Martin St. Louis

NY Rangers Preview: The King Must Lead Them

For the NY Rangers to have success, Henrik Lundqvist must remain a world class goalie.

For the NY Rangers to have success, Henrik Lundqvist must remain a world class goalie.

by Drew Sarver

The New York Rangers fanbase is one of the most loyal and most frustrated of any sports franchise’in history. Fans waited all or part of 54 years to watch the Rangers hoist the Stanley Cup after a drought that lasted from 1940 to 1994. When the playoffs arrive this Spring, it will have been 21 years since the Rangers won their last Cup, and their window of opportunity is running out.

The Rangers reached the Stanley Cup finals last season, where they ultimately lost to the Los Angeles Kings in five games, due in large part to their goalie, Henrik Lundqvist. The two-time Olympic medalist. is one of the top five ranked goalies in the world, arguably one of the top three. The Swedish native will turn 33-years old one month before the playoffs begin in 2015. If you check the history books you won’t find too many goaltenders past the age of 35 that won the Stanley Cup as the “go to guy” in the nets. (The Boston Bruins’ Tim Thomas was 37 when he kicked and gloved his way to the 2011 Stanley Cup.)

It’s remarkable to think back and realize that the Rangers really did not know what they had when they took Lundqvist in the 7th round of the 2000 entry draft. Al Montaya was thought to be the Rangers goalie of the future. In the year prior to his rookie season with New York, Lundqvist played for Frolunda HC Goteborg in the Sweden Elitserien League. (Now, the Swedish Hockey League.) He finished with a 33-8-2 record with a 1.79 Goals-Against-Average (GAA) in 44 games. (With the NHL season wiped out by a strike/players’ lockout, teammates included his twin brother Joel, Sami Salo, Daniel Alfredsson, and Loui Eriksson.) Lundqvist recorded a 1.05 GAA in the playoffs as Frolunda captured the league championship. By then the Rangers knew they had a head turning goalie.

The Rangers made the playoffs in eight of Lundqvist’s nine seasons in the NHL, no small coincidence for a team that missed the playoffs for seven straight seasons before “The King” arrived in New York. In 2012, the Rangers lost to one of their chief rivals, the New Jersey Devils, in a six-game Eastern Conference finals. Last season the Rangers seemed dead in the water in the conference semi-finals, but rallied from a 3-1 deficit in games to defeat the Pittsburgh Penguins and then advanced to the Cup finals with a six-game defeat of the Montreal Canadiens.

The Rangers lost the cup in five games to a faster, harder hitting, nastier, better scoring team in the Kings. LA also had the 2012 Cup MVP in goal, in the person of Jonathan Quick. The off-season apeared to severely damage the chances for a return to the Cup finals due to the free agent departure of defenseman Anton Stralman and forwards Brian Boyle and Benoit Pouliot.

To supplant the losses, Rangers’ President and General Manager Glen Sather signed forwards Lee Stempniak, Ryan Malone and Tanner Glass, offensive-minded defenseman Dan Boyle, and defenseman Matt Hunwick. The Rangers will need to lean on their young core even more – Carl Hagelin, Chris Kreider, J.T. Miller, and rookies Anthony Duclair and Kevin Hayes.

Wingers Martin St. Louis and Rick Nash must fill opponent’s nets with pucks like they did in Tampa Bay and Columbus, respectively. The Rangers ranked in the lower half (18th) in the league in scoring goals last season and were 15th on the power play. The latter is the main reason that Dan Boyle was brought in. The Rangers also need a breakout season from Kreider, whose speed, puck handling, strength and tenacity should produce more than the 17 goals and 37 points he scored in 66 games last season.

But what will make the Rangers tick first and foremost is Lundqvist and their group of solid to stellar defenseman. Newly appointed team captain Ryan McDonagh, and fellow veterans (an assistant captains) Dan Girardi and Marc Staal need to stay healthy and productive, and be more aggressive on the power play.

Did You Know?

Lundqvist, who got his nickname from the Rangers’ fans was the recipient of two of Sweden’s most prestigous hockey awards, the Golden Helmet and the Golden Puck. Guldhjälmen (Golden Helmet) is the Swedish League’s MVP Award, which Lundqvist won for his extraordinary 2005 season. He also captured Guldpucken (Golden Puck) that same season as the league’s ice hockey player of the year.

Wild Cards

Goalie Cam Talbot made his NHL debut last season at 26-years of age. His timing was perfect; Lundqvist went through a stretch when he struggled and was actually benched in favor of Talbot. The rookie’s play was so good, some fans called for him to be the #1 goalie. Lundqvist returned to normal and those fans had their sanity restored.

Talbot stuck with the team though and provided a solid and dependable backup goaltender. He recorded a 1.64 GAA in 21 games and finished with a 12-6-1 regular season record. Talbot will need to be sharp from the start of the current season with the first five games scheduled in eight nights.

When the Rangers found out that center Derek Stepan would miss a minimum of 10 games with a broken leg, St. Louis volunteered to move from his usual wing spot to center. Coach Alain Vigneault agreed and St. Louis will be the top center on opening night against, you guessed it, the St. Louis Blues. Kreider and Nash will be his wingmen.

Outlook

Media pundits have wide ranging opinions as to the status of the Rangers this season, from not making the playoffs to finally capturing the Stanley Cup again (the NY Post’s Larry Brooks endeared himself to his readers with that prediction.) The Rangers certainly have the manpower on paper to return to the league finals, but they need scoring from their first three lines.

