April 2009

“For of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: ‘It might have been!'”

I know John Greenleaf Whittier wasn’t a Rangers fan because he died in 1892. However, that quote pretty much sums what it means to be fan of the New York Rangers.

The list of things that “might have been” are too numerous to list in a mere blog. One would need to write book to detail all of them. They are as diverse as the Rangers being forced to play “home” playoff games on the road because the circus took precedence at Madison Square Garden to Jean Ratelle breaking his ankle in the regular season – thus rendering him ineffective in the Stanley Cup Finals against the Boston Bruins to the Rangers passing on Mike Bossy not once, but twice in the 1997 NHL Draft.

However, it seems that the Rangers-Capitals playoff series crammed 82 games worth of “might have beens” into just seven games.

The Rangers inefficient power play has been a story all season long. Had the Rangers power play been average, the Blueshirts fortunes would have been far different. Perhaps they would won the Atlantic Division and been in a position to make a true run in the playoffs.

How different would Game 3 have been if Ryan Callahan’s shot did not deflect off Nicklas Backstrom’s stick and stay out of the net? Washington not only dodged the bullet, but they extended their lead to 2-0. How different would the outcome have been if the Rangers ended the first period tied at one?

A similar question could be asked in reference to Game 6 when Nikolai Zherdev’s backhander missed an open net prior to Viktor Kozlov scoring to make it 4-1? A 3-2 deficit would have been much more manageable.

Even a Rangers win in Game 4 is not without its questions. What happens if Sean Avery does not take two of the most foolish penalties a player could take with his team clinging to a one-goal lead in the third period? Not only would the Rangers’ victory been less agita-filled, but Avery would not have been benched in Game 5. Would the presence of Avery in the lineup for Game 5 have made a difference? We will never know.

Of course, had Avery not been benched in Game 5, then John Tortorella’s action during Game 5, and subsequent one-game suspension, do not make the Rangers bench boss look like the biggest hypocrite in the world. Would it made a difference if the coach was behind the bench for Game 6? Tortorella finally addressed the issue and offered his opinion.

“Sure I regret not being there,” Tortorella explained to A.J. Perez of USA Today. “I want to be with the team. Do I think that had an effect as far as the outcome? No. (Assistant Coach) Jim Schoenfeld is a very good coach.

Of course, the whole mess did take something out Avery in terms of his play in Game 6. The Rangers uber-pest was just a shell of himself – something which changed in Game 7 when he was the best Ranger on the ice.

“I thought Sean played well. Where Sean played is where he has to play – he has to be on edge, he has to be right there on the edge, but stay within himself. It’s a tough thing for a player …. There are some things that go on around him during a game that doesn’t go on around a lot of other players,” Tortorella said to Steve Zipay of Newsday.

Washington’s victory helped erase a “might have been” of their own by exorcising the ghost of last season when they went down three games to one to the Philadelphia Flyers before losing Game 7 at home in overtime.

“This is huge,” Mike Green offered to Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post. “We worked so hard the last two years. To be put back in the same place – that is not a good building block. If you don’t win this game, you are taking steps backward.”

Even though they won the series the Capitals must wonder how their fortunes would have gone if Jose Theodore hadn’t been so awful in Game 1. If he had played well enough to lose in those first two games, it is possible that Simeon Varlamov never plays in the series – and there we have the biggest “what might have been” for the Rangers.

What would have happened in the series if Capitals regular backup goaltender Brent Johnson had not been injured? If Johnson was healthy, it would have been more likely for Boudreau to go to the veteran Johnson considering he had played well during the regular season against the Rangers.

If Johnson had been in goal for this series, the Rangers would be preparing for a showdown with the Bruins instead of cleaning out their lockers for yet another early Summer vacation.

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Unfortunately, for the Rangers and their fans, the memory of the 2009 playoffs will last a lifetime as well.

The Washington Capitals became the 21st team in NHL history to overcome a three games to one deficit with their 2-1 victory over the New York Rangers. Unlike Games 5 and 6 when the rangers offered token resistance, the Blueshirts played with a renewed purpose and matched the Capitals intensity and urgency. The one thing they could not match in Game 7, or the series for that matter, was Washington’s ability to score.

“I thought we checked our (tails) off tonight,” Rangers coach John Tortorella told Michael Obernauer of the Daily News. “We’re not an offensive juggernaut, and that comes back and bites us. We’re just not developing enough offense.”

Truer words were never spoken by a coach. The Rangers managed just 11 goals in seven games and four of those were against Jose Theodore in Game 1 and two of their three goals in Game 6 came in garbage time. Given that output, it might be time to recognize that Tom Renney’s defensive-first style did not cause the Rangers offensive woes. Rather, Renney had to revert to that style because of Glen Sather’s inability to bring in consistent scorers, never mind 40 goal scorers.

Game 7 was a tale of two games. The Rangers did an outstanding job of forcing the Capitals to defend their own zone as the Rangers aggressive forecheck and puck possession limited Washington to two shots in the first period and just 11 through the first 40 minutes. Tortorella’s team worked a perfect road strategy against the Capitals in Game 7 in the first two periods. They kept it a low scoring/low chances game which limited the damage the likes of Alexander Ovechkin and Alexander Semin could do – despite Semin’s tying goal which deflected in off Ryan Callahan’s stick.

“It was probably the most we kept the puck all series,” Tortorella explained to Dan Rosen of nhl.com. “We couldn’t develop good scoring chances even with the puck, and during the (third) period I think they turned it up a notch and we ended up backing up a little.”

