Game 2 Rangers at Senators, Cam Talbot and that idiot Milbury

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AP Photo courtesy Getty Images via NHL.Com. 

In about 15 minutes, the Rangers will look to even the best-of-seven second round series against the Senators at Canadian Tire Centre. Yet another arena where naming rights change too much. It used to be Scotiabank. And god knows what else.

Be that as it may, the keys to a Rangers Game 2 win are simple:

1.Play Ottawa 5-on-5. In Game 1, they were dead even in shots 28-28 and generated quality chances against Craig Anderson, who was good.

2.Stay disciplined. They took four penalties in the 2-1 loss Thursday. Too many. The Senators power play is more dangerous than Montreal with Erik Karlsson lethal. Plus Derick Brassard, Mike Hoffman, Mark Stone, Bobby Ryan and even Dion Phaneuf. It wasn’t even that unit that scored the tying goal. That came from Kyle Turris’ rebound right to Ryan Dzingel with Alex Burrows in front. The Sens generated a dozen shots on the man-advantage and plenty of momentum. That can’t happen today.

3.The big players must Step up. That means you Derek Stepan. His costly gaffe in Game 1 on what should’ve been an icing was inexcusable. As poor as the officiating was in somehow missing an easy icing, Stepan relaxed and it resulted in more attack time for Ottawa. Rick Nash was outhustled by Marc Methot, who made the key keep leading to Karlsson’s miraculous goal which deflected off Stepan and off Henrik Lundqvist’s mask and in. A play that could’ve been avoided. It’s time for Stepan to play like it’s the second round. Ditto for ghosts J.T. Miller and Kevin Hayes. At least Chris Kreider showed a pulse screening Anderson perfectly on Ryan McDonagh’s power play goal.

4.Keep the shots down. In Game 1, Lundqvist had to do too much. He faced way too many breakaways and second and third chances. He was outstanding in stopping 41 of 43 shots. But that recipe won’t work against the countering and speedy Sens. The Rangers must do a better job limiting the shots and danger chances.

5.McDonagh and Dan Girardi can’t be pinned in their end. They were a combined minus-32 in Corsi. Some of it wasn’t their fault. Guy Boucher got the match-ups getting Karlsson out with the Jean-Gabriel Pageau line with Ryan and Clarke MacArthur dominating the Mika Zibanejad, Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich unit. A momentum turning shift that eventually led to a bad Brady Skjei penalty which allowed the Sens to tie it before the second ended. Speaking of Skjei, he needs to be better. He struggled in Game 1. In fact, it was the much maligned pair of Marc Staal and Nick Holden who were the standouts. They can’t be the Rangers’ best. McDonagh and Girardi have to be along with Skjei and Brendan Smith.

6.Get more traffic on Anderson. He was very good in finishing with 34 saves to net the game’s first star. But he also didn’t have much traffic. Sure. He stoned McDonagh and Smith in tight. And stopped Zibanejad’s backhand wrap try. But Anderson didn’t have to work as hard as Lundqvist. Kreider did his job getting to the net. More Blueshirts must spend time there and make it harder on Anderson. Don’t let him get comfortable. Move him around and screen. Find the rebounds. They’ll be there.

7.More forecheck pressure. When the Rangers do it, they are very tough to contain. That means better efforts from Miller, Hayes and Mats Zuccarello, who was far too quiet. That line is probably the team’s best at cycling the puck. They need a good game. Stepan and Nash also were quiet. Only Jimmy Vesey was effective. It can’t just be the fourth line of Oscar Lindberg, Michael Grabner and Jesper Fast. The best players must show up.

That’s pretty much it. The Rangers will win if they manage the puck better and do these steps. They don’t want to come back home down 2-0. Earning a split is important. It would give them momentum headed into a Game 3 at MSG. We’ll see if they can get it done.