They will need Stepan to not miss much more time than expected, for Matt Zuccarello to work his stick handling magic, for the power play to improve drastically, to remain one of the top penalty killing teams (third in the NHL last year at 85.3%), for Nash to remember how to score in the playoffs, and of course, for the King to be his outstanding himself.

The Rangers get a break at the start of the season with 11 of the first 16 games scheduled at home. They need to take advantage of that situation and get off to a good start. Look for the Rangers to once again finish second in the Metropolitan division to Pittsburgh.

Will they win the Cup? We’ll find out come Springtime.

 

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Drew Sarver is the founder, publisher, managing editor, and a contributor for Designated For Assignment. He can be followed on twitter at @mypinstripes and @d4assignment or contacted by email at dsarver@d4assignment.com.

NHL Stanley Cup: Kings 2 Games From Coronation

DustinBrownKings’ captain Dustin Brown’s Game 2 winner put the Kings halfway to another Cup.

by Drew Sarver

Watching the relentless style of the Los Angeles Kings makes you wonder why the Kings aren’t going for a three-peat of the Stanley Cup rather than their second title in three years.  The Kings have taken the first two games from the New York Rangers in overtime and double overtime. Both games played on the left coast saw Los Angeles come back from two goal deficits to force the extra ice time. They’re the first team to come back from two goal deficits to win in three straight games. The first was the finale of the Western Conference Finals when they topped the Chicago Blackhawks.

While the Rangers tremendous speed has been their biggest asset in the series, the big-bodied Kings hit from beginning to end. And they just keep coming.

Saturday night the Rangers were hoping to bounce back from their Game 1 disappointment and it appeared they might just do that. Game 2 started out in much the same manner as Game 1 with the Rangers netting the first two goals. But things turned around in the third period with New York ahead 4-2.

The Kings’ controversial third goal will be talked about for some time to come, but the aftermath was more frustrating for fans who saw the Rangers lose control of the game. It started when the Kings’ Matt Greene shot the puck from the right point. Kings’ winger Dwight King was  a sandwich between goalie Henrik Lundqvist and defenseman Ryan McDonagh in the Rangers crease. Greene’s shot hit King and got past Lundqvist for the goal. A two-goal lead was suddenly one and the shift in momentum was palpable.

Lundqvist immediately expressed his frustration to referee Brian O’Halloran, who signaled good goal. O’Halloran’s two part explanation was the puck was already past Lundqvist when contact was made and the contact was initiated by McDonagh.1 There is currently no video review for goaltender interference, but that could change as a result of the impact of the Kings’ goal. It was an odd no-call considering the Rangers Benoit Pouliot had gotten called for goaltender interference earlier in the game on a play that had less contact with the puck nowhere in sight.

The goal came within the first two minutes of third period and fired up the Kings’ fan base. Just as they had in the first game and throughout this year’s playoffs, the Kings took advantage of their opportunities. Former Ranger Marian Gaborik swept a loose puck in the slot past Lundqvist to tie the game at four apiece with a little over 12 minutes remaining in regulation.

After a scoreless first overtime – kept that way when Kings’ goalie Jonathan Quick stopped the Rangers’ Chris Kreider on a breakaway – Dustin Brown redirected Willie Mitchell’s blast from the left point past Lundqvist for the game winner at 10:26 of the second extra session. Just like that the Kings are in command of the best of seven series.

Notes

Many in the media predicted the Kings would be tired entering the series after having gone the full seven games in their three previous series. The Western Conference semi-finals concluded with a Game 7 overtime. While the Kings may be tired, they don’t look tired. In fact, it’s the Rangers who appear to be more tired. The Rangers, particularly in Game 2, often fell to the ice without contact. Bad skates or tired legs?

Only five teams in the history of the Stanley Cup playoffs have come back from a 2-0 deficit to win the championship. The 2011 Boston Bruins and 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins rallied from two down to win the title. They’re the only teams to do so in the last 40 years.

Rangers defenseman John Moore returned from a two game suspension for elbowing Montreal’s Dale Weise in the Eastern Conference semi-finals. Defenseman Rafael Diaz was a healthy scratch. Dan Carcillo’s 10 game suspension, for abusing an official, was reduced to six games and he could return for the fourth game of the series.

1 – sports.yahoo.com

 

Drew Sarver is the founder, publisher, managing editor, and a contributor for Designated For Assignment. He can be followed on twitter at @mypinstripes and @d4assignment or contacted by email at dsarver@d4assignment.com.

NHL Stanley Cup Final – Kings vs. Rangers

StanleyCup

The Stanley Cup champion. There can be only one!

by Drew Sarver

When you think about Los Angeles sports teams, physical toughness isn’t usually what comes to mind. The Magic Johnson-led Lakers couldn’t handle the Larry Bird-led Celtics until the Lakers upped their physical game. The result was two more championships in 1985 and 1987. The LA Kings epitomize toughness and physicality.

On the other hand, when you think about New York City sports teams, physical and mental toughness is one of the first things that come to mind. Whether it’s rebounding from 9/11 or Hurricane Sandy, New Yorkers and the residents of the Tri-State area are made of tough stuff. Against this backdrop of steely stoicism, you don’t necessarily think about people being in touch with their emotional side. Yet the New York Rangers are fine representation for family and watching each other’s backs.

The two biggest markets in sports are ready to clash in what could be an epic Stanley Cup Final. Major League Baseball saw the two cities duke it out four times, but the last World Series final between the Yankees and Dodgers was 1981. The Knicks and Lakers met in classic NBA finals in 1970, ‘72, and ‘73. The east and west coast powers have not met in football, which now stands as the only one of the four major sports where that is the case.

