April 2014


So here we are as the New York Rangers face yet another Game 7. Should we really have expected anything else from the Rangers? I know the Blueshirts refuse to do things the easy way, hence their 12 game losing streak when they are leading a series, but do they constantly have to do things the hard way? Maybe they should just start every playoff with Game 7 and the series tied 3-3.

Given the way the Rangers failed to show up for the final minutes of Game 6, they better hope that momentum does carry over from game-to-game.

For their part, the Rangers are talking about putting the horrors of Game 6 out of their minds. Martin St. Louis refers to “amnesia” and Brad Richards told the AP, “This team is not going to be thinking about what happened tonight. It’s over once we get on the train. You have to move on quick.”

Not only should the Rangers NOT forget their Game 6 performance, they need to embrace it, take ownership of it, and do whatever is necessary to make sure they do not repeat that performance tonight.

In my series preview, I pointed to four keys the Rangers needed to accomplish in order to defeat the Flyers. In brief, they were:

1. Increased goal scoring
2. Special Teams
3. Don’t retaliate unnecessarily
4. Best players must be the best players

Of the four, the closest the Rangers have come accomplishing with any consistency is the third one – and even that comes with a caveat. While the Rangers are not getting caught for retaliatory penalties, they are getting caught taking bad/lazy penalties.

The penalty that Benoit Pouliot took on Claude Giroux was both bad and lazy – despite the fact that the referees refuse to penalize the Flyers for their splashy-divey embellishments.

As for the other keys, the Rangers have been wildly inconsistent. Their offense has been humming when they win, but near nonexistent in their losses. After starting the series 3-8 on the power play, the Rangers man (dis)advantage has returned as they have been blanked on their 20 power plays. Maybe they need to hire Adam Oates as a power play consultant – stat!

The Rangers star players have been wildly inconsistent and that inconsistency has spread to usually reliable players like Pouliot, Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello.

The biggest disappointment has been Rick Nash because of his; you guessed it, wildly inconsistent play. While he has shown glimpses, he has not stepped his play the way the team needs him. Nash needs to be more than just a finesse perimeter player; he needs to play with jam – something that Ray Ferraro pointed out today.

Adam Rotter of SNY offered the following quote from Ferraro who was on Leafs Lunch today and Ferraro pulled no punches when it came to breaking down Nash’s game so far.

“This is my pet peeve when I watch players. I was an undersized guy, I see someone who is 6-4 and 230 and he rushes it over the side wall and takes his shot from there? I f he cuts to the net and he is almost unstoppable,” Ferraro said.

“There is no anger to his game and you don’t need to be slashing guys but you need some passion or anger and he doesn’t display it. They brought him in for the playoffs. Dom Moore has two in this playoffs. They pay him $7 million. I don’t see how you can see that and think that what you are doing is right. He isn’t even close.”

While Nash is far from the only star Ranger not living up to the back of his hockey card, his salary and potential to be a game-changer puts the biggest target on his back.

The key to a Rangers Game 7 victory comes down to DISCIPLINE. It is a concept that has to permeate across all parts of the Blueshirts game tonight. It starts with staying out of the penalty box, especially if the NHL is going to employee the “Screw-the-Rangers” rulebook. You know the one where fast whistles disallow Ranger goals and see the Blueshirts called for three diving penalties while the Flyers cannonball their way into the pool.

The Rangers, along with Montreal, have been the best five-on-five teams in the playoffs – outscoring Philly 13-7 so staying out of the penalty box is imperative in Game 7.

The idea of discipline goes beyond staying out of the penalty box. It extends to their offensive zone play and especially on their power play. It is rather unfathomable how a team can be so disciplined killing penalties and then have no clue how to react when they have the man advantage.

Alain Vigneault is turning out to be one of those coaches who can design a good game plan going into a game, but has troubles making adjustments during the game – especially in terms of the power play.

The Rangers are trying to employ the diamond power play set up as a means to jump start their power play. However, the Flyers have countered it and AV seems unwilling or incapable of trying anything else.

