Tue 13 May 2014
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.