I was certain getting through the Montreal Canadiens would be the hardest part about returning to the Eastern Conference finals. Despite all my reservations, and to my great surprise, the Rangers wound up impressing me with the manner in which they prevailed against the Habs physicality and won the series in six rowdy games.
In pondering the Rangers next opponent, my preference was to play the Boston Bruins because (like Montreal) at least I knew what to expect from them, and also knew they were a compromised team on defense.
Conversely, I really had no idea what to expect from Ottawa (not that they're an unfamiliar team or foe). However, knowing the Rangers enjoyed little success against the Sens during the regular season, I was nevertheless sure that a somewhat less formidable opponent lay ahead for the Rangers in Round Two.
And therein lies the rub ... doesn't it?
An age old cardinal mistake ... I know. But I think we fans all feel the same way: the Rangers should have won that series hands down.
But opponents gets paid to compete and win as well. So before delving into the Rangers failures, I'll render Ottawa their due respect first.
The Senators are indeed an exceptional counter-punching team. I heard that term used in describing their style on radio prior to Game One, and they confirmed it by eliminating the favored New York Rangers.
The Sens tied the Rangers at a goal apiece in the second period of Game One, then won on Erik Karlsson's late third period goal.
Losing 4-2 through two periods in Game Two, Ottawa eventually tied the game at five in the third period, then won in overtime.
After convincing Rangers victories in games Three and Four at New York, the Sens returned home where they overcame 0-2 and 3-4 deficits to win Game Five 6-5 in overtime.
Just as they knocked off Boston in six, the Sens did not allow the Rangers to linger, eliminating them with haste in Game Six at Madison Square Garden. Said another way, their trip to the Eastern Conference finals is well earned.
Ottawa captain Erik Karlsson, while playing with a fractured foot, was the best skater throughout the series. In fact, he has scored points in all eight of the Senators playoff victories (two rounds) to date.
Lastly, Craig Anderson was no doubt solid in net, and made some nifty saves. Overall, however, he was not besieged to the extent Henrik Lundqvist was. The Rangers may have peppered Anderson with more shots on goal, but far too many were taken from the perimeter, or from plain old bad angles.
That, by the way, will be my only mention of Henrik Lundqvist. Very simply, he deserves better. There's also much to be said of the Rangers beaten and battered defensive unit. However, my main focus is on the forwards. I hold them most responsible for this year's post-season elimination.
They let this team down, or just aren't good enough.
Rick Nash: The Big Blue Enigma
The Columbus Blue Jackets selected Rick Nash with the number one overall pick of the 2001 draft. During nine seasons with the Blue Jackets from 2002 through 2012, he averaged 32 goals and 28 assists (60 points).
The 2008-2009 season was his finest, and also marked the team's first and only playoff appearance during his years in Columbus. He posted 40 regular season goals and 39 assists that season for a career high 79 points. Nash then posted one goal with three assists during the Blue Jackets' only four playoff games.
The thinking back then was players of his size, physicality, skating ability, and proven NHL scoring record are not easy to come by, much less one entering the prime years of his career.
Desperately lacking that very type of player, the Rangers acquired just that ... a 28-year old Rick Nash. Many or most Rangers fans (myself included) expected Nash to instantly become that unique top line forward capable of both distributing big hits and wielding TKO scoring potential. He was going to make us fans forget about the previously failed ventures into Chris Drury, Scott Gomez, Brad Richards, et al.
That being said, at the time of the trade many Blue Jackets fans were forewarning our sorrow. I thought that was Columbus fans just exporting sour grapes. It made me curious as hell, though, but I really wanted the Rangers to make that trade.
Keep in mind that after registering just 39 points in his rookie season, Nash never totaled less than 54 points over his remaining eight seasons in Columbus, and that between 2007 and 2011 he scored no less than 64 points in four consecutive seasons.
His off-Broadway career gets off to a brilliant start with 41 points in only 44 games during his first (NHL shortened) regular season with the Rangers. His second season - not so much; Nash ties his career low with 39 points. He follows that up in 2014-2015 with (a career high) 42 goals and (a second best) 69 points. The year after, Nash establishes a new career low with just 36 points (in 60 games). He reaffirms that mark with another 38 points in 67 games this season. That translates to 25 goals and 44 points per season (without prorating the 2012-2013 shortened season) over his five year career with the Rangers.
Unlike with Columbus, Nash has played post-season hockey in each of his five seasons with New York under both John Tortorella and Alain Vigneault. In four post-seasons previous to this year's, Nash registered an eerily sounding and no less inspiring 11 goals and 33 points through 61 playoff games.
... and has been well criticized for it during his years here.
Depending on your point of view, Rick Nash arguably played very well through two rounds of this year's playoffs. He was one of the very few Rangers forwards causing traffic in front and crashing the crease with any regularity. Throw in his defensive effort on the back-check, and I'd say he played very well indeed.