This is where the discipline part comes into play. The Rangers MUST make Steve Mason has uncomfortable as possible in goal. That means pressure and traffic in front of the net. The Rangers were causing all kinds of havoc with their forecheck during the first period of Game 6, but could not take advantage of that or the fact that Masone was a human rebound machine because no Rangers forwards ever camped out at the top of the crease.

If the Rangers had a couple of Adam Graves and Steve Vickers types, this column would be extolling the Rangers on their Game 6 victory and looking ahead to ways to make Marc-Andre Fleury self-destruct.

The bottom line is that the Rangers forwards have to be disciplined enough to grow a set of onions and get to working the front of the net and the defensemen have to start being more disciplined with their shots from the point by working to get their shots through. Too many shots from the point are getting blocked.

The Rangers might want to utilize a strategy that seemed to work against Martin Brodeur and might work against Mason. The Rangers need to start generating some of their offense from behind the net. That doesn’t necessarily mean trying to beat Mason on wrap-arounds. It means getting the Flyers to commit down low so that it either A) opens up shots from the point or B) opens up shots from the slot (assuming the forwards man-up and go to the slot).

When the Rangers do get their shots they need to be disciplined enough to remember he catches with his right hand so they need to adjust if they want to beat him to the stick side. Mason has not looked all that comfortable when the Rangers go upstairs on him.

The Rangers need to heed the advice of Herb Brooks who constantly reminded his USA team to “play your game” as they upset the Soviet Union.

In the end, the Rangers are going to need Henrik Lundqvist at his best – and that is the way he has been in terms of facing Game 7 situations. If his teammates given him an even chance, he has shown an ability to get the job done in seventh and deciding games:

• 3-1 record, 1.00 GAA, .963 SV%, and 1 SO in four career Game 7s
• 6-2 record, 1.48 GAA, .950 SV%, and 2 SO in his last 8 elimination games
• 5-0 record, 0.98 GAA, .966 SV%, and 2 SO in his last 5 elimination games @ MSG

Add to Yahoo Add to Google Furl this Add to Spurl Save to Del.icio.us Digg IT! Live Bookmarks! Blogmarks

New York Rangers fans should thank Gary Bettman and the new NHL playoff structure for a couple of reasons. First off if the NHL were using last year’s playoff system, the Rangers would be matched up with the Montreal Canadiens in the Eastern Conference’s four-five matchup. Given how much of a nightmare the Bell Centre has been for Henrik Lundqvist that is a good thing – no matter how successful the Blueshirts have been on the road this season.

The second reason for being thankful is that the Rangers don’t play the Washington Capitals. Of course, a large part of the thanks for that has to go Alex Ovechkin and his teammates who were shut out of the playoffs – thus preventing a potential fifth playoff series in the last six seasons.

Instead, the Rangers get the opportunity to renew their hostilities with the hated Philadelphia Flyers. While there is hatred for the Devils and Islanders, it is strictly business. When it comes to the Flyers, it is all personal.

This season’s matchup marks the 11th time the Rangers and Flyers will do battle in the playoffs – tying them for the 10th most common playoff matchup with the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues who are renewing their playoff rivalry for the 11th time.

The Broadstreet Bullies lead the all-time series 6-4; including winning the last meeting between the two teams in 1997 when the Flyers won the Eastern Conference Finals in five games. That series marked the final playoff appearances for Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Mike Richter and it marked the final Rangers playoff appearance for Brian Leetch.

It was also a series that featured a banged up Rangers team that turned to the likes of Ken Gernander and Dallas Eakins in order to fill out a lineup that featured 12 players who were at least 30-years-old.

The Rangers won Game 2 behind Wayne Gretzky’s hat trick to even the series, but the Flyers swept Games 3 and 4 before finishing off the Rangers in Game 5.

The playoff victory in 1997 was the Flyers third consecutive playoff victory over the Rangers. The last time the Blueshirts defeated the Flyers in the playoffs was during the team’s improbable run to the 1986 Eastern Conference Finals as a fourth placed Rangers team (78 points) defeated the first place Flyers (110 points) in a fifth and deciding game in Philadelphia.

