2011 Playoffs

John Greenleaf Whittier wrote, “For of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: ‘It might have been!’” There will be time in the coming days and weeks to discuss the postmortem on the New York Rangers season and to look ahead to next year. However, now is the time to reflect back on the Blueshirts who let a golden opportunity slip through their fingers against the Washington Capitals.

“We had some opportunities we needed to grab and we didn’t. We had a couple of chances to get some wins in Game 1 or Game 4,” Henrik Lundqvist explained to Rick Carpiniello of the Journal News. “You can’t expect to win every night, but when you have that chance, that opportunity, you have to grab it. We didn’t do it. That’s not good enough.

The New York Rangers had enough chances in this series that their Game 5 loss could have been a precursor to being in the position to win the series at Madison Square Garden on Monday night.

Unfortunately, the Rangers could not hold a lead late in Game 1 and then, for the first time all season, fail to hold a lead going into the third period of Game 4.

“I thought the most important thing of the series was in the first four games, we have a lead (in three of them) in the third period, and we come out with one win, Rangers Coach John Tortorella told Carpiniello. “And there’s not many opportunities, against a team we’re playing against, when you have them there, just to get it done one time. So I thought that was a very key situation within the series.”

For the first time in the series, it appeared that the Rangers suffered from a carryover effect from the previous game. While the Blueshirts came out strong on their first shift, the Capitals took over the tempo of the game and never looked back. The Rangers never seemed to get back off their heels until they fell behind by two goals.

The biggest problem is that the Rangers best line was the The Pest Line of Sean Avery, Brian Boyle and Brandon Prust. All three are solid support players, but they can’t be your best offensive players in a deciding game – and in Game 5 – they were.

When you look back at this series, the easiest way to dissect it is to realize that Washington’s most talented player, Alexander Ovechkin, dominated the Rangers most talented offensive player, Marian Gaborik.

The Rangers had to constantly account for Ovechkin for every second he was on the ice. The Capitals did not have the same concern when Gaborik, or any other Ranger forward, was on the ice. With Washington not having to worry about one specific player, it was easier for them to carry out their defensive system and stay within the framework of that game plan.

It seemed that every Capitals rush and shot put the Rangers into a “life and death” shift on defense while every Rangers rush and shot attempt was a “day in the park” for the Capitals defense.

Prior to the game Boyle told NBC, “We need to make it a little harder on them – get shots to the net, some traffic [in front of the net and] second and third shot opportunities. We can’t be one shot and back out of the zone again.”

As it turns out for the Rangers, this was far too often the case in the series, never mind just Game 5.

The deeper into the playoffs the Capitals get, the more interesting it will be to see how their new defensive style of play holds up against a team with more offensive weapons than the Rangers.

The Rangers might have been able to overcome all of their offensive shortcomings as compared to the Capitals if their power play showed any semblance of life. The reality was the Rangers power play proved to be their biggest detriment. They managed just one power play goal in 21 chances against the Capitals and finished the season going 2-46 in their last 14 games – playoffs included.

Given how well The Pest Line was playing in Game 5, perhaps Torts should have kept them together on the power play rather than put Boyle between Brandon Dubinsky and Gaborik.

It is that pathetic power play that makes some of the strange calls/non-calls seem irrelevant, but I need to vent so here goes.

All series long the officials were letting both teams get away with a lot of physical play after the whistle with no penalties being called. However, as a result of the scrum following the Capitals first goal, one of the referees decides to go and call a bench minor penalty against the Blueshirts.

With about eight and a half minutes to go in the third period, Boyle had a partial break but was slashed on the stick but no penalty was called – even though there was one called against Avery in the third period of Game 4 which eventually led to the Caps tying goal.

Not too long after that, Jason Chimera banged into Lundqvist while The King was in the crease and no calla was made – even though Boyle was called for two goalie interference penalties in Game 4.

Again, given the Rangers anemic power play, those two calls were not going to make a difference but they do make you go “Hmm”.

While the Rangers sorely missed the inspiration and perspiration that Ryan Callahan brings to the lineup, to point to his loss as the reason the Rangers lost this series is not fair to the Capitals. Besides, the Pittsburgh Penguins have survived and thrived without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

You have to wonder if the Blueshirts might have shown too much respect for the Capitals offense. The Rangers concentrated so much of their effort into stopping Washington that they were never able to generate enough “easy offense” such as breakaways and/or odd-man rushes.

In 1994, we all agreed that “This One Will Last a Lifetime”. Unfortunately, it is going to have last at least one more year. However, for the first time in a long time things appear to be going in the right direction for the Rangers.

“We’re still in a process. So we just keep on going. We try to get better. I think there’s areas on our team where we need to get better. So we continue to build,” Tortorella said to Carpiniello.

