2013 Playoffs


To paraphrase the great Mark Twain, “The report of the New York Rangers’ death was an exaggeration.” Left for dead and nearly buried after scoring just one goal in their two losses at the Verizon Center, the Rangers took advantage of some home cooking at Madison Square Garden and evened the series at two games apiece.

In doing so, the Blueshirts showed the adage of momentum carrying over from game-to-game is a fickle notion at best. If that were the case, the Washington would have capitalized (pun intended) on their Game 2 overtime victory.

For the most part, momentum swings within a game – and in this series – have been keyed by the success/failure of the Rangers power play. In Game 1, the Rangers inability to convert a two-man advantage shifted the momentum to the Capitals who would go on to win Game 1.

The Rangers must find a way to carry over their intensity, desperation and forecheck from Game 4 into the start of Game 5. That is the only way that the momentum from the games at the MSG will carry over to Friday night.

Last night, it was the Rangers ability to cash in on Jason Chimera’s gift power play that keyed the Blueshirts to their Game 4 victory. While Coach John Tortorella has gotten a lot of much-deserved heat for his inability to fix the Rangers power play, his willingness to shake things up at the start of the third period was the difference.

Only Torts knows for sure whether his keeping his top guns (Ryan Callahan, Rick Nash and Brad Richards) on the bench for the start of the power play was a case of holding his stars accountable for their poor power play work or if he was holding them for the second half of the power play – which would match them against the Capitals secondary penalty killers.

Even with the Rangers eventually regaining a second two-goal lead, nothing ever comes easy for the Blueshirts. You just had a feeling that Washington was not going to stop throwing pucks on goal because they seem to have penchant for scoring some ugly goals with their third period goal being about as ugly as they get.

Despite the Rangers inability to protect two-goal leads (something they MUST correct as soon as possible) Washington never seemed to get into a rhythm like they did in the first two games.

Katie Carrera of the Washington Post summed it up best: “For the first time in this matchup, and perhaps the past several months, Washington was thoroughly outplayed at even strength — especially in the first half of the contest. Despite erasing a two-goal deficit at one point, they were never able to establish control.”

Even though the Rangers “exploded” for four goals, last night’s game was close to the success they had during the 2012 playoffs. Larry Brooks of the NY Post noted that the Rangers 33 blocks were more than any game against Washington in last year’s playoffs – with the exception of the triple overtime game where they had 41 blocked shots.

In addition to making the series a best-of-three, Games 3 and 4 served as the coming out parties for Derick Brassard and Derek Stepan.

Brassard, in his first NHL playoff action, has shaken off his playoff nerves to the tune one goal and four assists in the last two games. Even more impressive is that he is winning 65.8% of his faceoffs including a ridiculous 88.9% in Game 4.

“He’s grabbed a hold of it here and makes just a great play on Danny’s goal,” Tortorella said to Dan Rosen of NHL.com in reference to Brassard’s play. “He’s stepped in here to try and make a difference and he’s made some big plays for us. I’m not afraid to put him a lot of different positions in a lot of different situations.”

After scoring just one goal in his previous 22 playoff games, Stepan has notched the game-winning goals in back-to-back games as the Blueshirts win two in a row in the playoffs since winning Games 6 and 7 last year against Ottawa.

Tortorella spoke of Stepan’s “resiliency”. It’s always been there,” Tortorella said to Rosen. “That is what has fast-tracked him into a guy that plays 23 minutes a game in all situations. It’s because of the intangible that he has. He has given us some really big minutes here for us to crawl into the series with these two games.”

Interestingly enough, this series has evolved into a battle of the secondary scorers. Of Washington’s top three scorers, Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin each have a goal and an assist and Mike Ribeiro is pointless.

Conversely, the Rangers big three (Callahan, Nash and Richards) have combined for just one goal and three assists.

With the last change at home, Tortorella has been able to get favorable matchups against Ovechkin. So much so that Washington’s captain had only three shots in the last two games.

With the series shifting to the Verizon Center, the Rangers will have to shift their focus in terms of shutting down the Capitals high octane offense. The easiest way to do that is to force Washington to defend and for the Blueshirts to stay out of the penalty box. And, above all, they will have to keep the monster (Ovechkin) in his cage.

The Rangers will also need to have an effective power play in Game 5 because you can expect Washington to rededicate themselves to defensive hockey. An effective power play does not mean the Rangers have to score on every advantage. Rather, it means being active in the Capitals zone and being aggressive and getting their shots on goal and traffic in front of Braden Holtby.

In Game 3 the Rangers power play was active and did not suck the air of the Garden and served as a means to change and hold momentum in a positive way. Last night, outside of Dan Girardi’s power play goal, the Rangers power play reverted back to its ugly ways as it had a negative impact on momentum.