In other playoff related stuff, Cam Talbot is locked in so far against Anaheim. He was spectacular in Edmonton’s 2-1 win in Game 2 last night finishing with 39 saves. His rebound control was superb. Talbot and the speedier Oilers took both games against the Ducks at The Pond and are now headed home for the next two. The biggest surprise is their poise. I might’ve overlooked the Oilers’ speed. Connor McDavid is flying. So is Leon Draisaitl. And Adam Larsson has looked the best he has all year. Remember how much we laughed at that trade with the Devils for Taylor Hall. It’s no laughing matter anymore. Larsson and Swedish countryman Oscar Klefbom have formed a potent top tandem. But it’s Talbot who has outplayed John Gibson to put the Oilers in the driver’s seat. I didn’t think they were ready. But so far, so good.

I wouldn’t count out Anaheim. Ryan Getzlaf is flying. They are relentless. They played a very good Game 2 outshooting the Oilers 40-23. But they obviously need more production. Game 3 should be interesting.

As far as Nashville and St. Louis go, they split the first two games. The Blues got a late goal from Vladimir Tarasenko with 3:36 left. His second of the game. The Russian also made a huge block on P.K. Subban protecting a one-goal lead. He’s looked much more engaged this postseason. It’s amazing they held on. Nashville applied so much pressure in that final minute. A Roman Josi shot was redirected by Viktor Arvidsson right off the goalpost with 35 seconds remaining. The Preds look like the better team. But the Blues have Jake Allen and he made some huge stops late to preserve the win.

I thought for as good as he was in Game 1 posting a goal and two assists, that’s how bad Subban was. He’s such a polarizing player. In Game 2, he had a great chance to put his team ahead on a 4-on-4. But missed wildly from the right slot high and over the top. Naturally, St. Louis came down and scored with a Tarasenko one-time rocket past Pekka Rinne for the game-winner. And Subban was awful in the final minute twice missing easy keeps that cost his team. Something you don’t expect from a player of his stature. Where are all the biased media today after that? Oh wait. Silent.

Finally, Mike Milbury was at it again taking a shot at Subban for having fun during warm ups dancing to music. What is wrong with this guy? He’s such a clown. Milbury at times can be a good analyst. Controversial for sure. But when he makes such petty comments, he comes off as an out of touch bully who needs to go.

The Pens and Caps are later tonight. Any chance Washington can eek out a win in Game 2 at home and tie the series or is that too much to ask? They need it.

That’s gonna do it. I’ll have a full review of the Rangers/Senators afterwards.

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Draft lottery and other Devils thoughts

For all the non-playoff teams including the Devils, as well as expansion newbie Vegas, tonight’s the first big night of their offseason with the draft lottery being held at 7:30 in Toronto.  This year’s top selection is expected to be the WHL’s Nolan Patrick (above).  Despite previous injuries and coming off a sports hernia last offseason, Patrick still put up 20 goals and 46 points in just 33 games.  Only time will tell if Patrick can have a similar impact to recent #1 overalls such as Auston Mathews and Connor McDavid – now just two wins away from reaching the Conference Finals with a resurgent Edmonton team.  Either way, the draft is a lot more about hope than certainty.  Tonight fifteen teams will finally know where they pick and can in some cases shape their offseason plans around it.  Maybe teams at the back in the teens who don’t win the lottery consider trading their first round, or teams farther up consider a little extra jump forward or backward.

While I’m glad the lottery now isn’t a straight reward for tanking, I do think it’s pretty craven if the Colorado Avalanche actually have more of a chance to pick #4 than they do of winning the top overall selection (18% odds).  In fact the lottery is three lotteries for the top three selections, so every team will have three chances to win the rights to pick a top three prospect.  Almost all of these guys are names on a computer screen to me at the moment though.  As little as I care about mock drafts – just ask all the NFL guys whose mocks totally blew up in the first round on Thursday night – and perceived ranking, it will be good to have some closure and know exactly where we’re picking.

