April 2008

In 1994 the New York Rangers had to climb one more hill to win the Stanley Cup and that hill was Mount Vancouver. For the Rangers to survive in the 2008 Stanley Cup Playoffs, that hill might as well be Mount Everest – never mind Mount Pittsburgh.

To say that the Rangers face a daunting task would be an understatement. Only three times in the history of sports has a team come from three games to none down to win a playoff series. The last time it occurred was in 2004 when the Boston Red Sox exorcised the “Curse of the Bambino” and eliminated the New York Yankees. Rangers fans looking from solace can take hope in the fact that two of three times it was a hockey team pulling off this feat. In 1942, the Toronto Maple Leafs rallied to defeat the Detroit Red Wings and in 1975 the New York Islanders survived and eliminated the Pittsburgh Penguins. A real diehard fan will point to the 33 year difference as a glimmer of hope – faint as it may be.

On the other hand, the last time a team won its first seven playoff games they went on to win the Stanley Cup. That team was the 1994 New York Rangers.

As if the Rangers road ahead were not tough enough, it may get even tougher with the potential losses of Chris Drury, Blair Betts, and the loss of Sean Avery. It was obvious that Drury suffered some type of “upper body injury” as he labored through the third period. It is uncertain if Betts will recover from taking a puck to the face.

The Avery injury was not revealed until this morning when John Dellapina and Larry McShane of the Daily News broke a report that Avery lacerated his spleen during the first period last night and remained in the game. Dellapina reports that Avery went to the hospital at 3:00am this morning and that a St. Vincent’s Medical Center source said the feisty winger remains in the intensive care unit.

According to the Rangers, Avery was admitted following a CT scan. He will miss the remainder of the season and he is expected to make a full recovery during the summer.

As bad as the Rangers Game 3 loss is, believe it or not, it could have been worse if past Rangers history held true. April 29 is remembered as the date of two of the longest playoff games in Blueshirts history. In 1971, Pete Stemkowski scored in triple overtime as the Rangers defeated the Chicago Blackhawks. Last year, Michael Rozsival’s double overtime winner against the Buffalo Sabres briefly turned the tide in the Rangers favor.

Unfortunately, the only heroics last night belonged to Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin who celebrated his being named as a Hart Trophy nominee with his playoff coming out party. While Sidney Crosby may get all of the headlines, Malkin has been the leader of the Penguins this season.

During the first two games, special teams and bad penalties spelled doom for the Broadway Blues and Game 3 was no exception. The Penguins two power play goals and the Rangers inability to muster any offense with the man advantage spelled defeat. The Blueshirts had a chance to sink a dagger in the Penguins with their two five-on-three advantages, but they could not solve the Pens penalty killers. People argue that the Ranger can’t find the shooting lanes. Funny, but other teams manage to find those shooting lanes.

The two power play goals the Penguins scored were the direct result of two careless and stupid penalties. Ryan Callahan’s four-minute high sticking penalty at the end of the first period and Ryan Hollweg’s boarding penalty at the end of the second period buried any hope the Rangers had of getting back into the series. While Callahan’s penalty was bad, Hollweg’s could not have come at a worse time given the fact the Rangers had erased a two-goal deficit and had Pittsburgh back on their heels. Actually, the Rangers did a pretty good job of killing off the Hollweg penalty. The problem is the penalty killers were exhausted because they could not get off for a change. The Rangers had one good chance to clear the puck, but once again, went up the middle with the clearance rather than bang it off the boards/glass.

While the Rangers did show a willingness to return to the style of attack that helped beat the New Jersey Devils, they still made the same defensive mistakes – the difference being Pittsburgh’s ability to finish off their chances.

Oh there was one other difference. Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury outplayed Henrik Lundqvist. While some will say The King played badly because of the five goals allowed on the 17 shots, more often than not Lundqvist was hung out to dry. His sin was not being able to make up for his teammates mistakes – something he did on a regular basis against the Devils. Turnovers, players falling down, players out of position and wingers having to take defensive zone draws all contributed to the loss.

To their credit, the Rangers are not ready to throw in the white towel yet. Despite being down three games, hope still exists in the Rangers locker room.

“I have a very funny feeling about this series. It’s not over,” Jaromir Jagr said. “It’s just my feeling. I don’t know how many believe me, but we’ll see.”

Whether Jagr truly believes what he is saying is a matter that time will tell. It could be that he believes it, or it could just be the captain saying what he is supposed to say. One thing is for certain, if this turns out to be the captain’s last time in a Rangers uniform he is going out doing all that he can do to will his team to victory.

Does Tom Renney insert Petr Prucha and/or Colton Orr into the lineup of does he pull a page out of Phil Esposito’s playbook? During the 1989 playoffs, Esposito gave Mike Richter his taste of NHL action against the Penguins with the Rangers trailing three games to none. Will Renney give Artem Anisimov and/or Greg Moore their first taste of playoff action if any combination of the injured forwards can’t go and does he replace an ineffective Christian Backman with Bobby Sanguinetti or Corey Potter?

According to Sam Weinman of the Journal News, Moore and P.A. Parenteau were on the ice at practice today.

In the end, it really doesn’t matter who is in the lineup and who isn’t. The bottom line is the Rangers have to revisit their play against the Devils if they want to extend the season at least one more game. We saw flashes of it last night as the Rangers managed to get more traffic in front of Fleury and relied on some forechecking to create scoring chances from behind the net. The Rangers need to translate that sense of urgency to their moribund power play. It is amazing that a team that has so much success when they move their feet and commit to forechecking can be so passive when it comes to their power play.

Rather than carry over that idea of player (and puck) movement, the Rangers become five statues content on passing the puck on the perimeter in a fruitless search for the perfect shot on goal. If the Rangers were as committed to moving the puck and themselves on the power play, they would find that the clogged shooting lanes would open up.

Obviously, the Rangers also need to stay out of the penalty box. While it is impossible for the Rangers not take penalties, they are in no position to take the lazy and careless penalties they took in Game 3 (see Callahan and Hollweg).

No one knows for sure how much longer the Rangers season will last. However, Rick Carpiniello of the Journal News relayed an excellent story that pretty much sums up the Rangers situation.

