Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Rangers Drop Game 1 2-1 in OT on Semin Goal; Capitals Up 1-0 in Series

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
The New York Rangers and Washington Capitals opened their playoff series with what wasn’t the prettiest of games, but if this is an example of how tight the series will be the fans of both teams will be on the edge of their seats.  The Capitals protected home ice with Alex Semin’s OT winner 18:24 into the first session of extra hockey.  The play saw Jason Arnott catch an attempted clear from Marc Staal at the point and then a wide open Semin in the slot who ripped a one-timer past Lundqvist high on the stick side to give Washington the 1-0 lead in the series.
New York while not playing a great game by any stretch had opportunities to win the game and steal Game 1 in Washington and have to take some measure of solace in that fact.  It tells the Rangers they can raise their game and change the result.  The Rangers grinders played well in the game, but their offensive talent failed to do anything of major note in the game.  The team fought well and proved to everyone this will be no pushover in the series. 
The problem with the loss is not just that they lost, but how.  The fact that both Ovechkin and Semin scored gives the Capitals two biggest offensive weapons confidence for the rest of the series and after both went scoreless against New York in four meetings this year now have two goals in their back pocket already.
The first period saw the Rangers badly outplayed by the home town Capitals, but Henrik Lundqvist was excellent to keep the game at 0-0.  The team took two bad penalties in the period.  The first was a too many men on the ice call that was caused when Brandon Dubinsky jumped over the boards early and the other was a weak boarding call against Mats Zuccarello.  The Rangers killed off both power plays, but were lucky during the period when both Alex Semin and Jason Arnott hit the crossbar after beating Lundqvist with their shots.  The Arnott chance came after an attempted Prust breakout pass went off the skate of Marc Staal and found Arnott alone in the slot.  Alex Ovechkin was also left open multiple times during the period, fanning once on the shot and then getting stoned by Lundqvist. 
The second period saw the Rangers play to a more equivalent level of the Capitals.  Each goaltender had a huge save in the period.  Neuvirth stoned Gaborik from the front of the net just before the midway point of the period and then late in the period Backstrom was in alone on a breakaway before Lundqvist shut him down.  The play for Backstrom was created by the Capitals stretching the Rangers defense with a breakout pass from Carlson to Ovechkin who then hit Backstrom alone in the middle of the ice.
The Rangers happiness to be tied after two periods increase dramatically just moments into the third period when Matt Gilroy scored to make it 1-0.  The play was created by Brandon Prust taking the body in the corner, working it down to Wojtek Wolski behind the net who found a pinching Gilroy and he beat Neuvirth with a snap shot far side.
Washington tied it 13:44 into the period on a goal from Alex Ovechkin.  The play saw the Capitals jam at the loose puck around the crease and while it appeared that the referee was going to blow the play dead the puck was in the net before.  The play would go to review before being confirmed as a goal.  The goal was a huge one for the Capitals who were beginning to press for the goal and the pressure would have only mounted the longer it went on.
  • Brandon Dubinsky was awful tonight and must be better as one of the Rangers leaders if they are going to actually win the games instead of just contend.
  • The defense played very well as a group and I was impressed with how Sauer, McDonagh and even Gilroy adjusted to the differences of playoff hockey.

Rangers Rookies Critical To Present Success, Gaining Invaluable Experience For Future

