SAN JOSE, Calif. — The California Memory Tour rolled on for the Rangers.
Following a 3-1 loss to the Kings on Tuesday night, the Rangers left Los Angeles, the scene of their 2014 Stanley Cup final heartbreak, and headed north to find out that former Devils coach Peter DeBoer had been fired as the head coach of the Sharks. They were set Thursday night to get the first look at the Sharks under interim head coach Bob Boughner.
DeBoer coached the Devils when they beat the Rangers in the 2012 Eastern Conference final, a series that was the beginning of the Blueshirts taking close runs at the Stanley Cup, but never quite going all the way. DeBoer’s dismissal was a reminder of how long ago that 2012 series was and how much has changed.
“I think for us, our team kind of didn’t realize what we were doing,” remembered Marc Staal, the veteran defenseman, who is one of three remaining players from that run, along with Henrik Lundqvist and Chris Kreider, who was a student at Boston College until the playoffs started.
“We were young, and we just worked extremely hard,” Staal said. “We were blue-collar, worked as a team to get it done every night. I remember after the [series ended with Adam Henrique’s goal for the Devils in overtime of Game 6] sitting around talking to the guys, saying how close we were. And, ‘Oh, we’ll do it again.’ But you never know, and you have to take advantage of those moments.
“We were right there, just couldn’t get it done.”
The same could be said for DeBoer’s run with the Sharks, which started when he left New Jersey in 2015. He led the Sharks to the playoffs in each of his first four seasons in San Jose, including a 2015 trip to the Stanley Cup final and a conference final appearance last season.
But after a 15-16-2 start, general manager Doug Wilson decided it was time for a change, and DeBoer was let go.
“This is a very difficult profession,” Rangers second-year coach David Quinn said before Thursday’s game. “No one’s feeling sorry for anybody, but when you get to this level, things can change quickly.”
Of course, things have changed drastically for the Rangers. They began their rebuilding in earnest two seasons ago, when they started selling off veteran pieces for future assets. In 2012, John Tortorella was still the coach of those Black and Blueshirts, and then came Alain Vigneault for five seasons of terrific success that only lacked a Stanley Cup.
And now it’s Quinn, who came out of Boston University at the start of 2018-19 with the hope of developing the young Rangers and accelerating this rebuilding process so they can get back to being competitive again and back to making the types of postseason memories that have been stirred up on this trip.
“More or less, you just think about your own team. The teammates you had, the run you had, the memories you made along the way,” Staal said. “Obviously, the ending [in 2014] is crushing, but I still look back fondly. Those guys on that team, it was a really fun group to be a part of it.”
Sometimes during these flashes of nostalgia, players can think back to being naive, to thinking success was a given every year. But Staal remembered the veterans on that 2012 team — the likes of Brad Richards, Mike Rupp, Ruslan Fedotenko — driving home the point that it doesn’t happen every year, and they should savor the moment.
It’s a point that has sharpened over the years, especially with no playoffs the past two and with the franchise going through a transitional phase.
“We had the guys in those rooms to let you know how rare those opportunities come,” Staal said. “I knew being in that room on those teams, we were in a good place, and not many teams were as fortunate as us to be that competitive and that good. I definitely enjoyed the runs that we had.
“But it goes fast, and things change quickly. It’s just the game.”