Normally having home ice in a playoff series would be cause for celebration. At first glance, that appears to hold true with the Rangers and Flyers considering the Blueshirts have won eight in a row against Philly at MSG. However, a closer look at the two teams’ season records tell a little different story.

Among playoff teams, only the Detroit Red Wings (18) had fewer homes wins that the Rangers (20). While the Rangers accumulated 44 of their 96 points at home, the Flyers gained 51 of their 94 points at home.

The Rangers big advantage is that they have been road warriors this season as only Colorado (56 points) and Anaheim (54) racked up more road points than the Rangers (52, tied with Boston). The Rangers road record of 25-14-2 is made even more impressive when you consider they started the season with a 2-6 record in their first eight road games – thus finishing up with a sizzling 23-8-2 road record.

Brad Richards was at a loss for a concrete answer to the Rangers road-home swing.

“I’ve never been on a team with the best road record and this kind of home record,” Richards admitted to Jeff Z. Klein of the NY Times.

“Sometimes, there’s no rhyme or reason. There’s no real great answer for you — I’d love to make one up. But we don’t prepare any differently at home than we do on the road.”

Richards understands that certain parts of a team’s game can be swayed by the home crowd and offered Klein the following explanation.

“Certain things, like the power play, I understand how that sometimes can be better on the road than at home,” he said. “You’re not hearing the fans, you’re not trying to score in the first 10 seconds. You don’t consciously shoot because people are saying, ‘Shoot,’ but you just hear them get on you. But as far as the overall team game, I don’t have an answer.”

Marc Staal put home ice advantage in its proper context while speaking with Steve Zipay of Newsday on Tuesday, April 8.

“Home ice is big especially if you get later in the series, Game 7 is an advantage if you have that home ice,” Staal opined.

One wouldn’t think that it is imperative that the Rangers win Game 1, but I believe it is important for the Blueshirts to draw first blood. The last thing you want to do is give the Flyers even the slightest glimpse of having any advantage in the series. The longer the Flyers troubles at MSG last, the deeper the losing streak cements itself into Philly’s psyche.

It is a belief that the Flyers are bringing into this series.

“We’re obviously going to go there and try to get a split,” Scott Hartnell said to Sarah Baicker of csnphilly.com. “But if you get the first one, then you can go for two. We’re really going to put all our eggs in the one basket the first game and put it all on the line. I think that’s got to be the mindset of the game.”

In order for the Rangers to even contemplate making a deep run in the Stanley Cup playoffs, they need to stop playing seven game series. You want to “grab and go” in terms of the playoff series, in other words, you want to get in and out as quickly as possible – and most especially in this series.

You can expect the Flyers to come out hitting from the opening faceoff and through the final whistle – and beyond. I don’t think the Rangers will have a problem with the Flyers in terms of “regular physical play”, but I do think they will have a problem with extracurricular activities that happen after every whistle – the type of play that turns every stoppage into a scrum.

It doesn’t matter who the player is or what kind of style he played before he joined the Flyers, but it seems that once someone puts on the orange and black they all take on the Broad Street Bully persona.

The longer the series goes, the more and more that will play a part in this series. With Games 6 and 7 being played on back-to-back nights, it might be a lot to ask the Rangers to go seven and then turn around and be ready to play against a Pittsburgh Penguins team that should make short work of the Columbus Blue Jackets.

It is this potential for Flyers shenanigans that would tempt me to play Daniel Carcillo over Jesper Fast. Given Alain Vigneault’s style of play, I expect that he will opt to go with Fast’s speed and hockey abilities until circumstances dictate Carcillo’s style of play.

The Rangers recall of J.T. Miller might signify that the team is looking for a bit more jam in the lineup than Fast provides and a bit more finesse than Carcillo provides.

It is too bad that Chris Kreider’s status for the Philly series is unknown. He brings the best of what Fast and Carcillo can bring in terms of finesse, speed, scoring with just the right amount of chip on his shoulder. Unfortunately, at this time of year all teams are facing their own injury problems. At least the Rangers are assured of the return of Ryan McDonagh.