“It’s been said often in this situation. The first time I heard it, it came from Rangers coach Ted Sator, whose team was down 3-0. ‘One way or another,’ he said, ‘we’ll be history.'”

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The Rangers-Penguins series is far from over. However, the Rangers need to raise their level of play. They seem to have returned to their mid-winter malaise where the team either scored goals/didn’t play solid defense, or the team played well defensively/ couldn’t find any offensive consistency.

Make no mistake about it, the Rangers do face a daunting task. The Rangers have faced a two games to none deficit 18 times in their history and have only one series win to show for it – 1996 against Montreal when the Rangers came back to sweep the Canadiens. Conversely, the Penguins have won seven of nine series when they had a two games to none lead. Then again, who would have thought the Rangers would have blown a five goal lead against Montreal this season?

The Rangers cannot concern themselves with returning to Mellon Arena tied at two games apiece. Right now there focus needs to be on Game 3 because Game 4 will take care of itself. With that said, here are some areas the Broadway Blues need to address heading into Game 3 on Tuesday night.

1. URGENCY – The Rangers backs may not be against the wall, but they are getting closer and closer. The team has to find a way to play with “desperate control” that Mike Milbury mentioned prior to Game 2. I am not a fan of Milbury, but even a blind squirrel finds an acorn every now and them.

2. The Rangers need to put the “special” back in special teams. The Penguins two game winning goals have been power play tallies. The Rangers need to take a page out of the Pens playbook and put two men in front to screen/harass/annoy Marc-Andre Fleury. In addition, the Rangers have to move the puck and themselves in order to create scoring chances. Pittsburgh is doing a fine job of clogging the shooting lanes and movement (puck and players) is the way to open up those lanes.

3. Better puck control and ice balance are two keys to success at both ends of the ice. Once again the Rangers failure to clear the puck cost them a goal. Marc Staal was unable to clear the puck and Michael Rozsival left the slot to help Staal with Evgeni Malkin – thus leaving Jordan Staal open in front. Puck control includes getting pucks out of the zone when the opportunity presents itself. It also includes eliminating the bad clearances up the middle of the ice. The boards are there for a reason – use them. Ice balance includes the forwards not clumping up to one side of the ice and it includes the defense corps’ bad habit of playing too wide – which is how Marian Hossa walked in on a first period breakaway.

4. In order to strike a balance between the Game 1 offense and the Game 2 defense, the Rangers must increase their forechecking and physical play in combination with getting the puck deep. The Penguins are doing a solid job of standing the Rangers up at the blue line. As a result, the Rangers must get the puck deep and work the Penguins defensemen. The Pens blueliners are good, but they are beatable if the Blueshirts can get serious pressure on them.

5. The Rangers must work Fleury the same way they did Martin Brodeur – with Sean Avery toning down his Marty antics a bit. The Rangers forced Brodeur into mistakes by being a presence in front of him – something they are not doing to Fleury.

6. The veteran leadership has to step up. It is now the time for the likes of Chris Drury, Scott Gomez and Brendan Shanahan to show their leadership and live up to their big-game personas.

7. Tom Renney might want to consider a couple of lineup changes. He needs to move Petr Prucha up with Avery and Gomez and drop Shanahan to the fourth line. It will add much needed speed to the Gomez line and keep Shanahan fresher for special teams work. It also gives the Rangers a solid defensive fourth line. The other change might be to roll the dice and insert Andrew Hutchinson into the lineup. Since he was one of 10 players recalled from Hartford, I have to presume that there are no issued with him having to clear waivers. He is a risk defensively, but he might be the power play spark the Rangers need. Renney could conceivably sit a forward and dress seven defensemen and use Hutchinson as a power play specialist. That would open up the opportunity for Renney to double shift Jagr in hopes the captain will shake free from his shadows. Would Renney consider reuniting his HBO Line? Ryan Hollweg, Blair Betts and Colton Orr were an effective line when matched against Sidney Crosby’s line.

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The naysayers are out in droves as the Rangers find themselves in the exact same position they were in one year ago – down two games to none in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. You can excuse Ranger fans for feeling down and Penguins fans for feeling giddy, but the media – that is another question.

Shelly Anderson of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette offered the following analysis.

“By failing to at least split the first two games of their second-round series against the Penguins, the Rangers put themselves in a position of having to win at least one game at Mellon Arena if they are to advance to the Eastern Conference final.”

I don’t want to hurt Anderson’s feelings, but the Rangers were going to have win at least one game in Pittsburgh no matter what. While it would have been nicer to win the first game at the Igloo, if they win the last one at the Mellon that works just fine. The bottom line is that the Rangers are not in trouble until they lose a game at home.

It was only one year ago, that the Rangers were seconds away from bring a three games to two lead back to the Garden against the Buffalo Sabres.

The Rangers have to hope that this season’s streaks continue. The Penguins have now won their last 12 home games and the Rangers have to hope that their four game home winning streak this year against the Penguins gets extended by three.

Of course, the Rangers need to start finding way to win in this series – and in a hurry. The Blueshirts played with a curious lack of intensity and desperation during Game 2, especially in the third period. I am not sure if they were a tired team, a beaten team, or an overconfident team. Whatever the case, they need to play with what NBC’s Mike Milbury called a “desperate control”.

A perfect example of the Rangers lack or urgency stems from their “one and down” style of attack. They seemed content to get one shot on Marc-Andre Fleury and not work as hard against him as they did Martin Brodeur to get to rebounds and cause traffic in front of the Pens net.

While his players may or may not realize this problem, Tom Renney is well aware of what the Blueshirts need to do on offense.

“We need to make sure he has some screens to have to find the puck through,” Renney offered to Dave Molinari of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “I’m not going to suggest that it was easy for him, but it certainly could have been tougher.”

The easiest way to sum up the Rangers playoff experience so far is to take the tact that they played just good enough to beat the Devils and are playing just bad enough to be trailing the Penguins. The Blueshirts just seemed to beat a step off during the entire game. To use a baseball analogy, it just seemed like their curveball was hanging all game long.

Game 2 is the perfect illustration. Despite Fleury’s shutout, Henrik Lundqvist outplayed his Pittsburgh counterpart. The King was called on to make the bigger game saving stops. Even Fleury’s best stop was more a case of the Rangers not being willing, or able, to take that final shot.