Beginning tonight, the Kings and Rangers will maneuver, coach, hit, shoot and pass the puck and kick- and glove-save it away for up to two weeks. When one team reaches that magical fourth victory in the best-of-seven series, the Stanley Cup will be wheeled out by white-glove clad men for the greatest celebration in modern sports.

The Teams

LA Kings (Stanley Cup Victory – 2012; Runner up – 1993)

Don’t let the words of Los Angeles Kings head coach Darryl Sutter fool you. He’s trying to play the underdog. But his team, which is largely intact from when they won the Stanley Cup two years ago, is the clear favorite.

After playing three conference series, the last of which ended in a Game 7 overtime victory on Sunday night, will the Kings show any fatigue? In Game 1 of the Stanley Cup, that’s not happening, at least from the outset when adrenaline takes over. The third period will be the true indicator of whether there is any lag from the Western conference finals.

The Kings are a beast that you better finish off when you have the chance. Their first round series with the San Jose Sharks saw the Kings fall behind three games to none. Four straight wins followed, including a 5-1 wipeout in Game 7.

The Anaheim Ducks looked like they would be the ones to knock the Kings off their throne when they erased a 2-0 deficit in games and won three straight. Forget about it…the Kings forced a Game 7 with a 2-1 victory at home and then dominated another seventh game on the road, 6-2.

Though not necessarily well played at times, the conference finals between the Kings and the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks was a classic. This time it was the Kings blowing a lead when the series appeared to be over. Back-to-back victories were earned by Chicago in Games 5, which went to double overtime, and in Game 6 which forced yet another seventh road game for LA. In their 21st playoff game of the year, the Kings’ Alec Martinez got a fortuitous bounce off of Blackhawks’ defenseman Nick Leddy, and the puck sailed past goalie Corey Crawford for the game winner.

NY Rangers (Stanley Cup Victories – 1928, 1933, 1940, 1994; Runner up – 1929, 1932, 1937, 1950, 1972, 1979)

No one expected the Rangers to reach the Stanley Cup final this year. There was no reason to expect it with the inconsistency that plagued the regular season or the powerless power play or their inability to score goals.

Then the trade deadline came and GM Glen Sather had a tough decision to make. Should he hold on to free-agent-to-be captain and spiritual leader, Ryan Callahan, or deal him so as not to lose out on any return if he walked after the season? Martin St. Louis was doing his own deliberating down in Tampa Bay. The 13-year veteran, possibly prompted by the decision of Lightning GM and Team Canada Executive Director Steve Yzerman to pass over his selection for the 2014 Canadian Olympic team, demanded a trade. He had one destination in mind, the New York Rangers, which would put him near his home in Connecticut.

On March 5, the Rangers sent Callahan, a first round draft pick, and a conditional first round pick to the Lightning for St. Louis and a pair of conditional picks. St. Louis managed just one goal and eight points in 19 games, and many wondered aloud if the 38-year old could handle playing in New York. But his teammates, especially friend and former Lightning teammate Brad Richards, knew better. The playoffs began and St. Louis started clicking.

The Rangers battled division rival Philadelphia before they squeaked out a 2-1 win in Game 7 at home. When they fell behind the Pittsburgh Penguins three games to one in the conference semi-finals, most pundits and fans started making their offseason plans. Then a tragic event seemed to turn things around.  St. Louis’ mother, France, died unexpectedly at the age of 63.

St. Louis and his family were embraced by the Rangers and a close team became even closer. The team, sparked by the play of St. Louis and goalie Henrik Lundqvist, won three straight games to capture the series. Like the Kings, the Rangers had won Game 7 on the road. The specialty units, especially the power play, had improved dramatically.

In the conference finals, the Rangers faced off against long-time “Original Six” rival, the Montreal Canadiens. The played their best game of the postseason in the Game 6 clincher, which saw Lundqvist and the Rangers win 1-0.

The Coaches

Head man Darryl Sutter is part of hockey royalty. Along with his brothers Duane, Brent, Brian, Ron, and Rich, he played in the NHL, and Brent’s son Brandon is currently a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Prior to coming to LA, Sutter coached the Chicago Blackhawks, San Jose Sharks and Calgary Flames. He was behind the bench for the Flames team that went to the seventh game of the Stanley Cup finals with the Tampa Lightning in 2004. The Lightning, which included St. Louis and Richards, won the finale 2-1.

Sutter was also GM of the Flames and resigned as coach after the 2005-2006 season to concentrate on his front office position. He stepped down in the middle of the 2010-2011 season and was hired a little less than a year later to replace Terry Murray as the Kings’ head coach. Sutter then won his first Stanley Cup when the Kings swept the New Jersey Devils in the 2012 final.

Alain Vigneault knows what it is like to get to the mountain top, but also how rough it is to come back down. The former defenseman played just 42 games over parts of two seasons in the NHL before going into coaching. After not finding success in parts of four seasons with Montreal, Vigneault was hired as the Vancouver Canucks’ head man in 2006-2007. The Canucks finished with the best record in the division and/or NHL six times in the regular season, but made it to the finals just once. There they lost to the Boston Bruins in seven games after holding a 3 games to 2 lead. After being swept in the first round last year, the Canucks fired Vigneault, who basically swapped jobs with fellow fired coach John Tortorella.

