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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are my random Ramblings from Game 4:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are my random Ramblings from Game 3:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are my random Ramblings for Game 2:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some random Ramblings on Game 1:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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If the NHL Trade Deadline was the game of Clue, not too many people would have had Marian Gaborik to Columbus for Derick Brassard, Derek Dorsett and John Moore. Even fewer people would have had Brassard, Moore and Ryane Clowe (who had not scored a goal all year) combining for four goals and four assists (including four power play points) in their first game as New York Rangers. For one night, Glen Sather’s wheeling and dealing paid off.

It remains to be seen how these two deals shape the rest of the Rangers season and if they were enough to make the difference in missing the playoffs and having the chance to replicate their 2012 playoff run.

Only time will tell if the Rangers will have enough time to gel as a team while trying to make a run at the playoffs. The Blueshirts have now reshaped their team twice within the confines of one season – and both times doing so without the benefit of training camp and a full 82-game schedule.

Whatever is in store for the rest of this season, the Gaborik trade was made with an eye towards the next two seasons.

With the NHL salary cap dropping by $6 million in 2013-2014, the Rangers needed to find a way to create some salary cap flexibility with Carl Hagelin, Ryan McDonough and Derek Stepan needing new deals as RFAs, and Clowe set to become an UFA.

Even if the Rangers did not trade Gaborik, there is no way they were going to re-sign him after next season with the likes of Martin Biron, Brian Boyle, Ryan Callahan, Dan Girardi, Henrik Lundqvist, and Anton Stralman all set to become UFAs and Michael Del Zotto becoming a RFA – as will Brassard and Moore.

CapGeek lists the Rangers having $14.8 million in cap space available for next year. That figure does not factor in all of the free agents or any of the youngsters who are assigned to the AHL (e.g. Chris Kreider and J.T. Miller). Given the numbers game alone, the Blueshirts might need to move out more salary (Aron Asham? Taylor Pyatt?) in order to build next year’s team.

Setting aside the financial considerations, the Rangers trades reshape the team along the lines of the team that went to the Eastern Conference Finals last season. The big change is that the main scoring winger this year (Nash) is a far more physical player than last year’s main scoring winger (Gaborik).

In addition, the Rangers added depth to their roster, as well as getting bigger and younger with the additions of Brassard and Moore – two former 1st round draft picks who still have room to grow in terms of reaching their potential.

Sather’s deadline dealings leaves the Rangers without a first and second round pick this June and they also dealt away one of their three third round picks, but they might be able to recoup it if they do not make the Stanley Cup Finals. If that is the case, then the Rangers receive a third round pick from Columbus as part of the Rick Nash trade.

In addition, the Rangers still have an opportunity to restock their prospect pool by signing undrafted collegiate and Junior players. The Blueshirts already fortified their defense corps with the signing of Conor Allen and Tommy Hughes.

Here is a detailed look at all of the newest New York Rangers.

RYANE CLOWE

Clowe is a 6-foot-2 and 225 pound LW who brings the “jam” that Coach John Tortorella often talks about. The 30-year-old Clowe was San Jose’s 7th round draft pick (#175) in the 2001 NHL Draft. Prior to his goal scoring drought this season with the Sharks, Clowe averaged about 21 goals and 33 assists during the last four seasons – including a career best 24 goals and 38 assists in 2010-11. He also added six goals and nine assists in 17 playoff games that year.

Here is his Hockey News Scouting Report:

Assets: Plays a solid up-and-down game, and is a throwback winger who loves to check and do the dirty work. Strong on the puck, he’s versatile enough to line up on either wing. Is a good scorer in close and an excellent scrapper, too.

Flaws: Can be a bit too streaky in the goal-scoring department. As he has become a bigger scoring threat, he has become a little less physical, too. Also, he is not an elegant skater; he’s somewhat of a plodder, in fact.

Career Potential: Solid power forward.

DERICK BRASSARD

The 25-year-old Brassard was the sixth overall selection in the 2006 NHL Draft. The 6-foot-1 and 202 pound Center was the ninth rated prospect by the International Scouting Service (ISS) who compared his playing style to that of Paul Kariya. ISS attributed his hockey sense to his hockey background as his father Pierre was drafted in 1976 the 6th round by the Montreal Canadiens in the NHL Draft and in the 10th round by the Quebec Nordiques in the WHA Draft. While Pierre did not play professional hockey, he did star for three years with Cornwall (QMJHL) – averaging 61 goals and 63 assists in his final two seasons.

Of Brassard, ISS said, “The shifty pivot is one of the most exciting forwards in the offensive zone; speed and agility allows him to find the open space. With all his offensive ability he still shows good defensive awareness and the willingness to help out in the defensive zone.”

His career has hampered by a pair of shoulder injuries that caused him to miss large chunks of playing time. In the 2006-07 season, Brassard was limited to just 14 games with Rimouski (QMJHL). In 2008-09, another shoulder injury forced Brassard to miss the final 50 games of the regular season and all four Columbus playoff games.

In 2010-11, Brassard set career highs in goals, assists and points (17-30-47).

Here is Brassard’s Hockey News Scouting Report:

Assets: Skates well and possesses plenty of scoring instincts. Can excel at both ends of the ice, and is a determined athlete. Owns leadership qualities.

Flaws: Must learn to shoot more. Needs to continue adding more strength to fully maximize his vast potential. Has to overcome his propensity to get injured.

Career Potential: Talented, but inconsistent forward with upside.

DEREK DORSETT

Rangers fans will have to wait before the debut of their new RW. The 6-foot and 192 pound Dorsett is on Injured Reserve recovering from a broken collarbone. Some reports have him out for the rest of the season while others say he could be back for the last week of the regular season or the start of the playoffs.

