April 2017


After eliminating Canada’s hockey capital (Montreal) it is only fitting that the next obstacle for the New York Rangers to climb would be Canada’s capital (Ottawa) in a rematch of their 2012 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals won by the Rangers in seven games after trailing three games to two.

This year’s Eastern Conference Semifinals features many intriguing off-ice and on-ice stories that bear watching.

Ottawa goalie Craig Anderson has split his time this season tending goal for the Senators and tending to his wife Nicholle as she battles cancer – a situation that I am all too familiar with and as a result wish Craig and Nicholle nothing but the best.

Clarke McArthur’s triumphant return from missing nearly two full seasons recovering from a concussion and its aftermath was capped off with his Game 6 winning goal in overtime to eliminate the Boston Bruins.

Of course, one can’t talk of the senators without mentioning the “impending domination” of perennial Norris Trophy candidate Erik Karlsson and Anderson’s mastery over the Rangers (10-5-3 with a 1.77 GAA, .941 SV% and four shutouts).

In the minds of a lot of Rangers and Senators fans, this series will go a long way in deciding which team won the Mika Zibanejad-Derick Brassard trade. Early returns look good for the Sens as “Big Game Brass” is tied for second in the playoffs with eight points while Zibanejad has half as many points for the Blueshirts. Speaking of Brassard, the series reunites him with his former Rangers BFF Mats Zuccarello.

Alain Vigneault will be coaching against the organization that gave him his first NHL job as he served as an assistant coach for Ottawa for three and a half years.

Vigneault offered an interesting take to the media on the Zibanejad-Brassard trade leading up to the start of the series. The Rangers were able to acquire a 2018 second round pick from Ottawa in that deal which, in turn, allowed the Rangers to package a 2018 second round pick to Detroit as part of the Brendan Smith deal.

All of these off-ice and on-ice stories make for nice print and on-air talking points, but the main story for this series will come to down to “1-3-1” – the defensive system used by Ottawa’s coach Guy Boucher. It is a system that Boucher started when he was Tampa Bay and caused Philadelphia Flyers’ coach Peter Laviolette to mock Boucher’s strategy.

The Rangers ability, or inability, to break the 1-3-1 is the key to the series. Job (sounds like rob) is to be as patient as Job (sounds like robe) when it comes to breaking Ottawa’s trap. In order to counter Boucher’s plan to stifle puck movement through the neutral zone, the Rangers must resist resorting to what MSG.com Rick Carpiniello likes to call their “fancy-boy” way of playing hockey where the Blueshirts put more reliance on piling up style points rather than shots or goals.

Whether they like it or not, the Rangers will have to play dump-and-chase hockey (emphasis on their need to chase). Considering on how much Boucher relied on his top four defensemen against Boston (without Mark Borowiecki who missed four of the six games, but should be back sooner rather than later), the Rangers can make good use of putting bodies on the Ottawa d-men, especially early in games.

In a discussion on the NHL Network, the analysts believed that the Rangers physical pressure on Karlsson would pay off late in shifts/periods/games. If the Rangers attack and put bodies him, they can take advantage of Karlsson – and by extension the rest of the Ottawa blueliners.

The Rangers need to implement a strategy that former Canadian Junior Brian Kilrea used to employ. In racking up nearly 1,200 wins with the Ottawa 67’s, Kilrea’s forechecking strategy was “asses and eyeballs”. In Kilrea’s book, “They Caller Me Killer”, Bryan Trottier explained what Kilrea means by “asses and eyeballs”:

“If you see their asses, let’s pressure like hell! If you see their eyeballs, we’ll just send one,” Trottier explained.

In addition to hard forechecking and dump-and-chase, the Rangers will need to be in constant motion to break the 1-3-1 with quick crisp passes – as opposed to their preferred method of looking to stretch the ice with long passes (which can play into the Senators’ trap).