Here are my random Ramblings from Game 4:

• Sky Kerstein of 106.6 WJFK-FIM tweeted that in the last 14 games (regular season and playoffs); the Capitals are 1-9 when Ovechkin doesn’t score and 5-0 when he does.
• Six times Washington has lost Game 4 to even a series at two games apiece – and they have lost all six series.
• Prior to last night’s loss, Braden Holtby was 7-0 following a Capitals loss in the playoffs.
• Unlike some fans and beat writers, I have no problem with defensemen dropping to the ice to block shots or break up odd-man rushes. With that said, I am still trying to figure what Michael Del Zotto was doing on the Capitals first goal. Rather than go hit the ice with a purpose, MDZ seemed to flop to the ice for the sake of flopping to the ice. Then again, he might not have had to do that if Steve Eminger didn’t get caught making a hit in the neutral zone.
• It is a good thing that Eddie Shore is not Del Zotto’s coach. Shore hated when his goaltenders would go to the ice to make a save – so much so that he would tie them to the crossbar in practice in order to break them of that habit.
• Hmm, might be a good thing that Shore isn’t Henrik Lundqvist’s coach as well. The King needs to resist dropping to the butterfly when there is a lot of traffic in front in attempt to look over the screens it might have made a difference on their third Caps goal.
• Stephen Whyno of The Washington Times wrote that Martin Erat’s “upper-body” injury is an injury to his wrist. Two former Rangers could be inserted into the lineup by Coach Adam Oates – Wojtek Wolski and Joey Crabb. With the Hershey Bears eliminated from the Calder Cup playoffs, the Caps recalled Crabb and former 1st round draft pick Tom Wilson.
• However, could there be a dark horse replacement for Erat? Brooks Laich skated with the team on Wednesday. Laich, who is recovering from a sports hernia surgery that no one has admitted to, would be more likely to see action in a Game 7 than Game 5. Whyno tweeted this morning that “Brooks Laich clarifies that he had a small groin procedure, not sports hernia.” Insert your own joke here .
• Someone needs to put a BOLO for Rick Nash. By the end of the game Nash had been dropped to the third line. One has to wonder if maybe he is playing hurt because it shouldn’t be a case of him being overwhelmed by the state of the playoffs. Nash is a veteran of many international tournaments as a member of Team Canada, including the Olympics. Nash needs to put away the spinoramas and concentrate on going to the net with a purpose and shooting the puck a beat earlier than normal to try and catch Braden Holtby and the Caps off stride.
• Marc Staal was not on the ice for today’s optional practice, although Andrew Gross reports that 12 regulars and Martin Biron did skate. Staal did not address the media and, as expected, Tortorella would not discuss Staal’s availability for the rest of the series.
• Gross did write that Torts addressed Ryan McDonagh’s comments after the game in reference to Staal’s decision not to play because the blueliner was not able to play at an acceptable level. Torts response to McDonagh’s comments was, “Mac should shut up.” Freedom of speech might not be dead around MSG (with Knicks and Rangers personnel on a short leash), but it might be on life support.
• It was nice to see the Rangers finally with the “game of inches” for a change. After watching a couple of shots clang off iron in Game 2, Joel Ward had a scoring attempt just skitter past the post towards the end of the game.

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As fans of The Odd Couple know, one should never assume. However, I think it is safe to assume that Washington goaltender Braden Holtby found Game 3 to be a bit more of a straining game in comparison to his Game 2 shutout.

For the first time in 11 playoff games between the Rangers and Capitals one team scored four goals. The last time it happened was In Game 4 on April 20, 2011 when Washington erased a 3-0 deficit as Jason Chimera scored the game winning goal in double overtime.

Some people will claim there is no such thing as a “must-win” game until you are facing elimination. Considering only three teams have ever overcome a three games to none deficit, last night’s game was ever inch a must-win game.

“We knew we had to win this one,” Henrik Lundqvist related to Tracee Hamilton of The Washington Post. “It was a must-win. We really stepped up as a group and they kept coming. They’re a good team and you have to respect that, but we scored some big goals tonight.”

The game’s first star, Derick Brassard, echoed his goalie’s sentiments.

“It was do-or-die for us,” Brassard said to the AP. “We competed really hard for 60 minutes. We stuck up for each other, and that’s what we need to do.”

The Blueshirts received an emotional list with the return of Marc Staal to the lineup after missing 27 games. Staal’s importance to the Rangers cause was not lost on the Capitals.

“He plays great shutdown, he’s got a great stick, he makes the right plays, he can chip in offensively,” Karl Alzner related to Stephen Whyno of The Washington Post. “He did some damage against us last year in the playoffs. I just like his game. Even if he’s 60, 70 percent I think he could really help them out.”

Whyno also wrote that Alzner called Staal one of his favorite NHL blue liners.

The hearts of the Rangers faithful skipped a couple of beats when Staal absorbed a huge hit from Troy Brouwer. Despite banging his head on the boards, Staal shook of the hit and ended up playing 17:17. The one thing that was overlooked was how Rick Nash hit Brouwer right after the hit on Staal.

Not too many people would have been willing to give the Rangers good odds to win a high scoring matchup against the Capitals. Those odds would have been even steeper if you were betting on the Rangers to win the battle of the special teams while losing the five-on-five game within a game.

The Rangers managed to dig deep and find a resilience they have not shown since last year’s playoff run. It would have been easy for a team as fragile as the Rangers to not bounce back every time the Capitals countered. However, the Blueshirts managed to fight off the Capitals comebacks.

“Every time we had a goal they would come back and kind of deflate us,” Rangers nemesis Mike Green told Whyno.

The Rangers were able to climb back into the series because they finally had a clue on offense. While they still had a tendency to settle for play on the perimeter, the Rangers offense kicked into gear when they got it into their thick heads to attack the Washington net.

