Pick a team, any team…
With the Rangers finally clinching a playoff spot last night with their win over Carolina, the final game of the season against the Devils has lost some significance. Don’t get me wrong, I’m tremendously grateful that the boys from Newark don’t get to play spoiler against us a week after we eliminated them from postseason contention. However, the game could be important when it comes to shuffling out the bottom of the Eastern Conference deck.
The Rangers, Islanders and Senators currently sit 6-8 in the East with 54 points. The Sens hold a game in hand on both the Rangers and Isles. At the moment, the Rangers hold the tiebreaker with 21 regulation wins to the Senators’ and Islanders’ 20. As we know, the Rangers only remaining opponent is New Jersey on Saturday, while the Isles only have lowly Buffalo remaining, and Ottawa has Philly and Boston. The final few games could have the bottom three spots in the conference shake out in a number of ways.
This got me thinking, out of the four possible opponents for the Blueshirts in the first round, is there really a preferred matchup? As the standings currently, well, stand, the Rangers could potentially matchup against Pittsburgh, Boston, Washington, or slightly less likely Montreal. Let’s have a gander at how the Rangers match up against each one…
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Still control their own fate.
The Rangers lost last night. It happens. They dominated the game, but still fell short to an inferior team. It happens. The Blackhawks had their record streak broken by the 29th best team in the league this season. The Rangers lost to the worst team in the league. A team that has still won 13 games this season. It happens.
What is more important is that the Jets lost. What is more important is that the Rangers control their own destiny. What is more important is that the Rangers’ magic number is at two. What is more important is that any combination of the Rangers getting two points in their final two games OR the Jets losing two points in their final game (remember, the Rangers have a game in hand) and the Rangers qualify for the playoffs.
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Photo credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke
The Rangers still sit in the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference, one point back of the Islanders, and two points ahead of the Winnipeg/Washington faction with a game in hand. Excuse me for getting ahead of myself here, but looking at the Rangers upcoming schedule and position in the standings, I am 100% confident that this club will make the playoffs. At this point, it’s about jockeying for playoff seeding.
At this point, seeds 1-5 are essentially a given. The #1 seed will be Pittsburgh. The #2 seed will be either Boston or Montreal. The #3 seed will be either Washington or Winnipeg. The #4 seed is either Boston or Montreal, and the #5 seed is Toronto. Toronto is the only team that could be unseated from their spot, but it’s unlikely any of Ottawa, the Islanders, or the Rangers are capable of doing that this late in the season.
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Barton Silverman/The New York Times
The Ottawa Senators nabbed the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference last season with 92 points in 82 games. That works out to an average of 1.12 points per contest, which equates to roughly 53 points in a lockout-shortened 48-game season.
In 2010-2011, 93 points was enough to grant the Blueshirts the final playoff spot, which is on pace with the Sens last season. In 2009-2010, 88 points sealed the deal, which is a little off the 1.12 mark set by the Rangers and Sens in previous years. Using this math, we can assume that the mid 50s is a reasonable target to earn a playoff spot again this year.
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*All playoff stats through three rounds
- Henrik Lundqvist posted a sparkling .930 SV% this season, a ratio that has only been achieved 14 other times in NHL history by goalies that have played 40 games or more. (via @b1rky)
- Lundqvist during the regular season: 39-18-5, 1.97 GAA, .930 SV%, 8 SO
- Lundqvist during the postseason: 10-10, 1.82 GAA, .931 SV%, 3 SO
- Goal support during the regular season: 2.7 goals per game
- Goal support during the playoffs: 2.15 goals per game
- Dan Girardi led all NHL defensemen in playoff scoring with 12 points (3 goals, 9 assists).
- The Rangers’ leader in Corsi rating for the postseason? That would be Boston College’s own Chris Kreider, who posted a 15.49 rating.
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I have to apologize for this being a bit tardy. The loss to the Devils stung, and it took me a bit to write this objectively.
So here we are. It’s late May, and the Rangers playoff run has come to an end. No matter how much a bitter fan wants to spin it, this was a miraculous season. The Rangers simply were not supposed to be this good so early. I had them penciled in to make this run next year, after a full year of Chris Kreider, and after kids like Michael Del Zotto and Derek Stepan got some years under their belts. But this year? Total shock, and a great ride.
But with that great ride came expectations. Ottawa was a tough draw, but if the Rangers can get past them, then the rest should be a breeze. After all, the Bruins were gone and the Penguins were gone. Those were the only two teams that had a realistic shot at beating the Rangers, right? Even the Caps were a tough draw, but the Rangers were just better.