In addition to patience, the Rangers will have to remain disciplined and not try to force a round peg into a square hole. The importance for discipline carries over to eliminating, or at least limiting, the lazy stupid penalties they took against Montreal – like all of those high sticking penalties late in the series.

In a way, the Rangers will have to do like they did in the Montreal series, adjust their style of play to meet the needs of the game. It is something that Derek Stepan recognizes.

“You have a game plan, but you also have to be ready to take what series’ give you and I think that’s how teams succeed in the playoffs,” Stepan admitted to Larry Brooks of the New York Post. “We have superstars on our team, but we don’t rely on superstars taking over games. We’re team-oriented and built that way.

“I go back to what Marty [St. Louis] preaches about the importance of being able to make adjustments. That’s what he did as an individual to be able to succeed in the league for so long, and that’s what teams need to be able to do.”

It is ironic that Stepan mentioned St. Louis because Marty was part of that Lightning team that implemented the 1-3-1.

Of course, the easiest way to break the 1-3-1, or any trap for that matter, is to get the lead and then add to it. The more Ottawa falls behind, the greater the pressure is to change their style of play and open the game up – which will play to the Rangers skill and speed advantage.

One way for the Rangers make sure they get the early lead is to win the special teams battles. The Rangers penalty killing helped do them in during their Game 3 loss and their power play goal in Game 6 helped win the series. With the way Anderson and Henrik Lundqvist are playing goals are expected to be at a premium so the special teams should be crucial.

Interestingly enough, success on special teams hasn’t been all that successful for playoffs teams this year. Calgary leads all playoff teams in PP% (37.5) and they were swept in four games. Minnesota and Montreal had the playoffs best penalty killing units (93.3) and both of those teams are out of the playoffs.

The Rangers need some of their young stars to pick up their play in the Ottawa series. Kevin Hayes, Chris Kreider and J.T. Miller were far too inconsistent in the Montreal series, although Hayes began to show life towards the end of the series. Kreider and Miller got lucky after taking some really stupid penalties late in the series and can’t afford to do so now. With Montreal and the Carey Price Affair a memory, perhaps Kreider will regain his confidence to go to the net utilizing his size and speed.

While Stepan helped ice the series with his empty net goal, two points in six games is not going to get the job done – especially when you are only winning 37.2% of your faceoffs. That was the one part of Hayes’ game that was strong (57.6%).

The Rangers had success against Price when took advantage of him going down to the ice early. While he is a very athletic goalie, Anderson can fall into that same trap as well. The Blueshirts will need to get traffic in front of him in the hopes he will have problems going side-to-side and picking up the puck through traffic.

In addition to shutting down Brassard and Karlsson, the Rangers will have to deal with the resurgence of Bobby Ryan who scored four goals and three assists against Boston. He was using his Rick Nash-like ability in a way that the Rangers need to see from Nash and their big forwards.

THE PREDICTION

Many Rangers fans were pleased with the extra rest they received thanks to eliminating the Canadiens in six games instead of the usual seven games it always seems to take the Rangers. Frankly, the rest probably did more for Ottawa given the four overtime games they played against the Bruins – not to mention the “healing time” Karlsson’s hairline fracture in his foot received. The Senators captain averaged over 30 minutes of ice time that was topped off by nearly 42 minutes in double overtime in Game 5. Karlsson had to battle through cramps in that game so any extra rest for him was welcomed.

This series is going to be like the typical Rangers death struggle when it comes to the playoffs. There are going to be time when they resemble the team that started the season 13-4-0 and then there will be times when they play like the team that limped home during the final few weeks of the regular season.

Ottawa’s trap is sure to lead some ugly hockey at times, and that is to be expected. The Rangers response to the trap will determine the outcome of the series. As we have seen this year, home-ice is not the advantage it is cracked up to be. The Rangers were the NHL’s road warriors while the home team in the Ottawa series was just 1-5.

