them far outside the playoff picture.
Until that point, the team had been in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race. They were a mere three points out of the second wild card spot when management released “The Letter.”
As Mats Zuccarello repeatedly told reporters, “I can’t eat. I can’t sleep. I think about it everyday and everynight. We all do. It’s something that weighs on us all the time.”
That, “something,” was in reference to the team’s open admission that any of it’s players could be traded away at anytime.
And soon, those fears came to pass. In a five-day span from February 21-26, the Rangers traded Nick Holden, Michael Grabner, Rick Nash, Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Millar for a boatload of prospects and draft picks. And of course a few NHL players.
But the core of the team had been gutted.
Immediately following the Trade Deadline, the Blueshirts iced a makeshift defense of Brady Skjei, Rob O’Gara, Marc Staal, John Gilmour, Tony DeAngelo, Neal Pionk, Ryan Sproul and Steven Kampfer.
Of those eight Dmen, only Staal had significant NHL experience. And it showed.
Starting with their game against Vancouver on February 28th, the defense allowed an average of 42.63 shots against in eight games; twice allowing over 50.
The inexperience of the defense led to a stark decline in the play of Lundqvist, as he was besieged with an extraordinary amount of shots on a nightly basis. That, coupled with his age and early season workload contributed to Hank being worn down and ineffective. After the season was over he disclosed he’d been dealing with a knee injury all season.
Meanwhile, the offense — which had been dormant for most of February — inexplicably began to click.
NEW LEASE ON LIFE
Having traded their three top-scorers — Grabner, Nash and Miller — guys like Kevin Hayes, Chris Kreider, newly acquired Ryan Spooner, and Mika Zibanejad began to step up as the team scored three or more goals in seven of the eight contests following the deadline.
Nobody expected them to keep up their offensive production, but it at least bodes well for the future that they have some talent on that side of the puck.
And you can’t forget about the emergence of the rookies: Gilmour, Pionk and goalie Alexandar Georgiev.
Pionk lead the team’s blue line corps in points since his NHL debut on February 9th and was playing heavy minutes on the top-pairing with Staal.
Gilmour skates like the energizer bunny; always wherever the puck is. And he’s got some offensive upside to boot.
But Georgiev is the clear rookie winner at this point. Despite playing behind a ragtag defense, “Alex the Great” was stellar; winning three of his first five starts and having to make at least 33-saves in each — twice over 40.
And don’t forget about the key injuries, which seemed to strike nearly every significant player on the team at some point. But as every team goes through that, it’s more of a side note rather than a lead story.
The end was downright painful to watch.
The Blueshirts lost their final three games of the season, looking thoroughly disinterested as the Devils, Islanders and Flyers each secured a “W” against the Manhattan squad.
In a defiant showing, Alain Vigneault gave a season-ending soliloquy after his team dropped its’ season finale to the Flyers in Philadelphia.
THE INFAMOUS SPEECH PART ONE
“We would have obviously preferred to finish on a better note,” said Vigneault. “We didn’t. Someone asked me if I had learned anything from this year and I told them to ask it of me today and I would have a better answer for you. At the end of the day, for coaches, you have to coach the team that you have in front of you. You try and put a system in place that maximizes their talent level and mask or hide the weaknesses and work on both areas so your team can improve.”
“For me, my third year in Montreal, we had the record, at that time, as far as mans game missed in the NHL and we had half NHL players, half young players and half part American league players and we were able to take it to the last game of the year,” continued Vigneault. “We weren’t able to get in but it wasn’t for lack of trying, that year we were up for coach of the year. We talked about the Sedins a couple of days ago and that got me thinking and, we talked about this the other day, you gotta coach the team in front of you.”
THE INFAMOUS SPEECH PART TWO
And Vigneault wasn’t done there: “When I went to Vancouver the team hadn’t made the playoffs the year before, we had some veterans whose careers were maybe more on the downside but we had a lot of young players coming in, the twins, Kesler, Burrows, Bieksa, Hansen, Edler and to that group, through the years, we added Raymond, Tanev, Schneider, Hodgson, etc. In our seven years we had six division titles, a Stanley Cup Final seventh game. We got close and it wasn’t from a lack of trying that we didn’t get it, we were pretty banged up.
“In our time, since having left Vancouver, they are on their fourth coaching staff right now. Coaching might not have been one of the main areas and I remember in my time there, on player development, we were criticized for three players the most. One retired at 26, one went through a couple of NHL teams, basically a career minor league player and the other one, god bless his soul, was able to find a way and take care of his personal situation and is now still playing in the NHL. Player development wise, we are not perfect but we have done a pretty good job.”
THE INFAMOUS SPEECH PART THREE
Finally, Vigneault addressed his time in New York: “That brings me to NY and when we got here, you coach what you have. What we had here was a veteran group, Rick Nash, Brad Richards, Ryan Callahan became Marty St. Louis, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, we had some good veteran players and we put a system in place and culture that maximized them.
“To them, through the first and second-year, Ryan McDonagh and Derek Stepan were added, good young players, we had a fair amount of success. We weren’t able to get it done but we had a fair amount of success. At the end of the day a coach coaches what is in front of you. And that is what we have tried to do and that is what we will continue to try to do.”
He was fired six hours later. On both Monday and Tuesday, Jeff Gorton and the players all denied Vigneault’s speech was the cause of his termination. It makes you wonder, would management have waited to fire him had he not gone off on his rant.