It’s easy to get lost in the playoffs when games come thick and fast but there’s been a few other things going on in Ranger-land aside from the absorbing Tampa – Rangers series. Shocking I know. Let’s have a quick catch up.
Glen Sather was nominated for the GM of the year award this week. Deservedly so. The Rangers have played the most playoff games (73) in a four year stretch and this is the third year in that period they’ve gone to at least the Conference finals. Sather has his faults (a lot of them) but he’s done a great job in recent years, perhaps none more recently than this year that included the Presidents Trophy.
Chris Kreider still isn’t perfect. He still has a lot of growing to do, he takes himself out of plays looking for (but often finding) big hits and until recently, many fans and media alike have demanded more consistency from a player who literally has everything in his tool kit. Hell, Kreider takes too many penalties and isn’t exactly Selke material in his own zone either. In short, there are warts to his game.
The Rangers evened the series against the Lightning with a gusty albeit imperfect win. They were shaky at the back, had to over rely on a brilliant Henrik Lundqvist and will have been delighted that Rick Nash had a breakout offensive performance but one thing is becoming more regular for the Rangers in the playoffs and that’s the development of Kreider.
It’s a good job Rick Nash gets paid a boat load of money because he’s having to put up with a lot of criticism since the playoffs began. Once again, the Rangers play their biggest game of the season in Tampa Bay tonight, looking to right the many wrongs of the game two stinker. A considerable amount of scrutiny will face Nash as the Rangers have now arrived at the point where good performances, great two-way play and timely assists from Nash are no longer enough. His lack of goals have surely become a major distraction and are now the elephant in the room. Win or loss.
Nash has to score. He has to score because the media demand it, the Rangers need it and because everyone know Tampa have the offence to score at will. Not helping Nash is the fact that Tampa’s superstar Steven Stamkos has found his game after a difficult start to the playoffs and Tyler (undrafted) Johnson has dominated the playoffs and has been an absolute beast against the Rangers. Given Nash’s 42 goal season, coupled with his seemingly annual playoff regression, seeing the opponents’ most important goal scorers raise their games at the most critical moments will be particularly jarring for Nash and fodder for the mob who are happy to criticise Nash.
It’s easy to write positively about an individual when that player has just scored an enormous, game winning goal in the biggest game of the season to date. However, since returning to the Rangers Dominic Moore has been absolutely everything the Rangers could have hoped for and more. He has been an example to the younger players, he’s been a defensive rock, a rare shining light at face-offs for a team so inept at them and he has been unexpectedly productive, particularly when games have mattered most. All this for the comparatively bargain $1.5m per year. In many ways Dominic Moore is the ideal bottom six role player.
We can break down Moore’s production (27 points, in a primarily defensive role) and discuss the penalty kill influence and face-off efficiencies he has but perhaps the biggest advantage of having Moore in the line-up has yet to be felt. While Moore is a veteran at 34 he is not long in the tooth and the Rangers have at least one more year of Moore as it currently stands. Moore’s presence in the line-up, his unquestioned work ethic and his ability to lead by example may be keenly felt for the remainder of this playoff run but also beyond this season.
With the Rangers stunning victory over the Capitals now in the history books, attention will now turn to the Eastern Conference finals and opponents Rangers South Tampa Bay. There’ll be a more thorough look ahead to the ECF over the next couple days but let’s throw up some quick hits about the matchup with the high octane Lightning.
The Rangers can’t progress past the Lightning if they play the way they did against the Caps. The Rangers never-give-up attitude was admirable, their play at times impressive but individual errors, inconsistency and a lack of a 60 minute effort in any of the seven games against the Caps will be more ruthlessly punished against Tampa.
Somehow the Rangers managed to outlast Braden Holtby. That was after they ran into a hot goalie in Marc Andre Fleury in round one. It begs the question, are the Rangers struggling to finish or have they really faced two exceptional goalies on a hot streak? Where does Ben Bishop sit amongst opposing goaltenders?
The Rangers will be mightily relieved that Ryan McDonagh didn’t sustain a shoulder injury in Monday’s game six victory as, after an inconsistent start to the playoffs, the Rangers captain has improved after each and every game. The proof is in the pudding and the pudding is Alex Ovechkin. The Capitals captain has been a factor of course, whether it through his physical play (as McDonagh himself can attest to) or the mere fact he’s constantly throwing pucks toward the net but his influence has been minimized in large part because of Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi.