Obviously the worst-case scenario for the Devils is if one or two teams behind them jump into the top three, particularly if it’s a division rival.  Almost as bad from my point of view would be if #2 Vancouver or #3 Arizona got one of the top three picks, since the self-loathing Devil fans would complain about why we had to get that one extra point to cost us three spots in the lottery (despite having a horrid 3-17-4 record in their last 24 games after the season-torpedoing loss to the Isles at Barclays in mid-February).  Clearly not everyone’s gotten the memo that this is a true lottery, and all places in the standings do are marginally increase or decrease the odds.  It would serve them right in a sense if a team behind us did jump the line to get a higher pick, although the best way to quiet the cynics would be to win the lottery ourselves.   Our odds are at 8.5% to win the top pick and increase proportionally for picks #2 and #3 depending on who wins the top slot, if not us.

There is other Devils ‘news’ at the moment if you’re one of the lemmings that lives and dies with every tease from Russian diva Ilya Kovalchuk.  Insiders like Darren Dreger are reporting there’s been discussion about Kovalchuk returning to the NHL after four years overseas, stop me if you’ve heard this before.  While the sojourn’s proven profitable for SKA with two Gagarin Cups, it’s been less so for the player himself as the value of the ruble tanked, and with that the big money the KHL All-Star skipped out on his twelve remaining contract years for.  Part of me thinks he’s obviously considering returning after doing all he wanted to do with SKA to get one or two more big paydays in the NHL, and part of me thinks his interest in returning is a cynical negotiaton ploy to get more money out of Russia.  Especially in an Olympic year, hard for me to believe he wants to leave Russia now that the NHL players aren’t going to be competing in the 2018 Olympics.  Plus if Kovalchuk doesn’t want to be here for a rebuliding team his best move is to wait another year in Russia then come back when the Devils no longer have the right of first negotiation (though conversely it’ll be harder for him to negotiate a long-term deal as a 35+ player). Guess time will tell on that, especially since we’re unlikely to sign him before the expansion draft if that’s even an option.

One option being discussed is a sign-and-trade a la recent years in the NBA.  While I’d be in favor of ridding ourselves of the drama once and for all I don’t even know what you could get for the player in a trade, coming off four years abroad and with more scuttlebutt he’s having knee surgery this offseason.  If you want to get max value for Kovalchuk you might have to sign and play him for a while, assuming he actually shows enough early in the season to be worth it for a contending team.  Any contract he signs likely won’t be long-term anyway so you could conceivably flip him at the deadline if the Devils are out of the running yet again.  It’s really unlikely GM Ray Shero signs a 34-year old Kovalchuk to more than a one or two-year deal at most, so either way I’m not getting hyped up over a short-term patch with a bigger name than other short-term patches like Lee Stempniak.

Other than speculation all’s still quiet on the Devils front with only a prospect watch as AHL/OHL/WHL playoffs are still ongoing.  For the good news, 2016 top pick Mike McLeod has been lighting it up for Mississauga as they’ve swept through the first three rounds of theh OHL playoffs going 12-2 to the Finals, with the winner of the Finals playing in the Memorial Cup.  By all accounts McLeod’s been beastly in the second half of the season plus playoffs, showing he may well be ready to play a contributing role on the 2017-18 Devils.  On the more melancholy end, Albany’s final AHL playoffs ended with a whimper, losing to Toronto (again), this time in a four-game first round though at least 2015 second-rounder Mackenzie Blackwood ended on a high note with a good terrific second half of the season – and a fine showing in a 3OT elimination game where Albany was outplayed by a wide margin.

Next year the Devils’ AHL affiliate will be located in Binghamton, with Albany’s future uncertain after 24 years of AHL hockey.  I liked going to Albany the few times I was there, though I never saw a Devils win at least it was easy enough to get to, practically a straight shot on the highway 2 1/2 hours from North Jersey.  My first memories of hockey were in the mid ’90’s when both the Devils and Albany won their respective championships in the same year (1995).  Back then Albany churned out prospects for the Devils and was a winner until the early 2000’s when then-GM Lou Lamoriello started neglecting the AHL and Albany fell on hard times, at one point switching affiliations from the Devils to Hurricanes before the Devils moved back briefly.  2015-16 was one of the best years Albany had in fifteen seasons but it ended in the second round in a classic seven-game series from the same Marlies team that eliminated them this year.  This year Albany struggled to make the playoffs amidst the news the team was moving beginning next season, and injuries to Joseph Blandisi and Miles Wood didn’t help the playoff push either.

