Saturday, May 13, 2017

N.Y. Rangers: In the Middle of Nowhere


And so ends the 90th season of 
New York Rangers Hockey

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.

Broken Wings

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.

This doesn't help.

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