Last postseason when the Rangers were on their magical run to the Stanley Cup Final, I penned articles molded similarly to Elliotte Friedman's '30 thoughts' column. Now the Rangers are back in the postseason and trying to change the ending following last year's Final loss to the Los Angeles Kings. Moving forward this postseason as long as the Rangers are involved I plan on posting my thoughts after every 2-3 games. Here's the first installment:
1. Let's start off with some optimism and pessimism mixed together into one thought. The series being tied 1-1 after two games is not surprising, nor should it be all that concerning. The Penguins are a much better team than they are given credit for, even with their AHL defense playing on the big stage. What should be concerning, however, is the way the Rangers lost game two. After an easily forgettable first period resulted in a Rangers 1-0 lead, the confidence was there in the home squad to finally come out with a victory in a home Game Two.
Unfortunately this is the Rangers we are talking about here, so of course the second period resulted in a debacle. The truth is the Rangers are a terrific hockey team and past results cannot be used to determine the current team's abilities, but all of that goes out the window when considering the Rangers chances of winning a Game Two, apparently. The Penguins came out in the second period flying and looking like a desperate hockey team. One would have liked to have seen the Rangers match that intensity, knowing they could have gone up 2-0 in the series heading into Pittsburgh, but instead the Blueshirts looked for shortcuts and tried to make the pretty plays rather than sticking to the gameplan. As the Rangers deviated from the plan, the Penguins took advantage, taking a 3-1 lead going into the third period. I'll have more on the specific goals in a bit, but Pittsburgh made the Rangers look like deer in headlights in that second period, something the Rangers need to avoid in the future.
Game One was a different story, while the Rangers did not necessarily look dominant, they looked like a decidedly better team than the Penguins. This should serve as some confidence moving forward for what the teams capabilities are in the series.
2. The main reasons the Rangers lost Saturday night: communication, desperation, and special teams. Starting with communication, it is completely unacceptable that Sidney Crosby ever skated to the net unattended, but somehow the Rangers managed to let it happen twice. That can't happen. The last thing the team needs is for Crosby to get hot and take over the series.
Desperation was covered in the first thought, so let's move ahead to special teams. I saw many groaning when the Rangers received power-plays Saturday, which is funny when meant as a joke, but when meant seriously I struggle to understand how one could think that way. While there is the possibility of momentum shifting to the other team in the case of a successful kill, the majority of the time momentum shifts to the team on the power-play and every time the Rangers are on the power-play is time the Rangers are controlling puck possession.
The power-plays were mostly ugly, except for a couple of them the man advantage resulted in the Rangers holding the puck and getting much needed opportunities. With every opportunity comes increased chances of scoring, and eventually puck luck should help get the puck in the net. Down 3-1 in the third, the Rangers finally capitalized on a power-play opportunity with a Derick Brassard goal. Immediately following the goal the Rangers were once again on the power-play, and came within inches of tying the game on a Derek Stepan shot that went past Marc-Andre Fleury and off of the post. When that power-play ended the Rangers were controlling play, the crowd was going wild, and the momentum was fully shifted to favor the home team. Then came what essentially ended the game.
3. Game Two ended the second Kevin Hayes was penalized in the third period. The momentum was gone, the Rangers were deflated, and the Penguins were energized. Pittsburgh made good on their opportunity, increasing their lead to two goals. Hayes has not had a good pair of games so far and some are pointing to the college rookie wall, but I want to see more games before calling it. Hayes' penalty in the third period did put the Rangers in a hole they could not climb out of, however, and I both hope and think Hayes learned his lesson there. In addition, it would behoove the Rangers to look at the Penguins work on an important power-play and how much of an edge that gave them in game two and try to figure out how to get to that point themselves. No team can win a series when getting as outplayed on special teams as the Rangers have.
4. The idea that the Rangers lost the game because of the phantom call on Carl Hagelin in the second period is hilarious at best, especially when considering the referees missed a delay of game that should have been called on Dan Girardi about a minute later. Yes, they missed both calls and yes, that is unfortunate. But c'mon.
