Ward Stuns Rangers In Game 1

 

This is not the way it was supposed to be.

The way it was supposed to be, the Rangers would be heading into Game 2 of the Metropolitan Division Finals on Saturday afternoonleading one game to zip.

Instead, while not exactly behind the 8 (as in Ovechkin) ball, the Blueshirts are feeling more than the usual pressure to avert a two-game losing streak at The Garden

For that they can thank — if such a thing is possible in the circumstances — Joel Ward, who previously devastated the Islanders — for his 2-1 game-winning score with less than two seconds left in the third period; 1.3 seconds to be exact.

The stunning winner was — not surprisingly — created after Alex Ovechkin seized a loose puck following a hard Washington hit by Nicklas Backstrom on Dan Boyle. Ovi wasted no time feeding the goalmouth-planted Ward who swiftly beat Henrik Lundqvist.

“I didn’t see the hit [on Boyle] but I tried to find the puck,” chortled Ovechkin, “and all I heard was Ward screaming in front and I tried to feed it to him.”

This unpleasant set of circumstances for the Rangers could be repeated on Saturday if Alain Vigneault’s stickhandlers fail to solve The Ovechkin Effect.

How did the guillotine so suddenly fall on the Rangers with so little time in the third period? Why was an offensive-minded defender such as Boyle on the ice with Ryan McDonagh. How did the Rangers’ coach see the winning goal?

“It was a hit,” said Vigneault, “and there were a couple of mistakes after it. And the puck ended up in the back of our net.”

Alain Vigneault explains what went wrong for the Rangers' on the Capitals' game-winning goal.

That was the end of the Blueshirts, but what about the beginning?

For starters, the Capitals’ captain thrust his team ahead, 1-0, with a first period power-play laser that thoroughly befuddled The King.

For finishers, Ovi demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that coach Barry Trotz has metamorphosed him into a creative passer-backchecker as well as a clutch playmaker.

Suddenly, Vigneault is faced with the challenge of finding offense. Only a late third-period goal by Jesper Fast put the Blueshirts on the board. But scoring is not the only issue for AV.

Playing without the injured pepper pot Mats Zuccarello, the coach inserted future Hall-of-Famer Martin St. Louis in his place. The Big Little Man was hardly noticeable for better or worse.

After a low scoring five-game series with Pittsburgh, the Rangers’ expectation — call it hope — was for beating the Caps with a goal bonanza.

What they got instead was a battle-hardened Washington sextet that threatens to make Saturday’s tilt a big-time challenge for the Blueshirts.

“At this time of year,” said St. Louis, “we have to shake off the loss. On Saturday we go back to work.”

That would have to fall into the category of understatement since a good part of the tilt saw the visitors out-fight the home club.

“Adjustments will be made,” said Derek Stepan, “and one of them will be shooting more pucks.”

That would help, considering that Caps goalie Braden Holtby made 31 saves and even got an assist on Ovechkin’s goal.

Completing his first season behind the Washington bench, Trotz has re-designed the D.C. sextet with more attention to defense.

His D was effective until Fast’s tying goal at 15:21 of the third and the game appeared certain to enter overtime.

Ovechkin started the final thrust by carrying the puck into the Rangers’ zone with the rubber skimming into the right corner where the Blueshirts converged on The Big Eight.

While the New Yorkers were unable to relieve him of the rubber, the hulking Russian beat the clock — and the Rangers — with a deft pass converted by the omnipresent Ward with 1.3 left in regulation.

“I didn’t know how much time was left,” Ward admitted, “but we were all high-fiving and dancing. So I figured that I beat the buzzer.”

Another Rangers challenge will be the Caps penalty-killing now 17 for 17 including the Isles series.

“We’re meshing well as a unit now,” said Washington defenseman John Carlson, “and playing with a lot of confidence. But all the credit has to go to our goalie.”

Out-goaled by Holtby, Lundqvist must come up bigger than BIG on Saturday.

But that’s not all.

“Our execution in the offensive zone needs to be better,” AV revealed. “That’s going to be one of our focuses on Saturday.”

That’s the blueprint. We’ll see about the execution.

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Rangers-Capitals: The Curtain Lifts On Round Two

 

Meticulous to a fault, I have perused all available information from D.C. to N.Y. – and back with this astonishing conclusion, the Capitals are not Penguins.

This inescapable fact of life will be underlined Thursday at The Garden when the curtain lifts on Round Two, Washington vs. New York.

Unless all current forecasts are wrong – unlike Round One – this will be a first-class war of attrition with the big, bad Caps attempting an energetic encore after the triumph over the Isles, with a barrage of body checks hurled at every opportunity.