The Goalies

Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick’s resume shows a Stanley Cup championship, an Olympic Silver medal for Team USA (2010) and a second place finish in the Vezina Trophy voting, for the league’s best goalie, in 2012. The Kings current playoff run in no way reflects the way they blew through opponents en route to the championship two years ago. That team went 16-4 in the playoffs and Quick held opponents to a 1.41 goals per game. He also stopped nearly 95% of the shots he faced. This year, Quick has a 2.86 goals-against-average (GAA) and the team has allowed many more shots on goal than the winning squad. The 28-yr old is at his best when he stays in the crease area and doesn’t wander too much. He has a tendency to drop down too quickly at times, which can allow an opponent to roof the puck to beat him.1 http://forecaster.thehockeynews.com/hockeynews/hockey/player.php?5348

Rangers’ goalie Henrik Lundqvist has won Gold and Silver Olympic medals representing his native Sweden, and won the 2012 Vezina Trophy, beating out Quick. He was the runner up last season. This is the 32-year old’s first appearance in the Stanley Cup finals. After a rough start to the season, in which he was at times benched for back up Cam Talbot, Lundqvist was outstanding in the second half of the year and carried that level of play into the postseason. He has a 2.03 GAA and has stopped 92.8% of his opponent’s shots. Lundqvist likes to play deep in the crease and has a strong glove hand. His style is used to take away low shots, so expect opponents to try to beat him in the upper part of the net.2 http://forecaster.thehockeynews.com/hockeynews/hockey/player.php?2585

The Defense

The Kings’ Drew Doughty is arguably one of the best defensemen in hockey. He was the second overall pick in the 2008 NHL entry draft, following high-scorer Steven Stamkos. The Ontario native has scored 10 or more goals four times in his six-year career and is smooth as glass when handling the puck. He finished third in the Norris Trophy voting, for best defenseman, in 2012 when he collected a career-high 59 points. He added 16 points, including a tournament-high 12 assists, as the Kings won the Cup. The Rangers need to be aware of Doughty’s tendency to pinch into the offensive zone. The durable 24-year old averaged better than 25 minutes of ice time per game during the regular season and upped that by two minutes in the playoffs.

The Rangers’ Ryan McDonagh was the 12th overall pick by the Montreal Canadiens in the 2007 draft. That same year, the Rangers signed free agent center Scott Gomez to an awful seven-year, $51MM contract. After two mediocre seasons in the Big Apple, the Rangers were desperate to trade Gomez and the Canadiens were desperate for a top center. Gomez and Tom Pyatt headed to Montreal for three players, including McDonagh. Whether he knew what he had at the time or not, it turned out to be one of the best deals that Sather ever made. The soon-to-be 25-year old defenseman stepped up his offense this season and set career highs with 14 goals and 43 points, but it’s his transition from offense to defense and stopping shooters in the defensive zone that makes McDonagh special.

The Snipers

Marian Gaborik knows what it’s like to wear the red, white, and blue of the New York Rangers. He did so for three-plus seasons and scored 41 goals for NY two years ago. But his style of play was stifled under former head coach John Tortorella’s “defense first” approach, and he was sent packing to Columbus for three current Rangers – Derick Brassard, John Moore, and Derek Dorsett. Gaborik missed half of this season due to injury and was dealt to the Kings at the trade deadline in March for two draft picks. Gaborik is now healthy again and has topped all playoff scorers with 12 goals, 10 of them at even strength. Many of “Gabby’s” goals come from his ability to elude defensemen around the net.

The Rangers’ Rick Nash was acquired from Columbus prior to the 2012-2013 season for three players and a first round pick. The hope was that he could combine with Gaborik to give the Rangers a pair of solid scoring lines. A player’s strike/owner’s lockout didn’t help, but the experiment failed and the Rangers parted company with Gaborik. Nash was solid in his first year in New York with 21 goals and 42 points in 44 games. A concussion had a major impact on Nash earlier this year and he finished with just 39 points in 65 games. He also lacked playoff experience and postseason success, and the Rangers’ fans let him have it when he went without a goal in the first two rounds this year. Nash finally got his offense going in the conference finals with three goals and a pair of assists. Just as importantly, he’s been responsible in his own zone and has played a physical game.

The Prediction

The Kings have an experienced, playoff-tested squad that has just about seen and done it all this year. They find ways to win, not ways to lose. For that reason, the prediction here is the Kings in six.

 

Drew Sarver is the founder, publisher, managing editor, and a contributor for Designated For Assignment. He can be followed on twitter at @mypinstripes and @d4assignment or contacted by email at dsarver@d4assignment.com.

Spirit of St. Louis Propels New York Rangers

Martin St. Louis celebrates his OT winner (Courtesy of Getty Images)

by Drew Sarver

Sunday night, Alex Galchenyuk came within a millimeter of evening up the NHL Eastern Conference Finals at two games apiece. He had already been credited with the game winner, after the puck pin-balled off of of him and past goalie Henrik Lundqvist, in Game 3. This time, however, the puck rang off the crossbar and deflected harmlessly away. The game went to overtime, where the Rangers’ Martin St. Louis snipered a shot over the left shoulder of rookie goalie Dustin Tokarski for a 3-2 win and a three games to one lead for the Rangers in the best of seven series

It’s been well documented by now that St. Louis’ mother passed away prior to Game 5 of the conference semifinals with he Pittsburgh Penguins. From that moment on, St. Louis seemingly elevated his game as his teammates embraced him and his family as if France St. Louis was related to all of them.