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Karlsson’s goal stuns Rangers 2-1, Sens lead series 1-0

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Ottawa hero Erik Karlsson salutes the home crowd after getting the winner with 4:11 remaining in the third period from an impossible angle to give the Senators Game 1 over the Rangers 2-1. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy Ottawa Senators.

Entering the second round series, Rangers coach Alain Vigneault heaped praise on Senators captain Erik Karlsson. He isn’t wrong. Karlsson is indeed a special player. The all world Ottawa defenseman proved it yet again in scoring the game-winning goal from an impossible angle with 4:11 left in regulation to give the Sens a 2-1 win in Game 1 over the Rangers in front of 16,744 at Canadian Tire Centre.

The goal will be replayed in Henrik Lundqvist’s head until the puck drop for Saturday’s Game 2. Beaten by his Swedish countryman, the 35-year old veteran played brilliantly. He faced 43 shots and got 41 including all 21 in a hectic first period. As great as he was, you know he’ll want Karlsson’s smart shot from below the goal line that went off Derek Stepan banking in off Lundqvist for the game decider.

A play that never should’ve happened. Simply put, the Rangers stopped playing. Something Vigneault alluded to in the post game. The five-man unit thought there was an icing. Rather than play until the whistle, they made the fatal mistake of not playing through. Stepan was the biggest culprit with a couple of lackadaisical defensive plays uncharacteristic of him. It was hideous. Along with Rick Nash’s failure to clear the zone, it resulted in disaster. With Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi pinned in, eventually Karlsson made a heady play that won the game. Here’s how it looked and sounded on CBC:

A terrific play by a great player. The key was Ottawa defenseman Marc Methot outworking Nash to keep the puck in. Eventually, it led to Mike Hoffman working the puck to Karlsson down low along the boards. With nowhere to go, his first attempt came back to him fooling a defending McDonagh. So, Karlsson just threw the puck at the net and had the good fortune of having it deflect off both Stepan and Lundqvist short side.

It was inexcusable. A tough way to lose a winnable game. Even with getting outshot 43-35, the Rangers were right there in a tightly contested third. They had their chances. Maybe it they had taken them when they led on McDonagh’s power play goal in the second, they would’ve been singing a different tune. But they blew some golden opportunities. Michael Grabner was at the center of it getting stoned by Anderson on a breakaway and also hitting a goalpost. Oscar Lindberg passed up a wide open shot for a forced pass for Grabner with a defender on him breaking it up.

The game turned on a Brady Skjei holding minor late in the second. For the first time this postseason, he struggled. He turned over the puck a couple of times and nearly beat his own goalie with a bad pass which an alert Lundqvist kicked out. They shared a chuckle at the bench during a stoppage. But Skjei’s penalty wasn’t killed off.

Lundqvist was the team’s best penalty killer. He was their only one in the first when Ottawa got whatever it wanted. They had six shots on him with glorious pointblank chances. Somehow, he stopped each including Mark Stone twice. But after killing Ottawa’s first three power plays, they couldn’t get out of the second ahead. Instead, a tough Kyle Turris high shot went off Lundqvist’s glove deflecting off Alex Burrows right to Ryan Dzingel, who went top shelf for his first of the playoffs at 18:39 to tie the score.

That goal changed everything. After an odd first in which they lost their discipline handing the dangerous Senators three power plays where they got over half their 21 shots, the Rangers escaped thanks to the brilliance of Lundqvist. The interesting aspect is they also tested Craig Anderson with 12 shots. One a Grabner break that Anderson got a piece of. Plus a huge glove save on Brendan Smith on a nice set up. He also robbed McDonagh on the Rangers first power play.