“Against the Islanders,” noted defenseman Matt Niskanen, “we made them uncomfortable in certain areas. At times they were thinking about just getting off the ice rather than coming at us with their offensive skills.”

The above statement, by the way, is Washington-ese for we beat the tar out of them. Or, to put it realistically, the Caps’ body work knocked two Islanders – Calvin de Haan and Lubomir Visnovsky – out of the series.

Actually, the Rangers will face a somewhat bi-polar Caps club. On the one hand, they love to hit – see Alex Ovechkin, Troy Brouwer and Tom Wilson. Yet on the other side, they’re sprinkled with virtuosos: Ovie being the lead talent.

Veteran defenseman Mike Green comes off a marvelously revived regular season and now is a prime disciple of coach Barry Trotz’s system.

“We’re encouraged to push the pace,” explained Green. “To move up the ice as a five-man unit; and, really, there’s a lot of support. With Barry, everything is detailed, very structured. The whole team has bought into that structure.”

Yet, Washington’s attackers should have mucho trouble solving the Rangers’ well-rounded defense. During the seven-game series against the Islanders, the Caps may have fired a lot of pucks but, as proven in Game 7, lit relatively few red lights.

And there’s a reason for that: The Caps are short on secondary scoring. Washington’s  Ovechkin-Nicklas Backstrom tandem can inflict only moderate damage, if it does any damage at all.

Subtract them from the equation and youthful Evgeny Kuznetsov, along with clutch vet Joel Ward emerge as the prime offensive weapons.

“When we play our system,” said Ward, “play within ourselves and not get carried away, we get a better result. Obviously, since the Rangers won the Presidents’ Trophy, they’re going to be tough.”

What Ward means is “tough” to beat. Just how rugged the Rangers have to be in the hitting department remains to be seen. Their resident cop, Tanner Glass, will be ready for any of Wilson’s shenanigans and he may be all the Blueshirts need in the belligerent category.

Secure in the knowledge that, man-for-man, he boasts more talented performers, Alain Vigneault likely will operate on the theory that the Caps can’t hit what they can’t catch.

Speed is the essence of the contemporary Blueshirts’ blueprint and the Capitals are acutely aware of that. Whether they can keep up is doubtful.

“The Rangers are fast and deep at every position,” added Niskanen, “and sometimes they also play a physical game. Hey, they finished first in the league for a reason.”

One of those reasons happens to be depth at every position and, right now, it’s required at right wing. Mats Zuccarello‘s upper-body injury could sideline him for a couple of games or the entire series.

Whatever the case, the spotlight will be on future Hall of Famer Martin St. Louis to fill Mats’ role.

Since lines are like movie theater times – subject to change without notice – it’s premature to suggest that St. Louis will work alongside Rick Nash and Derick Brassard.

For a super-experienced pro such as St. Louis, adjustability comes naturally. And for one of the NHL’s smallest players, so does being a bullseye for the big Caps.

“Washington has a physical team,” acknowledged St.Louis. “Now that we’re in the second round, we should expect physicality. The trick for us is to manage the puck well so they don’t get to use their size as much.”

Since crystal balls, Ouija Boards and Tarot cards forecasting the future of this series are out of The Maven‘s reach, I’ll rely on one of the most reliable of the Rangers, Dan Girardi, to provide a cogent view of what to expect Thursday.

“The Capitals are a complete team,”  the defenseman concluded, “and we’re going to have our hands full in this series.”

Perhaps; but not as much as the visitors — and that’s why I foresee the Rangers winning the series in five.

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The Rangers’ Next Challenge: Ovi & The Capitals

One of the challenges when you play the Washington Capitals is containing Hart Trophy finalist Alexander Ovechkin. As Ovechkin has aged, his production has become more reliant on the power play. Additionally, his even-strength scoring is no longer as dominant as it was during his scoring prime. In a short series, you have to fear his power-play production. However, the Rangers can take advantage of him at even strength, which accounted for almost 90% of his ice time during the first round of the playoffs.

The Blueshirts took three out of four games against the Capitals during the 2014-15 regular season, out-scoring them 12-9.  The Capitals actually won the overall possession game by a significant margin (60%-40%), but that number was influenced by score effects and was a more manageable 50% when adjusted for the score being close (within one goal). The Capitals’ power play did manage to do some damage, outscoring the Rangers 4-3 in just over half the minutes, but the Rangers inflicted heavy damage at even strength.

Looking at the shot breakdown over the four games, the Rangers only held a 33-32 green shot advantage. The distribution of color seems fairly even with the Capitals holding an eight-six advantage on yellow shots and the Rangers producing three more red shots at 78-75.