Well, at least I have the New York Mets.

Damn, I am screwed.

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New York Rangers meet the Los Angeles Kings. One night after the Kings blew a 4-0 lead in a 6-5 overtime loss to the San Jose Sharks, the Blueshirts picked the wrong time to blow their first third period lead in 30 chances.

The game might not have gone the way that Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau designed it, but his plan to shift the focus away from his players and on to him paid off in spades.

The Rangers have been Team Adversity all season, including having to win their final game of the season and then hoping that Tampa Bay would defeat Carolina. Now down three games to one, the Rangers face the ultimate must-win game on Saturday afternoon in what should be a raucous Verizon Center. The Rangers have more than one more hill to climb this time, but Brian Boyle appeared to have the right attitude following last night’s devastating loss.

“I’m not looking for three in a row. We’re looking for one. We just want to win Game 5,” Boyle told Rick Carpiniello of the Journal News. “Tonight will be tough to be positive. We’re going to dwell on it, and I think that’s part of it. If you’re not a little upset about what happened there’s something wrong with you.”

Carpiniello spelled out the height of the hill the Rangers have to climb.

Here’s the bad news. Teams trailing 3-1 have won 23 of 240 series in history (9.6 percent). Here’s the good news: Twenty-one of those have happened since 1987, including twice last year. And the Capitals did it to the Rangers in 2009, and had it done to them by Montreal in 2010, and have been involved in six (2-4) of those 23 comebacks.

So what was it that caused Game 4 to turn 180 degrees away from the Rangers? Was it overconfidence on the part of the Blueshirts? Was it their youth surfacing for the first time in the series? Was it the Capitals rising to the challenge of desperation?

The answer contains a combination of all three, but a big part of the blame has to go to the anemic Rangers power play which went 0-7 last night. Just one power play goal in Games 1 and 4 and it is the Rangers heading back to Washington with a chance to end the series.

The power play has become the NHL’s version of football’s prevent defense – the only thing it is preventing is the Rangers from winning. Not only are the Rangers not generating much offense on the power play, but it continues to suck the life out of any momentum the team has built up.

For the first time in this series the Rangers played a passive third period and it cost dearly as momentum swung Washington’s way in the final period of regulation with the Rangers having no answer to the Capitals onslaught.

“We talked about all the things we wanted to do, about jumping and being on our toes and playing in their zone, but we didn’t do any of it,” Chris Drury explained to Larry Brooks of the NY Post. “It was almost like we were in a situation we might not have been comfortable with and went, ‘Oh, bleep, what do we do now?’

“And we got a little tight,” he said. “At least that’s what I think happened. We never really could make the play or put the couple of shifts together to get it back.”

The third period was to the Rangers what the second period was to the Capitals. Everything that went right suddenly went wrong. The only difference is that the Rangers struck quickly to extend their lead to 3-0 while Washington methodically turned the game in their favor with three goals in just over 12 minutes.

As the third period progressed, all I could think about was the movie “The Replacements”. In it Gene Hackman is coaching a bunch of replacement football players who were unable to execute because of their own fears. Hackman asks his players what they are afraid of. After some dopey answer, Keanu Reeves hits on the point that Hackman’s character wanted to make.

Reeves’s character relates that he is afraid of “quicksand” and offers up the following explanation.

“You’re playing, and you think everything’s going fine, but then one thing goes wrong … and another … and another … and you try to fight back, but the harder you fight, the deeper you sink … until you can’t move … you can’t breathe … because you’re in over your head. Like quicksand.”

That line from the movie perfectly describes the New York Rangers in the third period of Game 4. The harder they tried to free themselves from the Capitals “quicksand”, the depper they sank in it.

You got the feeling that once Washington tied the game at 12:07; Game 4 instantly went into overtime mode with the next goal being the winner even if it were in regulation time. It is in those types of situations where Washington’s skill level trumps the Rangers. You knew it was going to take some sort of fluky goal to win the game for the Blueshirts. In the end, it was the Capitals who scored the fluky goal.

On the plus side, two Ranger free agents to be stepped up their play and definitely earned contracts for next season. Ruslan Fedotenko has drawn much praise from Coach John Tortorella for his style of play and his potential to bring to the lineup the same attributes that Ryan Callahan brings to the table. His contributions on the second and third goals were as important as goal scorers Marian Gaborik and Brandon Dubinsky.

Matt Gilroy stepped up his play offensively and defensively and showed a physical side to his play early in the game. I am not sure if the Rangers will be able to fit him into the salary cap or how his return could affect Michael Del Zotto, but Gilroy elevated his game in the biggest game of his NHL career.

