2015 Playoffs


Rick-Nash-640x427Rick Nash had to sit out seven weeks because of a bone bruise in his leg, but since his return to the New York Rangers lineup, Nash has been unable to find his scoring touch, which is affecting New York’s NHL online sportsbook odds of winning the Stanley Cup.

Nash was instrumental in New York’s appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals against the Los Angeles Kings two seasons ago, and the team is hoping he can find his touch in time to help them make another push for the Stanley cup.

In an interview, Nash acknowledged that he was having trouble finding the back of the net. According to Nash, the scoring touch is actually the hardest thing to get back. Nash said his legs are feeling fine as is his cardio. But when it comes to scoring, the only way to get the touch back is by playing more games.

Nash acknowledged that he had a few opportunities to score since his return but his instincts didn’t take over like they usually do. He attributed the lack of goals to his hands not doing what his brain was thinking, which is something he believes will improve as he gets more comfortable on the ice.

In the four games since his return, Nash has 12 shots on goal and zero points. Nash attributed some of the missed opportunities to nerves. He said he was trying to force plays instead of making the simple plays.

Going by his body of work, it is only a matter of time before Nash finds his groove and starts scoring again. Nash is a six-time All-Star that has scored 40 goals in a season three times. Last season, he finished with 42 goals, which is the most he has scored in his career.

In the past, Nash has admitted to spending most of his time playing video games whenever he got hurt. this time around, he spent most of his time changing the diapers of his one-year-old son and has given up on the video games. The Rangers are hoping his change in priorities will make him a better player on the ice.

Former NHL goalie Kevin Weekes, who currently works as a television analyst, doesn’t doubt that Nash will eventually regain his scoring form. Weekes believes that the more Nash shoots, the quicker he will find his scoring touch.

The Rangers boast one of the deepest teams in the NHL, but they know that once the playoffs start, they will need their best scorer to be at his best, which is why they are hoping Nash can find his scoring touch quickly.

While Nash was recovering from his injury, the Rangers added more depth to their team by acquiring Eric Staal from the Carolina Hurricanes. Nash, who played with Staal on the Canadian youth team before winning gold as members of the Canadian senior team, is excited to have Staal on the team and believes he can help the Rangers win their first Stanley Cup since 1994.

Weekes also believes the Rangers have a very good chance of winning the Stanley Cup if Nash can find his scoring touch and Staal plays up to his capabilities.

As the playoff approaches, the Rangers are hoping that Nash regains his touch much sooner than later.

 

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Fleury – Crosby – Malkin. Check.

Holtby – Ovechkin – Backstrom. Check.

Bishop – Stamkos – Johnson – et al. Next up.

While the eyes of the NHL will be on Ben Bishop, Steven Stamkos and Tyler Johnson, the eyes of Rangers fans will be on the et al part of the equation as prodigal sons Ryan Callahan, Brian Boyle and Anton Stralman attempt to prove that you can go home again.

Of course, the Blueshirts can match the Lightning “expatriate” for “expatriate” as Martin St. Louis, Dan Boyle and Dominic Moore look to spoil their former organization’s run to the Stanley Cup.

In truth, each team’s connection to the other runs a couple of players deeper. On the Rangers side, former Tampa Bay forward Ryan Malone appeared in six games with the Blueshirts before being assigned to Hartford and retiring. Defenseman Mike Kostka appeared in 22 games with the Lightning last year, including three in the playoffs.

On Tampa Bay’s side, Jonathan Marchessault was a member of the Rangers Connecticut Wolves AHL affiliate in 2011-12 (76-24-40-64) being signing with Columbus prior to the 2012-13 season.

As Rangers fans have come to learn, it don’t come easy as their team’s path to prosperity is hardly paved with gold. All 12 of the Blueshirts games have been one-goal decisions this season and, if you factor in the last two games of the Stanley Cup Final, that figure is 14 straight. In fact, 19 of the Rangers last 21 playoff games have been decided by one goal.

The Rangers fondness for 2-1 games is something that seems to be shared by other playoff teams. Through the first two rounds, over one quarter of playoff games ended with a 2-1 score.

The Rangers Eastern Conference Final foes handed them three losses in the space of 15 days from November 17-December 1, with Tampa Bay outscoring New York 15-7.

