2014 Playoffs


Given the predictions coming from hockey analysts, the New York Rangers would do the NHL a world of service and just capitulate and concede the Stanley Cup to the Los Angeles Kings – who set an NHL record of winning three consecutive Game 7s in the same playoffs.

Interestingly enough, many of those same pundits were writing the Rangers off because they won two Game 7s.

Every time someone has tried to bury the Rangers, they have refused to go gently into that good night. While the Rangers embrace the underdog role, they are conceding nothing.

“So throughout these playoffs, and it’s not gonna change now, we’ve been the underdog,” Alain Vigneault told Justin Tasch of the Daily News. “But what we’ve done is we’ve focused on how we play and what we need to do on the ice, and that’s definitely what we’re gonna do here come Wednesday.”

Hockey analysts point to the Western Conference’s dominance as a leading factor in their predictions of a Kings Stanley Cup championship. However, a closer look hardly points to any such dominance.

Of the last 13 Stanley Cup winners, just seven have come from the Western Conference. If you go all the back to 1991 (the year that the Oilers/Flames run ended), the numbers are dead even – 11 titles per Conference.

Unlike the rich playoff history between the Rangers-Canadiens, the Rangers-Kings playoff history is brief. The teams have met twice in the playoffs – both times in the NHL’s Preliminary Round. In 1979, the Rangers began their unexpected run to the Stanley Cup Final with a two-game sweep (in a Best-of-Three showdown).

Two years later the Rangers took the Best-of-Five series in four games. That playoff matchup turned ugly following the first period of Game 2 when both benches emptied for an old-fashioned BRAWL that featured six game misconducts (three per team), and a Rangers team record for penalty minutes in one period (125) and a game (145). Rookie Ed “Boxcar” Hospodar led the way with 39 PIMs.

Even Nick Fotiu, who was serving an eight-game suspension for going into the stands in Detroit, got involved as he raced down to the glass to pull a Kings fan of one of his teammates.

Truly a game that the Hanson Brothers could be proud of.

The season series offers no insights into the Stanley Cup Final. The Rangers defeated Los Angeles on October 7 as the Blueshirts registered the first of three road victories (in nine games) to start the season.

About five weeks later the teams finished their season series as the Kings shut out the Rangers 1-0 with the win going to a goaltender who isn’t even in the organization any more (Ben Scrivens).

Both teams have evolved and changed since that November 17 tilt. Each team’s leading playoff goal scorer (Martin St. Louis and Marian Gaborik) wasn’t even a glimpse in their GM’s eye.

I see the Rangers road to victory following the path of the following keys:

In each of my previous playoff previews, two keys that have followed the Rangers are Special Teams/Discipline and having their best players be their best players. Their checklist for victory begins with these two factors.

Los Angeles begins the SCF as the highest scoring team in all of the playoffs, averaging 3.48 goals – compared to the eighth rated Rangers (2.70). The Kings power play is fifth in the playoffs (28.6%) compared to the tenth rated Rangers (13.6%).

Fortunately for the Rangers, their penalty killers have been the second best in the playoffs (85.9%) and probably would have been the best except the Flyers posted their numbers against the Blueshirts. The Kings penalty killers were rated ninth (81.2%).

Obviously, the easiest way to slow down the Kings power play is to play smart hockey and eliminate bad penalties – especially the careless ones in the offensive zone.

When the Rangers are on the power play they need to be disciplined enough to follow Wayne Gretzky’s advice: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” Therefore, the Rangers must stop chasing the elusive “perfect shot for the perfect goal” and look to get more rubber on goal – and more bodies in front of the goaltender.

The Kings are the second-best team on faceoffs in the playoffs. The Rangers are going to lose their fair share of draws, but they can help mitigate the problem by staying disciplined and remembering their defensive assignments.

The deeper you get in the playoffs, the more teams need their stars to lead the way. The Kings have the overall advantage in terms of SCF experience. As a result, St. Louis and Brad Richards have to step up and show their less-experienced teammates the way. Even SCF rookie Rick Nash can channel his Team Canada experiences to help his teammates brave the big stage.

It is important that the Rangers big guns fire in this series because you know that the Kings big guns (Gaborik, Jeff Carter, Drew Doughty and Anze Kopitar) will. If the Rangers do end up losing to the Kings, karma will probably end up biting the Blueshirts in the arse as Gaborik would probably walk away with the Conn Smythe Trophy.

No Fly-Bys: This key is a two-parter. The Kings are a very physical team so the Rangers will have to step up their physical play to match the Kings and to slow them down through the neutral zone. The Rangers must follow their pokechecks with body contact and not get caught off balance and out of position. On offense, it means Rangers forwards have to stop their habit of flying by the top of the crease and setting up shop at the side of the net. They would be in much better position to pounce on rebounds if they positioned themselves at the top of the crease as opposed to side of the net.

The Rangers also need to do a better job of finishing around the net. I don’t know if the Rangers inability to score off rebounds is a result of good defensive play or really bad finishing skills. No wonder the Blueshirts don’t always like to go to the front of the net.

Third Period: If the Rangers want to know what their best game plan is they just need to watch the tape of the third period of Game 6 against Montreal. The Blueshirts did not sit on their one goal lead. Instead, they forechecked the Habs into submission. The more the puck is in the Kings zone, the more chances the Rangers will have to score – thus limiting the number of scoring chances the Kings will have. They need to put pressure on the likes of Matt Greene and Willie Mitchell, or even Robyn Regehr if he is healthy enough to get into the lineup.

Quicken The Pressure: Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick has the ability to win a series on his own. However, Quick has struggled this year. The Rangers need to get some traffic in front of Quick and force him to scramble to find the puck. In such situations, he will have a tendency to drop to the ice early – thus leaving the top of the net uncovered. When Quick is off his game he will often fight the puck and be overly aggressive. As a result, the Rangers will want to get Quick moving and let his aggression pull him out of the play. On other thing to watch is to see if Quick taking a shot off his right collarbone during practice on Tuesday factors into his play during the series.

Early and Often: I have talked about the idea that momentum does not carry from game-to-game. If that were the case, we would be watching the San Jose Sharks play the Pittsburgh Penguins. However, there is fatigue-factor that can carry over from game-to-game – and it isn’t necessarily a physical fatigue.

Constantly having to rally to just survive and advance can take as much out of a team as playing a lot of games in a short period of time. The Rangers need to come out extra strong to start the series and fire the opening salvo by winning Game 1. In addition to coming out strong in Game 1, they need to be strong at the start of each game. A lot of their success against Montreal was their ability to play with the lead.

While much has been made about the Kings resiliency and their ability to bounce back, the Blueshirts need to make Los Angeles chase them on the scoreboard. Even the most flexible rubber band can be overextended and break.

