Handicapping the Rangers and Islanders First-Round Playoff Series

@StanFischler

Both the Rangers and Islanders are IN — and, really, that’s all that matters.

For the moment.

You make the playoffs and then — history has amply demonstrated — anything can happen; and I don’t mean maybe either.

In 1975, the once-forlorn Islanders just barely squeezed into their first postseason berth and you know what happened after that; or do you?

Facing the vaunted Rangers, the Nassaumen upset the Blueshirts and then knocked off Pittsburgh by winning four straight games after losing the first three in the row.

Matter of fact, coach Al Arbour’s club almost took Philly in Round 3 — losing the first trio of contests, then winning three — before bowing out in Game 7.

How about the 1979 Rangers, coached by Freddie (The Fog) Shero? The underdog Seventh Avenue Skaters ousted one of the best Islanders teams of all-time in six games. John Davidson’s crisp goaltending and Anders Hedberg’s accurate stick helped turn that series to the City Boys favor.

That was then, but this is now, so let’s check out the chances of our two Met Area teams and their first round foes:

RANGERS-PENGUINS

GOALTENDING:
Henrik Lundqvist‘s Cup quest continues as the hour-glass keeps pouring against King H. No question he’s still in mint condition and has been the franchise bedrock for most of the season. Netminding is not an issue; with Antti Raanta as an effective back-up.

DEFENSE:
In any of the three previous seasons, the blueline corps never would have been an issue. And — on paper — it should not be a cause for concern this term. But facts on the ice have told a different story.

Some analytics savants have pointed at Dan Girardi as a less effective back-liner than in previous seasons and it is conceivable that the shot-blocking demanded by ex-coach John Tortorella may have worn down this redoubtable warrior. Still, there’s plenty of experience in Marc Staal, Keith Yandle and Kevin Klein, among others. Not to mention captain Ryan McDonagh if he returns from injury.

Dan Boyle and Dylan McIlrath round out the offensive and defensive fixtures, respectively, and could become meaningful factors as the series unfolds. McIlrath, in particular, has ripened into a tough, solid rookie.

OFFENSE:
The addition of Eric Staal at the trade deadline should be one of the most noteworthy moves of 2015-16 for the Rangers arsenal. At its best, the Blueshirts offense is as balanced as any in the league.

Apart from goaltending, the spread of scorers borders on intimidating. Consider the fact that Chris Kreider and Derek Stepan have found their groove at the right time. Add to them, the weapons of Mats Zuccarello, Derick Brassard, J.T. Miller, Kevin Hayes, Jesper Fast — the Players’ Player — and Oscar Lindberg.

INTANGIBLES:
If the going gets nasty, the under-rated Tanner Glass is available along with two-fisted McIlrath.

ISSUES:
There are vital questions as to McDonagh’s return and in what condition. Also whether Rick Nash and Eric Staal can produce big-time in the playoffs.

COACHING:
Alain Vigneault knows the score thanks to plenty of playoff experience. And, yes, he is capable of pressing the right buttons at the right time. A Cup finalist but never a Cup-winner, AV’s motivation is as strong as ever.

HOW TO BEAT PITTSBURGH:
Opening on the road should not be a problem for the Blueshirts, nor should the Penguins goaltending. Even if Marc-Andre Fleury returns, he cannot possibly be in A-1 shape. Should M.A.F. remain sidelined, both inexperienced Matt Murray and Jeff Zatkoff figure to be sitting ducks as long as the Rangers fire plenty of pucks at the back-ups. The Rangers offense needs to play a more North-South game and get a gritty mindset.

As my sage Rangers-watcher Gus Vic notes, “Inconsistent coverage in the defensive zone must be cleaned up. Ergo: New York can’t win with poor defensive zone puck management and puck-clearing. Considering how effective the Pittsburgh power play, staying out of the penalty box is an imperative.”

Phil Kessel could be Pitt’s wild card, but the ex-Leaf often looks more out of shape than in the groove. Likewise, the Penguins defense has a soft underbelly and it will be even softer with backup goalies replacing the veteran Fleury.

Finally, the Rangers theme song should be, “We Did It Before And We Can Do It Again.”