A few minutes before Jordan Staal capitalized on poor Ranger defense, Jaromir Jagr cruised down the slot. Rather than take the shot in the slot, the Rangers captain tried to skate it down low and get Fleury to commit. In the old days, Jagr would have rifled the puck from the slot rather than try to deke the goaltender.

Of course, the Rangers again found themselves one break away from heading into overtime. In Game 1, it was Jagr’s shot that clanged off the post. Yesterday, it was Dan O’Halloran’s quick whistle that nullified martin Straka’s tying goal.

Rather than resort to the gamesmanship that Penguins coach Michel Therrien accused Renney of in respect to Sidney Crosby and his diving fetish, the Rangers bench boss agreed with the call.

“I thought it was an accurate call,” Renney told Larry Brooks of the NY Post. “Either the whistle had blown or the intent was there. It was a good call.”

I have to agree with Renney’s assessment with this one caveat – O’Halloran needed to put himself in better position to follow the puck. The referee was to side of the net rather than getting behind the net to follow the puck. The referees did not lose site of the puck on a Rangers second period power play despite a maze of Rangers and Penguins surrounding Fleury.

The Rangers process of fighting their way back into this series has to start with forgetting about Crosby and his Greg Louganis-like dives because it is doing the team no good. Everyone knows that Crosby dives. That is why all of the media, both print and television have harped on this subject. You don’t see anyone saying that Evgeni Malkin dives because he doesn’t.

If what Brooks wrote in Sunday’s Post is true, then the league knows it as well. Brooks said that the NHL called Sidney the Swan in on the carpet because of his propensity to dive.

This situation is very similar to the one the New York Mets face in the 1986 National League Championship Series against the Houston Astros. Everyone knew that Mike Scott was scuffing the baseballs. Much like the NHL turns a blind eye to Crosby, National League President Chub Fenney looked the other way when the Mets presented him a with a bucket full of Scott baseballs that were scuffed in the exact same place with the exact same pattern.

The Mets went out and beat the other Astros pitchers and won that series in six games and did not have face Scott in a seventh and deciding game.

The Rangers need to go out and play their game and not worry about what Crosby may or may not do. If the Rangers end up putting themselves in a position where Crosby can draw a penalty for diving, then the blame is on the Rangers. If the Rangers are going to take a penalty against Crosby, make sure it is as earned penalty because they put a body on Crosby and not a careless hook or debatable hand on the shoulder.

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“I haven’t changed. I never dove. I don’t,” Sidney Crosby offered during Thursdays meeting with the media. “That’s just part of the playoffs, part of the gamesmanship,” he said. “If I go down it’s because I’ve been forced down. If not, I’ll find a way to stay up. I think he should be the one worried about guys diving.”

Apparently, Crosby forgot about that statement as he felt a breeze and found a way to go down on the thinnest of calls against Martin Straka late in the third period. Of course, both Don Koharski and Kelly Sutherland somehow managed to miss Straka being crosschecked moments earlier in front of the Pens net, but were on top of the Crosby call. Interesting, indeed.

As bad as that call on Straka was, it did not cost the Rangers the game. There is no excuse for any team to blow a three goal lead – especially one that is built on defensive responsibility first. It was that lack of defensive responsibility that let Pittsburgh get back into the game.

John Dellapina of the Daily News had a telling quote from Brendan Shanahan in reference to the Straka penalty.

“I think it was certainly a big play in the game,” Shanahan explained. “But it wasn’t the game. I think the moment of the game was really when they get their first goal. They’re pretty dead, trying desperate things. And kind of out of nowhere, their fourth line gets the goal that gives them momentum.”

Michael Rozsival presented the Penguins with their first goal by committing a turnover at the Rangers blue line and them compounded that problem by getting caught standing in the crease when Jarkko Ruutu pinballed one in off Rozsival’s skate.

The Rangers need to heed Butch Goring’s post-game warning to “stay out of the crease”. I have counted at least three goals that have bounced off Rangers defensemen who have been standing in the crease (last night’s goal, the Devils’ Game 3 winner that deflected in off Marc Staal and the Devils’ Game 5 goal that bounced off Fedor Tyutin).

Heck, even the Rangers caught a break when Straka’s power play goal deflected in off Sergei Gonchar, who was standing in the crease.

Defensive breakdowns played a huge part on goals two and four. On the second goal, four Rangers left Pascal Dupuis all alone in the slot and on the fourth goal Tyutin poorly misplayed a two-on-one on Petr Sykora’s goal.

Of course, it would be another pinball-type goal that would prove to be the game-winner – this time off the leg of Evgeni Malkin rather than a Ranger.

One disturbing trend from last night’s game was just how fragile the Rangers psyche was. The Penguins scored their first two goals in the space of 14 seconds and their third and fourth goals in the space of 20 seconds. While the Blueshirts do rely on young players in key spots, this team still has enough veteran leadership that should prevent the team from losing its poise so easily.

The Game 1 loss reflected the same problems the Rangers encountered in Montreal when they blew their five goal lead. The Broadway Blues had the game in control, but then took their skate off the pedal. They stopped fore checking and they stopped hitting. They let the crowd get back into the game and affect their performance.

As a result, for only the second time in their playoff history (covering 94 games), the Rangers lost a game where they had a three goal lead. On the other hand, Pittsburgh rallied from a three goal deficit in the playoffs for the first time since May 1992 when they came back to defeat the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals.

I had a bad feeling when Versus announcer Joe Beninati started to say that the Penguins had not rallied from a three-goal deficit all year. Unfortunately proved to be true as the “dreaded three goal lead” came back to bite the Rangers.

“(Ahead) 3-0 in the playoffs, you’d like to think it’s over, but what are you going to do?” Scott Gomez told the AP. “We can’t get in a track meet with those guys. It’s over, there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Actually, there is something the Rangers can do. They can, once and for all, learn from their mistakes. They got away with mistakes against the Devils because New Jersey does not have the offensive firepower to capitalize – the Penguins do have that kind of firepower.

