April 2012

The New York Rangers found a solution to the “dreaded three-goal lead” curse – score another goal and stretch the lead to four goals. As a result, there was no repeat of Ottawa’s 4-3 come-from-behind shootout win. Instead, the Blueshirts finished off the Senators to take Game 1 of the First Round series.

Time for a “true confession” – how many flashbacked to that October 29 game when Brian Boyle extended the lead to 3-0? I have to admit that was the first thought that crossed my mind – especially considering my wife and I were at that game. My fears were eased once the Rangers managed to get through the rest of the second period with the 3-0 lead in tact.

I know some fans have expressed a concern that Ottawa’s two third period goals serve as a jumping point for a shift of momentum their way for Game 2. I do not see it that way.

It is far too early in the playoffs, and in this series, for two (more or less) meaningless goals to swing the momentum from game-to-game. Much like baseball has the cliché that momentum is only as good as your next game’ starting pitcher, hockey has a couple of corollaries to counteract the momentum theory.

In hockey, momentum is only has good as the play of your goaltender is at the top of that list.

In hockey, momentum swings are more common in-game than between games. Momentum can easily be derailed by a bad bounce, a chance deflection, or if you are the Pittsburgh Penguins, a missed call by an on-ice official.

Ottawa may very well win Game 2, but it will not be because of anything they did last night. It will stem from adjustments they make in between games. It will be interesting to see if one of Paul MacLean’s third period adjustments carries over to Saturday night.

Looking to change the momentum heading into the third period, MacLean rolled the dice and put his top three forwards on the same line (Daniel Alfredsson, Milan Michalek and Jason Spezza). It did pay some dividends as that trio got the Senators on the scoreboard.

If MacLean keeps that threesome together, the Rangers game plan for Game 2 will be two-fold. Not only will they have to work hard to keep the top line from scoring, it will be even more imperative they make sure they shut down Ottawa’s secondary scoring.

Coach John Tortorella has to be happy with his team’s effort for most of the night. While Ottawa did carry the play and dictate the tempo at the start of the second period, the biggest concern should be the way the Blueshirts eased their foot off the gas pedal in the third period.

Much has been made of Tortorella’s timeout call in the second period as the Rangers were being pinned in the own end. Some likened it to the timeout called by Mike Keenan in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals against New Jersey in 1994. While both timeouts did serve to shift the momentum of the game, they are not the same.

What gets lost in Tort’s use of his timeout is that he called after an icing call to rest his weary skaters. It would have been interesting to see if he would have used his timeout if the team didn’t ice the puck? During the regular season, Tortorella was more likely to use his timeout following an icing call rather than as a means of shifting or even stemming momentum.

Whatever the reason, the timeout worked like a charm because the Rangers got back to playing Ranger hockey.

“That is the way we have to play to win,” Ryan Callahan explained to the Associated Press. “We felt like we’ve been playing playoff hockey right through the season.

The Rangers pretty much followed their regular season blueprint for success to a “T” last night. They got Vezina Trophy style goaltending from Henrik Lundqvist when they needed it. Their big three (Callahan, Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards) are chipped in with goals and they got some timely secondary scoring from Brian Boyle (who continues to be en fuego). As usual, the penalty killing was superb and even the power play showed some life. While they didn’t score with the man advantage, it was the power play’s momentum that led to Boyle’s eventual game-winning goal.

Despite all the things that went right last night, there were enough things that went wrong that will allow the coaching staff to keep the team focused and prevent over-confidence from seeping in.

On both Ottawa goals, the Rangers were guilty of undisciplined hockey. On the first goal, the Blueshirts inability to get the puck deep forced a turnover at the Senators blue line and paved the way for Alfredsson’s goal. On the second goal, Marc Staal pinched in the neutral zone and got caught – thus leading to Erik Condra’s goal.

Those two miscues and the Rangers tendency to late their opponent’s dictate the tempo at times should serve as practice fodder for today.

Much of the Rangers problem with other teams dictating tempo, and their struggles in the second period last night, stem from the way their forwards drop down low to try and clog the shooting lanes. As a result, teams are able to sustain their forecheck and offensive pressure by easily utilizing their defensemen at the point. With the likes of offensive d-men like Erik Karlsson, Sergei Gonchar and Matt Gilroy; and wily veterans like Filip Kuba and Chris Phillips, the Rangers must be very wary of Ottawa’s point play.

However, all-in-all, it was a good night to be a Ranger fan. The Blueshirts series opening win helped allay some of the concerns over Ottawa’s success at Madison Square Garden and it provided the first glimpse that Craig Anderson is beatable after all. Prior to last night, the Ottawa netminder was 6-0 with a 1.13 goals against average against the Rangers.

As Ranger fans breathe a sigh of relief over winning Game 1 and not having to play on Friday the 13th, it also a time for Blueshirt fans to reflect back and celebrate the 72nd anniversary of the New York Rangers winning the Stanley Cup in – wait for it – 1940. Talk about a championship having to last a lifetime.

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April is the time when 16 fan bases start pouring over trends and stats in an attempt to plot out their road to a Stanley Cup victory – including growing the omnipresent playoff beard. The remaining 14 fan bases look ahead to the NHL Draft and wait for their fellow fans teams fall out of the playoffs.

For the New York Rangers and their fans it is time for them to file away the 2011-2012 regular season – from the opening games in Europe, the road trip from hell to the start the season, through the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference championships and beyond the losses to Pittsburgh and Washington to close out the 82-game playoff warmup.

The only thing that matters from the regular season is that the Rangers earned the right to home ice advantage through the Eastern Conference playoffs and beyond should the Vancouver Canucks miss the Stanley Cup Finals.