5. Speaking of Dan Girardi, he had a fantastic first game that gave me a lot of confidence moving forward about this team. I think the offense is a reliable bunch that you know what you will get out of, but the defense is a series of wild cards. At their best the six d-men for the Rangers are the best six in the league, but one cannot rely on the six to be at their best. In Game One Girardi, Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal, and Keith Yandle all were terrific, and the Rangers won. In Game Two McDonagh failed to cover Crosby, Girardi lazily passed the puck around the boards nearly leading to a goal--twice, and Staal and Yandle were pretty much average as the Rangers lost. This team needs the defense to be on their game or they won't go very far in the playoffs.
6. You may have noticed Dan Boyle's name missing from the last thought. Boyle was the subject of a lot of scorn that I regret my role in during the regular season, as he played a lot better than fans-including myself- gave him credit for. However, if it is possible for a two game stretch to undo a seasons work, I would write a dissertation on just how awful Boyle has been this series. Turnovers, covering the wrong man, letting the Penguins skate past him, around him, you name it and Boyle has done it. Much like Hayes I will hope it is just a poor two game stretch and not any kind of fatigue, but Boyle cannot play the way he has unless the Rangers want to play with five capable defensemen.
7. Henrik Lundqvist has been fine. I think saying he has been great or any strongly positive adjective would be stretching it a bit, but he has done his job. Do not even entertain the thought that there is even a 1% chance Cam Talbot starts a game this post-season unless Hank is hurt. It is not happening, nor should it be. As for the goalie in the other net, much like Lundqvist I think Fleury has been fine. I would actually give Fleury the edge through two, as he has had to make some tougher saves and kept the Penguins in game one. That being said, both goalies have played better than their stats have indicated, and I think (hope?) Fleury will give up a few softies as he always does. We shall see.
8. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are the two best players on either team and they must be treated as such. I would like to see Dominic Moore get more ice time against Crosby specifically, and the Martin St. Louis line spend less time on the ice when either of the two pivots are on. In addition to that, it would be nice if the Rangers looked to their in-state rivals for some ideas of how to stop the Penguins offense, though five goals against in two games is not terrible at all.
Against Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals, the Islanders suffocated their opponents in the defensive zone. The puck has been kept to the outside thanks to strategically placed sticks, and passing lanes have been blocked while shooting lanes are covered by bodies. Understanding that sounds like the most simple strategy in hockey, I have noticed the Rangers playing off of the Penguins a bit, choosing to strategically block shots rather than preemptively blocking passes and getting in the way so the Penguins cannot have prime opportunities.
9. Last year McDonagh led the Rangers in scoring as the team went all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, and Daryl Sutter called McDonagh the "Rangers' Doughty." This year McDonagh has two points in two games, but did fail to cover Crosby in Game Two on multiple occasions. I expect McDonagh to come out with another game one-like performance tonight, and that is something that the Rangers definitely need. With the unpredictability of the rest of the defense, McDonagh must be the steady d-man that can be counted on for an offensive touch while playing 20-25 tough minutes a night.
Something that has helped and will continue to help McDonagh is the emergence of Yandle. Yandle has cut down on the unforced turnovers he was prone to in Arizona, and looks excellent on the power-play and even in his own zone. When at his best, Yandle has shown he could be the second best defenseman on the team. That added weapon could be huge moving forward.
10. McDonagh was the Rangers' poster boy for their run last post-season, finally gaining appreciation across the league as an all-star caliber defenseman. While the Rangers will need a run for anyone to become this year's McDonagh, working under the assumption the Rangers do make that run, I believe this year that player will be Derick Brassard.
Brassard played like a first line center in the regular season, reaching the 60 point plateau with relatively little fanfare. He has looked terrific through the first two games of the post-season, and will need to continue that play, especially on the power-play. If the Rangers go far, Brassard will have a big part in it.
With all of my thoughts listed, it is time for some optimism. I went into the series expecting the Rangers to be tied 1-1 after two, and I haven't seen anything alarming that would cause me to think the Rangers are doomed. Even if this series goes seven it is important to acknowledge that this is not a bad Penguins team, but just a banged up group of talented players. That being said, I stand by my original pick: Rangers in 6. Let's go Rangers!