April 2007

If any good is to come from the Rangers double overtime victory against the Sabres let it be that they will heed the advice of Michael Rozvival who was “Rozsey-on-the-spot”.

“Anything can happen when you put it on net,” Rozsival told Dan Rosen of The Record.

One only needs to look back at the Rangers two goals on Sunday to see how true Rozsival’s words ring.  Martin Straka provided the screen on Jaromir Jagr’s tap in goal to put the Rangers in front and Jagr was the man who screened Ryan Miller on Rozsival’s game winner.

In fact, go back to the Rangers Game 2 goals and you will find both came as a result of the Rangers causing havoc in front of the Buffalo net.  Yes, Miller playing an elite level of hockey – the kind that is elevating him as the heir to Mike Richter as the best American netminder.  However, far too often the Rangers are content to stay to the outside with their shots without providing any traffic in front of the Buffalo net.

Think back on the shots and near-missed from both teams.  More often than not, the Rangers shots are coming outside of the triangle while the Sabres are working inside the triangle.

The triangle I am referring to would be considered the slot and the high slot.  Use the crease as the point of the triangle and extend the legs out to the circles and then across just inside the top of the circle.  Obviously, this is prime real estate when it comes to getting quality scoring chances.

With this triangle in mind, think back to where the Rangers are taking most of their shots – especially on the power play.  They are coming outside this area, mostly on shots from sharp angles.  Unless you are crowding the net and facing a goaltender that is a rebound machine you are just not going to score on these types of shots all that often.  Factor in the Rangers inconsistent ability to cause traffic and Miller’s ability to control rebounds and you see why the Blueshirts are having problems scoring.

Even on Rachunek’s (wrongly) disallowed goal, the Rangers showed on dangerous they can be on offense when they go to the net with their offense instead of concentrating on the finesse game.

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Ah yes, the game-winning goal.  No, I am not referring to the one Michal Rozsival scored rather I am referring to the one Karel Rachunek should have scored and should have been the game-winning goal and should have sent players and fans home a lot earlier.  While Rozsival’s goal does make for a dramatic ending – especially considering it happened 36 years to the exact date that Pete Stemkowski scored a triple overtime goal to defeat the Chicago Blackhawks – it does give one an opportunity to wonder what they were drinking in the NHL’s “war room” in Toronto.

The NHL video replay officials were the ones who played the villains in disallowing Rachunek’s goals, not the on-ice officials who got the call right – sort of.  While the NHL can dispute the legality of Rachunek’s goal, they can’t dispute the fact the Ranger blueliner was being held/hooked on his way to the net.  If it wasn’t going to be a goal, it sure should have been a power play.

As far as the video review, the NHL’s rules state that a player can’t use a “distinct kicking motion”.  Rangers coach Tom Renney got off a great line that will either cost him a few fishnagels or a private wrist slapping from the NHL.

“Our video coach made his way to the bench pretty animated,” Renney told Dan Rosen of The Record. “It was not a kicking motion as far as I’m concerned. It has to be a distinct kicking motion, and if that’s distinct, we’re all in trouble.”

It is kind of hard to have a distinct kicking motion when you are attempting to put on the breaks and not run into the goalie and or the goal post.  Given the referees whistle-happy nature in reference to the Rangers, the Blueshirts should be happy they only ended up losing a goal.

Someone has to explain to me how the Sabres could end up with nine power plays  (including an incredible six in a row) to the Rangers five in a game where the Rangers where the team who had the better of play for most of the game – power plays excluded?

I know there is no grand conspiracy on the NHL’s part against the Rangers, but is there one in favor of the Sabres?  Okay, I know that isn’t the case either but one does have to wonder if the NHL is trying to pay back the Sabres for blowing the Stanley Cup clinching goal in 1999 when Brett Hull was camped out in the crease.  What is even funnier is Hull defending the league’s reversal.

