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Stanley Cup Preview: Rangers vs. Kings

Marian Gaborik is shooting at a ridiculous 18.5% in the playoffs

Fans are so deliriously happy with the New York Rangers that the two biggest sources of outrage leading up to Game One were over

A) the NHL Shop’s handling of mistakenly priced $63 jerseys that eager fans tried to buy by the truckload, only to have their orders canceled,

and

B) the secondary market ticket prices north of $1,500 for games at Madison Square Garden that prompted some fans to ponder whether it was a more sensible option to fly cross-country to see the team on the road in Los Angeles at a “discount” price-tag exceeding $1,200.

That’s the kind of frenzy New Yorkers are in right now over the team’s hockey team, 20 years removed from its last appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals.

The undeniable truth of the matter is that the Rangers are facing a superior team. The Los Angeles Kings won a Stanley Cup two seasons ago and have been to the Western Conference Finals in each of the last three seasons.

To get here, they had to defeat the gauntlet of San Jose, Anaheim and Chicago, who combined for a regular season record of 151-63-32 (in comparison to the combined record of the Flyers, Penguins and Canadiens of 139-82-25). The eye test confirms that the Kings are indeed a powerhouse, and advanced metrics near universally point to Los Angeles as the best possession team in the league.

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It looks like Alain Vigneault did a pretty good job managing Henrik Lundqvist this year

Lundqvist has been in the top-six for games played by a goalie in all but one of the last eight seasons

Though much has changed with the New York Rangers over the last 12 months, one thing remains the same: the team goes as Henrik Lundqvist goes. 

During the early part of the season when the Blueshirts were regularly getting crushed by Western Conference foes, The King was not himself. And not coincidentally, during the second half of the year when the club came together, Lundqvist returned to his usual Vezina form. Now Lundqvist has raised his game again, to an otherworldly level that no other netminder alive can approach, and suddenly the team is on the cusp of the Stanley Cup Finals.

Lundqvist’s talent, focus and desire are obviously keys to his success and have never been in question. But how much of his recent run is due to coach Alain Vigneault’s insistence on giving his backups – first Martin Biron, then Cam Talbot – a larger workload this season?

Lundqvist has shouldered an absurdly high workload in recent years, especially now that he’s no longer a young pup. Including playoffs, he’s started 597 games and logged 32,945 minutes over the last eight seasons and has finished in the top-six in games played for a goalie in all but one of those years. (Lundqvist played a staggering 3,331 minutes in the condensed lockout-shortened season, and played 5,005, 4,353, 4,204, 4,533, 4,913, 4,746 minutes in his previous six seasons, respectively).

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Thoughts following a wild Game 7

The best there is

Since there’s absolutely no chance of me putting together a coherent post in the wake of that Game 7, I’m going to share some thoughts in bullet point form instead:

Henrik Lundqvist really struggled at the start of the season, but he was Vezina-caliber in the second half and raised his game again in the postseason. The bozos that have argued that Lundqvist isn’t elite because he hasn’t won a Cup can say whatever they want – Lundqvist’s performance last night speaks for itself. That was as outstanding a game as you’ll see from a netminder.

– It’s really hard to tell just how good this team is. Obviously we know they won’t ever make anything easy on themselves, but it’s also miraculous that they’ve reached the Eastern Conference Finals despite getting next to nothing offensively from two of their top offensive players – Rick Nash and Derek Stepan. New York’s depth players have been underappreciated for a long while, but they’ve really stepped up through the first two rounds. If the team had gotten even a little bit of production from Nash and Stepan, they probably wouldn’t have had to go to seven games in one or both of their first two matchups.

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Chris Kreider appears to be nearing a return, and boy do the Rangers need him

In case you forgot, Chris Kreider has had success in the Stanley Cup Playoffs before

Though coach Alain Vigneault wouldn’t say it outright, it sure sounds like winger Chris Kreider is getting very close to returning to the Rangers’ lineup.

Kreider has missed the team’s last 19 games with an undisclosed left hand injury and would be a major addition to New York’s suddenly offensively-starved lineup.

Vigneault has been married to his unofficial top line – Benoit Pouliot/Derick Brassard/Mats Zuccarello – and his outstanding fourth line – Brian Boyle/Dominic Moore/Derek Dorsett – for most of the second half, but he’s had a devil of a time finding the right combination with Carl Hagelin, Brad Richards, Martin St. Louis, Rick Nash and Derek Stepan. Even when Kreider was healthy, chemistry wasn’t automatic, but at least Vigneault had a complete set of top-six forwards (in theory) to choose from. It’s a lot easier to mix and match that way then when a fourth liner like Danny Carcillo is being asked to skate with key offensive players.

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Special teams will be the key to Game 7

Brad Richards led the Rangers with 19 power play points during the regular season

So here we are yet again. Game 7.

With the exception of last night’s game, the Rangers have dominated most of the series. They’ve outshot the Flyers in four of six games and have held Philadelphia to just nine goals at even strength, including an empty-netter.