Of course what can you say about Henrik Lundqvist? His glove save on Alexander Ovechkin about midway through the first overtime was the only reason the game even went to double overtime – despite battling cramps in the overtime periods.

As they approach Game 5, the Rangers just need to reflect back to the last couple of weeks and how they responded when faced with big games – the back-to-back wins against Boston and Philadelphia, the Game 82 victory against New Jersey and Sunday afternoon’s playoff win against Washington.

The Blueshirts should not put Game 4 behind them. Rather, they should embrace it as an example of what good they can accomplish when they are on their game and it should serve as an example of what can go wrong when they deviate from their game plan.

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Prior to appearing on HBO’s “24/&” show leading up to the 2011 NHL Winter Classic the only “acting” experience Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau’s resume contained was as an extra in the movie Slap Shot. Boudreau portrayed a member of the Hyannisport Presidents (green sweater #7).

With some extra time in between Game 3 and 4, Boudreau returned to his “24/7” roots as he channeled his inner Rex Ryan. Much like the Jets coach, Boudreau took to the air to act crazy – as a fox.

Dan Steinberg of The Washington Post offered up the following transcript of Boudreau’s interview with Washington radio station 105.9.

“Well, the one thing, its reputation is far better than the actual building,” Boudreau said. “I mean, it’s nothing. The locker rooms are horrible. The benches are horrible. There’s no room for anything. But the reputation of being in Madison Square Garden is what makes it famous. Also, our building’s a lot louder, too. So I mean, they can say what they want, but it’s not that loud in there.”

Madison Square Garden is the oldest building in the NHL and very well may be a dump, but it is our dump – the same way Shea Stadium was to New York Mets fans.

His building is also the place where they have to rely on some guy blowing on a plastic horn in order to make noise. In addition, I seem to remember seeing Caps fans dump water and ice on the Rangers bench and coaches. Bruce had better watch out because that liquid that might be spilled on him on Wednesday night might not be water.

You have to give Boudreau credit for shifting the focus off his team and on to himself – much like Ryan did for his Jets.

You have to remember that the Capitals have lost their last two playoff series after holding two game leads. After coming from behind to defeat the Rangers in 2009, Washington won the first two games against Pittsburgh only to lose to the Penguins in seven games.

Last year, the President Trophy winning Capitals could not close out Montreal as the eighth seeded Canadiens roared back to win in seven games after trailing three-games-to-one.

It is a point that Tarik El-Bashir of The Washington Post addressed.

“One doesn’t need to be a pessimist to see troubling parallels between what’s happened over the past 80 minutes and what transpired last April, when Washington let a 3-1 series lead slip away and fell to Montreal in Game 7.”

In addition to shifting the focus off his team, Boudreau continued deflecting by complaining about the officiating – a time-honored tradition among coaches in all sports.

Steinberg offered up the following diatribe from the Boudreau interview.

“During the playoffs you have a supervisor at every game, so if you have a complaint or something that you want to lodge, you talk to the supervisor and then he’ll talk to the referees and he’ll talk to the powers that be,” Boudreau explained. “But the trick about that is it’s usually closing the door and the horse has left the barn, it’s an over-and-done fact, because the referees are different every game in the first series. .?.?.”

“So what they do is they can warn the other guys that this is what the other team’s talking about and look out for it, but that’s pretty well what you can do. I mean, the refs are very serious about this too, this is their playoffs too, their Stanley Cup, so they don’t want to make any mistakes. But it happens.”

For his credit, Rangers coach John Tortorella took the high road when asked about Boudreau’s comments during an interview with Michael Kay of ESPN 1050 radio in New York.

“We haven’t really thought too much about locker rooms, how loud it is,” Larry Brooks of the NY Post wrote. “I’m not even sure what he’s trying to say there.

“We’re just concerned with trying to be the best we can be and play the right way. Now, I will say the fans gave us a tremendous lift last night. “I’m hoping that we can get off to a good start and continue on our way. That’s our concentration. Nothing else around us is going to (deter) us from our focus, and that’s our next game.”

In addition to his general whining, er complaining, Boudreau vented about the rough treatment goalie Michal Neuvirth received from the Blueshirts in Game 3 and he called for the NHL to review what the Caps coach called a Marc Staal head shot to Mike Green as Alexander Ovechkin tied the game in the second period.

If you look back at the first three games, Tortorella is correct when he said the Rangers could just as easily be ahead 2-1 in the series. A defensive breakdown cost them a chance to win Game 1 1-0 and a two-minute stretch in Game 2 cost the Rangers dearly.

The Blueshirts ability to stay within striking distance is not one that is lost on the Capitals – hence Boudreau’s attempt to shift the focus.

