May 2012

There will be no repeat of the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals. The fourth time proved to be the downfall of the New York Rangers after they staved off elimination games three previous times. The Rangers descent into playoff abyss was, once again, keyed by their inability to get off to a good start, never mind a great start.

What was the Rangers problem during the first periods of the last two games? Were they not ready for the Devils onslaught or was it a case of the Devils just executing their game plan better than the Rangers?

“No, we know they’re coming. Give them some credit. T hey did it through the whole Playoffs. And they’re a pretty good hockey club. They’re a balanced team. And they were a pretty good team,” Rangers coach John Tortorella explained.

“So we talk about it. We try to get our footing. We struggled a little bit there.”

The easiest, and most simplistic, answer to the Devils big starts in the first period come down to New Jersey playing opportunistic hockey – and that is no knock against them. The Devils seemed to be able to make the Rangers pay for every mistake they made.

The beginning of the end of the Rangers season occurred midway through the first period as the Devils fourth line again proved to be a thorn in the side of the Blueshirts. New Jersey capitalized on Marc Staal’s inability to keep the puck in at the left point.

Ryan Carter eventually converted on the Devils three-on-one rush as New Jersey’s fourth struck for its ninth goal of the playoffs. The most disconcerting thing on the goal was not Staal getting caught flat-footed because he hustled back. The problem was the three Rangers forwards who did not bust it to try and cover/recover on the play.

The Rangers faced a steep uphill climb because the team that scored the first goal in the Rangers previous 13 games won the game. Carter’s goal would eventually stretch that streak to 14 games.

Less than four minutes later that uphill climb got even steeper when Ilya Kovalchuk converted on just the third Devils power play goal of the series. The goal featured undisciplined play all around – from Ruslan Fedotenko taking a tripping penalty in the offensive zone to the Rangers penalty killers who got caught with poor ice balance and defensive zone coverage as they broke their penalty killing box while chasing the puck.

Just like Game 5, the Rangers opened the second period with a renewed purpose and a sense of urgency that was missing in the first period. If there is going to be one lingering question that needs to be answered during the summer it is that – why did the Rangers have to spot the Devils a couple of goals and about 20 minutes of play before playing their game?

Part of the answer might stem from the Rangers fatigue. I know that Tortorella and the players would not buy into the Rangers being a tired team. Physically, they were probably no more tired than the devils or any other team that has to slog their way through the marathon that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

However, there has to be a mental fatigue that comes into play – especially the way the Rangers playoff games have been going. Because of the Rangers inconsistent offense, every game becomes three periods of overtime hockey.

I don’t care how much talent a team has, I don’t care how many battle-tested players you have, and I don’t care how physically fit a team is, playing each period as if it was sudden death is going to take a lot out of a team – and might explain the Rangers tentative starts.

Visions of 1994 started dancing in the minds of the Rangers faithful as they erased the two goal deficit in less than four minutes midway through the second period.

The Rangers first goal showed that the Blueshirts underutilized attacking plays from behind the net on Martin Brodeur as Ruslan Fedotenko converted on a pass from behind the net from Ryan McDonagh.

Ryan Callahan knotted the game as the Rangers used some old-fashioned hockey sense. The Blueshirts won a faceoff to the right of Brodeur, moved the puck quickly, and converted when Dan Girardi’s shot deflected in off Callahan’s leg.

For those keeping score, the 2012 Rangers (like the 1994 Rangers) erased a Devils 2-0 lead on goals from a Russian player (Fedotenko and Alexei Kovalev in 1994) and their captain (Callahan and Mark Messier in 1994). Sadly for the Rangers and their fans, that would be the last link to their 1994 comeback.

The most overlooked part of the Rangers comebacks in the last two games is one that is to overlook, but is a critical point that needs to be made. It was imperative that the Rangers not only tie the score, but they needed to get ahead. Teams expend so much energy trying to get back into the game they need a lead in order to combat the inevitable lull that comes after the comeback.

This idea is more prevalent in basketball where big lead swings happen with regularity, but is still valid when you look at the Rangers – especially in Game 5 when they did level out after drawing even.

The Rangers nearly did take that lead midway through the third period while on a power play that nearly became a five-on-three, but the officials ruled that they Devils did not shoot the puck directly into the crowd.

As it was, the Rangers had Game 6 on the stick of Brad Richards who was unable to elevate his rebound shot with 9:15 remaining in regulation.

The Rangers continued to press the action at the start of overtime and caused a scramble in front of Brodeur. Unfortunately, the ensuing scramble at the other end of the ice on the next rush would end the Rangers season as Adam Henrique etched his name next to that of Stephan Matteau.

In addition to scoring the goal that sends the New Jersey Devils to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since 2003, it was Henrique who scored the double overtime goal in Game 7 against the Florida Panthers.

While it comes to no comfort to the Rangers or their fans, Devils coach Peter DeBoer recognized just how tough the Devils final step to the Stanley Cup was.

“First, credit to the New York Rangers. For me, from day one of the season through to the end of the Playoffs here, for them, the hardest working team I think in the NHL. And they gave us everything we could handle,” DeBoer admitted. “It was the same story every night. We’d win the first period; they’d win the second. Whoever won the third or the overtime would win the game.”

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Unless the 2012 New York Rangers channel their inner 1994 New York Rangers, the Blueshirts season will end on Friday night at the Prudential Center – on the 18th anniversary of Mark Messier’s Game 6 guarantee game.

As bad as the Rangers start was in Game 4, their Game 5 start was even worse spotting the New Jersey Devils a 3-0 lead less than 10 minutes into the first period – and less than six minutes after coach John Tortorella had to burn his timeout.

If this had been a regular season game, the Rangers could speak of a “moral victory” in reference to how they battled back from their horrendous start to eventually take control of the game. However, that is not the case come playoff time. The only victories you can claim are the ones on the scoreboard.

Much has been made by the media and fans about the Rangers being tired – despite Tortorella’s assurances that they are not. Well, they may not be physically tired but being mentally tired would explain the Rangers inability to get off to even an average start in the last couple of first periods.

With the Rangers playing so many tight games during the playoffs, and having to grind out a pair of seven-game series to start the playoffs, I could see how the Rangers mindset might change. Instead of playing their game, the Blueshirts pay more attention to not making mistakes which, of course, leads to the Rangers making more mistakes.

The one thing you have to give their Devils credit for is their ability to make the Rangers pay for their mistakes – whether they are mental or physical.

Stephen Gionta’s goal just 2:43 into the game was a play that we have seen repeated over and over during the playoffs. The system that got the Rangers this far failed them as they got caught with all of their players down low – leaving the point wide open. To further compound the problem, no one picked up Gionta in front.

I know it has worked all season long, but Tortorella has to adjust it a bit so that two forwards play more towards the defensemen and the third forward can drop back in the slot area.

On the Devils second goal, they made the Rangers pay the price after Mar Stall lost his edge on a pinch deep in the New Jersey zone. As a result, it was forward Artem Anisimov battling Patrik Elias in front of the net. If Staal doesn’t fall and is back to check Elias, perhaps the puck doesn’t pinball past Henrik Lundqvist.

Even with that, the Rangers had a golden chance to cut the lead in half, but Marian Gaborik missed a sure goal about two minutes later when he shot a puck over the net – keeping the Ranger sniper pointless in the series.

The third Devils goal is all on Lundqvist. There is no way to explain how Travis Zajac’s shot eluded Lundqvist – a shot I am sure he would love to have back.

“They were opportunistic — a few seeing-eye pucks,” Brian Boyle said to Dave Lozo of “Sometimes that happens, but we stuck with it, continued to battle and played a pretty good hockey game.”

A funny thing happened on the way to the Devils cakewalk, the Rangers finally began to take advantage of some Devils mistakes.

The Blueshirts got on the board thanks to Bryce Salvador’s inability to get the puck deep and Brandon Prust’s good sense not to keep an eye on the puck. A poorly timed Devils line change later and Prust was able to beat Martin Brodeur on a mini-breakaway.