Torts/AV: While Vigneault has the team buying into his system, some of the Rangers success in the playoffs goes back to the defensive foundation that John Tortorella developed. Truth be told, the Rangers could have, and probably should have, been playing an AV-like style under Torts, but the former coach just never seemed to have enough confidence in his team.

The Rangers are going to need to harken back to their Tortorella days when it comes to defending against the Kings. Los Angeles is a team that far and away led the NHL in hits so the Rangers had better be prepared to return to their “Black-and-Blueshirts” ways. No one expects the Rangers to play the trap, but they’re going to have to clog the neutral zone.

Five-Foot Rule: The Rangers have to obey the five foot rule in terms of defensive responsibility and in neutral zone play. Any time the Rangers have the opportunity to control the puck within five feet of their blue line; they must clear the puck out and resist the urge for a costly turnover.

Conversely, when the Rangers get within five feet of the Kings blue line they can’t afford to turn the puck over in the neutral zone. If there is no play to be made, then the puck must be sent in deep to avoid turnovers and potential odd-man rushes. Playing some “dump-and-chase” hockey will also help them set up their forechecking – provided the Rangers remember the “chase” part.

Despite those who see the playing of the games as a mere formality, this series is not that easy to figure out. Yes, it does appear that the Kings are a team of destiny who are enjoying the “magic carpet ride”. Winning three consecutive Game 7s, all on the road (including being down 3-0 to San Jose) does speak to that Los Angeles mystique.

However, the Rangers can lay claim to their own mojo working in their direction with a pair of Game 7 victories, including their first ever 3-1 series comeback. Toss in their ability overcome their Bell Centre of horrors and the Rangers can claim a share of that magic carpet.

The season series between the two teams really doesn’t play into figuring out the Stanley Cup because the two teams haven’t seen each other in over six months.

The Rangers have been used to the underdog role since the beginning of the playoffs. They were too small to beat the Flyers. They weren’t offensive enough to beat the Penguins. They weren’t fast enough to beat the Canadiens.

Guess what?

The Rangers still managed to find a way to beat all three teams to reach the Stanley Cup Final.

Alain Vigneault spent seven years as coach of the Vancouver Canucks so he is familiar with the Los Angeles Kings. Av’s Canucks beat the Kings in six games in the Western Conference Quarterfinals in 2010. The Kings got their revenge two years later in a five-game Western Conference Quarterfinals victory as part of the Kings march to the championship.

In the end, AV’s first-hand experience dealing with the Kings and the Rangers edge in goal and on defense will prove to be the difference with the Rangers Game 7 mojo outlasting the Kings Game 7 mojo as Lord Stanley’s Cup returns to Madison Square Garden for the first time in 20 years after a hard fought seven-game series.

Hopefully, it won’t be another 20 years between Rangers Stanley Cup championships.

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The 2014 Eastern Conference Finals is what hockey is all about – an Original Six matchup between the New York Rangers and Montreal Canadiens. It is also a rematch of the 1986 Eastern Conference Finals won by the Canadiens in five games behind rookie goaltender Patrick Roy who turned a so-so regular season into a Conn Smythe Trophy for his playoff heroics.

This series also features two teams who are looking to return to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in over 20 years. Montreal also carries the mantle (and burden) of being the last Canadian team to win the Stanley Cup (1993).

The Blueshirts/Habs playoff meeting is the 15th between the two teams, with each team winning seven. Those 15 matchups push the teams past Toronto and Boston for the fifth most frequent playoff matchup.

The last time the two clubs met in the playoffs was 1996 and the Rangers prevailed in a weird six game series. The Blueshirts dropped the first two games of the series at MSG before roaring back to win the next four – including the first ever playoff game in the Molson Centre (now the Bell Centre).

It is kind of funny how times have changed for the Rangers in terms of their ability to play on the road at Montreal.

During the last few years, it has been the Rangers who have been getting their bell rung at the Bell Centre.

Pat Leonard of the Daily News detailed just how much the Bell Centre has become a house of horrors to the Rangers:

• The Rangers have only two wins in their last 12 games in Montreal dating back to February 2008.
• In their last four games in Montreal, the team has only one goal (Ryan Callahan – 11/16/13) and just two goals (John Mitchell – 1/15/12). The last time a current Ranger scored in Montreal was one exactly one year prior to Mitchell’s goal (Mats Zuccarello provided the honors).
• Things have not been much better for Henrik Lundqvist in Montreal. Rookie netminder Cam Talbot made both starts in Montreal this year because of The King’s less-than-regal 4-5-2 record. Talbot’s 1-0 win on November 16, 2013 marked the team’s first win at the Bell Centre since March 17, 2009 – which was also Lundqvist’s last win in Montreal.

As you might expect, the series will be an emotional one for Martin St. Louis as he returns home to play for the first time since losing his mother. The team pulled together when the tragedy first hit and you can expect them to support their teammate even more now.

On May 12, Pierre McGuire spoke with WFAN’s Mike Francesa about how the team has rallied around St. Louis.

“They have become a family, right before our very eyes, if there were any guys who were maybe not on board or not prepared to do the heavy lifting to get back in the series, they have all bought in now,” McGuire said. “I really think that the galvanizing moment is how the Rangers have handled the passing of Marty St. Louis’ mother and it has brought them together as a group.”

St. Louis might be able to help his teammates through their rough time in Montreal. While he did not score in Montreal, he did help Tampa Bay to Shootout and Overtime wins in the Bell Centre. St. Louis did score in the Lightning’s one home game against the Habs – a 2-1 Shootout loss.

It is also a return for Coach Alain Vigneault as he started his NHL coaching career with Montreal. In 266 games with the Habs (1997/98-2000/01), AV compiled a 109-118-35-4 record. His replacement in Montreal was current coach Michel Therrien (in his first stint as the Canadiens coach).

While you can bet Brandon Prust and Dale Weise will be amped to play against their former teammates, the Rangers win that battle as former Habs’ first round draft pick Ryan McDonagh squares off against the team that drafted him. If the Rangers manage to win the Stanley Cup they really do owe former Montreal GM Bob Gainey a ring for not only taking Scott Gomez but for giving McDonagh to the Blueshirts.

Whether the Rangers faced the Montreal Canadiens or the Boston Bruins, the road to the Stanley Cup Finals was not going to be a cakewalk. It was just going to be a matter of picking your poison.

The Bruins represented a battle-tested playoff team that has experienced what it takes to win a Stanley Cup. Led by the likes of Zdeno Chara and Milan Lucic, the Rangers would have been facing an intense physical battle – kind of like what they expected from the Philadelphia Flyers.

While the Canadiens will never be mistaken for Herb Brooks’ smurfs of the 1980s, the Habs rely on their skating and finesse to win games. Montreal is a team that has been able to score goals at even strength (2nd only to the Rangers) and on the power play (4th best) in the playoffs – kind of like what they expected from the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The one thing the Rangers had going for them in the first two rounds might not be such a big advantage for them in this series. For the first time in the playoffs, Lundqvist is not head-and-shoulders the better goaltender. Some might say that Montreal’s Carey Price has that advantage – and based on his play against the Blueshirts – they might be right.