The second was much better. At one point, the shots were 9-3 in the Blueshirts’ favor. Among them was McDonagh’s power play goal for his first of the playoffs coming at 7:10 from Mats Zuccarello and Pavel Buchnevich. How did they manage to score? By winning a offensive draw and using quick passes. A Mika Zibanejad win led to Buchnevich passing up top for Zuccarello at the right point where he quickly moved the puck to an open McDonagh. He waited for Chris Kreider to get in front and fired a perfect shot through the screen beating Anderson. A well executed play. Kreider did a nice job and McDonagh got his shot through.

Things were going well. The defense was having little trouble with the Senators speed. They worked pucks out effectively for good breakouts. Unlike the first when they struggled with Ottawa coach Guy Boucher’s patient defensive 1-3-1 system. They seemed on the verge of breaking it open. But the second goal never came. Anderson made some crucial stops to give his team a chance at the comeback.

The period turned when Boucher put out Karlsson, Fredrik Claesson with checking center Jean-Gabriel Pageau on a line with Bobby Ryan and Clarke MacArthur. They went up against Zibanejad, Kreider, Buchnevich, McDonagh and Girardi. It turned into a marathon shift that lasted 90 seconds. The Sens had the Rangers on their heels. Karlsson had a shot blocked by Girardi and missed the net. But they gained so much momentum, it got the crowd revved up.

Feeding off the energy, the Sens dominated the rest of the period outshooting the Rangers 10-2 to actually lead in shots 13-11. That included Dzingel’s power play goal with Skjei off. Lundqvist was seeing the puck so well that he was making unreal stops on dangerous chances. He was on fire. It took plenty of extra effort for the Sens to finally get to him. Turris went for high glove and it leaked out a rebound which Burrows got a piece of right to Dzingel, who buried it upstairs with Lundqvist down tying the score with 1:21 left.

The Rangers got back to their game at 5-on-5 in the third. They outshot the Sens 12-9 and outchanced them. But it didn’t matter. Anderson made timely stops. With neither side budging, the game seemed destined for overtime. But a terrific shift by Karlsson changed that. The Sens took advantage of some lazy play from Stepan. Whether it should’ve been icing doesn’t matter. You always play to the whistle. Something Vigneault harped on. Nash didn’t get the puck out. The next thing you know, Karlsson did what Karlsson does, beating Lundqvist from an improbable angle off Stepan with 4:11 left. Here’s what Vigneault had to say afterwards:

The Rangers tried to tie it. They nearly did with Lundqvist on the bench for an extra attacker. But a deflection just missed its target. Eventually, Zuccarello sent a prayer that didn’t hit the net allowing the Sens to clear the zone as time expired.

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Ryan McDonagh, Rangers (power play goal-1st of playoffs-tremendous except for the goal against which wasn’t his fault or Girardi-2 shots, 6 attempts, 5 hits, 5 blocks, -1 in 30 shifts-28:21)

2nd Star-Erik Karlsson, Senators (the amazing game-winner with 4:11 left-brilliant with 5 shots, 8 attempts, 3 blocks, great defense, +1 in 28 shifts-28:54)

1st Star-Henrik Lundqvist, Rangers (41 saves including 21/21-somehow not named a star by the biased Canadian media who kiss Jonathan Toews’ ass)

Notes: Shots were 43-35 Ottawa. Attempts were 69-64 Senators. … Face-offs were close with the Sens edging the Rangers 30-29. Pageau went 6-and-2 while Turris was 11-and-9. Stepan led the Blueshirts going 13-and-7. Easily his best so far. If only the rest of his game could be found. … Rangers had 17 blocks with five from McDonagh while the Senators had 16 with Karlsson and Methot each having three. … Key stat: Giveaways NYR 10 (Girardi, McDonagh, Lundqvist-2) OTT 13 (Ceci, Harpur-3). … Hits were 37-30 Rangers with Zuccarello and Jimmy Vesey sharing the team lead with five. Burrows paced the Sens with four but it was his big assist on Dzingel’s PPG which had an impact.

