Sat 19 May 2012
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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