The only problem with the way the Rangers played the first two periods was that they were not able to turn the forechecking and puck possession into goals or even good scoring chances. Instead, the Blueshirts were limited to just 14 shots through two periods.

The third period was a reverse image of the first two periods. It was Washington who was controlling the puck and keeping the Rangers in their zone. The Blueshirts were too busy defending their zone to mount any offense – which is why they were limited to just one shot on goal in the third period and ended the game with Henrik Lundqvist still in goal as they could not add an extra attacker in the final minute.

“I think we were a little upset with ourselves after the second period and came out in the third and reversed it,” Green told Tarik El-Bashir of the Washington Post. “[Coach Bruce Boudreau] addressed what we needed to do, and finally we did it and it worked.”

“I’m not really sure [what happened],” added Capitals defenseman Brian Pothier while speaking to Corey Masisak of the Washington Times. “We knew we weren’t playing very well, and I think maybe we were in the locker room understanding that 20 minutes to win a series is pretty much what was going for us. We felt we were the better team and worked really hard all year for this. We found a way to squeak it out.”

If you think about it, the Rangers did not lose this series in Game 7. They lost the series when they did not finish off the Capitals in Game 5 or 6. During the Rangers Stanley Cup run in 1994, Mark Messier reminded his team that the fourth victory in a series was the hardest to get. It is a difficult lesson to learn – one expressed by both a veteran and a younger Ranger.

“We had three chances to put them away,” Markus Naslund told Steve Zipay of Newsday. “It’s unfortunate. If we played the other two like this, maybe we could have beaten then them.”

Brandon Dubinsky echoed Naslund’s regret at what might have been.

“We know we had them where we wanted them, but we didn’t play very well for two straight games and left it all to chance,” Dubinsky lamented to Larry Brooks of the NY Post. “Game 6 at home is the one that’s really disappointing. We just didn’t play the way we wanted to, and that’s really tough to take.”

The signs that the third period was not going to go the Rangers way reared their collective head early in the final 20 minutes. Daniel Girardi’s interference penalty at 1:10 of the third period helped derail any momentum the Rangers built up during the first two periods. The Blueshirts then fell back into their old habit of backing up in their defensive zone – a bad habit that eventually cost them late in the third period.

While fans will be quick to place the entire blame for the game-winning goal on Wade Redden’s shoulders need to watch the replay to see how the scoring chance developed.

It began when Dubinsky fired a shot high and wide to the stick side of Simeon Varlamov. As the puck wrapped around the left wing boards, Naslund went in after the puck rather than take a safer approach by peeling back into the neutral zone. Sergei Federov picked up the loose puck at the Caps blue line and was able to skate through the neutral zone and into the Rangers end. It was at this point that Redden backed off as the veteran Capital beat Lundqvist high to the glove side/short side.

“I wanted to get back and not let him get around me,” Redden explained to Obernauer. “He made a stop-up play, got the puck by my leg, I don’t know where it went. But it found the short side. That’s a tough one.”

It was one that Lundqvist felt he should have stopped.

“Maybe I should have kept my glove higher; I sank down a little when he stopped,” Lundqvist described to Brooks. “I won’t think of it as a bad goal, but I definitely think I could have saved it. I’ve saved shots like that before.”

As bad as Rangers might feel, imagine what it is like to be a fan of the New Jersey Devils after their team blew a one-goal lead by allowing two goals in the final 80 seconds.

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As the Rangers and Capitals look ahead to the seventh and deciding game on Tuesday night, redemption is the key word both teams should be focusing on.

The 2008/2009 New York Rangers have to dig deep into their souls to come up with an effort that will prevent them from being the first team in franchise history to lose a series after being three games to one (after winning their previous 12 chances). The Blueshirts also do not want to imitate the Hartford Wolf Pack who won the first two games of the first round series only to lose the next four games and the series to the Worcester Sharks.

The Rangers have not faced a Game 7 scenario since June 14, 1994.

History has not been kind to the Rangers when facing a seventh and deciding game on the road. They have lost all four of those Game 7 road games: 1939 in overtime to the Boston Bruins, 1950 in double overtime to lose the Stanley Cup to the Detroit Red Wings, 1971 to the Chicago Blackhawks, and 1974 to the Philadelphia Flyers.

According to the NHL, league-wide history is not on the Rangers side either. Since the best-of-seven format was introduced back in 1939, home teams have won 77 of the 122 series that have gone the full seven games (63%).

“I believe in our guys,” Chris Drury told Michael Obernauer of the Daily News. “I think this group’s a pretty resilient bunch. When you get booed in your own building all year long, you change coaches, you go through a lot of stuff, make the playoffs the second-to-last game of the year – we’re ready for anything.”

Of course, what Captain Drury left out his statement was an explanation as to why the team was not ready for anything in Games 5 and 6. If the Rangers carry over their intensity and desperation level from those two games, then they might as well send the Wolf Pack down to the Verizon Center.

Jim Schoenfeld said more or less the same thing when speaking to Rick Carpiniello of the Journal News following Schoeny’s one game stint as head coach.

“It doesn’t matter who’s in, who’s out. The task at hand is the task at hand. We have to find a way to get it done or it’s over. It’s simple … I think our guys have enough character, have enough courage, have enough want to get it done. If not, what’s the sense of even going to Washington?”

The Capitals have their own ghosts they have to exorcise. Washington was in the exact same position this time last year. After falling behind three games to one to the Philadelphia Flyers, the Capitals forced a seventh game at home that went into overtime before Joffrey Lupul’s power play goal ended the series.

