PHILADELPHIA -- The number 16 is always an important one for each team as they enter the Stanley Cup playoffs. It’s the number of wins needed to take home hockey’s ultimate prize. It’s incorporated into teams’ postseason slogans and emblazoned on shirts and posters as a reminder of the necessary path in order to be the last club standing in June.
Well, you can bet the number 12 is now looming large for the New York Rangers as well, because it’s an inauspicious reminder of blown opportunities and chances that have been pilfered away.
The Rangers have dropped 12 straight playoff contests while leading a series, and they earned the latest tally Tuesday night in a dispiriting 5-2 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. With a 3-2 series lead and a chance to snuff out the Flyers’ postseason hopes and punch their ticket to the next round, the Rangers instead surrendered both the game and momentum to a plucky Philly squad that was hell-bent on forcing a winner-take-all Game 7.
If little separates these two teams, as both coaches have preached throughout the series, them maybe Philadelphia's ability to seize the big moments is a harbinger of things to come.
“We just got in our own way,” veteran center and alternate captain Brad Richards told ESPNNewYork.com after the game. “It wasn’t like we weren’t ready to play. ... A bunch of blunders, really. It was uncharacteristic of the team.”
Flyers winger Wayne Simmonds led the way for Philly, scoring a hat trick and providing a net-front presence that disrupted goaltender Henrik Lundqvist all night. Flyers goaltender Steve Mason was terrific, finishing with 34 saves in an effort that had the crowd at Wells Fargo Center chanting his name with less than a minute remaining in regulation. Flyers captain Claude Giroux, who has shouldered his fair share of criticism for his ineffectiveness this series, finished with a goal and two assists.
But the true back-breaker for the Rangers was the team’s failure on the power play, with one failed man advantage particularly glaring.
Gifted with a phantom high-sticking penalty against Flyers depth defenseman Erik Gustafsson, the Rangers couldn’t cash in on the power play. Philadelphia gained momentum with the unit's ineptitude in a triumphant penalty-killing effort that was highlighted by a beautiful glove save by Mason to snag Benoit Pouliot's Grade-A chance with 34 seconds remaining in the advantage.
The Flyers now have stopped the Rangers on 20 straight power-play attempts. Meanwhile, the Rangers allowed the Flyers to tally on two of their three power-play opportunities Tuesday night.
“Special teams sticks out to me pretty big,” said winger Rick Nash, who was held off the score sheet for the third straight game and has yet to find the back of the net this series. “We didn’t get that job done. We’ve got to forget about it. Game 7’s tomorrow and we have to have a short-term memory.”
Defenseman Dan Girardi, who has been one of the most stout defensemen of either team this series, had a rough night after a couple of unsightly gaffes proved costly. Lundqvist was outdone by Mason and was replaced by backup netminder Cam Talbot after giving up four goals on 23 shots in the first two periods.
The Rangers didn’t look lifeless or uninspired -- rather, this was probably the most intense match of the series -- but they were not sharp when it counted. By contrast, the Flyers responded with their backs against the wall as they so often have this season.
There’s no time to sulk or pout now, and the Rangers already seemed eager to purge the loss, insisting that the game was already stricken from memory and the focus has shifted to Wednesday night for what promises to be a do-or-die grudge match on home ice.
“We’ll be ready to go,” said defenseman Marc Staal. “We’ll bring our A-game.”
The good news is the Rangers have won five straight Game 7s on home ice. That’s about the only statistic the team can take comfort in right now.
Asked about how his team will turn the page on the team’s demoralizing loss, Alain Vigneault was curt.
“Do we have a choice?”