In the opening 32 seconds of the second period, the Rangers realized that good things happen when you put the puck towards the net and crash the crease as Ryan Callahan cut the deficit to one as the Rangers finally ruled the day on a playoff review involving a “distinct kicking motion” (unlike Game 3 against Buffalo in 2007 when Karel Rachunek’s second period goal was wiped off).

Callahan came within inches of tying the game with the Rangers on the power play as his sharp-angle rebound shot ticked off Anton Volchenkov’s stick and off the post.

The Rangers struck even earlier at the start of the third period as Brodeur got caught unable to play the puck out of the trapezoid. Gaborik threw the puck towards the net and Marty did the rest as Brodeur stumbled his way to Gaborik’s first goal and point of the series.

With the crowd revved up and momentum fully shifted to the Rangers, but a funny thing happened on the way to the Rangers improbable comeback victory – they eased up on the pedal.

“I felt when we tied it, we stopped making plays,” Tortorella admitted after the game. “Whether they picked up – I think we helped them a little bit. Where I thought we did a really good job of making plays and controlling some of the play tonight, and then I just felt we started batting around a little bit and allowed them to gain some forechecking. I didn’t think we were in real trouble. But they score a goal. They make a big play.”

That big play was a result of a team breakdown defensively. It started with four of the five skaters focused solely on the puck and continued when Carl Hagelin was late to picking up his check on Ryan Carter and culminated with Lundqvist not making an attempt to pokecheck Gionta’s centering pass.

“I thought we had the puck and I didn’t see their guy come back door,” Lundqvist told Larry Brooks of the NY Post. “I needed to look around in case something happened, and I didn’t.”

There are two schools of thought. The first says you want to make sure you are beaten by your opponent’s best players. The second says that you should never let the other team’s best players beat you.

I am not sure what is worse; getting beaten because of the play Devils stars like Zach Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk and Elias or getting beaten by the play of Devils “foot soldiers’ like Carter and Gionta?

If the Rangers are going to take anything out of this game as they look forward to a true” must-win” Game 6 it is the idea that when they maintain puck possession and keep their level urgency high, they can match the Devils goal-for-goal.

They need to bring those two aspects of their game to the table right from the opening faceoff so that they can play with a lead. In the Blueshirts last 13 playoff games, the team that has scored first has won all 13 games – so that makes getting off to a fast start on Friday night an imperative.

The Rangers are going to need their best players to step to the forefront. While it is great to get secondary goals, this is the time when your best players must lead the way.

Callahan did his best Mark Messier impersonation and needs to bring that same ferocity to Game 6. Gaborik showed some signs of life as well and his goal, as flukey as it was, could be the start of a streak for him. Derek Stepan needs to get on the scoresheet and find a way to earn his first points of the series.

Quite obviously, the Rangers need Lundqvist to return to being The King. They can’t afford another game where Henrik is just a mere mortal.

Most of all, Brad Richards needs to be a force in this series. When your best chance to score is on your goaltender – as he Richards almost did eight and half minutes into the third period – then something is off.

If Game 5 showed us anything, it is that any shot on goal is dangerous when you get bodies to the front of the net. I still maintain the belief that Brodeur is beatable and susceptible to wraparounds and quick plays from behind the net to the slot.

Most of all, the Rangers must have a long-term memory to reflect back to what they did in the final two games of the Ottawa series and in Game 7 against Washington.

“Sure, you spend some time when you’re struggling in the game and learn from your mistakes. You can also spend some time with some of the good things you’ve done to get ready for our next game,” Tortorella stated.

“We’ve been here before. We were here before earlier in the Playoffs. And so we’ll just take the next game. It’s all we’re looking for is our next game.”

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If I put the same effort into recapping Game 4 as the New York Rangers put into playing it, I would be finished writing. Okay, I might be overdoing the hyperbole, but when Mike Rupp is one of your best players – at least until his third period meltdown – then the Rangers did not exactly bring their “A” game to the table.

As a result of the Rangers 4-1 loss in Game 4, the Blueshirts face their third best-of-three situation.

Normally teams do not face a “must-win” game until they face elimination. However, the Rangers better consider Game 5 to be a “must-win” because they are not going to go into the Prudential Center and win down three games to two like they did in 1994.

Unfortunately, the 2012 Rangers do not have a player like Mark Messier who can take the team on his shoulders and will them to win – no disrespect to Henrik Lundqvist.

For the seventh time in the playoffs, the Blueshirts had an opportunity to take a two-game lead in a series and failed. Last night also marked the third time they lost Game 4. Unlike the previous two fourth games than resulted in 3-2 games, the Rangers were never in this game.

“It was a struggle for a number of our guys. We have to move by it [and] we have to have a short-term memory. I thought we gained some traction as game went on. [We’re] still not making a big offensive play when we need to,” Rangers coach John Tortorella admitted after game.

Give the Devils their due because they came out with a passion, fire and urgency that the Rangers never matched, despite Tortorella believing his team gaining “some traction”.

New Jersey took advantage of a couple of Ranger mistakes about midway through the first period.

For the 12th consecutive Rangers playoff game, the team scoring the first goal won the game.

Bryce Salvador’s innocent shot from the left point found its way through traffic in front and deflected in off of Anton Stralman’s left skate. Once again the Rangers defensive game plan of dropping their forwards deep in the defensive zone came back to haunt them as no Ranger was near Salvador prior to his shot.

Less than four minutes later, the Devils cashed in on a turnover and bad decision by Michael Del Zotto at his own blue line. Del Zotto got caught trying to step up at the blue line, but Devils captain Zach Parise raced past Del Zotto to set up Travis Zajac for a one-timer that Lundqvist never had a chance to stop.

The play pretty much epitomized the horrible game that Del Zotto had – one that is understandable given that he lost his grandmother on Saturday. Normally one of the leaders in terms of ice time, Del Zotto played just 11:39.

“It was a struggle for him,” Tortorella explained. “He hasn’t had many games like that this year. We had an extra defenseman [Stu Bickel] dressed, we figured we’d take a little pressure off of him and let him watch.”

The ironic thing is that Del Zotto probably would not have been on the ice for the Zajac goal had Ryan McDonagh not received a fighting major for his “fight” with Adam Henrique – a tradeoff the Devils will take again and again.

Interestingly, the game could have gone a different way if the Rangers managed to capitalize on a couple of Devils mistakes.

About six and a half minutes into the game, the Devils turned the puck over in their own end and Marian Gaborik shot wide from the right circle.
Less than a minute before Zajac’s goal, Carl Hagelin nearly tied the game when he hit the post following a New Jersey giveaway.

Outside of those two chances and a late flurry on the power play t the end of the first period, the Rangers spent most of their night chasing after the puck as the Devils controlled the puck possession a game – a part of the game that must change moving forward.

“The most important thing is we have to have the puck more,” Tortorella lamented. “Again, it goes back to we have to have to hold on to some pucks, we had opportunities, we had the yips with it, we gave it back to them, they progressed with their forecheck and momentum went there way. It was a struggle for a number of our guys, we have to move by it, have to have short-term memory.”

Tortorella has stressed over and over that being tired is not an excuse for his team. With that said, last night the Rangers looked like a tired team – whether it is a mental fatigue or physical fatigue. If that is not the case, then there are 18 hockey players who need to look in the mirror and figure out why they could never match the Devils level of play.

Whether it was fatigue or frustration, but the Rangers seemed to be fighting the puck as much as they were “fighting” the Devils. It all culminated in an undisciplined game from the Rangers as they played their worst game since the season finale against the Washington Capitals – which was the last time the Blueshirts allowed more than three goals in a game.

Their undisciplined play came to a head during Rupp’s rampage through the Devils zone six minutes into the third period.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom, Rupp’s penalty would not have been called if not for the Rangers 3-0 deficit. One of the NHL Network’s analysts (it might have been Craig Button) said that Rupp did not deserve the initial penalty for the hit on Peter Harrold behind the net.

As for the shove to Martin “Olivier” Brodeur, Rupp deserved everything he got – even though Marty did embellish it.