The Sabres have been on the plus side of four straight video reviews in the playoffs – Derek Roy’s first overtime post pinger not included.  Had that shot been ruled a goal, Ranger fans would still be deluging the league office with complaints.

Frankly, one post-game interviewee hit the nail right on the head.  I wish I could remember who said it, but I was still trying to get the feeling back after sitting on the edge of my seat for four hours.  The interviewee said had this game been a regular season game, then the Rachunek goal would have counted.

Another great line was one Bill Clement provided during the second intermission.  Clement contacted Colin Campbell is Toronto and the former Ranger coach basically told Clement he would rather take four minutes to get the call right instead of spending four and a half days defending it.  Noble sentiment, but the boys in Toronto did spend four minutes on the call and still screwed it up – and now the league has to spend time defending itself.  Kind of amazing, isn’t it, that the NHL hasn’t lost the recipe for making ice!?!

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It has been a long time since a Rangers loss, especially a playoff loss, has aggravated me so much.  That was the case after the Rangers Game 2 loss at Buffalo.  It annoyed me so much that has taken me a couple of days to finally put my thoughts into words.  I know that sounds kind of weird, but there is a reason behind it all.

The loss in Game 1 did not hurt as much because the Rangers eventually did enough wrong things that they deserved to lose.  That was not the case in Game 2.  The Rangers almost played well enough to win, but just missed out on the victory – as they did in three of the four regular season games.

The Rangers are learning that in addition to being a damned good hockey team, the Sabres are also a very opportunistic team.  At time in the playoffs, opportunistic teams can be more dangerous than good teams.

There are ways to beat good teams.  A hot goaltender, a well executed game plan, or a bounce here and there can make the difference.  These things do not defeat an opportunistic team.  An opportunistic team waits for their opponent to make a mistake and they makes their opponent play for their mistakes.  The New Jersey Devils have thrived and survived on just that – as well as great goaltending and a solid defensive system.

In Game 1 the Rangers undoing was based on undisciplined play which translated into power plays for Buffalo and an inability for the Rangers to get any flow.  That tendency towards undisciplined play cost the Rangers in Game 2 as well.

Buffalo’s first goal was a direct result of an undisciplined penalty by Petr Prucha who was caught for tripping while backchecking.  The Rangers compounded that mistake by getting caught out of position on the Sabres power play goal.  More specifically, it was Marcel Hossa who drifted over to the left point leaving the Sabres right point wide open for the first of two “give back goals”.

The Sabres tied the game at 2-2 on yet another “give back goal” as the Rangers could only enjoy a lead for a couple of minutes.  It was yet another undisciplined play as Marek Malik threw a soft blind pass up the middle of the ice rather than take the safe play off the boards.  It was the second such play Malik made.  His first foray into poor passing occurred late in the second period when he had the puck outside the Rangers blue line and threw an dill-advised cross ice pass rather than make the safe play up the boards.

The final Buffalo goal came as a result of the Rangers getting caught running around in their own end and as a result of Karel Rachunek being undisciplined by not taking the body on a Sabre player behind the net.  Rachunek was guilty of the same type of play with six or so minutes left in the second period when he was completely undressed by Thomas Vanek because Rachunek was caught looking at the puck rather than playing the body.

The Rangers had an opportunity to redeem themselves with their power play late in the third period.  However, once again, lack of discipline reared its ugly head.  Rather than clog the shooting lanes and cause havoc in front of Ryan Miller, the Rangers wasted their chance after pulling Henrik Lundqvist.  After scoring two power play goals by getting traffic in front of Miller and putting the puck on net, the Rangers power play reverted to working the outside in search of the one perfect pass for the one perfect shot.  They compounded that problem by refusing to play dump and chase when the Sabres cleared the puck and the Blueshirts wasted time looking to skate through the lines of Buffalo defenders at the blue line.

