Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Series Preview (8) NYR vs (1) Caps: Exciting finish sets up rematch

Finally, after a couple of days, I can try to make sense of what happened this weekend. I'm not going to lie. I never thought the Hurricanes were losing at home in front of some of the best fans with their season on the line. Full credit to Jack Adams candidate Guy Boucher and his overlooked Lightning who could surprise a few this Spring. Big kudos to the Rangers, who wouldn't go down without a fight in front of the Garden Faithful- coming back to earn an emotional 5-2 win over the enemy Devils.

Of course, the Devils wanted to end our season. Wouldn't you if it was the first time in 15 years you weren't in the playoffs and had a chance to beat your closest rival? So, it wasn't too surprising that the Devs came out strong thanks to a brilliant first period from Ilya Kovalchuk, who scored and set up both his team's goals, giving them a 2-1 lead with a rocket in the final 30 seconds. It's funny but as much as it was supposed to hurt that the Devils' best player scored a potential crushing goal late in the first, I just didn't feel that alarmed. Perhaps it was because I knew our team wouldn't give up when they haven't all season. As brutal as the loss to kryptonite Atlanta was, this was still do or die with the chance to put it all on Carolina. My feeling was, 'Let's beat the Devils and end on a high note. Whatever happens happens.'

That realistic approach made it easier to focus on the remaining two periods. Even the funny scalpers outside were discussing our fragile plight. None of it meant anything if the Blueshirts didn't respond one final time against a Hudson rival that beat us the last two times, intent on playing spoiler. What we got was the heart and passion that exemplifies what this team has been all about. It already was fun seeing much maligned captain Chris Drury, making like Willis Reed (sarcasm folks) to score his first of the season in quick reply to Kyle Palmieri's redirect. Ironically, when I learned he was returning, I tweeted that it wouldn't surprise me if he scored a big goal, which has defined his career. Sometimes, you just get a sixth sense. I was really happy for him. That it was also set up by Mats Zuccarello, who replaced Sean Avery, was even better. John Tortorella didn't stand pat, reinserting Drury, Zuccarello and opting for more mobile Matt Gilroy over gritty Steve Eminger.

The thing I admire about Tort the most is his willingness to change things up and make guys accountable. Even Marian Gaborik, who sat a long time in that humiliation in Game 81. The former Lightning coach who's won a Cup doing it his way, does it more by feel instead of by the book. That approach allowed us to come back against Boston just to reach Saturday. By not being afraid to mix and match, it's allowed our roster to get comfortable with each other. So, if he does it in the first round rematch versus Washington, they should be more familiar, making for an easier transformation.

Most encouraging were the five different goalscorers, including emerging freshman Ryan McDonagh, who picked a great time for his first career NHL goal- becoming the 19th different Ranger to score a deciding goal, epitomizing the kinda T-E-A-M they've been. Something that wasn't lost on Tortorella prior to getting help from his ex-team, who held off a late Carolina rally for a 6-2 win.

"We are doing things the right way, the way we are building this team. I think it is very important for this team to get in (to the playoffs) because that is part of growing as a team, getting that experience in the playoffs."

Now, that growth can continue for the sixth youngest team as they prepare for a Caps' team that's adjusted their style for the postseason. No longer is Alex Ovechkin just a one-way player but good in all three zones along with an improved D that features gifted rookie John Carlson along with Dennis Wideman, Scott Hannan and Jeff Schultz but could be without Mike Green, who's still recovering from a concussion due to a Derek Stepan elbow during the Rangers' 6-0 rout a couple of months ago. According to reports, Green has taken part in team workouts and is available for Wednesday. However, it's uncertain if he'll play.

The Blueshirts can't concern themselves with that. Instead, they'll march on minus emotional leader Ryan Callahan, who despite missing 20 games, tied with Gaborik for second in team scoring with a career high 48 points, including personal bests in goals (23), assists (25), power play goals (10) and game-winners (5). The latter two which he paced the club. No question they could use his physical presence in all facets, including the front of the net where goals could be at a premium. Washington rookie Michal Neuvirth had a superb year winning 27 games in 45 starts while posting a 2.45 GAA, .910 save percentage and four shutouts. If the Rangers get to him, '09 hero Semyon Varlamov is capable. So, while Henrik Lundqvist should give them an edge, it might not be as definitive considering the Caps' more defensive style.