Tom Gulitti tweeted this morning that the NHL will not be holding any disciplinary hearings for any of the shenanigans that went on last night. As a result, Rupp appears to be getting a pass for his actions, Gaborik will not be called in for his “elbow” to Marek Zidlicky and Ilya Kovalchuk will face no discipline for spearing Ryan Callahan – even though his spear was inexplicably called a slash.

Looking ahead to Game 5, the Rangers must find a way to heed their coach’s desire to win the puck possession battle. To accomplish that feat, they must tighten up their defensive zone coverage and adjust their system so that one or two forwards spend more time shadowing the point men – thus eliminating the free back pass to the defense.

On offense, the Rangers must find a way to give the Devils a taste of their own forechecking medicine. Some of that starts with not being content to dump the puck into the Devils zone. They need to keep Brodeur from doing what he does best – handling the puck. They are going to have to work a lot of cross-ice dumps with hard pressure on the puck.

The Blueshirts need to remember that every playoff game in this series has mirrored every other playoff game they have played. At one point every game could have swung the other way but didn’t because of a key save, a missed check or bad bounce.

Tortorella needs to be able to make a similar statement following Game 5 to the one Peter DeBoer did following Game 4 in terms of his best players.

“Your best players have to be your best players,” DeBoer told Mike G. Morreale of “I know it’s [a] cliché, but it’s critical this time of year and I knew [Parise] would respond. He was playing well, getting opportunities. I thought he had some really good chemistry tonight with [Zajac and Dainius Zubrus].”

The Devils have been in this situation (tied 2-2 in a best-of-seven) 19 times and have posted an 8-11 series record. The Rangers have an 11-11 series record in this same situation.

“Must-win” or “Really-need-to-win” situation aside, Tortorella is confident in his team’s resiliency and ability to bounce back.

“It’s a three game series and this team has been there before. I am very optimistic. I still see some things some guys are close to getting their game. I don’t think all of us are there,” Tortorella offered.

“As I’ve said all year long with this club, when we get in these situations and we’ve been trading all playoff season, they always find a way to find a good game so I’m truly confident we’ll answer the proper way.”

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Sometimes it is better to be lucky than good – and in Game 3 the New York Rangers were lucky. They are lucky that Glen Sather invested a seventh round draft pick in the 2000 NHL Draft on goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. The Blueshirts victory over the New Jersey Devils results on the Shoulder of The King who made 36 saves posting his second 3-0 shutout of the Eastern Conference Finals.

“If you are going to be a step behind slow, you need your goaltender to step up and that is exactly what Henrik Lundqvist did,” NBC analyst Ed Olcyzk opined after the game.

The Rangers victory is tempered somewhat as Brandon Prust will face a hearing with NHL Director of Player Safety Brendan Shanahan on Sunday. Prust will have to channel his inner Clarence Darrow to avoid a suspension for the elbow that connected to Anton Volchenkov’s head in the second period.

Devils Coach Peter DeBoer called the elbow a case of “Headhunting – plain and simple.”

During the course of the replays, I figured Prust would get a one-game suspension. However, after mulling it over for a couple of hours, Shanahan will drop a two-game suspension on Prust and will point to the head being the main target of the hit.

Of course, Chris Neil’s target was Brian Boyle’s head as was Alexander Ovechkin’s hit on Girardi but Shanny hasn’t let logic play into too many of his suspension decisions since the Stanley Cup playoffs started.

Quite frankly, had I been the coach of the Rangers Prust would have been glued to the bench for a couple of shifts because it was really an unnecessary risk to take and could have cost the Rangers a five-minute major penalty.

If Prust is suspended, Tortorella’s options are still a bit limited. While Brandon Dubinsky did return to the ice, it is extremely doubtful he is anywhere near ready to play. Mats Zuccarello could be an option, but he still might be a few days away. Torts could use Stu Bickel as a forward and pretty much play 11 forwards or he could dress Kris Newbury to get an extra forward who could kill penalties if needed.

Getting back to the game, to say that the Rangers were a step behind the Devils in the first period would be an understatement. The Rangers were a day late and dollar short for the entire first period and at the start of the second period until Coach John Tortorella channeled his inner Mike Keenan and called his timeout in the opening minutes of the second period.

In Game 6 of the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals, Keenan called a timeout in the second period to calm down his struggling team. During that timeout, Iron Mike let the players sort of their own troubles.

Torts enacted a different tactic as he was as vocal and intense during this timeout as he has been during any timeout throughout the year.

“I think after Torts called the timeout, we kind of gathered ourselves and tried to play faster and quicker and play more in their end,” Dan Girardi said following the game.

The Rangers first period might have been their worst period of hockey. The Rangers were slow on their rotations to the puck, which became an even bigger problem because their ice balance was so off that the Rangers found themselves playing without focus or purpose.

Even something as simple as dumping the puck into the Devils zone managed to be a problem all game long. With Martin Brodeur being one of the best in the business at handling the puck, the Rangers either have to feather the pucks into the corner or bang them around the boards so Brodeur can’t stop them behind the net. Not only did the Rangers not do that, their strategy of putting easy long-range shots on goal backfired as Brodeur keyed the Devils breakouts.

The Blueshirts also had some problems (again) containing New Jersey’s long breakout passes that turn into either odd-man rushes or mini-breakaways.

Ilya Kovalchuk has a golden chance just 45 seconds into the second period, but Lundqvist managed to turn the shot aside.

Not too long after, Tortorella called the timeout and it seemed to settle the Rangers down. Just past the four minute mark Ryan Callahan was alone to the right side of Brodeur, but the 40-year-old netminder shut the door.

The Devils will still controlling the play, but the Rangers had managed to show some life that was missing in the first period plus.

“We spent too much time in our end zone,” Tortorella explained in his post-game press conference. “That’s due to a little of them and it’s due to us also as far as some of the struggles we’ve had. I thought in the second half of the game we were better.”

While it seemed that Tortorella’s instruction calmed the team down in the second period, his instructions during the second intermission were a game changer as the Rangers opened the third period with an urgency that was missing through the first 40 minutes.

Carl Hagelin’s work behind the Devils net set Brad Richards up for the Rangers best chance of the game, but his shot clanged off the crossbar. Marian Gaborik then followed up with a shot that forced Brodeur to scramble to keep the game scoreless.

The Rangers relentless pressure forced the Devils to ice the puck after a tough shift. Rather than call a timeout to give his gassed team a breather, DeBoer rolled the dice and eventually lost when a tired Bryce Salvador was called for hooking.

The Rangers power play finally clicked thanks to a little mention of my alma mater. Hagelin was on the bench getting both skates worked on by Rangers equipment manager Acacio “Cass” Marques. Mike Emrick mentioned that Marques was a graduate of Iona College (like me).

Richards won the ensuing faceoff and Girardi beat Brodeur for the only goal that Lundqvist would need.

During the regular season, Rangers defensemen scored just 8.6% of the team’s goals. In the playoffs, they have scored near 29.7% of the goals (11 of 37).

Once again the first goal of the game proved to be golden. The Rangers have seen the team that scored first win in their last 11 games. The last time it didn’t happen was in Game 6 against Ottawa. The Blueshirts are now 9-2 when scoring first and the Devils fall to 4-4 when their opponent scores first.

The Rangers have gotten into trouble in the playoffs because they haven’t been able to extend their one-goal leads. In Game 3 they managed that feat less than two minutes later as the fourth line played a huge part in setting up the goal.

After a solid shift from the fourth line, the forwards were going off a line change. John Mitchell stepped up and made a smart play. Rather than simply dump the puck into the Devils end, Mitchell skated into the Devils zone and held the puck as the Rangers finished their change.

With fresh players on the ice, Mitchell dumped the puck deep and went for a change. Thanks to some solid forechecking, the Devils were unable to clear the puck and Ryan McDonagh’s point shot was tipped home by Chris Kreider just 1:57 after Girardi’s goal.

“The thing that impresses me the most [about Kreider] is that he doesn’t play like a rookie,” Captain Ryan Callahan said.

“He plays like he’s been here [all year]. On and off the ice, he handles himself like a professional and that’s a big thing in this moment.”

