The New York Rangers and Boston Bruins playoff matchup has been 40 years in the making as the two former Original Six rivals meet in the NHL’s post-season for the first time since 1973.
That was a special time for me because it represents the beginning of my love for hockey in general and the Rangers specifically. My first sustained hockey memories are of the 1971-72 season as the Rangers made a run to the Stanley Cup Finals, only to lose to the Bruins in six games. I contend now, as I did back those 40 plus years ago, had Jean Ratelle not broken his ankle the Rangers would have ended their 1940 curse in 1972.
The Blueshirts exacted some form of revenge the next season when they eliminated the Bruins in five games in a series that saw Boston use three goaltenders: 44-year-old Jacques Plante, 36-year-old Ed Johnston, and 33-year-old rookie goaltender Ross Brooks. His Game 1 loss was the last Plante played in the NHL although he did appear in 31 games for the WHA’s Edmonton Oilers in 1974-75.
I have three memories from that series. The first was Ron Harris knocking Phil Esposito out of the playoffs with a check that hurt Espo’s knee in Game 2.
The second was the commotion that Jim Gordon and Bill Chadwick caused following the rangers Game 5 victory at the Boston Garden. The announcers made the innocent mistake of announcing when and where the Rangers charter flight would be landing. The sea of humanity that met the Rangers flight caused Gordon and The Big whistle to regret their announcement.
The final memory is that of Eddie Giacomin posting his first and only career playoff shutout in Game 4 at the Garden. In their book “The New York Rangers: Broadway’s Longest-Running Show”. John Kreiser and Lou Friedman point out that Giacomin had to endure 4:35 worth of power play time in the third period, including a pair of two-man advantages, as the Rangers took three consecutive penalties. Giacomin’s shutout was the first in the playoffs for the Rangers since Chuck Rayner blanked Montreal in 1950.
One of the Rangers who played in the 1972 and 1973 playoff matchups was their eventual GM Glen Sather. Slats fought Bruins forward Fred O’Donnell in Game 1 in 1973.
The Rangers and Bruins have met nine times in the playoffs with Boston winning six of them – including Stanley Cup championships in 1929 and 1972. Steve Zipay of Newsday pointed out that the Rangers beat the Bruins on their way to the Blueshirts Stanley Cup championships in 1928 and 1940.
The Rangers and Bruins played three games in the regular season with Boston winning on Opening Night at the TD Garden. The Rangers first win of the season (in their third game of the year) occurred at MSG against Boston as Marian Gaborik completed a hat trick with a goal 27 seconds into overtime. The Blueshirts took the rubber match in Boston with a 4-3 shootout victory with Captain Ryan Callahan scoring the winner in the breakaway contest.
Boston’s two-goal win in the season opener went against recent history between the two squads. Including the three games they played this year, 19 out of the last 24 games between the Rangers and Bruins have been one-goal games – with the Blueshirts holding a 12-5-2 advantage.
Of major concern is the Rangers inability to make multiple goal leads hold up in both victories as Boston scored late goals to deadlock both games.
In the game at MSG, the Rangers blew a 2-0 first period lead as Boston scored twice in the second period. Nathan Horton tied the game with about four and a half minutes left in regulation.
In their February game in Boston, the Rangers blew a three-goal lead as the Bruins scored three times in the third period – with Brad Marchand forcing overtime with 53 seconds remaining in regulation.
Both the Rangers and Bruins are similar teams in that they do not rely one big-time scorer or one main scoring line. Each teams’ success is based on depth throughout the lineup. The one way the Caps and Bruins are similar is that much like Mike Green, Zdeno Chara must be accounted for at the point – with Chara carrying the potential to wreck havoc in front of the net.
It is a point that Boston GM Peter Chiarelli echoed when he spoke at a press conference on Tuesday.
“They play like us, these guys,” Chiarelli opined. Maybe a little different now that they don’t have Marian Gaborik, they might be a little deeper, but not as dynamic. They play a heavy game like us.”
Just how close are the two teams’ styles of play?
Ron Borges of the Boston Herald offered the following quote in a column.
“We can’t keep playing well in spurts and not so well in other spurts. Right now we’re battling with some inconsistency in our game, whether it’s one game to another .?.?. period to period or shift to shift. We have to be a little better there. We’re aware of that.’’
While it is easy to imagine Tortorella uttering that sentiment, Borges was quoting Boston Bruins Coach Claude Julien.
It was with this type of series in mind that Sather orchestrated the deadline deal with the Columbus Blue Jackets and San Jose Sharks.
While trading Gaborik did free of salary cap space for 2013-2014, the acquisition of Derick Brassard, Derek Dorsett and John Moore put the Blueshirts in a better position to win. The deal added the physical play of Dorsett and deepened the Rangers lineup with Brassard and Moore.
The loss of Ryane Clowe will be a major obstacle for the Rangers because they could use all the size and physical play they can muster to do battle against the Big Bad Bruins. As a result, Aron Asham, Brian Boyle and Taylor Pyatt will be required to increase their physical play.
“All the players we added are good guys,” Sather told Larry Brooks of the NY Post. “They want to compete. The moves gave us more depth, which gave the team more confidence we could handle different situations.”
One “secret weapon” could be Chris Kreider who returns to Boston after helping lead Boston College to an NCAA championship. Tortorella will need to take his own advice after admitting that he did utilize his bench enough in the Game 5 overtime loss. Look for Torts to lengthen his rotation and utilize all four lines – at least through two periods anyway.
It will remain to be seen if Tortorella will look to match his top defensive unit against the Bruins top line of David Krejci, Milan Lucic and Horton. Given Lucic’s size, it might make sense to put Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi opposite him. If they don’t match up against that line, Torts could use them against the Brad Marchand-Patrice Bergeron-Jaromir Jagr unit.