Tuesday’s game offers former Rangers defenseman Tom Poti a chance for personal redemption because it was Poti’s penalty that paved the way for Lupul’s game-winning goal.

“We were in the situation last year, so we have a little bit of experience with it,” Poti related to Tarik El-Bashir of the Washington Post. “That was the first Game 7 for a lot of guys last year. Maybe they won’t be as nervous at the start of the game. We know what we have to do, and that’s play a perfect game to win the series. Who comes out and plays the most perfect game is going to win.”

The Rangers have to get ahead of the Capitals and play from the lead for two reasons. First off, they just don’t have the offense to play from behind. Secondly, there has only been one lead change in this series – Game 1 when Scott Gomez and Nik Antropov scored nine minutes apart to erase a Capitals 1-0 lead.

There is a litany of things the Rangers must do survive and advance into the next round; however, there is one thing that stands above and beyond all of the other things – Henrik Lundqvist must return to his status as The King.

“Am I Concerned [about Lundqvist]? Absolutely, but we’re concerned about our entire team,” Jim Schoenfeld said to Larry Brooks of the NY Post. “I don’t think the concern about Hank will last, but the team has to play better in front of him and Hank has to be better.”

What started off as the Rangers best chance at stealing this series has turned into the biggest reason why the Capitals are on the verge of rallying to win? Since coach Bruce Boudreau switched from Jose Theodore to Simeon Varlamov, the Capitals have outscored the Rangers 14-6, with two of the goals coming once Game 6 had already been decided.

One reason for that difference is the Rangers inability to score goals – thanks to Varlamov’s play and the Rangers inability to finish. Another reason is Lundqvist return to the land of mortals.

“He can’t play every game like a god,” Alexander Ovechkin explained to El-Bashir. “He can’t save the game all the time.”

While the unthinkable has occurred – Lundqvist being pulled from back-to-back playoff games – it is not all that long ago that The King was in the heads of the Capitals.

“Obviously when things weren’t going well for us, maybe he was in our head a little bit,” Capitals defenseman Mike Green admitted to Dan Steinberg of the Washington Post. “But as long as you stayed strong, there was gonna be a time where they were gonna start going in.”

In listing the things the Rangers need to do to win Game 7, the one thing as the top of the list would be Lundqvist to pitch a shutout. Frankly, even if he did, all that does is get the Rangers into overtime with no hope of a shootout to win. In the end, the Rangers are going to have to find ways to score goals.

As good as Varlamov has been in the series – and he has been good – he has not had to face the same pressure Lundqvist has had to face while the game is on the line. The Blueshirts must find a way to put more sustained pressure on Varlamov early in the game when it matters. This is will require the Rangers stop settling for shots at the perimeter and drive to the net. The Rangers forwards have a bad habit of not driving to the net. They tend to be content with pulling up (or going wide) and looking to make a pass rather than shoot.

An example of this was right before the Capitals went ahead for good on Sunday afternoon. Brandon Dubinsky led the rush on a two-on-one shorthanded break. Rather than look to drive to the net to force the play, he faded to the boards.

Speaking of being shorthanded, the Rangers must play discipline given the expected loss of Blair Betts. The Capitals power play was 4-29 after five games, but was 2-2 in Game 6 with Betts out of the lineup.

Conversely, the Rangers power play must score, and when it doesn’t score it must be active and generate scoring chances instead of generating momentum changing swings against.

The Rangers tying goal on the power play has to be the blueprint for their man advantage in Game 7. The Rangers were able to get traffic in front of Varlamov as Gomez tipped in Wade Redden’s shot from the left point. The Rangers also had traffic in front of the net when Ryan Callahan beat Varlamov with a five-on-three goal.

As the Rangers search for offense, they need to realize that the easiest way to accomplish this is by increasing their forecheck and looking to take advantage of Capitals turnovers. An active forecheck, combined with cycling the puck down low, and winning the battles along the board, the Rangers will be able to get that sustained pressure they need against Varlamov.

Part of Lundqvist playing well requires the Rangers to be smarter in their own end. They need to make sure they make the safe plays when clearing the zone. They cannot afford the mistakes Derek Morris and Nikolai Zherdev made on the Capitals opening goal in Game 6. When in doubt, they must get the puck off the glass and out of the zone.

The Rangers have to be very wary of getting caught looking to make defensive plays by simply poke checking the puck. That is a deadly strategy when facing the likes of Ovechkin and Alexander Semin. The Rangers need to step up and take the body and not get caught watching the puck.

While they are at it, the Blueshirts also need to be smarter with the choices they make during the game. Marc Staal, who had his worst playoff game of his career, would have been better off yielding the offensive blue line rather than pinching as Poti’s penalty expired. Once Staal was caught, it was a three-on-one for Washington.

The Rangers also have to hope that John Tortorella learned from his one game suspension. No, I am not referring to him having an epiphany and becoming a kinder and gentler Tortorella. Instead, he needed to use his time at the top of Madison Square garden to learn something against the Caps. Or did he learn something he didn’t want to know about his team?

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Where do we begin? I guess I could start the explanation with the “ifs and buts” of Game 6 – the points Sunday where the game could changed if a play went the Rangers way but didn’t.

The first one occurred when Donald Brashear ended Blair Betts afternoon with a shot to the head – the kind of play the NHL has supposedly staked out a “zero tolerance” stance. Instead of the Rangers getting a five-minute major (much like the ones called against Colton Orr this year), the Blueshirts and Capitals ended up skating four-one-four after Paul Mara and Brashear draw matching minors.