Unfortunately, his inexplicable dearth of post-season scoring remains ongoing. Nash led the Rangers during these playoffs with 44 shots on goal in 12 games. Of the Eastern Conference final four teams (NYR, OTT, PITT, WAS), only Washington's Alex Ovechkin (49 SOG in 13 games) took more shots than Nash through the first two rounds. And out of that same pool of players from the final four teams, 17 scored more goals through the first two rounds than Rick Nash, whom finished with just three. Three of those players were his team mates, one being defenseman Brady Skjei. Otherwise, the other 16 were all forwards.
It's been reported that Nash played hurt during the second round. Perhaps ... but he still managed 44 opportunities on net. Did injury prevent him solely from finishing plays?
Traditionally speaking, his prime years are now behind him. Rick Nash turns 33-years old in June, and has one more season remaining on his contract.
Centers of Inattention
I'll again refer to the pool of players among the Eastern Conference final four. Seven of the eight skaters to register ten or more points through Round Two were forwards. Ottawa's Erik Karlsson was the lone defenseman on the list with 13 points. To no one's surprise, none of the other seven players wore Rangers jerseys.
Pittsburgh's top three scorers through Round Two are their centermen. Two of Washington's top three scorers were also their centermen. All five of these centermen registered double-digit points through Round Two.
Mika Zibanejad led the Rangers with a team high seven assists and nine points overall. He was their lone legitimate threat up the middle. Otherwise, the Rangers were woefully inadequate and inconsequential at the center position.
This may have been Derek Stepan's most ponderous performance to date. The man was just awful from start to finish. And depending on Alain Vigneault's mood, Oscar Lindberg and J.T. Miller remained relative non-factors as well. Together, the three accounted for five goals and eight assists for a paltry 13 points. Comparatively speaking, Washington's Niklas Backstrom accomplished that by himself! And you can forget Ivgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby. Penguins center Jake Guentzel has not only outperformed the aforementioned trio's collective effort, but leads the Pens with nine goals. That's more than the combined total of all four Rangers centers.
Does mighty Mats Zuccarello have to do everything around here? Apparently, the answer continues being an overwhelming Yes!
I would have appreciated Jesper Fast getting some more ice time.
Chris Kreider may have enjoyed his finest regular season as a Ranger, but this playoff will go down as one of his worst. Three goals and an assist in 12 games is now inexcusable coming from a young man with his skill, size, and speed. He teased us with rare and fleeting moments of potential brilliance, but nothing more. So lets just call it like we see it: he spent most of his time skating with his head up his posterior. He does that a lot. It's annoying.
And where the hell was Kevin Hayes?
These playoffs were supposed to be Kreider's and Hayes' time to shine and light up Broadway; time to elevate their respective levels of competition and lead the Rangers to higher ground.
Together, they couldn't lead a dog to a tree.
I said back in October this team wouldn't amount to much. In this instance, I do not necessarily enjoy being right. And just for giggles, I'm still an Alain Vigneault antagonist.
NEW YORK RANGERS: All The King's Horses Propel Blueshirts to First Victory Over Sens; Centermen Finally Do Their Jobs.
After Facing 77 SOG Through Game Two,
Blueshirts Lighten Henrik's Load; Faces Only 27 SOG
MatsZuccs to the rescue, again!
But at least the other lines showed up. So, let's here it for the Rangers center men, finally! Mika Zibanejad assisted on MatsZucc's opening goal. Derek Stepan assisted on Rick Nash's goal. And even J.T. Miller (who needs to stay the hell out of the penalty box) assisted on Oscar Lindberg's goal.
Now if they can start winning a few more face-offs ...
Tanner Glass finally skated for the first time since Game Three against the Habs.
About that ... see how wishy-washy Alain Vigneault is?
At least he had the wherewithal to realize the team needed an increased physical presence against Montreal, and thus started Tanner Glass in Game One. Outside of Henrik Lundqvist, Glass was perhaps most responsible for the Rangers opening victory despite only eight minutes of ice time.
But because things went awry after the second period of Game Two (Glass nonetheless accounted for 10 hits), and again in Game Three against Montreal, Glass was scratched for the remainder of the series.
Fast forward - the Rangers get woefully outplayed during their first two games in Ottawa. I'll take it a step further: Vigneault was getting beaten at his own game. Vigneault adjusts by shortening his bench in Game Two. When that doesn't work, Coach lengthens his bench again, reverting back to four lines featuring Tanner Glass in Game Three, whom initiates three hits, and registers a secondary assist on Oscar Lindberg's goal.
And if I may, how about giving Jesper Fast just a little more ice time? Take away some minutes from a very inconsequential Kevin Hayes.
First baseman Nate Freiman, who was being counted on to provide a slugging threat in the middle of Long Island's batting order, had his contract purchased on Saturday by los Pericos de Puebla of the triple-A Mexican League.
This is the second time in as many seasons Nate has been snatched away from Long Island. He was lost to the Portland Sea Dogs of the Boston Red Sox organization last year after hitting a pair of home runs in just six games. Through the first ten games of this season, Freiman was tied for the Atlantic League lead with four home runs in just 28 at-bats.