Brian Boyle’s goal, which was a byproduct of a power play, ended the Rangers goalless streak at 124:06. It was the type of goal that shows the benefit for driving to the net rather than playing to the perimeter.

The other three Rangers goals were pretty much carbon copies of each other as the Rangers cycling and forechecking paid off because Rangers forwards put themselves in perfect scoring positions by going to the slot.

While the Rangers were 1-6 on the power play, for the most part the Blueshirts were more active and were playing with a purpose and a heartbeat with the man advantage. The Blueshirts “official” power play goal was a result of the perfect recipe for power play success: faceoff win plus player movement plus puck movement equals goal.

All of the Rangers positive work on the power play could have come undone if the penalty kill weren’t 3-3. They were aggressive when they needed to be and were patient when they needed to be – especially on the power play at the end of the game as the Capitals pulled Holtby for a six-on-four advantage.

The Rangers effort in the final 1:54 brought back memories of last year’s Black-and-Blueshirts mentality.

“If anything, [the Rangers] did a really good job, obviously, protecting [Lundqvist],” Coach Adam Oates explained to Whyno. “We probably just could’ve tried to figure out a better way to get to the net, just to start the process of now they’ve got to recover, maybe there’s a rebound, second wave. Probably a little too cute with it.”

If Rangers fans didn’t know any better, Oates’ lament to Whyno could easily have been made by John Tortorella in reference to his team’s power play.

With the special teams battle turned upside down, so to was the five-on-five play as the Capitals’ forecheck game pinned the Rangers in their zone far too long for comfort. I was glad to hear Brian Leetch echo the sentiments that I have been extolling for some time now.

While Sam Rosen and Joe Micheletti seemed at a loss to explain why the Capitals were pinning the Rangers in their zone, Leetch explained that since the Rangers forwards drop down low to protect Lundqvist and clog the shooting lanes, the Washington point men are open – which leads to the Rangers chasing the puck in their own zone.

Here are my random Ramblings from Game 3:

• This was the one game where I wanted NBC to cover because I needed to hear what Pierre McGuire had to say about Alex Ovechkin’s embellishment of Brad Richards’ slashing penalty. The only problem I have with the penalty call on Richards is that it should have been high sticking, not slashing. However, Ovechkin should have been hit with a diving penalty much like Derek Dorsett was in Game 2 and Sidney Crosby should have been assessed in OT of Game 3.
• Derick Brassard Stat #1 – The Elias Sports Bureau reported that the last time a Ranger scored three points or more in his playoff debut at Madison Square Garden was Sergei Zubov in 1994. erick Brassard Stat #2 – The AP reported that Brassard was the first Rangers to score four or more points in his Rangers debut since Doug Bentley did against Boston on January 24, 1954.
• What is up with the Daily News running a trumped up story about Bernard King “dissing” Carmelo Anthony instead of the rangers Game 3 win – like Newsday and the NY Post. needless to say, my buck went to the Post today. I urge everyone to do the same thing if the Daily News is going to lead with non-stories instead of hockey.
• The Rangers inability/unwillingness to cover the Capitals point men makes Mike Green more dangerous that Alex Ovechkin. They can’t continue to leave Green alone for shots from the point.
• What is with all of these Nicklas Backstrom commercials for Geico? Does he have dirty pictures of the gecko and the cavemen?
• Darroll Powe received a concussion after being hit with a Joel Ward elbow. Do not expect a suspension because it will be termed an inadvertent elbow along the same line of Michael Del Zotto’s hit to James Neal. It is the second concussion Powe has received at the hands of the Capitals – the first came after a collision with Matt Hendricks on February 17. Powe’s injury should pave the way for the return of Ryane Clowe, if he is healthy.
• The NHL changed its playoff format in 1987 to make all series the best-of-seven. Since that time, Washington has won the first two games of a series six times – and all six time the Capitals lost Game 3. In addition, they ended up losing four of those six series. Of course, one of those series victories was against the Rangers in 2011.
• If the Rangers big guns are going to continue to struggle offensively, they are going to need scoring from their secondary players – as well as continued pinching of their defensemen. Prior to the game-winner, Derek Stepan had only one goal in 27 playoff games. Richards is now without a goal in his last nine playoff games and Rick Nash has just one goal in seven playoff games.
• Last night’s victory was the Rangers seventh straight at home – a stretch that has seen them score 30 goals in those games. The Blueshirts will attempt to win two playoff games in a row for the first time since the Rangers defeated the Ottawa Senators in Games 6 and 7 last year.

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Only once in their 86-year history have the New York Rangers erased a two games to none deficit – in 1996 when they spotted the Montreal Canadiens the first two games of their Conference Quarterfinals battle. What made that accomplishment even more incredible was that the Blueshirts had dropped the first two games at home.

In that respect, the 2013 Rangers have an advantage because they have the opportunity to start their series comeback Monday night at Madison Square Garden. However, unless the team finds a way to revive their moribund power play the series may never switch back to the Verizon Center.

The Rangers and Capitals entered the series as two evenly matched teams that were separated by just one point. However in terms of their power plays, Washington’s man advantage scores a TKO in the battle with the Rangers inept power play.

It was apparent midway through this game that two teams were already facing “overtime hockey” because Henrik Lundqvist and Braden Holtby were on their games. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the game within a game that is the “game of inches” were going against the Rangers. Anton Stralman rang a shot off the pipes three minutes and change into the game and then Rick Nash hit the post in the final four minutes of the second period as his bulrush drew a Rangers power play.