While the task is still not hopeless, the Rangers are inching closer to critical mass.  A playoff series is not out of reach until you lose a home game.  However, some things have to change.  First off, Rachunek needs to sit in favor of Thomas Pock.  It is no coincidence that Rachunek has struggled since returning from his injury.  It is hard enough to get back into the flow of the game without any type of rehab assignment.  It is even that much tougher to do it on the playoffs and against a team like the Buffalo Sabres.

Secondly, the Rangers need to get some traffic in front of the Sabres net.  Yes, Ryan Miller has been at the top of his game, but take a look at the majority of the Rangers shots.  Miller is getting a clear look at the shots and the Rangers are firing pucks about waste high – thus limiting their rebound chances or even deflections if they were so inclined to bump ugly in the slot.

By contrast, take a look at all of the shots and near misses the Sabres have had against Henrik Lundqvist.  It seems that Buffalo always manages to get inside the Rangers defense while the Sabres keep the Rangers to the outside.

While Lundqvist has played well, the Rangers need him to literally steal a game.  He has to make the types of saves that will bring the Garden to its feet and leave the Sabres shaking their heads.

On offense, the Rangers need to drop their Euro-centered attack.  It is that style of puck possession and obsession to pass their way to a goal that is limiting their scoring chances.  They need to get the puck deep and go to work on the Buffalo defense with a hard forecheck, get traffic in front of the Buffalo net and look for some screens, deflections and rebounds.  This style is crucial when the Rangers are on the power play.  The Rangers power play needs to step up and provide some offense and become a deterrent to the likes of Dainius Zubrus who was hitting everything in red, white and blue.

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In theory, a team never faces a “must-win” game until they face elimination from the playoffs.  In reality, the New York Rangers Game 2 matchup with the Buffalo Sabres is as close to a “must-win” as you can get in a non-elimination game.

No, I am not painting the Rangers season as done even if they lose, but a win would go a long way in stemming the tide against doom and gloom.

Playoff hockey is so much more about momentum than regular season hockey.  During the regular season, momentum tends to shift from game to game.  In the playoffs, it changes from period and even shift to shift.  Just look back at how Game 1 developed.

The Rangers managed to hold their own for a period and change against Buffalo despite the Blueshirts best efforts to screw things up with their undisciplined play.  However, Michael Rozsival gets hurt and is out of the game after a game try at the start of the second period.  The Sabres turn the tide of the game with their goals in four minutes and the momentum was theirs.

So how do the Rangers shift the momentum back their way?

There is an old adage in baseball that momentum is based on tomorrow’s pitcher.  In hockey, momentum is based on your goaltending.  Henrik Lundqvist did not play as bad as the five goals against indicate.  However, the Rangers will need him to raise his game another notch while the 18 skaters kick their up a couple of notches.  The Rangers must make the Sabres play from behind.  Buffalo does have a tendency to concentrate on offense and leave goaltender Ryan Miller on his own at times.

The Rangers need to emulate their AHL affiliate.  After Hartford lost Game 4 to the Providence Bruins by a 5-1 score, the Wolf Pack responded with a 1-0 victory in Game 5.  They should heed the advice Wolf Pack assistant coach J.J., Daigneault offered after the Game 5 win.

“Everyone reacted well to our last game’s performance,” Daigneault told Bruce Berlet of The Hartford Courant. “The guys realized they didn’t bring their best hockey, and in the playoffs, it’s important not to fall too low when you lose, but to always be ready to bounce back every game.”

They key to bouncing back for the Rangers is for their big players to step up.  Jaromir Jagr and Brendan Shanahan must take the lead on and off the ice.  As far as the rest of the team, the Rangers need to ratchet up their intensity while improving their discipline.

Much has been made about the Sabres speed – and quite rightly so.  However, there are ways to combat the speed disadvantage.  The main thing the Rangers need to do is prevent the Sabres speed from becoming a factor by picking up their forechecking.  While the Buffalo defense is steady, there are no game breakers on the Sabres blue line.  The Rangers have to work hard to slow down Buffalo in their own zone and through the neutral zone.