The one thing that is for certain is that fans of Brandon Prust are going to love Dorsett as he plays the same style of game that Prust does. Dorsett did kill penalties while a member of the Blue Jackets.

Aaron Portzline of The Columbus Dispatch tweeted the following in the aftermath of the Rangers-Blue Jackets trade, “Fully expect Derek Dorsett to be a fan favorite in Madison Square Garden. He’s not big, but his heart swells in the sweater. Tortorella will love this guy, as long as he limits ill-advised penalties. But he’s fearless and relentless player. Will fight anybody.”

His willingness to scrap, and take some ill-advised penalties, contributed to his NHL best 235 PIMs – which were fueled by his 19 fighting majors. Despite spending all that time in the penalty box, Dorsett did score 12 goals and add 8 assists as well last season. He was averaging about 16 minutes of ice time this season and tallied three goals and six assists in 24 games with Columbus.

Dorsett was part of Columbus’ 2006 NHL Draft that produced NHLers Brassard, the recently traded Steve Mason and Tom Sestito. Dorsett was the Blue Jackets 7th round pick (#189).

Here is Dorsett’s Hockey News Scouting Report:

Assets: Is an industrious winger who never backs down from challenges. Loves to initiate contact and agitate the opposition. Will drop the gloves on occasion. Can play any forward position if he has to.

Flaws: Is somewhat limited in the scoring department at the National Hockey League level. Needs to get stronger and avoid injuries in order to survive in the NHL playing with such reckless abandon.

Career Potential: Effective, fearless agitator.

JOHN MOORE

The 6-foot-3 and 202 pound defenseman was Columbus’ 1st round pick (#21) in the 2009 NHL Draft. The Rangers selected Chris Kreider two picks early and Calgary drafted Tim Erixon two picks later. As we all know, thanks to Mike Emrick and Pierre McGuire, played triple-A amateur hockey with the Chicago Mission who was coached by Ed Olczyk. What the NBC Sports guys didn’t mention is that former NHL defenseman Steve Smith was also one of Moore’s coaches.

In 2009, Moore was rated the 16th best prospect by ISS and they compared his playing style to that of Joe Corvo.

Of Moore, ISS said, He has the size and skill to go along with great playmaking abilities. Tremendous skater. Moore is blessed with very light / quick feet that enable him to get to and from the puck/plays in an expeditious manner. In addition, Moore’s checking skills have also improved as he is holding his checks better along the boards with improved balance etc.”

After spending 73 games in the AHL in his rookie seasons (two games with Columbus), Moore played 67 games with the Blue Jackets (two goals and five assists) last season (just five games in the AHL).

The 22-year-old blueliner was limited to just 18 games with Columbus as a lower body injury caused him to miss five games in February and a recent shoulder injury forced him to miss eight games as he was on the Injured Reserve List and only was activated in mid-March.

Here is Moore’s Hockey News Scouting Report:

Assets: Has a good frame to grow into, and owns exceptional skating ability. Can play an offensive role and likes to be on the attack. Can fire the puck and eventually quarterback a power play. His speed is also very useful on defense.

Flaws: Is still learning the nuances of the NHL game. Needs to add more strength in order to better handle big forwards. Needs to keep working on his defensive consistency with regards to his decision-making.

Career Potential: Extremely mobile defenseman with good upside.

CONOR ALLEN

The 6-foot-1 and 210 Allen was the first of two undrafted free agent defensemen the Rangers signed leading up to the NHL Trade Deadline. The 23-year-old played his collegiate hockey at the University of Massachusetts. Believe it or not, there is an Olczyk connection with Allen. While at UMass, Allen was a teammate of Eddie Olczyk, Ed’s son.

Signing free agent UMass defenseman is nothing new for the Blueshirts because they signed Thomas Pock at the end of the 2003-04 season. Much like Matt Gilroy, Pock was a forward who was shifted to the blue line in college.

The Rangers have three other UMass connections. Defenseman Marvin Degon, an AHL signee, played 85 games with Hartford in 2005-06 and 200607.

In 2011-12, Casey Wellman played 31 AHL games with the Connecticut Whale after being acquired from the Minnesota Wild.
Danny Hobbs, the Rangers 7th round pick (#198) in the 2007 NHL Draft played four seasons at UMass before turning pro and spending this season in the ECHL with the Greenville Road Warriors.

Allen also played in USHL with Sioux Falls Stampede (2009/10) with Dallas 2011 1st rounder Jamie Oleksiak, and was an NAHL teammate of Devils goalie prospect Keith Kinkaid in 2008/09 with the St. Louis Bandits.

Allen is looking to duplicate the jump to the NHL two other Minutemen have taken – LA’s Jonathan Quick and Toronto’s Mike Kostka.

Allen spent the previous two summers on two NHL Summer Development Camp Rosters – the Washington Capitals (2011) and the Vancouver Canucks (2012).

His college coach for his first two seasons, Don “Toot” Cahoon, gave an insight into Allen’s game during a September 2010 interview.

“Allen will be a great skating defenseman in this league,” Cahoon told Dick Baker of MassLive.com. “He really transitions the puck by foot as well as with a strong pass.”

UMass Sports Blog Fear The Triangle offered up this summary of Allen’s season.

“I thought Allen was consistently one of the best UMass players on the ice this season and even one of the better defenseman in the conference. Defensively, he was easily the best player for UMass. He more than doubled his blocked shots from last year from 24 to a team high 57. He doubled his assists from last year, from 7 to 14, and added 5 goals of his own.”

