Thu 16 Apr 2015
The New York Rangers enter the 2015 Stanley Cup season as the hunted instead of the hunter. The bullseye is drawn on the Rangers is doubled in size because, first off they are the Rangers and secondly they face the extra burden of winning the Presidents’ Trophy for the third time since the trophy was awarded at the end of the 1985-86 season.
“We have to embrace it, and challenge ourselves,” Rick Nash told Brett Cyrgalis of the NY Post. “We’re obviously going to be the team to beat.”
No fan of the Blueshirts will ever forget the last time the Rangers were the NHL’s Presidents’ Trophy winner. It was the season that saw the end of the curse and the end of “1940” chants (except for the sarcastic one the Garden faithful chanted that fateful night).
While fans might want to forget the first time the Rangers won the Presidents’ Trophy, they should remember it or face the wrath of being condemned to repeat it.
After eliminating the New Jersey Devils by winning a Game 7 for the first time in franchise history, the Rangers squared off against the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1992.
It was a series that featured Adam Graves being suspended for four games for breaking Mario Lemieux’s left wrist. With the Rangers up two games to one and a 4-2 third period lead and with a chance to put the game away with a five-minute power play, the Blueshirts snatched defeat from the jaws of victory when a Ron Francis shot from outside the blue line eluded goalie Mike Richter.
About 90 seconds later Jaromir Jagr tied the game. Richter was so rattled that Jaromir Jagr nearly beat a wandering Richter with a shot from center ice. Coach Roger Neilson replaced Richter with John Vanbiesbrouck and it was Beezer who was victimized by Mark Messier’s turnover in overtime that led to Ron Francis completing the hat trick and tying the series at 2-2. Pittsburgh would win the next two games and end the Rangers Cup hopes.
Of course that was 23 years ago and times have changed. If a Rangers player ever came close to doing to Sidney Crosby what Graves did to Lemieux – well let’s just say said Rangers player would be collecting Social Security by the time his suspension was over.
The NHL has to be thrilled as the league prepares for the Stanley Cup playoffs – especially those in power who favor parity. Only 16 points separated the Rangers (first in points) and Calgary Flames (final playoff qualifier). That is the fewest amount of points since 16 teams made the playoffs. The last time that gap was less was in 1964-65 when just four of six teams made the playoffs.
With the Los Angeles Kings missing the playoffs, the NHL will see its 16th different Stanley Cup champion crowned. No team has won back-t-back Cups since the Detroit Red Wings in 1996-97 and 1997-98.
Also lending itself to NFL-like parity, the NHL saw seven teams make the playoffs this year after missing out last year – the largest turnover in league history.
Even within the game itself, parity appeared to reign. Nearly 605 of games (719 of the 1,230) were one-goal games or one-goal plus an empty net goal.
As for the 2015 version of this rivalry, many people will point to the Rangers speed and overall attention to defense and the return to form of Henrik Lundqvist as the key to the series.
Some people will point to the revenge Crosby and Evgeni Malkin want to dish out after the Penguins failed to capitalize on the three games to one lead last year. Still others will point to Marc-Andre Fleury and his need to replicate his 2009 Stanley Cup heroics rather than revisit his 2012 playoffs meltdown.
I see this series as one of attrition – especially among the Penguins blueliners. Pittsburgh enters the playoffs without Kris Letang who is suffering from post-concussion syndrome.
Also gone are veteran d-men Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik who both left during the summer.
The status of injured defensemen Christian Ehrhoff, Olli Maatta and Derrick Pouliot are unknown – although Jenn Menendez of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote that Coach Mike Johnston thinks Pouliot, and possibly Ehrhoff, could be available for playoff duty at some point. Things were so bad for the Penguins that they were only able to dress five defensemen by the end of the season because of injuries and cap concerns – and one of them was minor league veteran Taylor Chorney.
It is interesting that the Penguins found themselves with such cap constraints considering that they placed Dupuis and Maatta on LTIR – according to Rob Rossi of TribLive.com.
