Fri 16 May 2014
The 2014 Eastern Conference Finals is what hockey is all about – an Original Six matchup between the New York Rangers and Montreal Canadiens. It is also a rematch of the 1986 Eastern Conference Finals won by the Canadiens in five games behind rookie goaltender Patrick Roy who turned a so-so regular season into a Conn Smythe Trophy for his playoff heroics.
This series also features two teams who are looking to return to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in over 20 years. Montreal also carries the mantle (and burden) of being the last Canadian team to win the Stanley Cup (1993).
The Blueshirts/Habs playoff meeting is the 15th between the two teams, with each team winning seven. Those 15 matchups push the teams past Toronto and Boston for the fifth most frequent playoff matchup.
The last time the two clubs met in the playoffs was 1996 and the Rangers prevailed in a weird six game series. The Blueshirts dropped the first two games of the series at MSG before roaring back to win the next four – including the first ever playoff game in the Molson Centre (now the Bell Centre).
It is kind of funny how times have changed for the Rangers in terms of their ability to play on the road at Montreal.
During the last few years, it has been the Rangers who have been getting their bell rung at the Bell Centre.
Pat Leonard of the Daily News detailed just how much the Bell Centre has become a house of horrors to the Rangers:
• The Rangers have only two wins in their last 12 games in Montreal dating back to February 2008.
• In their last four games in Montreal, the team has only one goal (Ryan Callahan – 11/16/13) and just two goals (John Mitchell – 1/15/12). The last time a current Ranger scored in Montreal was one exactly one year prior to Mitchell’s goal (Mats Zuccarello provided the honors).
• Things have not been much better for Henrik Lundqvist in Montreal. Rookie netminder Cam Talbot made both starts in Montreal this year because of The King’s less-than-regal 4-5-2 record. Talbot’s 1-0 win on November 16, 2013 marked the team’s first win at the Bell Centre since March 17, 2009 – which was also Lundqvist’s last win in Montreal.
As you might expect, the series will be an emotional one for Martin St. Louis as he returns home to play for the first time since losing his mother. The team pulled together when the tragedy first hit and you can expect them to support their teammate even more now.
On May 12, Pierre McGuire spoke with WFAN’s Mike Francesa about how the team has rallied around St. Louis.
“They have become a family, right before our very eyes, if there were any guys who were maybe not on board or not prepared to do the heavy lifting to get back in the series, they have all bought in now,” McGuire said. “I really think that the galvanizing moment is how the Rangers have handled the passing of Marty St. Louis’ mother and it has brought them together as a group.”
St. Louis might be able to help his teammates through their rough time in Montreal. While he did not score in Montreal, he did help Tampa Bay to Shootout and Overtime wins in the Bell Centre. St. Louis did score in the Lightning’s one home game against the Habs – a 2-1 Shootout loss.
It is also a return for Coach Alain Vigneault as he started his NHL coaching career with Montreal. In 266 games with the Habs (1997/98-2000/01), AV compiled a 109-118-35-4 record. His replacement in Montreal was current coach Michel Therrien (in his first stint as the Canadiens coach).
While you can bet Brandon Prust and Dale Weise will be amped to play against their former teammates, the Rangers win that battle as former Habs’ first round draft pick Ryan McDonagh squares off against the team that drafted him. If the Rangers manage to win the Stanley Cup they really do owe former Montreal GM Bob Gainey a ring for not only taking Scott Gomez but for giving McDonagh to the Blueshirts.
Whether the Rangers faced the Montreal Canadiens or the Boston Bruins, the road to the Stanley Cup Finals was not going to be a cakewalk. It was just going to be a matter of picking your poison.
The Bruins represented a battle-tested playoff team that has experienced what it takes to win a Stanley Cup. Led by the likes of Zdeno Chara and Milan Lucic, the Rangers would have been facing an intense physical battle – kind of like what they expected from the Philadelphia Flyers.
While the Canadiens will never be mistaken for Herb Brooks’ smurfs of the 1980s, the Habs rely on their skating and finesse to win games. Montreal is a team that has been able to score goals at even strength (2nd only to the Rangers) and on the power play (4th best) in the playoffs – kind of like what they expected from the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The one thing the Rangers had going for them in the first two rounds might not be such a big advantage for them in this series. For the first time in the playoffs, Lundqvist is not head-and-shoulders the better goaltender. Some might say that Montreal’s Carey Price has that advantage – and based on his play against the Blueshirts – they might be right.