Callahan put the final nail in the Devils coffin with an empty net goal with 2:13 left in the game. The only question at that point was whether or not Lundqvist and the Rangers would duplicate their Game 1 3-0 shutout.

Despite taking a 2-1 series and regaining home ice advantage, Tortorella knows there is still much work ahead for his team.

“I’m not sure how far we’ll go. I’m not sure what goes on from here, but it’s a team that stays on it,” Tortorella explained. “We still have things to improve on, but there’s no panic. We know who we are [and] we know how we have to play.”

In a crazy calendar quirk that the Mayans could truly appreciate, this series is synching up to the last time these two teams met in the Eastern Conference Finals. On May 19, 1994, the Rangers won Game 3 in New Jersey as Stephan Matteau provided the first of his two double overtime game-winning goals.

If you want more numbers, the Rangers are 15-5 in Best-of-7 series when they are leading 2-1. The Devils numbers are not as good as they are 4-12, but they did manage to turn the trick against Florida ion the first round this year. Overall, teams up 2-1 in a seven-game series win the series about 70% of the time.

However, as we have seen, the numbers don’t always rule the day in the playoffs just like momentum has not carried over from game-to-game in any of the series the Rangers have played. Monday is a new day, a point not lost on the Rangers hero of Game 3.

“I mean, I’m really happy we won. That means so much to me to win every game here and it’s so important to me and to the group. But on Monday it’s not going to mean anything. You have to start over and earn that respect again, and hopefully you say the same thing after that game,” Lundqvist said.

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An anonymous quote starts off “Hell is the knowledge of opportunity lost ….” Last night the New Jersey Devils turned Madison Square Garden into the New York Rangers private hell by tying the series as the teams head across the Hudson River for a pair of games at the Prudential Center.

In what is becoming a disturbingly bad habit, the Rangers failed yet again to take a two-game to none lead in a playoff series. For the third consecutive time, the Blueshirts found a way to lose a 3-2 decision in a Game 2 where they entered the third period tied.

Frankly, the Rangers should consider themselves fortunate that they only lost by a goal given the dismal performance they put forth in the first period and for too many parts of the third period.

Coach John Tortorella has gone on record as saying that being tired is not an excuse, but outside of a great 18 minutes in the second period, his team was a step behind the play. Or as he told Pierre McGuire during his in-game interview, “We’re way too slow.”

The question to ask is why were the Rangers slow? Were the Rangers tired? Was it a case of the Devils taking the game to a Rangers team that had no answers? Was it a case of the Rangers being unable and unwilling to match the Devils intensity and urgency?

Given the way the Rangers responded in the second period, I think we can eliminate them being tired. Odds are the Rangers inability to win Game lies in the latter two excuses.

We will never know what Tortorella thinks the reason is. Even if he were the most outgoing coach in the NHL, no coach is going to dress down his team in public – but you can bet the paint on the walls of the Rangers locker room was blistering at about 10:30 pm last night.

He must have done that between the first and second periods because Brian Boyle was supposed to be the first intermission guest on radio, but he did not show up.

One quick aside about Torts and his “press conferences” (if you can call them that). The media is like a starving dog that finds a bone. They are all over his case like white on rice. Okay, I promise, no more clichés.

We get the idea that the media is pissed off that Tortorella is acting like a jerk at press conferences. No one says he has to give away state secrets, but he could be more professional. With that said, the media’s response is almost as bad as the coach’s behavior.

There is a large group in the media who are acting more like whiney kids then professional journalists. You can see a sampling of the media’s whining by reading Adam Rotter’s SNY Blog post .

The problem is there are those in the media who break out in cold sweats during the middle of the night if they have to write a story without getting quotes from the coach. Let the media walk out on the Torts press conference. Guess what, he would love it. For all the grief Tortorella gets, the media needs to look inward.

No one comments when they ask dopey questions like “Why did you call that timeout” after the Rangers ice the puck after being pinned in their zone for a couple of minutes. That has happened in each of the last two series with veteran reporters asking the question.

Earlier in the playoffs someone asked him why he only had one assistant behind the bench. Combine these questions with the fines he has racked up, can you blame him for being curt with the media?

As a result, outside of the Tortorella quote written above, you are going to find no comments from either coach and I bet I won’t have a problem writing a recap of this game. Mind you, I am writing as I go, so it’s not as if I wrote the article and then placed this paragraph in as an afterthought.

One of the very first notes I wrote down last night was how the Rangers needed to a better job of getting the puck out of the zone on battles along the boards near the blue line. The Devils were being much tougher on the puck and outworking the Rangers – something is always a bad omen for the Blueshirts.

The Devils first two goals came indirectly (Ilya Kovalchuk’s goal) and directly (Ryan Carter’s goal) as the result of the Rangers not winning those board battles near the blue line.

Kovalchuk’s goal came with Boyle in the penalty box for slashing, which came after the Rangers were unable to clear the puck out of the zone. The Devils sniper found himself alone as the Rangers defense was slow to rotate as the Devils moved the puck.

As for Carter’s goal, we all saw the mistakes that Marian Gaborik made. After failing to get the puck out of the zone at the blue line, he half-assed a shot block attempt that led to Carter’s deflection in front. Rick Carpiniello of the Journal News referred to it Gaborik’s “flamingo” attempt to block a shot (one leg in the air). If Gaborik goes hard at the defense and block the shot, the Rangers could have had a breakaway.

Should Tortorella have benched Gaborik? Yes, he should have. Should he have get on the bench as long as he did and at the end of the game? No, but Tortorella has shown that if you don’t give an effort on defense you aren’t going to get ice time.

It’s not as if Tortorella hasn’t benched Gaborik in a must-win situation. As Kenny Albert pointed out, Torts benched Gaborik in Game 81 last year against Atlanta.

The question I had at the time was how would the Rangers bounce back after the Carter goal. All season long, the Rangers have shown an ability to be resilient. Last night, that resiliency was just not there.

Albert and Dave Maloney made a point that Stu Bickel saw ice time in the third period ahead of Gaborik – and that might have cost the Rangers a chance at the game.

Bickel chases Devils defenseman Marek Zidlicky behind the Rangers net and all the way up to the left wing half-boards. I am not saying that is the wrong play because I don’t know how the coaching staff wants him to handle that play, but I would rather see Bickel turn the Zidlicky check off to a forward while Stu gets back into position.

Even with that said, no forward covered for Bickel and David Clarkson was left alone in front for the game-winning goal. Talk about being a clutch player, Clarkson has three goals in the playoffs – all of the winners. Give him credit, you might not like the way he plays but he has transformed himself from a tough guy into a valuable power forward.

“Mr. Clutch? I don’t know about that,” Clarkson told Ira Podell of the Associated Press. “I’m going to skate up and down and finish the checks and just bounce off people. It’s just a great feeling to be able to contribute. To get a tip on that felt pretty good.”

“That team blocks so many shots,” Clarkson continued. “It’s unbelievable how many. I think we found a way to shoot it and get sticks on it, and definitely that was big for us.”

Credit also goes to Chris Kreider who continues to show glimpses of being a special player once he matures an NHL player. Not only is the talent there, but you see that he has a sense for the game and knows what needs to be done. Yes, he is going to make mistakes, but the key is to learn from them.

With Game 2 in the books, the Rangers must learn a couple of hard lessons as they head into Game 3 on Saturday afternoon. First off, if they are not prepared to match the Devils urgency, intensity and passion, then they are going to be in for a long day at The Rock.

The Blueshirts have to match the relentless forecheck the Devils showed in the first and third periods last night in order to pressure the Devils defense corps.

While much has been made about the Rangers blocking shots, they are going to work harder at clearing the Devils forwards away from the top of the crease. New Jersey’s last two goals both came off of deflections.

The Rangers also want to pay attention to Devils strategy of working the puck down low and using cross-ice passes as a way to beat the Rangers shot blocking.

They must learn that the first goal is more valuable than gold. In the Rangers last 10 games, the team that has scored first has won the game. The first goal gets magnified even more when you realize that 13 of the Rangers 16 games have been one-goal or one-goal plus empty net goal games. Interestingly enough, the only games that were not those type of games were their Game 1 victories.