In just 14 games and 49 overall at-bats for the Ducks, Freiman hit six home runs with 10 RBI. Last year, he hit 11 home runs with 60 RBI in 311 at-bats for the double-A Sea Dogs.
Marc Krauss has started the last two games at first base in Freiman's place.
Ten games into the regular season, the Atlantic League is riddled with parity. The Bluefish and Patriots lead the circuit with six victories, while last year's championship series combatants, the Skeeters and Ducks, each have six losses.
With a .433 average, Elmer Reyes is second in the league in batting. Catcher Alex Burg is tied for fourth with seven RBI.
The Flock is back on the road, opening up a four game series in York against the Revolution, with a brunch/dinnertime doubleheader scheduled for Wednesday.
NEW YORK RANGERS: Ottawa Senators Beating Alain Vigneault At His Own Game.
I just don't get this coach these guys.
Montreal finished ahead of the Ottawa Senators for a reason, right?
I mean ... the Habs were one of five Eastern Conference teams this season to crack 100 points, and the only one to do so from the Atlantic Division. Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Division registered a league high four teams with 100 point seasons. The Rangers 102 points, incidentally, ranked least among the five, but whose complaining ...
The Habs also finished first in the Atlantic Division with a +26 goal differential. The Rangers finished the regular season with an even better +36 differential.
The Ottawa Senators?
They placed second in the Atlantic Division and sixth in the Eastern Conference, finishing the season just under the century mark with 98 points, and posted an abysmal -2 goal differential. Just to be clear, that's minus two. In fact, they are the only team in this year's Stanley Cup playoffs with a negative goal differential.
Now consider that Ottawa's best forward, Erik Karrlson, is playing on a fractured foot. Then ponder how a guy whom scored 12 goals all season, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, should suddenly net four goals in Game Two.
The Rangers 27-12-2 road record was the best in all the NHL. Yet, they're fresh off two straight losses at Ottawa, and are now 2-3 in five playoff games played north of the border.
What the hell else do you want me to say?!
All I know is this team gave up a two goal lead with three minutes left in regulation.
Whether at even strength, or on the PK, I still see a lot of Rangers just standing around and playing on their heels. The Ranger forwards' collective back-checking has been particularly embarrassing.
Therefore, I'll say this very plainly: this team which elevated itself to the level of Montreal's physicality, which played with grit, high intensity toughness, and inspired passion against Montreal, is laying down to the Ottawa Senators.
The Rangers are down 0-2 in this series, and to a large extent I hold Alain Vigneault responsible for reverting back to his more preferred finesse style.
Problem is the Ottawa Senators are beating Vigneault at his own game. It is the Rangers getting out-skated. It is Ottawa winning the face-off battle by an 81-67 margin. It is Ottawa controlling the neutral zone; winning time of possession; consistently getting the puck down low in the offensive end; creating better scoring opportunities.
Circling back to Erik Karrlson, he easily leads the Sens with over 66 minutes of ice time. Did I mention he has a hairline fracture in his foot, and that he still finished games One and Two with a plus-one? Am I to believe the Rangers do not have a top two line forward capable of at least nudging him out of the way?
Mats Zuccarello has just three SOG in two games against Ottawa. Can no one else step up? This is my point exactly when I say MatsZuccs can not, and should not be the Rangers best forward. I love Zuccs, but you know what I mean - not on a team with Nash, Kreider, etc.
The Rangers have killed 7 of 8 penalties against Ottawa, but have yet to score in eight opportunities. Their power play is now just 2 for 23 through eight playoff games. The Rangers PK has allowed four goals in 28 opportunities.
Opening the 2017 regular season on the road seemingly caused a little limp in the Flock's waddle. They dropped four of their first seven games punctuated by a series loss against the Somerset Patriots. The webbed wonders did, however, take the series finale from their chief rival to at least head home on a winning note.
Friday's Opening Day game at the Pond against the New Britain Bees was one of those which reaffirms the notion - it's not how you start, but how you finish that's important. That being said, the visitors jumped out to an abrupt first inning lead when Bees DH and clean-up hitter Craig Maddox stroked a majestic three run home run off Ducks starter Keith Couch.
But Couch regrouped, and followed up with three scoreless innings of work. Although charged with three runs on three hits, he fanned five batters and retired nine of his last ten batters faced through the fourth.
Reliever Zac Treece picked up where Couch left off, with three scoreless innings of one hit ball. And after a good stretch, Long Island finally got Couch off the losing side, with a four run outburst in the home seventh.
Second baseman Elmer Reyes plated the Ducks first two runs with a double. Delta Cleary Jr.'s RBI single tied the game at three, and DH Marc Kruass' sac fly to center gave the Ducks a 4-3 lead, and their final margin of victory.
Patrick Crider struck out the side in the eighth, and veteran David Aardsma fanned a pair in during a scoreless ninth for his first save. Zac Treece earned the well deserved victory.
Unfortunately, the Flock were unable to extend their winning streak to three, dropping the middle game if their three game set against New Britain.