In his last five games against the Rangers, Price has posted a 4-1 record and has allowed only two goals in those five games.
As we look ahead to the keys to this series, we need to remember that there are two building blocks that are essential to the Rangers foundation to building a winning playoff strategy. The fact that they are also the two most inconsistent parts of their game goes to show how reliant the Blueshirts have been on Lundqvist being the best goalie in the series – something that is not written in stone against the Habs.
The Rangers special teams must step up their play from the first two rounds. While the power play and penalty kill improved against the Penguins, the team can’t get by with the ninth best power play and the 13th best penalty kill.
Discipline is a big part of the Rangers special team improvement. The team’s discipline with the man advantage means taking the good shot and not passing the puck in an attempt for the great shot. It means being disciplined enough to remember to get traffic at the front of the net.
As far as penalty killing goes, the best strategy is just to stay out of the penalty box. If you thought you saw some strange calls in the previous two series – you ain’t seen anything yet. Whether it is fan paranoia, excuse-making or partial truth, the perception is that the Canadian teams (especially those in Montreal and Toronto) tend to get the benefit of the doubt in terms of calls. Not only should we not expect that perception to change, we should expect the cynicism to grow as our northern brethren hold their collective breaths in anticipation of Montreal bringing the Stanley Cup back home to Canada.
The second recurring key is that the Rangers best players need to be their best players. At this point, the main target of this point is Rick Nash. While he is doing all the little things you need him to do, he is not doing the main thing you need him to – score goals. With Montreal being more of a finesse team, you would expect/hope that Nash can finally break out offensively.
Looking ahead to this series, I see the Rangers possible path to victory coming down to these keys.
1. The Matchups – It will be interesting to see which line Therrien uses his top defense pairing of P.K. Subban and Josh Gorges against? If he doesn’t use that pairing against Nash-Derek Stepan-Chris Kreider, he might use the Andrei Markov and Alexi Emelin pairing. I would guess that AV would want to keep Nash’s line away from the top pair – which will be difficult at the Bell Centre when the Habs have the last change.
2. Break The Streaks – There are lots of streaks that the Rangers need to break if they want to get to the Stanley Cup Finals. First and foremost, Lundqvist has to be Le Roi in this series – especially in the Bell Centre. In his last four starts in Montreal, Lundqvist is 0-3-1 with a 6.99 GAA and a .862 SV%.
Lundqvist is not the only player who needs to break the Bell Centre jinx. Prior to their 1-0 win in November, the Rangers had lost their last eight games in Montreal by a combined 30-7 score.
The time has come for Nash to break out of his playoff scoring slump and show why the Rangers invested so heavily in him. The Habs are not that physical a team (as compared to the Flyers or Bruins) so he should be able to be effective driving to the net.
The most important streak that needs to come to an end is the 0-13 record when the Rangers have a lead in a playoff series. Until the Blueshirts manage to exorcise that stat they are eternally doomed to play seven game series – and no team has ever won the Stanley Cup after playing 28 playoff games.
3. Strike First – This key has a double connotation to it. As we saw throughout the Second Round, the first goal of the game was golden – and it should be no different in this series. With the Bell Centre packing in nearly 22,000 screaming rabid Canadiens fans, the Rangers would be very wise to score early (and often) and try to keep the crowd out of the game. The more the crowd is in the game, the more the Habs will feed off that, and the more the officials will feed off that as well. If you don’t think that plays a part in a game in Montreal, well, then I have a bridge in Brooklyn for sale.
The second part of striking first is getting a victory in Game 1, or at the very least in Game 2. The Rangers want to be able to take away home-ice advantage as soon as possible. Besides, if the Rangers can get Game 1 then they are set up to end the 0-13 streak early in the series, rather than later.
4. Forecheck – With the way Price and the Habs defense has stifled the Rangers offense, the Blueshirts are going to need to find ways to score. Obviously, a semi-potent power play would work wonders. Another way to generate offense is to pin Montreal in their own zone. The Rangers showed flashes of brilliant forechecking against Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and they will need to step up the ante in this series.
An aggressive and successful forecheck will not only lead to turnovers, but it will help to neutralize the Canadiens speed by controlling the tempo of the game and forcing Montreal to defend rather than attack.