After a Game 5 victory in Pittsburgh, the Rangers returned home to try to even the series with the Penguins. St. Louis was accompanied by his grieving father and sister. The Rangers’ diminutive winger with a big heart scored the game’s first goal and in doing so, ignited the Madison Square Garden crowd. The Rangers won 3-1 and St. Louis was named first star of the game.

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Alex Galchenyuk scores Game 3 winner (Courtesy of USA today)

The Rangers edged the Pens 2-1 in the finale, with St. Louis assisting on good friend Brad Richard’s go ahead goal. Acquired at the trade deadline for popular captain, Ryan Callahan, St. Louis has had six points (three goals and three assists) in the last five playoff games. His six goals this postseason  is the sixth best among all players.

Sunday night’s Game 4 was crucial for both teams in the series. The game was rough, rugged, and chippy after the thrown elbows and shoved linesman of Game 3. Montreal’s P.K. Subban scored a third period power play goal that erased a 2-1 Rangers’ lead. Then Galchenyuk found himself alone at the side of the left circle and came that close to erasing the series lead with the shot heard ’round the Garden.

Six minutes into overtime, Richards dug the puck out of the boards and flipped it Carl Hagelin. The Swedish-born winger found St. Louis all alone in the right circle. The shot  made by St. Louis could only be made by a player with his type of elite offensive skills. He got the puck on the tape of his stick blade, skated through the right circle and put the puck between the narrow opening above Tokarski’s left shoulder and the crossbar.

Game over.

Most of us have gone through what St. Louis and his family are in the midst of weathering. From personal experience, I know how difficult it is to balance the loss of a parent and going to work every day – ; trying to keep your life as balanced and normal as possible. I can’t imagine what it’s like to do that in front a packed, frenzied arena. It makes St. Louis’ play all the more remarkable.

Notes

Montreal goalie Carey Price skated for the second day in a row on Tuesday and was in full uniform. But coach Michel Therrien insisted Price would not be available in the conference finals.

Rangers center Derek Stepan skated with his squad and could return Tuesday for Game 5. Former teammate Brandon Prust caught Stepan with an elbow in Game 4, breaking the Rangers’ jaw. Prust received a two game suspension for the hit.

 

Drew Sarver is the founder, publisher, managing editor, and a contributor for Designated For Assignment. He can be followed on twitter at @mypinstripes and @d4assignment or contacted by email at dsarver@d4assignment.com.

Canadiens and Rangers to Tangle in Original 6 Conference Final

Original 6

by Drew Sarver

The two teams in the National Hockey League’s Eastern Conference finals got there in different ways, but the pair have a lot in common. The Montreal Canadiens and the New York Rangers are two of the “Original Six” NHL squads and both have been chasing the Stanley Cup for decades. The resumes of two of the oldest franchises, however, are quite a bit different.  With the best players coming from Canada and a territorial draft in place for years, the Canadiens fielded teams chock full of future Hall of Fame members.  Those teams rang up a league record 24 Cups, though the Habs have not won one since 1993.

The team they will oppose, the New York Rangers, haven’t won the Cup or reached the league finals since 1994. The Rangers have won just four championships in their 88 seasons and had a 40-year gap between Cups three and four. Whichever team emerges as the conference winner, they won’t have an easy time in the league finals. Either the Los Angeles Kings, the 2012 Cup winners, or the Chicago Blackhawks, the defending NHL champs and the champions in 2010 as well, will meet them in the last best- of-seven series.

Both the Canadiens and Rangers made it to the conference finals with big performances on the road and after some of the media and their own fans had written them off. Montreal was down 3 games to 2 to Boston, went home and shut out the Bruins out in Game 6, 4-0. The seventh and decisive game was back in Massachusetts at the TD Bank Garden. Montreal quickly took the crowd out of play with a goal by Dale Weise just 2:18 into the game. The Canadiens clung to a 2-1 lead late in the third period when forward Daniel Briere’s pass hit the skate of Bruins’ captain Zdeno Chara and deflected past goalie Tuukka Rask for the clincher with just under three minutes to play.

The Canadiens had advanced to the conference semi-finals with a first-round sweep of the Tampa Bay Lightning. The outcome was made possible with wins on the road in Games 1 and 2.  The Rangers had to go the distance to knock off the Philadelphia Flyers in their first-round match up. Then they had to do it again against the Pittsburgh Penguins to set up a series of NHL “oldies”.

The Rangers played their worst game of the playoffs, on home ice, in Game 4 to go down 3 games to 1 to the Penguins. The Madison Square Garden throng booed their team right off the ice. Then a funny thing happened on the way to the forum, or now, the Belle Centre.   Something tragic happened as well.

The mother of Rangers forward Martin St. Louis died of a heart attack the night prior to Game 5. A shocked team rallied around their teammate and St. Louis played with a renewed passion and fire. The Rangers also got a boost from the return of injured youngster, Chris Kreider. It was Kreider’s power play goal that ignited a 5-1 win and sent the series back to New York.  With his father and sister in attendance, St. Louis scored 3:34 into the first period of Game 6 to give the Rangers the lead for good. An already raucous Garden crowd amped up the volume from there. The Rangers went on to a 3-1 win with Henrik Lundqvist stopping 36 shots.

The finale in Pittsburgh was a fight to the finish. Brad Richards’ power play goal snapped a 1-1 tie in the second period and then it was all Lundqvist. The 2014 Olympic silver medalist stopped a full-out assault in the waning minutes of regulation play and stopped 35 shots overall.