In the end, the Rangers depth, skill and speed will win out. The Rangers won their second straight playoff series against Montreal in six games so I expect the Rangers will win their second straight seven game series against Ottawa.

Once again, if you are looking to talk Rangers playoff hockey just visit Rangers Report 2.0. It is a place where we have serious (and sometimes not so serious) discussions on the Rangers and hockey.

Also, don’t forget to follow Rick Carpiniello on MSG.com for his unique takes on all things New York Rangers ACCORDING TO CARP.

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After it appeared that the New York Rangers were not going to win the Metropolitan Division crown, Blueshirts fans have been calling for their team to go into the tank (just enough) to clinch the first wildcard and cross over into the Atlantic Division as the fourth seed.

Ranger fans: Be careful what you wish for.

Switching divisions does have its advantage as the Rangers avoid the gauntlet of having to defeat two of the top three teams in the Eastern Conference (who also rank first, second and fourth in the NHL) in order to just reach the Eastern Conference Final.

Of course, that advantage means the Rangers get to face the Montreal Canadiens and the house of horrors known as the Bell Centre. Despite the Rangers having, as Rick Carpiniello, now writing online for MSG at ACCORDING TO CARP calls it, “road-ice advantage”, the Rangers would have been better off crossing over to the Western Conference where they posted a 21-6-1 record. Only Chicago’s 43 points against the Eastern Conference matched the Rangers.

The Rangers passed on their fans “tanking” mantra last season and paid the price with a five-game loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Despite that loss, that series was tied at 1-1 with Game 3 being tied at 1-1 going into the third period at the garden. The Rangers could have been ahead if not for Michael Sullivan winning a coach’s challenge that wiped out Chris Kreider’s PPG midway through the first period. Pittsburgh tied the game on a late second period PPG by Sidney Crosby.

Rather than that memory, fans remember the Rangers third period collapse in Game 3 and the Pens thorough dismantling of the Rangers in the next two games as The King was unceremoniously dethroned.

As is the case any time the Rangers have entered a playoff series, their fates rest squarely on the shoulders of Henrik Lundqvist. For the first time in a long time, Lundqvist enters a series as the decided underdog in the battle of the goaltenders.

Since the end of the 2008-9 season, Lundqvist has been anything but a king in the Bell Centre posting a 0-6-1 record with a 4.42 GAA. In 2014, Lundqvist held Montreal to three goals as the Rangers won the first two games at the Bell Centre. Game 5, on the hand, was a nightmare as Lundqvist gave up four goals before being pulled about midway through the game leaving Cam Talbot to take the loss after the Rangers erased a 4-1 deficit.

As formidable as Price has been in his career during his 10 year career (he only played 12 games last season), he has been rather pedestrian in terms of his playoff heroics. In looking at his statistics Price’s numbers, his playoff numbers are slightly off when compared to regular season numbers: GAA – 2.62/2.40 and SV% – .914%/.920%.

For comparison’s sake, Lundqvist’s playoff numbers closely mirror his regular season numbers: GAA – 2.28/2.32 and SV% – .921/.920.

The Carey Price-Chris Kreider escapade of 2014 has been written about and talked about enough that there is no need for me to analyze and over-analyze what happened. I will say this – if Montreal needs that particular revenge factor as a motive to beat the Rangers – then the Habs are done before the series starts.

Another angle that has been beaten to death is the rematch of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final coaches with Claude Julien replacing Michel Therrien during the regular season. Given that Julien and Alain Vigneault are coaching different teams this angle is nothing more than any interesting tidbit as what happened in 2011 will have no bearing on what happens in 2017.

What will have a bearing is which Rangers team decides to show up for this series. Is the disinterested Rangers team that stumbled home with an 8-9-4 record or is it the team that roared out to a 40-19-2 record?