There it goes again, the Voldemort of the Rangers: the-thing-that-must-not-be-named. It is the thing that has the Rangers in a 2-0 deficit rather than even, or dare I say, ahead two games to none.

While the four blind mice, er officials, blew the delay of game call in the final minute of regulation, did it really matter? The Rangers squandered the power play that Nash drew and then they wasted the golden opportunity the Caps gave them when Washington was called for delay-of-the-game early in Overtime.

Then when Ryan McDonagh was sent off for his own delay penalty, even the most diehard Rangers fan knew that the end was near.

The Capitals were able to force the Rangers into that penalty because of the Blueshirts habit of dropping their forwards so deep in the defensive zone, that they are unable to prevent back passes to the point. While that style helps seal off the shooting lanes, it also tends to put the team back on their heels as they are forechecked into turnovers, mistakes, or penalties – which was exactly the case in Overtime.

I don’t normally agree with Barry Melrose on too many things, but ESPN’s analyst was dead solid perfect in explaining the Rangers power play woes on ESPN News following Game 2.

“This is a power play with tons of talent … they’re not getting shots through,” Melrose explained. “They play a very stagnant power play …. It’s basically five guys standing still.”

Contrast that with the Capitals game-winning goal and you see the difference in the two power play units. Washington moved the puck and themselves and opened up a shooting lane for Mike Green. The Rangers? They continue to settle for keeping the puck on the perimeter as they over-pass in an attempt to find that mythical perfect power play shot.

Here are my random Ramblings for Game 2:

• Call me a mark, but I always enjoy any hockey game Mike Emrick calls. I know he can get a bit annoying when he repeats his pet keywords (e.g. pitchforking the puck), but the man has an encyclopedic knowledge of the game that is only second to his passion for the game. I also don’t mind Ed Olczyk as the color analyst – so much so that I would like to see him work on MSG. However, as for Pierre McGuire, I’d be willing to cough up a Benjamin Franklin to the first place who rings a puck off his head.
• No offense to Braden Holtby, but why does every goaltender the Rangers face – especially in the playoffs – turn into a Vezina Trophy winner? Why can’t one of them look as bad as Marc-Andre Fleury did in allowing that bank shot game winner against the New York Islanders on Friday night?
• While the Rangers would have spit-the-bit on the ensuing power play anyway, how did four officials miss that delay-of-game penalty at the end of regulation? It is calls like that which give pause to the conspiracy theories Rangers fans hatch against the NHL. It is a black and white call that leaves no room for interpretation. Frankly, I’d like to see the NHL give officials a little leeway, especially on plays like that where a player is trying to clear a rolling/bouncing puck. Instead of calling the penalty, keep the faceoff in the defensive zone and treat it like an icing – the offending team is not able to substitute players.
• While I am on my officiating soapbox, I detest it when referees eliminate a power play by calling an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for diving. As far as I am concerned, it is one or the other. If it is a penalty then I don’t care if a player dives/embellishes on the penalty. Referees don’t call penalties on players who stay on the ice after blocking a shot and then miraculously skate off the ice on their own and never miss a shift.
• If Derek Dorsett deserved the diving penalty, then why wasn’t one called on Rick Nash when Nicklas Backstrom took him down in the neutral zone in the second period? If there is no penalty Backstrom, they Nash “must” have taken a dive to try and draw a penalty.
• Here is why I hate McGuire so much. On the play where Dorsett was called for the dive Pierre said, “Professional players don’t fall like that”. Wow, I could have sworn NBC and McGuire have covered Pittsburgh Penguins games because a certain #87 dives as much as Greg Louganis.
• Rangers are now 1-9 in their last 10 playoff games at the Verizon Center. The lone win was Marian Gaborik’s triple overtime winner nearly a year ago (May 2, 2012). In those 10 games, the Rangers have scored nine goals (just one on the PP) while allowing 23.
• Game 2 was the first time since 1933 that a Rangers playoff game ended scoreless after regulation. The Rangers and Montreal Maroons played to a 0-0 tie. According to the NHL playoff format at that time, the series was a two-game, total-goals series. The Rangers were eliminated when they lost the second game 2-1 – thus losing the series two goals to one.
• Looking ahead to Game 3, it will not surprise me to see the rest of the Rangers walking wounded return to the lineup. Brian Boyle and Derek Dorsett skated in Game 2 and I would look for Ryane Clowe and Marc Staal to be dressed for Game 3. On Friday, Coach John Tortorella said that urgency is more important than conditioning in terms of players getting back into the lineup. “If we don’t win, we’re done. So I don’t give a damn about the conditioning,” Tortorella said. “If I think a player is gonna help us, he’s going to play.”
• The Rangers have to get more traffic in front of Holtby and get more shots ON GOAL – especially on the power play. When they have the man advantage, they have to stress movement of players and the puck as a means of opening up shooting lanes and they have to throw a lot of rubber ON GOAL.
• Tortorella needs to get Brad Richards off the point on the power play. He is too tentative with the puck. The Rangers need someone who is more decisive and willing to shoot the puck. While has hasn’t scored yet, Rick Nash has stepped up his effort. Richards, not so much.
• At the same time, forwards have to go to the top of the crease and stop setting up at the side of the net. Going to the top of the crease will draw at least one defenseman’s attention – which opens up the ice and sets up the next bit of advice.
• Working the offense from behind the goal line, and more specifically, from behind the net is still a good strategy. The only adjustment they might want to make is not trying as many stuff-in wraparounds. Instead, they might want to take an extra stride or two so that they have a little more room, and a better angle, to shoot.
• The Rangers also need to stop settling for long-range shots. They need to start driving to the net with the puck. That will draw defenders and open chances for rebounds and loose pucks. It also might draw more power plays. Look even a blind squirrel finds a nut every now and then and if the Rangers keep drawing power plays they are bound to score on of these days.

