In the aftermath of the Maple Leafs’ second-round elimination by the Panthers, the endlessly creative Sean McIndoe of The Athletic
ranked every one of Toronto’s 29 playoff defeats since the team’s 2017 return to the playoffs following nine misses over the previous 10 seasons.
A few days later,
a question on the @nyrangersmuse Twitter account asked, “If you change the result of ANY Rangers game in NHL history, which game would it be and why?”
A plurality of responses cited . A number pointed to the 3-2 Game 6 overtime elimination loss to the Devils in the 2012 conference finals. Regrets were expressed over the Game 3 preliminary-round elimination at the hands of the Islanders on J.P. Parise’s goal at 0:11 of overtime in 1975.
There were references to Game 2 of the 1979 Cup final in which the Rangers, who had won the opener at the Montreal Forum, took a 2-0 lead before losing 6-2 en route to a five-game series defeat. Some identified the Game 5 double-overtime elimination by the Kings in the 2014 final and others the best-of-five elimination by the Islanders in Game 5 of the 1984 first round on Kenny Morrow’s OT winner.
Howie Rose cited one that resonates with older generations, the Game 7 defeat in Chicago in the 1971 semifinals, three days after Pete Stemkowski’s Game 6 triple-overtime winner had kept the Blueshirts alive in their quest to end the then-31-year drought.
In considering the responses, , indeed, was memorable in that it completed perhaps the most puzzling series in team history.
The Rangers had won the Presidents’ Trophy with a franchise-record 113 points (53-22-7) in a season in which Henrik Lundqvist had been sidelined for nearly two months after being struck in the throat by a shot, the club going 18-4-3 in his absence.
The Blueshirts took out the Penguins in five games in the first round. They then rallied from a 3-1 series deficit to , winning both Games 5 and 7 in overtime at the Garden on goals by Ryan McDonagh and Derek Stepan, respectively.
The Rangers then defeated the Lightning at the Garden in the opener of the conference finals. A second consecutive trip to the final seemed a matter of a week away.
The Rangers did not win another home game. They scored 17 goals (5, 5, 7) in going 2-1 at Tampa in Games 3, 4 and 6. They scored two goals in the next three matches at MSG, shut out 2-0 in both Games 5 and 7.
A confusing trilogy
The only series remotely comparable to that was the 1973 semifinals against the then-named Black Hawks that completed the Chicago trilogy.
After losing the seven-gamer in 1971 on a pair of trigger-position goals off faceoffs by Bobby Hull (the Game 7 dagger applied following an icing infraction committed by Brad Park), the Blueshirts swept the Hawks in ’72, culminating with a Gene Carr Game 4 goal that produced as loud a noise, to this day, as I have ever heard in the building.
They then won Game 1 of the 1973 rematch in Chicago, 4-1, before losing Game 2, 5-4.
They scored three goals the rest of the series, though, one apiece in Games 3 and 4 at MSG and in Game 5 in Chicago to drop the series in five games. It never made any sense.
Just like 2015 has never made sense.
But that Game 7 in 2015 is not the one I’d reverse, and the reason is Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal and Dan Girardi were all injured.
McDonagh probably would not have been able to play in the final against the Blackhawks after toughing it out for the final three games against Tampa Bay with a broken foot.
Staal and Girardi, both of whom had leg or foot issues, would have been severely compromised if able to play.
And the team would have been without Mats Zuccarello, sidelined since the final game of the first round after sustaining a fractured skull.
So I doubt the Rangers would have been able to stay with Chicago. A second straight defeat in the final likely would have been more disappointing than losing in the conference finals. That’s why I would not have chosen this Game 7 as the one to reverse.
The one game I want back…
I was prone to going with Howie on this one. The pain of that 1971 Game 7 defeat lingers. I’m not kidding.
I’m not so sure the Rangers would have been able to beat Ken Dryden and the Canadiens in the final, but I’d love to have seen it. Still, there was a Cinderella vibe to the Habs and their neophyte goaltender out of Cornell. So that’s not the one I would choose.
The one I want back is the opener of the 1972 final in Boston, a game in which the Rangers fell behind 5-1 by the 10:46 mark of the second period.
I remember — and can still feel — the waves of humiliation that were about to crash upon the Blueshirts. But then Rod Gilbert scored before the second period ended.
And then the Rangers scored again and again and again, and the game was 5-5 after Bruce MacGregor’s goal at 9:17 of the third period. The Blueshirts were on their way to the same kind of miraculous comeback that would send them to the Cup — the same way the Canadiens had overcome a 5-1 deficit in Game 2 of their first-round series against the B’s a year earlier to win 7-5 en route to a seven-game victory.
This was it.
Until it wasn’t.
Because at 17:44, here came Ace Bailey —
tragically lost on UA Flight 175 on 9/11 — to beat Eddie Giacomin on the short side for the 6-5 winner. The Rangers never quite recovered.
The Blueshirts lost Game 2, won Game 3 at home and were defeated in a Sunday afternoon game at MSG in which Park fought with Bobby Orr.
Trailing 3-1 in the series, the Rangers staved off elimination with a 3-2 Game 5 victory in Boston in which Bobby Rousseau scored twice in the third period to overcome a 2-1 deficit.
The denouement came a couple of days later in Game 6. Orr did his 360 at the blue line against a helpless MacGregor, beat Gilles Villemure and that was that. It was 3-0. Johnny Bucyk and the hated B’s eventually skated off with the Cup through the Zamboni entrance. It was the first time in my life I had been in the presence of the Stanley Cup, and believe me when I tell you I hated every moment of it.
If only Eddie had made that save in Game 1…
They would have won the Cup. The most popular team in the Emile Francis Era would have won the Cup.
I know it.
So that’s the game, the one in franchise history whose result I would reverse: Game 1 of the 1972 final.