Betts’s loss is felt as Washington goes ahead for good as Mike Green’s scores his first goal of the playoffs on a shot similar to the one Henrik Lundqvist yielded to Milan Jurcina to open the scoring. The Capitals ended up with a pair of goals in seven minutes, pretty much putting an end to Game 6.

The second one occurred nine minutes into the second period when Nikolai Zherdev had Simeon Varlamov down and out of position, but went wide on his backhand attempt. For the second time at Madison Square Garden, the Capitals capitalized on a Ranger miss at one end to score at the other end. Instead of the game being 3-2, Viktor Kozlov’s goal made it 4-1 and did put an end to Game 6.

Of course, if I started my explanation with Game 6 with those two parts of the game, I would be overlooking the bigger picture. The New York Rangers are now a team that is hopelessly lost. They are a team that has completely reverted to their old ways of not being able to recover from an adversity. Washington is playing like a team that knows it has its opponent on the ropes. Right now the Capitals like look a bunch of great white sharks circling a wounded seal.

Despite whatever the players said following the game, their expressions during the game spoke louder than their words. During a break in the second period to fix the glass, the NBC cameras panned the Blueshirts bench and they did literally look like “dead team skating”.

Frankly, the Brashear hit on Betts shows (literally and figuratively) can do whatever they want to the Rangers without worrying about retribution. The bottom line is that the Capitals are toying with the Rangers.

The Brashear hit should, once and for all, show why Colton Orr has to be in the Rangers lineup – especially when the likes of the Brashears of the world are also in the lineup. While Orr may or may not have dissuaded Brashear, you can bet your last dollar that he would not have gotten away with it if Orr was in the lineup. Perhaps some old time hockey retribution might have prevented the Rangers collapse following the loss of Betts.

Interim coach for the day Jim Schoenfeld called out some players on his team for not being ready to give it their all to end the series at the Garden.

“We had some guys who were locked in and ready to go, and we had some other guys who wanted to test the water,” he said to Rick Carpiniello of the Journal News.

John Tortorella spoke earlier in the series about the need for the Rangers big players to step up. While Rangers nation is waiting for that to happen, they are not getting a lot of contributions from their support players on offense – something the Capitals are getting in spades.

“You have to get scoring from everyone in the playoffs,” Tom Poti told Tarik El-Bashir of the Washington Post. “You can’t have your big guys scoring night in and night out. You have to have your grinder and your role players score some goals, too.”

The problem with the Rangers is they are pretty much a team made up of grinders and don’t have any big scoring guys to rely upon. Even with Alexander Ovechkin and Mike Green starting score, in the last two games the Rangers have been beaten by the likes of Matt Bradley, Jurcina and Poti (a goal and three assists).

The Rangers are at a point where every mistake (physical or mental) is being taken advantage of by the Capitals. Zherdev follows up a Derek Morris turnover with a turnover of his own that leads to Jurcina’s goal.

Washington makes it 3-1 directly following a Rangers power play as Marc Staal gets caught pinching at the end of the man advantage and forgets about Poti coming out of the penalty box.

It is no coincidence that the beating the Rangers psyche has taken has coincided with Henrik Lundqvist’s inability to be The King. While Game 5 could be explained away by his teammates poor play, Game 6 is squarely on Lundqvist’s shoulders.

If you listen to the NBC announcers, the Capitals have discovered a flaw in Henrik’s game and are shooting high to the glove side. Quick memo to NBC, you can pretty much beat any goaltender high to the glove side if you places your shots properly. Take it from me I know because I have given up my share of those goals. Lundqvist has a propensity to give up these goals because he is a butterfly goaltender and you beat butterfly goaltenders with high shots.

Ryan Callahan beat Varlamov high to the glove side for the Rangers second goal of the afternoon. Does that mean the Rangers have found the rookie goalie’s flaw or was it just a good shot that beat a good goaltender?

The problem with Lundqvist is his facing the same dilemma that all goaltenders go through. When goalies are off their game, they tend to fight the puck because they are trying to do too much in order to right themselves. In Lundqvist’s sake, he is reverting to the butterfly too fast in an attempt to make saves. As a result, he starts battling the puck and looking “to find the puck” rather than being in position and letting the puck find him.

“It is not a fun feeling to sit there [on the bench] knowing that, obviously, you want to be on the ice,” Lundqvist explained to Dan Steinberg of the Washington Post. “It is hockey. It happens. You just have to deal with it. I have to look over the game and see what I can do better.”

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“It’s not the work that’s hard, it’s the discipline.”

That Anonymous quote pretty much sums up the state of the New York Rangers as they look ahead to returning to Madison Square Garden for Game 6. If they win, then the Capitals series becomes a building block and a stepping stone for the next round.

If they lose, it is on to Game 7 in Washington and a chance to be part of hockey history – and not in a good way.

The Rangers inability to play disciplined hockey has pretty much be a problem all season long. That is why it is almost amazing that the Rangers have the NHL’s top penalty killing unit.

Killing penalties is all about discipline and sacrifice. You have to be willing to sacrifice your body up to block shots while still be disciplined enough to play within the penalty kill system.

The problem is the Rangers have not been able to carry their penalty killing discipline into their power play unit. They get no traffic in front of the net, there is no player and puck movement in the offensive zone on the man advantage and they do not get enough shots on goal. Then again, the same can be said for the Blueshirts when they are at even strength.

