April 2015


If it is Spring time and the hockey playoffs are blooming, then it must be time for the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals annual playoff series. While that might not be the whole truth, it is pretty darn close as the Battle of Broadway versus the Beltway lines up for the fifth time in the last seven years – and three in the last four playoffs.

The way these two teams are going this playoff matchup is going to have more sequels than the “Rocky” saga.

David Satriano and Dan Rosen of nhl.com pointed out that Dan Girardi, Henrik Lundqvist and Marc Staal are the only Rangers to have played in the previous four playoff matchups. The Capitals have five players: Nicklas Backstrom, Eric Fehr, Mike Green, Brooks Laich and Alexander Ovechkin. Jay Beagle appeared in four playoff games in 2009, but did not play in the Rangers-Capitals series.

The Capitals Game 7 elimination of the New York Islanders robbed New York hockey fans of the first Rangers-Islanders playoff matchup in 21 years – and I say good riddance.

It would be bad enough if the Rangers are eliminated by the Capitals, but could imagine the scene if the Islanders were the team eliminating the Blueshirts? There would be a conga line a mile long stretching from Madison Square Garden to the East River as Rangers fans lined up for a long walk off a very short pier.

In terms of substance, whether they were playing the Capitals of the Islanders, the Rangers would be facing a team that is more physical than Pittsburgh. While the Penguins tried be punishing hitters, they are no match for the Capitals (or even the Islanders for that matter).

You can expect Washington to come out hitting from the opening faceoff of the opening game. While Tom Wilson has drawn the most ink because of his hot on Lubomir Visnovksy, the most physical player they need to worry about is the Capitals best player – Alexander Ovechkin.

Ovie has no problems leading the seek-and-destroy missions that has become the Capitals calling card. In addition to his size, Ovechkin enjoys the superstar designation that allows him to play over the line without the fear of reprisal from the National Hockey League.

The Rangers cannot afford to get caught up trying to answer every hit the Capitals dish out. While they do need to maintain a physical presence, the Rangers are going to win the series by doing what they do best. As physical as the Caps might be, you can’t hit what you can’t catch.

The first obstacle is going to be shaking off the rust as the Rangers get back into playoff mode after being off a week – something the team needed in the long run.

“We played 13 games in 22 days, and a lot of it was against teams that were … trying to get into the playoffs, ” Coach Alain Vigneault explained to Avery Stone of USA Today. “I think this (break) is going to be very beneficial for us. We’ve got a couple little bumps and bruises that we’re in the process of healing.”

While the time off won’t be enough to allow Mars Zuccarello to return to the lineup, it did allow Kevin Klein to get in the necessary practice to return to the lineup.
In looking at the Rangers-Capitals series, I see five keys to a Rangers victory.

DISCIPLINE

This key is a multi-layered one. First and foremost, the Rangers have to stay out of the penalty box. While Washington’s power play has been nothing to write home about during the playoffs, the Capitals did own the regular season’s best power play. There is no need to poke the bear with a stick at this point in the season.

Secondly, the Rangers need to remember that skating, speed and solid two-way play is what led them, to the Presidents Trophy during the regular season. They must not be drawn into matching the Capitals hit-for-hit. Take the body when you can and don’t be drawn into any retaliation penalties.

MOVEMENT

The easiest way to avoid hits is to keep moving – both in terms on constantly being in motion (i.e. skating) and keeping the puck moving. This movement is crucial to the Rangers power play. The Rangers power play is at its best when both pucks and players are moving.

The Blueshirts get themselves into trouble when they start playing a passive (and stationary) box and appear content to move the puck around the perimeter. A team that does not move on its power play makes itself very easy to defend.

TRANSITION

The Rangers will make things easier on themselves if they are able to alleviate the pressure (and physical play) the Capitals are dishing out if they are able to get the puck out of the zone.

The ability to break Washington’s forecheck will not only lessen the Caps ability to punish the Rangers defense corps, it will allow the Blueshirts to use their speed advantage in the overall transition game – which is the key to the Rangers offense.

As part of this emphasis on transition, it means the Rangers are going to win the “battle of the blue lines” – both in their zone and at the Capitals blue line.

In their defensive zone, the Rangers are going to have to work extra hard at winning the battle along the boards – especially within five feet of the blue line. If Washington is able to win those battles and keep the 50-50 pucks within the Rangers end, the Capitals are going to be able to use their size to eventually wear down five tired skaters.

At the Capitals blue line, the Rangers can’t afford to turn the puck over at the blue line. If they have no advantage on the attack they need to get the puck deep and work on the Capitals defense corps. The hope is that the Rangers speed lets them win the puck battles or at least force the Caps into taking penalties.