5. Traffic – This key another one of those two-parters. If the Rangers have learned anything from their matchups against the Flyers and Penguins it is that their offense is much better, and more effective, when they are driving to the net and screening goaltenders. Price is so zoned into his game that his Olympic Gold could be followed up with Lord Stanley’s hardware. The Rangers have to be as aggressive getting in Price’s grill as opponents are in getting bodies in front of Lundqvist.
The second part of the traffic key is that the Rangers need to be able to clamp down on the neutral zone. They can’t afford to let the Canadiens control the neutral zone because the speed they generate there will translate into scoring opportunities. When the Rangers were on their game defensively against Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, neither team had any time or space in the neutral zone.
The Canadiens are a team that looks to hit the long breakout passes for breakaways. As a result, the solid forecheck and the ability to choke off the neutral zone are essential.
When all is said and done, there is one thing that I can predict for a fact: the team that wins this series and advances to the Stanley Cup Finals will wear red, white, and blue.
Okay, you all probably think I am a wise-ass because both teams wear those colors. But if you noticed, I wrote red, white and blue, not rouge, blanc, et bleu.
In the end, I see the Rangers doing what they do best – winning a seven-game playoff series. I have seen some writers say that such a series will tire out the Rangers who have played 14 games as compared to just 11 for the Canadiens. However, it is Montreal that is coming off a seven-game war against the Bruins.
The Rangers are the more battle-tested playoff team and they have actually been able to get some rest. While the NHL has not officially released the schedule, it is nowhere near as hectic as the previous series. With Game 2 set for Monday (5/19), Games 3 and 4 would take place at the Garden on Thursday (5/22) and either Saturday (5/24) or Sunday (5/25). The only problem is that you can bet MSG will be overrun with Habs fans who will be able to get tickets on the secondary market. I don’t think the Rangers will be able to block Montreal fans the way the Seattle Seahawks blocked San Francisco 49ers fans from getting tickets to the NFC Championships.
While the Canadiens did sweep the Tampa Bay Lightning and outlasted the Big Bad Bruins, Montreal is still a team that Brian Costello of The Hockey News called a “… pint-sized, icing a roster with a league-high nine forwards and four defensemen who stand 6-foot or smaller. The Habs are at the bottom of the NHL weight scale as well with just one regular (Alexei Emelin) weighing 220 pounds or more.”
In my opinion, it will be Montreal that wears down by the end of this series, not the Rangers.
Tue 13 May 2014
The teams may change, and the circumstances leading up to it may change, but if it is May and it is playoff time in the NHL, then the New York Rangers must be facing another Game 7 battle as the Blueshirts look to survive and advance in the race for Stanley Cup.
The Rangers are getting to be grizzled veterans when it comes to playing a seventh and deciding game. The Rangers have won their last three Game 7 matchups during the last two seasons and lost a fourth in 2009 to Washington when the Blueshirts held a three games to one series lead – the same deficit they are looking to overcome tonight.
The Rangers have been down three games to one in 16 previous playoff matchups and have forced a Game 7 once – in 1939 when they spotted Boston a three games to none lead before losing Game 7 on Mel Hill’s triple overtime goal, his third overtime winner of the series.
While that seems like a mighty tall mountain to climb, it is a bit misleading because the corps of this team was only involved in one of the 16 previous occurrences. Remember, there was also a time when the Rangers did not win seventh games.
On the other hand, Larry Brooks of the NY Post pointed out that seven Penguins (Marc-Andre Fleury, James Neal, Chris Kunitz, Kris Letang, Paul Martin, Craig Adams and Matt Niskanen) were part the team’s 2011 playoff collapse as Pittsburgh blew a 3-1 series lead against Tampa Bay. It must be noted that both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin missed that series because of injuries. The Lightning (with Martin St. Louis and Dominic Moore) won Game 7, in Pittsburgh, 1-0.
Let’s be honest, the Rangers have never beaten Pittsburgh in the playoffs so it figures it would the Blueshirts would take a circuitous route in doing so. By the way, one year ago today the Rangers notched their first ever Game 7 road win with their 5-0 blanking of the Washington Capitals.
