April 2009


“To create offense, you need to be sound defensively, and we weren’t even close,” Rangers coach John Tortorella told Rick Carpiniello of the Journal News. “It was a good old-fashioned spanking tonight. Now we need to take our medicine and get back to work and try to figure some things out.”

“I thought they played very well defensively, and I thought we stunk defensively. That was the key to the game. They defended very well in front of their net, and we were chasing our tail all night long, spinning and watching the puck. Against a team like that, the way they move the puck, you can’t be watching the puck. … That was a big problem for us.”

I don’t often start a column or game recap with a quote, but given last night’s game, the coach pretty summed up his team’s effort in their 4-0 loss to Washington. It was a game that saw the Blueshirts spend most of the game as spectators as opposed to participants. The Capitals played like a team that sensed the need to play with urgency.

“The first two games, we played two really good regular season games,” David Steckel related to Tarik El-Bashir of the Washington Post. “Tonight we played a playoff game. We rose to the occasion and got it done.”

All you needed to know to measure Washington’s desire and desperation level was to watch Alexander Ovechkin’s mad dash to hustle back and deny Lauri Korpikoski’s shorthanded breakaway attempt.

While the Rangers managed to keep Ovechkin out of the goal scorer’s column, they were unable to do the same for Alexander Semin who put the game out of reach with his two first period goals and joined with Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom to be major thorns in the Rangers side all game long.

“I think we outworked them,” Backstrom said to Corey Masisak of the Washington Times. “We worked harder, and we were fighting for our lives. That is something we have in our team, and hopefully we can do it again Wednesday.”

It seemed as if the two teams swapped uniforms in between Games 2 and 3. Instead of playing tentative, and at times uninspiring hockey, in Game 2, the Capitals responded with a more aggressive approach which was apparent in their ability to get high quality shots on goal – rather than settle for shots from the perimeter.

Conversely, the Rangers seemed content with playing to the outside and concentrating solely on firing a quantity of shots, not a quality of shots, at rookie Simeon Varlamov. While Sam Rosen and Joe Micheletti raved about Varlamov’s play, he did not face the sustained pressure that Henrik Lundqvist faced at the other end. If not for the King’s play in the second period, a 4-0 final could easily have been worse.

Despite the Rangers lackluster play, the game did turn on one sequence of events where the fortune of the game turned on one play. Midway through the first period Ryan Callahan nearly tied the game, but his shot at an open net was deflected by Backstrom off the post and the puck slid tantalizingly along the goal line. Washington stormed the other way and capitalized (pun intended) on Backstrom’s goal-saving play.

“It definitely changed the momentum a bit,” Callahan said to Carpiniello. “The whole game is momentum-changing plays … and I felt in that play, we could have had a 1-1 tie and two seconds later, they’re up 2-0 so it definitely did [change the momentum].”

Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau agreed with Callahan, but added an extra caveat.

“It was a momentum changer,” Boudreau commented to El-Bashir. “But at the same time, how often does that happen? It’s the luck of hockey and the luck of the sport. Some guy hits the post on a great opportunity and you go down to the other end and score so instead of 1-1 you’ve got 2-0 and your team is going in after the first period with a lot of confidence.”

Confidence is something the Rangers don’t seem to have and you have to wonder now if Varlamov has gotten into their heads given the fact the rookie netminder has extended his shutout streak to 112 minutes and counting.

It is no coincidence that the Rangers lost their first game of the series in the first game where their power play did not match that of the Capitals. If the Blueshirts intend to turn this series into a battle of power plays, then they are going to help boost the percentage of teams that have recovered from a 2-0 deficit since the start of best-of-seven series (12.7%).

Simply put, the Rangers are not good enough offensively to get into a battle of power plays – no matter how good their penalty killing has been this season. During the second period, the teams played less than seven minutes at even strength.

It is not only the fact that the Rangers yielded two power play goals to Washington, it is also that their own power play languishes and is turning into a detriment. Not only is the power play not scoring, but is not generating enough chances to shift the momentum within a game – and last night it provided an extra impetus for the Garden crowd to sit on its collective hands and silence its collective voices.

The one way to make sure the series does not become a battle of power plays is to stay out of the penalty box and eliminate the unnecessary penalties – an idea two Rangers veterans lamented about following the game.