The raw numbers can be deceiving though. When we visually map out the shot locations, we see a cluster of shots the Rangers delivered from the lip of the crease, the highest scoring area on the ice. The Rangers managed to pepper Braden Holtby with high-quality opportunities in high-quality real estate.

Another factor during the regular season that should remain a focal point during the upcoming series is the Ovechkin-Ryan McDonagh matchup, one that was dominated by the Rangers’ captain.

McDonagh faced the Ovechkin/Backstrom line for the majority of his even-strength minutes and dominated the Caps high-scoring duo, out-scoring them 7-1.

Even if we remove the goals and just focus on the shot metric to assess his performance, we see that the McDonagh/Dan Girardi pairing managed to clean up the front of the net, while the forward units, led by Rick Nash and Kevin Hayes, were able to cause havoc in front of Holtby.

When we match this with Ovechkin’s even-strength production we see the same effect; Ovechkin struggled to produce at even strength against the Rangers’ defensive workhorse.

There are other matchups which will decide the series, most notably in goal where the Rangers have the dominant Henrik Lundqvist between the pipes. With Lundqvist in net, the Rangers know that playing a team to a standstill will generally result in victory because of their advantage in the crease (as long as the opponent isn’t Carey Price).

The Rangers can also lean on the Capitals with their depth as Hayes and Keith Yandle did significant damage during the first round against the depth forwards and defensemen of the Penguins.

Barry Trotz didn’t shy away from the Ovechkin-McDonagh matchup during the regular season and Alain Vigneault was able to get McDonagh out against Sidney Crosby regularly during the first round, so expect to see this matchup plenty during this series. If Ovechkin can’t turn his even-strength game around, then the Capitals will need to get small sample brilliance from Holtby, or have a lights out power play to have any chance of advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals.

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BULLS RUN: A TEAM WITHOUT STARS

In recent years, the Red Bulls have been a team that has been built around superstars.

From Juan Pablo Angel, Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill, the franchise has relied upon its stars to get it through the toughest moments. The strategy has not been without its merits – after all, New York has won a Supporters’ Shield title and made it to the Eastern Conference Final in the past two seasons – but in the end, it has fallen short of the ultimate goal: The elusive first MLS Cup in franchise history.

Coach Jesse Marsch is looking to change that. It’s not about building a team around stars for Marsch. It’s about making the team the star. With a stylish and aggressive brand of high-tempo soccer, Marsch is getting a team that is producing more than the sum of its parts. Instead of relying on individual brilliance, the Red Bulls have been molded around a strong team ethic.

“I think Jesse is a great coach,” midfielder Felipe said after Sunday’s 1-1 draw with the LA Galaxy at Red Bull Arena. “The way he wants to play with a lot of pressure, hard work – [it] gives everyone confidence on the team. Every day work, push very hard.”

Felipe talks about the goal he scored in the Red Bulls 1-1 draw with LA Galaxy, New York's strong start to the season and how he's adjusting to coach Jesse Marsch's system.

One of the more unheralded acquisitions of the offseason, Felipe has quickly become one of the first names on the teamsheet for Marsch. Along with Dax McCarty and Sacha Kljestan, the midfield trio has been one of the driving forces behind the Red Bulls’ strong start.

“[The three of us] are comfortable players on the ball,” McCarty said to the media after Sunday’s match.

“I think that’s our job: To get the team out of tough situations and to get our forwards scoring chances. I have confidence in Sasha and Felipe, and they have confidence in me. We realize that us three are on the same page right now and we’re trying to dominate games.”

Look Ahead: Colorado Rapids

The Red Bulls will continue their stretch of three games in seven games with a midweek encounter against the Colorado Rapids at Red Bull Arena Wednesday (7 PM, MSG).

New York will undoubtedly go into the match as the favorite, but should be weary of a Colorado side that has played better on the road that it has at home. The Rapids recorded their only win on the road – a 4-0 drubbing of FC Dallas on April 10 – and have yet to surrender a goal away from home.

With such a short turnaround after Sunday’s match and another one upcoming against the Revolution Saturday, the Red Bulls’ depth will be tested. But the team isn’t worried about any changes upsetting the chemistry on the field.

“We have a good group, a good team,” Mike Grella said Monday. “That’s one of our strengths. “We’re not nervous about these games at all; I think we’re looking forward to it.”

 

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Rangers-Capitals Series Preview & Prediction

Dave Maloney, Steve Valiquette, EJ Hradek and Al Trautwig break down what to watch for in the Rangers-Capitals series and why the Blueshirts will win it.

When the Capitals invade Madison Square Garden on Thursday night, they’ll be bringing a superior slogan along with them.