In his last five games against the Rangers, Price has posted a 4-1 record and has allowed only two goals in those five games.

As we look ahead to the keys to this series, we need to remember that there are two building blocks that are essential to the Rangers foundation to building a winning playoff strategy. The fact that they are also the two most inconsistent parts of their game goes to show how reliant the Blueshirts have been on Lundqvist being the best goalie in the series – something that is not written in stone against the Habs.

The Rangers special teams must step up their play from the first two rounds. While the power play and penalty kill improved against the Penguins, the team can’t get by with the ninth best power play and the 13th best penalty kill.

Discipline is a big part of the Rangers special team improvement. The team’s discipline with the man advantage means taking the good shot and not passing the puck in an attempt for the great shot. It means being disciplined enough to remember to get traffic at the front of the net.

As far as penalty killing goes, the best strategy is just to stay out of the penalty box. If you thought you saw some strange calls in the previous two series – you ain’t seen anything yet. Whether it is fan paranoia, excuse-making or partial truth, the perception is that the Canadian teams (especially those in Montreal and Toronto) tend to get the benefit of the doubt in terms of calls. Not only should we not expect that perception to change, we should expect the cynicism to grow as our northern brethren hold their collective breaths in anticipation of Montreal bringing the Stanley Cup back home to Canada.

The second recurring key is that the Rangers best players need to be their best players. At this point, the main target of this point is Rick Nash. While he is doing all the little things you need him to do, he is not doing the main thing you need him to – score goals. With Montreal being more of a finesse team, you would expect/hope that Nash can finally break out offensively.

Looking ahead to this series, I see the Rangers possible path to victory coming down to these keys.

1. The Matchups – It will be interesting to see which line Therrien uses his top defense pairing of P.K. Subban and Josh Gorges against? If he doesn’t use that pairing against Nash-Derek Stepan-Chris Kreider, he might use the Andrei Markov and Alexi Emelin pairing. I would guess that AV would want to keep Nash’s line away from the top pair – which will be difficult at the Bell Centre when the Habs have the last change.

2. Break The Streaks – There are lots of streaks that the Rangers need to break if they want to get to the Stanley Cup Finals. First and foremost, Lundqvist has to be Le Roi in this series – especially in the Bell Centre. In his last four starts in Montreal, Lundqvist is 0-3-1 with a 6.99 GAA and a .862 SV%.

Lundqvist is not the only player who needs to break the Bell Centre jinx. Prior to their 1-0 win in November, the Rangers had lost their last eight games in Montreal by a combined 30-7 score.

The time has come for Nash to break out of his playoff scoring slump and show why the Rangers invested so heavily in him. The Habs are not that physical a team (as compared to the Flyers or Bruins) so he should be able to be effective driving to the net.

The most important streak that needs to come to an end is the 0-13 record when the Rangers have a lead in a playoff series. Until the Blueshirts manage to exorcise that stat they are eternally doomed to play seven game series – and no team has ever won the Stanley Cup after playing 28 playoff games.

3. Strike First – This key has a double connotation to it. As we saw throughout the Second Round, the first goal of the game was golden – and it should be no different in this series. With the Bell Centre packing in nearly 22,000 screaming rabid Canadiens fans, the Rangers would be very wise to score early (and often) and try to keep the crowd out of the game. The more the crowd is in the game, the more the Habs will feed off that, and the more the officials will feed off that as well. If you don’t think that plays a part in a game in Montreal, well, then I have a bridge in Brooklyn for sale.

The second part of striking first is getting a victory in Game 1, or at the very least in Game 2. The Rangers want to be able to take away home-ice advantage as soon as possible. Besides, if the Rangers can get Game 1 then they are set up to end the 0-13 streak early in the series, rather than later.

4. Forecheck – With the way Price and the Habs defense has stifled the Rangers offense, the Blueshirts are going to need to find ways to score. Obviously, a semi-potent power play would work wonders. Another way to generate offense is to pin Montreal in their own zone. The Rangers showed flashes of brilliant forechecking against Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and they will need to step up the ante in this series.

An aggressive and successful forecheck will not only lead to turnovers, but it will help to neutralize the Canadiens speed by controlling the tempo of the game and forcing Montreal to defend rather than attack.

5. Traffic – This key another one of those two-parters. If the Rangers have learned anything from their matchups against the Flyers and Penguins it is that their offense is much better, and more effective, when they are driving to the net and screening goaltenders. Price is so zoned into his game that his Olympic Gold could be followed up with Lord Stanley’s hardware. The Rangers have to be as aggressive getting in Price’s grill as opponents are in getting bodies in front of Lundqvist.

The second part of the traffic key is that the Rangers need to be able to clamp down on the neutral zone. They can’t afford to let the Canadiens control the neutral zone because the speed they generate there will translate into scoring opportunities. When the Rangers were on their game defensively against Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, neither team had any time or space in the neutral zone.

The Canadiens are a team that looks to hit the long breakout passes for breakaways. As a result, the solid forecheck and the ability to choke off the neutral zone are essential.

When all is said and done, there is one thing that I can predict for a fact: the team that wins this series and advances to the Stanley Cup Finals will wear red, white, and blue.

Okay, you all probably think I am a wise-ass because both teams wear those colors. But if you noticed, I wrote red, white and blue, not rouge, blanc, et bleu.

In the end, I see the Rangers doing what they do best – winning a seven-game playoff series. I have seen some writers say that such a series will tire out the Rangers who have played 14 games as compared to just 11 for the Canadiens. However, it is Montreal that is coming off a seven-game war against the Bruins.

The Rangers are the more battle-tested playoff team and they have actually been able to get some rest. While the NHL has not officially released the schedule, it is nowhere near as hectic as the previous series. With Game 2 set for Monday (5/19), Games 3 and 4 would take place at the Garden on Thursday (5/22) and either Saturday (5/24) or Sunday (5/25). The only problem is that you can bet MSG will be overrun with Habs fans who will be able to get tickets on the secondary market. I don’t think the Rangers will be able to block Montreal fans the way the Seattle Seahawks blocked San Francisco 49ers fans from getting tickets to the NFC Championships.

While the Canadiens did sweep the Tampa Bay Lightning and outlasted the Big Bad Bruins, Montreal is still a team that Brian Costello of The Hockey News called a “… pint-sized, icing a roster with a league-high nine forwards and four defensemen who stand 6-foot or smaller. The Habs are at the bottom of the NHL weight scale as well with just one regular (Alexei Emelin) weighing 220 pounds or more.”

In my opinion, it will be Montreal that wears down by the end of this series, not the Rangers.

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The teams may change, and the circumstances leading up to it may change, but if it is May and it is playoff time in the NHL, then the New York Rangers must be facing another Game 7 battle as the Blueshirts look to survive and advance in the race for Stanley Cup.