A third option could be to split Girardi and McDonagh so that he can have one of his top defensive pairing out against each of the Bruins top two lines. Knowing Torts, he will probably employ a combination all three strategies. Of course, there is always the possibility of him drawing up even more contingency plans – especially if Marc Staal recovers to the point where he feels he can make a positive contribution.
Whatever the defensive pairings and line matchups are, the Rangers can expect the Bruins to use their size to create as much traffic in front of Lundqvist and work extra hard at getting their shots through.
‘‘We’re going to have to work extra hard to get those pucks through and then get them to reach the net,’’ Julien explained to Howard Ulman of the AP. ‘‘At the same time, I don’t think it’s a big secret to know that they got a pretty good goaltender, and that traffic in front of the net is going to be something we’re going to want to do a lot.’’
While former Rangers captain Jagr will be in the lineup come Game 1, former Rangers defenseman Wade Redden is not expected to be ready for Thursday night. The fans favorite whipping boy joins Andrew Ference and Dennis Seidenberg among the injured Bruins blueliners. The latter two were not on the ice on Wednesday and Redden left practice early.
As a result, rookies Matt Bartkowski, Dougie Hamilton and the just recalled Torey Krug will have to pick up the slack and play major minutes at some point in the series if the other three d-men can’t play.
On the plus side, the Rangers will not be facing the NHL’s top power play unit like they did against Washington. As bad as the Rangers 23rd ranked regular season power play was, the Bruins were worse (26th). The one problem is that the Bruins penalty killers ranked 4th during the regular season while the Blueshirts were 15th.
As you might expect, the Rangers and Bruins struggled to score on the power play against each other. Boston was 1-16 and the Blueshirts were 0-14.
As far as their playoff numbers look, both team’s penalty killers were close (Boston-9th and NY-11th), but the power play units were not. Boston’s 11th ranked power play doubled the Rangers 15th ranked production (15.0 to 7.1).
The biggest concern in terms of special teams is Boston’s faceoff advantage. The Bruins’ centers were the best in the NHL during the regular season (56.4) and the playoffs (60.0) while the Rangers were 15th during the regular season (50.0) and 11th in the playoffs (49.2).
If the Rangers are not going to be able to outdo the Bruins on faceoffs, they must pay attention to their checks and work hard to fight through “screens” to put pressure on the Boston defenseman – especially in the Blueshirts zone.
The Rangers eliminated the Capitals without any major offensive contributions from big guns Callahan, Rick Nash and Brad Richards. Teams always need their secondary scorers to contribute in the playoffs, but when push comes to shove it must be these three who lead the way.
With Richards expected to start the series on the fourth line, he has to make the most of his ice time – especially on the power play. Joe Micheletti has made it a point to say that Richards has been a huge asset in helping the younger Blueshirts to relax and just play. The problem is that Richards needs to follow his own advice and let his instinct take over.
Julien will probably start the series with Chara marking Nash in attempt to neutralize Nash’s size. As a result, Nash will have to step up his play and be more physical and more engaged – in other words – more driving to net and shooting the puck and less spinoramas.
It will be interesting to see if the extra time between both teams Game 7 victories will affect Game 1. As I have written previously, momentum does not necessarily carry over from one game to another. Momentum is based on the other team’s goaltender. As good as Tuukka Rask has been, there is a reason why Henrik Lundqvist is called The King.
The Rangers take their cues from Lundqvist. The better and more focused he is, the better and more focused the team is. Lundqvist is in the zone now and is playing at a level where there is no wasted motion and no chasing the puck. He is letting shots come to him rather than fighting the puck. The defense is doing a good job of clearing the crease and letting him see the shots – which will be a key against a Bruins team that plays bigger than the Caps and will attempt to create traffic in front of the net.
As good as the Rangers played, and as great as Lundqvist played against the Caps, the Rangers goaltender believes his team has another gear yet to engage.
‘‘I still think we can improve and do a lot of things better, and we have to, if we want to beat Boston,’’ Lundqvist explained to Ira Podell of the AP. ‘‘It’s going to be a tough series. The great thing here, we managed to win the series without playing our absolute best. Going down the stretch, we really improved as a group, and personally, as well. But I think we all know that playing Boston now, we have to step it up a little more.’’
Those hockey analysts who are picking the Bruins are picking them based on the momentum factor and the emotional burst they received in overcoming Toronto’s three-goal lead.
With no disrespect intended, the Bruins victory is as much as case of a young and inexperienced Maple Leafs being unable to put away the Bruins as it was Boston’s resiliency. Mark Messier often commented that the toughest game to win in a playoff series is that fourth win.
Those same hockey analysts disregard the fact the Rangers bounced back from a 2-0 deficit to beat Washington with a pair of wins in Games 6 and 7.
As for my series prediction, I see the Boston Bruins taking the series in seven games with Wade Redden scoring the series-winning goal in triple overtime .
Seriously, I think the Rangers have found their “game” – the same “game” that led to the second best record in the NHL last season. The Black-and-Blueshirts identity positions the team to continue its payoff run as Lundqvist gets into the Bruins’ heads, much like he did the Capitals.
Much like the Rangers did in their last Original Six matchup against Montreal in 1996, the Rangers will take the series in six games – riding with The King as they head into the Eastern Conference Finals.
One final note – who is Alex Ovechkin going to blame for Russia’s 8-3 shellacking at the hands on an unheralded USA team in the World Championships in Helsinki, Finland on Thursday? While Ovechkin finally ended his post-season scoring drought, the Americans avenged an earlier loss to Russia – in a game that Ovechkin did not play in.