TOMMY HUGHES

The 6-foot-2 and 216 pound defenseman comes to the Rangers as an undrafted free agent out of Canadian Junior hockey and from a team they are quite familiar with – the London Knights. Both Dan Girardi and Michael Del Zotto were member of the Knights.
Hughes, a native of London, Ontario, is looking to follow in the footsteps of Girardi and become another London blueliner who went from undrafted free agent to NHL star with the Rangers.

If Hughes does make the Rangers in the not-too-distant future, he will have the chance to team with London Knights alum Rick Nash, whose #61 is retired. Former Ranger Brendan Shanahan also has his number retired (#19).

Ottawa’s Marc Methot is another undrafted Knights defenseman who has battled his way into the NHL.

Currently, Hughes is one of five members of the London Knights who have signed contracts with NHL teams while another five Knights have been drafted but have yet to sign with their draft teams.

Hughes actually serves as a perfect complement to Allen. Whereas Hughes is a right-handed shot, Allen is a left-handed shooting defenseman.

However, while Allen has signed an Amateur Tryout (ATO) agreement with the Connecticut Whale, Hughes’ pro debut is on hold as he leads his Knights into the Second Round of the OHL playoffs. London’s opponent is, ironically enough, the Kitchener Rangers – one of the teams London defeated last year on their way to an OHL championship. The Knights and Baby Rangers have a couple of wild playoff battles during the last few years and this year should be no different.

Hughes is finishing up his fourth season with London and is serving as an Alternate Captain for the Knights. The defensive d-man set career highs in games (67), assists (15), points (16), and PIMs (66).

Being an undrafted player is nothing new to the soon to be 21-year-old (on April 7). He joined London as a “walk-on” during the 2009-10 season (playing seven games) after playing his AAA midget hockey with the London Jr. Knights.

The Rangers interest in Hughes did not appear all of a sudden. The Blueshirts invited him to their Summer Development camp this year, but a broken foot put the kibosh on his availability.

You know that Hughes will be ready for the rough-and-tumble world of the NHL given that his Junior coach is Dale Hunter.

“He blocks shots, he’s fearless out there,” Hunter told John Matisz of Metronews.ca. “He just kept getting better and better every year.”

Hunter also spoke to Matisz about London’s ability to train and develop undrafted NHL blueliners.

“They were like that for me when they were here, and that’s what Hughesy does for us,” the former Washington Capitals coach explained – referencing Girardi and Methot.

In reference to Hughes Matisz wrote, “A trademark of Hughes’ game is his unorthodox skating style. Though it often appears like his long strides slow him down, Hunter insists it’s quite the opposite.”

“He’s a very good skater. He’s fast. He stays in a crouch, which he should anyways, and he’s strong,” Hunter said in defense of Hughes.

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With the NHL trade deadline just a day away, the rumor mill is heating up as teams start jockeying for positioning to make that one trade that will put them over the top or signal the start of a rebuilding process.

Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero already laid waste to the NHL trade market with his pre-deadline deals that brought in the likes of Brendan Morrow, Doug Murray and Jarome Iginla. While Shero says he is done, his salary cap situation says otherwise. According to CapGeek, the Penguins have the ability to add $18 million in annual average salary to their payroll.

The Penguins have gone all in because all three of their acquisitions are UFAs and they might be facing a closing window of opportunity come the end of next season when Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Brooks Orpik and Chris Kunitz become UFAs and Simon Despres and Brandon Sutter become RFAs.

Conversely, the New York Rangers have the ability to add about $6.8 million in annual average salary come the deadline. Unlike the Penguins who were adding to a powerhouse team, the Rangers have one-third the cap space to try and right a team that is fighting for their playoff lives.

Faced with a dropping salary cap come next season, and a disinclination to trade away any of their prized prospects, the Blueshirts do not expect too active at the trade deadline. Rather than the splashy headlines they made in 1994 on their way to the Stanley Cup, the best the Rangers can expect to do is tinker a little bit – reshuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic if you will.

The Rangers and San Jose Sharks have spent a lot of time scouting each other. From all indications, the Blueshirts focus was on Dan Boyle and Ryane Clowe. While the Rangers could probably make Boyle’s contract work for this season, they would not be able to fit his $6.67 million contract next year unless Marian Gaborik headed west.

In addition to the salary concern, Boyle has a limited no-trade clause and the Rangers could be one of eight teams on his veto list.

Clowe fits well within Coach John Tortorella’s style and would bring some of that “jam” that Torts is always harping on. Clowe is an UFA at the end of the season so the Rangers would only have to accommodate his prorated $3.6 million contract for this season. Clowe would not be the direct answer to the Rangers offensive woes. For those answers, you need the likes of Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards to start earning their big-time salaries.

Rather, Clowe helps add a physical aspect that the Rangers lost when they dealt away Brandon Dubinsky and let Brandon Prust leave as an UFA – both moves which were the right moves. The problem is Glen Sather never adequately replaced those two players and a player like Artem Anisimov. The 6-foot-2 and 225 pound Clowe has not scored a goal this season, but the Rangers are looking for him to create some space for the Blueshirt snipers to operate.

San Jose President/GM Doug Wilson explained the Clowe situation from the Sharks perspective.

“He’s one of these guys that’s feared and respected, he’s tough as nails, he can play the game, he’s a great teammate, and he’s a pending unrestricted free agent,” Wilson told The Associated Press.

“As a player and a teammate, teammates know he has their back and he’s just a tremendous heart-and-soul competitor.”

Apparently because of his no-trade clause, Clowe’s choices came down to the Rangers and Vancouver Canucks. Kevin Allen of USA Today spoke to Vancouver GM Mike Gillis who told him, “It seemed like geography was a (determining) factor.”