The Rangers are getting to be grizzled veterans when it comes to playing a seventh and deciding game. The Rangers have won their last three Game 7 matchups during the last two seasons and lost a fourth in 2009 to Washington when the Blueshirts held a three games to one series lead – the same deficit they are looking to overcome tonight.

The Rangers have been down three games to one in 16 previous playoff matchups and have forced a Game 7 once – in 1939 when they spotted Boston a three games to none lead before losing Game 7 on Mel Hill’s triple overtime goal, his third overtime winner of the series.

While that seems like a mighty tall mountain to climb, it is a bit misleading because the corps of this team was only involved in one of the 16 previous occurrences. Remember, there was also a time when the Rangers did not win seventh games.

On the other hand, Larry Brooks of the NY Post pointed out that seven Penguins (Marc-Andre Fleury, James Neal, Chris Kunitz, Kris Letang, Paul Martin, Craig Adams and Matt Niskanen) were part the team’s 2011 playoff collapse as Pittsburgh blew a 3-1 series lead against Tampa Bay. It must be noted that both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin missed that series because of injuries. The Lightning (with Martin St. Louis and Dominic Moore) won Game 7, in Pittsburgh, 1-0.

Let’s be honest, the Rangers have never beaten Pittsburgh in the playoffs so it figures it would the Blueshirts would take a circuitous route in doing so. By the way, one year ago today the Rangers notched their first ever Game 7 road win with their 5-0 blanking of the Washington Capitals.

Rangers fans are going to hunker down in their bunkers on Tuesday night hoping that the momentum from Games 5 and 6 carry over to Game 7. I hate to disappoint, but momentum does not carry over from game-to-game in the playoffs. If momentum carried over from game-to-game, then the Rangers would have been toast after phoning in Games 3 and 4.

By the time the opening puck is dropped for the next game, a new set of momentum is being written.

Rather, momentum changes from shift-to-shift and period-to-period.

There is one caveat that can be applied to the momentum theory and we have our old pal Pierre McGuire to thank for it. Everyone’s “favorite” between-the-benches analyst talks of the three things you want to plant in your opponents’ mind as a series progresses: concern, doubt and fear.

It is safe to say that the Penguins are at the fear stage.

More importantly for the Rangers, Marc-Andre Fleury is definitely at the fear stage. He entered the series with a big target on his back as THE potential goat in any Penguins playoff loss. After shutting out the Rangers in back-to-back games, it appears that the target is back and it is as big as it has been in the 2014 playoffs.

It is the fear of a Fleury Playoff Meltdown that can transcend from game-to-game, especially in the mind of the Penguins netminder.

The Pittsburgh newspapers contain stories promising of shakeups should the Penguins fulfill their playoff wilting. The changes start all at the top with GM Ray Shero, go through Coach Dan Byslma (who is not that big a fan favorite), and down through the players. Even Captain Sidney Crosby is drawing criticism for not stepping up his play and his inability to provide leadership.

This is the hornets’ nest that the CONSOL Energy Center could turn into for the Penguins. All that is missing is the spark to ignite the powder keg – and that is where the Rangers have to provide that spark.

It is no coincidence that the first goal will be huge on Tuesday night. Through Monday nights’ games, only one time has a team scored first and failed to win – Minnesota did it last night in Chicago. In addition, the team that scores first in Game 7 is 112-40 (73.7%).

If the Rangers can channel their play from Games 5 and 6 and use it as the springboard for the first goal of the game, they could provide the spark that lights the Penguins final implosion.

A big key to igniting that spark could very well be Chris Kreider. The youngster’s return to the lineup gives Vigneault his top nine forwards and gives the Rangers offense even more speed and much needed size. It also allows Nash to play right wing where he seems to be more comfortable.

Most fans think the Rangers are without pressure because they are playing with “house money”. I say balderdash and poppycock. That “house money” stuff works when you are talking about kids playing in school, whether it is high school or college. When you are a professional, you are expected to win these games unless you are in a David versus Goliath situation – and that is hardly the case between these two teams.

Granted, the pressure is greater on the Penguins because they were one game away from eliminating the Rangers. While home teams win about 60% of Game 7 matchups, they are facing on the league’s best road teams so even that advantage might not be as great as it could have been.

The same keys that I pointed out in my series preview still apply as the Rangers embark on yet another Game 7 battle. They need to play disciplined and stay out of a battle of the special teams with the Penguins. While the Rangers power play has responded of late, it is not good practice to give Crosby, Malkin and the rest of the Penguins firepower extra chances with the man advantages.

Speaking of power plays, if the Rangers happen to be up by a couple of goals in the third period – and happen to get a power play or two – could Coach Alain Vigneault please use two defensemen on the points instead of one blueliner and four forwards.

With scoring the first goal at such a premium (and extending that lead a couple of goals wouldn’t hurt either), the Rangers have to continue to be relentless on their attack on Fleury – and relentless on their forecheck. The more time they spend in the Pittsburgh zone, the less time they have to worry about defending against tne Penguins offense or a crazy deflection.

This series has shown that when the Rangers get bodies to the net and attack the crease with intent, they have been able to score goals.

In moving forward with their offensive game plan, they might want to consider going back.

Fleury looked pretty bad on Carl Hagelin’s backhander in the first period of Game 6 so the Rangers should not be afraid to fire backhanders – especially if they can get Fleury moving side-to-side.

The other part of going back is looking to start some of their attack from behind the net. It is all part of trying of a strategy to get Fleury moving and not allowing him to get squared up with the shooter. This strategy, of course, is going to require the Rangers to go to the net with a purpose.

When it comes to defending Henrik Lundqvist, the first thing the Blueshirts have to do is be smarter with the pucks. Their bad habit of making pass up the middle of the ice reared its ugly one too many times Sunday night. The Rangers need to make the safe play whenever possible.

The Rangers need to win the battle of the blue lines. Any puck that is within five or so feet of their defensive blue line must be cleared and any time they are within five feet of the Penguins blue line the puck must be plated deep. They can’t afford any cheap turnovers and they certainly can’t afford any more breakaways against – especially when they are on the power play.

Sooner or later the Brian Gibbons’ and Marcel Gocs’ of the world are going to slip a puck past Lundqvist on a breakaway. Even worse, it could be Crosby and Malkin bearing down on those breakaways.

One other thing the Rangers need to do is be aware of wherever Crosby and Malkin are when they are on the ice. The Rangers need to take then out of the game and let someone else try to step up and beat them. If I were Nash, I would follow Malkin from the moment he left the Penguins bench to the moment he returns to it. Nash is the only player who has the size, strength and skating ability to keep up with Geno. If he isn’t going to score then he can help the Rangers advance to the Eastern Conference Finals by being a shutdown forward.

