Were you expecting something else?
The Rangers won a game they really needed to have Tuesday night and their second-round playoff series with Ottawa now has a different complexion.
1. Over the last six springtimes, the Rangers have now played 90 playoff games (this is their 15th series). They’ve developed some characteristics, the core group of the team and now, we see, the newer-comers too.
2. Those include a negative – a propensity to make things difficult on themselves following wins that give them leads in a series. For example, and until recently, difficulties on home ice. But they also include the other side of that coin. When the Rangers have a bad loss, or a tough loss, or when they are desperate for a win in a series, we’ve seen time and time again this team pull up its “big-boy pants,” as Alain Vigneault has said (John Tortorella had another phrase for it, much less family friendly).
3. This was one of those calls to order. In the last couple of playoff seasons, we’ve seen the Rangers drop a dreadful Game 7 at The Garden to Tampa Bay in the Eastern Final (I still think they win that series if they don’t have four broken defensemen) and we’ve seen them fail to step up to the plate against Pittsburgh when the going got tough last spring.
4. Now we needed to see what they’ve got, just as they did in the Montreal series that preceded this one; when they had a really tough loss in Game 2, followed by a terrible poor at home in Game 3, to then put on those “big-boy pants” and win three in a row. On Tuesday night, needing a win, whether it was ugly or stolen or lucky or deserved, they decided to go out and absolutely control a hockey game with tenacity and speed, dictating the pace throughout and playing wonderfully in their own end of the ice.
5. Ottawa coach Guy Boucher said it correctly postgame, that the game was lost (or, in the Rangers’ case won) in the first period. And that it’s difficult to manufacture enough desperation when the other team is truly and naturally more desperate. We see it all the time, and in these 90 games, we’ve sure seen it in the Rangers, as mentioned above.
6. I actually feel sorry for AV at these pressers when the crowd gets larger and the repetitive questions more plentiful, especially this one … when for two days he’s been saying the Rangers dictated most of the first two games. I happen to agree with him. They lost Game 1 on a fluke goal, and lost Game 2 after being in control for 56 minutes up two goals three times. I also thought, after blowing that lead, they were the better team for most of the two overtimes. But it’s hard to convince people that you don’t need to change much when you don’t think you played poorly at all and are down 0-2.
7. Vigneault did make some changes. He replaced Pavel Buchnevich with Tanner Glass, juggled some lines, and gave Brady Skjei and Brendan Smith second-pair minutes, meaning Marc Staal and Nick Holden were the third pair. I thought Buchnevich struggled with the Ottawa trap before being benched in Game 2, and that Staal-Holden haven’t been as good as Skjei-Smith. But, unlike the Twitterverse, I didn’t think Buchnevich’s benching (with linemate Oscar Lindberg) and Staal-Holden getting more minutes in Game 2 were the reasons why they lost it. That’s just me, perhaps. But the changes helped win Game 3, so there shouldn’t be any changes for Game 4. Me personally? I would have kept playing Buchnevich because of the skill and four-line depth that has been their calling card this season. But … in Game 3, the Rangers got a goal from all four lines, so …
8. Like most playoff-experienced players and coaches, I don’t believe one iota in momentum from one game to another in a series. Otherwise, where was Ottawa’s momentum from that dramatic win Saturday? But the Rangers might have a psychological edge now that they’ve put nine pucks behind goalie Craig Anderson in two games. Maybe.
9. The Rangers dictated pace early. Dan Girardi sent a puck to Mika Zibanejad, who made a strong play around the back of the net, and while going down to a knee, he still got the puck to Mats Zuccarello who beat Anderson. 1-0 Blueshirts. The two Z’s = Monsters. Perhaps Zibanejad’s best game as a Ranger, and the last two games he’s been miles better than Big Game Brassard, for whom he was dealt last summer.
10. It was a good start in other ways, too – with pace, discipline, smarts, speed and physicality, especially from J.T. Miller, new linemate Glass, Girardi, and Rick Nash, who slammed Erik Karlsson early. Later on, Zibanejad uncharacteristically threw a big hit at Mike Hoffman, and Zuccarello hit Karlsson in the chops on the forecheck. Zack Smith left the game in the second period after being clobbered by a Glass-and-Miller sandwich in the first.