“In the playoffs and and against this team, you can’t spend time in the box,” Scott Gomez explained to Katie Strang of Newsday. “It’s so fast out there and tough, but we’ll get over that. Penalties are part of the game, but we have to find a way to limit them, because we can’t take that many against them.

Teammate Markus Naslund agreed with his fellow assistant captain in discussing the penalty problem with Strang.

“That’s a big factor. We can’t sit in the box. We got away with it in the first game, but it’s something we have to be better at. They had two power play goals. A big part of the momentum going either way is the discipline.”

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With apologies to Eric Clapton and B.B. King, if the New York Rangers are going to make any headway in the playoffs, the team has to ride Henrik Lundqvist and he has to be the Blueshirts best player.

If the story in Game I was the poor play of Washington’s Jose Theodore, then the story of Game 2 was The King’s stellar play as he kicked aside all 35 Caps’ shots. It was only the fourth time this season Washington was shutout, and the first time since January 9.

The 1-0 score was the first for the Rangers since, yup you guessed it, 1940 when they shutout the Boston Bruins.

“They’re going to make plays. They’re going to get chances,” Scott Gomez said to A.J. Perez of USA Today. “But Lundqvist and the ‘D’ were outstanding again.”

Of course, Lundqvist had a little help from his friends. In Game 1 it was Brandon Dubinsky’s highlight reel move on Jeff Schultz. In Game 2 it was Ryan Callahan burying Markus Naslund’s two-on-one feed to beat rookie Simeon Varlamov.

More importantly, the Rangers put up a team effort – especially in the defensive zone. After blocking 21 shots in the series opener, they kicked it up a notch with 29 shots in Saturday’s matinee.

“Two pretty even teams are playing their hearts out. They blocked 29 shots. It’s nothing new for John [Tortorella's] teams,” Caps coach Bruce Boudreau told Thomas Boswell of The Washington Post. “They are paying the price. They are committed. They are showing an awful lot of courage, blocking shots by a lot of hard shooters.”

The King was quick to dole the credit to his teammates for their ability to help him thwart the vaunted Washington offense.

“It’s huge to have a lot of guys to block shots and sacrifice their bodies in a series like this, especially when you face so many good players that can shoot the puck,” Lundqvist said to Dan Rosen of nhl.com.

“We had a lot of blocks in the first game, especially after faceoffs, and (Saturday) again they came up big on a couple that they had a pretty good shot opportunity. We did a lot of good things.”

The key to the game was the Rangers ability to realize and correct their mistakes from Game 1. The Blueshirts stepped up their physical play and, for the most part, did a good job of keeping the Capitals offense to the perimeter – a fact not lost on Capitals blueliner Mike Green.

“A lot of our shots came from the outside and that’s easy for the goalie to make a save,” Green commented to Rosen. “The tough areas are around the net or in the slot and we gotta get into the gray areas where we can get quality shots,”

The Rangers also tightened up when it came to standing the Caps up at the blue line and they made sure not to give the Caps free reign in the neutral zone. As a result, the Rangers were able to keep a handle on the number the odd-man rushes against them – while capitalizing one on for the game winner.

During the game the NBC announcers (Mike Emrick, Ed Olczyk and Darren Pang) kept commenting on how tentative the Capitals appeared to be playing. They brought this theme up throughout the game without ever really putting their collective finger on why this was the case. Could it be that The King has gotten to their heads? It would not be the first time a team psyched themselves out over a goaltender, nor will it be the last.

For his part, Boudreau does not believe that theory holds much water.

“Is [Lundqvist] ‘in our heads?’ Boudreau responded to Boswell. “Well, they all know he’s good. But I’ve never understood that phrase.”

However, this is the same coach who said that Jose Theodore was still his number one goaltender following the Game 1 loss.

Perhaps Boudreau is whistling through the graveyard because his big gun seems to realize that Lundqvist is on one of those playoff rolls.

“In the playoffs, when their goalie feels the game and he plays great, it’s tough to score,” Alexander Ovechkin related to Tarik El-Bashir of The Washington Post. “We had lots of chances. He saved the net and won the game.”