I am not calling on the Rangers to trap, just to be more aware of what is happening in the game.  It is possible the Rangers got away from the things they did right during the final third of the season because of their inactivity.  Shanahan expressed the correct view when he spoke with Jay Greenberg of the NY Post.

“Hockey is instinctive,” Shanahan told Greenberg. “A lot of what you do in practice and games is repetition, and in some ways we didn’t have that for a week.

“We had fresh legs for a good start, but the mistakes were signs of not being sharp mentally, what happens after a layoff. It seemed like the Sabres brought their A game, but I’m sure they had individuals who felt it as well.

“Did we lose because we had a week off? No. But there is a subtle difference in recognizing things you can do better and in making excuses. I don’t think this team is making excuses, simply identifying something that probably was a problem. It’s almost a way for players to Say, ‘We can get a lot better.’ ”

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The waiting is finally over as the New York Rangers continue their playoff hunt as they shuffle off to Buffalo to play the Sabres – and it appears that the Rangers pre-series chirping has rattled a few sabers in Buffalo.

John Dellapina of the “Daily News” had the following tidbit from coach Lindy Ruff.

“It’s a good thing to develop a little emotion and passion for your opposition. And the things they’ve said already about us, that’s good. I like that.”

Jerry Sullivan of the “Buffalo News” had the following quote from center Daniel Briere in reference to the comments Sean Avery made.

“I mean, that’s always good for our room,” Briere said, laughing. “But I’m not going to get into a war match with any of their guys — or not yet, anyway. We’ll see after a few games. It’s good. It’s good for our dressing room, definitely. We thrive when we find motivation and we’ll find some stuff to get motivated for.”

It is a bit interesting to see that the Sabres are looking for “passion” and “motivation”.  This is the bloody Stanley Cup playoffs.  If you need to find passion and motivation then you have bigger problems then what Sean Avery and Tom Renney are saying.

Heck, the Sabres might be playing into Avery’s plan.  Here is Sullivan’s take on Avery’s comments.

“Avery says he wants to hurt someone. But by stoking the hatred, he might actually be helping the Sabres,” Sullivan writes.  “It’s clear that Avery tries to get under an opponent’s skin. But an angry, motivated Buffalo team might be more than he or his coach bargained for.”

It seems that Avery’s comments have turned the feisty forward into Public Enemy Number One in Buffalo – something Avery wanted to do.  With home crowd egging on the Sabres, you can bet that Avery will be number one on the hit list, which could get the Sabres off their game.

Much has been written about the Sabres sweeping the four-game series from the Rangers during the regular season.  However, there a couple of points that need to be made.  Outside of one 7-4 blowout, the other three games were either decided in overtime or in a shootout.

The regular season series ended on December 1, 2006.  The Blueshirts are far different team than they were during the first couple of months of the season.  There was no Avery, no Paul Mara, no Ryan Callahan, no Daniel Girardi and no Jed Ortmeyer.  In three of the four games there wasn’t even a Henrik Lundqvist.

Some hockey “experts”, okay so it was WFAN’s Chris Russo, feel that the Sabres will prevail because they were tested during their first round series against the New York Islanders as opposed to the Rangers sweep of the Atlanta Thrashers.  What Russo fails to take into account is that the Rangers have been playing “playoff” hockey for the final third of the season.  Remember, the Rangers did not clinch a playoff spot until the 81st game of the regular season.  During their wild ride to the finish, the Rangers faced adversity and playoff uncertainty and finished up the season 17-6-5.


This series marks only the second time the Rangers and Sabres have met in the playoffs.  Buffalo eliminated the Blueshirts two games to one during a 1978 Preliminary Round series – back in the days when the first round of the playoffs was a best-of-three contest.

