Wed 12 Apr 2017
After it appeared that the New York Rangers were not going to win the Metropolitan Division crown, Blueshirts fans have been calling for their team to go into the tank (just enough) to clinch the first wildcard and cross over into the Atlantic Division as the fourth seed.
Ranger fans: Be careful what you wish for.
Switching divisions does have its advantage as the Rangers avoid the gauntlet of having to defeat two of the top three teams in the Eastern Conference (who also rank first, second and fourth in the NHL) in order to just reach the Eastern Conference Final.
Of course, that advantage means the Rangers get to face the Montreal Canadiens and the house of horrors known as the Bell Centre. Despite the Rangers having, as Rick Carpiniello, now writing online for MSG at ACCORDING TO CARP calls it, “road-ice advantage”, the Rangers would have been better off crossing over to the Western Conference where they posted a 21-6-1 record. Only Chicago’s 43 points against the Eastern Conference matched the Rangers.
The Rangers passed on their fans “tanking” mantra last season and paid the price with a five-game loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Despite that loss, that series was tied at 1-1 with Game 3 being tied at 1-1 going into the third period at the garden. The Rangers could have been ahead if not for Michael Sullivan winning a coach’s challenge that wiped out Chris Kreider’s PPG midway through the first period. Pittsburgh tied the game on a late second period PPG by Sidney Crosby.
Rather than that memory, fans remember the Rangers third period collapse in Game 3 and the Pens thorough dismantling of the Rangers in the next two games as The King was unceremoniously dethroned.
As is the case any time the Rangers have entered a playoff series, their fates rest squarely on the shoulders of Henrik Lundqvist. For the first time in a long time, Lundqvist enters a series as the decided underdog in the battle of the goaltenders.
Since the end of the 2008-9 season, Lundqvist has been anything but a king in the Bell Centre posting a 0-6-1 record with a 4.42 GAA. In 2014, Lundqvist held Montreal to three goals as the Rangers won the first two games at the Bell Centre. Game 5, on the hand, was a nightmare as Lundqvist gave up four goals before being pulled about midway through the game leaving Cam Talbot to take the loss after the Rangers erased a 4-1 deficit.
As formidable as Price has been in his career during his 10 year career (he only played 12 games last season), he has been rather pedestrian in terms of his playoff heroics. In looking at his statistics Price’s numbers, his playoff numbers are slightly off when compared to regular season numbers: GAA – 2.62/2.40 and SV% – .914%/.920%.
For comparison’s sake, Lundqvist’s playoff numbers closely mirror his regular season numbers: GAA – 2.28/2.32 and SV% – .921/.920.
The Carey Price-Chris Kreider escapade of 2014 has been written about and talked about enough that there is no need for me to analyze and over-analyze what happened. I will say this – if Montreal needs that particular revenge factor as a motive to beat the Rangers – then the Habs are done before the series starts.
Another angle that has been beaten to death is the rematch of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final coaches with Claude Julien replacing Michel Therrien during the regular season. Given that Julien and Alain Vigneault are coaching different teams this angle is nothing more than any interesting tidbit as what happened in 2011 will have no bearing on what happens in 2017.
What will have a bearing is which Rangers team decides to show up for this series. Is the disinterested Rangers team that stumbled home with an 8-9-4 record or is it the team that roared out to a 40-19-2 record?
While Jeff Gorton has done a pretty good job of injecting some youth into a team that was left bereft of first round draft picks, some tough decision will be coming in the off-season thanks to the Expansion Draft and the intrigue over next season’s salary cap. Contract clauses and high salaries will limit Gorton’s ability to break up the veteran core, but another uninspired playoff exit might force the Rangers to make hard decisions – which are for another day.
The concern for the Rangers is how to game plan a strategy to beat the Montreal Canadiens. Being a diehard Rangers fan – as if there is any other kind of Rangers fan – I offer Vigneault the following suggestions.
The first is some advice that I had stored way from an old Elliotte Friedman article from Sportsnet.ca. Friedman was writing about the 2015 playoff matchup between the Canadiens and Ottawa Senators. Friedman wrote, “One NHLer, watching that series, said despite all of Ottawa’s pressure, there’s a certain way you have to do it against the Canadiens — drive the middle and push the defence back. ‘(The Senators) don’t shoot for rebounds,’ he texted. ‘They shoot to score from far out,’ and that is ‘too easy for Price.’”
The Rangers forwards are going to have to camp out in front of Price and being active and alert for any rebound chances and look to screen him at every chance. Think of Derek Stepan’s PPG against Philadelphia in the regular season finale as the blueprint for the Rangers – especially on the power play. Tristan Jarry had no chance to stop Stepan’s shot because he had to look around Rick Nash.
Shea Weber is going to be an imposing figure in this series at both ends of the ice. You can expect he will be out against either Kreider or Nash and will try to neutralize either one. On the plus side, that probably means he can’t be on the ice to defend them both as long as AV pays attention to matchups.
Offensively, Weber’s howitzer of a shot will be as imposing as that of Alex Ovechkin – especially when the Habs are on the PP. The Rangers must know where Weber is on the ice at all times in the Rangers zone and the Blueshirts must be active with their sticks and bodies to disrupt his shot – something they don’t always do enough of when facing Ovechkin – especially on the PP.
Offensively, especially early in games, dump the puck into his corner and make him play the puck. The Rangers have enough forwards who have the skating ability and size to put pressure on Weber and make him give up the puck. When he does, that is when the Rangers must attack on the forecheck. It is similar to the strategy the Rangers used in 1979 when they defeated Denis Potvin and the New York Islanders.
Some fans are concerned about the size the Habs added at the trade deadline. If the difference in this series comes down Jordie Benn, Dwight King and Steve Ott then the Rangers had no business even being in the playoffs. The Rangers have enough size in their lineup to battle Montreal – it is a matter of them using it.
It is that size and the Rangers speed among their forwards that make it a must that the Rangers harass Montreal on the forecheck, above and beyond what I wrote previously about slowing Weber down. Julien is going to have the Habs clogging the neutral zone so the best way for the Rangers to combat that is to pin the Canadiens in their own zone.
Remember, dump-and-chase is not always a bad idea as long as the Rangers don’t forget the chase part – something they often do. When they dump the puck in they have to do it smartly because price can handle the puck. Either band it hard around the boards or put into the corner where Price can’t play the puck. Cross-ice dump-ins with the weak side forward going hard after the puck will help.
Speaking of being pinned in their own zone, could the Rangers please abandon this fake news about them playing man-to-man defense because they don’t. The Rangers forwards drop down into the shooting lanes rather than cover the points. Watch the Rangers’ defensive zone coverage; the forwards are playing a spot on the ice as opposed to playing the man. This is why the Rangers get caught in their own zone for extended periods of time.
In coming up with a prediction, I am of two minds. My heart says that the Rangers can and will win in six games. However, my brain says something different.
If the Rangers were an offensive juggernaut or a lockdown defensive team, then I could see them being able to flip the switch and return to the success they had prior to the final quarter of the regular season. Since the Rangers are neither of those type of teams, the prediction is Montreal in six.
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