SPECIAL TEAMS

A big key rests on how the referees are going to call this series. If the Rangers speed game is working, they are going to draw a fair share of penalties against the Capitals. If they referees are going to let obstruction go, then it will be a long series.

A long series can get even longer if they Rangers power play is not producing any consistent offense. The Rangers don’t need to score on every man advantage (one out of four would be good), but they do need to able to maintain sustained pressure on a large number of power plays.

The more success the Rangers have on the power play, the less inclined Washington will be too “take liberties” with their physical play. Between having to face an active Rangers power play and watching Ovechkin sit for long periods of time (think Sidney Crosby, Game 1 Period 1), the Capitals will have to curtail their physical play a bit.

In terms of penalty killing, stop Ovechkin! The entire NHL knows that Ovie likes to set up on his off-wing at the top of the left circle and wait to line up one of howitzer-like one-timers.

During the last two regular season games the teams played, the Rangers left the Capitals captain WIDE open for those shots as he netted two PPGs.

While the Rangers don’t want to be caught focusing all of their attention on Ovechkin, it might behoove them to consider a triangle-and-one at times (keep someone on Ovechkin at all times and play a triangle formation) to try and confuse the Capitals.

Better yet, just stay out of the penalty box altogether.

BRADEN HOLTBY

MSG analyst Steve Valiquette pointed out that he thinks Braden Holtby might be wearing down because of the workload he handled this year. Valiquette thought Holtby was staying down on his knees and not regaining proper positioning following his first save – something he did criticize Marc-Andre Fleury for on Carl Hagelin series-winning goal in Game 5.

The numbers do bear Valiquette out. Holtby led the NHL is games played, minutes and saves this year. Including his six playoff games (he missed Game 2 against the Islanders because he was sick), Holtby has played in 79 games so far – surpassing his career high of 55 (last season). He has played nearly 6, 000 minutes – nearly doubling the 3, 100 minutes he played last season.

That is quite a heavy workload for a goaltender who is not used to it. The Rangers to keep pressure on Holtby as much as possible to see if they can wear him down by sheer quantity, never mind quality. They can up the ante on the quantity by getting bodies to the net and creating a lot of traffic in front of him.

THE PREDICTION

I would feel a lot more confident in picking the Rangers to win if Mats Zuccarello would be in the lineup. While James Sheppard’s size will be a welcomed addition to the lineup, the Blueshirts will miss the Little Italian Norwegian Kid’s ability to open up a game with his vision and determination.

With that said, the Rangers have shown an ability to overcome whatever speed bumps the 2014-2015 season have thrown at them. Whether it was injuries to Henrik Lundqvist, Derek Stepan and Kevin Klein, there was always a Cam Talbot, Kevin Hayes or Matt Hunwick ready to step in and fill the void – the “Next Man Up” theme that WFAN’s Boomer Esiason has always espoused about this season’s New York Rangers.

While the Capitals have the best player on the ice in Alexander Ovechkin, and maybe even the second best player in Nicklas Backstrom, the Rangers have the better team from one to 20.

It is not going to be an easy series. Nothing is ever easy when it comes to the New York Rangers. Who else but the Rangers would make winning a five-game series seem like winning a seven-game series where every game went into overtime?

Let’s face it; the Rangers almost always have to do things the hard way. Their last seven playoff games have been decided by one goal. Nine of their last 10 playoff games have been one-goal games. 12 of their last 14 games are, you guessed it, one-goal games. Of those 14 games, three went to double overtime and three were settled in “regular” overtime.

As they have done in the past, the Rangers will find a way to soldier on and advance to the Eastern Conference Final in, what else, a seven game series victory on home ice – in overtime.

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

Average Rating: 5 out of 5 based on 172 user reviews.

It is an interesting week for hockey fans as the post season drama goes on with two big games ahead. Four teams will battle it out with the most interesting tie being the New York Islanders-Washington Capitals Game 7. The other game to watch is Detroit Red Wings taking on Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 6. While the Lightning will be putting in effort to try and force a Game 7 with the Red Wings, New York Islanders will be looking to impress after successfully forcing a Game 7 with the Capitals. If you wish to cash in on the action, you can check out the NHL odds for the upcoming playoffs games here.

Let us take a look at these games individually and see the build up to the match-ups.

Washington Capitals Vs New York Islanders

This Game 7 will take place at 7:30 p.m. ET with the series tied at 3-3. Although this is just what the Islanders wanted, a Game 7 is never an easy game both for the fans and the players as it means almost 3 hours of intense physical test. This will be a big game for the Islanders as it is their chance to finally make it to the 2nd round of the post season, something that they last achieved back in 1992-1993. Back then, they beat the Pittsburgh Penguins which was the best team in the NHL at the time. Since then, it has been an agonizing 14 missed opportunities for them to reach the second round.

