A Five-Part Autopsy of the 2012 New York Rangers

New Jersey Devils center Adam Henrique (14) celebrates his game-winning goal during the first overtime period in game six of the 2012 Eastern Conference finals at the Prudential Center. The Devils defeated the Rangers 3-2 to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Ed Mulholland-US PRESSWIRE

I was so immersed in the Rangers’ surprising playoff run, that I wasn’t even able to process what I was seeing. But now that it’s over, the observations are starting to crystalize. This was a team that did a lot of things right (<cough>goaltending</cough>), but suffered a few mis-steps that ultimately cost the Rangers a shot at the Stanley Cup. I’m cataloging the failures, because the successes are fairly obvious (<cough>goaltending</cough>).

  1. Crazy lines: This is a recurring theme with coach John Tortorella. For whatever reason, he doesn’t like to keep lines together, even though his team had a tremendous regular season run using persistent line combinations. The constant line juggling made it hard for opposing coaches to determine match-ups, but it also forced the Rangers to simplify their play to the point where there was very little east-west movement. Passing benefits from familiarity and the Rangers often looked like a team trying to figure out teammates’ tendencies.
  2. Conservative play: Tortorella coined the phrase and philosophy ‘Safe is death’ back in 2002 while coaching the Lightning, but in the playoffs, his team played a painfully safe game. So safe that it became dangerous. Tortorella didn’t use more than three forwards on the powerplay until the Rangers were facing elimination against New Jersey. The Rangers didn’t push the tempo of any game unless they were losing. In general, the Rangers did a lot of waiting and never really put any team away through all three rounds.
  3. Belief in Carl Hagelin: Tortorella shoveled tons of ice time on the rookie Hagelin (an average of 16:45 per game) and Hagelin had just three assists and a -3 to show for it. Artem Anisimov averaged under 14 minutes per game and had 3 goals, 7 assists, and a +1. Hagelin’s speed was dazzling and he had some fantastic chances, but at the end of the day, he wasn’t finishing. At a certain point, a coach needs to look at performance versus potential. Sure, Hagelin had/has more upside than Anisimov, but if Anisimov is producing, don’t you want him on the ice?
  4. Offensive defense: Much was made of the willingness of the Rangers’ defense to join the play. Much was also made of the willingness of Rangers’ forwards to rotate up when the defense was pinching. And it’s great. Except, then you have your offensive players stuck at the blueline and your defensive players down low. Wouldn’t it make more sense to have your forwards in offensive positions? During the game six elimination game, Marian Gaborik got burned by the Devils when he was up playing the point while a defenseman was down low in the play. So not only is Gaborik essentially out of the offensive play, he’s playing defense, which is something he really can’t do. Ranger forwards were so disciplined about rotating up when the defense pinched, they missed a lot of loose pucks because they were constantly skating back to play defense. I’m all for an active defense, but not at the expense of an active offense. The Rangers needed to leave defense and offense to the respective team experts.
  5. Hurt Boyle: The fortunes of an NHL team shouldn’t rest on the shoulders of a role player like Brian Boyle, but that’s the situation the Rangers found themselves in. He was a key part of the Ottawa series, playing fantastically on both sides of the puck. He went out with a concussion in the first round and came back during the next round against the Capitals. But he was obviously still feeling the effects of the concussion. Every time they cut to Boyle on the bench, he looked downright sick. A healthy Boyle would have changed the complexion of the series, just as he did against Ottawa. Boyle’s size, which he seems to have very recently discovered, would have been especially helpful against the Devils’ dreaded fourth line, which went to town on the Rangers.

The Rangers dramatically overachieved the whole year. It’s easy for fans to be disappointed with the season ending two wins away from the Stanley Cup finals. But for a team built on hits and blocked shots, it was still a pretty impressive run.