Peter Deboer made the difference for the Devils. He didn’t necessarily out-coach John Tortorella, but he made the correct adjustments and utilized his club’s outstanding depth to exploit the Rangers’ weaknesses. That was something Ottawa and Washington could not do. The Devils were the deeper team, and the Devils came out on top.
Even still, this is like dealing with the five stages of grief. So let’s walk through my emotions over the past few days.
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This one stings. It’s going to sting for a while. The Rangers were the best team in the Eastern Conference, but the best team does not always win. Even the best teams struggle with matchups, the best teams have clunkers, the best teams hit skids. The Rangers were barely playing above .500 hockey heading into the playoffs (11-9-1 in March/April), and played .500 hockey in the playoffs. That doesn’t get it done in May.
The Rangers were victimized by matchups in the playoffs. Ottawa and Washington were the toughest draws the Rangers could get in the first round, and they wound up facing both of them. Ottawa victimized the Rangers with skill and speed, and the Rangers escaped because they were the better team. Washington, a team like the Rangers, made life difficult with great goaltending and team defense. A Joel Ward double minor helped the Rangers escape that series.
But perhaps the team that the Rangers didn’t match up against at all were the Devils. It was something no one could see coming. It’s simple really. The Devils during the regular season generally played a 1-2-2 hybrid trap. They forechecked when needed, but generally just clogged the neutral zone. They changed their style in April. As Suit mentioned in the series preview, the Devils started employing the tactic the Rangers use: the 2-1-2 aggressive forecheck. The switch worked.
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It’s amazing how quickly someone becomes an afterthought in this league. When Michael Sauer went down with his concussion, it seemed the world had ended. Marc Staal was still out, Sauer was out, and in the following week Jeff Woywitka and Steve Eminger would both suffer injuries. The Rangers were forced to rely on unknown Stu Bickel to play regular minutes to fill out the blue line. Bickel impressed and the rest, as they say, is history.
But it’s not history. Fast forward five months and we have the playoffs, where Bickel is still dressing in almost every game for the Rangers. But the problem is that he rarely cracks five minutes of ice time per game, even when games head into overtime or triple overtime. For all intents and purposes, the Rangers are playing with five defensemen.
When Bickel does get on the ice, he is often caught out of position, his inexperience and lack of foot speed exploited by more experienced and skilled playoff competitors. Stephen Gionta’s goal on Wednesday night was evidence of a player that is still developing and learning the position at the NHL level. Thus, coach John Tortorella is forced to play his more experienced players and sit Bickel. It’s a vicious cycle that leaves the Rangers with five defensemen.
In the playoffs, depth becomes the most important factor. Players grow tired –both physically and mentally– and need more time to recover. With just five defensemen, the Rangers don’t have that luxury. And it makes you wonder: Would they be in this position if Mike Sauer was in the lineup?
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This series may be tied, and the Rangers are getting outplayed by the Devils. But the most alarming aspect of this series is in the form of the box score: Outside of Chris Kreider and Ruslan Fedotenko, no Ranger forward has a non-empty net goal. Kreider has three goals and Fedotenko has one. As for those empty netters, Artem Anisimov has one and Ryan Callahan has one.
The other goal scorers for the Rangers? Dan Girardi (2) and Marc Staal (1), both defensemen. In fact, only four players have scored a non-empty net goal for the Rangers. Just two players have had a multi goal series.
Alarmingly absent from this list: Brad Richards, Marian Gaborik, Carl Hagelin, and Michael Del Zotto, who have all been held scoreless. If you want to stick with non-empty net goals, add Cally and Anisimov to that list.
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Brendan Shanahan may have done the Rangers a huge favour by suspending Brandon Prust for game four. In the past few years no team has better utilized an ‘us against the world’ mentality better than the NFL’s New York Giants. Consistently written off by the media, the Giants used that apparent lack of respect and turned it into a huge motivating factor that helped win two Superbowls. They played with a chip on their shoulders.
In many ways the blatant inconsistencies so evident in the NHL’s disciplinary this post season and grievances the Rangers have had throughout the playoffs can be used the same way the Giants used the lack of respect to strive for success. The Rangers; such a close knit, team-first-individual-second kind of team will use the absence of Prust the right way. They won’t be crying over the suspension.
Coach Tortorella has been more than vocal in his disdain for the way Brendan ‘losing league-wide respect by the second’ Shanahan has ruled over his players and the way the NHL’s VP of player safety so often hasn’t ruled against others.
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