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The optimistic glass-is-half-full Rangers fan looks at the team’s Game loss as extension of the cliché that hockey is a game of inches. An inch here and inch there and Carl Hagelin tallies a hat trick and john Moore’s goal that wasn’t a goal turns out to be the game-winner.

The pessimistic glass-is-half-empty Rangers fan realizes that the team’s fortunes were doomed as a result of their inept five-on-three power play that paved the way to the Capitals victory.

Stepping back and looking at the big picture, the pessimistic Rangers fan, which is kind of redundant, wins the Game 1 debate because Capitals fans can bemoan the same lament of opportunities that were “just missed” chances. However, there is no arguing that the Rangers inability on their power play proved to be a momentum/game changer – a belief that both sides signed off on.

“Anytime you kill a five-on-three, especially in playoffs, the momentum goes the other way, for sure,” Jason Chimera told Stephen Whyno of The Washington Times. “If they get a goal, they’re feeling it. If we get a kill, obviously the crowd gets into it or we get into it. Everyone’s pumped up. It’s a good way to create momentum for us.”

It is one thing for a team not to score on their power play, but it is another thing for that power play to be so incompetent that the momentum shifts as a result

“That’s what the playoffs is about: Momentum swings and trying not to get hurt when you lose the momentum,” Ryan Callahan explained to Mark Giannotto of The Washington Post. “I thought tonight we got hurt when we lost it.”

Most fans are conditioned to see momentum as something that is carried over from game to game. While that might be the case in some instances, more often than not, the idea of momentum and momentum shifts are confined within the framework of a game.

Teams that are able to stem the tides of momentum shifts are the teams that win in the playoffs – especially when you have two evenly matched teams. Contrary to what might be written, only one point separated the Southeast Division champion Capitals and the sixth seed Rangers.

The difference in Game 1 was that the Blueshirts not only didn’t seize the momentum of the game during their two-man advantage, they served up to the Caps on a silver platter in a 46-second stretch that proved to be the margin of victory.

In terms of goals against, the Rangers were pretty consistent (34-38-36). However, it seems like that whenever the Rangers lose it turns out that their play in the second period proves to be their undoing. I don’t know that as a fact, but it sure feels that way to me.

Prior to the third period, assistant coach Michael Sullivan told MSG’s John Giannone, “We actually played a pretty good second period.” Putting aside “coach speak”, there is no way you turn a 1-0 lead into a 3-1 deficit and say you played a pretty good period. I would hate to see what a bad period would look like.

The key thing for the Rangers is to focus on what they did right in and make sure they correct what they did wrong in Game 1. The Blueshirts main objective is to gain a split of the first two games at the Verizon Center. While it is always better to win that first game because it sets you up for the possibility of returning home up two games to none, a win on Saturday afternoon will go a long way to help erase the memory of Game 1.

Here are some random Ramblings on Game 1:

• If the officials are going to hunt for calls to make like they did on Jay beagle in the first period and Aron Asham in the second period (the one that the Caps scored on), then the NHL might as well save everyone’s time and advance the Capitals to the Eastern Conference Semifinals. While the Rangers did not the five-on-five “mini-game”, they are not going to win a battle of power plays.
• With that said, the Blueshirts looked very confident killing penalties when they were in aggressive mode and put pressure on the Capitals – it even led to a Hagelin shorthanded breakaway. By the way, Hagelin was, by far, the best Ranger on the ice last night.
• On the downside in the special teams battle, the Rangers need to find a way to win faceoffs because they were horrible last night. It showed how much they miss Brian Boyle and his 56% faceoff record.
• If my wife Roe has her way, that guy who blows that horn at the Verizon Center will be blowing out of another orifice if she ever sees him – and I believe her!
• While Steve Oleksy made a gorgeous pass to Marcus Johansson on the eventual game winning goal, Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi have to do a better job of communicating so they don’t let any forward sneak behind them.
• Speaking of Oleksy, the rangers have to capitalize (pun not intended) when Adam Oates sends out Oleksy and Jack Hillen. John Tortorella has to use the last change advantage at the Garden to the fullest against that pairing.
• On the rare times that Rangers forwards do meander in front of the net to screen Braden Holtby (especially on the power play); they need to stop facing the point because they are in no position to bang home any rebounds. There was one point in the second period where Callahan was in front and was facing the point as he jumped as a shot was put towards goal. It was nice that he was in front, but since he was in the air and facing away from the goal he was in no position to pounce on a potential rebound. Then again, that would require the rangers to hit the net with their shots.
• I forgot where I read it online, but some writer mentioned that Holtby is weak on wraparounds. Granted Hagelin’s goal did bang in off John Erskine’s skate, the Blueshirts might want to treat Holtby like Martin Brodeur – work the puck from behind the net and direct as many pucks on net as possible – bad angle shots included.
• Case in point: John Moore’s goal. I know it was a goal, you know it was a goal; even Holtby knows it was a goal even though he said he had the puck in his blocker hand. The bottom line is that the officials and the league office in Toronto got the call right. You could not tell “exactly” where the puck was. You have to wonder if there is a way for the NHL to put tiny camera on the underside of the cross bar or something that would give a real close view of the puck in those type of situations.
• I love Henrik Lundqvist as much as the next Rangers fan, but he can’t afford to give up weak goals like he did on Chimera. It wasn’t the reason the Rangers lost, but it sure made that hill to climb a lot steeper than it needed to be.
• Rangers entered the game with an 18-2-1 record when scoring the first goal and a 13-0-1 record when leading after the first period. So much for statistics. Hopefully another statistic will bite the dust – this one courtesy of Larry Brooks of the NY Post. Brooks wrote that the Rangers have not won a playoff series after losing the first game since their Second Round win over the New Jersey Devils in 1997. Of course, that state is a bit misleading because the Rangers weren’t even in the playoffs for a lot of those years. However, they have lost the last four series since the lockout where they have dropped Game 1.