“ If we don’t discipline ourselves, the world will do it for us” – William Feather.

If we apply Feather’s quote to the Rangers-Capitals series, if the Rangers do not stop taking undisciplined penalties, Washington will eventually do it for them by making the Blueshirts pay with power play goals against.

Coach John Tortorella tried to instill some accountability for his player’s action by benching Sean Avery in Game 5. Give Avery credit because he seems to have been saying all the right things.

“I totally stand behind what Torts did,” Avery explained to Larry Brooks of the NY Post. “The team comes first.”

“I made a mistake. I took two bad penalties. I put the game in jeopardy. It wasn’t something I did intentionally, but that’s no excuse. I did it.”

Rangers fans might be wondering why the same treatment wasn’t doled out to Markus Naslund who took three penalties in Game 1 – and they would be correct in questioning the coach’s motivation. Both players took a pair of third period penalties, with the only difference being Naslund’s second period power play goal.

Of course, there are mitigating circumstances that favor Tortorella’s actions towards Avery. The feisty winger has racked up seven minor penalties and a 10-minute misconduct in just four game and the Blueshirts (and Avery) were fortunate his two third penalties were not double-minors or worse.

While the message behind Avery’s benching seemed get through, it did not resonate enough for the team to change its actions – despite Scott Gomez’s comments.

“At this point we all know what Torts is going to do,” Gomez said to Jeff Z. Klein of the NY Times. “It just shows you it doesn’t matter who you are, if you’re not on the same page he’s going to sit you. We’re all in this together.”

The one question to ask is how are the Rangers supposed to toe the discipline line when their own coach can’t? It doesn’t matter what the fans did to Tortorella or the Rangers bench, the coach’s actions were completely uncalled for. If the Rangers bench were “under siege”, then they should have called over Verizon Center security. If the situation were that bad, he should have taken his team off the bench until order was restored.

“Talent without discipline is like an octopus on [ice] skates. There’s plenty of movement, but you never know if it’s going to be forward, backwards, or sideways.” — Author H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

By about 5pm on Sunday we will know which way that octopus was going. For the Rangers sake, it better not be towards Washington, D.C.

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If you were ever going to draw up a game plan to defeat the New York Rangers, all you have to do is study what happened in Game 5 last night in Washington because the Blueshirts followed that game plan right down to the final word – which just happens to undisciplined.

Coach John Tortorella tried to send his team a message about accountability and discipline by benching Sean Avery after the Rangers agitator took two bad penalties in the final 10 minutes of Game 4. Of course, that plan backfired as the Rangers continued their undisciplined ways – right down to their coach who blew a fuse in the third period.

Whether he was goaded or not, Tortorella was 100% wrong for throwing a water bottle into the stands in the third period and then following that up by grabbing a stick and pointing it at the fans behind the Rangers bench. Expect Colin Campbell to do to Tortorella what Torts did to Avery.

With that out of the way, let’s take a look at that three-pronged game plan.

Step 1 – Take an undisciplined penalty in the opening minutes to derail any chance of a quick start. Check – Scott Gomez takes a retaliatory penalty at 1:16 of the first period.

Step 2 – Let the Rangers inefficient power play continue to struggle. Check (in a big way) – Not only does the power play not produce a goal in four chances on the night, it gives up a shorthanded goal five minutes into the start of the game.

Step 3 – Henrik Lundqvist turns back into a mere mortal. Check – Matt Bradley’s second goal of the game from below the right circle pretty much ended the game by the time it was 12 minutes old. A team that has only scored three goals in the last four games is not going to erase a 2-0 deficit, especially when the power play is zero for its last 18.

Friday night’s game is as bad as it gets. Contrary to Joe Micheletti who kept repeating that it did not feel like a 2-0 game, Washington was not the team waiting to be had – it was the Rangers who were waiting to be had. Even if Micheletti were correct, the Rangers were in no position to take advantage of everyone.

“Something has to give with our top guys. I’m not trying to insult them. We have some great guys in that room,” Tortorella related to Howard Fendrich of the AP. “This is a game where your best players have to be your best players, and it won’t happen until our best players are our best players – not kids.”

The Rangers made the fatal mistake of giving a desperate team a chance to get back into the series. The best time to eliminate a team from the playoffs is in your first chance. The longer this series goes, the harder it is going to be for the Blueshirts to close it out – despite the post-game words of Bruce Boudreau.

“They only have to win one. We have to win two. The pressure’s all on us,” the Capitals described to Fendrich. “You look at the odds, the odds definitely don’t favor us.”

The worst part is the idea the Rangers knew they had to step up their play and they failed miserably. They did not heed the advice their captain offered up after winning Game 4.

“I think we should go in there thinking we’re down 3-1,” Drury told Larry Brooks of the NY Post. “We have to be as desperate as we can to match their intensity.”

“We have to match them.”

As the game unfolded, it was evident that Drury’s admonition would go unheeded.

“We weren’t as ready as we needed to be,” Marc Staal said to Steve Zipay of Newsday. “We’ve got to score at least two goals to win against these guys . . . but we couldn’t find a way to do that.”

The question to ask is why weren’t the Rangers ready? Was it the coaching staff? Was it the players? Was it a combination of both?

In the end, verything that could go wrong did go wrong last night for the Rangers. If there was a bad play to make, they made it. On the first goal Derek Morris falls down at the point and Drury tries to step up on Bradley at center ice, rather than play the angle.