“The mood at the team’s Arlington practice facility was businesslike Monday. High-minute players stayed off the ice and those who spoke to reporters did so in calm, measured tones,” El-Bashir wrote.

“But it was still impossible to escape the feeling that the Capitals are at a crossroads in their postseason journey.”

Washington’s Brooks Laich confirmed El-Bashir’s opinion when he told the writer that the fourth game “is really going to swing the series. We could take a stranglehold on it, or it could be a very long series.”

Given their past history, the last thing the Capitals want is a long series because they have lost their last three Game 7 playoff matchups.

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Forget everything that has been written about the magic of playoff beards because the Rangers are basking in “the Power of the Moustache” thanks to Brandon Dubinsky’s bank shot that propelled the Rangers to their Game 3 victory.

The only way that goal could have been more amazing was if The Moustache called the banks off Karl Alzner’s back and Alexander Ovechkin’s stick.

The Rangers victory on Sunday sets up a critical Game 4 on Wednesday. While it still might be too early for a “must-win” game, it is not too early for a “really-need-to-win” game. The last thing the Rangers want to do is head back to the Verizon Center facing elimination. However, the Capitals might be feeling even more pressure to win on Wednesday.

A Game 4 loss could cause flashbacks for the Capitals. After coming off a three- games-to-one deficit to defeat the Rangers in 2009, Washington proceeded to blow a two-games-to-none lead against the Pittsburgh Penguins as they lost in seven games.

In 2010, Washington frittered away a three-games-to-one lead as the Montreal Canadiens came back to win in seven games.

Lost in all of the talk of the Rangers perseverance in Game 3 was a pair of game-saving defensive plays. With about seven minutes left in the second period, Marcus Johansson’s scoring opportunity after a Rangers power play was thwarted by a Dan Girardi shot block.

The second huge defensive play came six and half minutes into the third period when Ruslan Fedotenko’s diving backcheck broke up a Capitals’ two-on-one with Ovechkin and John Carlson.

Another unsung play was made by Marc Staal on the Rangers second goal. His ability to get his point shot over a sliding Matt Bradley, and on goal, was the key to Vinny Prospal’s rebound goal.

Even Erik Christensen and Brian Boyle deserve credit on the Rangers first goal as the Blueshirts finally got some traffic in front of Michal Neuvirth and the Rangers had a player get a shot on net.

Speaking of Boyle, you have to love his work as the center on the “Pest Line” with Sean Avery and Brandon Prust. They are the reverse “Bash Brothers” from the old Disney Ducks movies. I say reverse because it is the Rangers smaller guys who are the physical players as opposed to the bigger guys in the movies.

The Rangers definitely made a more concerted effort to crowd Neuvirth in an attempt to solve the young netminder.

“Every scrum in front of our net, they were hitting our goalie,” Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau told Tracee Hamilton of The Washington Post. “They [the officials] kept warning them not to do it, did nothing about it, so they kept doing it.”

So what was the difference in Game 3 as opposed to the first two games?

“We scored some goals. I don’t think we did much different. I thought we got to the blue a little better today,” Coach John Tortorella admitted in the post-game press conference. “Again, it’s a tight-checking game. The chances are hard to come by both teams. We found a way to score a goal, a couple of goals here. There’s no magic potion. We played the same way we want to play. We just scored three, they scored two.”

As the Rangers look forward to Game 4, they are going to need to continue crowding Neuvirth while finding a way to hit the net when they have open shots.

One interesting point during the game was made by Ed Olczyk who kept hammering home the point how Neuvirth was extremely reluctant to come out of his net to play the Rangers dump-ins. The Blueshirts might want to use that to their advantage by getting the puck in deep and going to work on the Capitals defense with an aggressive forecheck.

The defense is going to have continue being more active in the offense, but it is a Catch-22 situation because the blueliners have to be careful to pick their spots and the forward have to be ready to cover the defensive zone if needed.

Speaking of Catch-22 situations, the Caps first goal came as a result of the Rangers losing track of Ovechkin. The second goal came as Girardi focused in on Ovechkin to the point that Staal was left in front to defend three Caps.

Part of the way the Rangers can increase their offensive output is to be quicker in their transition game so that they can overcome the Capitals defensive system.

Obviously, if the referees are going to start clamping down and handing out more penalties, the Rangers must be careful during the post-whistle scrums. Far too often the referees will call the retaliation as opposed to the initiation.

While Boudreau and some of his players lamented the number of calls that went against the Capitals, forward Matt Hendricks managed to put it all in perspective while issuing a warning for both teams as they head to Game 4 on Wednesday night.