“Go through the battle instead of going around it!”

As the curtain lifts on the second playoff round, the Rangers will join the fray with something more than a catchy theme — a better team.

Then again, the more talented team doesn’t always win; sometimes toughness prevails. That’s why the Washingtonians will bring a new, punishing element to the series and Alain Vigneault‘s skaters had best be prepared for it.

The “it” also is known in Brooklyn and other places as pow, right in the kisser.

Since hockey is a war-game on ice, Caps coach Barry Trotz’s troops appear to subscribe to the “All’s fair in love and, especially, war.” And that’s how they won the attrition war against the Islanders.

Belligerent Tom Wilson took Isles D-Man Lubomir Visnovsky out of the series with a whack that merited a game misconduct and a hearing before the NHL dirty play judges. It did neither, but gave the Caps a big advantage.

Then, Troy Brouwer finished Calvin de Haan’s series in Game 5 with a boppo that would get the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for thunderous checks.

And I haven’t even gotten to Alex Ovechkin, the leading NHL scorer who doubles as a human bulldozer.

Which raises the first question: how will the Rangers bop with these brutes?

Answer: See below in the upcoming analysis of these two worthy teams:

OFFENSE

Against Pittsburgh, the New York offense was offensive. Winning every game by a single goal hardly overwhelms anyone but the defensemen. Still, sooner or later in this new series Rick Nash should flash his regular-season form. Meanwhile, Mr. Huge has been unselfish with the puck and created opportunities for his buddy-guard, Derick Brassard. With peripatetic Mats Zuccarello indefinitely sidelined with an “upper-body injury,” there’s no immense concern about replacing him. Future Hall of Famer Marty St. Louis will snugly move in while large James Sheppard will take MSL’s spot.

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The All-American Line of Chris Kreider-Derek Stepan-J.T. Miller has all the speed-size ingredients for a bust-out series while Carl Hagelin-Kevin Hayes-Sheppard offer a heartening support system. New York’s fourth-liners, headed by ace utility forward Dominic Moore, can match anything dispatched by Trotz.

Powered by Ovechkin, Washington’s offense was amply abetted against the Isles by Nicklas Backstrom’s shot and his faceoff ability. The third man on that line, Joel Ward, is as clutch a performer as the Caps display.

The Rangers must beware of Evegny Kuznetzov. The Rapid Russian killed the Islanders in Game 7 with his late third-period goal. He’s flanked by reliable Jason Chimera and Marcus Johansson.

The visitors’ other lines include Andre Burakovsky-Jay Beagle-Troy Brouwer and the Tormenting Trio — Tom Wilson-Brooks Laich-Curtis Glencross. The latter unit provides relentless hitting and could pose a problem for the lighter Rangers; Wilson in particular.

Advantage: Rangers. The Blueshirts know how to negate The Big Eight. New York has too much fire power for the Caps’ defense after that.

DEFENSE

The return of Kevin Klein returns the Blueshirt defense to normalcy. No team can match the steadiness and offense-defense abilities of Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal, Keith Yandle, Dan Boyle and Matt Hunwick.

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Washington counters with a well-rounded unit not to be taken lightly. Mike Green enjoyed a stellar season with such vets as Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen, Karl Alzner and a rapidly maturing John Carlson. The Caps’ crew improved as the Isles series unfolded, allowing one goal apiece in three of the final four games.

Advantage: Rangers. Captain McDonagh tops any blue line foe and the Rangers group is more versatile in every department.

GOALTENDING

Here’s the pivotal difference. Henrik Lundqvist is well-rested. Last spring, he carried New York in the playoffs and is back for an 11th season. The King always gives the Rangers a chance.

nyr_wsh_stan-blog_lundqvist_20150428

By contrast, Braden Holtby has been the Caps’ workhorse all season and should be worn out by now. No question, he’s good, but is susceptible to soft goals as he proved in the third period of Game 7 in Washington.

Advantage: Rangers. Until Holtby proves that he can beat Henny in a seven-game series, His Majesty will rule.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Ha! It’s weak power play vs. weaker power play. The Caps were 2-for-13 on PPs while the Rangers’ struggles — 15=percent success rate in playoffs — are well-documented.

Washington’s penalty kill batted one-thousand against the Isles (0-14). The Seventh Avenue Skaters didn’t do as well — allowing two power play goals in 13 shorthanded situations vs. Pitt.

Advantage: Capitals. Ovechkin is the most dangerous shooter of all on power plays and the Caps’ PK arithmetic says it all.

COACHING

Trotz is the first Caps coach to convert Captain Ovechkin into a reliable two-way player. What’s more Trotz has improved Washington by producing the most defensively-sound team seen in D.C. in years.