So now, the two teams will lace up the skates and “put on the foil” for a 1 p.m. Saturday face-off. The Rangers need to put aside their past, which in this case is an incredible number of losses (65-200-40-3) in Montreal, be it the old Montreal Forum or the Belle Centre. The Canadiens need to continue to play with a chip on their shoulder. Defenseman P.K. Subban has been chief among the Canadien players in saying the team hasn’t been shown any respect. Who he is referring to specifically is anyone’s guess.

Keys to the Series

The Goalies – Price beat Lundqvist in the Olympic finals this year, and was a major factor in the Canadiens’ defeat of the Bruins. Price doesn’t get the publicity that New York media darling Lundqvist does, but he’s a star goaltender.

Lundqvist was red hot for the final three games of the Penguins series and needs to remain that way. He was the Vezina Trophy winner two years ago and a finalist last season.

Slump Busters – Rick Nash was booed by his own fans, especially in the Game 4 fiasco. “Nashty” has 289 career goals, but the soon-to-be 30-year old has failed to light the lamp in 14 playoff games this year. In fact, he only has two career goals and 11 points in 30 post-season games between the Rangers and Columbus Blue Jackets. While he has still been a physical presence on the ice, the Rangers need him to put pucks in the back of the net to have a chance to advance.

Briere is not the player he used to be. He has just two goals in 11 playoff games this year and one of those was the aforementioned deflected pass. Two years ago, as a member of the Flyers, Briere had eight goals and 13 points in 11 games. At 36, perhaps his skills have diminished around the net. He’ll have to prove otherwise.

The Defense – Subban has been superb on both ends of the ice. Last season’s Norris Trophy winner, for the best blueliner, put up 53 points in the regular season.  He also leads the Canadiens in postseason scoring this year with 12 points. Subban’s the quarterback of the Habs’ power play and makes an easy transition with the puck from defense to offense. He’s also a physical player (81 penalty minutes this year) and a vocal leader. He’s the one publicly spurring the team on as the under-appreciated underdog.

The Rangers’ best two-way defenseman, Ryan McDonagh, looked horrible for the first four games of the Penguins’ series. Perhaps he was still hurting from a late-season shoulder injury. Whatever the case, the “old” McDonagh seemed to be back for the final three games of the series. By his own admission, he’s played a more defensive role this postseason than he did during the regular season. But the Rangers will need him to pinch into the offensive zone more often to add some scoring punch.

Daniel Girardi, who was awarded a six-year, $33MM contract earlier this year, needs to find his game. He’s been terrible in the defensive zone and it’s cost the Rangers on the scoreboard. He and Marc Stahl are the number one defensive pairing for the Rangers,  but Girardi needs to step up his game for that to truly be the case.

Who emerges victorious?

Despite their lack of success in Montreal – including a Stanley Cup finals loss in 1979 – the Rangers should come out on top in the series, though it will take another seven games. The Rangers’ power play must be as successful as it was at the end of the Penguins series and not as poor as it was at the start. Price is great, but Lundqvist’s play at the moment trumps him.

Drew Sarver is the founder, publisher, managing editor, and a contributor for Designated For Assignment. He can be followed on twitter at @mypinstripes and @d4assignment or contacted by email at dsarver@d4assignment.com.

Rookie Mistake Powers Rangers To Victory

Richards

A fired up Brad Richards collected three points in the New York Rangers’ Game 1 victory vs Philly.

by Drew Sarver

Winger Jason Akeson was recalled by the Philadelphia Flyers for the final game of the 2012-2013 season. The Flyers repeated the move this season as well and kept him on the roster for their opening round playoff series with the New York Rangers.

The 23-year old Ontario native learned a hard lesson in the Rangers 4-1, Game 1 victory. With the scored tied one apiece in the third period, Akeson was careless with his stick and picked up a four-minute minor penalty after he clipped the Rangers’ Carl Hagelin in the mouth. The Rangers took advantage of their good fortunte and took complete control of the game.

Flyers’ defenseman Andrew McDonald and Rangers’ forward Matt Zuccarello scored in the first period, but nothing got past Ray Emery or Henrik Lundqvist until the third period. Emery was under tremendous pressure with starter Steve Mason out and his teammates less than stellar performance through the first two periods. Emery’s play kept Philly in the game despite a Rangers 23-14 shots on goal advantage through the first forty minutes of action.

Things only got worse when Akeson made his rookie mistake. Rick Nashs’s backhand pass from behind Philly’s end line ricocheted off Martin St. Louis to Brad Richards. The winger blasted a one-timer past Emery from the right circle.  Crisp passing led to the Rangers’ second power play goal just 47  seconds later.

Defenseman Ryan McDonagh sent the puck to St. Louis near the right post. St. Louis, in turn, moved the puck quickly to Richards at the right point.  With everyone expecting a shot, Richards made a hard pass to Derek Stepan, who was all alone at the left post. The University of Wisconsin banged the biscuit home for a 3-1 Rangers’ lead.

The Rangers ended up with a 13-1 shots on goal advantage in the final period, with Hagelin the last to light the lamp for New York late in third period.

Earlier Friday evening, the Flyers announced that Mason may be ready to go for Game 2 on Sunday after he practiced earlier in the day.

Drew Sarver is the founder, publisher, managing editor, and a contributor for Designated For Assignment. He can be followed on twitter at @mypinstripes and @d4assignment or contacted by email at dsarver@d4assignment.com.