The New York Rangers have been relying on rookie NHL players all season long in different roles and Derek Stepan, Michael Sauer, and Ryan McDonagh have answered the call at each turn.  The trio has acquitted themselves so well that they have been continually given increasingly important roles within the team.  At no time this season have any of the three seemed to have the moment be bigger than them and that bodes very well for them in this transition from playing in the intensity of the stretch drive versus the reality of playoff hockey.  Tonight begins that test of their current level of readiness, and the Rangers will need all three to maintain their high level of the regular season if they have hope of winning this series.
Derek Stepan started the season as the most heralded of these three rookies and he did not disappoint turning in a rookie campaign of 21-24 which had him tied for fourth on the team in goals and fourth alone in points.  With that kind of standing in the main offensive categories and without Ryan Callahan there will be a considerable burden on Stepan to continue to provide offense for the club during the series.
As big as the burden will be on Stepan, Sauer and McDonagh are the ones who will likely have more to say about the overall outcome of the proceedings.  Sauer had a tremendous overall rookie campaign in which he played his solid defensive style while adding some physicality and snarl to the tune of a plus 20 rating for the year.  McDonagh did not get the call until midseason but other than a few hiccup games he played tremendously well since his debut chipping in one goal, eight assists and playing plus 16 hockey in his 40 games as a rookie.
This pairing has been stellar since being put together and for much of the second half has been the Rangers best defensive duo and the combination of their ice time and role to shut down the second line of the Washington Capitals makes them critical to any success the Rangers are going to have. 
In addition to those three, Mats Zuccarello will be another rookie the Rangers are hopeful to get contributions from during the series.  Coach John Tortorella has opted to play Zuccarello in game one over veteran Sean Avery because of the potential upside of Zuke offensively and avoiding any potential penalty downside with Avery.  Zuccarello excelled in the shootout in the regular season, but there are none of those in playoff hockey.  He was very good early in his time with the Rangers, but tailed off late to the point he was on the fourth line and finally sent down to the minors.  He was recalled for the finale and played well in limited to minutes so it is tough to expect much of an impact from him in series based on his limited opportunities.
All of these players have played in big games before in their careers, but nothing truly prepares you for NHL playoff hockey other than being in the games themselves and that is the challenge all of these rookies are going to have deal with.  The Rangers have said all along that this year is about building for the future and all four of these players are going to gain invaluable experience for their futures with each second of playoff hockey they play right now.  The Rangers want these guys to prepare for the future, but they also have to rely on them now.

Video: Rangers-Capitals Higlight Compilation, Richter History Will Be Made

To get you ready for tonight's opening game James Wrabel aka @TheWrage put together the following compilation of Rangers-Capitals highlights that is a must watch.

Along with that Eric of 5-hole Blog made a History Will Be Made commercial out of my favorite save of all-time when Richter stoned Bure on the penalty shot during the 1994 Cup Finals.

Tremendous work by both

Rangers Chances At Upset Hinge On Lundqvist

AP Photo/Frank Franklin II
There will be lots of different keys to the Eastern Conference Quaterfinals between the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals, but none are bigger for the Rangers to have a chance than Henrik Lundqvist.  Calling Lundqvist the key to the Rangers success is nothing new for him or them, but it holds true once again.  He is the only Rangers player with the capability of stealing a series and in order for the team to do just that he will likely have to steal at least one if not two games in the seven game set.
The Rangers have no idea which version of their offense will show up from night to night, but they can take comfort in the fact that they know their world class goaltender always does.  The Rangers made the postseason by two points on the final day of the season.  The only reason they had a chance to get help from the Lightning was because Lundqvist went 11-4-1 with a 2.10 goals-against average, .930 save percentage and three shutouts in his team's final 16 games. Having played in 26 straight games there is concern over fatigue for Lundqvist, but he has shown no signs of it to this point and cannot if the Rangers are to continue their season. 
Lundqvist went 2-1 in three starts against the Capitals, posting a 1.34 goals against average and .955 save percentage. Rangers fans have a lot of confidence from the two blowout wins in which the offense managed 13 goals, but lost in that is Lundqvist having shutout the Capitals in both of those games.  Lundqvist turned aside 66 consecutive shots in those final two games he played against the Capitals this year and helped to hold Alex Ovechkin without a goal against New York during the regular year.  It is unrealistic to expect that either of those two things continue in the playoffs, but it is not out of the question to expect Lundqvist to continue the form he had when he carried this team into position to make the playoffs.
The goaltending matchup is clearly the biggest advantage for the Rangers of any positional comparison and he has to take as much advantage of it as possible.  New York needs a full series from Lundqvist like he played the first four games of the 2009 matchup.  In those first four games Lundqvist stopped 141 of 149 shots and the Rangers were staked to a 3-1 lead before blowing the series.  Both Lundqvist and the team have a much different look and feel that says they will not blow that kind of advantage again.
If Henrik Lundqvist was not the best player of this series when it ends, then the Rangers are likely headed home.  He will certainly need help from his teammates both with scoring and protecting his net, but this team only goes as far as Lundqvist can carry them.