If the Rangers had won five more games, this post would never have been written.
But now that they have fallen short of the ultimate prize again, let’s take a look at General Manager of the Year finalist Glen Sather’s scorecard over the last 15 months. And before I go any further, know that I’ve been effusive in my praise of Sather in recent years here, here and here. Sather deserves credit for building a contending core from the ground up, but what he’s done since just before the 2014 trade deadline has done more to harm than to help.
Sather has been all in – and justifiably so, given how close his club is to the Cup. But it’s the compounding of each mistake that has been crushing. Read More→
Who’s ready for another Game 7? I’m writing this as I watch the Blackhawks and Ducks duel, and it’s another reminder how much more enjoyable elimination games are when it’s not your team that’s playing. Tomorrow night is sure to be pure agony, at least until the final buzzer sounds. Then, hopefully, it will have been a ton of fun.
Since I can’t formulate coherent thoughts before this one, on to the musings:
– Though we can’t help but hope, there’s pretty much no chance Mats Zuccarello will play tomorrow. That said – if he were to practice today and was miraculously deemed game ready, where would he fit in the lineup? Zuccarello is not going to replace J.T. Miller in his old spot alongside Rick Nash and Derick Brassard after that trio produced 13 points in Game Six. Putting Zuccarello on the fourth line would obviously be a waste – but the same goes for Martin St. Louis, so slotting Zuc in on the third line and bumping MSL down doesn’t make sense either. The most likely hypothetical scenario would be to have Zuc replace Jesper Fast on the second line – but it’d be a real shame to banish Fast to fourth line Siberia with the way he’s played. Too bad it doesn’t matter.
– Speaking of Nash/Brassard/Miller, I did some quick addition after Tuesday’s game and noticed that the trio has accounted for 20 points in the series, just two fewer than the terrifying Triplets. Of course, 13 in one game skews that quite a bit, but hey, they did pretty much win that game singlehandedly (with help from Hank). You can show me all the statistics you want that say “clutch” isn’t real, but I refuse to believe it, and Brassard is a perfect counterexample.
I rarely listen to sports talk radio, but I tuned into the ESPN postgame show on Saturday as I drove home. It was shocking to hear fan after fan declare that this was sure to be a “quick series,” that the Rangers had clearly established their superiority and that it was nearly impossible to imagine a scenario in which the Lightning had a chance. All this after a 2-1 victory.
Granted, the Blueshirts played extremely well in Game One and deserved a more lopsided result, but the cockiness of Ranger fans was still incredible to behold.
Monday’s 6-2 beatdown seems to have quashed that, and once again the faithful and media alike are questioning Rick Nash’s performance, Martin St. Louis’ place in the lineup and even Henrik Lundqvist (seriously?). Read More→
We all know where things stand, and at this point further analysis seems pointless.
The reality of a win-or-go-home game is that a single bounce can end your season – or extend it.
As most expected, Washington has given New York all it can handle over the last two weeks. The Blueshirts’ affinity for one-goal games has gotten extremely annoying, but it’s unlikely to change tonight. Read More→
– I thought Monday was among Rick Nash’s best games of the year, and by far his best of the playoffs. Nash has been far better this postseason compared to last, but he’s still not finishing. That doesn’t make Nash a bad player, but it also means New York is going to have a tough time winning.
– Braden Holtby has been dominant. And yeah, the Rangers didn’t get nearly enough traffic in front of him early in Game 3, but Holtby has been in hero mode for the whole postseason. While goaltending issues have arisen for several other supposed contenders, Holtby has climbed close to the top of the list when you think about the league’s best netminders.
– I still think The Ghost of Marty St. Louis has one signature moment left, but he’s really fighting it. He’s a far cry from Mats Zuccarello on the top line, but luckily young bucks like Jesper Fast have been picking up some of the slack.
– Zuccarello’s absence has been evident from the opening puck drop of the series. The Blueshirts are an extremely deep team and could withstand most injuries, but Zuccarello is about as irreplaceable as it gets.
– Alex Ovechkin is terrifying. He didn’t even register a point on Monday night and his fingerprints were all over the game. The saying “you have to know where he is on every shift” is cliche and overused, but it absolutely applies to The Great 8 right now. This might be the best he’s ever played.
– One of the big knocks on the Capitals has been their lack of solid depth players behind Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, but it’s hard to understand when you see the contributions guys like Joel Ward, Jason Chimera and Jay Beagle make. Adding Evgeny Kuznetsov to the mix has been absolutely huge for Washington, too.
– Let’s not forget about Eric Fehr, who is still expected to return in this series. Fehr isn’t nearly as important to Washington as Zuccarello is to the Rangers, but he’s a solid secondary scorer that will only extend the Capitals’ lineup.