While at first blush the Lightning’s dominance seems to be extremely disconcerting, but a closer look tells a different story. The Rangers followed their December 1 loss to Tampa Bay with a 3-2 loss to Detroit on December 6 – a game that saw the Rangers blow a 2-0 first period lead. The Rangers were just one game over .500 and a deep run into the playoffs was not on too many people’s minds.

However, that loss turned out to be the turning point of the season. Starting with an overtime win over Pittsburgh, the Blueshirts ran off eight consecutive wins before losing at Dallas on December 29. The Rangers followed that loss to the Stars with a five game winning streak that included their three-game sweep of the California teams.

The Rangers went on an unprecedented 42-12-3 run that turned a run-of-the-mill 11-10-4 team into a 53-22-7 team that won the Presidents’ Trophy.

The bottom line is that the current New York Rangers are a much different (and better) team than the Lightning at the beginning of the season. Heck, Tampa Bay can the same thing as Johnson and defenseman Victor Hedman elevated their play to an elite level. But the Rangers difference is both one in terms of different personnel (Keith Yandle and James Sheppard) and growth of youngsters who are making a difference in the lineup on a nightly basis (Jesper Fast, Kevin Hayes and J.T. Miller).

In addition, the Rangers played the first two games against Tampa Bay without Captain Ryan McDonough and Fast was out of the lineup in the first game. Boyle and Tanner Glass missed the third game and while McDonagh did play, it was only his third game back in the lineup.

Of course, all of those regular season accolades go out the window once the playoffs arrive. While the Rangers can set aside their two weeks of hell against the Lightning, they should not forget it or they will be condemned to repeat it.

They need to heed the numbers Tampa Bay’s best offensive players posted during the three games. Stamkos led the Lighting in points with seven (2-5) and former Rangers captain Callahan paced the Lightning with four goals (two on the PP).

The Lightning’s Triplets Line of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov combined for five goals and eight assists.

While all of those offensive numbers look good, their pale in comparison to the
6-foot-7 gorilla in the room – goaltender Ben Bishop. The fact that Bishop’s goals against average in the three games was 2.34 is a testament to the Rangers “success” against this season.

Bishop, who is 8-0 against the Rangers, entered the season with only seven goals against in his previous five games. Overall, Bishop’s GAA against the Rangers is 1.49 thanks to a .946 SV % and two shutouts.

As a comparison, Henrik Lundqvist is 17-12-6 with a 2.41 GAA and .914 SV% in 35 career games against the Lightning.

Another stat to consider is that St. Louis had two PPGs against his former teammates, but he played a team worst -6 in the series (as did Dan Girardi).

While the Lightning are a solid defensive team, 12th best during the regular season and 5th best in the playoffs, Tampa Bay’s game is built on their offense which led the NHL during the regular season and is 4th in the playoffs.

While Tampa Bay has size, especially on defense with the likes of Hedman (6-6), Andrej Sustr (6-7) and Braydon Coburn (6-5); and don’t forget Boyle who matches Sustr’s 6-7 frame, the Lightning are not expected to go out of their way to try and intimidate the Rangers through physical play.

Rather, the Lightning will look to pressure the Rangers by using their talent, speed and quickness. In doing so, they might be doing the Blueshirts a big favor.

It is interesting to see how the Rangers style of play and that of their opponents have developed over the years and through the playoffs.

In the Rangers matchups against Pittsburgh and Washington, the Blueshirts faced off against teams with offensive firepower but were more concerned with defending the Rangers speed, blocking shots and being overly physical than they were playing their own game. It was very reminiscent of the John Tortorella Era New York Rangers.

In facing Tampa Bay, the Rangers are facing a team that is similar to the Alain Vigneault New York Rangers. Both teams are built to beat you with their skating and speed. While neither team is overly physical, they are not going to back down from the physical play and both teams make sure to finish their checks.

Both teams watched as their main offensive guns, Stamkos/Callahan and Nash/St. Louis, struggled at the start of the playoffs. Both teams were living on superb efforts from secondary scorers. In the Lightning’s case, The Triplets have registered unreal numbers with 17 goals and 14 assists in 13 playoff games.

Each team has faced their come-to-Jesus meeting in the playoffs, Tampa Bay coming from behind to eliminate Detroit in the first round and the Rangers with their historic comeback against Washington.