Against the Devils, Drury, Wojtek Wolski, McDonagh, Extra Effort winner Brandon Prust and Vinny Prospal tallied. That kinda balance is exactly what the Rangers need to have a shot versus a talented top seeded Cap squad led by Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, that also boasts a strong supporting cast featuring Mike Knuble, Brooks Laich, Jason Arnott, Jason Chimera, Matt Hendricks, Eric Fehr, Matt Bradley and dangerous rookie Marcus Johansson. Indeed, the Caps are formidable and will want to prove the two humiliations (7-0 and 6-0) are a thing of the past. The Rangers took the season series 3-1, also edging Washington in a shootout 2-1 thanks to budding soph Artem Anisimov.

This is a team we match-up well against. Perhaps because they play similarly despite more talent, the Rangers think they can win. Having Lundqvist on our side helps but it cannot turn into two years ago where Washington controlled throughout, wearing out our goalie who didn't benefit from Tortorella's blow up or the Sean Avery controversy. I still doubt we win anyway. This year's club is deeper and more together. Better equipped to go toe to toe with Washington, who actually scored five fewer goals (219) than us (224). Subtracting the do everything Callahan will be tough to replace. That's why it's imperative for Gaborik to forget his awful regular season and just focus on the playoffs. The Rangers need him to be a game breaker. I have faith in everyone else, figuring Dubinsky, Anisimov, Stepan, Prospal, Brian Boyle and Prust will lead the way. Speaking of Boyle, his scoring slowed down but his importance is huge because his line injects energy and plays defensively responsible against top scoring lines. Can they slow down Ovechkin, who found his groove late? Being able to forecheck will be key.

It remains to be seen who Tortorella will start in Game One. Wolski certainly earned it along with Drury. So, we're guessing Avery's out while a more skilled guy like Zuccarello gets his first crack at the playoffs. I could see him going back to Eminger over Gilroy but that would hurt our team speed. We'll see. Does enigma Erik Christensen have any goals in him? He's the unknown. The talent's there. In a series like this, he could make a difference. Does Tort dare reunite Christy with Gabby and Prospal, trying to catch Lightning in a bottle?

I think the best aspect of this team is our D which won't have to rely as much on Marc Staal and Dan Girardi thanks to the stellar play of rookie tandem McDonagh and Mike Sauer. I know Tort will lean heavily on our top pair but he must not shy away from sticking with what's worked. It's the unflappable play of McDonagh and Sauer, our toughest D since Beuke- who are just as responsible for where we are. If there are no jitters, that top four should be a strength. We have better quickness than Washington. Particularly if Tortorella goes with Gilroy to play with Bryan McCabe, who needs to be a factor on the power play.

What I'd Like To See:




Who Concerns Me: Johansson cause he's a different player who has sick moves and is extremely dangerous. Our team is familiar with how to defend the Caps' Big Three. Johansson could be an X-factor along with gritty types Laich, Knuble, Arnott, etc. The Caps' depth hurt us last time.

What Must Happen: Big series for Gaborik, Dubinsky, Prospal, Anisimov, Staal, Girardi and Lundqvist.

Under Radar: The Boyle line has been a constant throughout. Their play will play a huge role in this series. Keep an eye on Stepan, who finished strong and looks poised for a good first round.

Special Teams: Power play and penalty kill are always important. Staying disciplined against the Caps is a must, even if we don't know how effective Green is if he goes. Let Lundqvist see the shots.

Intangibles: The Caps have something to prove, intent on finally reaching the Cup. The Rangers lost to them two years ago with at least seven players experiencing an excruciating loss. The longer the series goes, the better our chances.

Prediction: Minus Callahan, it'll be difficult to replace what he brings. This is the type of series he'd be huge in. I really believe we win if No.24 plays. I just feel too many things have to break right for us to prevail.

Caps in 6

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