Rangers fans are going to hunker down in their bunkers on Tuesday night hoping that the momentum from Games 5 and 6 carry over to Game 7. I hate to disappoint, but momentum does not carry over from game-to-game in the playoffs. If momentum carried over from game-to-game, then the Rangers would have been toast after phoning in Games 3 and 4.
By the time the opening puck is dropped for the next game, a new set of momentum is being written.
Rather, momentum changes from shift-to-shift and period-to-period.
There is one caveat that can be applied to the momentum theory and we have our old pal Pierre McGuire to thank for it. Everyone’s “favorite” between-the-benches analyst talks of the three things you want to plant in your opponents’ mind as a series progresses: concern, doubt and fear.
It is safe to say that the Penguins are at the fear stage.
More importantly for the Rangers, Marc-Andre Fleury is definitely at the fear stage. He entered the series with a big target on his back as THE potential goat in any Penguins playoff loss. After shutting out the Rangers in back-to-back games, it appears that the target is back and it is as big as it has been in the 2014 playoffs.
It is the fear of a Fleury Playoff Meltdown that can transcend from game-to-game, especially in the mind of the Penguins netminder.
The Pittsburgh newspapers contain stories promising of shakeups should the Penguins fulfill their playoff wilting. The changes start all at the top with GM Ray Shero, go through Coach Dan Byslma (who is not that big a fan favorite), and down through the players. Even Captain Sidney Crosby is drawing criticism for not stepping up his play and his inability to provide leadership.
This is the hornets’ nest that the CONSOL Energy Center could turn into for the Penguins. All that is missing is the spark to ignite the powder keg – and that is where the Rangers have to provide that spark.
It is no coincidence that the first goal will be huge on Tuesday night. Through Monday nights’ games, only one time has a team scored first and failed to win – Minnesota did it last night in Chicago. In addition, the team that scores first in Game 7 is 112-40 (73.7%).
If the Rangers can channel their play from Games 5 and 6 and use it as the springboard for the first goal of the game, they could provide the spark that lights the Penguins final implosion.
A big key to igniting that spark could very well be Chris Kreider. The youngster’s return to the lineup gives Vigneault his top nine forwards and gives the Rangers offense even more speed and much needed size. It also allows Nash to play right wing where he seems to be more comfortable.
Most fans think the Rangers are without pressure because they are playing with “house money”. I say balderdash and poppycock. That “house money” stuff works when you are talking about kids playing in school, whether it is high school or college. When you are a professional, you are expected to win these games unless you are in a David versus Goliath situation – and that is hardly the case between these two teams.
Granted, the pressure is greater on the Penguins because they were one game away from eliminating the Rangers. While home teams win about 60% of Game 7 matchups, they are facing on the league’s best road teams so even that advantage might not be as great as it could have been.
The same keys that I pointed out in my series preview still apply as the Rangers embark on yet another Game 7 battle. They need to play disciplined and stay out of a battle of the special teams with the Penguins. While the Rangers power play has responded of late, it is not good practice to give Crosby, Malkin and the rest of the Penguins firepower extra chances with the man advantages.
Speaking of power plays, if the Rangers happen to be up by a couple of goals in the third period – and happen to get a power play or two – could Coach Alain Vigneault please use two defensemen on the points instead of one blueliner and four forwards.
With scoring the first goal at such a premium (and extending that lead a couple of goals wouldn’t hurt either), the Rangers have to continue to be relentless on their attack on Fleury – and relentless on their forecheck. The more time they spend in the Pittsburgh zone, the less time they have to worry about defending against tne Penguins offense or a crazy deflection.
This series has shown that when the Rangers get bodies to the net and attack the crease with intent, they have been able to score goals.
In moving forward with their offensive game plan, they might want to consider going back.
Fleury looked pretty bad on Carl Hagelin’s backhander in the first period of Game 6 so the Rangers should not be afraid to fire backhanders – especially if they can get Fleury moving side-to-side.
The other part of going back is looking to start some of their attack from behind the net. It is all part of trying of a strategy to get Fleury moving and not allowing him to get squared up with the shooter. This strategy, of course, is going to require the Rangers to go to the net with a purpose.
When it comes to defending Henrik Lundqvist, the first thing the Blueshirts have to do is be smarter with the pucks. Their bad habit of making pass up the middle of the ice reared its ugly one too many times Sunday night. The Rangers need to make the safe play whenever possible.
