Blue Collar Blueshirts Set Sights on Lord Stanley

Preview of Rangers vs. Senators First Round NHL Playoff series

BY CHAYIM TAUBER

The New York Rangers have been the best kept secret in New York since October. Linsanity, Tebow, and a Super Bowl victory overshadowed the Rangers playoff charge and that has fit the Rangers temperament to a tee: quiet, unassuming, blue-collar and workmanlike.

The Rangers, led by Coach John Tortorella, have ridden their blue-collar style to the best record in the Eastern Conference (and one win short of winning the President’s Cup). They’ve made it all the way from the first game of the season played in Stockholm, Sweden to a first round matchup with the Ottawa Senators, opening at the cozy confines of Madison Square Garden.

Though it’s a one seed versus an eight seed, this is not at all the matchup the Rangers were hoping for. They’ve had trouble with the Senators all season; trouble handling their top line, their speed, and their energy.

The Senators have a well-polished attack led by their top three forwards; Milan Michaelek, Jason Spezza, and 39-year-old captain Daniel Alfredsson. Those three combined for 96 goals this season and have pretty much carried the Ottawa offense. The secondary scoring behind them however, is weak.

The drop-off from Spezza and Michaelek to Nick Foligno and Kyle Turris is pretty steep. The other huge weapon the Senators have is 21-year-old Norris Trophy candidate Erik Karlsson. Karlsson’s ability with the puck and his incredible vision have made him a huge X-factor for the Senators’ offense and slowing him down will be one of the Rangers main concerns.

On the Rangers side of the ice, Marian Gaborik is one of just three Rangers since the ’94 Cup victory to score more than 40 goals in a season (Jaromir Jagr and Mark Messier were the other two). He has the ability to light the lamp with a frequency that no one else on the ice in this series does.

He is a sharpshooter and he will be marked at all times when on the ice. That puts the onus on the rest of the Rangers; Richards, Callahan, Dubinsky, Anisimov, Boyle, Hagelin, etc. to step up and score. Secondary scoring’s always been one of the Rangers biggest weaknesses and in a series where the greatest advantage for the Rangers clearly lies on who’s in goal, the Rangers need to make Craig Anderson pay.

Offensive zone pressure, cycling the puck, getting shots on net, and holding the offensive zone are key for a Rangers team that wants to make Craig Anderson work harder than anyone on the ice. To do that, they need their defenseman to pinch in and keep the puck in the zone without getting beat back the other way for Ottawa rushes.

The Rangers have been giving up a bevy of rushes, a flaw they can ill afford against a quick, speedy team like Ottawa. The Rangers can use their physicality to their advantage and can neutralize the speed the Senators regularly killed them with during their four games this season (the Senators were victors in three of those four).

The Rangers of course have the perfect tonic for whatever nervousness the Sen’s top line and Karlsson might cause them, and it resides between the pipes for them: Vezina Trophy frontrunner Henrik Lundqvist.

Lundqvist was a Vezina lock and a Hart trophy candidate early in the season for the miraculous performances he turned in on a nightly basis. Before the Rangers had formed their identity and figured out how to score in their blue-collar system, it was Lundqvist who single-handedly brought the team to the top. Lundqvist’s game diminished somewhat toward the end of the year, not to the point that he’s not still one of the best goaltenders on the planet, but he has returned from that stratosphere of inexplicable dominance he had earlier in the season.

For the Rangers to achieve their Stanley Cup dreams, Lundqvist is going to have to turn back the clock to earlier in the season to a time when no one questioned who the best in the world was.

Still, despite the effort and excellence the Rangers can expect from Lundqvist, they need to keep up their good work on defense. The Rangers led the NHL in blocked shots all season and are the third stingiest defense in the NHL in terms of goals allowed. The Rangers need to continue to get in front of shots and need to afford Lundqvist some breathing room, and that means putting up points.

The Rangers should be able to pull out a series win but this certainly isn’t a cakewalk. The Rangers will have to scrap to win games in front of Henrik Lundqvist. If the Rangers are going to pull this off, they’re going to have to do it the way they have all season: blue collar.

Prediction: Rangers in six games