“A lot of them, obviously, we were guilty,” Hendricks said to Katie Carrera of The Washington Post. ”We’ve just gotta really watch our sticks there. They’re calling them a little tight now in the playoffs, as everyone’s heard around the league we’ve just got to be a little more disciplined.”

Staying out the penalty box is one thing, but the Rangers power play has to find a way to have an impact on this series. The problem is that the Blueshirts inability to score with the man advantage is heightened by their inability to generate any consistent offense on the power play – something which saps the energy out of the Garden and stalls any Rangers momentum.

In addition to getting more traffic in front of Neuvirth, and finding a way to get more shots on net, the Rangers have to get more movement on their power play – both in terms of passing the puck and player movement.

On the Rangers first five-on-three power play, the Rangers spent the time looking to set up one perfect shot. The problem is that by standing around, the Blueshirts made it easier for the Capitals to defend. Puck movement plus player movement equals more open shooting lanes.

I guess it is time to once again address the 800-pound gorilla in the rink known as the War room in Toronto. The NHL made the correct call on the goal that was disallowed at the end of the second period. However, in this day and age, why doesn’t the league get the “official game clock” synched up with the clock in the arena and synched up with the network’s clock.

The biggest problem was that it took NBC an hour before they ever showed the NHL’s overhead camera shot with the official clock inserted. You can bet that the MSG Network would have had that shot up as soon as possible during the second intermission instead of waiting until late in third period.

While I am speaking of MSG, it is incomprehensible how they failed to show the Rangers post-game show immediately after Game 3. All we got was an abbreviated version before shuttling hockey out of the way for the New York Knicks pre-game show.

I understand that Cablevision and MSG see the Knicks as THE team; however, did we need to see the Knicks pre-game show, Game 1 of the Knicks-Celtics series, and the Knicks post-game show on BOTH MSG and MSG+.

Why didn’t the network simply show the full Rangers post-game show live on MSG+ while showing the Knicks on MSG? I know there are some cable subscribers that do not get MSG+, but it still makes no sense not to show it on MSG+ anyway.

Heck, if Cablevision, the Dolans and MSG were so adamant to show the Knicks on two channels (not to mention the fact the game was also on TNT with Marv Albert doing play-by-play), then why not just show the post-game show on MSG2?

What purpose does it serve to have the Knicks on two channels?

How can Ranger fans expect the Metropolitan area newspapers and media outlets give their team any respect when the Rangers own network and corporate bosses will not show them any respect?

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The old sports adage states that a team is not in trouble into the playoffs until they lose a home game. Well, that my best the case for some teams, but given the New York Rangers struggles at Madison Square Garden, the Blueshirts might be in for some trouble come Sunday afternoon – especially if they can’t do better than one goal in almost seven periods of hockey.

In Game 1 it was a pair of Alexanders that did in the Rangers. In Game 2, it was a fateful 117 seconds that spelled the end to the Rangers hope of stealing a game at the Verizon Center.

I don’t know if it is reality or just a figment of my imagination, but it always seems that whenever the wheels come off the Rangers it happens in the second period. It could be somewhat understandable given that the Rangers have the long way to make player changes – a crucial element to their game plan in order to get Marc Staal and Dan Girardi out against Alexander Ovechkin. However, that was not the case in Game 2.

I don’t know what Bruce Boudreau told his team during the first intermission, but it sure had the same effect as Knute Rockne’s “Win one for the Gipper” speech.

The Rangers ratcheted up their physical play and forecheck and those improvements helped power a more productive offense with 13 shots. The main problem is that they did not get nearly enough traffic in front of Michal Neuvirth.

The second period started with the two teams each pulling a 180 degree turn in style and efficiency. Everything the Rangers did right in the first period, they did wrong in the second period. The Caps quick start rocked the Blueshirts back on their heels as Washington started to dictate the tempo.

To me, the real sticking point is that the Rangers never managed to match Washington’s intensity level in the second period.

During the third period, Sam Rosen and Joe Micheletti lamented the loss of Ryan Callahan by saying it was his type of game. While it is apparent that Brandon Dubinsky looks lost without Cally, the Rangers problems go beyond just one player as the rest of the team has not been able to step up in his absence during these first two games.

When the Capitals needed a goal to tie Game 1, their best player stepped up and found a way to knot the game. Sadly, the Rangers best offensive player, Marian Gaborik, has had offensive chances but still has no goals in his last 11 games.

Quite frankly, no one threw the Pittsburgh Penguins a pit party when they lost Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Instead, the Pens found a way to hold on to the fourth spot in the Eastern Conference and managed to find a way to win Game 1 against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

As the series comes north to the Garden, the Rangers have to start finding ways to win. Of course, that is easier said than done when your offense has gone missing yet again.