The Rangers need to win the battle of the blue lines. Any puck that is within five or so feet of their defensive blue line must be cleared and any time they are within five feet of the Penguins blue line the puck must be plated deep. They can’t afford any cheap turnovers and they certainly can’t afford any more breakaways against – especially when they are on the power play.
Sooner or later the Brian Gibbons’ and Marcel Gocs’ of the world are going to slip a puck past Lundqvist on a breakaway. Even worse, it could be Crosby and Malkin bearing down on those breakaways.
One other thing the Rangers need to do is be aware of wherever Crosby and Malkin are when they are on the ice. The Rangers need to take then out of the game and let someone else try to step up and beat them. If I were Nash, I would follow Malkin from the moment he left the Penguins bench to the moment he returns to it. Nash is the only player who has the size, strength and skating ability to keep up with Geno. If he isn’t going to score then he can help the Rangers advance to the Eastern Conference Finals by being a shutdown forward.
If Lundqvist continues his King-like play in recent Game 7s (4-0, 1 shutout, 0.75 GAA, .973 SV%), then the Rangers are destined for an Original Six matchup against either the Boston Bruins or the Montreal Canadiens.
Don’t forget that a berth in the Eastern Conference Finals is not the only thing that is on the line tonight. If the Rangers win, then the 2014 second round draft pick the Rangers sent to Tampa Bay as part of the St. Louis-Ryan Callahan trade becomes a first round draft pick.
The one thing we know for sure is that the NHL will be safe from those ruffians who practice random water squirtings following the NHL’s $5,000 fine levied against Lundqvist. Of course, that also means slew-footing your opponent or jabbing him in the junk with your stick is legal – as long as the person doing the slewfing and jabbing is named Sidney Crosby.
Fri 2 May 2014
While the Pittsburgh Penguins might not admit it publicly, you have to believe secretly they are happy to be facing the New York Rangers as opposed to the Philadelphia Flyers. Let’s face it; the Rangers have the tendency to turn mere rookie goaltenders into Georges Vezina – just the cure the Penguins would seek in returning Marc-Andre Fleury to his Stanley Cup winning form.
Seriously, while the Penguins and Rangers were separated by 12 points in the Metropolitan Division standings, the two teams played about as evenly as two teams could play during the regular season. Both teams scored five goals in home wins and both teams suffered home shootout losses. The only difference is that the Rangers scored one more goal (13-12).
The Penguins fan will look to the brief playoff history between the two teams as an omen. Pittsburgh has won all four series against the Blueshirts – winning an astonishing 16 of 20 games.
Of course, an optimistic Rangers fan looks at the playoff history as just one more hill to climb. After all, there was a time when the Rangers never won Game 7s.
The 1989 series was a total no-contest that saw the Rangers limp into the playoffs after GM Phil Esposito fired Coach Michel Bergeron with two games left in the regular season and went behind the bench himself. With Bob Froese and John Vanbiesbrouck unable to stop the young Pens, Esposito turned to a minor league goaltender in Game 4. That is how the Mike Richter Era began as Pittsburgh swept the Rangers out of the playoffs.
The most heartbreaking of those losses came in 1992 when the Rangers entered the series with the best record in the NHL and bowed out in six games under wild circumstances that saw an injured Mark Messier miss Games 2 and 3, and Adam Graves suspended for four games after slashing Mario Lemieux in Game 3and breaking a bone in his wrist.
Despite missing Messier and Graves, the Rangers found themselves up two games to one and ahead 4-2 in Game 4. A few seconds after squandering a five-minute power play, and a chance to put the game away, Ron Francis beat Richter with a long-range shot to cut the lead in half. Jaromir Jagr knotted the game about 90 seconds later. Francis completed his hat trick in overtime as the Penguins would win the rest of their games on their way to winning their second Stanley Cup.
In 1996, the Rangers shook off losing their first two playoff games at home against Montreal to beat the Canadiens in six games – which was no small feat given the Blueshirts won all three games in Montreal after posting a 1-20-3 record previously.
If you thought Sidney Crosby was a master at diving then you missed some solid performances during the 1996 series. Kevin Lowe described the splish-splashing this way.
“It looked like a bowling alley out there,” Lowe explained to Rick Carpiniello of the Journal News.