Saturday's 3-2 loss also lowered Long Island's early season record below .500 again.
Ducks starter Tim Melville pitched five innings in a losing effort, allowing four runs (three earned) on four hits, with three strikeouts.
Matt Larkins will start Sunday's rubber game for Long Island.
NEW YORK RANGERS: I can just hear all the media (radio) know-nothings already prepping to blame Henrik.
I'm okay with Erik Karlsson's third period goal ... better known as the game-winner.
No, really. It's a crappy way to lose, but stuff like that happens. It's just one of those fluky plays.
If anything, there's a lesson (among many) to be learned: just put the puck on net!
I'm certainly not going to blame Henrik who has been nothing short of brilliant through the first seven games of these Stanley Cup playoffs.
It's not his fault the Rangers needed to kill three penalties, and allowed 21 shots on goal during the first period. It's also not his fault the Rangers couldn't clear the defensive zone late in the second period and were therefore fatigued into allowing Ottawa the game tying goal on their fourth power play of the game. And lastly, it's not his fault Rangers forwards decided not to play inspired hockey until well after the midway point of the final period.
Thursday evening, I watched all four Rangers forward lines just meandering around, and playing on their heels. I saw no grit, and even less determination. In a word, they were flat.
It's ponderous to me how they amped up the physicality against Montreal, but then play down to Ottawa. Worse yet, Ottawa played the exact type of game Alain Vigneault prefers, and they still failed miserably.
I'm upset because the Rangers put forth a piss poor effort in Game One, when there was absolutely no excuse for such a performance. None.
This is exactly how Vigneault gave away Game Seven against Tampa. He called off the dogs.
They tried reverting right back to the finesse game and it cost them Game One.
Sure they had scoring chances ... like Derek Stephan's wtf failed breakaway attempt.
That, and Alain Vigneault's decision to go soft gain - pure folly.
Know what else disturbs me?
Ryan McDonagh led all Rangers with almost thirty minutes of ice time; most even strength minutes and four PK's.
Keep that up and see what happens, Coach.
And another thing, this team's forwards are welcome to join the playoffs at any time.
Now that I've gotten that off my chest, the mission statement remains the same: steal one game in Ottawa.
After falling behind the Somerset Patriots 0-2 in last year's Liberty Division playoff series, Long Island stormed back with three straight victories to win the division flag, and advance to their fifth ever Atlantic League championship series. However, the Ducks were denied their bid for a fourth trophy by the Sugar Land Skeeters, whom swept Long Island in three games to capture the 2016 Atlantic League title.
After a previously failed bid in 2014, Sugar Land gained their first championship in their short five year existence, and became the Atlantic League's ninth different champion in its 19-year history.
The 20th Season of Atlantic League Baseball is Underway!
Long Island's reigning all-time pitching ace, John Brownell, returns for his sixth season with the Ducks. He is the organization's all-time leader in starts, innings pitched, wins, and strikeouts, and likewise holds Ducks single season records for starts, innings pitched, complete games, and strikeouts.
John posted a 10-8 mark last season with a 3.30 ERA and 1.260 WHiP. He averaged 7.8 K/9 with 147 strikeouts and 2.0 W/9 after issuing just 38 walks through 169 innings pitched. After which, Brownell, 33, made his annual return to Puerto Rico where he pitches winter league baseball for the Caguas Criollos. There, he made seven appearances for this year's LBPRC champions, posting a 2.91 ERA for Caguas through 34 innings pitched, with 17 strikeouts.
John Brownell will be pitching with a revamped stable of mates this season featuring Rafael Perez, Matt Larkin, Keith Couch, and Tim Melville.
Rafael Perez, 34, is a southpaw and former major league relief pitcher for the Cleveland Indians. He posted a 21-12 record with a 3.64 ERA through 329 innings pitched, with 268 strikeouts during his seven seasons with the Tribe. He spent the last two seasons pitching in the triple-A Mexican League and in the Dominican Republic's professional circuit.
Right-hander Matt Larkins, 28, was acquired from the Lincoln Saltdogs of the American Association last year, and squeezed in three appearances for the Ducks before season's end. He was 7-7 with a 3.69 ERA in 21 appearances for Lincoln.
Newcomer to the Ducks, right-hander Keith Couch, 27, is a Mineola, Long Island kid, and former Boston Red Sox minor league farm product, with 157 innings pitched at the triple-A level.
Another newcomer, right-hander Tim Melville is an eight year veteran of the Kansas City Royals and Cincinnati Reds respective systems. Through 161 appearances mostly as a starter, Melville owns a 34-59 record with a 4.83 ERA and 578 strikeouts over 726 career innings pitched.
When right-hander Rob Rogers was signed on April 19, southpaw Jack Snodgrass was placed on the inactive list. Rogers, a 26-year old New York native hailing from Bayshore is a Los Angeles Dodgers product whom gained limited experience at double-A, and enjoyed a very brief sip of Gatorade at triple-A. Snodgrass made 14 starts last season for the Ducks, posting a par 6-6 record with a 3.79 ERA and 85 strikeouts through 78.1 innings pitched.
