The Rangers owned what amounted to match point on Sunday afternoon – a two-game series edge and a two-goal lead in the second period of Game 3. They somehow ended up losing in Tampa Bay, 3-2, and suddenly the Eastern Conference finals are far from done.
Nobody said this was going to be easy. The Lightning, two-time defending champs, always figured to be a very tough out. Tough-guy Jacob Trouba was whistled for three careless penalties. Tampa Bay dug out of the hole with two power-play goals from their biggest guns, Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos.
Then with just 41.6 seconds left, Ondrej Palat took a brilliant touch pass from Kucherov and squeezed a shot low and inside the right post on Igor Shesterkin’s glove side.
“The third period for us just wasn’t good enough,” Adam Fox said. “We were on our heels the whole time.”
So the Lightning remains very much alive. And regardless of how this turns out, Tampa Bay should stand as a model to the Rangers in one very important category: long-term franchise stability. The Blueshirts have absolutely no idea what it is like to have the same head coach for nine seasons.
The Rangers are young, they have an effective coach in place, and their goalie can win games all by himself. There is every reason to believe this Stanley Cup run will be the first of many, with the current personnel playing key roles for years.
But history begs to differ. The Ranger organization has been wildly volatile and impatient in the past. They have had three different team presidents in the past three years, while tossing aside head coaches as if they were wet paper towels.
When Jon Cooper was hired by the Lightning on Mar. 25, 2013, John Tortorella was coaching the Rangers. Since then, management has fired three coaches and employed three others – Alain Vigneault, David Quinn and Gerard Gallant.
To find a nine-year coaching tenure on the Rangers, you have to go back to the days of Lester Patrick and Frank Boucher—an era that ended in 1948. Those two coaches combined for three Stanley Cups. Since then, the Rangers have produced 42 coaching changes, and exactly one Cup.
Cooper remains an anomaly among NHL coaches, and a lesson to general managers everywhere: You don’t have to be a former NHL star to lead a hockey team. Cooper was a high school player, then a college lacrosse athlete at Hofstra. He became a Wall Street guy, a lawyer, at times a public defender. Eventually, he worked his way from coaching a high school hockey team in Lansing, Mich., to a minor-league club, to the NHL.
Wherever Cooper went, he enjoyed tremendous success.
“He’s just got a great way of communicating things in layman’s terms, not trying to get too caught up in analyzing things,” defenseman Ryan McDonagh told the Tampa Bay Tribune. “You guys hear enough of him in the media, he’s got good quote after good quote (and) analogies and trying to put things in perspective. It’s no different with our group.”
Gallant’s background could not be more different. He is a hockey lifer who played 11 seasons in the NHL and has coached four teams. He has always expressed modest goals, while attaining much more than that. Gallant shares several traits with Cooper. He may not be as loquacious, yet Gallant comes off as positive, competent, and confident.
“When I got to New York, I knew it was a talented group, a skilled group, there was a lot of young guys,” Gallant said. “All I tried to do with our coaching staff is to get them to believe in themselves and play the game the right way.”
Despite Gallant’s first-year success, and his third-place finish in the Jack Adams voting, it is hard to imagine he will enjoy a tenure in New York as long as Cooper’s in Florida. The Garden hierarchy, starting with James Dolan at the top, is far too reactive for that.
Gallant reportedly signed a four-year, $14 million deal last year with the Rangers. But what happens if the Rangers are eliminated early from the playoffs in say, 2024? Nobody lasts very long here. Even Mike Keenan, who coached the 1994 Stanley Cup champs, couldn’t coexist with management and escaped town immediately.
Will Chris Drury prove to be a different type of executive in New York, an effective buffer for Gallant? Will he wield both the power and perspective to steer a steadier ship?
Too early to tell. We only know that Tampa Bay is already a big winner, regardless of what happens Tuesday in Game 4.