I would like to see them try more wraparound shots on Martin Brodeur. As solid as Marty was last night, Ryan McDonagh had him beat on a wraparound only to hit the post and Brandon Prust came close on the third period. At the same time, they also might want to positions a forward in the high slot and look to feed him for a one-timer as they walk out from behind the net.

My final piece of advice for the Rangers is to heed the words of another anonymous quote. “Opportunities are never lost; someone will take the one you miss.”

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It took the New York Rangers almost 41 minutes before they were able to solve Martin Brodeur. However, when Dan Girardi’s slap shot from the blue line beat Brodeur 53 seconds into the third period, the Garden faithful rained down choruses of the sing-song chant of “Maaarty! Maaarty!”

After the first period, you just got the feeling that the two teams were already playing overtime hockey because it seemed the teams were playing a version of “next goal wins” – a feeling that Devils Coach Peter DeBoer shared.

“I think whoever was going to score first tonight was going to win and they threw a point shot at the net that found a way through,” DeBoer admitted to Tom Gulitti of The Record. “We threw a lot of those at the net, too, and didn’t find one through. So that was the story of the game. And we’ve been in this spot before. We were down 1-0 to Philly and we know how to handle this.”

That is the precise reason why the Rangers need to step up their play in Game 2. During a playoff run where the Blueshirts have done everything the hard way, they can do themselves – and their fans – a big favor by jumping out to a two games to none lead.

The Blueshirts need to stay focused and continue to play their game and find a way to increase the urgency they showed in Game 1 – minus the adrenalin rush – because the Devils sure will try to find a way to increase their urgency while holding on to their style of play.

“They get a goal and all of a sudden we change our game a little bit,” Patrik Elias responded to Gulitti. “We can’t do that. We have to learn from this game tonight. It doesn’t matter what happens out there. We have to stay with our game.”

The fact that Girardi was the one who put the Rangers ahead for good was a little poetic justice given how much he struggled during the first two periods. So much so that Coach John Tortorella benched him for about six minutes in the rocky second period.

“It wasn’t our best two periods,” Girardi told Dave Lozo of “We had to just go hard, play our style of game and work hard on the forecheck and it worked out for us. I saw (Kreider) coming up the wall there and I was delaying to see what he was going to do. I saw no one got to the point and I kind of stepped into it and got it through.”

Speaking of Kreider, how many people reflected back to his goal in Game 1 of the Washington series? Both shots featured a quick release, a laser shot with a goal scorer’s accuracy and touch.

Ryan McDonagh, who stepped up to save the Rangers’ bacon with a couple of great defensive recoveries, spoke about Kreider.

“It’s awesome. He’s got a lethal shot and if he gets a second to get it off, scary things can happen,” McDonagh told Rick Carpiniello of the Journal News. We just told him to keep moving his feet and keep moving his legs and get in on the forecheck. Him and Hags (Carl Hagelin) are key guys for us and it’s great for him to score that goal.”

For his part, Kreider has his priorities straight and realizes what he needs to do to stay in Coach John Tortorella’s good graces.

“I’m learning some things that are obviously important,” Kreider said to Mike Sielski of the Wall Street Journal. “I made several mistakes tonight, miscues in the defensive zone. I’ll have to look at the tape.”

For all of Girardi’s and Kreider’s heroics, it might have been for naught if Henrik Lundqvist did not channel his inner Mike Richter about five minutes into the second period.

“Hank is huge for us back there,” Girardi told Ira Podell of the Associated Press. “We were struggling a little bit in our defensive zone and he was there to bail us out. That’s what happened. He made some big saves, and in the third period we came out hard and got a couple of goals for him.”

With the Rangers on the power play, Lundqvist made three rapid-fire saves on Zach Parise to maintain the scoreless tie – similar to Richter’s flurry of saves in the Stanley Cup Finals in Vancouver.

“I saw him coming across,” Parise told Rich Chere of the star-Ledger. “I tried to go five-hole the first time. It felt like the puck just kept coming back to me and he was able to make the saves. He covers the low part of the ice real well. When you get in tight he challenges and there’s not a lot of room. I was just trying to chip one over him. T here was still a lot of hockey after that.”

On a personal note, last night represented to my first appearance at the Garden for a playoff game since 1996. After witnessing the entire Stanley Cup run in 1994, and then facing such a long “playoff layoff”, you tend to forget just how loud and crazy MSG can be in the playoffs.

Of course, the way NBC tends to pot down the crowd noise does not do the television viewer any favors when it comes to capturing the atmosphere when the Garden crowd is loud and proud – as they were during the “Maaarty! Maaarty” chants.

As great as it was to be at the Garden, it was even better to have the opportunity to take my wife Roe to her first playoff game. Talk about a kid in a candy store! As a veteran diehard Ranger fan for over 40 years, it really is cool to experience the game through her eyes. Between that experience and not having to endure Pierre McGuire, it was certainly money well spent.

It was kind of interesting checking out the Devils’ fans lamenting the delay of game penalty that was not called on Michael Del Zotto behind the Rangers net prior to the rush that set up Kreider’s goal.

Since we were sitting in the corner of that end of the ice, yeah, the Rangers probably did get away with a penalty. Then again, I didn’t hear or read those fans complaining about the couple of phantom hooking calls that went against the Rangers. Besides, Karl Alzner made a career out pulling the puck under him during the Capital series.

Or as Roe said, “Tell them to build a bridge and get over it.”

It is great to see how the Rangers are embracing Tortorella’s mantra that being tired is an option for the Blueshirts.

“There’s no excuse to be tired and that doesn’t matter to us,” Girardi related to Gross. “It might be better for us to come back and play another game instead of sitting around trying to think about it. They came out hard and were fresh and I thought we did a good job trying to match their intensity. I thought we had a good third period and got the job done.”

During my research for this recap, I came across the following anecdote on how the Rangers changed their scouting ways that was relayed by Mike Sielski of the Wall Street Journal.

“During a meeting of the Rangers’ scouting staff a few years ago, according to Gordie Clark, the team’s vice president of player personnel, general manager Glen Sather emphasized the need for NHL franchises to target players with exceptional speed. From scoring to checking to retrieving the puck, swiftness was becoming a treasured commodity in the game, and Sather’s recommendation, Clark said, in part led the Rangers to draft both Hagelin and Kreider.

‘I ask my scouts to do so much background checking now because the city can be a monster,’ he said, ‘and we have to make sure when we’re bringing somebody in here that they can handle it.’”

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Only time will tell how the sixth Battle of the Hudson will end. The first two playoff meetings between the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils were seven game battles while the last three series have not gone past five games.

The hockey stars have aligned as the Rangers and Devils meet in the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since that legendary 1994 showdown that featured a trio of double overtime games – the last of which was won on Stephane Matteau’s signature goal.

Depending on how long this series goes, there will be a chance that karma or revenge rears its head. Game 6 will be played on the same date is Game 6 in 1994 (May 25) when Mark Messier willed the Rangers to victory. Game 7 is also set for the same date (May 27) as the Rangers thrilling series clinching win.

Ranger fans have become accustomed to the Rangers winning Game 7 at Madison Square Garden. Prior to 1992, that was not the case. The Rangers first Game 7 victory came against the Devils in 1992 in the first of the five playoff meetings.

Interestingly, the epic 1994 series was the first Eastern Conference Finals that did not feature either the Boston Bruins or Montreal Canadiens since 1985 when the Philadelphia Flyers eliminated the Quebec Nordiques.

The 1997 series featured the end of an era as it would mark the final playoff appearance for the Rangers until the first post-lockout season of 2005-2006 when the Devils swept the Rangers as Martin Brodeur bested Henrik Lundqvist in three of the games.

The 2008 series was infamous for Sean Avery’s unique screening tactic where he turned his back on the play to “face guard” Brodeur – and thus initiating the “Avery Rule” that made that play a two-minute unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. That series also saw the Devils lose all three games at home.