Rejoining the bullpen from last season will be Eury de la Rosa, Patrick Crider, and Zac Treece. They'll be joined by newcomers Jim Fuller, Dennis O'Grady, Chin Hui Tsao, and major league veteran David Aardsma. For now, Amalio Diaz will open the season as the Ducks closer. But should Diaz falter, I would argue newcomer Tyler Wilson could step into that role.
Tyler Wilson was acquired from the Ottawa Champions of the CanAm League. He made 42 appearances last season, posting a 3-4 record with a 2.07 ERA and 14 saves over 47.2 innings pitched with 60 strikeouts.
Jim Fuller comes to the Ducks via the Pirates organization. He was originally drafted by the Mets, and played for the Brooklyn Cyclones in 2009.
Dennis O'Grady is another local kid from Floral Park, N.Y., who attended Archbishop Molloy High School in Queens. After five seasons in the San Diego Padres organization, he missed all of 2016.
Chin-Hui Tsao is a six year major league veteran with the Colorado Rockies and Los Angeles Dodgers. But similar to Dennis O'Grady, he missed all of the 2006 and 2008 seasons.
David Aardsma is a nine year MLB veteran, whom pitched for the Mets in 2013, and as the Seattle Mariners closer saved 69 games between 2009-2010.
The Ducks will sport two fresh faces behind the plate: right swinging Alex Burg and lefty swinging Dominic Blanco.
Alex Burg is a potential power hitting backstop who spent the last two seasons toiling in the Texas Rangers system.
Drafted out of high school by the Seattle Mariners, Dominic Blanco is still young at 21-years old. He enters the season with just 63 professional games under his belt, mostly at the rookie league level. He's noted for having a strong arm.
The infield once again features popular shortstop Dan Lyons who returns for his seventh season with the Ducks, and third baseman Cody Puckett, entering his fourth straight season with Long Island.
The team is anticipating a full season and lots of slugging from first baseman Nate Freiman, who hit two home runs in just six games last season for Long Island after being acquired as a free agent. In 2012 for the San Diego Padres double-A affiliate, Freiman slashed .298/.370/.502 through 137 games and 516 at-bats, with 24 home runs and 105 RBI. He went on to play in 116 MLB games and slugged .408 for the Oakland A's during the 2013 and 2014 seasons.
Infielder Elmer Reyes first played for the Ducks in 2015, and in just 18 games and 71 at-bats, slashed .380/.389/.746, with six home runs and 15 RBI. Talk about catching lighting in a bottle. He spent last season playing for the Nicaraguan National team. Still only 26-years old, there's a very good chance for lightning striking twice.
Marc Krauss, 29, is a three year MLB veteran. He played 85 games and hit 14 home runs last season for the triple-A Las Vegas 51s.
Giovanny Alfonzo, 24, is a Miami Marlins product, with 126 games played split between the New York-Penn League and South Atlantic League.
In the outfield, the ageless Fehlandt Lentini is back for his fourth season with the Ducks. A long time independent league veteran, Lentini turns the big four-zero this summer. He is also coming off a career year for Long Island. In 140 games and 571 at-bats last season, Fehlandt slashed .313/.364/.455, with 42 doubles, six triples, nine home runs, 75 RBI, 108 runs scored, and 51 stolen bases.
Delta Cleary Jr. returns for his third season. He finished third in the Atlantic League last season with a .321 batting average, and placed fifth with 32 stolen bases.
Newcomer to the Ducks, corner outfielder Nolan Reimold, 33, is a nine year MLB veteran mostly spent with the Baltimore Orioles.
Angelo Songco, 28, is a Los Angeles Dodgers product. He averaged .298, with 15 home runs and 64 RBI during his three previous seasons playing for the St. Paul Saints.
NEW YORK RANGERS: MatsZuccs! Smallest Blueshirt Bearing Heaviest Load.
Tex's Rangers Prove Too Tough for Montreal Canadiens
I've used many an unkind adjective in describing these Rangers throughout Alain Vigneault's tenure in New York, with soft, cute, and smurfy, topping the list.
But in truth, the Rangers played the Montreal Canadiens tough ... real tough ... astonishingly tough ... impressively tough.
I didn't think they had it in them, and was certain they would suffer a first round elimination. In light of Saturday's series clinching victory over the Canadiens, I'm therefore only too happy being wrong. It's only a first round victory, and well, the Rangers have been there and done that. But this was nevertheless the grittiest, most physical performance they've ever put forth under this head coach.
Eliminating the Habs in such fashion still does not prevent me from pondering how Alain Vigneault called off the dogs in Game Seven against the Tampa Bay Lightning (Eastern Conf. Final).
With regards to his style, I've always said you can pirouette your way through the regular season playing the mean competition, but you can't do that in a short playoff series. This series against Montreal only confirms that (for me). After falling in the first round last year to the Penguins, maybe, just maybe, Vigneault has finally learned his lesson.