More than just Lundqvist, the Rangers stepped up their commitment to defensive zone coverage, a point that Boudreau recognized in his post-game comments in reference to his team’s trying to get into better scoring position.

“We’re trying to get there, but their defense is doing a helluva job.”

While the Rangers power play of the regular season returned (scoreless in five chances), the Blueshirts were a perfect three for three in killing penalties. The Rangers will remain in good shape in games as long as they match Washington’s power play output.

According to Lundqvist’s post-game comments, the Rangers changed up their penalty killing strategy and reverted back to their style earlier in the season where they were more aggressive.

Going forward, the Rangers will be returning to Madison Square Garden that will be looking for their home team to move in for the kill. The Rangers 2-0 advantage marks the straight year they have opened the first round by winning the first two games of series – an encouraging sign in the Rangers playoff history holds true.

Since the NHL went to the best-of-seven format, the Rangers are 10-1 when they win the first two games of a series. The only blemish was in 1968 when the Chicago Blackhawks rallied from a 2-0 deficit to win in six games.

Since the NHL went to the best-of-seven format, 291 teams have won the first two games of a series, and 37 times (12.7%) teams rallied from that deficit. In 1996, the Rangers rallied from the exact same hole the Capitals find themselves in. The Rangers lost the first two games at home against the Montreal Canadiens before the Blueshirts rallied to win the series in six.

Looking ahead to Game 3, the Rangers must continue to contain Ovechkin. After running roughshod in Game 1, Alex the Great was “limited” to six shots on goal, seven shots that went wide and three shots that were blocked.

As far as their defense goes, the Rangers need to watch out for is having the defenseman play “outside the dots”. The Rangers blueliners want to be sure they defend the middle of the ice and force the Capitals forwards wide. This strategy gives the defensemen a better chance to recover and limits Washington’s ability to get favorable shooting angles on goal.

The Rangers still have to get a little better on faceoffs, even though they won 46.6% percent of the faceoffs in Game 2 – as compared to just 30% in Game 1. While Chris Drury made his return to the lineup, it is obvious that his “undisclosed injury” is a wrist or hand injury because he only took two faceoffs on Saturday afternoon.

On offense, the Rangers till need to find a way to get more shots on goal. Whether Boudreau starts Varlamov or Theodore, the Blueshirts need to create more traffic in front of the net and look for ways to score a garbage goal or two – especially on the power play. If the Rangers power play can outscore the Capitals power play, then the series might never return to the Verizon Center.

As for the Capitals, look for them to do something they wanted to do in Game 2 but didn’t. Sergei Federov told Olczyk that Washington wanted to be “more physical” with Lundqvist. I wonder if Boudreau still believes The King hasn’t gotten into his team’s head?

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As anticipated, the New York Rangers were the big winners of the goaltending battle as Lundqvist easily outplayed Theodore, to the point that there is talk Washington coach Bruce Boudreau might be considering a goaltending switch for Game 2 on Saturday afternoon.

If Boudreau were to make a switch, it would not be to injured veteran Brent Johnson. Instead, the Capitals would have to turn to rookie Simeon Varlamov. It was a switch that Boudreau did not contemplate last night despite his veteran’s less-than-stellar play. According to Tarik El-Bashir of The Washington Post, Boudreau did not make the switch during Game 1 because “you never want to look like you are panicking. And that’s how it would have looked to me.”

While he wouldn’t pull the plug Wednesday night, the Caps coach did not rule out changes for Saturday.

“There’s a chance anything can happen,” Boudreau related to El-Bashir. “When you lose, you make changes. I’m not saying in goal. But I mean, there’s a chance for changes in a couple of positions.”

Given the way Brandon Dubinsky undressed Jeff Schultz on the game-winning goal, one of those changes might include Karl Alzner or Brian Pothier taking Schultz’s place.

Another change might be the return of Chris Clark. According to Katie Carrera of The Washington Post, Clark was medically cleared to return to action. Clark brings the same type of intangibles that Sean Avery brings to the Rangers.

Looking back at the Caps goaltending situation, Boudreau is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t, especially if Washington absorbs a second straight home loss. Varlamov is the goalie of the future and was sharp in his brief NHL action posting a 4-0-1 record with a .918 save percentage and a 2.37 goals against average. Losing the first game because of a poor performance by Theodore has put Boudreau in a Catch-22 situation.