Vigneault should be a candidate for the Adams (Best Coach) Award. He has orchestrated the Rangers to the President’s Trophy, and has the brains and demeanor to take this team to the Cup Final.

Advantage: Rangers. Over the years, AV’s accomplishments top Trotz’s – but not by much.

X-FACTORS

The Rangers will need to elevate team speed through the neutral zone as well as execute cycling with more frequency. Having a more physically aggressive team — Ovie hits with the best of them — Washington will lay on the lumber. AV’s skaters must hit back and take advantage of the PP when the opportunity arises. Tanner Glass will be needed to neutralize the Wilson-types.

Advantage: Only time – and the referees – will tell.

CONCLUSION

Rangers in five. While winning the first round, the Caps took a physical beating over seven games against the Isles. Holtby has faced too much rubber to be 100 percent effective. The New York clincher is Klein’s return. His offense and defense will be decisive.

 

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How The Rangers Can Get Closer to Perfection In Round Two

 

Nobody – no team – is perfect.

Having won the Stanley Cup last June, the Los Angeles Kings could be forgiven for believing that they had come close to perfection. But we now know how wrong they were.

By contrast, the Rangers are moving up the championship ladder as they prepare for the Washington Capitals in Round Two. The trick for Alain Vigneault’s merry minstrels is to avoid slipping off the next rung; just two from the top.

And since each step is different from the previous one, the smart coach executes strategic changes. Here’s a check list of moves that must be made:

ADJUSTMENTS

If nothing else, the Blueshirts five-game ousting of Pittsburgh proved that the Rangers could win an ugly series. That meant outworking and out-positioning the Penguins below the goal line. Now the Seventh Avenue Skaters face a Caps’ team that plays more physical than Sidney Crosby’s outplayed outfit. Therefore, stick and body positioning will be decisive.

AV’s trump card: Speed, and more speed, will be essential to make it advantage-Rangers.

DISCIPLINE

In a playoff where, across the board, teams have wondered about officiating consistency, it behooves the more talented Rangers to play to their strengths and avoid unnecessary penalties. That means avoiding needless scrums and turning the other cheek when agitators get away with stick-massaging. Against Pitt’s trouble-makers – Chris Kunitz, Max Lapierre, Steve Downey, Patric Hornqvist – the New Yorkers played it smart.

AV’s trump card: Discipline and speed.

ONUS ON THE FAVORITES

Unquestionably, the team that went to the Stanley Cup Final last Spring and won the Presidents’ Trophy earlier this month, is favored to beat Ovechkin & Co. And why not? Neither talent nor motivation is an issue. What may be a factor is the avalanche of “How Can The Rangers Ever Lose This One” stories that inevitably will put more pressure on the favorites.

AV’s trump card: Himself. The coach is cucumber-calm and his persona erases all pressure points.

Alain Vigneault shares an update on Mats Zuccarello and Kevin Klein, discusses the importance of rest before the start of Round 2, plus more!

THE NOT-ENOUGH SCORING ISSUE

In the four victories against the Penguins, the Rangers eked out every contest by a mere goal. What’s more – or worse, as the case may be – is that they averaged only two goals a game. While that may be a positive in playoff hockey, it raises questions about New York’s scoring machine.

Or, to put it bluntly, is there sufficient armament over the secondary and tertiary forward units? My offensive expert, Joe Kelleher, does not hesitate to name names.

“While Rick Nash and Derick Brassard command attention,” Kelleher explained, “The ‘All-American’ line of Chris Kreider, Derek Stepan and J.T. Miller have a fine blend of skill and physicality. Kreider and Miller both play with an edge, driving to the net, where Stepan can feed them the puck.  It’s also worth remembering that Kreider is one of the fastest players in the NHL; few opponents can keep pace with him on a breakaway.

“Just below them, Kevin Hayes and Carl Hagelin have stepped up at big times in these playoffs, which could give their line a big boost of confidence going forward. Whether the third line mate is Martin St. Louis or James Sheppard, the young Americans are capable of kick-starting the Rangers offense.”

Ready for Round Two?

In my next blog, my topics also will include second round matchups; plus whether the Rangers can continue to play shutdown defense, among other decisive departments.

Stay tuned!

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Questions And Answers As The Rangers Relax

 

As the President’s Trophy-winners, the Rangers are the certified Best Team In The NHL.

And if you don’t believe me, check it out with the Los Angeles Kings who abdicated their championship Cup throne by not even making the playoffs.