The 2012 version of the Battle of Hudson features two of the best goaltenders to strap on the pads – both of whom are at different points of their careers.

The 40-year-old Brodeur is nearing the end to a Hall of Fame career while Henrik Lundqvist is playing as well as he ever has in his seven year career. Prior to Lundqvist’s NHL debut, Brodeur’s Devils dominated the series. While the Rangers eventually became a better team by the time Lundqvist joined the Blueshirts, it is no coincidence that The King and his play has tipped the rivalry the Rangers way.

In 34 regular season games against Brodeur and the Devils, Lundqvist is 23-6-5 with a 1.73 goals-against average and .935 save percentage, plus five shutouts. During 2011-2012, Lundqvist was 3-2 with a 1.41 GAA and a .937 SV% against the Devils.

Interestingly enough, Lundqvist’s regular season numbers are close to his numbers in the playoffs – a 1.68 GAA and a .937 SV%.

Mike Rupp offered his perspective on the Rangers-Devils rivalry.

“I think it is a rivalry of territory in this area. I remember being on the other side and, in the playoffs there would be more [Rangers] jerseys than [Devils jerseys]. It was the kind of things that made you hate them more.”

Rupp is not the only player who has witnessed the rivalry from both sides. Petr Sykora played 40 games for the Rangers and was a member of the 2006 team that was swept by the Devils.

Two other Devils were drafted by the Rangers, but never played in the NHL with them. Marek Zidlicky (#176 in 2001) came close, but wanted a one-way contract. He was eventually dealt away to Nashville along with Tomas Kloucek and Rem Murray in exchange for Mike Dunham in December 2002. Eric Boulton (#234 in 1994) played a couple of minor league years in the Rangers system before making the NHL with Buffalo in 2000-2001.

After a regular season series that featured 11 fights, it is no surprise that there is some bad blood between the two teams.

“I’m sure the hatred will be there right from the start, so I think just keep it focused on what you need to do on the ice and not get too wrapped up in losing your emotions and letting them get away from you,” Marc Staal said to Colin Stephenson of

For their part, the Devils realized that their path to the Stanley Cup Finals would run down Broadway.

“You kind of got the sense that we were going to run into them sooner or later if we kept winning,” Captain Zach Parise admitted to Rich Chere of “It will be exciting. It’s going to get a lot of local media attention. Having played in two series against them, it’s hyped-up pretty good. The atmosphere in both buildings is great, so we’re looking forward to it. We’ll be prepared.”

So, should fans be prepared for more gong show type antics during the series?

“I said earlier this is going to be decided by the guys with the skates on and on the ice,” Coach Peter DeBoer said to Tom Gulitti of The Record. “It’s not going to be decided, in my mind, behind the bench, or in a coach’s room. You get to this point of the year, the final four teams are all well-schooled in the X’s and O’s and the system and the strategy. It comes down to will and some bounces and some health and that’s all decided inside the boards, not behind the benches.”

As you might expect, Rangers Coach John Tortorella is trying to downplay the circus-like atmosphere that is sure to grip this series.

“We talk about being one of the four teams playing, (the players) need to embrace that because it’s hard to get there,” Tortorella explained during Sunday’s post-practice press conference. “So I want them to embrace that. But I just hope the team is not too interested in getting caught up in all the sideshows as far as Jersey-New York Rangers. I think it’s great for the area, don’t get me wrong, but we have to concentrate on who we are and what we have to do to win some hockey games.”

It is no surprise that Patrik Elias (2-3-5) Ilya Kovalchuk (2-2-4), Petr Sykora (1-3-4), and Z Parise (1-2-3) were among the leading scorer for the Devils during the regular season. The fact that former tough guy David Clarkson (3-1-4) was New Jersey’s leading goal scorer is a surprise.

Speaking of surprises, it is hard to believe that Carl Hagelin is the leading scorer in the series during the regular season with two goals and six assists. Derek Stepan (2-4-6), Marian Gaborik (2-3-5), and Ryan Callahan (1-3-4) were among the Rangers leading scorers. Noticeably absent is Brad Richards who only registered a pair of assists.

As far as the game itself, the Rangers must remember that worked so well against Braden Holtby and Craig Anderson are the things that need to do against Brodeur. They will need to work to get shots on a goal and make a concerted effort to get traffic on front of Brodeur.

The key to that will be finding a fine line between getting in Brodeur’s head and crossing the line and taking penalties because Marty does have the reputation for attempting to draw penalties at the first hint of contact.

Another thing the Rangers need to remember that Brodeur can be vulnerable at times on plays that develop from behind the net – whether they are passes to the slot or wraparound attempts like Matteau’s winner in 1994 and Adam Graves’ winner in 1997.

The Rangers will need to correct some other offensive tendencies in order produce more offense in this series. While the Devils penalty killing was superb during the regular season, they struggled during the playoffs allowing 12 goals in 12 games (although most of those were against Florida). As a result, the Rangers sputtering power play might be able to make a difference.

On the attack, the Rangers have to use more of the middle of the ice. Far too many times during the first series, Ranger forwards veered towards the boars rather than attack down the middle. By drifting to the boards, the Blueshirts limit their offensive options.
The Devils defense does not feature top offensive threats like Erik Karlsson, Sergei Gonchar, Mike Green and Roman Hamrlik. With that said, the Rangers need to be very active on their forecheck and put pressure on the Devils workman-like blueliners.

Conversely, the Devils are going to try and do the same thing to the Rangers in terms of getting in on the forecheck. It will remain to be seen if they will take a page out Washington’s playbook and attempt to beat the Rangers with long breakout passes.

You can bet that the Devils are going to be prepared for the Rangers shot blocking, something they worked on during the regular season according to Gulitti who wrote on his Fire & Ice Blog, “One of the points the Devils discussed after that 2-0 Feb. 27 loss was getting the puck back to the point men and making sure they stay out near the blue line and aren’t sucked in closer to the net – creating less space to move the puck and making it easier for the Rangers’ forwards sit back to block shots and help out defensively.”

The Capitals’ sustained surges in the Rangers zone were keyed by the Capitals ability to take advantage of their open defensemen at the point.

Much has been made about the Rangers having to face a quick series turnaround for the second time in the playoffs. Unlike Washington who also faced a seven-game first round battle, the devils are a rested team.

The question for Game is will the Devils be able to shake off the rust or will the Rangers be a tired team?

Lundqvist sees the merit on both theories.

“You can look at it in so many different ways,” Lundqvist said to Andrew Gross of The Record. “Of course we’re going to say it’s good for us, they’re going to say it’s great for them because they got some rest in the long run. But I think for us it is good. We’re in it right now. We don’t overthink anything, we’re just going to go out and keep playing the way we’ve been playing lately and I think the more time you spend just waiting to play, I think maybe you tend to overthink things.

If Tortorella has anything to say about the subject, it will be the Devils rust that plays a part because he will not accept any excused from his team.

“I don’t want to hear players saying they’re tired right now. If we are tired right now, then we don’t have the right mindset as far as what you have to do. This is why we give our team rest during the year,” Tortorella stated.

For what it is worth, Barry Melrose of the NHL Network appears ready to jump on the Blueshirts’ bandwagon.

“For the Devils to win, Marty has to be great. When I watched the Rangers tonight, if they can put four or five of these games together, I don’t know if anyone can beat them.”

Reflecting back on 1994 Adam Graves told the AP, “It was a different game back then. I just remember how much of a war it was and how you had to fight for every inch, and the battles in front of the net. I can remember, physically, how taxing it was going against guys like [Ken] Daneyko and [Scott] Stevens and just the battles in the corner.”

It might be a different game now, but this series should mirror 1994 in intensity, passion and overall physical play.

The Rangers fought long and hard during the regular season to secure home ice in any seventh and deciding games. It paid off during the first two rounds against the Senators and the Capitals, and it will pay off again against the Devils. The pick is the Rangers in seven.

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With all apologies to Brad Richards and the rest of the team, when the New York Rangers needed Henrik Lundqvist to be the best player on the ice he was in Game 7. As a result the Rangers return to the Eastern Conference Final for the first time since 1997 with yet another Battle of the Hudson looming against the New Jersey Devils.