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Yogi Berra would be very proud of the New York Rangers-Washington Capitals playoff matchup because he would be able to say that it is a case of “déjà vu all over again” as the two teams meet for the fourth time in five years. Unlike last year’s seven game battle, the seventh and deciding game will be at the Verizon Center, not Madison Square Garden.

In the case of the Rangers and Capitals, familiarity does indeed breed contempt. Why else would Nicklas Backstrom feel the need to stoke the fire on the series while speaking to Katie Carrera of the Washington Post?

“Obviously we felt we were better for seven games last year,” Backstrom opined. “We know they’re a good team and we played them before. It’s going to be a tough battle. I think we’re ready and they’re probably ready as well. It’s going to be, I think, a long series.”

If he doesn’t back up that opinion, it is going to be an even longer off-season.

Honestly, I am not that big of a “bulletin board material” kind of guy. If you need something like that to motivate you to win at this time of the season, then you have already lost the battle.

With that said, I like the response that Dan Girardi gave when he was asked for his take.

“We’re not getting into a war of words,” Girardi responded to the AP. “They’re playing really well. Like us, they had a really solid April. We expect the series to be hard-fought, with a lot of hitting.”
Smart man that Girardi, he is going to let his actions speak louder than words.

Both teams enter the playoffs from similar standpoints – they each relied on red-hot finishes to secure their playoff berths. The Capitals overcame a 2-8-1 start under rookie coach Adam Oates as they thundered home at a 15-2-2 pace to win the Southeast Division.

While the Rangers were not as hot as the Caps down the stretch, the Blueshirts still finished up the regular season on a 10-3-1 run as they earned the sixth spot in the Eastern Conference – and given the teams in the first two spots, that is a good thing. As a measure, the Capitals went 11-1-1 during that same time period.

While the Pittsburgh Penguins and Montreal Canadiens each have their own woes, both teams feasted on the Blueshirts with the Rangers only garnering a 6-1 win over the Penguins late in the season and tallying only one goal in three losses to the Habs.

As a result, the Capitals might have been the best matchup for the Blueshirts given the other two alternatives. The Rangers went 2-0-1 with Washington winning the final game of their series in a shootout on March 24.

Obviously the Rangers must find a way to neutralize Alex Ovechkin in the series. He was held without a point in both Rangers wins and scored a goal and an assist in the Caps victory. Keeping Ovechkin at bay is easier said than done because it has been his resurgence that keyed the Capitals drive to the Southeast Division title. The Caps captain scored 22 goals in his final 21 games as he grew more comfortable with his shirt to right wing.

Rangers Coach John Tortorella will have to work extra hard, especially when the Blueshirts on the road, to get his preferred matchup against Ovechkin. Ideally, he would use the tandem on Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi. However, with Oates controlling the matchups with the last change at home, Torts might have to split his top two defensemen to cover all his bases.

Even if the Rangers manage to limit Ovechkin, they have another task that is equally as important – stay out of the penalty box. The Capitals led the NHL with a power play that connected at a 26.7% clip – which is was too close to doubling the Rangers man advantage numbers (15.7%). Simply put, the Rangers need to make this series about five-one-five play despite what happened in the season series.

Believe it or not, but the Blueshirts had the better of the power play battles during the regular season as they scored a power play goal in each game (3-9) while the Capitals scored just once in 10 attempts. Of course, that one power play goal came in Washington’s lone victory.

If I asked you who led the Caps in scoring in their three games against the Rangers, Nicklas Backstrom’s name would probably come up after Ovechkin. With his goal and assist, Backstrom was tied for the team lead against the Blueshirts. The other name would not be among your first 15-20 guesses as defenseman Steve Oleksy also scored a goal and an assist.

For the Rangers, Derek Stephan proved to be the go-to guy as he scored a goal in each of the games – including PPGs in the first and third games. Four other Rangers also posted three points against the Caps: Brad Richards and Carl Hagelin each had a goal and two assists while Ryan McDonagh and Rick Nash each had three assists.