Nearly every #fancystat indicates that the Blueshirts have outplayed Philadelphia at even strength by a wide margin. The series should probably be over by now. But it’s not, and now the season comes down to one final game tonight.

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Martin St. Louis trade paying dividends when it matters

Martin St. Louis has put the regular season behind him

Things didn’t go so well for Martin St. Louis in his first 19 regular season games with the Rangers, but the trade for him on March 5th was never about the 82 games between October and April.

The deal was made because A) New York wasn’t going to re-sign Ryan Callahan and wanted max value in return, and B) St. Louis is of capable of carrying the Rangers much deeper into the postseason than Callahan is at this stage.

So sure, one goal in 19 games was a disappointment, and eight total points was pretty unimpressive. But everyone goes through a slump, and St. Louis clearly had a major adjustment to make upon arriving in the Big Apple.

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A different way of looking at special teams statistics

Derek Stepan tallied 18 power play points this season and added three shorthanded assists to lead the team

The Rangers went on a bizarre tear in March in which they scored on seven of 41 shorthanded situations, yet managed just five goals in 45 of their own power play opportunities. Obviously that was just a weird anomaly, but it made me realize that the traditional ways of measuring special teams – power play and penalty kill percentages – might not be the best way to assess their impact on winning and losing.

We all know what a huge impact special teams have on individual hockey games, but noting what rate a team’s power play has scored at and how often a penalty kill has surrendered goals over the course of a long season seems kind of silly. The percentage stats put way too much stock on what happened in October, which has no bearing on the present. Plus, those percentage stats don’t factor in shorthanded goals for and against, and we just saw how crucial those were to the Rangers’ success.

Power plays are constantly affected by the same factors that influence many other stats – hot streaks, injuries and dumb luck. Even the worst power play in the league can get red-hot for stretches, while a unit featuring five All-Stars can suffer a lengthy drought. The same goes for PK units. Read more »

New playoff format set to pour gasoline on old rivalries

We might be seeing a whole lot of this ugly face in the coming weeks

Pretty much since the moment I first heard about realignment, I wasn’t a fan. It seemed silly to me to dramatically restructure the league when more changes might have to be made in short order due to relocation or expansion (although the likelihood of that has been reduced). I thought it was unfair that both Eastern Conference divisions housed an additional team, reducing each member’s chances of making the playoffs. And don’t even get me started on the new division names.

But worst of all is the new playoff format. It makes no sense to me that three teams from each division are guaranteed playoff spots regardless of whether Team 3 in Division A has 45 points and Team 6 in Division B has 85 points (hypothetically).

That’s not to say the new system is without advantages. I like that each team now plays every other team twice a season, and I do see the advantages of making travel time closer to equal for each franchise. But overall, I would have preferred to keep the old format to preserve the 1-8 playoff system if nothing else.

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Benoit Pouliot’s breakout year is a good example of why teams roll the dice on disappointing youngsters

Benoit Pouliot has blossomed in New York after playing for four teams in his first six seasons

Every year it seems like the Rangers have a reclamation project or two on their roster. There have been former first- and second-round picks that never panned out in their former homes like Enver Lisin, Chris Higgins, Alex Frolov, Wojtek Wolski and Brian Boyle as well as fringe NHLers looking for a final shot like Ales Kotalik, Anton Stralman, John Mitchell, Erik Christensen and Aaron Voros.

Really, every team has a guy or two like that. The majority of them last no more than a year or two with their respective new clubs before shuffling off to a different NHL team if they’re lucky – or, in most cases, to the minors or overseas. But every so often, the light bulb goes on. Boyle and Stralman have both been valuable players for the Blueshirts for the last several years and this season, Benoit Pouliot has played a major role.

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Examining the teams in the race for the final playoff spots

Screen Shot 2014-03-25 at 11.03.19 PMOn Monday, Dave pointed out that though things have seemed a little hairy lately, the team’s playoff chances were still at 94.4% according to SportsClubStats.  Those odds improved to 97.9% after New York beat Phoenix in overtime and Philadelphia lost in regulation to Los Angeles on Monday night, and St. Louis beat Toronto, the Capitals lost to the Kings in a shootout and the Blue Jackets beat the Red Wings on Tuesday.

In other words, barring a monumental collapse, the Rangers will be in the postseason.  Of course, we’re still inclined to worry about the supposed 2.1% chance that does happen, so I figured we ought to check in on the teams that could ruin New York’s spring.

Philadelphia Flyers

If you thought the Rangers had a bad start to the year, then what would you say about the Flyers, who fired their coach after just three games?  But the Flyers have really been among the league’s better teams for several months.  Claude Giroux leads the way for Philly, averaging over a point per game, but the Flyers also have six other players with 15+ goals on the year.  As always, Philly has a high-powered offense, but – and this won’t surprise you – the Flyers’ Achilles heel is their goaltending and team defense.  Steve Mason and Ray Emery have combined to give up an average over 2.8 goals per game.  Philadelphia will visit the Blueshirts tonight in a game with huge implications, and the Flyers still have tough games left against Boston (twice), St. Louis and Pittsburgh.

Points: 83 Games remaining: 11 Home/road split: 5/6

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