If Lundqvist continues his King-like play in recent Game 7s (4-0, 1 shutout, 0.75 GAA, .973 SV%), then the Rangers are destined for an Original Six matchup against either the Boston Bruins or the Montreal Canadiens.

Don’t forget that a berth in the Eastern Conference Finals is not the only thing that is on the line tonight. If the Rangers win, then the 2014 second round draft pick the Rangers sent to Tampa Bay as part of the St. Louis-Ryan Callahan trade becomes a first round draft pick.

The one thing we know for sure is that the NHL will be safe from those ruffians who practice random water squirtings following the NHL’s $5,000 fine levied against Lundqvist. Of course, that also means slew-footing your opponent or jabbing him in the junk with your stick is legal – as long as the person doing the slewfing and jabbing is named Sidney Crosby.

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While the Pittsburgh Penguins might not admit it publicly, you have to believe secretly they are happy to be facing the New York Rangers as opposed to the Philadelphia Flyers. Let’s face it; the Rangers have the tendency to turn mere rookie goaltenders into Georges Vezina – just the cure the Penguins would seek in returning Marc-Andre Fleury to his Stanley Cup winning form.

Seriously, while the Penguins and Rangers were separated by 12 points in the Metropolitan Division standings, the two teams played about as evenly as two teams could play during the regular season. Both teams scored five goals in home wins and both teams suffered home shootout losses. The only difference is that the Rangers scored one more goal (13-12).

The Penguins fan will look to the brief playoff history between the two teams as an omen. Pittsburgh has won all four series against the Blueshirts – winning an astonishing 16 of 20 games.

Of course, an optimistic Rangers fan looks at the playoff history as just one more hill to climb. After all, there was a time when the Rangers never won Game 7s.

The 1989 series was a total no-contest that saw the Rangers limp into the playoffs after GM Phil Esposito fired Coach Michel Bergeron with two games left in the regular season and went behind the bench himself. With Bob Froese and John Vanbiesbrouck unable to stop the young Pens, Esposito turned to a minor league goaltender in Game 4. That is how the Mike Richter Era began as Pittsburgh swept the Rangers out of the playoffs.

The most heartbreaking of those losses came in 1992 when the Rangers entered the series with the best record in the NHL and bowed out in six games under wild circumstances that saw an injured Mark Messier miss Games 2 and 3, and Adam Graves suspended for four games after slashing Mario Lemieux in Game 3and breaking a bone in his wrist.

Despite missing Messier and Graves, the Rangers found themselves up two games to one and ahead 4-2 in Game 4. A few seconds after squandering a five-minute power play, and a chance to put the game away, Ron Francis beat Richter with a long-range shot to cut the lead in half. Jaromir Jagr knotted the game about 90 seconds later. Francis completed his hat trick in overtime as the Penguins would win the rest of their games on their way to winning their second Stanley Cup.

In 1996, the Rangers shook off losing their first two playoff games at home against Montreal to beat the Canadiens in six games – which was no small feat given the Blueshirts won all three games in Montreal after posting a 1-20-3 record previously.

If you thought Sidney Crosby was a master at diving then you missed some solid performances during the 1996 series. Kevin Lowe described the splish-splashing this way.

“It looked like a bowling alley out there,” Lowe explained to Rick Carpiniello of the Journal News.

“My old man used to tell me, if you ain’t dead, don’t lay there.”

In 2008 the Rangers hoped that Jagr’s switching of allegiances would end the losing to Pittsburgh.

Optimism was running high as the Blueshirts built up a three-goal lead in Game 1. However, Pittsburgh would twice score two goals in 20 seconds before Evgeni Malkin’s power play goal at 18:19 of the third period proved to be the game winner.

The Rangers prevented the sweep behind two Jagr goals and a 29-save shutout from Henrik Lundqvist.

Trailing 2-0 heading into the third period of Game 5, Lauri Korpikoski (in his NHL debut) and Nigel Dawes scored 82 seconds apart to tie the game early in the third period. Marian Hossa ended the Rangers season 7:10 into overtime.

The Rangers roster has undergone a significant transformation since that 2008 playoff loss. Only Lundqvist, Dan Girardi and Marc Staal remain on the team, while seven Penguins return.

As we enter this series, both teams will make a concerted effort to stay out of the penalty box. Neither team was particularly effective killing penalties (Pittsburgh: 74.1% – Rangers: 71.4%). The big difference is in the teams power play units (Pittsburgh: 20.7% – Rangers: 10.3%).

If (and it is a huge if) this series is determined by five-on-five play, then the Rangers have a slight edge (1.88 goals to 1.50 goals).

Therein lies the question, how will the series be called. Will the series be called straight down the line or will the “Screw-The-Rangers” rulebook be applied where Rangers players are knocked into opposing goaltenders and it is the Blueshirts who end up shorthanded.

The Penguins needed the extra time off to help heal injuries to some of their key support players. Brandon Sutter and Joe Vitale suffered injuries in the Game 6 win against the Blue Jackets, but they did practice on Wednesday. Brian Gibbons has been out since Game 2.

On defense, Brooks Orpik missed the last two games of the Columbus series and Kris Letang is still trying to get his game back after missing time following his stroke in January.

Of course, NBC and the NHL did the Rangers no favors scheduling back-to-back games on Sunday night and Monday night. However, Gary Bettman does not deserve to take the hit all by himself. Cablevision has to share the blame as they have two New York Liberty WNBA games booked as well as Billy Joel’s monthly appearance at the Garden.

With all that said, you think clearer heads would have prevailed so that the Rangers would not have to face the prospect of six games in nine days and seven games in 11 days. I am sure something could have been done with the scheduling if NBS wasn’t so insistent on having the Rangers-Penguins available for two Sunday games.

Of course, the Rangers could have avoided the problem if they had been expeditious rather than taking seven games to dispose of the Flyers.

The biggest question for the black-and-gold comes not from the injury report but from between the pipes. Unlike the last two season when Fleury’s GAA (3.52 and 4.63) and SV% (.883 and .834) were more AHL journeyman like than they were of a Stanley Cup contender, his numbers this year (2.81 and .908) are acceptable.

With that said, Fleury still had a meltdown in the closing second of Game 4 when he FUBARed a puck behind the net that practically turned into an empty net goal for Brandon Dubinsky. Fleury then allowed a soft goal to Nick Foligno for the winner in overtime.

The Columbus-Pittsburgh series was unique in that winning team overcame a two-goal deficit in each of the first three games with the Blue Jackets erasing a three-goal deficit in Game 4 and nearly doing so again in Game 6.

You get the feeling that if the Rangers are to win this series it is going to mirror another New York-Pittsburgh playoff battle – the 1960 World Series. The Pirates won the Series in seven games as they outscored the Yankees by a combined 24-17 in their four wins. Conversely, the Yankees beat down the Pirates in their three wins – outscoring the Bucs 38-3. Let me do the math for you, the Yankees lost the World Series despite doubling the Pirates in runs (55-27).