The Rangers veterans need to find a way to make sure the team does not fold at the first signs of adversity. Far too many times it seemed like the Rangers had that deer-caught-in-the-headlights look.

The Blueshirts have to remember that their team is built on taking care of defensive responsibilities first. The Rangers cannot go toe-to-toe with the Penguins offensively. As a result, the Rangers have to bring the tempo down top their level. That means playing a smarter game in their own zone by keeping ice balance and making sure each player has their man marked while keeping a body between the puck and the net.

That means being more careful with the puck in the defensive zone. The Rangers dodged a couple of bullets on some poor clearing attempts. The Blueshirts have a bad habit of trying to break out of the zone with ill-conceived passes up the middle rather than chipping the puck off the boards.

That means establishing a forecheck and taking advantage of the Penguins blue liners who do not handle the puck that well (e.g. Hal Gill and Brooks Orpik).

For the most part, the Rangers stayed silent about the officiating during the Devils. The same was not true following the Koharski-Sutherland Show.

“I think it’s a weak call at that time in the game,” Shanahan stated. “Sidney embellished and you could make the call that he was interfering with Martin Straka. It’s too bad it had to happen to a guy like Martin Straka. He’s such an honest, hard-working player… I think it was a tough call for the referee to make at that time in the game.”

Jaromir Jag had an even more telling quote. While he explained, half-heartedly, that he didn’t see the play, the Rangers captain said, “I was kind of expecting something like that.”

While we are at it, can we expect another “rule clarification” from Colin Campbell in reference to Ruutu taunting Rozsival before a faceoff. The Pens uber-pest stole a page out of Sean Avery’s playbook as he put his stick in front of Rozsival’s face. Before anyone starts screaming about a double standard, I did not say that should be a penalty. All I am asking is if the NHL will overreact and issue a Ruutu Rule like they did with the Avery Rule.

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The New York Rangers will be battling history and the National Hockey League when they face the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. The Rangers lost their three previous playoff matchups against the Penguins and if you thought the officiating was inconsistent against the New Jersey Devils just wait until “He Who Must Be Babied” (aka Sidney Crosby) starts flopping to the ice and whining to the officials.

The Blueshirts will need to elevate their intensity and execution in the next round. They were able to get away with some of their mistakes and turnovers because the Devils do not posses a potent offense. The same cannot be said of the Pens.

Crosby is just one of the headaches the Rangers will face against Pittsburgh. The Penguins have two strong offensive lines in the Crosby-Marian Hossa-Pascal Dupuis line and the Evgeni Malkin-Petr Sykora-Ryan Malone line. In addition they have Sergei Gonchar, the NHL’s second highest scoring blueliner, patrolling the point.

Even if the Rangers do eliminate those mistakes and turnovers, they will not be able to get away with playing the way they did in the third period in Game 5 against the Devils. The Rangers retreated into a passive 1-2-2 defensive mode and practically shut down the forecheck that got them where they were. As a result, the Devils were able to dictate the tempo of the play.

The Rangers also must remember to stay out of the penalty box in the next round. The last thing they want to do is give the Penguins any more power play chances than necessary. This will be a problem in this series, not so much because of the Rangers, but because of the NHL’s need to sell the game on the back of Sidney Crosby.

While I wrote that the Devils series was about the Rangers being able to score goals, the Penguin series reverts back to the old adage of defense winning playoff games. The main part of that strategy will be in keeping the Pens off the power play, something Tom Renney knows all too well.

“They’ve got some terrific young players … their goaltending certainly seems to have nailed it throughout the course of the season,” the Blueshirts coach told Steve Zipay of Newsday. They’re one of those teams who will force you into mistakes by the pressure they apply offensively, so we have to be alert to those issues and try to keep a pretty good offensive team off the ice in terms of the power play.”

Renney has good reason to be concerned with the Pittsburgh power play. The Penguins power play which connected at a 20.4% clip (fourth in the NHL) has stepped up their play in the playoffs as they are now at 26.1% (third in the playoffs). While that increase does not seem to be much of a surprise, the Penguins penalty killing numbers are a different story.

Pittsburgh was ranked 23rd in penalty killing (81.0%) during the regular season. However, they have done a complete turnaround in the playoffs as they have the best penalty killing percentage (92.3%).

Of course, some of these playoff numbers have be taken with a grain of salt given Pittsburgh’s opponent in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals – something many in the media are not doing when it comes to analyzing the Rangers-Penguins series.

Many in the media are pointing to Pittsburgh’s four game sweep over Ottawa as the coronation of King Crosby and the Penguins. However, the Senators were pretty much dead team skating as they hung on the make the playoffs. Injuries and inconsistent goaltending doomed any chance Ottawa had in the playoffs.

While the Penguins get the edge when it comes to offense, the Rangers have to get the edge in terms of defense. Yes, the Rangers do not have a stud defenseman on the blue line, but when discussing their defensive corps the sum is better than the parts. This is not to slight the Penguins because Michael Therrien’s team finished third among the Eastern Conference teams in goals allowed with 216. The Rangers finished second with 199.

As you might expect, the series will come down to goaltending. Henrik Lundqvist’s play against the Devils provided a perfect example as to why The King earned his third consecutive Vezina Trophy nomination. However, Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury has been displaying the skills that made him the first overall selection in 2003.

Fleury is 14-3 in his last 17 decisions, including the sweep of Ottawa in the first round of the playoffs. During that streak, he has allowed more than two goals just twice.

Against the Rangers Fleury was 2-3, but two of those losses came in overtime – and he posted a 2.19 GAA against the Blueshirts. For comparison, Lundqvist was 5-3 with a 1.87 GAA.

During the regular season series, the Rangers outscored the Penguins 21-16. The more telling stat is how the Rangers special teams outplayed Pittsburgh. The Penguins scored five power play goals on 35 chances (14.3%) while the Rangers scored nine power play goals on 42 chances (21.4%). Each team scored a shorthanded goal.

While the 2007-2008 regular season went the Rangers way, history has not been so kind for the Blueshirts in playoff matchups with the Penguins. The Rangers were swept in the two team first ever matchup in the 1989 Division Semifinals as the Pens outscored the Rangers 19-11. In 1996, Pittsburgh scored a five game victory in the Conference Semifinals outscoring the Blueshirts 21-15. In that series, Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr skated roughshod over the Rangers as they combined for 19 points.