“My old man used to tell me, if you ain’t dead, don’t lay there.”
In 2008 the Rangers hoped that Jagr’s switching of allegiances would end the losing to Pittsburgh.
Optimism was running high as the Blueshirts built up a three-goal lead in Game 1. However, Pittsburgh would twice score two goals in 20 seconds before Evgeni Malkin’s power play goal at 18:19 of the third period proved to be the game winner.
The Rangers prevented the sweep behind two Jagr goals and a 29-save shutout from Henrik Lundqvist.
Trailing 2-0 heading into the third period of Game 5, Lauri Korpikoski (in his NHL debut) and Nigel Dawes scored 82 seconds apart to tie the game early in the third period. Marian Hossa ended the Rangers season 7:10 into overtime.
The Rangers roster has undergone a significant transformation since that 2008 playoff loss. Only Lundqvist, Dan Girardi and Marc Staal remain on the team, while seven Penguins return.
As we enter this series, both teams will make a concerted effort to stay out of the penalty box. Neither team was particularly effective killing penalties (Pittsburgh: 74.1% – Rangers: 71.4%). The big difference is in the teams power play units (Pittsburgh: 20.7% – Rangers: 10.3%).
If (and it is a huge if) this series is determined by five-on-five play, then the Rangers have a slight edge (1.88 goals to 1.50 goals).
Therein lies the question, how will the series be called. Will the series be called straight down the line or will the “Screw-The-Rangers” rulebook be applied where Rangers players are knocked into opposing goaltenders and it is the Blueshirts who end up shorthanded.
The Penguins needed the extra time off to help heal injuries to some of their key support players. Brandon Sutter and Joe Vitale suffered injuries in the Game 6 win against the Blue Jackets, but they did practice on Wednesday. Brian Gibbons has been out since Game 2.
On defense, Brooks Orpik missed the last two games of the Columbus series and Kris Letang is still trying to get his game back after missing time following his stroke in January.
Of course, NBC and the NHL did the Rangers no favors scheduling back-to-back games on Sunday night and Monday night. However, Gary Bettman does not deserve to take the hit all by himself. Cablevision has to share the blame as they have two New York Liberty WNBA games booked as well as Billy Joel’s monthly appearance at the Garden.
With all that said, you think clearer heads would have prevailed so that the Rangers would not have to face the prospect of six games in nine days and seven games in 11 days. I am sure something could have been done with the scheduling if NBS wasn’t so insistent on having the Rangers-Penguins available for two Sunday games.
Of course, the Rangers could have avoided the problem if they had been expeditious rather than taking seven games to dispose of the Flyers.
The biggest question for the black-and-gold comes not from the injury report but from between the pipes. Unlike the last two season when Fleury’s GAA (3.52 and 4.63) and SV% (.883 and .834) were more AHL journeyman like than they were of a Stanley Cup contender, his numbers this year (2.81 and .908) are acceptable.
With that said, Fleury still had a meltdown in the closing second of Game 4 when he FUBARed a puck behind the net that practically turned into an empty net goal for Brandon Dubinsky. Fleury then allowed a soft goal to Nick Foligno for the winner in overtime.
The Columbus-Pittsburgh series was unique in that winning team overcame a two-goal deficit in each of the first three games with the Blue Jackets erasing a three-goal deficit in Game 4 and nearly doing so again in Game 6.
You get the feeling that if the Rangers are to win this series it is going to mirror another New York-Pittsburgh playoff battle – the 1960 World Series. The Pirates won the Series in seven games as they outscored the Yankees by a combined 24-17 in their four wins. Conversely, the Yankees beat down the Pirates in their three wins – outscoring the Bucs 38-3. Let me do the math for you, the Yankees lost the World Series despite doubling the Pirates in runs (55-27).
In putting together the Keys to winning the Battle of the Keystone State Part Deux, we begin with two keys that are going to remain valid for as long as the Rangers stay alive in the playoffs.
The Rangers special teams have to be something special. It is one thing for the Blueshirts to win with a lackluster power play, but there is no way they can continue to win if they are going to continue struggling to kill penalties.
The second thing is that the Rangers best players have to continue to be their best players. They need more Game 7-like efforts out of Rick Nash the deeper the Rangers go in the playoffs and the top four defensemen are going to be tested every shift they match up against Crosby and Malkin. It is too much to ask for the Rangers to keep Crosby and Malkin under wraps like Columbus did for the first five games before Geno broke loose for three goals.