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With the New York Rangers facing nearly a one week playoff vacation, our attention can turn to what is on the horizon for the Blueshirts in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.  According to Sam Weinman on his Journal News Blog, the NHL has blocked off the April 25 through May 9 as the next set of playoff dates.  The longer the Quarterfinals go, the longer the Rangers layoff.

The Rangers are in a Catch-22 situation.  Teams can always use extra time off at this time of the year to heal up major injuries and the usual bumps and bruises that accumulate during the NHL’s regular season.  That is balanced off by the fact that teams are not accustomed to having as much as a week off in between games.  It will be up to the Rangers’ coaching staff to keep the players sharp, but rested.

The only two remaining playoff teams the Rangers can’t face in the Eastern Conference Semifinals are the New Jersey Devils and New York Islanders.  The three remaining teams present their own problems.

The Tampa Bay Lightning split the season series with the Rangers.  The Blueshirts sandwiched 4-1 and 5-0 victories around 4-3 and 3-2 losses to the Lightning.  The 4-3 loss is rather memorable because the Rangers blew a three goal lead as Tampa Bay scored four unanswered goals in the third period.

The Rangers went 1-3 against the Ottawa Senators, but it wasn’t as bad as that record might indicate.  One of the losses was a 1-0 shutout and another was a 3-2 loss that saw the Rangers blow another two-goal lead.  The Rangers also dropped a 6-4 decision to the Senators in game where the Blueshirts fell behind 5-0 before rallying to draw within one goal.

As for the series with the Buffalo Sabres, yes the Rangers were swept by the Eastern Conference champions.  However, that record is also deceiving.  Of the four games, Kevin Weekes started three of them.  The Rangers lost their first game to Buffalo by a

7-4 score as the Rangers blew a two-goal lead in game where the Sabres scored five unanswered goals.  The next game was a 4-3 Overtime loss with Weekes in goal again as the Rangers failed to protect a 3-1 lead.  The third game featured Henrik Lundqvist’s only start against Buffalo.  The Rangers dropped a 3-2 Overtime decision as this time the Rangers rallied from a two-goal deficit.  The Rangers final meeting with the Sabres was a 4-3 Shootout loss with Weekes in goal as the Rangers again blew a 3-1 lead.

My preference would be for the Rangers to play the Lightning.  Granted they are only a couple of years removed from their Stanley Cup championship and feature the offensive talents of Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards and Martin St. Louis.  However, there are many questions about their goaltending with Johan Holmqvist and Marc Denis between the pipes.  It will remain to be seen if they can rebound from their Game 4 Overtime loss to the Devils.

As for the choice between Buffalo and Ottawa, it is not such an easy decision.  Yes, the Sabres are on the verge of finishing off the Islanders, but they have had to struggle far too much given their regular season success.

Some people see Ottawa as the tougher opponent after the way they dusted off the Pittsburgh Penguins.  However, the talented Penguins are still a relatively young team in respective to the playoff wars and their best years are ahead of them.  Despite Ray Emery’s play against the Penguins, he is inconsistent at best.  While Ryan Miller hasn’t set the world on fire, I believe he is more capable of being the steadier of the two goaltenders.  In addition, the Senators still have some playoff ghosts of their own they need to exorcise.  As a result, I would prefer to play the Senators as opposed to the Sabres.

As a Ranger fan, there is a bonus to playing the Senators.  If the Blueshirts do play Ottawa then it means that Tampa Bay eliminated the Devils.

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New Jersey Devils CEO/President/GM Lou Lamoriello fired coach Claude Julien with three games remaining in the regular season.  For the second straight season, Lamoriello will return behind the bench.  Lamoriello replaced coach Larry Robinson in December 2005 after Robinson resigned.

Julien’s late-season firing is not without precedent for Lamoriello and the Devils.  Lamoriello fired Robbie Ftorek with eight games remaining in the 1999-2000 season and replaced him with Robinson who led New Jersey to the Stanley Cup championship.

Lamoriello fires Julien with three games left in the regular season despite the Devils winning four of their last five games.

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