Allen then added his own take – “According to Gillis, Clowe liked the Vancouver situation, but preferred to move to the Eastern Conference team.

Setting aside all talk of no-trade and no-movement clauses, the Rangers have made it clear they are loathed to move the likes of Chris Kreider or J.T. Miller in trades and it is doubtful they would give up Dylan McIlrath or Brady Skjei before either blueliner had a chance to play for the Rangers.

Salary cap concerns and an unwillingness to move their top prospects are not the only restriction the Rangers face in making a deadline deal. Teams are always on the lookout for draft picks (especially first and second round picks) – and the Rangers have a problem there as well with their own first round draft pick belonging to the Columbus Blue Jackets as a result of the Rick Nash deal.

The Clowe deal has robbed the Rangers of some of their 2013 assets – their own 2nd round pick and a 3rd round pick they acquired from Florida. They may also face losing a 2nd round pick in 2014 if Clowe re-signs with the Rangers or if the team reaches the Eastern Conference Finals.

Elliotte Friedman of CBC says the Rangers are among the teams showing a lot of interest in Curtis Glencross. The LW would be a good fit in Tortorella’s system as he would bring some speed, a physical aspect and two-way play. He can play on the power play, penalty kill, as well as skate a regular turn as a top 6-9 forward. He has scored 20+ goals the last two years, but does have bouts of inconsistency (see, he IS a perfect Ranger).

There are a couple of roadblocks. Other teams might be more willing to “go all in” as compared to the Rangers. Glencross does have a no-movement clause so he would to approve any deal to New York. Also, he has one more year on his contract at $2.55 million before he becomes an UFA. The salary isn’t that unreasonable, but with the cap dropping $6 million next season the Rangers would have to move some pieces before next season.
With the Rangers having limited resources, it might behoove them to concentrate their deadline conversations to strengthening their blue line.

The Rangers have options at forward if they decide to turn Kreider and Miller loose, with Jesper Fast (who practiced with the team on Tuesday) here and Oscar Lindberg potentially looming on the horizon.

The team cannot afford to rely on Marc Staal’s return this season. They need to proceed as if he is out for the rest of the year. If he ends up being ready to play this year then it will be an unexpected bonus.

The big problem is that defensemen are to the NHL what reliable pitching is to Major League Baseball teams – a wanted commodity that is not easy to acquire.

The Rangers could look to the waiver-wire for a cheap (and quick) fix and claim d-man Kurtis Foster who was placed on waivers after Philadelphia acquired Kent Huskins from Detroit after the Red Wings signed collegiate free agent Danny DeKeyser. Got it?

Foster’s defensive ability will not make anyone forget Rod Langway, but his big and booming shot from the point could help the Rangers floundering power play. If Tortorella is only going to give Roman Hamrlik five minutes of ice time, then Foster could get those minutes as a power play specialist.

Cam Barker (Vancouver) and Steve Montador (Chicago) were also waived by their teams. Montador has been out all season with a concussion and, according to The Hockey News, cleared waivers and was assigned to Rockford of the AHL. I was a big Barker fan during his draft year, but he has not lived up to his hype and might not survive the Tortorella “death stare” the first time he missed an assignment that led to a goal against.

One other name to watch is Ryan O’Byrne of Colorado. The 6-foot-5 and 234 pound O’Byrne is a right-handed shooting d-man with a very limited offensive game. However, he does use his size well and is not afraid to drop the gloves if necessary. He is making $1.8 million and is set to be an UFA at the end of the season.

The only problem with O’Byrne is that the Rangers already have three right shooters on the blue line and could really use a lefty shooter to replace Hamrlik in the lineup.

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With the 2013 NHL Trade Deadline less than two weeks away, business has started to pick up around Madison Square Garden. Yes, there are trade rumors involving all the usual targets (Dan Boyle, Ryan Clowe, Brenden Morrow) and possible trade chips – including rumors of the Blueshirts entertaining offers for Marian Gaborik. However, the biggest intrigue is who will be pulling the trigger on any potential deals.

As Glen Sather undergoes and recuperates from prostate surgery, Assistant GM Jeff Gorton represented the team at the General Manager’s meetings in Toronto. While Sather will still have the final say on any deal, Gorton is probably the person who will do the heavy lifting and the dirty work in any trade the Rangers make – and that might not be such a bad thing.

Gorton, in his brief term as interim GM of the Bruins in 2006, helped lay the groundwork for Boston’s Stanley Cup victory. During his tenure, he engineered the trade that brought Tuuka Rask from Toronto (in exchange for Andrew Raycroft), signed Zdeno Chara and Marc Savard as free agents, and drafted the likes of Milan Lucic and Brad Marchand.

Whether it is Sather or Gorton leading the trade brigade, the one thing the Rangers have to be mindful of is the $6 million cut the NHL’s salary cap takes next season. While navigating the decrease in the salary cap, the team has to address the RFA status of Carl Hagelin, Ryan McDonagh and Derek Stepan after this season.

As if that weren’t daunting enough, the Blueshirts have to keep one eye open for the contracts that come up after 2014-2015.

Ryan Callaghan, Marian Gaborik, Dan Girardi, and Henrik Lundqvist are UFA and Michael Del Zotto and Chris Kreider are RFA – and that still doesn’t take into account the loss of UFA depth players like Martin Biron, Brian Boyle and Anton Stralman.

As the Rangers stare down the April 3 deadline, the main goal would be to add players who are set to be UFAs at the end of the season – thus limiting the Rangers cap concern to just the final weeks of the regular season. For the Rangers to take on any contracts beyond this season would require them to move a player still under contract beyond this season. That could be a factor in the Rangers gauging interest in Gaborik – someone who might be out of the Rangers cap range when he is a free agent.