Micheletti made it a point to keep saying that Henrik Lundqvist was in Washington’s head. That might be true, but it is becoming apparent that Neuvirth is playing mind games with the Rangers’ heads as well.

You have to admit that the Washington Capitals are the team the New York Rangers want to be. The Capitals’ mid-season turnaround transformed a run-and-gin team into one that concentrates on their defensive responsibilities and then capitalizes (pun intended) on their offensive chances. In addition to having more firepower the Rangers, it is their ability to bury their chances that has made the difference in this series.

While Jason Arnott is a veteran with 31 playoff goals, no one is ever going to mistake Jason Chimera for a sniper.

Hmm, I am noticing a pattern here. In Game 1 it was two Alexanders that did in the Rangers. In Game 2, it was two Jasons. I suppose it will be either a pair of Matts (Bradley and Hendricks) or, God forbid, a pair of Johns (Carlson and Erskine) that spell doom on Sunday.

I am not sure what lineup changes, if any, Coach John Tortorella will make for Game 3. He did not seem to enthusiastic with the idea of Mats Zuccarello seeing much ice time in the playoffs at this point.

Torts expressed concern to Andrew Gross of NorthJersey.com as to “whether he can handle the size and the overall consistency of playoff hockey, I’m not sure.”

However, given the Rangers inability to score, a later comment by the coach might leave a glimmer of hope for Zuccarello.

“It’s still an open book for him as to where he sits as a National Hockey Leaguer. He sees the ice. He makes some plays that some players don’t see,” Tortorella admitted.

While there will be some question as to what could be done with the forwards, there is one lineup change that definitely needs to be made. Bryan McCabe is giving the Rangers nothing on offense – especially on the power play – and has become more of a liability on defense. It is time for former Capital Steve Eminger to see playing time and add a little grit on the blue line.

The Rangers must approach Game 3 as a “must-win” game along the same lines as the final game of the season against the New Jersey Devils. Perhaps the result of the first two games in general, and Game 2 specifically, might have been different if they entered the game thinking it was a “must-win” scenario.

During Friday morning’s press conference, Tortorella offered up the following answer to a question from Larry Brooks of the NY Post in reference to whether the Rangers had their backs against the wall.

“I never think our backs are against the wall,” was the coach’s response. According to a transcript from Newsday’s Steve Zipay, Brooks and Tortorella engaged in yet another round in their ongoing verbal jousting.
Kind of makes you wonder how the post game press conference will turn out.

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Whether you are a fan of hockey or night, there is one universal truth that sports fans have to agree upon – there is nothing more exciting than overtime playoff hockey. That is, unless your team is involved. In that case, overtime is torture – especially if your team loses.

Once again Team Adversity (aka the New York Rangers) will get another chance on Friday to show if they can bounce back off the campus. While the Capitals have the momentum coming out of Game 1, the old adage is that momentum only lasts as long as the next day’s pitcher – or in this case – the next day’s game.

“I think playoff series are surges, going against you, going with you,” Coach John Tortorella told Steve Zipay of Newsday before the game. “You get a win under your belt, you have a surge going with you. It changes quickly. That’s very important in succeeding in these types of series, how you handle surges. There’s a lot of different things come out of a win and a loss.”

If the Rangers are going to pull even in this series, they are going to have to adjust their game plan a bit. The Blueshirts can’t afford to play most of the game in their zone like they did in Game 1. They are going to have to find a way to get a meaningful forecheck going against the Capitals.

In addition, the Rangers need to get more traffic in front of Michal Neuvirth. It was no coincidence that Brian Boyle was lurking in front of Neuvirth when Matt Gilroy opened the scoring.

More importantly, they have to correct the ice balance problem that plagued them on both Capitals goals. On the first goal, and we will discuss that a little later, Marc Staal crossed over from his left d-man position and collided with Daniel Girardi. As a result, the Rangers were left scrambling around in their own end as they allowed Alexander Ovechkin to bang home the rebound. Looking back, the ice balance problems started on the Rangers passive forecheck where they had two players in deep around the crease. The two players in deep like that left a lot of room through the middle of the ice and set the stage for the Staal crossover.

On the game-winning goal, the Rangers got caught out of position as the forwards flew out of the zone as Chris Drury (who would eventually fly the zone as well) and Staal both were unable to clear the puck.

The most interesting point of the game was the way both teams opened up their play at the start of overtime after playing close to the vest for 60 minutes. It is not very often that teams turn to a pond hockey style of play in overtime. It is something to file away for future use in this series.

The Capitals transformation into a defensive team is remarkable considering it was done on the fly during the season. However, when you take a look at their team, it goes against the nature of their team. The start of overtime shows that Washington still has that tendency to play wide open – something that still might come back to bite them in the end before the final script is written on this series.

