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The New York Rangers Have Thrived Under Pressure. Can They Keep It Up?

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It’s been a good, if stressful, month for fans of the New York Rangers, who play Game 2 of the NHL’s Eastern Conference final tonight at Madison Square Garden.1 The Broadway Blueshirts put a 6-2 hurting on the Tampa Bay Lightning in their series opener Wednesday, giving the Rangers a 60 percent chance of playing for the Stanley Cup for the first time since 2014. But before that, New York put its fans on a roller-coaster ride of emotions, battling its way through the playoffs by outlasting, outfighting and out-clutch-ing the Pittsburgh Penguins and Carolina Hurricanes. Maybe they won’t need to do the same against the Lightning, but the Rangers are already skating along a hazardous path toward the Cup — a path that doesn’t always end in success.

In the first round, the Rangers required seven games (and a 3-1 comeback) to eventually prevail over Pittsburgh, with left wing Artemi Panarin scoring the game-winner in overtime of the deciding contest. Then New York fell behind again versus Carolina, trailing 3-2 in the series before rallying to win Game 6 at home and Game 7 on the road. If you’re counting, that means the Rangers have faced elimination five different times so far this postseason, going a perfect 5-0 in those games. Since the NHL’s first round expanded from best-of-five to best-of-seven in 1987, only two teams — the 2013-14 Los Angeles Kings and the 2002-03 Minnesota Wild — have advanced to the third round with a better record in elimination contests over the playoffs’ first two rounds.

The Rangers are in clutch company

For teams that made the third round of the NHL playoffs, most wins in elimination games during the first two rounds, 1987-2022

YearTeamWinsLossesWinsLosses
2014Los Angeles Kings8660
2003Minnesota Wild8660
2022New York Rangers8650
2010Montreal Canadiens8650
2019San Jose Sharks8640
2014New York Rangers8640
2010Philadelphia Flyers8440

For the 2020 playoffs, the qualifying round did not count toward these records; only the rounds of 16 and eight did.

Source: Hockey-Reference.com

The Wild were promptly blown out in the conference finals, as were the 2009-10 Montreal Canadiens — who, like the Rangers, had gone a collective 5-0 in elimination games through two rounds. (The two teams lost by a combined margin of eight games to one.) But the Kings actually used their clutch play as a springboard to winning the Cup — over the Rangers of all teams. So this year’s version of the Blueshirts might turn the tables by emulating the team that bested them eight years earlier.

However, our previous research on elimination-game winning streaks in the NHL found that recent success when a team’s back is against the wall doesn’t really give it anything more than a coin-flip’s chance when predicting its next must-win matchup. Living dangerously, as the Rangers have certainly been doing in these playoffs, eventually just leads to dying if you try it long enough.

Furthermore, the Rangers are in a select but not particularly successful club of teams that started off the playoffs by winning a pair of Game 7s. Since 1987, a dozen other teams have made the third round while needing seven games in each of their first two series. Of those 12, 10 ended up losing in the third round, with only two of the losers making it to another Game 7 before bowing out.

Teams in need of Game 7 magic can’t always sustain it

Teams that made the third round of the NHL playoffs by winning Game 7 in each of the first two rounds, 1987-2022

YearTeamWinsLossesGame 7 WinsRd 3 Outcome
2022New York Rangers862??
2019San Jose Sharks862L
2016St. Louis Blues862L
2014New York Rangers862W
2014Los Angeles Kings862W
2012New York Rangers862L
2010Montreal Canadiens862L
2009Carolina Hurricanes862L
2003Minnesota Wild862L
2002Colorado Avalanche862L
2002Toronto Maple Leafs862L
1993Toronto Maple Leafs862L
1990Chicago Blackhawks862L

For the 2020 playoffs, the qualifying round did not count toward these records; only the rounds of 16 and eight did.

Source: Hockey-Reference.com

Incredibly, both of the success stories came from 2014: After going seven in each of their first two series, the Rangers ended up ousting the Canadiens in six games to make the Cup final, while the cardiac Kings needed a seventh game for the third consecutive series, beating the Chicago Blackhawks in overtime to punch their ticket. But otherwise, teams that go the distance for a couple of early round wins usually run out of gas by the third round, whether due to the toll of playing so many games or just the possibility that their crunch-time luck finally dries up.

This year’s Rangers are hoping to become another exception to the historical rule, and they’re off to a great start so far in the Eastern Conference final. The six goals they dropped on the Lightning and goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy in Game 1 were tied for the most he’s ever given up in a playoff game during his already-storied postseason career. It was also the first time this postseason that New York actually won Game 1 of a series, and the first time it has held the lead in a series any earlier than the end of Game 7.

Maybe that’s a sign that the Rangers’ days of living purely on dramatic comebacks and do-or-die wins are over, and their fans can breathe a little easier in the team’s pursuit of its first championship since 1994. But given how tough this team has been to figure out all season, something tells me that further clutch performances will be required if New York is to prevail.

Check out our latest NHL predictions.

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