There will be time enough to dissect the Rangers-Devils series. For now the focus is on The King.

“We had chances, but their goalie played outstanding tonight and he made some unbelievable saves tonight,” Hamrlik admitted to Stephen Whyno of the Washington Times. “That was the big difference in the game.”

While Braden Holtby, who did not play second fiddle to anyone in this series, made more saves, it was Lundqvist who, as he has done far too many times in his seven year career, had to bail out his teammates.

“The weakest part of our game was that five or six minute stretch where Hank made a couple of great saves and gave us an opportunity to stay in it,” Coach John Tortorella said after the game.

While Lundqvist was at his Vezina and Hart trophies best, the Rangers Game 7 win was a total team effort as the Blueshirts played with a controlled urgency, passion and desperation that was missing in Game 6.

They also learned the lesson and necessity of playing to win, as opposed to playing not to lose. Rather than sit back and hunker down into a defensive shell, the Rangers continued to push forward – a fact not lost on their coach.

“I thought that was the most aggressive we’ve been in the third period in quite a while,” Tortorella said. “I thought we took time and space away.”

Game 7 was a mirror of Game 6 with one minor exception; it was the Rangers who jumped out to the early lead with Brad Richards scoring just 92 seconds into the game. It was a lead the Rangers would not relinquish as the team that scored the first goal won every game in the series.

“They got a lead in the beginning and then they just controlled the game,” Nicklas Backstrom said to Katie Carrera of the Washington Post. “We were trying to score and we had a lot of possession, especially in the second period, but we couldn’t get any real opportunities.”

Despite the lead, you knew the Washington Capitals were not going go gently into that good night. They eventually recovered and responded with a stretch of play in the second period when it seemed like the Rangers were shorthanded given the Capitals’ surges.

“They were coming hard” Lundqvist said to Tarik el-Bashir of the Washington Post. “We talked about it going into this game, that there will be moments when we have success and we need to capitalize when we have that stretch. The same with them; they are going to have minutes where they are just going to come hard and we need to make sure we don’t get hurt.”

As they have so often during the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Rangers weathered their opponents’ offensive storm. However, unlike most of their games, the Rangers would eventually break through and extend their lead to two goals when Michael Del Zotto ripped a shot past Holtby.

“[Del Zotto] has been probably our most consistent [defenseman] throughout the playoffs as far as joining the rush. He’s gone through quite a process in the last year,” Tortorella. However, the coach did throw a zinger Del Zotto’s way when he joked how the blueliner has had problems getting his shots on goal.

Needless to say, the Rangers were not going to deny their fans a chance to sweat out the closing minutes as Hamrlik’s screened shot found its way past Lundqvist with 9:17 left in the third period.

“They are going to have minutes where they are just going to come hard and we need to make sure we don’t get hurt,” Lundqvist said to Whyno. “For me, there, I just try to stay focused and I know we are going to take it over sooner or later.”

With Ruslan Fedotenko in the penalty box for a delay of game penalty, Brian Boyle’s shorthanded goal extended the Rangers lead back to two goals. Well, Boyle’s shorthanded goal SHOULD have extended the lead back to two goals, but referee Dan O’Rourke inexplicably whistled the play dead.

You have to wonder if Brendan Shanahan has one of those Buffalo Wild Wing buzzers in his office, or does he just telepathically “speak” to the referees?

The Rangers ended up playing the perfect Game 7 home game. Tortorella used the last line change to control the matchups and the players executed a smart game play of limiting Alexander Ovechkin’ space. The big guy shook loose for just two shots as the Capitals Big Four was limited to zero points and nine shots – including a spectacular save Lundqvist made on Alexander Semin about five minutes into the second period.

Barry Melrose of the NHL Network, and not a big fan of the Rangers, was effusive in his praise of the Rangers following Game 7 – despite picking Washington win.

“I thought the Rangers dominated. I thought the score flattered Washington. The Rangers won every battle – they looked like they wanted to win more,” Melrose said following the game.

On a couple of occasions, Dan Daly of the Washington Times has written that the Capitals were just 7.6 seconds away from winning the series. The problem with that belief is that you are assuming that a Capitals win in Game 5 would have led to the same outcome in Game 6 – and that is something you just can’t do.

The roles heading into Game 6 would have been reversed and we have no idea how the Rangers would have played in a “must-win” Game 6 or how the Capitals would have played with the pressure of trying to close out the series at home.

As a Rangers fan, I have played the “What if” game many times in my head and all that does is lead to even more frustration at what might have been.

While everyone is looking forward to another edition of the Battle of the Hudson, Coach Tortorella is not going to be dragged into the eventual tabloid battle that is forthcoming.

“You guys can make your stories about the Devils and Rangers, and I know you’re going to do it for the next couple of weeks,” Tortorella roared. “Don’t include mw in it. We are going to worry about the New York Rangers.”

While he did he offer that preemptive strike at the media circus that is to come, Tortorella did let his guard down to offer some insight into the continuing transformation his team is undergoing during the regular season and the playoffs.

“You learn about a lot of the players [in the playoffs]. To me, we are still in the middle of the process of the New York Rangers trying to become one of the elite teams,” Tortorella explained.

“This is a tremendous experience for us, to be able to play two game sevens in the first two rounds. For a young group of guys, it’s a tremendous experience. This is where your legacy is made.”

For the Rangers and their fans, the hope is that legacy has two more (successful) playoff rounds to go.

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By any means necessary. That represents the mindset the New York Rangers must take in their seventh and deciding game against the Washington Capitals on Saturday night.

We already know that the Rangers are able to risk life and limb to block shots, but they have to be willing to adopt a similar attitude when it comes to the offensive end of the ice. The bottom line is the Rangers must create more traffic and havoc in front of Braden Holtby and they need to find a way to keep him as busy as possible.

“We have to definitely get more shots [on goal] with bodies in front of [Holtby],” Captain Ryan Callahan said following practice on Friday. “They’re blocking a lot of shots so we have to make sure we get shots through.”

The last two goals of Wednesday night’s game exemplifies the type of play Callahan is speaking about. The key for the Rangers forwards is going to the top of the crease and staying there rather than drifting past it to the side of the net.

Because the NHL playoffs can be such a marathon, teams have to find a way to remain on an even-keel for as long as possible. Teams can’t get too high after wins or too low after losses, no matter how emotional or devastating they might be. Championship teams develop a killer instinct as the playoffs evolve.

Rangers Coach John Tortorella knows that Saturday’s game is special, but his team is not going to change its mentality.

“I know Game 7 isn’t just [another] game, but we don’t change the way we do things. As we’ve done before, we go about our business,” Tortorella related. “We’ll be ready to play.”

Prior to NBC Sports Network’s Game 5 broadcast, Ed Olczyk said the Capitals needed to have “a short-term memory” in reference to their Game 4 overtime loss.

Entering Game 7, the Rangers need to remember how they never seemed to be able to recover from their slow start.

Being ready to play means coming out with a strong start to the first period, unlike their Game 6 effort. The first goal of the game has been the key for both teams in this series and in the playoffs. The Rangers are 6-2 when they score first and 1-4 when they don’t. The Capitals are 7-1 when they score first and 0-5 when they don’t. The team scoring the first goal in this series has won every game.

The Blueshirts easiest path to advancing rests on Henrik Lundqvist being the best player on the ice – especially given the Rangers troubles scoring goals. Unfortunately, history has not been kind to The King in these situations.

Neil Greenberg of the Washington Post reported that in four post-season elimination games against Washington, Lundqvist is 0-4 with a 3.95 goals against average and an .840 save percentage.

Of course, as great as Lundqvist can be, he is still going to need some help on the offensive end. In Game 5 we witnessed the way Alexander Ovechkin can impact the game when he is on.

While the Rangers do not have anyone with the combination of size and scoring, they do need Callahan, Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards to come to the front. They cannot continue to count on secondary scorers like they did in Game 7 against Ottawa.