Stubborn as I am, I can't help but wonder if the Rangers overt physicality was inspired by Vigneault himself, or was born of the players' own collective and respective personal resolve.
In any event, they got it done.
Montreal mounted 206 shots on goal against Henrik Lundqvist, and scored 11 times in six games. Meanwhile, the Rangers took 25 less shots on goal (181), yet tallied 14 goals against Carey Price.
More importantly, they answered any and all questions regarding their ability to compete against a bigger, and seemingly more physically oppressive opponent.
The Rangers and Canadiens combined for 533 recognized hits, for an average of 88 body checks per game. While Montreal registered 50+ hits in games One, Two, and Five, the Rangers levied a series high 74 hits in Game Two, and out-hit the Habs overall by a 285-248 margin.
Into the Void
If Max Pacioretty scores just one timely goal at any time during games three through six, perhaps the series takes on a completely different complexion. The Habs top forward and regular season scoring leader led all skaters in the series with 29 shots on goal, yet managed just one assist and finished with a minus-one.
That being said, Rangers blueliners Nick Holden, Marc Staal, Ryan McDonagh, Brady Skjei, Brendan Smith, and Dan Girardi in particular, are the primary reasons why Pacioretty was rendered ineffective.
Enter Jeff Beukeboom, whom was added to Alain Vigneault's staff after last season's disappointing first round playoff loss against the Pittsburgh Penguins. As a former defenseman for the Oilers and Rangers, he brings Stanley Cup playoff experience and first hand knowledge in the stay-home tradition - minimizing traffic in the crease, keeping shooting lanes clear, with less attention on stick work and more emphasis on initiating and exerting a physical presence, and above all keeping Henrik Lundqvist safe.
For the first five periods of the series, the Rangers played with speed, while matching Montreal's all out physical blitz hit for hit. I was indeed proud how they answered the opening bell in Game One and through the second period of Game Two. Despite overall numbers finishing overwhelmingly in Montreal's favor, those were nevertheless five periods of hockey they should be commended for.
But because the Blueshirts hadn't spent any sustained stretches during the regular season playing at such an intense and relentless level, the Canadiens overall physicality was seemingly already wearing down, and slowing down the Rangers by the third period of Game Two. It's not so much that Montreal scored the tying goal with just 0:17 left in regulation. That was inevitable as Montreal dictated much of the period. In turn, the Rangers were routinely denied timely line changes. The Rangers obviously went on to lose Game Two in overtime, then got outplayed again in Game Three at Madison Square Garden.
All the King's Horses
The Rangers then reeled off three straight victories led by Mats Zuccarello and Henrik Lundqvist to earn a second round match-up against the Ottawa Senators.
They doubled Montreal's output through the final three games, outscoring the Habs by an 8-4 mark.
Unlike Montreal captain Max Pacioretty's playoff disappearance, Mats Zuccarello led the Rangers in points during the regular season, then led them with three goals against the Habs. The Canadiens were clearly targeting MatsZucs throughout the series. But Mighty Mats fought right back every step of the way, even proving himself toughest of all with a pair of in-your-face second period goals in Game Six.
Rick Nash played very well. He was second among all skaters and led the Rangers with 23 shots on goal. He was one of the few Rangers forwards truly guilty of crashing and disrupting Carey Price's safe space with any consistency. Good job!
Otherwise, Henrik Lundqvist saved the Rangers from their overall lack of forward line production yet again.
Center Mika Zibanejad had a fine series. But Derek Stepan, J.T. Miller, and Oscar Lindberg, are becoming real issues up the middle. Meanwhile, Chris Kreider and Kevin Hayes are becoming mirror images of ineffectiveness. In fact, all Kreider did was prove he is still a head case. And generally speaking, the Rangers fore-check was somewhat appalling.
Before getting into special teams, how about a round of applause for the men in stripes, whom did a superb job of swallowing their whistles and letting play, and the players regulate themselves. Suffice it to say both teams got away with various and seemingly innumerable infractions.
Montreal went 3 for 20 on the power play. Two of those led to Montreal's Game Three victory at MSG. The Rangers went just 1 for 15 on the power play. On the bright side, it means the Rangers outscored Montreal 13-8 during even strength.
Before there ever existed a Hall of Fame museum in Cooperstown, there was GreenWood Cemetery in Brooklyn - a national landmark - where the fathers of baseball (Henry Chadwick, Duncan Curry) along with many of base ball's earliest players from the mid-to-late 19th century rest eternally.
Among the era's most celebrated players was New York City native Jim Creighton Jr. - better described as the best player of his time. In fact, he is historically considered to be base ball's first superstar.
A distinguished striker (batter) by age 16, Creighton initially played second base for the 1859 Niagaras of Brooklyn. After the Niagara club folded later that season, Creighton switched to the Brooklyn Stars.
Over the winter, Jim Creighton joined the Excelsior Base Ball Club of Brooklyn (also known as the Jolly Young Bachelors Base Ball Club), for whom he pitched from 1860 through the 1862 season. En route to leading the Excelsiors to a national championship during his first season with the club, he also set about revolutionizing the game itself.
