It wasn’t supposed to go this way. When the New York Rangers made trade deadline acquisitions of Vladimir Tarasenko and Patrick Kane, the expectation was that the team would overwhelm opponents on their way to a championship run. After two games of their first-round contest against the New Jersey Devils, it felt like that was going to be the case.
Since then though, the dream has turned into a living nightmare.
New Jersey has won the last three games of their series and has the Rangers on the ropes. A loss in Game 6 Saturday night at Madison Square Garden would mean the Blueshirts would be eliminated in the first round after a deep playoff run the year prior.
It would mean so much more than just a playoff series loss to a rival though.
With the amount of talent on the roster and lack of true adjustments made throughout the series, the future of head coach Gerard Gallant’s tenure in New York is on dangerous grounds. A loss in Game 6 could very well lead the Rangers to look for new locker room leadership as they search for a new head coach. It’s not far-fetched to say that Gallant is coaching for his current job Saturday night.
Even with those concerns, the coach isn’t worried about the off-the-ice issues.
“Better than gold,” said the second-year head coach when asked how he was feeling.
It’s not just Gallant’s future that could be in doubt. After the end of their rebuild, New York attacked free agency with top players like Vincent Trocheck and Artemi Panarin coming to the Big Apple. The fact that Panarin has struggled for a second straight postseason has been a key storyline to follow throughout this series. Recent practices have shown the All-Star working on the third line with some of the kids.
To Gallant, that is all part of trying something different to change the spark of the series.
“I want to stay with the lines. I’ve liked what I’ve seen. I just wanted to mix some things up and I think it matches up with their lineup,” Gallant explained. “Time will tell.”
Finding the right matchup has become very difficult for a Rangers team in their first-round series against the Devils. With their backs against the wall, the focus has turned to a one-game approach as opposed to a potential Game 7 on the road.
“It’s one game at a time. You can’t do nothing about the last five games so you get ready for tonight. The guys are ready to go and are excited to play. So go out there and play hard and hopefully, it goes the right way for us,” Gallant added.
New York may have the right attitude going into a massive “do-or-die” contest but playing well on the ice will be the focus at MSG. But it’s hard to turn away from the thoughts of what the repercussions could be if the Rangers are bounced before winning a playoff series.
With several young players looking for long-term deals and aging stars carrying massive cap hits, it may not be just Gerard Gallant that is on the hot seat Saturday night – the entire future of the franchise hinges on the outcome at home.