Lundqvist makes his first mistake of the series and the Rangers were down 2-0.

However, Alexander Ovechkin’s highlight reel goal in the second period boiled down the Rangers night. The Blueshirts were too busy trying to poke check the puck rather than step up and play the man – which was indicative of the Rangers lack of physical play while the game mattered.

Let’s face it; the only thing the Rangers did right all night long was go to the right locker room at the end of each period. Their effort, or lack thereof, was totally not acceptable.

Simply put, the Rangers cannot afford to play from behind in this series. Each player needs to take a long look in the mirror and find that something extra they had in the first period of Game 4. Once they find that something, they need to go and produce a 60 minute effort – something they have not done in the playoffs as of yet.

In a previous article I mentioned that momentum is like a pendulum and the key to winning is limiting the pendulum swings. Unfortunately for the Rangers, that pendulum is swinging too high.

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I know winning playoff games does not come easy, but these one-goal victories are taking its toll. Is it too much to ask for the Rangers to win a laugher?

While the schedule might say Friday night’s game is only Game 5, you can expect both teams to treat it as Game 7 – and it won’t be the first time the two teams have done that in this series.

Paul Mara realizes the Rangers still have more work to do before they accomplish their goal.

“We’re in a great position here but Washington has played extremely well in all four games and we can’t let our foot off the gas pedal,” he told Andrew Gross of The (Bergen) Record.

Down two games and entering into the unfriendly confines of Madison Square Garden, the Capitals knew they had to play with more urgency and treat the game as a seventh and deciding game. They did and the won Game 3.

With the possibility of losing two games at home and returning to the Verizon Center back on their heels, the Rangers opened up Game 4 playing with a purpose to their game as they took the body early and established their home ice advantage. As a result, the Rangers took Game 4.

As the Rangers look to finish off the series and get some rest before doing battle with the Boston Bruins, they have a couple of things they need to address prior to Friday night.

First and foremost, they must try to stay out of the penalty box. The number of undisciplined penalties is reaching an alarming rate. It is no coincidence that the Rangers have won the three games where they have matched the Capitals power play. Given the ineffectiveness of the Blueshirts with the man advantage, the easiest way to maintain that ratio is to stay out of the penalty box.

If they are able to stay away from the penalty box parade, they have a much better chance of completing their next task. The Rangers must play from in front in Game 5. As seen in Game 3, they do not have the fire power to play from behind. Another quick start forces the Caps to play catch up and it helps take the Verizon Center crowd out of the game. Part of getting and staying ahead of Washington relies on the Rangers matching the Capitals intensity level.

The Blueshirts cannot afford to have any more periods like they did in the second period on Wednesday night. As good as Henrik Lundqvist is, no goaltender and no team is going to able to continually survive a period where they are outshot 19-5 (and 30-10 during the second and third periods).

The Rangers have to be careful of getting caught backing into their zone too much. They were guilty of that in the third period and it helped set up Alexander Ovechkin’s first goal of the series. When you think about it, Ovechkin scoring might have been the best thing that could have happened for the Rangers. You knew he was eventually going to put a bulge in the old onion bag so it was best it finally happened and the Rangers won.

John Tortorella has to stress the need for the Rangers to produce an effective forecheck – which was a key to their fast start in Game 4. The Rangers came out hitting and it helped keep the territorial battle in their favor. When they stopped forechecking and playing a physical game, they got pinned into their own end.

The Rangers to seem to get into troubles with the penalties as a result of committing turnovers at the Washington blue line. The Rangers have to make a concerted effort to get the puck deep – which serves a dual purpose. It enables them to set up their forecheck and eliminates the turnovers that lead to penalties or worse, odd-man rushes against.

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Unfortunately, any recap of Game 4 would not be complete without a discussion of the undisciplined penalties the Rangers continue to take. It helped to cost them a chance at winning the third game and it will cost them a chance to win Game 5 if they don’t heed their coach’s post-game warning.

“We are going to have to improve in a number of areas, starting with our discipline,” Tortorella told Andrew Gross of The (Bergen) Record.

While Mara did take a pair of bad penalties, the Rangers coach was directing his ire at Sean Avery who took two incredibly bad and inopportune penalties in the final 10 minutes of the game.

Avery is like the little girl with the curl. When he is good, he is good. When he is bad, he is bad.

As you might imagine, Avery was part of the post-game discussion.

“I don’t know if you have to hurt a guy, or what the criteria for a high stick is for the league to review it,” Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau related to Tarik El-Bashir of the Washington Post. “They’ll look at it. And if they deem it’s [worthy] of a suspension, they’ll give him one game. He plays hard. Sometimes he plays too hard.”

Boudreau pretty much summed up Avery’s career in that final sentence.

Tortorella was asked for his reaction to the Avery penalties, but the Rangers coach quickly cut of any discussion of the matter by saying it was something that would be handled in the locker room. One has to wonder if Tortorella even has to saying anything behind closed doors. I have a feeling that the Ranger veterans will be addressing the matter.

If you reviewed each of the penalties on their own merits, they are not grounds for a suspension. However, when you add the two of them together and then add in his minor and 10-minute misconduct at the end of Game, and then factor in it is Sean Avery, you can expect NHL Vice President Colin Campbell to sit him down for a game.

Fans can try and rationalize that Avery’s hot on Milan Jurcina was an accident, but the bottom line is Avery has to realize the position he is in. Like it or not, Avery and the Rangers have to realize that there is a target on his back and he will not be allowed to get away with things that other players do while other players will be able to take liberties against Avery without penalties being called.