And if you don’t believe me just check last year’s Rangers-Penguins series!

MAVEN’S CALL:
Rangers in six.



ISLANDERS-PANTHERS

GOALTENDING:
The Islanders — by necessity — alternated between Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss in net. At season’s start, Halak was the designated N0. 1, but after Game 82, it was Greiss who had played more games as the understudy. Even worse, Halak’s homestretch injury could mean that he’ll be unavailable for the playoffs.

Thus, Greiss will — hopefully — carry the load while Jean-Francois Berube winds up moving from No. 3 to No. 2. At the very least, puck-stopping is a questionable commodity for the Brooklynites.

DEFENSE:
The big, BIG, hope is that Travis Hamonic will return in time for the playoff opener. If so, the blueline corps has flexibility with Nick Leddy, Johnny Boychuk, Thomas Hickey and Calvin de Haancomprising the inner quartet. Jack Capuano then must choose from among gifted youngsters such as Ryan Pulock and Adam Pelech. Then again, vets Marek Zidlicky and Brian Strait could get the nod, depending on whether the coach wants experience over vitality.

OFFENSE:
By far, the biggest gap is the one created by Anders Lee’s season-ending injury. Lee had morphed into a scoring boulder situated right outside the crease. His 15 goals hardly speak to the Big Guy’s value and that explains why Cappy’s challenge will be finding an adequate replacement.

My choice would be Steve Bernier, who dressed for a mere 24 regular season games. Nonetheless, the ex-Devil has the experience and grit to be a reasonable facsimile, should he get the nod.

Two elements could turn the Isles offense into a major force: 1) A threatening line comprised of captain John Tavares flanked by Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen. That triumvirate propelled Cappy’s crew into the playoffs and has the potential to remedy any scoring deficiencies: 2) The “Fourth Line” of Matt Martin-Cal Clutterbuck-Casey Cizikas ranks among the best of its kind at guerrilla warfare. Plus, it also produces key goals.

What’s in-between raises questions. Brock Nelson‘s production slipped in the stretch and must revive if red-light balance is to be achieved. Josh Bailey must — as in MUST — rev up his game to the next gear. Ditto for Ryan Strome, who has been in-and-out of the coach’s dog house.

Not to be overlooked is the solid defensive game delivered byNikolay Kulemin.

The Trade Deadline addition of Shane Prince could be GM Garth Snow‘s “sleeper” move the proves effective in terms of speed and penalty-killing.

Finally, Mikhail Grabovski‘s shot will be missed, but the club has adjusted to his absence as well as it could.

INTANGIBLES:
Tavares should be super-motivated considering that he has just two first-round exits on his resume. In October, it was figured that Halak would be the puck-stopping savior, but now the pressure is on Greiss to prove that he has the goods in the clutch. This Islanders club must show that it can break through and into the second playoff round.

ISSUES:
For the past two seasons, the Isles have swooned in the homestretch, just about sneaking into a playoff slot. This is not the best formula for finishing high on the playoff hog.

COACHING:
Capuano is as likable as any bench boss; and that goes for players and the media who cover the man. But Cappy’s inability to move the Isles up another rung or two on the post-season ladder now is a cause for concern in terms of whether he really has the goods.

HOW TO BEAT FLORIDA:
Jaromir Jagr is the Cats MVP, but can be stopped. All the Isles have to do is check out the 1993 playoff vs. Pitt when Darius Kasparaitis drove Mario Lemieux nuts. This time, Clutterbuck can become the latter-day Kasper The Ghost. That said, the Panthers display a neat blend of youth and experience, who play hard on the puck in all three zones.

What the Isles need to succeed is more consistency and a strong playoff from Captain Tavares. The lineup must be motivated from start to finish so that the franchise can take the next step upward in Brooklyn. The return of a healthy Hamonic could be the decisive factor. But, more than anything, Tavares must lead by deed.

As Ryan Kennedy writes in The Game’s Bible, The Hockey News, “The captain of the Islanders is now in his seventh NHL season. He has been a first team All-Star, a Hart Trophy runner-up and a gold medalist at the Winter Olympics. But team success in the NHL has eluded him.” Now’s the time for that “team success.”

MAVEN’S CALL:
Islanders in seven.