Then there is 1992. The Rangers won the President’s Trophy in Mark Messier’s first year in New York. Expectations were running high in the hopes that 1940 would be erased. A not-so-funny thing happened on the way to winning the Stanley Cup as the Penguins eliminated the Rangers in the Division Finals in six games with Pittsburgh again holding the goal advantage (24-19).

Taking everything into consideration, players, coaches, statistics, past trends, this series might just come down to which team is bet able to shake off the rust from their long playoff break. The Penguins will have had eight days off and the Rangers six days off. Last year the Rangers spotted Buffalo the first two games before tying the series up at the Garden. If the Rangers can gain a split in Pittsburgh, they return to the Garden where they won all four games against the Penguins.

However, gaining a split will not be easy because Pittsburgh has a 10 game home winning streak on the line. Then again, the Rangers are 3-0 on the road in the playoffs.

One interesting thing to note is how each team responds to falling behind in a game. Pittsburgh trailed Ottawa for a grand total of 4:28 in their series while the Rangers only trailed for 15:10 against New Jersey.


There will be many subtexts in this series:

1. Penguins GM Ray Shero is no stranger to Madison Square Garden given his father Fred Shero’s days as GM/Coach of the Blueshirts.

2. Another Penguin who will be having a homecoming of sorts is Syosset, NY native Rob Scuderi. Prior to going to Boston College, the blueliner played for the NY Apple Core program.

3. It is the first, of what should be many, playoff matchups between Marc and Jordan Staal. In addition, Marc Staal will be “reunited” with fellow Team Canada teammate Kris Letang. The two defensemen were part of the 2006 and 2007 teams that won gold at the World Junior Championship.

4. Jagr may very well be making his final NHL appearances in Pittsburgh. If you thought he has been booed in the past, just wait until Friday night.

5. The Rangers captain is not the only player in this series who has ties to their opponent. Dupuis, Sykora and Adam Hall were all Rangers and Michal Rozsival and Martin Straka were members of the Penguins. Even Glen Sather has ties back to his playing days as a member of the Penguins.

6. Of course, there is what should be the most entertaining matchup of all. Sean Avery and Jarkko Ruuutu will be battling for the title of uber-pest. Toss in Georges Laraque and Gary Roberts will be on hand to stir the pot as well. It will be interesting to see if Renney dresses Colton Orr. During the regular season, Renney often used the HBO Line against Sidney Crosby. The coach must decide if Orr is fit enough to face the extended ice time he might see. Does Renney look to keep Ryan Hollweg in the lineup as well to counter the aforementioned Pens?

7. Renney also has to find a way to keep Jagr away from Hal Gill and Brooks Orpik because Therrien will be looking for that matchup. Does Renney look to move Jagr from line to line or does he give him extra shifts or does he just stay the course and run his four lines as usual?

8. Faceoffs will be a key to a potential Rangers victory. Crosby (48.0%), Malkin (34.1%) and Maxime Talbot (44.1%) have not been strong on faceoffs. Pittsburgh’s best has been Jordan Staal (52.9%) and Tyler Kennedy (50.0%). Conversely, three Rangers centers are over 50% – Scott Gomez (53.1%), Brandon Dubinsky (51.0%) and Blair Betts (50.0%). Surprisingly, Chris Drury (39.4%) has been poor on faceoffs – even though he had as solid Game 1.

9. According to John Dellapina of the Daily News, Games 1 and 4 will be broadcast on Versus only in the New York area. Games 2 and 5 will only be broadcast by NBC. Games 3, 6 and 7 will be on MSG.

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Survive and advance. Jim Valvano first spoke those words 25 years ago as his North Carolina State team went on its Cinderella run to the NCAA basketball championship. Those words still rung true last night as the New York Rangers eliminated the New Jersey Devils. While the series lasted only five games, each one was a war that seemed to come down to the last shift.

Interestingly enough, surviving and advancing wasn’t the only look back into the past. The Rangers revisited four significant moments in their playoff history.

With the Blueshirts seemingly in command with a 4-1 lead, Bryce Salvador channeled the spirit of Ron Francis and 1992 when the Devil defenseman’s shot from outside the blue line hit Brandon Dubinsky, banged off the post, hit Henrik Lundqvist and bounced into the net.

In addition to the Francis goal, Salvador’s masse shot brought back visions of Kevin Hatcher’s goal from the neutral zone against Mike Richter in Game 5 against the Washington Capitals.

The second look back into the past came when the Devils scored their five-on-three goal as Patrik Elias innocent shot bounced in off Fedor Tyutin as visions of Marc Staal and Game 3 flashed into focus.

The final stroll down memory lane came in the third period when John madden looked to tie the goal with his penalty shot attempt. Ranger fans flashed back to Vancouver in 1994 when Richter atoned for the Francis goal as he stoned Pavel Bure’s penalty shot attempt. Much like Richter’s save, Lundqvist’s save on Madden seemed to stem the tide and turn it in favor of the Blueshirts.

The Rangers opponent in the Eastern Conference semifinals could be decided as soon as Saturday. While four teams still remain in play, odds are the Rangers will face either the Montreal Canadiens or the Pittsburgh Penguins. Both teams present a daunting task – especially if the Rangers play like they did against the Devils.

The Blueshirts will need to elevate their intensity and execution in the next round. They were able to get away with some of their mistakes and turnovers because the Devils do not posses a potent offense. The same cannot be said of the Habs or the Pens. Montreal’s speed has the potential to magnify those mistakes and turnovers while Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are certain to cause problems.

Even if the Rangers do eliminate those mistakes and turnovers, they will not be able to get away with playing the way they did in the third period in Game 5 against the Devils. The Rangers retreated into a passive 1-2-2 defensive mode and practically shut down the forecheck that got them where they were. As a result, the Devils were able to dictate the tempo of the play.

The Rangers also must remember to stay out of the penalty box in the next round. The last thing they want to do is give the Canadiens or Penguins any more power play chances than necessary. This will be a problem in the next series, not so much because of the Rangers, but because of their opponent – on a couple of levels.