With that said, there is still a way for teams to “work around” possible salary implications when discussing trades. Craig Custance of ESPN pointed out that the new CBA allows teams to absorb parts of contracts in trades.

SNY’s Adam Rotter wrote that Custance pointed out that only one trade this year has involved a team absorbing salary as part of a trade – the deal that ssaw Toronto send Matthew Lombardi back to Phoenix.

Rotter spoke with Gorton and the Assistant GM said that the Rangers are doing their due diligence in terms of researching the ins and outs.

“If there’s a money concern on one team and the other team has the ability to keep it, it’s significant,” Gorton told Rotter. “As we move forward it’s going to play a big role in player deals.”

The biggest problem in terms of trying to handicap who the Rangers would target is the fact that the NHL Lockout turned the NHL season from a marathon into a sprint. As a result, as of March 22, the last place team in the Eastern Conference is only eight points out of the 8th spot and only six points separates the 8th and 15th place teams in the Western Conference.

The Florida Panthers might be the only team that could consider themselves out of the playoff hunt for the very same reason that could prevent them from being very active at the trade deadline – injuries. Possible trade targets Kris Versteeg and Stephen Weiss (an UFA at the end of the year) are out for the season. Mike Weaver and Jose Theodore are out anywhere from 4-6 weeks and Ed Jovanoski was placed on Injured Reserve on St. Patrick’s Day.

However, after polishing off Carolina and the Rangers in back-to-back games, maybe the Panthers playoff chances aren’t so dead after all.

It very well could be with an eye towards the deadline that the Rangers recalled Chris Kreider. It is a good strategy for the Blueshirts to give Kreider another look before committing time, resources, and salary cap space in any trade for a scoring forward.

Coach John Tortorella, at least at the start, is teaming Kreider up with fellow rookie J.T. Miller with Brian Boyle as the center between the two former first round draft picks. While Boyle will not be able to keep up with the speedy Kreider, he does provide some defensive insurance for him (and Miller too).

In an ideal world, Kreider should be getting top six forward minutes but taking a regular shift on the third line helps to ease him back into the regular rotation – especially if Torts can find some time for him on the struggling power play.

With that said, I will have no problem with Tortorella moving Jeff Halpern or Taylor Pyatt up to the third line if the Rangers are trying to protect a one-goal lead in the final 7-10 minutes of the third period.

However, the coach has to be willing to live with some of the growing pains you go through when you play a rookie whose main asset is his offensive ability. Tortorella can’t be benching him for making a regular “mistake” because if that were the case then Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards would be getting a lot of pine time.

Should Kreider play up to, or near, his 2012 playoff performance then the Rangers will have added scoring without giving up anything. That would free the team up to shop for some depth forwards (who would be much cheaper than trying to find an offensive player). They could look to bring in a defensively responsible third line center who would give them more offense, and in turn, allow them to drop Boyle to the fourth line – thus strengthening both of those lines.

The Rangers could also channel their assets into upgrading their defense corps – especially given the uncertain return of Marc Staal. Even if Staal were to return, the Rangers could still use an upgrade and a better sixth defenseman. In this case, the team could look to bring in a defensive d-man who would add a physical presence or they could in the complete opposite direction and look for an offensive d-man to help the power play. Given Tortorella’s preference to shorten the defense rotation, the Blueshirts could get by with a power play specialist as their sixth defenseman.

Following the Florida game, the coach appeared to let it be known that an offensive d-man is high on his priority list.

“We still need someone to take over the power play and run it,” Tortorella said. “I don’t think that’s happened and I’m not sure it ever will.”

I have to respectfully disagree with Torts on this one. After the lockout, the Rangers had a Top 10 power play that was run by Michal Rozsival. The problem with the current team is not the players, it is the way the power play is being run. Constant over-passing, shots that are wide of the net and no forwards crowding the crease are not going to change even if Bobby Orr in his prime were running the power play.

With Staal’s health and availability a big question, I believe the Rangers bigger need is a defenseman who can try to help replace Staal’s play in the defensive zone.

The Rangers have had scouts following the San Jose Sharks who have a pair of defensemen who fits both of the Rangers needs. Doug Murray (UFA this year) would fill the bill of a big physical defensive blueliner.

Dan Boyle (UFA at the end of 2013-2014) would give the Rangers the offensive threat/power play QB the coach wants. The problem with Boyle is that he does have a limited no-trade clause where he can block eight teams.

The main concern with Boyle is trying to fit his $6.7 million contract under next year’s budget while trying to replace Gaborik at forward both this year and next. The Rangers could inquire about Ryan Clowe (UFA this year). According to the CapGeek Trade Calculator, a Gaborik for Boyle and Clowe deal would be “Cap compliant” for both sides. However, there would be two problems.

First off, the Rangers would definitely have to kick in a prospect and/or draft pick to even off the deal. The second problem, and possibly the biggest roadblock, is that Clowe is having a horrendous season to the tune of zero goals and nine assists in 25 games this season. While Clowe fits Tortorella’s style of play, his subpar skating would be a big hit to take while losing Gaborik.

In mid-February, I put together a list of UFA players who might be available. In the month or so since I put together that list, the topsy-turvy nature of the shortened NHL season has seen a team like Columbus (Vinny Prospal anyone) shoot into the thick of the playoff hunt.

In my first draft, this was the place where I talked about how a Rangers winning streak heading into the trade deadline would play into their favor in terms of giving them better bargaining power. Given the fiasco that was the loss to the Panthers, any leverage the Rangers might have taken advantage of was lost.