You can take all of those stats with a grain of salt and pretty much wipe the slate clean. Each team has pretty much been transformed from what they were at the start of the season. Heck, the Rangers have reshaped their team twice during the 48-game season without so much as a benefit of a pre-season – with much of it coming after the trade deadline.

Prior to the deadline, the Blueshirts were averaging 2.26 goals per game and were stumbling with a power play hovering around 14%. After the deadline, the Rangers offense jumped to 3.61 goals per game and a power play around 20%.

It was no coincidence that Washington turned their season around after their horrid first 11 games. During that 2-8-1 stretch, they were averaging just 2.27 goals per game. During their final 37 games, the Capitals offense jumped up to 3.21 goals per game.

The biggest key to the Rangers success against the Capitals, and really any team, is to keep the puck out of their own end. Far too many times the Rangers get pinned in their own end to the point of being caught out of position – which leads to goals against.

The reason is simple, the solution not so much. The Rangers forwards spend a lot of their time in the defensive zone collapsing down below the circles as they look to block shots and clog the shooting lanes. The problem with style is that it leaves your opponent’s defensemen open at the points.

As a result, the opponent can ease the Rangers checking (and backchecking) by rotating the puck to the point. That forces the Rangers forwards to have to scramble to get back into position to cover the defensemen. If the opposition is moving the puck quickly enough, the Rangers find themselves scrambling because the puck can always move faster than a player.

The Rangers are not going to completely change their defensive system so they have to be extra mindful of the back passes to the point. The forwards are going to have to be more active in two areas: deflecting back passes with their sticks and getting out to the defensemen quicker to put more pressure on them – thus interrupting or slowing the puck movement.

In the offensive end of the ice, The Rangers need to get bodies in front of Braden Holtby and make his life difficult when it comes to seeing shots from the point. Of course that strategy does require the Rangers to shoot more and to be more accurate with their shots. They also need to be more selfish with the puck and not look to set up the perfect play when a shot on goal is just as good. Sometimes your best passes are shots on goal.

As you might imagine, both teams are difficult to beat when they get the first goal. Washington was 17-8-1 when scoring first while the Rangers were 18-2-1.

The same can be said with in terms of the two teams being difficult to beat when they lead after two periods: Washington is 19-3-0 and the Rangers are 16-0-0.

The Rangers task would be much easier if they were healthier. Then again, that could and should be said about all teams in the playoffs. While the NHL’s regular season was only 48 games long, teams are still recovering from injuries and assorted bumps and bruises.

The Capitals will be missing C Brooks Laich who is expected to miss at least the first round of the playoffs following a sports hernia surgery in early April and RW Joel Ward should be ready to play after recovering from a knee injury.

The status of Brian Boyle, Ryane Clowe, Derek Dorsett and Marc Staal are all still up in the air. Of the foursome, Staal’s absence is the one that hurts the Rangers the most. A healthy Staal would give Tortorella another weapon to defend Ovechkin and would limit Oates’ ability to get Ovechkin on the ice against a non-lockdown defender.

With Ovechkin playing right wing, the heavy duty of defending him falls more on the left defenseman. While McDonagh is more than capable to the task, it would be much easier in terms of matchup if Staal could play. Staal has been quoted as saying that he is “probably” not going to play one. If I were a gambling man, it would not surprise me to see Staal in the starting lineup for Game 3 at the Garden – if not sooner. Remember, Staal’s return to the lineup last year for the Winter Classic seemed to come out of leftfield.

The loss of Clowe and Dorsett should not be overlooked either. Both players would provide much needed size, grit and, as Torts is fond of saying, jam in a series that shapes up to be another war. Clowe would also provide the Rangers with someone who thrives on winning board battles and battles in front of the net. It also robs them of someone who has 65 games of playoff experience.

From all indications, Dorsett would bring the same style of play and intangibles that Brandon Prust brought to the table.

While fans like to bemoan all of the things that Brian Boyle doesn’t do, the Rangers miss the one thing that he is the best at among the Rangers – winning faceoffs. Boyle’s 56.4% faceoff percentage is the best in the series and he is one of the forwards who receives heavy rotation killing penalties.

The possible return of these three forwards would go a long way in supporting the top two lines. With the return of these skating wounded would deepen the Rangers to the point of having four solid lines – even if Tortorella’s penchant is for rolling three lines.

One knock I have seen people level against the Rangers is the playoff inexperience of their best offensive threat. Yes, Rick Nash is 0-4 when it comes to playoff games. However, those same people fail to take into account all of his International experience.

Nash won Silver Medals in the world Juniors 92002) and World Championships (2005 & 2008) and Gold Medals in the World Championships (2007) and the Olympics (2010 – also played in 2006). In 54 International games as a pro, Nash has 53 points.

I have come to the point where it is time for me to put or shut up and make my series prediction. I thought long and hard about taking the “safe” way out and predict the Rangers in six or the Capitals in seven, but that is a gutless to go.

As a result, my prediction is the Rangers win the series in six games. The four days off were just the elixir the Blueshirts needed to get bumps and bruises healed while giving some extra time for the walking wounded to return. It would not surprise me to see all of the injured players back in the lineup by the end of the series.

I also base my prediction on the one trump card the Rangers can play in each and every playoff matchup they are in. They enter any series with the best goaltender on the ice. Henrik Lundqvist got close to the Holy Grail last year and has to be even more determined to take the final steps to the Stanley Cup.