Obviously, with the Rangers potentially facing a more offensive team than the Devils there will be more chances to take penalties. However, the offensive abilities of Montreal and Pittsburgh is not the only thing the Rangers have to worry about.

If there were concerns with the officiating against the Devils just wait until they face the Canadiens or the Penguins. The NHL has not seen a team from Canada win a Stanley Cup since the Habs did it in 1993. With the NHL looking to base its mainstream appeal on Sidney Crosby, playing the Penguins will be no walk in the par either. Conspiracy theorists start your engines.

The Rangers-Devils series is not the only one where questionable officiating has reared its ugly head. Yet despite all of the grumblings, the NHL remains blissfully unaware of the miserable jobs its on-ice officials are perpetrating.

Dave Gross of Canwest News Service offered what might be the most incredible misstatement ever uttered by a league official. The main behind the insanity was Stephen Walkom, the league’s Senior Vice President & Director of Officiating.

“We’ve had our bumps, but this is the first year where I believe our team has truly been consistent,” Walkom opined on Gary Bettman’s XM satellite radio program on Thursday.

The only consistent thing about the NHL’s officiating has been its inconsistency!

I would be remiss without visiting the Sean Avery-Martin Brodeur saga one final time. Brodeur proved himself to be classless and a hypocrite by ignoring Avery and not shaking his hand while shaking every other Rangers’ hand. At least when Billy Smith refused to shake hands he didn’t shake anyone’s hand.

Despite all of the lamentations about how Avery is bad for the game, he comes out of this series with more class than Brodeur.

“Everyone talks about how much class I don’t have, well it’s the end of the series and men go to war against each other,” the feisty winger offered. “I guess he forgot to shake my hand. I don’t know if anyone saw that. Of course I was going to shake his hand.”

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Most times the hockey gods (actually all of the sports gods) can be fickle and cruel. But every now and then they do provide an opportunity for redemption. Marc Staal took every advantage of that opportunity with his game-winning goal late in the third period of Game 4. While he was in the wrong place at the wrong time on Sunday night, the rookie blue liner was in the right place at the right time on Wednesday night.

Truth be told, Game 4 should served as Marc Staal’s final coming out party. Not too many people would fault him if he had a below par Game 4 given what happened in Game 3. As it turns out, the exact opposite occurred. Not only did Staal elevate his play from the opening face-off, but he deserved every accolade he received – despite finishing the game on a tender ankle after blocking a hot. And he didn’t hurt that he picked a pretty opportune time to score his first goal at Madison Square Garden.

Think back to the beginning of the season. How many Ranger fans would have bet that Staal would be on the ice looking at Brandon Dubinsky taking a face-off with 70 seconds remaining in a game where the Rangers led by a goal? It just goes to show how far the Ranger rookies have advanced during the season.

Ranger fans should not get too giddy about being up three games to one over the Devils. While the numbers are strongly in their favor, the Blueshirts cannot and must not look ahead to the next round. Yes, teams with a three games to one lead have gone on to win 91% of those playoff series. However, the Devils are one of those teams within the 9% after rallying to defeat Philadelphia in the 2000 Eastern Conference Finals.

As if that pressure wasn’t enough, the Rangers have never blown a three games to one lead. Then again, they had never lost a game where they had a five goal lead and we know what happened in the Rangers final trip into Montreal.

They Rangers must elevate their level of play as they return to the Prudential Center. The Rangers lack of intensity, at times, during the two games at the Garden was problematic. One would expect the devils to play with a level of desperation, but the Rangers are not that good of team that they can by on talent alone – and if they were – that only works during the regular season, not the playoffs.

Fortunately, the Rangers still seem focused on surviving and advancing. The same can’t be said about the Devils. New Jersey continues to bemoan about the treatment Martin Brodeur is receiving from the “big, bad Rangers”.

“They are getting away with it, we should be able to get away with it, too,” Jay Pandolfo told Tom Canavan of the AP. “That’s the only thing you can do. It’s out of your hands after that. Sure enough, they are going to hit Marty and if we retaliate, we’ll probably get a penalty. It’s tough, but it’s been going on all series. We have to do the same to their goalie.”

Yes, Brent Sutter was quick to point out that his team failed to clear the puck on the first four goals, but the Devil coach continued his amazement at the “mugging” his star netminder was receiving.

“There was definitely contact on the goaltender and if it’s allowed, that’s fine,” Sutter lamented. “I want to know it and then we’ll do the same. I didn’t think there was contact allowed on goaltenders.”

Funny, I guess Sutter must have missed it when Zach Parise slashed the stick out of Henrik Lundqvist’s hands prior to Mike Mottau’s tying goal. I wonder if Colin Campbell will issue an “on the fly” rule interpretation in reference to that.

While Campbell is looking for new rule interpretations, he might want to reaffirm the NHL’s intolerance for diving because Brodeur is at his Greg Louganis best. Martin Brodeur is a world class Hall of Fame goaltender so it is not necessary for him to assume the pike position every time a Ranger brushes up against him. He is earning the nicknames that blog fans are giving him – Brodiva or Brodiver.

I know that Brodeur did receive one diving penalty, but the official also penalized Fredrik Sjostrom – even though Vitaly Vishnevski pushed him into the Devil goalie. The official also missed the fact that Sjostrom was cut.

Look, I really do hate to pile on the officials, but last night’s duo of Kevin Pollock and Denis LaRue were beyond brutal. In addition to the aforementioned Parise slash, the two referees missed Bryce Salvador’s take down of Sean Avery prior to the Devils rush. Then again, it was Avery so it doesn’t count. However, that doesn’t explain their inability to whistle Salvador for a penalty while he delivered multiple cross checks to the back of Ryan Hollweg in the first period.

Just to show I am not a completely jaded Ranger fan; the refs blew the four-minute high sticking call on Travis Zajac. Replays showed that Zajac’s stick was lifted by Jaromir Jagr prior to making contact with Michal Rozsival.

The bottom line is that while the Rangers have handled the poor officiating by taking the high road and showing class, the Devils have been at the opposite extreme as they are in full Sidney Crosby Whine Mode.