There are a few problems with the Blueshirts being the NHL’s Top Banana:

1. Just about everyone else in the fraternity wants to see New York’s banana at the bottom of the bunch.

2. Alain Vigneault’s merry troupe will be targeted more intensely than the also-rans.

3. There is such a thing as upset. Ask the Vancouver Canucks.

So, while the Beloved Blueshirts are accepting congrats for putting the Penguins back in the Pitts, they have issues of concern. These should be addressed Monday with the start of pre-Round Two workouts.

Dusting off The Maven’s Thought-Recording Machine, I can imagine Monsieur Vigneault addressing the following points:

  • ENERGIZING THE POWER PLAY: Watching the Rangers with the man advantage, I sometimes imagine that the PP Planning Box has a label on it: Batteries Not Included. Let’s face it, AV has to change things when the foe is woe into the penalty box. His first order of business is to get this idea about “The Perfect Shot” out of their craniums. Delete the sign that says STOP, LOOK AND LISTEN. Just shoot the puck, Ryan. SHOOT THE PUCK.The power play is not at a railroad crossing. Stop stopping and start firing. Put pucks on the net. If the biscuit doesn’t find the twine it at least will produce rebounds and second chances.Too much time is wasted with the faked shots followed by a pass to either the left or right side. Waiting patiently for the perfect shot may be workable on the drawing board but in this case patience is not a virtue. Get it off quickly — in deep if not in the net.Another issue centers on face-offs (29th). And as my super-sleuth Gus Vic points out, “The Rangers are haphazard too often when entering the attacking zone; they cut it too finely when they do set up.

    Here’s the Solution: Check video of Derek Stepan’s opening goal in Game Five. A. Face-off win; B. Puck to the point; C. Shot gets through; D. Derek Stepan delivers the garbage goal. (And by the way garbage goals still count.)

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  • MAKING THE MOST OF REST: The Rangers quick packaging of the Penguins has resulted in a long layoff before the Second Round. Momentum has been dissipated. On the bright side, the rest will benefit Kevin Klein. As for Mats Zuccarello, I will bow to the doctor’s report. Rest — in this case — can’t hurt. Overall, the Blueshirts escaped Round One not too black-and-blue. They did not want a heavy, physical series for openers nor did they get one. By contrast, their next opponents — Islanders or Capitals — should be beat to heck after their seven-game slugfest. Advantage, Rangers.
  • WILL LUNDQVIST LEAD THEM? Henrik Lundqvist is more motivated than any Ranger in terms of June Champagne-Tasting. Well-rested, His Majesty has shown he’s in mint condition. That means he makes 99 percent of the saves he’s supposed to make and is tough to beat on a clean shot.My Man, Gus Vic, adds this Henny tidbit: “About 95 percent of the goals he surrenders are on deflections, broken plays and crease-crashing.” Hot Tip Department: Lundqvist will be confronted with crease-crashers by either the Isles or Caps.As his club advances, so does the pressure mount on Henrik to prove that he’s a Cup-capable goalie. And, by the way, this is not breaking news to the most popular Ranger.The Maven’s Ouija Board declares: Lundqvist is as ready as he’ll ever be and so are his mates.
  • THE RESERVES — ANY RESERVATIONS? Simply because his name has not achieved household status, Matt Hunwick has — by many but not me — been labeled “questionable” as a replacement for injured Kevin Klein.Then again, Klein once had the “questionable” sign put on him when Anton Stralman left for the Southland. In no time at all, Klein’s superior play earned him a Top Four placement.Guess what? Since Klein’s sabbatical began, Hunwick has proven that he can play at a high post-season level. Maybe he doesn’t put up the offensive points but there’s nothing offensive about that.Maven’s Hunwick Report Card: A. That’s A as in adroit. Matt gets the job done on defense. He’s fit snugly into the defensive core.And here’s the last bit of math: The defensive unit allowed six even-strength goals in five games. Not bad, Hunwick and friends, not at all bad!

P.S. — Tomorrow I’ll investigate such intriguing topics as: 1. Adjustments for Round Two; 2. Discipline against the annoying likes of Tom Wilson and Cal Clutterbuck; 3. The X-Factor.

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Klitschko Wins in Return to The Garden

Heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko gained what he was looking for in his return to The Garden – a win. The manner in which he collected his 64th career-victory was far from spectacular, but in a very workman-like, methodical way, Klitschko got the job done.

Despite not dominating the fight, like pugilist fans have been accustomed to seeing over the years, Klitschko had no problem gaining a unanimous decision against Bryant Jennings to retain his titles for the 18th time before 17,056 vocal fans on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden.

“I was expecting to get the win, to defend my titles,” Klitschko said at the post-fight presser. “Unfortunately, I didn’t defend as impressively as I usually do it.”