2014 NHL Playoffs: Rangers vs. Flyers

Henrik Lundqvist Rangers 2014 playoff preview

Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist’s return to form greatly improves the New York Rangers’ chances of a deep playoff run.

by Christopher Wenrich

Oftentimes when discussing the franchise players of an NHL team, the conversation begins and ends with a forward.  When discussing the New York Rangers, their franchise player is most obvious  –  goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.

The Rangers signed Lundqvist to a seven-year extension this past December.  The new deal quickly drew criticism as Lundqvist struggled in the month of December, posting a 4-4-2 record with a 3.08 goals against average (GAA) and an .889 save percentage (SV%) for the month.  Backup goalie Cam Talbot performed admirably during Lundqvist’s struggles.  In fact, it was Talbot’s play which carried the Rangers while Lundqvist struggled to regain his form.

Lundqvist regained his form and was his stellar self during the Sochi Olympics in February, leading Sweden to a silver medal.  After his stellar play in the Olympics, Lundqvist retained his stellar form for the rest of the season.  Over his final 33 games, Lundqvist was 21-9-3 with a 2.08 GAA, .931 SV% and three shutouts.

New York Rangers
214 goals for (18th)
190 goals against (4th)
18.2 PP% (15th)
85.3 PK% (3rd)

Although not an offensive juggernaut, the Rangers do have skill up front.  Mats Zuccarello led the Rangers with 59 points in 77 games this season, while center Derek Stepan registered 57 points in 82 games.  The Rangers’ offensive output could have been much better if not for the disappointing season by Rick Nash, who tallied a disappointing 26 goals and 39 points in 65 games played.

In need of offensive punch, the Rangers traded Ryan Callahan to the Tampa Bay Lightning in exchange for Martin St. Louis.  St. Louis posted a dismal eight points in 19 games with the Rangers.  Although St. Louis had a rough transition to New York, his high level of offensive talent is undeniable and will be needed in the playoffs.  St. Louis had 24 points in 23 games when the Lightning won the Stanley Cup a decade ago.

Lundqvist is arguably the best goalie in the NHL and has an excellent group of defensemen in front of him.  Dan Girardi dished out 191 hits in 81 games and also blocked 174 shots, 8th among NHL defensemen.  Ryan McDonagh blocked 131 shots in 77 games and Marc Staal blocked 84 in 72 games.

McDonagh is perhaps the NHL’s most underrated defenseman, as he brings a superb two-way game to the ice.  He is quick to read plays and close off the passing lanes while also providing excellent puck movement and offensive ability.  McDonagh registered 43 points in 77 games this season.  Casual hockey fans knowDuncan KeithShea Weber and Erik Karlsson, but McDonagh also deserves mention as an elite defenseman.  He missed the last three games of the regular season after suffering a shoulder injury.

Philadelphia Flyers
233 goals for (8th)
227 goals against (20th)
19.7 PP% (8th)
84.8 PK% (7th)

For their first dozen games this season, the Philadelphia Flyers looked as bad as the Buffalo Sabres did all season.  Head coach Peter Laviolette was quickly fired after losing the first three regular season games by a combined score of 9-3, and was replaced by Craig Berube.

After their first 15 games, the Flyers were 4-10-1 and looked nothing like a playoff team, but finished with 16 wins in their final 27 games.  Despite the team’s slow start, Claude Giroux was once again among league leaders in scoring.  Giroux registered 28 goals, 58 assists (4th) and 86 points (3rd) in 82 games.  He also ranked fourth in the NHL in power-play points with 37.

Jakub Voracek (62 points) and Scott Hartnell (52 points) reaped the benefits of playing on Giroux’s line.  Giroux’s presence on the power play also benefitedWayne Simmonds, who scored career-bests in goals (29), assists (31) and points (60) this season.  Simmonds’ ability to crash the net and screen the goalie will be vital to the Flyers’ chances of scoring goals against Lundqvist.  Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier continue to improve, while Vincent Lecavalier and Matt Read bring more goal-scoring depth to the team.

It might be harsh to say the Flyers’ defense is terrible, but they are far from spectacular.  Luke Schenn delivers highlight-reel hits and has improved his play in the defensive zone; however, he has untapped offensive potential.  Veterans Kimmo Timonen and Mark Streit set the tone for the defense with their puck movement, which established the Flyers among league leaders on the power play.  It was no coincidence that the Flyers’ hot stretch run coincided with Streit’s own hot streak, which helped him to compile 44 points.

The Flyers made a prudent move during trade deadline week in acquiring defenseman Andrew MacDonald from the New York Islanders.  MacDonald has been superb defensively for Philly and has shown the ability to make smart decisions with the puck.  Between his time with the Islanders and Flyers this season, MacDonald led all NHLers with 242 blocked shots in 82 games.  Montreal Canadiens’ defenseman Andrei Markov was a distant second with 180.

Steve Mason was solid in goal for the Flyers, having gone 33-18-7 with a 2.50 GAA, a .917 SV% and four shutouts.  While Mason’s numbers may not rank among the elite, he was strong in goal for the Flyers and stole some victories in games they had no business winning.  The Flyers’ defensive lapses contributed to Mason’s non-elite numbers, but he also made up for their play many times.

Injuries could play a factor in the series.  Mason – upper body injury – did not travel to New York for game one Thursday night and is questionable for game two.  The pressure falls on backup Ray Emery, who had less than a spectacular season.  Emery had success and playoff experience with the Ottawa Senators earlier in his career, but has been a fringe backup since then.

