Late-night drives give one plenty of time to think and there were several thoughts on the trip back from Washington after the Rangers' season ended with a 2-1 loss to the Capitals in Game 7 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal at the Verizon Center.
No doubt, some were shared by the players/coaches/management after the seventh-seeded Rangers blew a 3-1 series lead to the second-seeded Capitals.
So, to steal from SI's Peter King, the following are some things I think I know.
1. The more things change, the more they stay the same: Wow, a 2-1 game in which the Rangers couldn't produce enough scoring chances late, who would have thought. Isn't that pretty much what we saw all season? Yes, John Tortorella brought a more aggressive brand of hockey to the Rangers. But, in the end, it was as effective, at least for this season, as re-shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic. The ship still be sinkin'.
2. Hank must step up: The basis for any good hockey team is a great goaltender and the Rangers have a very good one in Henrik Lundqvist The players and coaches believe Lundqvist is a guy who can win a Stanley Cup. The only reason the Rangers were in Game 7 was because of Lundqvist, who stole, at least, Games 2 and 4. But when the Rangers defense cracked, as it did in Games 5 and 6, Lundqvist needed to be even better. That's the responsibility of being a franchise goalie. Instead he wound up pulled from two straight games and alloweed nine goals on 34 shots. Not all were his fault. But enough were. Lundqvist is 27 now, no longer a young NHL goalie. Entering his fifth season in 2009-2010, he's entering the prime of his career. He set the bar pretty high his first four seasons. Now it must be set even higher.
3. Good signs: John Tortorella said before Game 7 it was going to be a learning expereince for him to see how players reacted. As disappointed as he is with the loss, he has to be thrilled with how the majority of his team responded last night. Honestly, I can't think of a Ranger who had a bad game last night. I picked on Wade Redden because I thought he was too passive on Sergei Federov's winner. Radio analyst Dave Maloney, whose opinion I couldn't respect more, believes Redden did the right things on that play so I will defer to that. But it wasn't so much the veterans - particularly Sean Avery - who impressed me. It was the unbelievably mature play the Rangers got last night from Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Callahan, Marc Staal and Dan Girardi. Even Artem Anisimov, 20 and thrown into a Game 7 after being up for just one game during the regular season. was composed on the ice. If Bobby Sanguinetti, Mike Sauer and Michael Del Zotto can also develop into NHL regulars, the Rangers will have a very good core of 20-somethings.
4. The bad news: That said, and refer back to No. 1, the Rangers still don't have a finisher. Markus Naslund is not that guy anymore. Nikolai Zherdev should be that guy but showed just as much development this season with the Rangers as he did in four frustrating seasons for the Blue Jackets. Nik Antropov will likely get more money to go elsewhere and he didn't show enough in his month-plus with the Rangers to warrant the Rangers taxing their bad salary cap situation any further for him. Dubinsky, Callahan are already solid NHL players but neither will be a gamebreaker, their main skills lie elsewhere. Lauri Korpikoski has offensive potential and skates well but the jury's out on whether he'll be a top-line wing. Anisimov is a good two-way center who's probably best suited for a second line. And, of course, the main problem with the Rangers is that both their top centers, Scott Gomez and Chris Drury, are better suited for a second line as well. I'm sure none of this is breaking any news. Still, when you mull it over, it's somewhat remarkable that the team was constructed with such a gaping hole. Obviously, GM Glen Sather was betting on Zherdev developing here in New York.
5. Who goes: Don't think the Rangers re-sign Zherdev (who doesn't seem like a Torts' guy), Antropov, Derek Morris or Paul Mara (that one kills me because there's not a better guy in the dressing room plus he's a solid player and great team guy. But with the Rangers needing to save for Marc Staal's new deal, plus hampered by the Michal Rozsival and Wade Redden deals, Mara likely will be offered more elsewhere). I don't see Aaron Voros having a spot on next year's roster. I could see Colton Orr gone. The Rangers must re-sign Blair Betts, presuming he recovers from his broken orbital bone and concussion, but, in the process, they might not be able to afford Fredrik Sjostrom as well, though Torts really likes the guy.
6. Who stays: Young RFA's Callahan, Dubinsky and Korpikoski should be the Rangers first order of business. The Rangers, no doubt, would love to trade Gomez's salary - and Redden's for that matter, too. But there's not likely to be a market at that price for either, Gomez has five more years at $7.3 million per and Redden is also a killer with another five years at $6.5 million per.
7. The power play: Actually, I've wasted enough time this season berating, lampooning, criticizing and mocking the NHL's 29th-ranked unit. The first problem with Redden's deal is he's not a PP quarterback. The Rangers are probably praying Matt Gilroy can run the PP at the NHL level but there's also a good chance the Hobey Baker Award winner will start the season at Hartford (AHL).
We're still awaiting word on the schedule for the Rangers' break-up day. We know it's not today, presuming it's tomorrow but nothing official yet. We'll have more news as the Rangers set off for the summer. Plus, please check out tomorrow's Record/Herald News or online at northjersey.com for an analysis of what went wrong during the Rangers' seven-game loss to the Capitals and five key offseason questions.