Despite the non-dominant performance, the scorecards were certainly lopsided in the champ’s favor, as the judges had it 118-109, 116-111 and 116-111.

Klitschko, who now sits at 64-3, (54 KO’s) looked perhaps a bit slower and less powerful as usual, however his 6’6″ frame has proven to be the biggest obstacle for opponents to overcome. Jennings, who dropped to 19-1, (10 KO’s), tried as best as he could to pound Klitschko’s body, along with some winging overhead rights sprinkled in, however any momentum Jennings tried to garner would be thwarted by Klitschko’s constant clinching.

Eventually, a point was deducted by referee Michael Griffin from Klitschko late in the fight for excessive holding, but the point served as just a blip on the scorecards; not affecting the fight.

Klitschko’s historic run as the heavyweight title-holder now sits at nine years, second only to Joe Louis, who owns the record of more than 11-and-a-half years.

“I feel great to be back after a seven-year break,” Klitschko said after returning to fight in the United States for the first time since February 2008. “Fans from all over the world also love to come to the States and see the fight at The Garden. It was a great experience.”

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Jennings had his moments in the fight, landing on some wide overhand rights, however, he had problems building any momentum, and never had Klitschko in any sort of trouble.

“Every time I started working, he held me,” Jennings said. “I thought the margin (on the scorecards) should have been closer.”

“Jennings is a very good challenger, a very good competitor,” Klitschko said after the fight. “He would have beaten a number of top heavyweights.”

Only six years in the sport of boxing, Jennings definitely impressed many on press-row, standing up to one of the all-time greats at The Mecca of Boxing.

“Even in a loss, they should not praise me, but salute me and show respect,” Jennings said, “This fight does not penetrate my confidence.”

“It was the confidence that they all question me about. I’m a man and he’s a man, and when we get (in the boxing ring) that’s what we’re here to do,” Jennings said. “This is a sport and we come to fight and come to put it all on the line, and we accept any outcome. Win, lose or draw.”

In a fight that few would call an action fight, Klitschko landed 144 of 545 punches, while Jennings connected on 110 of 376.

“Let’s do it again. I saw him huffing and puffing. Wherever that ‘Steelhammer’ was, it didn’t penetrate this inexperienced, small fighter,” Jennings quipped.

Jennings connected in the sixth, which garnered “Dr. Steelhammer’s” attention, but as any great champ does, Klitschko came on strong, firing his left jab over and over again – sending the back-peddling Jennings on the retreat.

Jennings, knowing he was behind on the scorecards and despite his desire, was unable to mount sustained pressure or throw the haymaker in the late rounds.

Klitschko will most likely fight mandatory challenger, Tyson Fury (24-0 (18 KO’s) next. It’s a fight that should take place in Europe, however, Klitschko could soon fight at The Garden once again, as the emergence of U.S. born heavyweight, Deontay Wilder, has many putting the two together for a fight next year.

Wilder, 33-0 (32 KO’s), together with Klitschko could stage the bout, which could become the signature fight Klitschko desires at this stage of his career.

But by no means is Klitschko prepared to begin planning for his retirement. He even joked about seeking out the 50-year-old Bernard Hopkins to ask him about the keys of fighting in the fifties.

“I’m enjoying it so much right now,” Klitschko said. “Every second and every moment.”

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Time To Lick Wounds And Watch TV For Rangers

 

It won’t be on until Monday, but I guarantee that the most popular television show in Rangerville that night will not feature the Blueshirts.

But it sure will affect them — big-time.

All New York hockey eyes will be focused on the Islanders-Capitals game at Verizon Center because the winner will challenge the Rangers’ long-range goal to capture the Stanley Cup.

There’s some work on drawing board to be done in the interim, as well as updates on the medical conditions of Mats ZuccarelloKevin Klein and others of the skating wounded.

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Scanning the horizon toward the second round, coach Alain Vigneault also must look backward and deduce just why a decimated Pittsburgh outfit was able to take a game from New York and lose only by a goal in all of the Rangers’ victories.

The easy guess would be that the Seventh Avenue Skaters took their Steel City opponents for granted and never could get themselves in high gear.

Even in the decisive Game 5 at The Garden on Friday night, the visitors came extraordinarily close to putting AV’s team away in overtime before Carl Hagelin’s wrister wrestled the Penguins out of the series.