Despite the Flyers’ star power in Giroux, their offensive depth, and the solid play of Mason, the Rangers should win this series.  It will likely be the best series in the first round of the Eastern Conference.  If Lundqvist and the Rangers defense can keep the Flyers off the scoreboard, the Rangers will likely eliminate the Flyers in four or five games.  If the Flyers can get to Lundqvist with some three-goal games, the series could go the distance.  The Flyers made an admirable turnaround after a horrid start to the season, but the Rangers may be the worst first-round match they could have received.

Miller, Brodeur Top The NHL Rumor Mill

Philadelphia Flyers v Buffalo Sabres

The face of the Buffalo Sabres could soon be elsewhere.

by Drew Sarver

The NHL regular season resumed a couple of days ago, just a little over a week away from the March 5th league trade deadline.  While plenty of rumors are flying around, over the past few deadlines, the rumors have not seen the earth-shattering deals fans wait for.

Once again there are big names being bandied about, chief among them the  Buffalo Sabres’ goaltender Ryan Miller. The 11-year veteran has spent his entire career in Buffalo, but with the Sabres at the bottom of the NHL standings and Miller’s status as a pending unrestricted free agent, the feeling is the time is right to move the 33-year old.

Miller is the team’s all-time leader in a number of categories, including games played and wins, and is second or third behind Dominik Hasek in most of the other categories pertaining to the franchise’s goaltending records. Though he hasn’t had the best season, Miller’s still capable of playing top-tier hockey with a good team in front of him. He also played heroically for Team USA when they received the silver medal at the 2010 Olympics. (Miller played one game in a backup role at this year’s games in Sochi.)

The Sabres have a short window to try to re-sign Miller or deal him and move on to Jhonas Enroth as the #1 goalie. There’s also a #2 goalie in New Jersey who has some decisions to make about his immediate future. Sure-fire first ballot future Hall of Fame member Martin Brodeur, like Miller, has played his entire career in one uniform.

The veteran of parts of 17 seasons with the Devils, Brodeur could be playing his final season in the NHL. The three-time Stanley Cup champion has contemplated taking one final run at Lord Stanley’s Cup, but with a team that would have a better chance than the Devils. Though the team made it to the finals two seasons ago, Thursday morning found them five points behind the eighth and final seed (Detroit) in the Eastern Conference. Matters are compounded by the four teams tied or ahead of the Devils that are fighting for the final spots as well.

Then there’s the added issue of Brodeur no longer being the #1 guy between the pipes for New Jersey. This past off-season, the team brought in Corey Schneider, who has outplayed Brodeur and taken over the top spot. So, does Brodeur stay in NJ and finish a marvelous career in the same uniform or does he ask the team to move him to a team that has a better shot to make a deep run in the post-season? It’s a move that could help the Devils’ future, depending on what they get in return, however, the hunch here is that Brodeur stays put. There’s no guarantee he could take over the main goaltending duties for any playoff contender unless a team’s current goalie were to suffer a serious injury. If a deal was to be made to a borderline playoff team, he might as well stay put.

The Devils’ chief rival also has some major decisions to make. The New York Rangers were playing well when the league shut down for the Olympics and entered Wednesday’s play as the fifth seed in the East. Though they don’t appear to be a team that is currently built to win the Cup, any time you have a top-of-the-class goalie like Henrik Lunqvist, you have a legitimate shot to pull off a playoff series upset. But GM Glen Sather faces two difficult decisions regarding his captain, Ryan Callahan, and one of his top young defensemen, Dan Girardi.

Both players will be unrestricted free agents after the season, and Callahan in particular is looking for a lengthy contract and a big increase in pay (reportedly 7 years, $42MM). TSN’s Darren Dreger reported Tuesday that, due to the wide gap in negotiations, there’s a 99% chance Callahan will be dealt by the deadline. Sather, reportedly, refuses to lose Callahan for nothing.1

A member of Team USA in Sochi, Callahan is not counted on for scoring, but he is the heart and soul of the team and contributes with big hits, strong defensive skills, and penalty-killing duty. His departure could make a big dent in the team’s psyche at a crucial part of the season. The chief rumor has him being swapped for 38-year old Martin St. Louis of the Tampa Bay Lightning. In fact, St. Louis has supposedly asked General Manager Steve Yzerman to be dealt to the Rangers. Yzerman has said he would not trade a player of St. Louis’ caliber (56 pts in 58 games thus far this season), for a rental. The former Stanley Cup champ has one year remaining on his contract with a $5.25MM cap hit.2

The acquisition of a player of St. Louis’ caliber would help the Rangers fill the void left when Matt Zuccarello broke his hand during the Olympics. Zuccarello is expected to miss 3-4 weeks.

Girardi is in a similar boat, though Dreger stated that there has been more back-and-forth in negotiations between Girardi’s representatives and the Rangers. However, if a deal isn’t made, Dreger says, “…there’s also a 99% chance that he (Girardi) gets traded.”1  The loss of Girardi could actually have a bigger impact on the ice than if the Rangers were to lose Callahan, due to the importance of a strong blue line.

Additional pending free agents that might be packing their bags include: Thomas Vanek (NYI), Jaromir Jagr (NJD), Milan Michalek (OTT), Henrik Tallinder and Matt Moulson (BUFF), and Mike Cammalleri (CAL).

1 – tsn.ca
2 – capgeek.com

Drew Sarver is the publisher, managing editor, and a contributor for Designated For Assignment. He can be followed on twitter at @mypinstripes or contacted by email at dsarver@d4assignment.com.