Failure to accumulate points puts the Rangers in the tenable position of having to decide whether or not they are willing to mortgage the future for a playoff run this year. The team has been able to resist the urge in the past, but expectations were much different coming into this season than they have been in a long time.

It is those lofty expectations that would prevent the Rangers from being sellers at the deadline. Cablevision can ill afford to have the Blueshirts miss the playoffs after raising ticket prices again as the Garden looks ahead to finishing its extensive remodeling.

Putting fishnagles aside, if that is even possible, the Rangers can’t run the risk of missing the playoffs because they don’t even have their first round draft pick – an even bigger loss now that the NHL finally decided to allow all 14 non-playoff teams to have a shot at the first overall pick in the NHL Draft Lottery. As slim as the Rangers chances would be, it would be their luck to finally end up at the top of the Draft only to watch Columbus use that pick.

That might not mean that much to the average fan, but I bet it means an awful lot to the image-conscience New York Rangers and owner James Dolan

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When people think of the “Ides of March”, there thoughts go to the assassination of Julius Caesar and of reading William Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar as the title character is warned “beware the Ides of March”.

For me, the “Ides of March” represents the day of the final game of the Iona College Hockey Team. On March 15, 2003, my alma mater’s hockey program came to an end in a heart-wrenching loss to Mercyhurst in the MAAC Quarterfinals.

The termination of the hockey program is the reason why the 2004-2005 NHL Lockout, and our current brush with Lockout #2, did not bother me as it did the majority of New York Rangers fans. I knew that eventually the Rangers, and the NHL, would be back. The same could not be said of the Ice Gaels.

On that night in Erie, Pennsylvania I witnessed an incredible scene – one that occurred after the game. As I made my way through the Iona locker room, it was the Iona players consoling me rather than me consoling them. I know as a journalist one is supposed to remain neutral and remove themselves from a rooting interest – something I strove very hard to do as part of my duties as the Iona College game recapper for US College Hockey Online.

However, on that fateful day my emotions as a fan won out I tried to talk to Coach Frank Bretti and his players that night. Instead of me helping them through their tough time, they were helping me. If you ever met those players you would understand why my feelings as a fan came through – while they were good hockey players, they were even better guys. That goes for pretty much every player I encountered while covering the Iona hockey team.

In tribute to the 10th anniversary of the final game of the Ice Gaels, I offer this reprinted article of that final game. It is not from the recap I did for USCHO. Instead, it is from the expanded recap I did for Ranger Ramblings – back in the days when the column was part of Allsports.com’s Ranger Fan Central.

While I do not miss the crazy bus rides with Coach USA – and there were some real doozies – I do miss the good times and great people associated with the Iona College Hockey program. As I sit and write this prologue, I can’t help but tear up and wonder what might have been had the Iona College program continued. Archrival Quinnipiac left the successor to the MAAC (Atlantic Hockey) for ECAC and this year become the #1 team in the country. I often wonder, if Quinnipiac, why not Iona?

What started as a club team in 1967 ended on March 15, 2003 as the Iona College hockey program came to an end with its 5-4 loss at Mercyhurst. With the victory, the Lakers advance to their fourth consecutive MAAC Semifinals in as many years. Mercyhurst (20-12-2) will play Bentley in the 5:00 p.m. game on March 21, 2003.

The end of an era came at 9:23 p.m. as the final seconds ticked off the clock. The hockey team embodied Iona’s motto of “fight the good fight”. It would have been easy for lesser athletes to fold at the prospect of overcoming a three-goal deficit with only 20 minutes left to play in their Iona careers. What the Iona Administration never realized, nor accounted for, was the heart and backbone of their players given the circumstances of the past week – especially given the fact the Administration told the players one of the reasons for dropping the hockey program was over a concern over how competitive the team could be.

One week ago Iona (11-22-2) visited Fairfield as the Stags played their final Division I hockey game. Little did the Gaels know seven days later they would be facing the same situation.

Iona coach Frank Bretti explained how he learned about the beginning of the end of the hockey program during the Friday afternoon press conference at the Mercyhurst Ice Center.

“I was basically called in. I was left a message that evening before [that] I had to meet with the president and our AD. I was called and told that they wanted to meet with the team at nine o’clock. When I got that message I had a feeling that they weren’t going to be wishing us good luck at Mercyhurst to be honest with you,” Bretti recounted. “It was pretty much told to me pretty quickly that there were some issues and some reallocations of money and we basically fell victim to it.”

Mind you, these events all took place just four days before the Gaels would play their MAAC playoff game.

Iona captain Mark Hallam described his teammates feelings as they headed into the Mercyhurst game.

“There are some people [in the Iona Administration] that we would like to prove wrong. We haven’t had much success here [at Mercyhurst] in the past and we were able to battle back that game and get an overtime win. I think that could be one of the big turning points in our season so far. From there we were able to develop some confidence and into the second half there I think we went on a little run here at the end, 7-4-1 or something like that,” the native of Medicine Hat, Alberta stated.

“We feel like we’re playing good hockey right now, we have a lot of confidence and outside of some bad news this week, we feel like we have a job to do this weekend and we just have to get it done.

In that press conference, Mercyhurst coach Rick Gotkin summed up the sentiments of the Iona faithful.

“It’s a sad day for Iona. It’s a sad day for the MAAC, and it’s a sad day for college hockey,” he said. “I thought we’d lose some teams. [But] if you told me it would be Iona, I wouldn’t believe it. Hearing the news about Iona is numbing to me. I think Iona is making a terrible mistake. I question the timing of the decision [and announcement].”