“I think that was intentional,” Brian Pothier told Dan Rosen of nhl.com. “That’s Sean Avery and we know what to expect out of him.”

“I hope not, for his sake,” Pothier said in response to whether or not Avery’s high-stick on the Caps blue liner was intentional. “With four minutes left I think I give him a little more credit than that.”

It is very possible that the Rangers are not in the position they are in if Avery did not return to the team. However, he is back to skating that fine line of being a detriment to the team or a catalyst to victory.

“In the grand scheme of things, the Rangers seem to be a better team with Avery in their midst, ” Darren Eliot wrote on SI.com following Game 3. “His energy can be contagious and his antics distracting to the opposition. But in the short-term, sometimes his hockey energy is pure fourth-line talent and his antics a detriment to his team’s cause.”

If you think about it, you can add Eliot’s comment to pretty much any Rangers pre-game and post-game analysis.

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There is an old adage in baseball that momentum is only as good as your next day’s pitcher. In hockey, you could adjust that adage to say momentum is only as good as your goaltender’s next performance. If that is the case, momentum is clearly sitting on the Rangers bench. To be precise, he is wearing Rangers jersey Number 30.

As he did in the first two games, Henrik Lundqvist was the Rangers best player and was probably deserving of the first three stars of the game, never mind just the first star.

“He’s amazing, he’s our heartbeat and he gives everyone confidence that is playing in front of him,” defenseman Paul Mara raved to IRA Podell of the AP. “He’s awesome. We love him. He’s the king.”

While Mara gushed, Brandon Dubinsky succinctly summed up the team’s feeling about The King while taking to Podell.

“He’s like Tina Turner. He’s ‘Simply the Best'”.

One has to wonder of Lundqvist has gotten back into Washington’s heads again.

“It seems like we are throwing everything at him and he’s making great saves,” Mike Green said to Podell. “They’re playing well, but the good thing is it is not over.”

The player’s frustration at their inability to beat Lundqvist extends to their coach as well.

“Somebody is going to have to score on this guy,” Bruce Boudreau lamented to Tarik El-Bashir of the Washington Post. “You can nitpick all you want, but we took 39 shots. When you outshoot a team 19-5 in their building and you’re down 1-0, the other goalie is doing something right.”

It is a cliché to say it, but Lundqvist is “in the zone”. As someone who played goal in a weekly pickup game many years ago, I know exactly what Lundqvist is saying in the following exchange with Dan Rosen on nhl.com.

“When you’re confident you are not fighting (the puck),” Lundqvist explained. “You’re a little more relaxed and you let the puck come to you. A couple of time in the second [period] I just waited and at the last split second and saw it and could react to it. Sometimes you fight it and you open up and that creates holes. When you’re confident you are more patient and you let the puck come to you and then you can react. That’s big.”

The Capitals should know a thing or two about rallying back from a 3-1 deficit in a series. Washington fought back from such a situation last season in the opening round of the playoffs as they forced a Game 7 at home, which they lost to the Philadelphia Flyers on a Joffrey Lupul overtime power play goal.

“It’s not done yet. We were in this situation last year and we came back,” Alexander Ovechkin explained to Corey Masisak of the Washington Times. We have that experience, and it was a good experience. We know how to come back. We’ll go back to our home and our fans and go back and win that game.”

While Washington did manage to force a Game 7, NHL history is not on their side. Only 20 of 229 teams have erased a 3-1 deficit to win the series. The Capitals franchise does have the distinction of being one of those 20 teams, turning the trick in the 1988 Patrick Division Semifinals when they rallied to eliminate the Flyers.

If trying to accomplish something that has only happened 8.7% of the time isn’t hard enough, Washington is facing some other steep mountains to climb. The Capitals have not advanced out of the first round of the playoffs since they reached the Stanley Cup Finals in 1998. During the stretch, they missed the playoffs five times and lost in the first round the other four seasons.

In addition, the Rangers are 12-0 when they have been up 3-1 in a best-of-seven series. In fact, this year’s matchup is following the same path the Rangers took in defeating the New Jersey Devils last year. They won the first two on the road, lost Game 3 at home before taking the fourth game and then closing out the series on the road in Game 5. Ranger fans hoping their team completes the déjà vu all over again feeling on Friday night.

As good as Lundqvist was, Dubinsky had as great a game a forward can have without scoring a goal. He was superb on faceoffs, winning 15 of the 17 draws (88%) he took – including the faceoff that led to Mara’s goal in the first period. He played nearly 20 minutes, drawing the most ice time among all Ranger forwards. He was active physically in all three zones and was a big part of the Rangers six-for-six penalty killing effort.

Yet despite his efforts, Dubinsky was not named one of the games three stars. Ovechkin was the second star for his goal and 11 shots. Captain Chris Drury, who scored his 17 career game-winning playoff goal was the third star.

Drury’s effort despite the injury to his hand/wrist injury was not overly looked by his teammates and his coach.

“Dru’s been awesome for us and he’s battling through some things (with which) a lot of players probably wouldn’t be on the ice,” Mara – the team’s Most Valuable Playoff Beard, said to Rick Carpiniello of the Journal News. “But he’s our leader, we follow him, and he’s come up with clutch goals for many years now. And he was huge for us tonight.”

Rangers coach John Tortorella also explained how important Drury’s effort was for the team and for the captain himself.