Actually, if Rossi’s April 11 article is true, then there is a big disconnect in the Steel City in terms of the organization, from top to bottom.
Rossi states that Pittsburgh settled on current GM Jim Rutherford after failing to hire their number one priority – player agent Pat Brisson, who just happens to be Crosby’s agent.
Rutherford, who was only allowed to hire one outsider for his staff, was expected to provide mentorship for former Ray Shero hires Jason Botterill, Tom Fitzgerald, and Bill Guerin. The implication was that Rutherford was a placeholder for one of these three.
Much like Rutherford, Johnston was not Pittsburgh’s first choice as coach. Instead, their number one target left for Vancouver’s job (Willie Desjardins).
Also like Rutherford, Johnston was able to bring in one outside assistant coach (Gary Agnew) as Rick Tocchet and goalie coach Mike Bales were retained.
The Penguins have been able to dip down to their AHL affiliate to recall d-men Brian Dumoulin and Scott Harrington. It will be interesting to see how much ice time and responsibility rookie head coach Mike Johnston gives two his rookie defenseman.
Even the vaunted Penguins forward corps has seen its share of injury woes. Pascal Dupuis was limited to just 16 games before blood clots ended his season. Even Malkin has been suffering from an undisclosed injury that seen him go without a goal for the final 10 games of the regular season.
The Rangers are probably as healthy as any team can expect to be at this time of the season. Marc Staal appears ready to return to action and should be given the task of shutting down Crosby.
Injured defenseman Kevin Klein was not on the ice as the Rangers returned to practice on Tuesday – and he did not practice on Wednesday either. Coach Alain Vigneault has let it be known that Klein must return to practice before getting back into the lineup. On the plus side, Matt Hunwick has not looked out of place.
Even with Letang on the sidelines, the Penguins power play has enough offensive power to make the Rangers pay for any undisciplined play. As good as the Penguins power play has been (10th in the NHL), their penalty killing has been even better finishing third in the league.
As a comparison, the Blueshirts power play limped home as the 21st rated man advantage while their penalty killing was again a bright spot – sixth in the NHL.
As the Nashville Predators can attest in their Game 1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, special team play can swing the momentum of a game.
The 2014-2015 NHL season has really been a season within a season for both squads. Earlier in the year, the Rangers trailed the Penguins by as many as 13 points. While the Rangers gathered steam and finished strong (despite the lackluster home finale against Ottawa), Pittsburgh limped home with a 4-9-2 record (including five losses in a row) and needed to win their final game of the season against Buffalo just to qualify for the playoffs.
With the Penguins facing the possibility of playing such an inexperienced defense, it is imperative that the Rangers make the Pittsburgh blueliners uncomfortable in their own end. The Blueshirts will need to ratchet up their forechecking in order to force the Penguins defense into turnovers that can be converted into scoring chances because Fleury has been solid in goal this year – posting an NHL best 10 shutouts on the season.
The Rangers will also help their case by staying out of the penalty box. The Rangers were able to overcome the Penguins last year by limiting the likes of Crosby and Malkin. It was a strategy that the Rangers followed during their regular season success against Pittsburgh.
Malkin and Nick Spaling paced the Pittsburgh offense with three points each, with Malkin being the lone Penguin with more than one goal.
Prediction: I predict that I will be suffering from agita, aggravation and many sleepless nights – and I hope it last well over two months.
As for the series, I see the Rangers winning it in six games as their speed and forechecking will provide too much for the Penguins defenseman to handle. If the Blueshirts can hold serve during the first two games at MSG, they might be able to do themselves a favor and wrap up the series in five. My advice for the Rangers is for them to seize their home ice advantage and not give Pittsburgh any chance to avenge last season’s playoff collapse.
The interesting point will be to see what the loser of this series does moving forward. Does the losing team’s management decide that the organization has one more run in them as currently constituted, or does management decide that the current roster has taken the team as far as it can and that major changes are the next step in the organization’s evolutionary process.