Despite the unusual circumstances surrounding the Iona program, Gotkin and his team realized there was still a job to get done.

“It’s clearly a distraction for us, but we’re preparing for a very good [Iona] team that beat us here. We’re going to have to be very good to be successful,” Gotkin said during the press conference.

Lakers captain Adam Rivers addressed what his team needed to do to survive and advance in the MAAC playoffs.

“It’ll come down to a game of little things,” the senior from Belleville, Ontario said. “We’ve got to stick to our game plan – control the neutral zone, no turnovers, tight defense, that sort of thing.”

Hallam agreed with his counterparts’ assessment when it came to following the game plan. “We have to bring our ‘A’ game in all three zones. We have to play strong defensively, can’t make mistakes in the neutral zone, and [we] have to finish in the offensive zone.”

While there was an obvious extra-added emotional level to the game, Bretti was quick to point out that his team could not run on emotion alone.

“I think it does on the mental side of it. The reality of it is, as I tell our guys through the course of the year, different coaches have different methods of motivating people. Whether it’s through quotes and this and that, the bottom line is that you have to be physically and mentally prepared,” Bretti explained.

“We’re definitely up against the most formidable opponent in the league and it’s going to take a lot more than emotion to win this game. There’s no doubt that there’s going to be a little bit of extra energy in everybody in the lineup for us when it’s all said and done.

When the Gaels arrived at the rink, they were met with some unexpected well wishes from former Iona players and friends of the hockey program. Assistant coach Rob Haberbusch put out a call and the Gaels’ faithful responded – letting the hockey team know many people were still rooting for them. Haberbusch put up the notes of encouragement on the wall in the hallway leading to the Iona locker room.

The Lakers opened the scoring in the opening minutes of the game as Dave Borelli scored the first of his two goals at 2:26 with David Wrigley and Adam Rivers assisting on the freshman’s goal.

“I came out of the corner and the puck just came loose and I popped it into the empty net,” the Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario native explained.

The Gaels would take the lead midway through the first period as they cashed in on a pair of play chances just over two minutes apart.

With Jamie King in the penalty box for Hooking, Hallam evened the score at 8:54 on a set up from Jamie Carroll and Ryan Swanson as he slipped home his 11th goal of the season beating Andy Franck between the pads. The point was Hallam’s 100th of his career as he became the 32nd Gael (and fourth in their Division I history) to hit the century mark.

The Gaels took the lead a little more than two minutes later with Marty Rychley serving a Tripping penalty. Tim Krueckl put Iona ahead at 11:12 as he scored his 11th of the season, and fourth in three games against Mercyhurst, on assists from Hallam and Jamie Carroll.

The Gaels CHecK Line of Carroll, Hallam and Krueckl finished up with 21 goals and 31 assists in their last 13 games, serving notice they would have been one of the most potent lines in the MAAC next season – if there had been a next season for Iona.

The Gaels good fortunes did not last long as Borelli scored again just 24 seconds later as he beat Ian Vigier from the high slot for his seventh of the season and third against Iona in as many games.

In victory, Borelli was quick to praise the Gaels. “We have to give a lot of credit to Iona. They came out and played hard. It was an emotional game from the beginning,” the freshman center related. “Everybody on our team came out and played 60 minutes and that is what it takes to win in the playoffs.”

Mercyhurst took the lead for good with less than five minutes as they converted off a set play on a faceoff in the Iona zone as Wrigley tipped home Mike Muldoon’s centering pass at 15:04. Borelli received the secondary assist on Wrigley’s 14th of the season and third against Iona.

Franck made a pair of dazzling saves in the final minute to keep Iona from tying the game. He stopped Hallam, who had a defender on his back, on a partial breakaway with 50 seconds left in the first period, and Franck later made a sprawling save on Ryan Manitowich in the slot with 21 seconds remaining. Franck’s late period heroics were just a preview of what he would do in the third period.

“Franck has been outstanding for the last two months,” Borelli said explaining the workload the freshman has carried after junior Matt Cifelli left school in January.

“He’s had his down games, but the last month he’s been playing great for us. He’s been playing awesome for us and we need that just like we need everyone else to step up.”

The Lakers extended their lead to three, as their power play stepped up and converted on a pair of consecutive power play opportunities.

With Aaron Kakepetum whistled off the ice for a Delay of Game penalty, T.J. Kemp extended the lead to 4-2 as he slid down from his left point position to deflect home Rich Hansen’s cross-ice pass at 9:58. Adam Tackaberry, returning to the lineup after missing the last 10 games, also assisted on Kemp’s 10th goal.

Mercyhurst struck again on the power play as they scored six seconds after Brent Williams’ Holding penalty man. Peter Rynshoven one-timed Hansen’s pass into the net for his 10th goal at 12:02.

Down three and watching their season and Iona careers slipping away, the Gaels dug in deep and decided they would not go gently into that good night.

During the second intermission, Bretti tried to get his team to forget about the emotional events of the past few days and concentrate on the task at hand.

“I’ve always believed in these guys. At the end of the second period, we talked about needing to settle down a little bit. We felt we were going to continue to get [scoring] opportunities,” he explained. “It was just going to come down to being able to finish a few of them. We were able to give it a fight until the end.”

Actually, Iona thought they had cut the lead to two with 58 seconds left in the second period, but referee Jeff Fulton ruled the puck did not cross the goal line and while bothering to check with the goal judge – even though it appeared, from the press box, that the puck had skittered completely over the goal line. An ensuing 10-minute misconduct penalty costs the Gaels the services of Chad Van Diemen – the team’s second highest scoring defenseman.