Torts, and the Rangers as a whole, have to utilize their home ice advantage. Tortorella has the last change so he can keep Gaborik, Richards and Carl Hagelin away from the Capitals checking line while making sure Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi shadow Overchkin.

With their offense sputtering, the Rangers have to find ways to win the battle of the special teams. The Capitals are 5-2 in the playoffs when they score a power play goal.

The Rangers need to heed the strategy that the Capitals are using to beat them on the power play.

“The [Rangers] force hard, so you got to move the puck quick,” forward Keith Aucoin told Tarik El-Bashir of the Washington Post. “If you move the puck quick, you’ll get lanes to the net.”

With the Capitals forwards being so aggressive on the Rangers point men, the Blueshirts needs to counter that with movement – both of the puck and themselves. They also need to get a player at the top of the blue and they need to station a second forward in the high slot – like they did in overtime in Game 4.

The Rangers also need to follow Anton Stralman’s Game 4 actions on the first goal of the game. Stralman deked his way around a Capitals forward to avoid the blocked shot. Another thing they might want to try is walking the blue line like Marc Staal did on his overtime winner.

In the end, the Rangers have to find a way to match and exceed the urgency and desperation level they showed in Game 6. They need to reflect back on their effort in Games 6 and 7 against Ottawa.

Much has been made of the Capitals and Holtby’s playoff performances. As I wrote in my Game 6 recap, there are some hidden numbers that the media has not been so quick to toss around.

While much was made about the Capitals becoming the first NHL team to go 4-0 in games following playoff losses, no one mentions what the Capitals record is in the games following those wins. That is because Washington is 0-3 with Game 7 pending.

The other stat that is tossed around is how Holtby is 6-0 following Capitals’ losses. That is true, but it also means that he is 1-6 in the other games – including 1-4 following up those six wins.

There is one wildcard that could possibly be introduced in Game 7, Benjamin Hunter Holtby – the son of Braden Holtby and his fiancée on Thursday. Ranger fans have to hope that Holtby has his mind on his son rather than Game 7.

Given the way this series has gone, it will come to no surprise to see the teams play beyond 60 minutes without a winner coming through early on Sunday morning.

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Somewhere in the Garden State, the New Jersey Devils are smiling today about the prospects of the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals having to play another 60 minutes (or beyond) in a seventh and deciding game. While the Capitals have no other choice, the Rangers let a golden opportunity slip through their fingers.

With a chance to finally make things easier on themselves in the playoffs, the Rangers played with a troublesome lack of urgency. While it is natural for Washington to be the more desperate team, for the first time in the playoffs I never really got the feeling the Rangers were ever really going to get into the game.

The Blueshirts did themselves no favors by taking a penalty just 73 seconds into the game. Anton Stralman’s tripping penalty was an omen for things to come as the Capitals looked to be a step or two faster and quicker than the Rangers. When Alexander Ovechkin found the seam in the Rangers penalty kill and converted on a one-timer 15 seconds later, the Blueshirts were back on their heels and never seemed to recover.

The Stralman penalty also shows how fine the line is between winning and losing. If Stralman is able to get a piece of the puck before taking down Jason Chimera, there might have been no penalty.

“I thought we regrouped in the first period – it took us a few minutes,” Rangers Coach John Tortorella explained after game. “It’s not the way we wanted to start.”

With all apologies to the coach, I don’t think the Rangers really did a good job regrouping. It wasn’t a matter of the Ovechkin goal taking the wind out of the Ranger sails; the team never seemed to unfurl their sails at all.

“We talked about coming out and starting well and then they get a goal right away on the power play and it kind of set the tone for the game, and from there it was just tough for us to get going,” Henrik Lundqvist lamented while speaking to Tarik El-Bashir of the Washington Post. “I think we all feel like we can do better and we have to do better.”

By the way, quick note to Pierre McGuire and the NBC announcers, you can pretty much beat any butterfly goaltender high to the glove side – especially one like Lundqvist who plays deep in the crease. Lundqvist has been in the league for seven years and everyone knows it so Olaf Kolzig and the Washington Capitals certainly did not break new ground.

Getting back to Game 6, that penalty and goal appeared to knock the Rangers off their game. As I mentioned, the Capitals were quicker on their breakouts and the Ranger forwards were slower than usual on their backcheck. As a result, the Rangers never ramped up their forecheck during the game.

NBC’s announcers made a point to gush over how Mike Green appeared to be fully recovered because he was playing so well. Green was playing so well because the Rangers were not getting in on the forecheck and hitting him and the other Capitals d-men.

As badly as the Rangers were playing, they had their chances to get back into the game – but their power play took yet another night off.

In Game 5, the Rangers power play was a game changer. In Game 6, the Rangers power play was a game killer – despite Dan Girardi’s assessment.

“I think at times our power play was actually pretty good,” Girardi explained to El-Bashir. “We had some good entries. We moved the puck around well. Obviously, we didn’t get one on the power play and they got one on theirs. It could have gone either way.”

No offense to Girardi, but what game was he watching? Despite Girardi being the only Ranger blueliner who seemed intent on adding to the offense, he couldn’t have been more wrong about the Rangers power play – and it was never more apparent than during the four-minute power play about midway through the second period.

Down two goals, the Blueshirts had the perfect opportunity to make up for their lackluster play with Jeff Halpern in the penalty box. You know that everyone in the Verizon Center was flashing back to Joel Ward’s double-minor that turned Game 5 around.

“Obviously, with what happened in Game 5 your first thought is negative,” Halpern admitted to Stephen Whyno of the Washington Times. “With a two-goal lead it could have been two bang-bang power play goals.”

Tortorella summed up the play of his power play unit, both during the four-minute power play and the other man advantages.

“It sucked,” was Torts retort.

Much has been made about Tortorella’s curt manner with the press during his post-game press conferences. Well, when you have guys ask why you only had one assistant on the bench – as someone did a couple of weeks ago – you can see why the coach gets a bit testy.

Last night, it happened again. One of the reporters basically asked him why he called the timeout prior to the Capitals getting their second goal. That would be the timeout the Rangers called because of icing after a long shirt. According to Rick Carpiniello of the Journal News, the question was not asked by some neophyte reporter. Instead, it was asked by a veteran Canadian hockey writer.

The urgency they showed on the power play at the end of Game 5 was nowhere to be found in Game 6. The one thing the NBC announcers did get correct was the Rangers inability/unwillingness to go to the front of the net and create traffic and deflections in front of Braden Holtby – both on the power play at even strength.

Holtby has proven that he is not a flash in the pan and long-range slapshots with no one in front of him (not at the side of the crease) is not going to beat him. You have to wonder if Holtby has gotten into the Rangers minds to the point where they feel they need a perfect shot to beat him.

The simple fact is they need to examine the last three goals they have scored to find a solution to their Holtby problem.

Setting aside the point of the game and the urgency exhibited, the Blueshirts last three goals can as a result of the Rangers getting bodies in front of Holtby so he can’t control rebounds (Richards’ goal) and they got bodies in front to set screens (Staal’s goal) and they got bodies in front for deflections (Gaborik’s goal).

You know things are going badly for the Rangers when their fourth line is their most consistent line. Heck, Ovechkin was more of a goal scoring threat when he got a shot off while sliding on his ass in the third period than the Rangers were for the entire game.

In the end, you have to give the Capitals credit. They were in a must-win game and played that way. The biggest key for them was their ability to extend their one-goal lead – something they did not do in Game 5.

Between now and Saturday night, the Rangers must figure out why they did not raise their intensity-level and why they were not able to match Washington’s urgency once they fell behind. If they are unable to do those two things in Game 7, the Rangers are doomed to repeat their 2009 playoff fate when they let a 3-1 series lead slip through their fingers.

Here is one point to ponder, one that you did not here NBC trumpeting last night. While much was made about the Capitals becoming the first NHL team to go 4-0 in games following playoff losses, no one mentions what the Capitals record is in the games following those wins. That is because Washington is 0-3 with Game 7 pending.

The other stat that is tossed around is how Holtby is 6-0 following Capitals’ losses. That is true, but it also means that he is 1-6 in the other games – including 1-4 following up those six wins.

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