If Boudreau makes the switch to Varlamov what does he do if the Capitals lose Game 2 because a poor game from the rookie? Do you go back to a shaky Theodore or do you throw the rookie back to the wolves at Madison Square Garden? If Boudreau goes back to Theodore for Game 2 and gets another bad start then he might be forced to go to Varlamov anyway.

It is a situation that Al Arbour faced in 1994. The Islanders legendary coach benched veteran Ron Hextall after they lost Game 1 to the Rangers 6-0. Arbour started rookie Jamie McLennan in Game 2 and the Rangers responded with another 6-0 victory.

If Boudreau does start Theodore in Game expect him to be a short leash, with the Caps faithful in the Verizon Center having an even shorter leash. If Mike Wise of The Washington Post is any indicator, Theodore will face more wrath from his home fans then he ever would at MSG.

Wise refereed to Theodore as “Jose Threeormore” and called him an “uninspiring impostor of the one-time highlight goalie”.

And you thought Ranger fans were tough on Marek Malik.

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The New York Rangers 4-3 win in Game 1 against the Washington Capitals made a little bit of history last night.

No, it had nothing to do with the Rangers power play matching the Capitals power play goal-for-goal (actually two goals-for-two goals).

No, it has nothing to do with Henrik Lundqvist outplaying Jose Theodore in goal (more on the Caps netminder in the accompanying article).

No, the bit of history had to do with the Rangers win itself.

Entering last night’s Game 1, the Rangers had only won two of their last 14 series openers (2007 against Atlanta and 2008 against the New Jersey Devils). Interestingly enough, the Blueshirts won eight of those 14 series. By the way, the last series opening win before that streak was in 1994 when the Rangers defeated Washington.

The easiest way to sum up the Rangers Game 1 victory is to say that they won in spite of themselves. While their power play did match the Capitals, the Blueshirts will not be long for this series if they continue to give Washington seven power play attempts per game. As bad as that was, the types of penalties were even worse. There is no excuse for committing four offensive penalties. The Rangers are fortunate that their gritty performance covered up the mountain of undisciplined penalties, or the Rangers would be regretting let Game 1 slip through their fingers.

“Our power play has fought us the past couple of months. Our PK is going to have to be good. I’m not sure how penalties we took, but it was too many,” John Tortorella told Dan Rosen of nhl.com.

“It’s too dangerous with that group they put out there. I thought the penalty killers did everything they possibly could, especially at the end those last two at the end to keep the puck out of the net. Our PP is going to have to score a big goal at a certain time to stay in there. So special teams, especially at the end, killing was very good tonight.”

In addition for their penchant for taking too many offensive zone penalties, the Rangers were taking too many at inopportune times. Twice they were whistled for penalties in the opening minute of a period – and it cost them in the third period when the Capitals tied the game as they erased a two-goal deficit.

The Rangers need to buckle down when they get the lead or they risk repeating losing games like they did against the Caps (blowing a 4-0 lead) and the Thrashers (blowing a 4-1 lead). And it isn’t that long ago the Rangers lost a 3-0 lead to the Pittsburgh Penguins in last year’s playoffs – a loss that set the stage for the Blueshirts elimination.

Tortorella spoke to Rosen about the Caps inevitable surge for a comeback.

“That team is going to surge,” Tortorella said. “It’s a matter of reclaiming your momentum with some simple plays, maybe your forecheck, holding on to the puck. It’s not about scoring a goal right away. It’s about getting your game back.”

All was not negative for the Rangers. They showed a moxie that this team did not show all that often when faced with adversity. It was something Ryan Callahan addressed with Rosen.

“It was one of the things we talked about before the game. We knew they were going to have their spurts. It’s how we control ourselves and maintain ourselves during them and I think we did a pretty good job of that. (Lundqvist) came up with some real key saves during that time. It was definitely a boost for us to weather it and continue on.”

In baseball, they say momentum is as good as your next game’s pitcher. In hockey, your momentum is as good as your goaltender is and Lundqvist helped stem the tide – something Theodore could not do.