McDonagh has not only scored a huge, game winning goal in the series that kept the Rangers’ season alive (indeed, both of his goals this postseason have stood up as game winners) but McDonagh has been on the ice in almost every critical situation for the Rangers including the dying moments of game six when McDonagh was the one who eventually cleared the puck to ice the game. McDonagh wasn’t a factor early in the series but his influence has surely been felt as the series has progressed.
McDonagh leads all players in ice time in this series (averaging 24:22 minutes per game) and while he’s not been at his very best his form is certainly pointing in the right direction. At time of writing only four players remaining in the playoffs have averaged more ice time than McDonagh and three of those are on a Blackhawks team that have already played two multiple overtime games this spring.
Derick Brassard has developed beyond all reasonable expectations for the Rangers this season. Brassard’s regular season alone (full of career highs) justified Glen Sather’s faith in the talented pivot last summer and one year into his new five year deal has his 5m cap hit looking like a bargain. If the cap ceiling goes up anytime soon Brassard will look even better value moving forward.
Brassard is a huge reason why the Rangers enter Wednesday’s game seven showdown against the Capitals with a chance to return to the conference finals in back to back seasons. Brassard leads the team in points, goals, powerplay points and shooting percentage amongst main offensive statistics. He’s quietly doing it all for the Rangers during a postseason where his team have struggled to score consistently. His performances over the past two playoffs, but particularly this postseason show a player that, while not perfect, is continuing to improve and who has produced on the biggest stage.
Sorry for the lack of a detailed game breakdown, the kind you get to enjoy from Dave. Dave had the audacity not to watch game five and I haven’t the time to do a full write up either but wanted to pass on some thoughts on the game so here we go. First, a very quick look at how the game was won.
The Rangers have scored eighteen goals in ten playoff games. Needless to say, that’s an incredibly low total and would usually mean golf tee-times booked by now but the Rangers have managed to extend their season at least one more game. The Rangers did so by sticking to their game plan, admirably never panicking and allowing their defense to continue to play aggressively.
After two frustrating periods, the Rangers seemed set for the start of the summer as another defensive gaffe by the Rangers (this time Keith Yandle choosing a horrible time to pinch) saw the Caps break in two-on-oh against Henrik Lundqvist midway through the third. Lundqvist saved Curtis Glencross’ initial shot but couldn’t save the rebound which Glencross chipped up over Lundqvist to give the Caps the lead.
The Rangers never relented and tied the game as the clock was about to strike twelve. Keith Yandle, somewhat redeeming his costly error on the Caps goal, got the puck to Derek Stepan who circled back along the left boards in the Caps zone and dropped the puck to Chris Kreider whose shot through traffic took an oh so minor deflection before beating Holtby. Queue pandemonium. Queue overtime.
Two games in and Rick Nash has been good against the Capitals. Whether good is enough to win a Cup is another debate but the best part about Nash so far is that he appears to be getting better as the series develops.
Nash’s lack of goals in the postseason is an issue, of course it is. When your 42 goal regular season scorer, highest paid skater and go-to forward isn’t filling the net it’s an issue. However while Nash plays well and continues to make game influencing plays like he did in game two it’s fine, the Rangers can cope with this issue better than most teams in the league. If Alex Ovechkin suddenly stopped scoring (that would be nice) the Caps would be in trouble as the Caps can’t match the Rangers in depth; there’s a major difference in how the teams are constructed.
The Hartford Wolf Pack squeezed into the second round of the AHL playoffs Friday night with a come from behind 3-2 victory over Providence. Thanks to the overtime win, Hartford won the series 3-2 after being 2-1 down and having struggled to solve the Bruins’ goaltending almost all series.
Defenseman Tommy Hughes scored the series clinching goal just over four minutes into overtime after Chris Mueller’s second powerplay goal of the game tied it with under a minute to play in the third period. Oscar Lindberg, who had struggled to produce offense all series, came up huge in the series decider as he assisted on all three WolfPack goals. The assists were his first points in a series where each game was decided by one goal. Lindberg also had seven shots on net as he made a real impression on the game.
Apart from Lindberg, who continues to grow into a solid Rangers prospect, other prospects of note included Brady Skjei who put four shots on net and Chris Bourque (who can’t really be counted as a prospect but I digress) who grabbed two assists including on the game winner. McKenzie Skapski was back on the bench for Hartford. The ‘Pack will play Wilkes- Barre/Scranton, the Pens affiliate in the next round. The Baby Pens swept their opening round series against Syracuse.
How the Pack’s progress into the second round influences the Rangers’ decision to call up a forward is yet to be seen and may depend on the scheduling of the AHL’s second round. Here’s a GIF of the OT winner, courtesy of Adam Herman.