… Anderson was strong in goal making 34 saves to earn the game’s number one star. … Both teams were nabbed for bench minors. … Nick Holden roughed up Stone at the end of the second. No penalties were called. It was one of Holden’s most effective games. He was active throughout getting four shots on net with two hits in 14:13 (24 shifts). Holden and Marc Staal had strong nights finishing on the plus-side in Corsi. McDonagh and Girardi were a combined minus-32 at 5-on-5. Yet played well defensively. But they spent too much time in their end. … Derick Brassard was aggressive early on testing Lundqvist with five shots in eight attempts. The player he was traded for Zibanejad also was noticeable throughout registering four shots in six attempts with four hits. … Kevin Hayes and J.T. Miller no showed. Hayes in particular was brutal. … With an assist, Buchnevich picked up his first career NHL postseason point in his fourth game. He was one of the Rangers bright spots even though he finished minus-10 in Corsi.

Lundqvist spoke about the team being good at 5-on-5. He’s right. The Rangers were dead even with the Senators in shots 28-28 at even strength. The issue was the penalties. They cannot be that undisciplined. Ottawa’s power play is too good. Even though they only scored once in four chances, they got momentum off each one. Four power plays produced one goal and 12 shots. Ultimately, the difference in the shots for. They also had three shots shorthanded.

The officiating for the most part was okay. But they did miss a blatant trip by Karlsson on Grabner with him coming in. That has to be called. You know the standard when it comes to certain players. We saw it last round. The Rangers have to be better. They cannot leave Lundqvist by himself with so many danger chances. It easily could’ve been 3 or 4-0 Ottawa in the first. But he bailed them out. It nearly resulted in a win. They must move on and be better in Game 2. Less shots against. Less undisciplined penalties. More 5-on-5 play and forecheck. Move Anderson laterally and get traffic. Cash in on their chances.

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Henrik Lundqvist is kind of good

In the first period of Game 1 in the second round series against the Senators, the Rangers played about as loose a first 20 minutes as possible. They took three penalties and gave up a shorthanded chance.

As usual, Henrik Lundqvist was there to save their bacon. How good was he? He stopped all 21 Ottawa shots in a wild and crazy first. His best sequence came here while the Sens peppered him with six shots on the first power play.

Mark Stone gets stoned literally. And I don’t mean Kevin “Purple” Hayes, who seemed in a daze that period with a penalty, a lazy turnover and almost another penalty. Here it is in all its glory:

The game is scoreless thanks to Lundqvist. The Rangers did manage 12 shots including this chance from Ryan McDonagh. A slick move around the Ottawa defense to get in forcing Craig Anderson to make this save:

Interestingly, attempts are 26-21 Senators. So, despite controlling play, they gave up some shots and opportunities including a near shorthanded miss from Michael Grabner which Anderson got a piece of.

The Rangers want to avoid any more silly penalties like the bench minor they took. They can thank Lundqvist for keeping it scoreless. McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal and Brendan Smith all had strong periods shorthanded.

The second is coming. We’ll have more later.

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Round Two Series Preview: Rangers vs Senators

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The Rangers and Senators are set to battle in the second round beginning Thursday night in Ottawa. It shapes up to be a very good series. More in our preview. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy NYRangers

In the first round, it took the Rangers six games to advance over the Canadiens in the most entertaining and physical series of the eight match-ups. They did it with center depth, a stronger blue line, a key lineup adjustment and the sensational play of a resurgent Henrik Lundqvist.

They won due to coach Alain Vigneault’s decision to sub in gifted rookie Pavel Buchnevich for Game 1 hero Tanner Glass. A move that altered the four lines providing better balance, speed and skill which came through in the final three games of the series. By putting Buchnevich back with Mika Zibanejad, it got the center going. He proved to be a huge hero scoring the overtime winner in Game 5 off a Chris Kreider shot that was blocked by Alexei Emelin. Kreider, who otherwise had a miserable first round. It was Zibanejad who led the Rangers with four points (1-3-4).