I also base my prediction on the resurgence Brad Richards had at the end of the season. B-Rich can go a long way to make Ranger fans forget his dreadful regular season –sans the last few games. He can also go a long way in ending the calls for the Rangers to use their final buyout on him this summer.

Lastly, I base this prediction on the 2013 playoffs being Rick Nash’s Breakout Party. During the regular season Nash’s third period play offered a glimpse into what Rangers fans can expect as he takes the next step onto the NHL’s brightest stage, the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

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I am not sure if Branch Rickey had Brad Richards and the Rangers in mind when he uttered, “Luck is the residue of design”, but design or not, Richards’ pinball goal in the closing minutes of the third period helped ease the minds of all Rangers fans. I am sure there are a few players, coaches and front office executive who also are breathing a sigh of relief that the Rangers playoff hopes did not come down to having to beat the New Jersey Devils on Saturday afternoon.

As it turns out, the Rangers didn’t need bank shot nor did they need Ryan Callahan to channel his inner Mark Messier because the Montreal Canadiens came from behind to defeat the Winnipeg Jets last night. Still, it feels better that the Blueshirts “earned” their way into the playoffs rather than “backing” their way in.

As the NHL heads into the final weekend of its abbreviated season, the eight Eastern Conference teams have been set. What we don’t know are the playoff matchups. The Rangers can finish anywhere from sixth to eighth and face Pittsburgh (#1 vs. #8), Boston or Montreal (#2 vs. #7), or Washington (#3 vs. #6).

If we learned anything from last year’s playoffs, a team’s seed does not necessarily guarantee a team playoff success or failure. The top-seeded Rangers faced a pair of grueling seven-game series against the eighth and seventh seeds before being eliminated by the sixth-seeded Devils who, in turn, lost the Stanley Cup Finals to the eighth-seeded Los Angeles Kings.

While it might not always appear that way, the Rangers are playing some of their most productive hockey – at least in terms of producing points. They are 9-3-1 in their last 13 games and if you extended that out over the course of a 48-game season, the Blueshirts would have been in a battle for the first/four seed rather than in a battle to just make the playoffs.

The Rangers strong finish to the season allowed them to avoid repeating a repeat of history 20 years ago. In 1991-92, the Rangers won the President’s Trophy before a disappointing elimination to the Penguins. In 2011-12, the Rangers finish with the second best record in the NHL (even though they topped their 91-92 point total) before a disappointing elimination to the Devils. In 1992-93, with expectations high, the Rangers crash and burn and miss the playoffs. In 2012-13, the Blueshirts nearly replicated missing the playoffs.

Of course, there might be some who would argue that the Rangers should have missed the playoffs this year in order to really finish off the 20-year history: 1993-94 Stanley Cup Champions — 2013-14 Stanley Cup Champions.

Regardless of the Rangers playoff opponents, there are two things that all Blueshirts fans can take for granted. First, the Rangers will go into the series with a goaltending edge – no disrespect to any of the other playoff goaltenders. The New York Rangers live and die with Henrik Lundqvist and in the vast majority of times he has responded.

The second thing is that the Rangers will struggle to score goals. That is pretty much a given in any playoff series not involving the 2011-12 Flyers playing the 2011-12 Penguins. Those scoring struggle may only get worse as teams tighten up their play in the playoffs.

That is the main reason why I believe that the key to winning in the playoffs is finding a way to increase your offensive production because goals are always at a premium. The only positive for the Rangers is that there are a couple of areas where an improvement would produce improved scoring production.

I know it is a lot to ask given the way the Rangers power play has struggled since the first two years after the first lockout, but any semblance of an NHL-caliber power play will pay major dividends. In addition to finding ways to score, the Rangers must find ways to keep their power play from being momentum killers. Creating shots and chances is a good thing. Stumbling your way into the offensive zone and throwing the puck around the perimeter is a bad thing.

That leads me to the second thing the Rangers need to improve on: shoot the puck – on net. There is no more frustrating sight than to see a Ranger player have a step on a defender and watch him windup and drive a shot wide of the net (can you say Michael Del Zotto). Not only do you lose the offensive chance, but far too often that missed shot ends up as an odd-man rush against the Rangers. Therefore, in the simplest terms I can use, hit the net.

Of course, in conjunction with hitting the net is getting bodies in front of the net. Any goalie will tell the hardest shot to stop is the one he can’t see. The second hardest shot to stop is the one that gets deflected.

While we are talking about shots, the Blueshirts have a bad habit of being too unselfish in their play. I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but it does make sense. Far too many times Rangers try to make the extra pass when they have a scoring chance of their own. Sometimes it is a player deferring to a scorer and sometimes it seems as if a player just is plain afraid to take the shot. In either case, sometimes being selfish is a good thing in hockey.

Now if you combine getting more shots, on goal, with bodies in front for screens and deflections, and you to take the scoring chance you have; guess what you have? You have a team whose power play is a lot more successful than the Rangers and you have a team who is increasing their scoring chances.

The final word belongs to Steven McDonald who pretty much summed up the Rangers task on the night that Ryan Callahan became a four-time winner of the Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award.

“We need one play, one shift, one block, and a goal to make this game and this season a memorable one … so get it done.”

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