In looking at the Rangers-Lightning series, here are five keys to a Rangers victory:

FORECHECK
The easiest way to slow down the Lightning’s top two lines is to keep them pinned in their own end. While Hedman is among the NHL elite defenseman and Stralman has elevated his game, the rest of Tampa Bay’s d-men are not big-time puck carriers. The Ranges best strategy might be to dump the puck into Hedman’s corner and look to hit him early and often and tire him out/slow him down before he starts the Lightning rush. Tampa Bay has been known to dress seven d-men and might do so once Callahan proves that he is fully over his appendix removed.

BEST PLAYERS MUST STEP UP
It is a foregone conclusion that teams need their best players to play their best in the playoffs. For the most part, that has been the case for the Rangers but two players in particular must step their game up an extra notch.

Rick Nash has probably played some of the best two-way hockey he has ever played in his career. Far too many times a star offensive player will allow his scoring slump at affect his defensive zone play. That has hardly been the case with Nash. With that said, the Rangers need him to step up his offensive production and start burying some of the chances he is getting. Instead of trying to be cute and get Braden Holtby to pen up his pads, Nash should have hit the slot with a wicked wrister on his Game 7 breakaway.

Nash could probably get away with being a playmaker if the third forward on his line could find his scoring touch. While Derick Brassard is tied with Chris Kreider for the team lead in goals (5), St. Louis has been nothing but a disappointment offensively in the playoffs.

The jump in his step that was his calling card for years in Tampa Bay is practically – so much so that Brooks Orpik managed to catch him from behind. It is possible that his knee is giving him trouble or it is possible that the end is near for St. Louis. After all, it is usually a player’s legs that go first and that is a death knell for a player who made his living on his speed and skating.

The bigger concern is that it seems that his hands and ability to finish have vanished as well. He was unable to bury a couple of close-in chances against Holtby – the kinds of shots that he used to bury in the past.

SPECIAL TEAMS
This is always a major key in every playoff series and will continue to be as long as the Rangers offense continues to struggle and as long as the Rangers continue to play one-goal games in the playoffs. Given the Rangers season-long struggles on the PP, they had success against Tampa Bay scoring three goals on 10 PP chances. Marty St. Louis scored two of them and Dan Boyle added the third.

The Blueshirts are going to need to find ways to increase their offense and improving their PP is the first step. Whether it is on the PP or at even strength, the Rangers are going to have to do some dirty work in front of the net in terms of being more than just a finesse team. They need to add a lot more “jam” to their game as Tortorella would say.

The Lightning was 4-12 with the man advantage against the Rangers in the regular season.

Carl Hagelin pointed out that stopping the Tampa Bay power play will also go a long way in slowing down The Triplets.

“Their Triplet Line there is really clicking,” Hagelin explained to Dan Rosen of NHL.com. “I think it starts with their [power play], and that’s where they get a lot of momentum. We’ve got to focus on just playing well defensively. I think if we do that we’re going to get some chances.”

BEN BISHOP
The Rangers are going to have to find a way to beat Bishop. They should probably study the Habs-Lightning Game 4 tapes to see what Montreal did to drive Bishop to bench 5:08 into the second period after allowing three goals on 14 shots.

Obviously, the Rangers are going to need to get traffic in front of the big guy and hope they can get to any rebounds. They also might want to steal a page from the Pens and Caps playbook and gently “brush” Bishop every now and then during scrums in front. Bishop does have the tendency to lose his composure if the going gets physical in front.

One thing the Rangers might want to do is get Bishop moving laterally. Big goaltenders and are a lot like big pitchers. It is easier for a big goalie (or big pitcher for that matter) to lose focus when their mechanics are off. The easiest way to foul up a 6-foot-7 netminder’s mechanics is to get him moving and forcing him to track down the puck, as opposed to letting the puck come to him. At that point, the smallest correction to their mechanics can become a major production.

DEFENSIVE ZONE COVERAGE
It is no surprise at times that the Rangers get pinned in their own zones for long stretches at a time. Despite the company line that the Rangers play a man-to-man defensive coverage, they do not. At best, they play what could be described as a matchup zone.