Some people tend to play down home ice advantage, but I am not one of them. If I have to play a seventh and deciding game then I want it played at Madison Square Garden. Looking ahead at the Rangers road to the Stanley Cup Finals, they are going to need that advantage at some point in the playoffs.

The same people who say home ice advantage is overrated are probably the same people who were looking ahead to a first round playoff matchup with the Capitals, Panthers or Sabres. Imagine their surprise when the Ottawa Senators ended up as the eighth seed.

Given all of the possible matchups, the hockey gods did the Rangers no favors by making the Senators the first step on the road to the Stanley Cup. Set aside the fact that the Senators won three of the four games (one in a shootout where the Rangers blew a three goal third period lead) this season. The strange truth is Ottawa might be the one team in the NHL that would relish playing a seventh game at the Garden.

Don Brennan of the Ottawa Sun posted some very interesting numbers in games between the Rangers and Senators. Since joining the NHL, Ottawa is 23-13-0-1 at MSG and that includes an 11-2 record since the Lockout and 14 out of the last 17.

Conversely, the Senators are just 15-18-3 at home against the Rangers during the same time period.

Brennan also points out that Ottawa was a better road team (21-14-6) than a home team this year (20-17-4). In terms of the 16 playoff teams, Ottawa is the worst home team while placing 6 in road points.

As if history wasn’t enough to cause the Rangers some concern, a couple of omens loom against the Rangers. While Sports Illustrated picked the Pittsburgh Penguins to win the Stanley Cup, their April 16, 2012 cover features Henrik Lundqvist with the caption “Who Will Stop the Penguins? (This Guy Might)”.

Lundqvist, who is on the cover of the East Coast version of the magazine (Masters’ champion Bubba Watson is on the cover of the West Coast version, is the first Ranger to grace a Sports Illustrated cover in almost 13 years. Wayne Gretzky graced the cover of the April 26, 1999 edition in honor of his retirement.

As if battling the Sports Illustrated Cover Jinx wasn’t bad enough, but Larry Brooks of the NY Post picks the Rangers to be celebrating with a parade down the Canyon of Heroes in June.

The Rangers main goal against Ottawa is to find a way to neutralize their top offensive weapons. Linemates Jason Spezza and Milan Michalek struck for four goals and an assists in the season series and Erik Karlsson, the leading candidate for the Norris Trophy, added five assists. The 6-foot and 180 Karlsson finished 11th in scoring this season with 19 goals and 59 assists – leading all defensemen in goals, assists and points.

In order to neutralize Ottawa’s Big Three, the Rangers must find a way to neutralize the Senators speed and finesse game. The best way to accomplish this task is to ratchet up their forechecking and taking every chance they have to put a body on Karlsson – especially in his defensive zone.
You can pull out all of the usual clichés, but the bottom line is that the Black-and-Blueshirts are going to have play lunch pail hockey in this series.

On the offensive end, the Blueshirts leaned on a Big Three of their own in the series against Ottawa. Brad Richards paced the way with two goals and two assists, Marian Gaborik scored three goals and Ryan Callahan chipped in a pair of goals as well. Derek Stepan matched Gaborik’s three points with a goal and two assists.

However, the Rangers have been at their best when they are getting secondary scoring. Brian Boyle elevated his play down the stretch of the regular season and the team will need veterans Brandon Dubinsky and Ruslan Fedotenko to do the same, while rookie Carl Hagelin channels his collegiate playoff experience while at the University of Michigan.

Coach John Tortorella underscored the Rangers need for secondary scoring while speaking to Andrew Gross of The Record following Tuesdays practice.

“That’s our team, we are a sum of your parts team. I think one of the biggest aspects of our success is playing as a team,” Torts told Gross for his Ranger Rants blog.

Defensively, the Rangers will rely heavily on their top blue line pair of Ryan McDonagh and Daniel Girardi. However, they are going to need Marc Staal to return to his All-Star form in order for the Rangers to have two solid defensive pairs to slow down the Senators.

As so often is the case, special teams will play a huge part in this series – especially with the Rangers needing to increase their physical play. If form holds true, the Rangers penalty killing units will more than hold their own. Their power play unit, well, that is a different story.

Much was made last season about the Boston Bruins winning the Stanley Cup with an anemic power play that stumbled along at 11.4% – good for 14th among all of the playoff teams. By the way, the Rangers ranked 15th last year.

However, the Bruins power play woes were an aberration when it comes to winning the Stanley Cup in the post-Lockout years. Power play percentages are really a meaningless statistic. The more important number is your ranking within the league. For example, when Anaheim won the Stanley Cup in 2007, their power play percentage was 15.2. However, they were ranked 7th in the league. Since the lockout, and before the Bruins, the lowest ranked power play to win the Cup was Detroit in 2008 when they ranked 9th (18.9%).

While the Rangers 23rd ranked power play wheezed along at 15.7% during the regular season, the Blueshirts managed to end the year on a hot streak scoring eight PPGs in 27 chances (29.6%) during their last six games.

The Rangers power play is at its best when both players and puck are in motion. The problems arise when the power play gets stagnant and players are standing still. It is at that point that the Rangers spend more time facing the boards trying to recover the puck than they are facing the net and looking for shots.

In the end, the Rangers are going to go as far as the goaltending of Henrik Lundqvist takes them. The one thing in his favor, and in favor of the Rangers, is that the team’s blue collar work ethic is ready-made for the battle that is the Stanley Cup playoffs. They are not an offensive team that has to make adjustments to tight-checking playoff hockey.

The Ottawa Senators are not going to be an easy out. Unlike the NBA, upsets are the norm in the NHL come playoff time thanks to the effect a hot goaltender can have. While Craig Anderson has the ability to steal a series, I see the Rangers prevailing in a hard fought seven game series as home ice advantage proves to be the difference in a seventh and deciding game.

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