Of course, Lundqvist had a little bit of help from his friends. With captain Chris Drury out of the lineup, Scott Gomez stepped up and flashed some of his big-game ability with a goal and two assists. His speed and playmaking abilities had the Caps back on their skates for most of the night.

The same can be said for Callahan who has come into his won this season. Callahan was at his physical best and beat Theodore twice only to have his shots ring off the post.

The much-maligned duo of Wade Redden Michal Rozsival stepped up and played their best games a defense pairing. With Tortorella unable, and at times unwilling, to match Marc Staal and Daniel Girardi on Alexander Ovechkin, the veterans stepped up to eat up a chunk of ice time.

“I thought Marc and Danny were a little nervous,” Tortorella explained to Larry Brooks of the NY Post. “That’s why Redden [27:35] and Rozsival [28:15] got that chunk of ice time and I thought that helped.”

Tortorella might have to employ both sets of defensemen if the Rangers hope to contain (never mind stop) Alexander Ovechkin – especially when the Rangers are on the road and the Capitals have the last change. The Caps superstar finished the night with 26:07 of ice time, 13 shots and a whole host of hits. What is really incredible is that Ovechkin had 10 more shots blocked and missed the target five times.

“With both of them, one of the key things in their game, they were willing to take a hit to make a play, protected the puck well and we were probably more successful with them getting out of our end zone,” the Rangers coach told Steve Zipay of Newsday on Thursday. “Their game was really good. That’s why they ended up with the minutes. Reds and Rosy really stabilized us when they were coming at us pretty hard.”

While Ovechkin had a lot of time, he finished second on the team has offensive defenseman Mike Green drew 30:37 minutes of ice time.

Looking forward to Game 2, the Blueshirts must stay out of the penalty box. The constant stream of undisciplined penalties not only shifts momentum to the Capitals, but it also puts extra pressure and ice time on the penalty killers.

Another facet of the game that the Rangers must tighten up is their faceoff performance. The Rangers won just 20 of 66 faceoffs (30%) and sorely missed Chris Drury, who is still listed as day-to-day with his undisclosed injury. The only bright spot was Brandon Dubinsky going five for ten on defensive zone draws.

Speaking of Drury, the Rangers victory buys the Rangers a couple of extra days for the captain to recover. With a win in their back pocket, Tortorella can be cautious and sit Drury on Saturday with his return targeted for Monday night.

It is interesting that Drury’s injury actually played a key part to the victory. If Drury were healthy, Brandon Dubinsky might not have been on the ice to undress Jeff Schultz for the game-winner.

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After the New York Rangers defeated the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday night, fans turned their attention to debating which the fans wanted to face – 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 can’t be choosers – 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 doesn’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. Washington’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 – thus opening themselves up for a shift in momentum.

During the four games, the Capitals outscored the Rangers 14-10. However, Washington’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 Morrisonn’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.

“They 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.”

Fans might want to explain that loss away as Renney’s fault, but the Rangers had a similar meltdown when they blew a 4-1 lead against the Thrashers in Atlanta.

Green matched Ovechkin’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 – 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 ain’t seen nothing yet – 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 – 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,” Boudreau offered. “You 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 Tortorella’s system with that of Renney’s system. The Blueshirts must establish an effective forecheck in order to take advantage of the Caps defensemen’s defensive deficiencies. Not only with this help the Rangers offense, but it will go a long way to slowing down Washington’s ability to generate offense. To accomplish this part of the plan, the Rangers defensemen have to heed Tortorella’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, Drury’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 Drury’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 – 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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With just four games remaining in their season, he New York Rangers stand on the precipice of a New York Mets-like collapse. They hold a two point lead over Florida and the Panthers have one game in hand – which they make up tonight with a home game against the Atlanta Thrashers.

While the Carolina Hurricanes (10-1-2), the Pittsburgh Penguins (13-1-2) and the Montreal Canadiens (4-0-1) have been making their playoff cases, the Blueshirts have been sputtering (9-6-2 under new coach John Tortorella, but just 2-3-1 in their last six).

The Rangers playoff mathematics are simple. Their magic number for making the playoffs is eight for Florida and six for the Buffalo Sabres. Any combination of the above-listed points (one or two for the Rangers and one or less for the Panthers/Sabres) and the Rangers manage to avoid an early summer vacation.

