Wed 15 Apr 2009
After the New York Rangers defeated the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday night, fans turned their attention to debating which the fans wanted to face â€“ the Boston Bruins or Washington Capitals. While the Rangers have not been able to score a bloody goal in Boston, never mind beat the Bruins, in Beantown, it is case where beggars canâ€™t be choosers â€“ especially when it takes you 81 games to nail down a playoff spot.
On the plus side, the Rangers did make the playoffs for the fourth consecutive post-lockout season. While that doesnâ€™t sound like much, it is when you consider that the only other Eastern Conference team to do so is the New Jersey Devils.
The Rangers were not going to fare well with either matchup. The choice boiled down to the smothering Bruins defense led by Tim Thomas or the Capitals potent offense driven by Alexander Ovechkin and Mike Green. In the end, the Rangers are probably better off opening the playoffs against the Capitals because the odds are greater that Henrik Lundqvist can outplay Jose Theodore as opposed to Thomas.
The Rangers-Capitals showdown is the fifth time the teams have met in the playoffs, with each side winning two series each. In 1986, the Rangers snuck into the playoffs and defeated the Capitals in the Patrick Division Finals in six games. In 1990, John Druce helped power the Caps over the division winning Rangers in a five game Patrick Division Finals victory. The next season, Washington eliminates the Blueshirts in six games in a Patrick Division Semi-Finals tilt. The last time the team met was in 1994 as the Rangers eliminated the Capitals in five games in an Eastern Conference Semi-Finals matchup.
The key to the series is simple: find a way to contain Ovechkin and Green while keeping the play to five-on-five as much as possible. If this series turns into a battle of special teams then the Blueshirts are in deep weeds. Washingtonâ€™s power play ranked second in the NHL (25.2%), nearly doubling the Rangers 13.9% (29th). The Capitals power play ranks first on home ice, scoring at a 28.2% clip. On the plus side, the Rangers finished first overall in penalty killing.
The problem with the Rangers on the power play is not just their inability to score, but their power play often fails to put any pressure on their opponents â€“ thus opening themselves up for a shift in momentum.
During the four games, the Capitals outscored the Rangers 14-10. However, Washingtonâ€™s totals included four power play goals, one shorthanded goal and one empty net goal, as compared to the Rangers one power play goal. Outside of a 3-1 loss at Washington, all of the games were one-goal games including an overtime win for the Caps and a shootout win for the Rangers. Even in that 3-1 loss, the Rangers had a golden opportunity to tie the game, but Brent Johnson denied Chris Drury on a penalty shot with the Rangers shorthanded,
That overtime loss is a prime example of how potent the Capitals offense can be and how fragile the Rangers can be when the going gets tough. Powered by a three goal first period, the Rangers found themselves with a 4-0 lead early in the second period. In the space of 20 minutes of playing time (mid-second period to mid-third period), the Caps sandwiched a pair of power play goals around a pair of Ovechkin goals to tie the game. Shaonne Morrisonnâ€™s first goal of the season 59 seconds into overtime sealed the comeback victory.
Following the game, then-coach Tom Renney offered up this observation to Jim Cerny of newyorkrangers.com.
â€œThey threw pucks at the net while threw pucks away and they capitalized on them. We mismanaged the puck and we mismanaged the game. They won it, and we handled it very poorly.â€
Fans might want to explain that loss away as Renneyâ€™s fault, but the Rangers had a similar meltdown when they blew a 4-1 lead against the Thrashers in Atlanta.
Green matched Ovechkinâ€™s two-goal game in the season finale as he was in the midst of his eight game goal scoring streak.
Containing Ovechkin and Green will not be easy, but it is not impossible. Rangers coach John Tortorella is expected to rely on a defense pairing of Marc Staal and Daniel Girardi. Interestingly enough, Staal averaged 20 minutes of ice time and played to a Plus-1 while Girardi averaged over 21 minutes per game and played to a Minus-4. However, with Ovechkin averaging about 23 minutes of ice time, Staal and Girardi are going to need help â€“ especially at the Verizon Center when Caps coach Bruce Boudreau has the final change.
Tortorella might be wise to also assign a forward to help shadow Ovechkin. Fredrik Sjostrom has the speed and defensive ability to help Staal. However, it might be Sean Avery who turns out to be the secret weapon. While Ovechkin has been saying all the right things about not letting Avery get under his skin, it is easier said than done. Unlike Sidney Crosby, Ovechkin thrives on physical play so Avery might have an inside step at throwing Alexander the Great off his game.
