19 Thoughts As Rangers Push Habs To The Brink

OK, raise your hands if you had the Rangers dead and buried after Games 2 and 3.

Don’t lie.

So six days later, after Mika Zibanejad’s overtime goal beat Montreal 3-2 in Game 5 Thursday, they’ll be at home trying to shake hands with the Canadiens at The Garden.

Thoughts:

1. I know you can’t go back and say things would have gone the same way if one game had gone differently, but the truth is the Rangers have been the better team outright in three games and were 17 seconds away from winning a fourth.

2. Don’t accuse me of being Mr. Negative, but I do want to be Mr. Reality. This isn’t necessarily over. I suspect the Canadiens will play their best game of the series Saturday night and will be a very difficult team to eliminate. And we all know that the Rangers have taken the foot off the gas at times within series (2-14 in the last 16 games after they’ve taken a series lead). So there’s that. Another test of character and leadership upcoming. On the positive side, the Rangers have won 14 straight playoff series (going back to 1986) in which they won Game 5.

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3. Mika Zibanejad. He had a terrible start to this series, and of course, people were tossing around “Big Game Derick Brassard” since the ex-Ranger was playing his 60-foot game and putting up offense for Ottawa. And yeah, Brassard had some big (and some puny) playoff moments for the Rangers. But I still think the Zibanejad-Brassard trade was terrific for the Rangers, given the size, speed and age of the players. Zibanejad’s been better in each of the last two games, and as you know, he scored a couple of OT goals and at least one shootout winner during the season. He also scored the winning goal in OT for Sweden in the World Juniors once upon a time. This one was huge for him. Big Game Zib?

4. It came off a lucky bounce, Chris Kreider’s pass off a Montreal stick went right to Zibanejad, who put it past Carey Price (25-30 lifetime record in the playoffs) for the win. Kreider was also having a very difficult and quiet series, then came alive with one break down the left wing, then he nearly got the winner off a pass from Zibanejad, but whiffed before setting up the winner.

5. And getting two more of their top nine forwards going can’t happen soon enough for the Rangers, because rookie Jimmy Vesey not only is NOT out of place in his first Stanley Cup playoff series, but is clearly the Rangers’ second best forward behind Rick Nash. And it’s not close. Nash = Monster. Vesey = Monster Jr.

6. Of course, Henrik Lundqvist has to be Henrik Lundqvist, and we all had some level of doubt or, at least, question, about him coming into these playoffs. Well, he’s back on top of his game. He’s the Rangers’ most important player by far, and he’s been stellar, allowing a total of three goals in the three wins, and stopped 54 shots in one of the losses. Not much more needs to be said. But he stopped Max Pacioretty on a breakaway at a huge moment in this one and frustrated the Habs, who like to shoot from everywhere, whether there are bodies in front or not. Poor Pacioretty, the Habs captain and best goal scorer. Zero goals on 24 shots on Lundqvist.

7. So the Rangers, needing to prove that their raised level of effort and execution in Game 4 wasn’t a fluke and that they wouldn’t follow that performance with a loss, got off to a terrific start. Right off the bat, Mats Zuccarello, off a return pass from Kreider, couldn’t get his shot from near point-blank up high on Price. Lundqvist followed with an equally good stop or two.

8. Things were, again, nasty all night. Brendan Smith fought Andrew Shaw after Steve Ott – shocker — was allowed to repeatedly “fall” on the back of Lundqvist’s legs. Good for Smith. The Rangers need a guy like that. But it was 1-0 when Marc Staal gave up the puck as he tried to avoid an official’s skates, then got beaten several times, in footraces by Artturi Lehkonen, who beat Lundqvist on a wraparound.

9. The Rangers’ struggling penalty kill got a short-handed goal, Zibanejad with the steal and a terrific 2-on-2 pass to Jesper Fast, who tied the game. But the Rangers’ PK gave it right back, Brendan Gallagher alone in the high slot. Dan Girardi, who had a physical game, went down for the block and only screened Lundqvist. The shot may have hit Ryan McDonagh on the way in. So it was 2-1 after one.

10. I thought the Rangers start was good, but the second period started to unfold like the third period and OT of Game 2. Rush, no dump-in, no shot, turnover, defend, defend, defend. Rinse, repeat. Until Vesey decided to do some wall work, got it to Nash, who drove hard to the net, and Brady Skjei scored in close to tie the game 2-2.

11. The Rangers began to take over in the third (the Pacioretty breakaway notwithstanding), their speed – which starts with good defensive play and good outlets – just roasting the Canadiens and it became even more of an evident advantage in overtime. The Habs couldn’t handle the Rangers’ forwards, just as had been the case in 2014, and despite (or because of) the return of defenseman Alexei Emelin.

12. A funny thing happened in the second and third periods, too. The Rangers’ penalty kill, which had made things too easy for opponents down the stretch, killed a penalty to McDonagh. Then one to Zuccarello. Then a final kill on a completely needless penalty taken by J.T. Miller, after his blue-line giveaway, late in the third period of a 2-2 game. Naturally, the PK lives and dies with Lundqvist.

13. Now about that Rangers power play? Never mind. Let’s just say they can make things a lot more easy on themselves however long they keep playing if they can mix in a PPG here and there. In this series, it has had chances to put games away and is now 0-14 in the series.

14. A ticked-off McDonagh is an even-better-than-usual McDonagh. He’s been teed the whole series, and just sensational. McDonagh was sandwiched by Pacioretty and Alexander Radulov, and for a moment there looked badly hurt. He also took an uncalled, absolutely intentional Brendan Gallagher stick to the face. McDonagh got even nastier after that as did his partner, Girardi.

15. Pavel Buchnevich. Looked perfectly comfortable in the – let’s face it – filthy atmosphere this series has taken. After a couple of minor hiccups early, I thought his presence really helped the Rangers’ play with some skill. He’s been taking an earful from the likes of Ott. By the way, other than being a pain in the neck and winning some draws, has Ott had any bearing on the series? Dwight King? Has he even played? Andrew Shaw commits foul after uncalled-foul, but he’s a fourth-liner, let’s face it. I think it’s a big edge for the Rangers for the Canadiens to dress these guys.

16. Guys like Ott, Shaw, Gallagher get the benefit of what I call “the Lindros rule.” Colin Campbell, when he was the Rangers coach, said Eric Lindros committed a penalty every shift, but there’s no way the referees are going to call them all.

17. As I watch these playoffs, it occurs to me that pretty much all goalies are fairly equal, and the reason for that, I presume, is the absurd amount of needless stuff they are allowed to wear under their jerseys and pants. They all play on their knees and with the “equipment” they’ve added, they’re pretty much all 6 feet by 4 feet. I’d love to see goalies have to wear more old-time style “padding,” but then I presume they all wouldn’t pretty much be equal and we’d find out which are good, which are bad, and which are great.

18. One more thing I’ve noticed. There isn’t a team in the league that doesn’t have some issues fielding six quality defensemen. Most barely have three or four. Watch the goals they give up. Watch how many uncontested shots in front. Watch how many times two defensemen chase behind the net or below the icing line. Which usually puts one of them in perfect position to fish the puck out of the net.

19. If I were a coach, all of my penalty killers would be required to use wooden sticks during the kill. How often does a broken stick compromise a kill? Some company is going to make zillions of dollars by coming up with a light-weight, high-whip stick that doesn’t snap like a twig.