"Why that man was not bowling, he is throwing underhand. It the best disguised underhand throwing I ever saw, and might readily be taken as a fair delivery."
"...his pitch "as if it was shot out of a cannon."
"...had wonderful speed, and, with it, splendid command. He was fairly unhittable."
Outcries abounded regarding illegal pitches and unsportsmanlike conduct. Accused of failing to keep a stiff arm on the back swing of his delivery then snapping his wrist, Jim was generally cleared of such transgressions when a Brooklyn Eagles reporter determined Creighton threw a fair square pitch, rather than a jerk, or an illegal underhand throw.
Jim Creighton was injured on October, 14, 1862, during a game against Bronx competitors, Union BBC of Morrisania. Four days later, he died suddenly in his home due to internal hemorrhaging. Jim was just 21-years/six months of age.
His death was not only a loss to his club but to the whole base ball community. Which needed such as he as a standard of honorable play and ability.
Jim Creighton is credited for being among the very first players to be paid (professionally); credited for throwing a speed ball - a precursor of the fastball; is said to have invented the curveball; and above all else, is believed to have been first to propagate the pitcher batter confrontation.
In his honor, members of the Excelsiors Base Ball Club of Brooklyn erected this monument at his grave sight in GreenWood cemetery. It is believed to be the very first baseball monument ever erected.
In its original condition, the monument featured a baseball adorning the very top which through the past century had been compromised by erosion.
In 2014, the monument was restored to its original state thanks to the efforts of
Tom Gilbert and Richard Moylan, along with help from baseball historian Eric Miklich of 19cBaseball.com ... otherwise known as, Express, pitcher for the present day Eckfords vintage BBC of Brooklyn (featured here wearing Brooklyn Excelsior attire).
NEW YORK RANGERS:Rough and Tough Tanner Lends Blueshirts a Touch of Glass.
Calling all Forwards ... That's One Win for Henrik ... You Owe Him.
As expected, Montreal tried imposing their physicality upon the Rangers. Artturi Lehkonen, Paul Byron, Steve Ott, and the rest of the Habs threw their bodies around quite liberally, out-hitting the Rangers for the game by a 53-45 margin. In turn, those hits created a lot of takeaways. Those takeaways in turn led to quality scoring chances.
That said, the Habs opened with a furious first period onslaught, peppering Henrik Lundqvist with 16 shots on goal. It was a very disconcerting first 20-minutes to say the least. But the Rangers responded with a strong second period, then put twice as many shots on goal in the third period than did Montreal. By game's end, each team finished with 31 shots on goal apiece.
It was clear to me, the Habs were targeting Mats Zuccarello. But to the Rangers credit, they leveled some big hits as well. Brady Skjei and Dan Girardi come to mind. And I also credit Alain Vigneault for starting Tanner Glass. I thought it was a smart move, if only because he added toughness.
As it turns out, Glass scored the only meaningful goal of the game on a great backhand shot off the face-off. Dare I say brilliant even ... because he didn't get cute and just put the damn puck on net!
Speaking of brilliant, Henrik Lundqvist made 31 saves en route to recording his tenth career playoff shutout. And simply put, the Rangers do not escape the first period unscathed without his old school King-like performance. Throughout the game, and particularly during that first period, our liege made several outstanding saves in heavy traffic against second chance opportunities.
Montreal played an undisciplined game. After the Rangers withstood their best shot in the first session, the Habs clearly became frustrated. However, numerous and obvious Canadien infractions went uncalled. Lets see how the stripes potentially let this bleed into Game Two - or not.
But Montreal losing their cool didn't necessarily lead to Tanner Glass' goal. In fact, Glass only played eight even strength minutes all night thanks to four Rangers power plays and another six minutes spent on the penalty kill.
The Rangers went 0 for 4 on the PP by the way. But the fact Tanner Glass scored and some other forward didn't, makes me wonder...
Five Rangers defensemen (Marc Staal, Brendan Smith, Ryan McDonagh, Nick Holden, Brady Skjei) together mustered 13 shots on goal.
Now take away each of Rick Nash's and Mika Zibanejad's 3 SOG, and Michael Granber's shot on an empty net, and the rest of the Rangers forwards (Kevin Hayse, Chris Kreider, Mats Zuccarello, JT Miller, Derek Stepan, Jimmy Vesey, Oscar Lindberg, Jesper Fast) only totaled nine shots on goal.
Just saying ...
The NHL's best road team this past season came through. For the moment, home ice advantage shifts into Rangers hands.
The Slides of March You can pirouette your way through the regular season against the NHL's mean competition, but you can't do that in a short playoff series. Yes, AV, I'm talking to you.
New York Rangers: What 102 Points Gets You at the Metropolitan Division Exchange Rate.
Mike ... why are you so down on the Rangers?
Go back and read the Slides of March. The upcoming series will either prove me right, or dead wrong. That remains to be seen.
Otherwise, my answer is because all was never as pretty as it seemed to begin with.