In putting together the Keys to winning the Battle of the Keystone State Part Deux, we begin with two keys that are going to remain valid for as long as the Rangers stay alive in the playoffs.

The Rangers special teams have to be something special. It is one thing for the Blueshirts to win with a lackluster power play, but there is no way they can continue to win if they are going to continue struggling to kill penalties.

The second thing is that the Rangers best players have to continue to be their best players. They need more Game 7-like efforts out of Rick Nash the deeper the Rangers go in the playoffs and the top four defensemen are going to be tested every shift they match up against Crosby and Malkin. It is too much to ask for the Rangers to keep Crosby and Malkin under wraps like Columbus did for the first five games before Geno broke loose for three goals.

One interesting wrinkle is that Martin St. Louis is making his Rangers debut against the Penguins. MSL has averaged nearly a point a game in his career against Pittsburgh (47 points in 50 games).

Looking ahead to this series, I see the Rangers possible path to victory coming down to these keys.

1. Discipline – Against the Penguins the idea of discipline is really a three step process. It is obvious that the Rangers must stay out of the penalty box – especially with the officials always keeping a caring eye on Crosby.

The Rangers also have to be disciplined enough not to turn this game into a track meet. Unless Fleury is playing like a sieve, the Blueshirts do not have the offensive firepower to match the Penguins goal-for-goal in a high scoring series.

That leads me to my third point of discipline. The Rangers need to focus on their play in the second period of Game 7. That is the blueprint for beating the Penguins. The Rangers pressured the Flyers for the entire period with a relentless forecheck that keyed the Blueshirts offensive pressure.

2. Wilting the Flower – If the Rangers can maintain that focused forecheck, they are going to cause the Penguins to turn the puck over like the Flyers did. The pressure then falls squarely on the shoulders of Fleury. If the Penguins goaltender is unable to duplicate Steve Mason’s heroics, then the Rangers path to the Eastern Conference Finals gets much easier.

Odds are the Penguins will not use Tomas Vokoun as a fallback should Fleury implode. The Czech netminder was limited to just two AHL games as he battled back from blood clotting issues. While they might turn to him, it would be a lot to ask of him to save Pittsburgh’s season.

That leaves rookie goaltender Jeff Zatkoff as the only other alternative. The former Los Angeles Kings draft pick has just 20 NHL games under his belt.

The Rangers are going to have to create a lot traffic and havoc in front of Fleury so that he does not get comfortable in his crease. No, I am not saying they have to be physical with him just get him to the point where he constantly has to be in motion to the see puck and make saves.

They also need to get a lot of vulcanized rubber on net – and it has to be more than the Rangers usual variety of “casual shots from the perimeter that hit the goalie center mass”. In other words, they have to shoot the puck like they mean it and don’t look to over-pass the puck. Sometimes the best pass is a rebound off a shot on goal.

3. Breaking the Streak – In order for the Rangers to break their playoff losing streak to Pittsburgh (all four series) they must break their other playoff losing streak – 12 losses in a row when they have had a lead in a series. Teams that make deep runs in the playoffs do it by stringing together wins, not by alternating wins and losses. The streaks have to end sometime and in the Rangers case it might as well be sooner rather than later.

4. The Matchups – You can expect there to be a lot of cat-and-mouse strategy flying between the two coaches. Will Dan Bylsma try to get Crosby going by teaming him with Malkin? Which defensive pairing does Alain Vigneault use against the Crosby and Malkin lines (assuming they are kept apart)?

You can expect Bylsma to use the last change option at the CONSOL Energy Center in order to get one (if not both) of his star canters matched up against the John Moore-Kevin Klein pairing. Look for major ice time to be shared by Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal and Anton Stralman.

While not a matchup per se, you have to like the Rangers’ advantage in terms of the third and fourth line matchups – especially if Bylsma has to move Brandon Sutter up when he teams Crosby and Malkin together.

5. Best of Both Worlds – In an interesting twist given John Tortorella’s firing in Vancouver, the Rangers are going to need to meld the styles of play espoused by the last two coaches. They have to channel their inner Torts in terms of play in the defensive end and return to the shot-blocking monsters they were a couple of years ago. At the same time, they have to remember to embrace the offensive freedom that AV has installed.
As for my prediction, well, that is where I have a problem. My mind is saying that the Penguins will win the series, but my heart is saying the Rangers can find a win to prevail.

In the end the prediction is Penguins in seven as Crosby, Malkin and the guys in the striped shirts prove to be too much for the Rangers.

However, I do see a way for the Rangers to find a way to win. It involves the Blueshirts finding a way to end up ahead in the series following Sunday night. Being up three games to none would be golden, but a 2-1 lead will suffice. It sets the Rangers up with a chance to return to Pittsburgh with a 3-1 lead with the opportunity to end the series in five or six games. The longer the series goes, the more the odds shift to the Penguins.

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So here we are as the New York Rangers face yet another Game 7. Should we really have expected anything else from the Rangers? I know the Blueshirts refuse to do things the easy way, hence their 12 game losing streak when they are leading a series, but do they constantly have to do things the hard way? Maybe they should just start every playoff with Game 7 and the series tied 3-3.

Given the way the Rangers failed to show up for the final minutes of Game 6, they better hope that momentum does carry over from game-to-game.

For their part, the Rangers are talking about putting the horrors of Game 6 out of their minds. Martin St. Louis refers to “amnesia” and Brad Richards told the AP, “This team is not going to be thinking about what happened tonight. It’s over once we get on the train. You have to move on quick.”

Not only should the Rangers NOT forget their Game 6 performance, they need to embrace it, take ownership of it, and do whatever is necessary to make sure they do not repeat that performance tonight.

In my series preview, I pointed to four keys the Rangers needed to accomplish in order to defeat the Flyers. In brief, they were:

1. Increased goal scoring
2. Special Teams
3. Don’t retaliate unnecessarily
4. Best players must be the best players

Of the four, the closest the Rangers have come accomplishing with any consistency is the third one – and even that comes with a caveat. While the Rangers are not getting caught for retaliatory penalties, they are getting caught taking bad/lazy penalties.

The penalty that Benoit Pouliot took on Claude Giroux was both bad and lazy – despite the fact that the referees refuse to penalize the Flyers for their splashy-divey embellishments.

As for the other keys, the Rangers have been wildly inconsistent. Their offense has been humming when they win, but near nonexistent in their losses. After starting the series 3-8 on the power play, the Rangers man (dis)advantage has returned as they have been blanked on their 20 power plays. Maybe they need to hire Adam Oates as a power play consultant – stat!

The Rangers star players have been wildly inconsistent and that inconsistency has spread to usually reliable players like Pouliot, Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello.

The biggest disappointment has been Rick Nash because of his; you guessed it, wildly inconsistent play. While he has shown glimpses, he has not stepped his play the way the team needs him. Nash needs to be more than just a finesse perimeter player; he needs to play with jam – something that Ray Ferraro pointed out today.

