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…
If it wasn’t for the absurd start to this season by Chicago, the hockey world might be more aware of what an absolute wrecking ball the Pittsburgh Penguins are. This team is bursting at the seams with talent, to the extent that it could lose Crosby, Malkin, Neal and Letang for extended periods of time throughout the season and still run away with the conference. Fortunately, most of the Pens talent lies up front.
Aside from the circus that was the Pittsburgh/Philadelphia series last season, generally speaking, the playoffs are an offensively depressed environment. This is really the biggest weakness for Pitt. Aside from Brooks Orpik, none of the Pens defenders are particularly good, well, defensively. Marc-Andre Fleury is another performance wild card. The Flower has had an solid, but unexceptional year and although I am a big fan of his talent, he is prone to streaky play and has a tendency to fall apart after a bad goal or two.
From a systems standpoint, the Penguins play the same 2-1-2 forecheck that the Rangers employ, and a hybrid strong side overload/low zone collapse in their own end. They utilize the standard umbrella powerplay and diamond penalty kill that most NHL squads prefer. As Dave mentioned the last time these teams met, there are no surprises here.
The Bruins are a strange case. They are obviously a well constructed, talented roster, but part of me thinks they might be the best matchup for the Rangers. The Bruins have the offensive talent to play a run and gun style, but generally speaking, they play a more defensively responsible system, as their 1-2-2 and 1-4 hybrid trap will show. They are used to playing low-scoring, tight checking games and picking their spots on the counter.
Boston employs several large players on the blue line, which is the backbone of their physical style. They don’t call them the big, bad Bruins for nothing. Zdeno Chara is likely to make life difficult for Rick Nash, which means the team’s new found offensive balance will have to play a major role in any Rangers’ victory.
Tuukka Rask is having a quietly Vezina caliber season in Boston and is quickly emerging as a borderline elite number-one starter. He’s not going to make it easy on any opponent the B’s take on the first round. And none of this even touches on Milan Lucic, Tyler Seguin, or Brad Marchand. The Bruins are a deep team.
The Caps are a difficult team to nail down. After an absolutely dreadful start under freshman coach Adam Oates, it seems the team is starting to drink the kool-aid. His systems are complicated, as every basic system the Caps run is a hybrid of some sort. Oates employs a hybrid 1-2-2/2-1-2 forecheck, a hybrid overload/low zone collapse defense, and a hybrid 1-3-1/umbrella powerplay. The only thing simple is their diamond penalty kill. You can see why it took 20 games for the lads to get it all sorted.
And while all of this was happening, Alex Ovechkin got an Olympian fiancee, a buzz cut, went gray and all of a sudden finds himself at the top of the NHL’s goal scoring race. Braden Holtby has started to reign in his aggressiveness and round into form, and should be a very difficult assignment.
The Caps are probably the most flawed team the Rangers could matchup against from a roster construction standpoint, but are well coached, dangerous offensively and heating up at the right time.
The Habs are probably the least likely matchup for the Rangers in the first round. They currently sit at 61pts, tied with Boston, who has a game in hand. The Habs do have the tie breaker on regulation wins, but only by one. The team that ultimately emerges will get the number two seed and the Northeast Division title, and the other will take the number four seed, and a date with the Leafs.
As we all know, the Habs have been an absolute nightmare for the Rangers recently, and the Bell Centre has been a house of horrors for our beloved goaltender. The Canadiens are small, quick, aggressive and seem to just have the Rangers number, especially in their own barn.
From an X’s and O’s standpoint, they are another group that uses hybrid systems. Under new coach Michel Therrien, the Habs utilize a hybrid 1-2-2/2-1-2 forecheck, similar to the Caps. Their defensive system is a little different. They use an overload strategy at first, mostly due to their overall team size to force turnovers along the wall. Once the opposing team gains control, they switch to a low zone collapse.
The extent to which the discussion has focused on team systems shows how the Habs do not heavily rely on a small group of superstar players. They have some very good ones; Brian Gionta, Tomas Plekanec, Rene Bourque and presumable Norris finalist PK Subban, but they play a very team oriented game. Also, although he has struggled of late, Carey Price is still one of the best goalies in the NHL. This is a very dangerous team.
In the “new” NHL where parity is king, there are no “good” playoff matchups in the traditional sense. Given the scorching hot play of the Caps, our difficulties with Montreal and the general awesomeness of Pittsburgh, I guess I’ll take Boston by default. But you know what they say, you reap what you sow…
What do you think BSB faithful? Now that the Blueshirts have locked up a spot in the dance, who is your preferred first round matchup? Sound off in the comments below.