By the look of things this could be the most favorable chance for the Islanders to qualify. The Washington Capitals have their defensive weaknesses which the Islanders will be looking to exploit. However, the Roster still has one of the most dangerous offensive plays in the league. The lapse in defense is also compensated by their inform goalie who showed his quality in Game 6. It all boils down to who wants it most and who will execute their game plan effectively and win it all. Your pick should be Capitals 3, Islanders 1.

Detroit Red Wings Vs Tampa Bay Lightning

The lightning scored three late goals in Game 4 to overturn a 2-0 deficit, something which was instrumental in keeping the season alive up to now. While the Lightning will be trying to make a Game 7 match-up happen against the Red Wings, they will have to come up with a strategy to get past the strong Wings defense. In addition Petr Mrazek, the Red Wings goalie, will be another stumbling block for the Tampa Bay.

At the Lightning camp, the players’ struggle to score continues with Tyler Johnson being the only one in the squad who has been scoring freely. Steven Stamkos will go into match 6 still goalless in the series. If he is to score, it will take something special for him to beat Pavel Datsyuk whom he doesn’t have a good record against. The Red Wings not only have depth in their squad, but most of their players have also been scoring at will. Nine of their players have a goal each and 13 of them have at least 2 points each so far.

The pick is Red Wings 4, Tampa Bay Lightning 2

 

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

Average Rating: 4.6 out of 5 based on 162 user reviews.

The New York Rangers enter the 2015 Stanley Cup season as the hunted instead of the hunter. The bullseye is drawn on the Rangers is doubled in size because, first off they are the Rangers and secondly they face the extra burden of winning the Presidents’ Trophy for the third time since the trophy was awarded at the end of the 1985-86 season.

“We have to embrace it, and challenge ourselves, ” Rick Nash told Brett Cyrgalis of the NY Post. “We’re obviously going to be the team to beat.”

No fan of the Blueshirts will ever forget the last time the Rangers were the NHL’s Presidents’ Trophy winner. It was the season that saw the end of the curse and the end of “1940” chants (except for the sarcastic one the Garden faithful chanted that fateful night).

While fans might want to forget the first time the Rangers won the Presidents’ Trophy, they should remember it or face the wrath of being condemned to repeat it.

After eliminating the New Jersey Devils by winning a Game 7 for the first time in franchise history, the Rangers squared off against the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1992.

It was a series that featured Adam Graves being suspended for four games for breaking Mario Lemieux’s left wrist. With the Rangers up two games to one and a 4-2 third period lead and with a chance to put the game away with a five-minute power play, the Blueshirts snatched defeat from the jaws of victory when a Ron Francis shot from outside the blue line eluded goalie Mike Richter.

About 90 seconds later Jaromir Jagr tied the game. Richter was so rattled that Jaromir Jagr nearly beat a wandering Richter with a shot from center ice. Coach Roger Neilson replaced Richter with John Vanbiesbrouck and it was Beezer who was victimized by Mark Messier’s turnover in overtime that led to Ron Francis completing the hat trick and tying the series at 2-2. Pittsburgh would win the next two games and end the Rangers Cup hopes.

Of course that was 23 years ago and times have changed. If a Rangers player ever came close to doing to Sidney Crosby what Graves did to Lemieux – well let’s just say said Rangers player would be collecting Social Security by the time his suspension was over.

The NHL has to be thrilled as the league prepares for the Stanley Cup playoffs – especially those in power who favor parity. Only 16 points separated the Rangers (first in points) and Calgary Flames (final playoff qualifier). That is the fewest amount of points since 16 teams made the playoffs. The last time that gap was less was in 1964-65 when just four of six teams made the playoffs.

With the Los Angeles Kings missing the playoffs, the NHL will see its 16th different Stanley Cup champion crowned. No team has won back-t-back Cups since the Detroit Red Wings in 1996-97 and 1997-98.

Also lending itself to NFL-like parity, the NHL saw seven teams make the playoffs this year after missing out last year – the largest turnover in league history.

Even within the game itself, parity appeared to reign. Nearly 605 of games (719 of the 1, 230) were one-goal games or one-goal plus an empty net goal.

As for the 2015 version of this rivalry, many people will point to the Rangers speed and overall attention to defense and the return to form of Henrik Lundqvist as the key to the series.

Some people will point to the revenge Crosby and Evgeni Malkin want to dish out after the Penguins failed to capitalize on the three games to one lead last year. Still others will point to Marc-Andre Fleury and his need to replicate his 2009 Stanley Cup heroics rather than revisit his 2012 playoffs meltdown.

I see this series as one of attrition – especially among the Penguins blueliners. Pittsburgh enters the playoffs without Kris Letang who is suffering from post-concussion syndrome.