Let's start with the competition ... shall we?
There's no coincidence in the fact that Washington, Pittsburgh, Columbus, and Montreal all finished ahead of the Rangers in this year's Eastern Conference standings. During the regular season, the Rangers posted a sub par 6-10 record against them.
The Rangers additionally sputtered to an 8-11 record through the Slides of March (and four games in April). Three of those games were against the Habs, Penguins, and Capitals. The Rangers lost them all by an overall 10-4 margin of disparity.
Tex's Rangers were once again winter marvels, though, posting a regular season record of 48-28-6 (102 points), scoring the fourth most goals in the league, and recording best road record in the NHL. Despite their proficiency, they only placed fourth in the Metropolitan Division and fifth in the conference.
So, let me know when this all starts sounding familiar to you ...
In the mean time, the Rangers are just 11-19 in their last 30 games at home, and generally do not play well in Montreal.
That being said, it's north of the border we go for Game One.
Montreal jettisoned some smaller players and got bigger, stronger, and tougher at the trade deadline. They swept all three games of the season series against the Rangers, and enter this series arguably boasting the better goalie, the best defenseman, and the best forward poised to take the ice.
I don't want to be overly disparaging, but, Rick Nash should be ashamed of himself. Thirty-eight points? A guy with his size and speed - it's ponderous, I know. I can't help but recall how Columbus fans told us we'd soon regret the trade. Did we fans expect way too much of Nash? I doubt it.
His failures create systemic problems. Very simply, a team featuring Rick Nash should not be led in any offensive category by Mats Zuccarello. Yet, MatZuccs did just that ... again! He can not continue being the Rangers best forward ... if you know what I mean. He's great. I love MatZuccs. He plays smart, and will skate into tougher areas of the ice. But if he's the best Blueshirt forward on the ice, it means other forward-liners aren't doing nearly enough.
Therefore, Kevin Hayes and Chris Kreider must seize the day. Kreider had a good season, but now he must lead. I'm not saying Kreider needs to knock Carey Price into the twilight zone again. But I am saying Kreider, Hayes, Nash, JT Miller, and Jimmy Vesey, must all get their 200+pound bodies in front of net.
Outside of Shea Weber, they should be able to push their way through, but only if they want to. This is where I demand more from Alain Vigneault. I need for him to pull the curtain on his meticulously choreographed ballet, and order his bigger bodies on search and destroy missions seeking out second and third opportunities. As they say, if Price can see the puck, he'll stop it. Therefore, chaos in the crease is key.
I've always made size and toughness on the forward lines, or lack thereof, a major point of contention. But do the Rangers have the blueliners to get this done?
D - Ryan McDonagh: 6 goals, 36 assists (42 points), +20
No issues with the guy wearing the C on his jersey. My biggest concern is whether Dan Girardi has one more good run in him? He's a worn and torn 32-years old.
Next, watch out for trade deadline acquisition Brendan Smith. I do not like this match-up at all. When these teams last played, Smith was repeatedly knocked off the puck, and squashed by Montreal's newly acquired beefcake forwards.
And as a unit, the blueliners won't exactly be crunching any Montreal forwards in the corners either.
G - Henrik Lundqvist: 31-20-4, 2.74 GAA, .910 SV%
The Rangers are asking more of Henrik Lundqvist than ever. But our liege is 35-years old now, and may not be able to cover all the defensive shortcomings occurring in front of him, and around the net. They do such a deplorable job, and it's because they lack size and toughness needed to push bodies around. Henrik and Price are essentially the same - if they see it, they'll stop it. But where the Rangers must alter their style in order to create second and third opportunities, they routinely give them up in the defensive other end.
Please, Henrik, do everything for us ... is no longer an option. Just like last season, and the one before that, and the one before that, etc., it's incumbent upon the skaters in front of Henrik to do more. Not the other way around.
I tried very hard not to batter you with my prolonged Alain Vigneault rantings, and my lack of size and toughness ravings. Very simply, I don't like Alain Vigneault. I don't like his policy of turn the other cheek, and generally speaking, I think he's just plain soft. I still say he gave away Game Seven against Tampa Bay because he went with cute, instead of tough.
I digress ...
With regard to the lack of toughness on this team ... those old enough to remember the Smurfs (not the TV cartoon, but the smallish Rangers of the 1980s in the years prior to Brian Leetch's rookie season), know exactly what I mean.
I'll do one better: If Nick Fotiu (pre-Smurfs) played for these Rangers, we'd win the Cup!
Circling back to Vigneault, did I mention the Rangers downward trending since he took over?
But, Mike, the Rangers just posted three straight 100 point seasons.
Yeah, I know.
But I also know they made the 2013-2014 Stanley Cup finals during his first season, gave away(!) the 2014-2015 Eastern Conference finals the following season, then bowed out four games to one during last year's first round against Pittsburgh.
What will it be this season, getting swept by Montreal?
That's not entirely out of the question.
Ryan McDonagh says throw all that regular season stuff out the window. The Rangers are playoff tested. They know what it takes.