– I wrote about it last week, but the way the Caps play now is so reminiscent of John Tortorella’s Rangers. They keep you to the outside, block shots, play physical, outhustle you and have the star goaltender to hold it all together. The 2-1 deficit here isn’t because the Blueshirts are doing much wrong, it’s because Washington is a very, very good team.
– I thought this would go seven, and I still do.
Though it seems like the Rangers and Capitals clash in the playoffs every year, this Washington team is very different than the one the Blueshirts have met three times in the last four postseasons.
In some ways, the roles have been reversed. Whereas John Tortorella’s Black and Blueshirts were known for their grind it out style and fearless defense, former Capitals squads possessed all-world skill but lacked a winning mentality. Now it is Alain Vigneault’s team that is known for its speed and skill while Washington has adapted a more gritty defense-first style.
You only needed to watch the clinic the Caps put on in Monday’s pivotal Game 7 against the Islanders when they allowed just 11 shots to see the marked difference. Read More→
The Blueshirts had pushed their chips to the middle of the table and with Henrik Lundqvist now 33 and reaching an age when he could logically be expected to decline, sacrificing draft picks and prized prospects at the expense of the team’s future was no longer of much concern.
The looming salary cap crunch meant a difficult decision lay ahead this summer between key free agents Derek Stepan, Carl Hagelin and Martin St. Louis, followed by another class of increasingly expensive FAs in 2016 including Yandle, Chris Kreider and Kevin Hayes.
But the late stages of the season and the start of the playoff run have changed things. Specifically, Lightning legends St. Louis and Boyle have quickly drifted from critical veteran cogs to afterthoughts, while the figurative torch has been passed to young emerging Blueshirts.
It was once assumed that Hagelin would be the odd man out this summer, but now it’s almost impossible to imagine the organization choosing to retain St. Louis over the Swedish speedster (although St. Louis could still re-sign for a bonus-laden veteran deal). Boyle likely plans to conclude his career when his deal expires following next season anyway, but the hole he’ll leave has already been patched with a much younger power play ace in Yandle.
The Blueshirts will still be up against the cap even subtracting these two players, but their young players are already exceeding the price tags of their rookie deals and have fortified the club’s core.
Jesper Fast and J.T. Miller were both terrific in the season’s final weeks and have continued that strong play into the postseason, while Kevin Hayes has only scratched the surface of his potential. Other young pieces like Kreider and Derek Stepan will bloom on Broadway for years to come. And there are still a couple more blue-chip prospects to come, with Pavel Buchnevich and Brady Skjei potentially joining the fray as soon as next season. Heck, if it were possible, plugging in Buchnevich and Skjei for St. Louis and Boyle might make the Blueshirts better right now.
To go on a playoff run, a team needs solid goaltending first and foremost. It needs to stay healthy, and a good bit of luck. And it needs contributions from up and down the lineup.When the game inevitably tightens up in crunch time, the snipers and playmaking artists are often mitigated in favor of greasy goals with traffic in front of the net. They tend to come from unlikely sources – cement-handed Brian Boyle was among New York’s most dependable postseason scorers in recent years.
So who are the candidates to become overnight heroes this spring? Ignoring the top offensive guys – and that now most certainly includes J.T. Miller and Kevin Hayes – here are the cases for the grinders:
James Sheppard – GM Glen Sather made a point of noting Sheppard’s performance in last year’s playoffs when he scored six points in seven games against the eventual champion Kings. Sheppard has a nose for the net, which works to his advantage this time of year. The biggest thing working against Becky’s latest crush is his spot on the depth chart – there’s no guarantee he’ll even dress for many games.
Rick Nash – just kidding (kind of).
The Presidents’ Trophy is a nice feather in Alain Vigneault’s cap and deserved recognition for the remarkable regular season the Rangers are about to complete. But is it really worth anything?
All the trophy does is extend the home-ice advantage earned by winning the conference for one more round, and of course that only matters if the team actually reaches the Stanley Cup Final.
The power of home-ice advantage in the postseason has dwindled in recent years. Its value is considered to be greatest in pivotal Game Sevens, but since the 2004-2005 lockout the road team is actually 21-19 in those deciding games.
Miller finally found a home when he was deployed alongside Hayes and Carl Hagelin on a third line that developed instant chemistry. And when the Blueshirts traded Lee Stempniak and Anthony Duclair, Miller’s position was virtually guaranteed for the rest of the season. That regular spot in the lineup seems to have been the confidence boost Miller needed to settle in as an NHL regular and take his game to the next level.
Since then, he’s gotten better and better. In March Miller trailed just Hayes, Mats Zuccarello and Chris Kreider in P/60 and ranked seventh on the team in SCF% (by War-on-Ice’s definition). Miller earned a promotion to the second line in the wake of Marty St. Louis’ injury and has fit right in.