Adam Rotter of SNY offered the following quote from Ferraro who was on Leafs Lunch today and Ferraro pulled no punches when it came to breaking down Nash’s game so far.

“This is my pet peeve when I watch players. I was an undersized guy, I see someone who is 6-4 and 230 and he rushes it over the side wall and takes his shot from there? I f he cuts to the net and he is almost unstoppable,” Ferraro said.

“There is no anger to his game and you don’t need to be slashing guys but you need some passion or anger and he doesn’t display it. They brought him in for the playoffs. Dom Moore has two in this playoffs. They pay him $7 million. I don’t see how you can see that and think that what you are doing is right. He isn’t even close.”

While Nash is far from the only star Ranger not living up to the back of his hockey card, his salary and potential to be a game-changer puts the biggest target on his back.

The key to a Rangers Game 7 victory comes down to DISCIPLINE. It is a concept that has to permeate across all parts of the Blueshirts game tonight. It starts with staying out of the penalty box, especially if the NHL is going to employee the “Screw-the-Rangers” rulebook. You know the one where fast whistles disallow Ranger goals and see the Blueshirts called for three diving penalties while the Flyers cannonball their way into the pool.

The Rangers, along with Montreal, have been the best five-on-five teams in the playoffs – outscoring Philly 13-7 so staying out of the penalty box is imperative in Game 7.

The idea of discipline goes beyond staying out of the penalty box. It extends to their offensive zone play and especially on their power play. It is rather unfathomable how a team can be so disciplined killing penalties and then have no clue how to react when they have the man advantage.

Alain Vigneault is turning out to be one of those coaches who can design a good game plan going into a game, but has troubles making adjustments during the game – especially in terms of the power play.

The Rangers are trying to employ the diamond power play set up as a means to jump start their power play. However, the Flyers have countered it and AV seems unwilling or incapable of trying anything else.

This is where the discipline part comes into play. The Rangers MUST make Steve Mason has uncomfortable as possible in goal. That means pressure and traffic in front of the net. The Rangers were causing all kinds of havoc with their forecheck during the first period of Game 6, but could not take advantage of that or the fact that Masone was a human rebound machine because no Rangers forwards ever camped out at the top of the crease.

If the Rangers had a couple of Adam Graves and Steve Vickers types, this column would be extolling the Rangers on their Game 6 victory and looking ahead to ways to make Marc-Andre Fleury self-destruct.

The bottom line is that the Rangers forwards have to be disciplined enough to grow a set of onions and get to working the front of the net and the defensemen have to start being more disciplined with their shots from the point by working to get their shots through. Too many shots from the point are getting blocked.

The Rangers might want to utilize a strategy that seemed to work against Martin Brodeur and might work against Mason. The Rangers need to start generating some of their offense from behind the net. That doesn’t necessarily mean trying to beat Mason on wrap-arounds. It means getting the Flyers to commit down low so that it either A) opens up shots from the point or B) opens up shots from the slot (assuming the forwards man-up and go to the slot).

When the Rangers do get their shots they need to be disciplined enough to remember he catches with his right hand so they need to adjust if they want to beat him to the stick side. Mason has not looked all that comfortable when the Rangers go upstairs on him.

The Rangers need to heed the advice of Herb Brooks who constantly reminded his USA team to “play your game” as they upset the Soviet Union.

In the end, the Rangers are going to need Henrik Lundqvist at his best – and that is the way he has been in terms of facing Game 7 situations. If his teammates given him an even chance, he has shown an ability to get the job done in seventh and deciding games:

• 3-1 record, 1.00 GAA, .963 SV%, and 1 SO in four career Game 7s
• 6-2 record, 1.48 GAA, .950 SV%, and 2 SO in his last 8 elimination games
• 5-0 record, 0.98 GAA, .966 SV%, and 2 SO in his last 5 elimination games @ MSG

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New York Rangers fans should thank Gary Bettman and the new NHL playoff structure for a couple of reasons. First off if the NHL were using last year’s playoff system, the Rangers would be matched up with the Montreal Canadiens in the Eastern Conference’s four-five matchup. Given how much of a nightmare the Bell Centre has been for Henrik Lundqvist that is a good thing – no matter how successful the Blueshirts have been on the road this season.

The second reason for being thankful is that the Rangers don’t play the Washington Capitals. Of course, a large part of the thanks for that has to go Alex Ovechkin and his teammates who were shut out of the playoffs – thus preventing a potential fifth playoff series in the last six seasons.

Instead, the Rangers get the opportunity to renew their hostilities with the hated Philadelphia Flyers. While there is hatred for the Devils and Islanders, it is strictly business. When it comes to the Flyers, it is all personal.

This season’s matchup marks the 11th time the Rangers and Flyers will do battle in the playoffs – tying them for the 10th most common playoff matchup with the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues who are renewing their playoff rivalry for the 11th time.

The Broadstreet Bullies lead the all-time series 6-4; including winning the last meeting between the two teams in 1997 when the Flyers won the Eastern Conference Finals in five games. That series marked the final playoff appearances for Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Mike Richter and it marked the final Rangers playoff appearance for Brian Leetch.

It was also a series that featured a banged up Rangers team that turned to the likes of Ken Gernander and Dallas Eakins in order to fill out a lineup that featured 12 players who were at least 30-years-old.

The Rangers won Game 2 behind Wayne Gretzky’s hat trick to even the series, but the Flyers swept Games 3 and 4 before finishing off the Rangers in Game 5.

The playoff victory in 1997 was the Flyers third consecutive playoff victory over the Rangers. The last time the Blueshirts defeated the Flyers in the playoffs was during the team’s improbable run to the 1986 Eastern Conference Finals as a fourth placed Rangers team (78 points) defeated the first place Flyers (110 points) in a fifth and deciding game in Philadelphia.

Normally having home ice in a playoff series would be cause for celebration. At first glance, that appears to hold true with the Rangers and Flyers considering the Blueshirts have won eight in a row against Philly at MSG. However, a closer look at the two teams’ season records tell a little different story.

Among playoff teams, only the Detroit Red Wings (18) had fewer homes wins that the Rangers (20). While the Rangers accumulated 44 of their 96 points at home, the Flyers gained 51 of their 94 points at home.

The Rangers big advantage is that they have been road warriors this season as only Colorado (56 points) and Anaheim (54) racked up more road points than the Rangers (52, tied with Boston). The Rangers road record of 25-14-2 is made even more impressive when you consider they started the season with a 2-6 record in their first eight road games – thus finishing up with a sizzling 23-8-2 road record.

Brad Richards was at a loss for a concrete answer to the Rangers road-home swing.

“I’ve never been on a team with the best road record and this kind of home record,” Richards admitted to Jeff Z. Klein of the NY Times.