If Ranger fans learned anything from winning the Stanley Cup back in 1994, the hardest thing to do is win that fourth game to close out a series. The Blueshirts can make their job so much easier if they could get their power play working on three cylinders, never mind working on all four cylinders.

Their four-minute power play was the golden opportunity to put away the Devils in Game 4. The problem is that the Rangers reverted to their bad habits. Their strategy was to sit and wait for that one perfect chance to reveal itself. If we have learned anything at all from this series is that offense has been generated by getting the puck at the net.

The best way to get the puck at the net, especially when you are on the power play, is through movement – both of the puck and the player. When the Rangers set up and seem content to pass the puck around the perimeter, it makes killing penalties easy. Opponents can sit in their box and cut off shooting and passing lanes. However, if the Rangers work the puck while keeping themselves in motion, their opponents’ ability to shut off shooting and passing lanes diminishes.

There was no better example of this idea than Scott Gomez’s power play goal that opened the scoring.

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National Hockey League Director of Hockey Operations Colin Campbell issued an “on the fly” interpretation of Rule 75: Unsportsmanlike Conduct:

“An unsportsmanlike conduct minor penalty (Rule 75) will be interpreted and applied, effective immediately, to a situation when an offensive player positions himself facing the opposition goaltender and engages in actions such as waving his arms or stick in front of the goaltender’s face for the purpose of interfering with and/or distracting the goaltender as opposed to positioning himself to try to make a play.”

I suppose the New Jersey Devils organization can enjoy a collective pat on their own backs for gaining some measure of “revenge” over the NHL’s adoption of the so-called “Martin Brodeur Rule” that limited a goaltender’s ability to play the puck and introduced the trapezoid to rinks across the NHL.

Leave it to everyone’s favorite lightning rod, Sean Avery, to force the NHL to awaken from the coronation of Sidney Crosby so they could overreact to Lou Lamoriello’s lamentations.

Before everyone starts piling on Avery, I suggest that you review the play in its entirety. Go ahead, I will wait.

Thank you for coming back. If you watched the play closely that Avery NEVER touches Brodeur. However, the Jersey netminder clearly nails Avery in the “junk” with his stick and also throw a punch at the uber-pest.

To their credit, the Rangers are staying focused on the task at hand. Steve Zipay of Newsday reported that someone close to the Rangers organization said that Chris Drury was not admonishing Avery; rather he was relaying the referee’s instruction to lower his stick – which Avery did.

As expected, Brendan Shanahan’s comments were directed at the league’s reaction as opposed to the play – something that is expected given Shanahan’s position on the Rules Committee.

“Show me the rule book,” Shanahan stated. “What’s the rule? If they’re going to change a rule in mid-season, they need a 30-0 vote of the Board of Governors.”

However, it seems that the Devils will not let the event play itself out without a comment.

“Here we are trying to sell the game, and stuff like that is going on,” Devils center John Madden told Ira Podell of the AP. “I just find it childish and I don’t agree with any of it.”

Madden is probably right about the play being childish; however, notice he mentions nothing about it being illegal. Whining players is childish as well, but it is a part of the game.

I do have one question for Madden. Exactly how were the Devils selling the game all these years they have been boring the NHL to death with the neutral zone trap?

Brian Gionta had an interesting take on L’Affair Avery in a conversation he had with Dave Caldwell of the NY Times.

“He’s just doing what he always does, and the best way to deal with that is to ignore him,” Gionta offered. “When he’s least effective is when you ignore him.”

Gionta’s advice is probably the best any opponent could take when facing Avery. However, ignoring Avery is like that mosquito bite you have. You know you should scratch it, but once you do you feel so much better.

Even Brent Sutter had to wade into the fray. One would think he would stay silent given the fact his tirade at the end of Game 2 should have earned him a penalty given the stick he tossed onto the ice. Funny, I must have missed the NHL missive about the “on the fly” interpretation. Anyway, this is what Sutter had to say following Game 3.

“I did have a conversation with the official about it,” the Devils coach told Josh Thomson of the Journal News. “He did tell me that the next time it happens, it will be a penalty. I was told after he scored, so I am not very comfortable with it.”

The funny thing about this whole episode is the one Devil who was most affected doesn’t seem to be making a federal case out of it.

“He didn’t do anything illegal,” Brodeur told Dan Martin of the NY Post. “I couldn’t see anything,” Brodeur said. “I’ve got to give him some credit. I don’t know if he did it on his own or was told to do it, but the two or three shots before he scored, I never saw.”

While Brodeur took a little harder of a stance while talking to Podell, he admitted that what Avery did was within the rules of the game.

“I’ve played for 15 years in this league. I’ve been watching games for 33 years. I had never seen that in my life,” Brodeur admitted to the AP. “I don’t think that kind of behavior should be done in front of the net, but there is no rule for it.”

Perhaps Chris Neil of the Ottawa senators summed up the situation succinctly in just one sentence.

“That’s just Sean Avery being Sean Avery,” the Ottawa tough guy opined.

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Someone needs to remind me why the season finale between the Rangers and the Devils was so important? So far the road team has won all three games – which bodes well for the Rangers if form holds true for the entire series.

One thing that has held true for all 11 games the two teams have played this season – the Devils have not defeated the Rangers in regulation time.

For the first time in 16 games against Henrik Lundqvist, the Devils managed to score more than two goals – and even that has to be taken with a grain of salt because the Rangers were guilty of two own goals and one of the most bizarre deflection goals you will ever see. Yes, the bounces were going the Devils way and that is what happens when one team elevates their play while the other doesn’t.

The Blueshirts might be able to take advantage of these bounces if they didn’t have the bad habit of over-passing. Could Martin Straka please hoot the puck and stop passing up shots on goal.

The Rangers never seemed to be able to capitalize on their home ice advantage. The Devils first goal deflated the Garden and even when the Rangers did fight back to tie the game and go ahead, the Rangers knack for taking bad penalties crept back into the picture – which coincided with the Devils finding some life in their power play.

Actually, this game had all the earmarks of a disturbing trend that has dogged the Rangers all season long. Far too many times the Rangers were in a position to put a game away and then let their skate off the accelerator. The most glaring example was blowing the five goal lead against the Canadiens in Montreal.