While Jeff Gorton has done a pretty good job of injecting some youth into a team that was left bereft of first round draft picks, some tough decision will be coming in the off-season thanks to the Expansion Draft and the intrigue over next season’s salary cap. Contract clauses and high salaries will limit Gorton’s ability to break up the veteran core, but another uninspired playoff exit might force the Rangers to make hard decisions – which are for another day.

The concern for the Rangers is how to game plan a strategy to beat the Montreal Canadiens. Being a diehard Rangers fan – as if there is any other kind of Rangers fan – I offer Vigneault the following suggestions.

The first is some advice that I had stored way from an old Elliotte Friedman article from Sportsnet.ca. Friedman was writing about the 2015 playoff matchup between the Canadiens and Ottawa Senators. Friedman wrote, “One NHLer, watching that series, said despite all of Ottawa’s pressure, there’s a certain way you have to do it against the Canadiens — drive the middle and push the defence back. ‘(The Senators) don’t shoot for rebounds,’ he texted. ‘They shoot to score from far out,’ and that is ‘too easy for Price.’”

The Rangers forwards are going to have to camp out in front of Price and being active and alert for any rebound chances and look to screen him at every chance. Think of Derek Stepan’s PPG against Philadelphia in the regular season finale as the blueprint for the Rangers – especially on the power play. Tristan Jarry had no chance to stop Stepan’s shot because he had to look around Rick Nash.

Shea Weber is going to be an imposing figure in this series at both ends of the ice. You can expect he will be out against either Kreider or Nash and will try to neutralize either one. On the plus side, that probably means he can’t be on the ice to defend them both as long as AV pays attention to matchups.

Offensively, Weber’s howitzer of a shot will be as imposing as that of Alex Ovechkin – especially when the Habs are on the PP. The Rangers must know where Weber is on the ice at all times in the Rangers zone and the Blueshirts must be active with their sticks and bodies to disrupt his shot – something they don’t always do enough of when facing Ovechkin – especially on the PP.

Offensively, especially early in games, dump the puck into his corner and make him play the puck. The Rangers have enough forwards who have the skating ability and size to put pressure on Weber and make him give up the puck. When he does, that is when the Rangers must attack on the forecheck. It is similar to the strategy the Rangers used in 1979 when they defeated Denis Potvin and the New York Islanders.

Some fans are concerned about the size the Habs added at the trade deadline. If the difference in this series comes down Jordie Benn, Dwight King and Steve Ott then the Rangers had no business even being in the playoffs. The Rangers have enough size in their lineup to battle Montreal – it is a matter of them using it.

It is that size and the Rangers speed among their forwards that make it a must that the Rangers harass Montreal on the forecheck, above and beyond what I wrote previously about slowing Weber down. Julien is going to have the Habs clogging the neutral zone so the best way for the Rangers to combat that is to pin the Canadiens in their own zone.

Remember, dump-and-chase is not always a bad idea as long as the Rangers don’t forget the chase part – something they often do. When they dump the puck in they have to do it smartly because price can handle the puck. Either band it hard around the boards or put into the corner where Price can’t play the puck. Cross-ice dump-ins with the weak side forward going hard after the puck will help.

Speaking of being pinned in their own zone, could the Rangers please abandon this fake news about them playing man-to-man defense because they don’t. The Rangers forwards drop down into the shooting lanes rather than cover the points. Watch the Rangers’ defensive zone coverage; the forwards are playing a spot on the ice as opposed to playing the man. This is why the Rangers get caught in their own zone for extended periods of time.

In coming up with a prediction, I am of two minds. My heart says that the Rangers can and will win in six games. However, my brain says something different.

If the Rangers were an offensive juggernaut or a lockdown defensive team, then I could see them being able to flip the switch and return to the success they had prior to the final quarter of the regular season. Since the Rangers are neither of those type of teams, the prediction is Montreal in six.

If you are looking for a place to gripe, kvetch or just talk Rangers playoff hockey just visit Rangers Report 2.0. It is a place where we have serious (and sometimes not so serious) discussions on the Rangers and hockey.

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