“He is an easy guy to pull for,” said Tortorella. “He is an important guy in the locker room. He is much healthier, improving the last couple of days. I think he has things figured out. Is he all there? No. We have to make a decision here: Do we take him out or stick with him and give him ice time in certain situations and see what he can give us versus bringing another player in. That was the call,” Tortorella explained to Pierre LeBrun of espn.com. “I felt Chris was healthy enough to add, Chris felt healthy enough to add, not just to put the uniform on. He was honest with me and I thought he did some good things for us. Oddly, he scores the winning goal. That will help him.

“In playoff hockey, the locker room is a very important thing as far as camaraderie. I think that was very important for our team for Chris to maybe do something like that for us to band together with him.”

Momentum is a funny thing. In most sports, momentum shifts from game to game. In hockey, momentum changes from shift to shift. The second period was a perfect example of how momentum can change at an instant.

Drury scores a goal along the goal line to make the score 2-0 in favor of the Rangers and the Garden is on fire. The next shift Mara takes a bad penalty and the energy drains out of the building and the Capitals spend pretty much the entire period on the Rangers zone.

Think of momentum as a giant pendulum. The key to winning for the Rangers is to keep the pendulum’s swings as tight as possible. The more exaggerated the swings, the worse it is for the Rangers – especially against such an offensive team like the Capitals.

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As the New York Rangers start their preparations for Game on Wednesday night, they need to put Monday night’s result out of their minds. However, what they must remember is how they lost an opportunity to put a stranglehold on this series.

Prior to Game 3, John Tortorella offered this warning in a discussion with Jay Greenberg of the NY Post.

“We have fought and handled surges pretty well and what they have brought [at] us offensively. Our puck possession needs to improve. We haven’t had the puck enough this series.”

That pretty much sums up went wrong for the Rangers in Game 3.

The Blueshirts did not handle surges well – in fact it was just the opposite. The Rangers reverted back to their mid-season form of not responding to adversity. It was the old quicksand formula where the more the Rangers tried to struggle, the more they seemed to get nothing done.

The Rangers puck possession was nowhere near where it needs to be. Some of that has to do with the Capitals making a concerted effort to protect their rookie goaltender. Some of it has to do with the Rangers sitting back and reacting, rather than acting. And some of it has to do with Washington having elite players like Alexander Ovechkin, Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom who can take over game. The only Ranger who has the ability to take over a game is Henrik Lundqvist. Unfortunately, we are in the midst of the playoffs and the Rangers can’t win games 1-0 via the shootout. In other words, The King needs a little help from his friends.

The first thing his friends can do in Game 4 (and beyond) is stay out of the penalty box and avoid a battle of power plays. Not only does the Rangers power play grind games to a halt, but constantly killing penalties also throws ice time out of whack.

This return of discipline must carry over to the Rangers defensive zone coverage. The Blueshirts have to concentrate on not getting caught running around in their own zone. Rather than drop down to clog the slot, the forwards must remain with their checks at the point – thus eliminating Washington’s ability to relieve pressure with passes back to the points.

One of the considerations the Rangers might make is revisiting the positive things they did defensively. The Capitals have 110 shots on goal – an average of nearly 37 per game.

The Rangers need their few offensive threats to step up their play and increase the quality and quantity of their scoring chances. It is one thing to merely get shots on goal; it is another thing to do it with a purpose. The Rangers have to find a way to get some open ice like they did in Game 1. One of the ways to do that is to be more aggressive with their forecheck.

Nik Antropov needs to use his size the way he did as a member of the Maple Leafs when Toronto played against the Rangers. He is the only forward who has the size/ability to come close to matching the way Ovechkin can physically dominate offensively.

While Nikolai Zherdev has been cut some slack at the start of the series because it is his first appearance in the playoffs, it is time for him to step up his play. He might be the only Ranger whose offensive abilities can come close to matching Ovechkin’s. Zherdev was active in his first couple of shifts Monday night, but he missed the net on his first three good scoring chances.

“Our game-breakers have to be better,” Tortorella explained to Greenberg. “IF you think you are boxing me in and want to pick on Nik, this is his first playoff series and this is part of the process. We have to help him, as coaches understand how hard you have to play. Our responsibility is to clue him in.”

While Tortorella was speaking exclusively about Zherdev, he needs to broaden his “game-breakers have to be better” to his entire team.

Game 3 is proof that you can’t shut down the Washington Capitals. At best, you can hope to contain them. However, it is hard to do that when you can’t maintain any sustained offensive pressure of your own.

The Rangers have to dictate the pace and tempo of the game from the opening faceoff. The best way for them to do that is to play with some urgency – something that was lacking during Game 3. While Wednesday night’s game is not a “must-win” game, they need their play to reflect that type of attitude.

A lot has been made over Sean Avery’s game last night. The Capitals did a good job of staying away from reacting to him. Even his attempt to get Simeon Varlamov off his game went awry. Of course, it might have been more productive if Varlamov spoke English.

Avery must skate a fine line because it is obvious that the target on his back has grown since returning from his suspension. He must take heed that when he goes over the line and acts like an ass he is only making himself a bigger target.

Game 4 will show whether or not the Rangers loss on Monday night was an inevitable occurrence given their five game winning streak dating back to the final three games of the regular season (which were pretty much playoff games in their own right) or was the loss a glimpse into the future of this series.

One final note to the Madison Square Garden Network and Cablevision – lose those stupidly ridiculous ads on the Plexiglas. They go beyond annoying and distracting. Those ads, along with distributing thundersticks, reeks of amateur hour.

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