The Broadway Blues find themselves fighting for their playoff lives because of a bad habit of not being able to win games late in the season – which is indicative of their inability to win games late (i.e. heading into the third period). Of the Rangers eight losses (six in regulation and two in extra time) under Torts, the Rangers were tied or leading in six of the eight. It is a situation that the Rangers coach is keenly aware of, especially in light of the loss to the Hurricanes.

“For most of the night I thought we worked hard and did some good things, but when it’s 2-2 in the third period, the little things have to be done, because when they’re not, they cost you the game,” Tortorella told Larry Brooks (NY Post) after the loss to the Hurricanes.

“Mistakes will be made, but at that point you have to make sure that details are taken care of and we didn’t do it . . . we didn’t do it.

“When it’s crunch time in the third period with a playoff spot on the line, you need to get things done and we didn’t.”

To put that into perspective, the Rangers are 35-10-7 when leading or tied going into the third period. That means nearly half of their “blown” leads/ties have happened in the final quarter of the season. The numbers are even more staggering when you look at the Rangers offensive breakdowns.

The Rangers break even during the first two periods of hockey. They are a Minus 1 in the first period (53 goals for and 54 goals against) and a Plus 1 in the second period (69 to 68). However, they are a Minus 15 in the third period (66 to 81). Their 81 third period goals against is topped only by the Colorado Avalanche, New York Islanders and, surprisingly, the Detroit Red Wings. However, Detroit also has scored an NHL-best 101 third period goals.

For all the hullabaloo made when Tortorella replaced Tom Renney, the Rangers have been outscored 20-11 in the third period under their new coach and their anemic power play has mustered a less than stellar 2 goals in 27 chances. Does this mean Tortorella is a bad coach. No, but it means all of the Rangers woes weren’t exactly Renney’s fault either.

The Rangers are what they are – a flawed team that is never quite as good as they are when they are winning games and never quite as bad as they are when they are losing games. The one thing that is for sure is that when the Rangers face adversity within a game, they start to play as if they are in quicksand (full credit to the movie The Replacements).

The more adversity the Rangers face within a game, the more they struggle. The harder they try to fight their way out of it, the worse the struggle gets – much like someone trapped in quicksand. One only needs to look at the game in Atlanta. Once the Thrashers cut the Rangers three-goal lead to two with their last minute second period goal, you knew the Rangers were going to have fight tooth and nail to secure even one point, never mind “stealing” two points in a game they appeared to have well in hand.

The problem is the Rangers have a lack of a killer instinct. They do not have the ability to finish teams off. Much of this stems from their inconsistent and, at times, pop-gun offense – which is furthered hindered by their anemic and inconsistent power play. Ranger fans can yell “Shoot!” all they want, but that is not going to make a difference.

Too often the Rangers employ their NCAA Basketball Tournament offense – “one-and-done”. Far too often the Rangers pad their shot totals with shots from the point or from outside the faceoff dots. The forward do not drive to the net enough and they do not go to the net for screens and rebounds. Even when the Rangers have their forecheck going and are cycling the puck down low, they don’t create enough traffic in front to create enough scoring chances.

The Hurricanes play at the start of the third period helped create their two goals in 28 seconds. Carolina had the Rangers so pinned in their own zone that the Rangers were just content to relieve the pressure – never mind trying to score. Eventually they wore the Blueshirts down and scored a pair of goals keyed by going to the net and causing traffic and confusion in front.

During the remaining four games watch how many passes/rebounds/loose pucks will be at the top of the crease. Then count the number of times the Rangers don’t have a player in position to take advantage. While you are at it, count the number of times you will see a Ranger go past the top of the crease and stand at the side of the crease – and then watch the puck end up at the top of the crease.

Will things change or is it a case of the more things change, the more they stay the same? Such is life in the hockey soap opera we know as the New York Rangers. The final word belongs to Scott Gomez.

“We’re not playing good third periods, and that’s something that we better stop (Saturday against the Bruins in Boston),” Gomez told Michael Obernauer (Daily News). “I don’t know if we’re more hesitant or whatever, but we’ve got to figure it out.”

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