Also gone are veteran d-men Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik who both left during the summer.

The status of injured defensemen Christian Ehrhoff, Olli Maatta and Derrick Pouliot are unknown – although Jenn Menendez of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote that Coach Mike Johnston thinks Pouliot, and possibly Ehrhoff, could be available for playoff duty at some point. Things were so bad for the Penguins that they were only able to dress five defensemen by the end of the season because of injuries and cap concerns – and one of them was minor league veteran Taylor Chorney.

It is interesting that the Penguins found themselves with such cap constraints considering that they placed Dupuis and Maatta on LTIR – according to Rob Rossi of TribLive.com.

Actually, if Rossi’s April 11 article is true, then there is a big disconnect in the Steel City in terms of the organization, from top to bottom.

Rossi states that Pittsburgh settled on current GM Jim Rutherford after failing to hire their number one priority – player agent Pat Brisson, who just happens to be Crosby’s agent.

Rutherford, who was only allowed to hire one outsider for his staff, was expected to provide mentorship for former Ray Shero hires Jason Botterill, Tom Fitzgerald, and Bill Guerin. The implication was that Rutherford was a placeholder for one of these three.

Much like Rutherford, Johnston was not Pittsburgh’s first choice as coach. Instead, their number one target left for Vancouver’s job (Willie Desjardins).

Also like Rutherford, Johnston was able to bring in one outside assistant coach (Gary Agnew) as Rick Tocchet and goalie coach Mike Bales were retained.

The Penguins have been able to dip down to their AHL affiliate to recall d-men Brian Dumoulin and Scott Harrington. It will be interesting to see how much ice time and responsibility rookie head coach Mike Johnston gives two his rookie defenseman.

Even the vaunted Penguins forward corps has seen its share of injury woes. Pascal Dupuis was limited to just 16 games before blood clots ended his season. Even Malkin has been suffering from an undisclosed injury that seen him go without a goal for the final 10 games of the regular season.

The Rangers are probably as healthy as any team can expect to be at this time of the season. Marc Staal appears ready to return to action and should be given the task of shutting down Crosby.

Injured defenseman Kevin Klein was not on the ice as the Rangers returned to practice on Tuesday – and he did not practice on Wednesday either. Coach Alain Vigneault has let it be known that Klein must return to practice before getting back into the lineup. On the plus side, Matt Hunwick has not looked out of place.

Even with Letang on the sidelines, the Penguins power play has enough offensive power to make the Rangers pay for any undisciplined play. As good as the Penguins power play has been (10th in the NHL), their penalty killing has been even better finishing third in the league.

As a comparison, the Blueshirts power play limped home as the 21st rated man advantage while their penalty killing was again a bright spot – sixth in the NHL.

As the Nashville Predators can attest in their Game 1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, special team play can swing the momentum of a game.

The 2014-2015 NHL season has really been a season within a season for both squads. Earlier in the year, the Rangers trailed the Penguins by as many as 13 points. While the Rangers gathered steam and finished strong (despite the lackluster home finale against Ottawa), Pittsburgh limped home with a 4-9-2 record (including five losses in a row) and needed to win their final game of the season against Buffalo just to qualify for the playoffs.

With the Penguins facing the possibility of playing such an inexperienced defense, it is imperative that the Rangers make the Pittsburgh blueliners uncomfortable in their own end. The Blueshirts will need to ratchet up their forechecking in order to force the Penguins defense into turnovers that can be converted into scoring chances because Fleury has been solid in goal this year – posting an NHL best 10 shutouts on the season.

The Rangers will also help their case by staying out of the penalty box. The Rangers were able to overcome the Penguins last year by limiting the likes of Crosby and Malkin. It was a strategy that the Rangers followed during their regular season success against Pittsburgh.

Malkin and Nick Spaling paced the Pittsburgh offense with three points each, with Malkin being the lone Penguin with more than one goal.

Prediction: I predict that I will be suffering from agita, aggravation and many sleepless nights – and I hope it last well over two months.

As for the series, I see the Rangers winning it in six games as their speed and forechecking will provide too much for the Penguins defenseman to handle. If the Blueshirts can hold serve during the first two games at MSG, they might be able to do themselves a favor and wrap up the series in five. My advice for the Rangers is for them to seize their home ice advantage and not give Pittsburgh any chance to avenge last season’s playoff collapse.

The interesting point will be to see what the loser of this series does moving forward. Does the losing team’s management decide that the organization has one more run in them as currently constituted, or does management decide that the current roster has taken the team as far as it can and that major changes are the next step in the organization’s evolutionary process.

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

Average Rating: 4.6 out of 5 based on 288 user reviews.