One interesting wrinkle is that Martin St. Louis is making his Rangers debut against the Penguins. MSL has averaged nearly a point a game in his career against Pittsburgh (47 points in 50 games).
Looking ahead to this series, I see the Rangers possible path to victory coming down to these keys.
1. Discipline – Against the Penguins the idea of discipline is really a three step process. It is obvious that the Rangers must stay out of the penalty box – especially with the officials always keeping a caring eye on Crosby.
The Rangers also have to be disciplined enough not to turn this game into a track meet. Unless Fleury is playing like a sieve, the Blueshirts do not have the offensive firepower to match the Penguins goal-for-goal in a high scoring series.
That leads me to my third point of discipline. The Rangers need to focus on their play in the second period of Game 7. That is the blueprint for beating the Penguins. The Rangers pressured the Flyers for the entire period with a relentless forecheck that keyed the Blueshirts offensive pressure.
2. Wilting the Flower – If the Rangers can maintain that focused forecheck, they are going to cause the Penguins to turn the puck over like the Flyers did. The pressure then falls squarely on the shoulders of Fleury. If the Penguins goaltender is unable to duplicate Steve Mason’s heroics, then the Rangers path to the Eastern Conference Finals gets much easier.
Odds are the Penguins will not use Tomas Vokoun as a fallback should Fleury implode. The Czech netminder was limited to just two AHL games as he battled back from blood clotting issues. While they might turn to him, it would be a lot to ask of him to save Pittsburgh’s season.
That leaves rookie goaltender Jeff Zatkoff as the only other alternative. The former Los Angeles Kings draft pick has just 20 NHL games under his belt.
The Rangers are going to have to create a lot traffic and havoc in front of Fleury so that he does not get comfortable in his crease. No, I am not saying they have to be physical with him just get him to the point where he constantly has to be in motion to the see puck and make saves.
They also need to get a lot of vulcanized rubber on net – and it has to be more than the Rangers usual variety of “casual shots from the perimeter that hit the goalie center mass”. In other words, they have to shoot the puck like they mean it and don’t look to over-pass the puck. Sometimes the best pass is a rebound off a shot on goal.
3. Breaking the Streak – In order for the Rangers to break their playoff losing streak to Pittsburgh (all four series) they must break their other playoff losing streak – 12 losses in a row when they have had a lead in a series. Teams that make deep runs in the playoffs do it by stringing together wins, not by alternating wins and losses. The streaks have to end sometime and in the Rangers case it might as well be sooner rather than later.
4. The Matchups – You can expect there to be a lot of cat-and-mouse strategy flying between the two coaches. Will Dan Bylsma try to get Crosby going by teaming him with Malkin? Which defensive pairing does Alain Vigneault use against the Crosby and Malkin lines (assuming they are kept apart)?
You can expect Bylsma to use the last change option at the CONSOL Energy Center in order to get one (if not both) of his star canters matched up against the John Moore-Kevin Klein pairing. Look for major ice time to be shared by Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal and Anton Stralman.
While not a matchup per se, you have to like the Rangers’ advantage in terms of the third and fourth line matchups – especially if Bylsma has to move Brandon Sutter up when he teams Crosby and Malkin together.
5. Best of Both Worlds – In an interesting twist given John Tortorella’s firing in Vancouver, the Rangers are going to need to meld the styles of play espoused by the last two coaches. They have to channel their inner Torts in terms of play in the defensive end and return to the shot-blocking monsters they were a couple of years ago. At the same time, they have to remember to embrace the offensive freedom that AV has installed.
As for my prediction, well, that is where I have a problem. My mind is saying that the Penguins will win the series, but my heart is saying the Rangers can find a win to prevail.
In the end the prediction is Penguins in seven as Crosby, Malkin and the guys in the striped shirts prove to be too much for the Rangers.
However, I do see a way for the Rangers to find a way to win. It involves the Blueshirts finding a way to end up ahead in the series following Sunday night. Being up three games to none would be golden, but a 2-1 lead will suffice. It sets the Rangers up with a chance to return to Pittsburgh with a 3-1 lead with the opportunity to end the series in five or six games. The longer the series goes, the more the odds shift to the Penguins.