11. The Rangers kept the pressure on, beat the Senators’ Boucher-trap handily, as they have for most of the first three games. They went to work when there was nothing there on the rush. So Zuccarello drew Karlsson to him above the left circle along the wall, and sent a smart backhanded pass behind the net, which was was mishandled by Anderson. Michael Grabner went back there with Ben Harpur, and came out with the puck. Anderson was looking the other way as Grabner came out and stuffed it inside the post. 2-0 Blueshirts.
12. Was Derek Stepan serious with his drop pass inside the blue line with 10 seconds left in the first period? Henrik Lundqvist had to make a good save to prevent it from being a disaster. At that time of a period, that’s not a good play, even if Wayne Gretzky is joining the play behind you.
13. Speaking of which, Ryan Dzingel put the Rangers on the power play when he caught and threw a puck at Stepan. Chris Kreider nullified the power play by slashing Dion Phaneuf behind the legs in the slot.
14. Grabner was robbed, barely, by Anderson in close after the two penalties expired and has been one of the Rangers’ best forwards in the series. And the Rangers, even when Ottawa was making it a bit more difficult, were on top of more loose pucks than the Senators. A lot more.
15. Ottawa was getting better in the game in the second, when Karlsson (minus-3) and a teammate, I think it was Hoffman, collided, thus creating a 2-on-1. Stepan got it to Nash, who sniped it short side on Anderson. 3-0 Blueshirts.
16. Daily Nash-O-Meter (making its return after a long absence): Guy’s been a beast in these playoffs, in all three zones and on the penalty kill. He’s got eight goals and eight assists in his last 18 playoff games.
17. Late in the second with 1:43 left, Glass sent Miller in. Miller spun along the wall, Dion Phaneuf blew a tire, and Miller was allowed to walk in and complete a perfect pass across the front of the net to Lindberg. 4-0 Blueshirts. Lindberg sure had a nice bounce-back from his benching in Game 2, though I think that had more to do with Buchnevich’s benching and Vigneault cutting down to three lines.
18. Then the breakdown. Ryan McDonagh couldn’t cover J.G. Pageau on a behind-the-back pass from behind the net by Bobby Ryan. 4-1. With all the internet whining about Staal and Holden’s minutes to Skjei and Smith’s in Game 2, it was McDonagh who couldn’t tie up Pageau in front on the tying goal in Game 2. Actually, on the Pageau goal in Game 3, McDonagh’s clearing attempt, which probably goes out of the zone and negates any chance, hit a referee’s skate and stayed in the zone. Anyway, Pageau was limited to one goal this time. Ryan also was injured in the third period.
19. The Rangers protected the lead better, but they still sent one man on the forecheck and didn’t spend enough time in the Ottawa zone. But they did defend much more responsibly and tenaciously than they had with the two-goal leads in Game 2.
20. Viktor Stalberg moved down the right side with the speed we saw last year when he was a Ranger. Skjei skated to catch him, got his shoulder in front of Stalberg, and impeded him perfectly. Stalberg grabbed Skjei’s stick under his arm, then took a dive. Penalty to Skjei.
21. Lundqvist didn’t have to make a ton of sensational saves, but he made one on Clarke MacArthur in behind McDonagh in the third. Lundqvist tidily atoned for his game Saturday, when he said he was never comfortable. In the Rangers’ 30 playoff wins since the 2014 playoffs, Lundqvist has a 1.26 goals-against average and a .958 save percentage. That’s per the unrivaled Rangers stat man, Mike Rappaport.
22. So awesome to see inspirational Hall of Famer Dave Strader calling the game on NBCSN.
23. Don’t look now No. 1: The Rangers’ penalty kill is 7-for-7 with two short-handed goals the last two games. Holy moly! Where was that the last two years?
24. Don’t look now No. 2: I think the Rangers have won three in a row at the World’s Most Famous. They’re going to have to win at least one more. The next one.