No one really expected to sweep the Devils like they did the Thrashers last year, but it is still a little disconcerting that the Blueshirts did not raise their game.

Another disconcerting thing from last night is the media’s overreaction to Sean Avery’s “face guarding” of Martin Brodeur during the Rangers two-man advantage. Let’s face it, if someone other than Avery did it he would be hailed as an innovator – especially if that player were Sidney “I Can Do No Wrong” Crosby.

That play is the quintessential Avery being Avery. He straddles the line between pest and detriment on every shift. Did he overdo it a bit? Yes. That is why Chris Drury skated over to him and said something to him prior to Avery lighting the lamp.

The referees assured Brent Sutter that the next time Avery would be whistled for a penalty. Hmm, Avery would get a penalty, but Brodeur gets nothing for the jab with the stick and the punch to the face? Avery gets a penalty for not touching Brodeur, but the Devils don’t get whistled for jabbing at Lundqvist after the play is dead.

As expected, the NHL has already waded into the fray with an overreaction of their own. The following NHL statement was posted on Steve Zipay’s Newsday blog.

“National Hockey League Director of Hockey Operations Colin Campbell issued the following advisory on the interpretation of Rule 75: Unsportsmanlike Conduct:

‘An unsportsmanlike conduct minor penalty (Rule 75) will be interpreted and applied, effective immediately, to a situation when an offensive player positions himself facing the opposition goaltender and engages in actions such as waving his arms or stick in front of the goaltender’s face for the purpose of interfering with and/or distracting the goaltender as opposed to positioning himself to try to make a play.’”
No, I am not blaming the officials for the Rangers loss. The blame for the loss falls squarely on the Rangers. However, it is interesting to note the discrepancies in the inconsistency among the referees.

It is time for Glen Sather to poke his head of his groundhog hole and rip a page out of Lou Lamoriello’s playbook. If the Devils are going to curry the NHL’s favor in the media, then Sather needs to do the same thing while standing up for his player and his team.

Unlike the Devils who looked outward to blame the officiating for their losses, the Rangers need to look inward. They need to take better care with the puck and not be so cavalier when trying to clear the puck – like Blair Betts did on the first goal. They need to stop taking foolish penalties – like Fedor Tyutin did in the second period. They need a better job on face-offs from Chris Drury (29%) and Scott Gomez (41%).

Branch Rickey said it best when he said that “Luck is the residue of design”.

“It was a fortuitous bounce, but they did what they needed to do,” Tom Renney told Larry Brooks of the New York Post. “They lost the faceoff, but then jumped on it.

“You make your breaks. Luck always follows on the heels of effort. We understand that.”

I think Renney’s quote goes a little deeper than what appears on first read. I think Renney was trying to get a subtle point across to his team in the press and I am sure it is a point that Renney and the coaching staff will pound home prior to Game 4.

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The Rangers better mind their manners and be on their best behavior come Game 3 on Sunday night given the ending of Game 2.

The Devils were so livid over calls and non-calls that New Jersey President/GM Lou Lamoriello went toe-to-toe with NHL officials who were in attendance The Prudential Center. Steve Zipay of Newsday wrote that Lamoriello was “…livid at the officiating in the final minute, engaged in a heated discussion with NHL brass after the game, and arena security initially barred several reporters and one Rangers official from the corridor leading to the press room.”

It does not take a rocket scientist to know that Lamoriello was incensed over the Jamie Langenbrunner interference call, the non-call on the Blair Betts hook on Paul Martin and the blown icing call. However, Lamoriello wasn’t the only one was beside himself.

Brent Sutter went ballistic as he banged a stick on the boards before depositing it on the ice in front of the Devils bench. Zipay also wrote that John Madden yelled at the referees as he followed them off the ice.

In all honesty, the Devils were completely correct about the icing call. The linesmen had a brain cramp and must have been confused because while the Devils were shorthanded, they did have five skaters on the ice after pulling Martin Brodeur. What I don’t get was Sutter’s comments following the game.

The Devils coach lamented that the face-off was at center ice – as is clearly stated in the rulebook. I suppose he wanted the face-off in the Rangers end, which makes no sense because had there been no icing call the Rangers had possession and there were no Devils checking Michal Rozsival.

The Bottom line is the official sometimes make glaring mistakes on calls that are
no-brainers – kind of like the Too Many Men on the Ice call they missed in the first period when the Devils had something like half their team on the ice.

Heck, if the referees really wanted to screw over the Devils and really annoy the hell out of them, they would have nailed them with a bench minor for Sutter’s antics or doled out some misconduct penalties at the Devils players who were yelling at them late in the game and after the game.

As for the Langenbrunner call, it is one of those calls that gets made at some times and not made at other times. If you go by the rulebook, it is a penalty. Then again, so were the numerous cross checks the devils dished out in the first period and were not called by the referees.

As for the Betts play on Martin, the referees swallowed their whistles on that one and the Rangers caught a break. Ranger fans can argue that one all they want, but if the skate were on the other foot we would all be up in arms.

The Devils didn’t see to mind the Goalie Interference call on Sean Avery late in the second period. It was even more borderline that the call on Langenbrunner and the only reason it was called because it was Avery. Sutter and Lamoriello didn’t have too much to say about the fact that Madden was sitting on Henrik Lundqvist’s head during the scramble late in the third period.

You can bet that Sutter and the Devils will use the officiating as a rallying cry for Game 3. They may even hope to take advantage of what they will perceive as “makeup calls”. Will that be the case on Sunday night? Who knows. The NHL will say that is not the case ever, but stranger things have happened. I am sure the devils think the officiating is one conspiracy that dates back to the 1998 Stanley Cup playoffs when Jim Schoenfeld told Don Koharski “to have another donut, you fat pig.”

What is telling is that the Devils seem more concerned about the officiating than they are the Rangers. It does not matter if the officials and the NHL are against the Devils. What does matter is that New Jersey’s attention is being focused away from the matter at hand – trying to find a way to generate some offense and defeat the New York Rangers. .

The Blueshirts need to keep doing what they have been doing for the past 10 games against the Devils. However, it wouldn’t hurt if they played smart hockey and didn’t put themselves in a position where they could be whistled for stupid – or even borderline – penalties.

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