The down side is that Avery will be opening himself up to some questionable penalties. If you thought the officials were gunning for Avery during the regular season, you ainâ€™t seen nothing yet â€“ especially is he comes within (the figurative) spitting distance of Ovechkin.
Taking away Green will require the Blueshirts to change their modus operandi. In the defensive zone, Ranger forwards will often slide down to clog the middle of the ice and help out their teammates down low. Unfortunately, that often leaves the point men open for clear shots from the point. When the Rangers are having difficulties in their own zone it usually stems from open defensemen at the points as the Blueshirts forwards start scrambling to cover the point.
Offensively, the Rangers have to make a concerted effort to cause traffic in front of Theodore. While the Caps netminder was stellar last season in defeating the Minnesota Wild, Theodore was pulled in three of the four games as the Detroit Red Wings swept the Colorado Avalanche out of the playoffs. The Rangers also drove Theodore to the bench for the final 8:45 of the first period in the game the Rangers blew the four goal lead. In his defense, Theodore did return at the start of the second period and held the Rangers to one goal.
The Rangers have one ace up their sleeve in that the Rangers are a different team than the one the Capitals faced during the regular season. Nik Antropov, Sean Avery and Derek Morris will be making their first appearance as Rangers against the Capitals. In addition, John Tortorella will be behind the bench for the first time against Washington. While Tortorella has had the Rangers backing off their pinching without abandon, they do play a different style of hockey than they did with Renney as coach â€“ a topic that Washington coach Bruce Boudreau addressed.
“It’s like we’re playing this team for the first time,” Boudreau explained to Joseph White of the AP. “They made four significant changes — three players and a coach — and probably a fifth change is that they really believe now.”
“It’s not the system that’s changed, it’s the mentality,â€ Boudreau offered. â€œYou can see a different hunger in their eyes. That may be strange to hear, but you can watch two tapes at the end of Tom’s run and John’s run now. That usually happens with a coaching change. I don’t know either man, how they coach, but reputation-wise it looks like John’s a little more fiery and gets ’em going.”
To defeat the Capitals, the Rangers might have to meld together parts of Tortorellaâ€™s system with that of Renneyâ€™s system. The Blueshirts must establish an effective forecheck in order to take advantage of the Caps defensemenâ€™s defensive deficiencies. Not only with this help the Rangers offense, but it will go a long way to slowing down Washingtonâ€™s ability to generate offense. To accomplish this part of the plan, the Rangers defensemen have to heed Tortorellaâ€™s call for them to pick their spots when pinching to keep the play alive along the boards.
If the Rangers fail to establish the forecheck, then the forwards must hustle back and help clog the neutral zone as they did early in the season under Renney.
The Blueshirts received another plus when captain Chris Drury returned to practice after missing four days with an undisclosed injury. Despite this good news, Druryâ€™s availability for Game 1 is still not certain.
With the cloak and dagger games in full force, the Rangers did not disclose any information about Druryâ€™s injury. We can guess that it was either an upper lower body injury or a lower upper body injury (he wrote sarcastically).
When asked what was ailing the captain, Drury offered up this politician-like answer.
“I haven’t figured it out yet. I’m still waiting to be told,” he offered to Steve Zipay of Newsday. “The rest was very helpful. Feeling stronger.”
Ranger fans also received a plus because MSG will be broadcasting all of the non-NBC games, thus saving the Blueshirt faithful from the evil that is Versus â€“ especially faced with the possibility that Caps play-by-play announcer Joe Beninati will be calling the games.
During their last two playoff appearances, the Rangers have found a way to pull off upsets in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. In each case, the Rangers were not given much of a chance against their opponents. Against the Atlanta Thrashers, the Rangers experience and poor Atlanta goaltending paved the way to the upset. Against the New Jersey Devils, it was Henrik Lundqvist’s recent mastery over the Devils combined with Sean Avery’s pestering of Martin Brodeur that powered the Rangers to the series.
One can make a case for a three-peat as the Rangers eliminate the Capitals. For intents and purposes, all four games were decided by one goal where a break here or a break there could have made the difference in each game. There is no reason to expect anything different now that the playoffs are upon us.
Unfortunately for the Rangers, I do not believe the series is going to turn on the Lundqvist-Theodore matchup. Rather, the series will come to to a battle of the special teams. The battle of the Capitals power play/Rangers penalty killers and the Rangers power play/Capitals penalty killers is going to fall in favor of Washington. The Rangers inability to put power play pressure on the Capitals nets, never mind score power play goals, will be the ultimate cause to the Rangers seven game defeat to the Capitals.
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