Beyond the raucous red-light cheers, there remain causes for concern before the second round begins later this week. For example:

  • KILLER INSTINCT: Despite a superior, near-healthy roster, the Blueshirts couldn’t dispose of the heavily hampered-by-injuries Penguins. We’re talking about a club that barely squeezed into the playoffs and with a virtually useless — possibly injured — Evgeni Malkin. That tells me that AV had better find his club’s killer instinct before it costs them more than a game, as it did with Pitt.
  • UNDER-ENERGIZED NASH: The jump; the vigor that characterized Rick Nash‘s banner regular season appears to have evaporated; for the first round at least. Hopefully, we’re not viewing another muzzled marauder. In the end, average Rick didn’t do any real harm but this club needs an above-average Nash — or else.
  • POWER PLAY: Why isn’t it better? The personnel is all there. I don’t get it.

Then again, neither do they.

Now for the good news; there’s plenty of time for repairs.

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One Down, Three Series To Go

 

The Rangers wanted no part of an upset on Friday night at The Garden and nothing whatsoever to do with a Penguins uprising, as if such a feat were possible.

And it almost was, as Pittsburgh attacked relentlessly in overtime before Carl Hagelin dispatched the Visitors’ assaults with one flick of the wrist ending the sudden death.

Carl Hagelin speaks to the media after scoring the series-winning goal for the Rangers in overtime against the Penguins.

What Alain Vigneault’s skaters wanted is what they fought for and that is a transition – although a bit bumpy — to the Playoff’s Round Two. That means a bout with either the Capitals or (gasp-gasp) the Islanders.

Asserting their superiority in all areas during the Penguins’ extinction, the Blueshirts almost escaped without an injury to the lineup. That situation held until the first period when Mats Zuccarello went down after being hit in the head by a Ryan McDonagh shot.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that there’s the delicious prospect of top-four defenseman Kevin Klein finally rejoining the lineup for the next round, whether it’s Washington or the Isles.

Either way, the New Yorkers are ready. What’s more they are secure in the knowledge that they did not bring their best game to the Penguins’ aquarium throughout the five-game series.

For more positives, A.V’s Armory is stacked with the best, balanced brand of hockey weapons and woe to the foe that will face them next week.

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When that happens the Blueshirts will be ready with a varied blend of talent. To wit:

  • DERICK BRASSARD: Always playoff-effective, the Blueshirts’ primary center is poised for an even better second round. Tied for the team lead in scoring with four points, he’s blended well with Rick Nash and Zuccarello who may not ready for Round Two.
  • DEREK STEPAN: For a change, the Blueshirts opened scoring with a power-play goal; not that this is against NHL law. As a matter of fact, Stepan’s red light might herald even better PP doings in weeks to come; and I don’t mean Steve Weeks or Kevin Weekes either.
  • RICK NASH: Big things continue to be demanded of the Large Fellow and that doesn’t include his back checking and defensive work. Remember, this is the spring of 2015, not 2014. Unless I’m missing my guess, the Nash pistons should be producing more speed and more scoring in Round Two.
  • CARL HAGELIN: There’s been a tendency to overlook Kid Lightning’s strike-ability, but his speed is the perfect accomplice to a shot that’s deadly accurate. Exhibit A was on display for all to see – except Marc-Andre Fleury – at 10:52 of overtime.
  • MCDONAGH-GIRARDI COMBO-PLUS: The Rangers’ Twin Tormenters of enemy forwards continue to give New York a foundation for a solid four-series run. Other formidable Dmen include Marc Staal and Keith Yandle.

Dan Girardi talks about the importance of ending the Rangers' first-round series early and his feeling while being on the ice for Carl Hagelin's series-winning goal for the Blueshirts.

Depending on when Klein returns, the remainder of the blueline corps includes Dan Boyle and Matt Hunwick.

While Boyle has looked a step slow at times, he picked up the primary assist on Stepan’s power-play goal. Hunwick, originally pegged as the seventh defensemen, has not looked out of place in any situation on the ice.

A key for the Seventh Avenue Skaters throughout the series has been their ability to grind out a one-goal advantage win one way or the other; even if overtime is necessary.

On Friday night, they were forced to push their way into sudden death. And, this time, with elimination staring them in the sticks, the undermanned Penguins fought valiantly to a finish.

In time, they were finished by Hagelin. The left wing used his speed to pivot into shooting position. The Swift Swede then turned the puck into a flying zephyr that eluded Fleury who otherwise had been near-flawless in the Pitt crease.

“Carl’s goal now gives our guys some rest,” said Staal who played his usually steady game.

Thus, the Blueshirts have earned a respite that will extend at least until Wednesday or Thursday, when the Second Round should begin.

Round Two will no more be a waltz in the park than the Pittsburgh challenge.

Then again, if the Rangers release their reservoir of talent it might very well be no more than a sprint into Round Three.

“Any time you can win in overtime twice,” concluded Hagelin, “it shows that our team has a lot of character!”

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