The point to consider from last night was the Caps defense that good or were the Rangers more content to sit back and counterpunch? No one expected the Rangers to be the Flying Frenchmen, but they were far too passive in their approach to the game.

I guess now is a good time to address the 800-pound gorilla in the rink – the Capitals first goal. Much to their credit, the Rangers were pretty much playing down the call, or rather, non-call from referee Brian Pochmara.

“We’re not going to whine about it,” Tortorella offered after the game.

The Rangers really have no choice because the last thing they need to is start criticizing official or the war room in Toronto. However, it is not going stop fans from wondering what happened.

To me, it looked like Pochmara was ready to blow the whistle before the puck went in the net. Pochmara seems to be undecided as to whether or not to blow his whistle. Then amid the Capitals celebration, Pochmara does not point to the net. Instead, he throws his hands up in the air signifying that the play has been whistled dead, as opposed to a goal being scored. It is one of those calls that change from referee to referee – appoint not lost on Henrik Lundqvist.

“It’s underneath me and I think the whistle’s going to come, so I move, and it just crossed the line,” The King explained to Zipay. “Sometimes they’re real fast on blowing the whistle, but it is what it is. I’m kind of stuck in that position, you hope for a whistle or someone to come and clear the puck . . . I felt like we were playing really well right after our goal.”

Interestingly enough, Pochmara’s refereeing partner Dan O’Halloran factored into a similar play three years ago – call that also went against the Blueshirts.

In Game 2 against Pittsburgh, the Rangers were trailing the Penguins 1-0 when Martin Straka’s apparent game-tying goal was waived off on a quick whistle courtesy of O’Halloran.

While I am on a whining rant about the officials, I do give them credit that O’Halloran and Pochmara let the two teams play and let them get some of their frustration out during post-whistle scrums. However, I do have one bone to pick with one call and one non-call.

It was bizarre that Mats Zuccarello gets called for a boarding penalty, especially when you consider that no Capital player ever hit the board. However, the referees somehow missed John Erskine’s boarding/head shot against Erik Christensen moments earlier.

With both teams focusing on their defensive games, this series is the classic case of the unstoppable force versus the immovable object. The winner will be the team that blinks last. In Game 1, the Rangers were the team that blinked first.

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The hardest game to win in sports is the deciding game in any playoff series. Just ask the 2008/2009 New York Rangers who held a commanding three-games-to-one lead against Washington before watching the Capitals rise up off the ice to win Game 7.

This year marks the sixth time the Rangers and Capitals have faced off in the playoffs – with the Capitals holding a three series to two lead. The first playoff showdown was in the Patrick Division Finals (aka Second Round) in 1986 as the Blueshirts overcame an 8-1 loss in Game 2 to win the series in six games.

I bring up the 1985/1986 Rangers because this year’s team is very similar to that one that beat Washington. The 1986 team did not feature a big scorer during the regular season as rookie Mike Ridley paced the team with 65 points (22 goals – which was second to Bob Brooke’s 24).

That team featured six players who scored 20 or more goals – including veteran Pierre LaRouche who has 20 in 18 games after being loaned out to the AHL’s Hershey Bears for 32 games as Coach Ted Sator favored a defensive style.

The Rangers, who would eventually lose the Eastern Conference Finals to Patrick Roy and the Montreal Canadiens in five games, were lead by nine players who were 24 or younger with three years or less NHL experience: Mike Allison, Brooke, Jan Erixon, Kelly Miller, James Patrick, Ridley, Tomas Sandstrom and John Vanbiesbrouck.

Some fans believe the Rangers are playing with “house money” given that they were thisclose away from missing the playoffs. Fortunately, the Rangers are not going to take this stance.

“I expect to win, and that’s the expectation of our team,” Brandon Prust commented to Larry Brooks of the NY Post. “I believe we have the character, confidence and work ethic throughout our lineup to take care of our business in this series against a very good team.

“To everybody else we’re underdogs, but we go in there thinking we can handle any team in the NHL, because we’ve proved that during the season.”

The Rangers-Capitals series shapes up as a chance for redemption. The Rangers, as a team, have a chance to redeem themselves for allowing a three-games-to-one series lead slip through their fingers when they lost to the Capitals in 2009.

Veterans Chris Drury and Marian Gaborik also have a chance to redeem themselves on a personal level.

For Drury, the 2010/2011 season was a wash due to a myriad of injuries, but his inspiration paid off in his first game back when he scored to tie up the Devils game. While Drury can’t replace Ryan Callahan’s offense or the bulldog-like attitude he brings, the captain does bring the ability to play defense/kill penalties and, most importantly, adds another faceoff option to go along with Brandon Dubinsky.