The Rangers forwards continue to drop down below the tops of the faceoff circles in order to cut off the shooting lanes – which means they are playing a spot (i.e. zone) on the ice. If they were playing man-to-man, two forwards (usually the wingers) would shadow the point men. Since the Rangers don’t do that, opposing forwards know they can pretty much use the point men as an unchecked outlet if they are being pressured down low. If you play close attention to it, you will notice how wide open the opposing point men are. As a result, the Rangers run into problems when they start chasing the puck rather than playing the man.

THE PREDICTION

Teams never really face a “Must-Win” situation until they face elimination. With that said, Saturday afternoon’s Game 1 is a “Really Wanna-Win” situation for the Rangers for two reasons. First off, the Blueshirts want to head down to Tampa Bay with two wins in their pockets.

Secondly, and more importantly, the rangers need to put to rest the questions about the regular season and Bishop’s dominance as soon as possible. The sooner they get that settled, the faster they can get down to concentrating on winning the series.

The mind and the heart are split on this one. My mind is telling me that the Rangers three regular season losses to the Lightning can be explained, but they can’t be overlooked. Both teams have come a long way since their final meeting on December 1. Of course, there is still the little matter of never having beaten Ben Bishop to deal with.

My mind could have been easily persuaded to join the heart if injuries weren’t such a big concern for the Blueshirts. Mats Zuccarello’s status continues to be uncertain, although some rumblings say that The Little Italian Norwegian Kid could see action later in the series.

While Dan Boyle did join his teammates on the ice for their Game 7 celebration and handshake line against the Capitals, you have to figure he is day-to-day and will be a game time decision for Game 1. While Matt Hunwick has done a fine job whenever he has been called upon, the revenge factor makes Boyle’s availability important.

The same can be said for Martin St. Louis. Either he is still dealing with knee issues (or some other injury) or we have witnessed the downfall of a former elite player.

The heart tells me that the Rangers have been overcoming this type of injury adversity from the beginning of the season. So much so that “Next Man Up” could be considered the team’s unofficial rallying cry.

While Ryan Callahan returned to practice, his availability for Game 1 won’t be determined until Saturday. Most fans expect Callahan to play, but how effective will he be and how effective can he be.

Tampa Bay has a lot of offensive ability, especially from their secondary scorers like The Triplets. However, the Rangers have the best corps of defensemen in the playoffs and they managed to contain Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in the first round and did a pretty darn good job on Alex Ovechkin (a couple of goals not withstanding) and Nicklas Backstrom.

During the last two years of playoff hockey, the Rangers have proven to be a resilient team – at least outside of the Stanley Cup Final. The Madison Square Garden crowd, especially those in the expensive seats, get criticized for being too stoic and corporate – which are things you don’t want from your fandom. However, it is something that you want in your hockey team – and it is something the Rangers have thrived on.

Former Rangers and NHL Dave Farrish has been providing an insight into his former team during the playoffs for NHL.com and credits the Rangers doing exactly that.

“No matter what the situation was they were very even keeled,” the former Ducks and Maple Leafs assistant coach told Dan Rosen. “They weren’t high when they won or low when they lost. There were very businesslike. Their attitude never changed. You couldn’t tell if they won the game or lost the game by their tone of voice after the game, especially Henrik. I thought that was very impressive, to maintain your balance like that.”

The Rangers resiliency has served them well throughout the regular season and the playoffs. They have overcome injuries, poor seasons from star players and inability of star players to score in the playoffs. They have mastered the ability to live on edge while their fans are living on the ledge with all of the one-goal games. The Rangers bend to the point of breaking, then bend a little more, before bouncing back to right the ship.

Leave it to The King to put the final stamp on my Eastern Conference Final Prediction.

“[The Lightning are] a team we had some problems with during the season,” Henrik Lundqvist explained to Rosen, “but if there’s one thing I learned, playoffs are a different story.”

Much like they always seem to do, the New York Rangers will find a way to overcome the roadblocks placed in front of them. The Blueshirts will return to the Stanley Cup Final after a hard fought seven game series against Tampa Bay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DISCIPLINE

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

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

MOVEMENT

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

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

TRANSITION

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

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

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

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

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

SPECIAL TEAMS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BRADEN HOLTBY

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

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

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

THE PREDICTION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Washington Capitals Vs New York Islanders

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

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

Detroit Red Wings Vs Tampa Bay Lightning

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

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

The pick is Red Wings 4, Tampa Bay Lightning 2

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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