The question will be how far out of the way with the Flyers go to punish McDonagh’s shoulder and just how many liberties will they take – and you know the Flyers are going to take some liberties. This is just another reason why I would insert Carcillo instead of Fast/Miller.

The Flyers are not without their worries, chief among the health of goaltender Steve Mason who suffered an upper body injury (possible concussion) in Philly’s game against the Penguins on Saturday.

Mason will not be travelling with the Flyers when they make their way to New York. Ray Emery will get the start as rookie Cal Heeter serving as the backup. If Mason is healthy enough to play in Game 2, he could join the team for the Easter matinee.

While Emery did lead the Ottawa senators to the Stanley Cup Finals, that was seven years ago and I am sure the Flyers do not necessarily want to find out if Emery can recapture his 2007 playoff form.

That is not to say that the Rangers have iced away the series. Emery’s lifetime record against the Rangers is 7-2-0 with a 1.87 GAA and a .936 SV%. One of those two losses occurred in a 4-1 Rangers victory in January.

Interestingly enough, despite the spotty goaltending of the Flyers, there is one Philly reporter who thinks Henrik Lundqvist has not been a clutch goaltender in the playoffs.

Tim Panaccio of csnphilly.com is quick to point out Lundqvist’s 30-37 playoff record and only one appearance in an Eastern Conference Final.

What Panaccio conveniently forgot was the work The King put in against Ottawa in the 2012 Conference Quarterfinals, defeating the Senators in Games 6 and 7. Lundqvist duplicated this feat in the 2012 Conference Semifinals as the Rangers eliminated the Capitals.

Lundqvist repeated his performance last year by not only winning Games 6 and 7 against the Capitals, but he shut Washington out in both games.

I guess in Panaccio’s world, only goalies who win Stanley Cups can be deemed “clutch”.

Looking ahead to this series, I see the Rangers path to victory coming down to four keys.

1. Come playoff time, scoring goals becomes an even bigger imperative because all teams (unless you are the 2012 Flyers or Penguins) tend to become more aware of their defensive zone. As a result, the need to increase goal scoring becomes more important in the playoffs.

2. Hand-in-hand is the need to elevate special teams. The Rangers have demonstrated the ability to not only have one of the NHL’s best penalty killing units, but they have developed a knack for creating offense when shorthanded. The problem has been their power play which has shown signs of reverting to its pre-AV habits. The more the Rangers power play struggles, the more liberties the Flyers will take with the Rangers. The quickest way to neutralize the Broadstreet Bullies is to make them pay for taking penalties.

3. Keeping with the Broadstreet Bullies theme, the Blueshirts will have to learn to “walk the line”. That is the fine line of knowing when to “turn the other cheek” and when to retaliate. There is no iron clad rule on when to retaliate or not, but a simple solution might just be in it is a one-one battle – let it go. When the Flyers get into their pack mentality, it will be time for the Rangers to retaliate.

4. The last key is one that will ultimately determine how far the Rangers go in the 2014 playoffs. It has been great to see the likes of Benoit Pouliot, Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello develop into productive players. However, the Rangers need their best players to be their best players. That means the likes of Lundqvist, McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, Rick Nash, Martin St. Louis, Brad Richards, and Derek Stepan have to be the players who lead the way. When push comes to shove, this is the most important key to the Rangers playoff success. It is time for the stars to start playing up to the numbers on the backs of their hockey cards.

Before I give my prediction, I want to share an interesting side note that was written by Tim Wharnsby of CBC sports. Wharnsby noted that in 2004, Richards, St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier were leading the Tampa Bay Lightning to a Stanley Cup victory. Now 10 years later, Richards and St. Louis do battle against their former teammate.

By the way, Richards led the playoffs in scoring that year with 26 points and St. Louis finished second with 24 points.

In the end, the Rangers goaltending and ability to win games on the road lead the Blueshirts to hard fought victory in six games.

Add to Yahoo Add to Google Furl this Add to Spurl Save to Del.icio.us Digg IT! Live Bookmarks! Blogmarks