“Sometimes, there’s no rhyme or reason. There’s no real great answer for you — I’d love to make one up. But we don’t prepare any differently at home than we do on the road.”

Richards understands that certain parts of a team’s game can be swayed by the home crowd and offered Klein the following explanation.

“Certain things, like the power play, I understand how that sometimes can be better on the road than at home,” he said. “You’re not hearing the fans, you’re not trying to score in the first 10 seconds. You don’t consciously shoot because people are saying, ‘Shoot,’ but you just hear them get on you. But as far as the overall team game, I don’t have an answer.”

Marc Staal put home ice advantage in its proper context while speaking with Steve Zipay of Newsday on Tuesday, April 8.

“Home ice is big especially if you get later in the series, Game 7 is an advantage if you have that home ice,” Staal opined.

One wouldn’t think that it is imperative that the Rangers win Game 1, but I believe it is important for the Blueshirts to draw first blood. The last thing you want to do is give the Flyers even the slightest glimpse of having any advantage in the series. The longer the Flyers troubles at MSG last, the deeper the losing streak cements itself into Philly’s psyche.

It is a belief that the Flyers are bringing into this series.

“We’re obviously going to go there and try to get a split,” Scott Hartnell said to Sarah Baicker of csnphilly.com. “But if you get the first one, then you can go for two. We’re really going to put all our eggs in the one basket the first game and put it all on the line. I think that’s got to be the mindset of the game.”

In order for the Rangers to even contemplate making a deep run in the Stanley Cup playoffs, they need to stop playing seven game series. You want to “grab and go” in terms of the playoff series, in other words, you want to get in and out as quickly as possible – and most especially in this series.

You can expect the Flyers to come out hitting from the opening faceoff and through the final whistle – and beyond. I don’t think the Rangers will have a problem with the Flyers in terms of “regular physical play”, but I do think they will have a problem with extracurricular activities that happen after every whistle – the type of play that turns every stoppage into a scrum.

It doesn’t matter who the player is or what kind of style he played before he joined the Flyers, but it seems that once someone puts on the orange and black they all take on the Broad Street Bully persona.

The longer the series goes, the more and more that will play a part in this series. With Games 6 and 7 being played on back-to-back nights, it might be a lot to ask the Rangers to go seven and then turn around and be ready to play against a Pittsburgh Penguins team that should make short work of the Columbus Blue Jackets.

It is this potential for Flyers shenanigans that would tempt me to play Daniel Carcillo over Jesper Fast. Given Alain Vigneault’s style of play, I expect that he will opt to go with Fast’s speed and hockey abilities until circumstances dictate Carcillo’s style of play.

The Rangers recall of J.T. Miller might signify that the team is looking for a bit more jam in the lineup than Fast provides and a bit more finesse than Carcillo provides.

It is too bad that Chris Kreider’s status for the Philly series is unknown. He brings the best of what Fast and Carcillo can bring in terms of finesse, speed, scoring with just the right amount of chip on his shoulder. Unfortunately, at this time of year all teams are facing their own injury problems. At least the Rangers are assured of the return of Ryan McDonagh.

The question will be how far out of the way with the Flyers go to punish McDonagh’s shoulder and just how many liberties will they take – and you know the Flyers are going to take some liberties. This is just another reason why I would insert Carcillo instead of Fast/Miller.

The Flyers are not without their worries, chief among the health of goaltender Steve Mason who suffered an upper body injury (possible concussion) in Philly’s game against the Penguins on Saturday.

Mason will not be travelling with the Flyers when they make their way to New York. Ray Emery will get the start as rookie Cal Heeter serving as the backup. If Mason is healthy enough to play in Game 2, he could join the team for the Easter matinee.

While Emery did lead the Ottawa senators to the Stanley Cup Finals, that was seven years ago and I am sure the Flyers do not necessarily want to find out if Emery can recapture his 2007 playoff form.

That is not to say that the Rangers have iced away the series. Emery’s lifetime record against the Rangers is 7-2-0 with a 1.87 GAA and a .936 SV%. One of those two losses occurred in a 4-1 Rangers victory in January.

Interestingly enough, despite the spotty goaltending of the Flyers, there is one Philly reporter who thinks Henrik Lundqvist has not been a clutch goaltender in the playoffs.

Tim Panaccio of csnphilly.com is quick to point out Lundqvist’s 30-37 playoff record and only one appearance in an Eastern Conference Final.

What Panaccio conveniently forgot was the work The King put in against Ottawa in the 2012 Conference Quarterfinals, defeating the Senators in Games 6 and 7. Lundqvist duplicated this feat in the 2012 Conference Semifinals as the Rangers eliminated the Capitals.

Lundqvist repeated his performance last year by not only winning Games 6 and 7 against the Capitals, but he shut Washington out in both games.

I guess in Panaccio’s world, only goalies who win Stanley Cups can be deemed “clutch”.

Looking ahead to this series, I see the Rangers path to victory coming down to four keys.

1. Come playoff time, scoring goals becomes an even bigger imperative because all teams (unless you are the 2012 Flyers or Penguins) tend to become more aware of their defensive zone. As a result, the need to increase goal scoring becomes more important in the playoffs.

2. Hand-in-hand is the need to elevate special teams. The Rangers have demonstrated the ability to not only have one of the NHL’s best penalty killing units, but they have developed a knack for creating offense when shorthanded. The problem has been their power play which has shown signs of reverting to its pre-AV habits. The more the Rangers power play struggles, the more liberties the Flyers will take with the Rangers. The quickest way to neutralize the Broadstreet Bullies is to make them pay for taking penalties.

3. Keeping with the Broadstreet Bullies theme, the Blueshirts will have to learn to “walk the line”. That is the fine line of knowing when to “turn the other cheek” and when to retaliate. There is no iron clad rule on when to retaliate or not, but a simple solution might just be in it is a one-one battle – let it go. When the Flyers get into their pack mentality, it will be time for the Rangers to retaliate.

4. The last key is one that will ultimately determine how far the Rangers go in the 2014 playoffs. It has been great to see the likes of Benoit Pouliot, Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello develop into productive players. However, the Rangers need their best players to be their best players. That means the likes of Lundqvist, McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, Rick Nash, Martin St. Louis, Brad Richards, and Derek Stepan have to be the players who lead the way. When push comes to shove, this is the most important key to the Rangers playoff success. It is time for the stars to start playing up to the numbers on the backs of their hockey cards.

Before I give my prediction, I want to share an interesting side note that was written by Tim Wharnsby of CBC sports. Wharnsby noted that in 2004, Richards, St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier were leading the Tampa Bay Lightning to a Stanley Cup victory. Now 10 years later, Richards and St. Louis do battle against their former teammate.

By the way, Richards led the playoffs in scoring that year with 26 points and St. Louis finished second with 24 points.

In the end, the Rangers goaltending and ability to win games on the road lead the Blueshirts to hard fought victory in six games.

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