At one point early in the third period, the Gaels had Van Diemen, Ryan Swanson (Holding minor) and Trevor McCall (Roughing minor and a 10-minute misconduct) in the penalty box. Bretti was forced use freshman center Andrew McShea on defense with half his blueliners in the penalty box.

The Gaels finally cut the lead to two at 6:30 of the third period when Neil Clark tipped home Kakepetum’s shot from the point. Brent Williams drew the secondary assist on Clark’s third goal.

Five minutes later it was Williams firing home his 13th of the season and breathing life back into the Iona hockey program. Williams hustled off the Iona bench to keep the puck in at the right point. The sophomore skated into the high slot and beat Franck high to the glove side. Kelly Bararuk and Clark drew the assists on the goal as their forechecking paved the way for the goal.

Iona had the Lakers back on their heels as they threw everything at Mercyhurst – including the proverbial kitchen sink. The eighth-seeded Gaels had the number one seeded Lakers content just to ice the puck to relieve the pressure.

The Gaels nearly tied the game with two and a half minutes left, but Franck’s toe save of a Manitowich redirection in front proved to be the best, and most important, of Franck’s 43 saves.

“Andy Franck won us this hockey game. There is no question in my mind,” Gotkin said. “The games [is] 5-2 and we come out and have four or five chances. If one of them goes in, I think we win the game going away. They didn’t go in and I think there was some magic in Iona’s situation. The next thing we know, it’s 5-4 and we are hanging on by our thumbnails.”

Gotkin was quick to offer his support and praise of the Gaels in defeat.

“I’d like to tip my hat to Frank Bretti, his assistants, and most importantly, his players. They really played great and showed a lot of heart. I am proud to have had the chance to coach against them the last four or five years. I have no doubt all these people will land on their feet,” said Gotkin.

“We had to try and overcome everything in a three day period and had to play the most formidable opponent in the league on the road,” an emotionally drained Bretti said. “I am proud of my guys. They gave it everything they had. We took the game to the last few seconds. My guys showed a lot of class going it the third period.”

What part did the emotional level play in the game?

“It’s really so hard to pinpoint how emotion affected the shifts and certain instances in the game. The bottom line tonight is it has been a difficult four days for us,” Bretti said. “We were doing everything we could to keep our focus. What was difficult for us to deal with was coming into this playoff series. We felt very good about how we were playing and then somebody brings you in ….”

A week before, following the Gaels win in Fairfield University’s final hockey game, Haberbusch spoke about his alma mater’s decision to eliminate its hockey program. With a couple of minor adjustments, the words he used in relating the fate of the Stags fits the Gaels and bears repeating.

“I feel very bad for these [25] kids on the team and the coaches that were brought here under the guise there was a long-term commitment to them and their goals. It is very devastating to the alumni base as well,” Haberbusch said.

”There are [36] years of [hockey] tradition here. Countless people have been through here and put in a great deal of hard work, dedication and commitment into this program. To see it taken away with the snap of a finger is very hard to swallow [and] that something so many people worked so hard to build isn’t going to be there anymore.”

For two years I have tried to be as impartial and neutral as possible in covering Iona College for U.S. College Hockey Online and USA College Hockey Magazine – despite the fact that Iona College is my alma mater and full-time employer.

Given the circumstances of the past week, I feel the need to thank all of the players and coaches who I have covered the past two years and rooted for during the past five seasons. Listening to the players after the game and in taking to the parents of Jamie Carroll and Andrew McShea, it was apparent, that parents and players alike thought of Iona as much more than the next place to play hockey. It was a home to them.

Jaymie Harrington spoke of being a “nomad” when it came to playing in as many six cities before coming to Iona. He thought he finally had a chance to hang his hat in one place for four years.

Trevor Aubie spoke of working in a local mill back home in western Canada before being given a chance by Coach Bretti to play hockey and get an education.

The bottom line is there are similar stories for each of the 25 members of the hockey team. While the names, faces and hometowns might change, the moral of the story is still the same

Each of these players made Iona a better place because of their presence on campus. Their absence leaves a void that will not easily be replaced – if it can be replaced at all.

They all deserved a better fate.

In the 10 years that have gone by since that final game, the Iona College Hockey program saw, by my count, nine players go on to play professional hockey in various North American leagues (AHL, ECHL, CHL, UHL and IHL) as well as playing overseas in Europe.

In fact, as I write this in March 2013, two Gaels are still playing professional hockey – Nathan Lutz and Ian Vigier. The others who played professional hockey include Jamie Carroll, Ryan Carter, Neil Clark, Tim Krueckl, Ryan Manitowich, Chris Martini, and Dan McGuire.

In addition, Iona coaches have found their way behind benches of other teams. Former player and assistant coach Mike Warde is an assistant coach at Army. Rob Haberbusch, who suffered the cruel fate of watching both Fairfield and Iona shutter their hockey programs, is the head coach at Hamilton College. Frank Bretti is the coach of the NY Apple Core program in the EJHL as he now prepares players for collegiate aspirations. Pat Lyons would eventually go from player, to assistant coach to eventual former Athletic Director at Iona and current AD at Seton Hall.

Other former Gaels have gotten into the off-ice world of hockey. Adam Bouchard spent two seasons as an assistant coach with Framingham State College. Jayme Harrington is currently the head coach at Franklin Pierce College. Mike Fraser is a scout with the Brandon Wheat Kings of the WHL.

If I missed anyone in those honors, I apologize for the omission. This addendum was meat to celebrate the Iona College Hockey program and, as John Greenleaf Whittier wrote, wonder “For of all sad words of tongue or pen, The saddest are these: “It might have been!’”

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