Gaborik has also labored with injuries this season, and it is possible that he is not completely recovered from his shoulder, groin and concussion injuries that cost him 20 games this season. However, since NHL teams treat injuries like the plans for the Normandy invasion, we may never know “the rest of the story” as Paul Harvey would say.

While Gaborik’s offense has taken a hit as the Rangers have had to grind out more games, his ability to get off quick shots must be taken advantage of – in other words – Gaborik has to think and look shot every time his the offensive zone. If he does, he could pull a “LaRouche” who scored 8 goals and 9 assists in 16 playoff games.

Everyone is pretty much in agreement as to what the Rangers have to do to win this series. It is a given that that Henrik Lundqvist (11-6-2 versus Washingon) has to play like The King in order for the offensively-challenged Rangers to win. Given their struggles offensively, the Blueshirts must win the battle of the special teams. Keeping Alexander Ovechkin off the core sheet (only two assists in the four regular season games) is also a must.

The Rangers won the season series from the Capitals winning three of four (including one in a shootout). Captain Chris Drury realizes that the playoffs are an entirely different story than the regular season.

“I’ve been on teams that have done well in the series and lost in the playoffs, and vice versa,” Drury related to reporters on a conference call. “To me, it’s a whole new season and something we can learn from, having played against them and had success in the year. Ultimately, it is a totally different season, different animal, and the last few weeks we know they’ve done different things to have success. We’re going to have to be ready, no matter what happened in the regular season.”

However, the games most people remember are the 7-0 shellacking the Rangers put on Washington on December 12 and the 6-0 dismantling of the Capitals in Washington on February 25. Both of those games will go a long way in determining the winner of this series.

Following the December loss, the Capitals realized that they had to address their problems in the defensive zone. As a result, Coach Bruce Boudreau changed the team’s focus from its trademark offensive nature to one that centered on keeping the puck out of the net – a most daunting in-season task.

“It was a dramatic change,” Capitals GM McPhee told Barry Svrluga of The Washington Post. “And changing systems in the middle of the season is dangerous, because if it doesn’t work, you have players who are confused. Your system of play has to become ingrained. It has to become second nature. You can’t go on the ice thinking about a system because then the game’s going to be going by you.”

The changed seemed to work in the interim as the Capitals pulled out of a nosedive and posted a 6-1-3 record in their next 10 games.

The February loss also had a profound effect on Washington. It was the last game that Mike Green played after suffering a concussion on a hit from Derek Stepan. Green returns to the Caps lineup for the first time in the series opener.

That loss also forced GM McPhee to start looking for help for his team as he reeled in Jason Arnott and Dennis Wideman before the NHL trade deadline. Wideman helped fill in for Green and Tom Poti who has been out of the lineup since late January with a lower body injury. Wideman, who had 10 goals on the year (9PPG) is out of the lineup and is listed as week-to-week due to a leg hematoma and compartment syndrome.

That 6-0 loss is also significant because Michal Neuvirth, who is making the Game 1 start, was in goal for that game. To be fair, he was in goal for Washington’s lone win a 5-3 victory on November 9 that is remembered for being the game when Derek Boogaard scored his first goal in 234 games.

In the end, that 6-0 loss was the springboard for the furious rush Washington put on to close the season as they went 16-2-1 in their final 19 games.

Inevitably, this series is going to come down to how well the Rangers execute their game plan and the team remembering, with apologies to Herb Brooks, that they are not talented enough to win on talent alone. The Rangers must live up to their Larry Brooks nickname of “Black-and-Blueshirts”. When the Rangers play their game to perfection, they are a hard team to beat. Their 21-16-3 record against playoff teams and their gritty win against Philadelphia and Boston in back-to-back games show what the team can accomplish. However, when they are off their game, then you are faced with clunkers like the Senators, Islanders and Thrashers games.

One telling stat is both teams ability to put games away when they hold the lead after two periods. The Rangers were 29 for 29 when entering the third period with a lead and the Capitals were 29-0-3. One of those shootout losses was to the Rangers with Martin Biron in goal.

Granted the Rangers task would be a little bit easier if Callahan were healthy and in the lineup, but you might as well wish for a return of a vintage Mark Messier and Brian Leetch as well. However, the one thing we have learned about this Rangers team is that they have a remarkable capacity to stare adversity in it face and use it as a rallying point – which is a great asset come the playoffs when teams seem to face adversity during every shift.

It is the Rangers ability to confront and overcome adversity that should lead them to a hard-fought win in seven games. The Blueshirts will get a huge break with a couple of extra days off during the series in which they can rest the bumps and bruises that are sure to come.

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