Now, it will be a battle against his former team the Senators in an intriguing second round series that starts tomorrow night at 7 PM in Ottawa. Here it is. Your ultimate storyline. The trade from last summer that sent Derick Brassard to the Sens with a seventh round pick in exchange for Zibanejad, a second round pick which became key defenseman Brendan Smith. All parties are happy. Brassard turned into #BigGameBrass in Ottawa’s six-game first round win over Boston by pacing them with eight points (2-6-8). That included a nice set up for unsung hero Clarke MacArthur’s series clincher in Game 6 of sudden death.

It shapes up to be a very good series. So, what do the match-ups look like? Let’s take a look:

Derick Brassard is now the enemy in a intriguing match-up with former Senator Mika Zibanejad proving he can perform in the Rangers’ first round win. 

FORWARDS

The Senators got key performances from Brassard and Cherry Hill, Jersey native Bobby Ryan (4-3-7) in the first round. They are deeper than the Canadiens. Even though they play a tight 1-3-1 system under coach Guy Boucher, they can transition quickly with dangerous game breakers Mike Hoffman and Mark Stone. Hoffman went 2-1-3 and Stone only had a goal and assist. The Rangers must key on both. Particularly the righty Stone’s lethal shot. Hoffman has great breakaway speed. Brassard and Kyle Turris form a potent 1-2 punch. There’s also gritty shorthanded threat Zack Smith and speedster Jean-Gabriel Pageau. Ex-Ranger Viktor Stalberg and Ryan Dzingel supply depth. Look out for former Vigneault pupil Alex Burrows, who can be a thorn in the side.

The Rangers counter with a solid 1-4 of Zibanejad, Derek Stepan, Kevin Hayes and underrated fourth line checking pivot Oscar Lindberg. To win, they need better play from Stepan and Hayes. Stepan had a bad first round with only an assist and empty netter that sealed the win. He also was under 40 percent on face-offs. He needs to kick it in high gear. Playing with Rick Nash, who has looked great, along with poised rookie Jimmy Vesey should get him going. He has a tendency to step up. Expect better from him. Hayes was brilliant in Game 6 with terrific chemistry between J.T. Miller and Mats Zuccarello, whose two goals including the series winner off a brilliant Hayes pass, remains the glue. Zuccarello had three goals including two game-deciders while playing chippy. He competes as hard as anyone. It goes without saying that they need more out of Miller, who was at times puzzling. One assist won’t get it done. The same for Hayes, who was surprisingly strong on draws (57.6 percent). Jesper Fast was heroic going 2-1-3 with a shorthanded goal along with his usual strong defensive work. The fourth line of Fast, Lindberg and Michael Grabner should give the Rangers an edge.

Edge: Rangers

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The key to the series for the Rangers is they must slow down Senators all world defenseman Erik Karlsson. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy The Hockey News.

DEFENSEMEN

When it comes down to it, Erik Karlsson is a special player. The Senators captain is so brilliant that even a couple of hairline fractures in his foot couldn’t slow him down against Boston. He still dominated posting six assists while being a horse logging over 30 minutes. Part of it is that five of the six games were decided in overtime. Obviously, he is dangerous. A superb skater with unreal playmaking skills, shooting and a commitment to defense. He might be the best passer in the game. The Rangers want to key on him and pick their spots finishing checks. Karlsson is a handful. He partners with rugged Dion Phaneuf, who has fit in seamlessly. He had a quietly good first round going 1-2-3 with a plus-two and only one minor penalty. The key is Ottawa’s bottom four. Cody Ceci and Marc Methot are the grit of the back end doing the little things that win. Ceci led the Sens with 23 blocked shots while Methot had 25 hits. What’s the status of hard cruncher Mark Borowiecki? He won’t play tomorrow. The bottom pair is questionable with Chris Wideman splitting duty with youngsters Ben Harpur and Fredrik Claesson. It’s really about the top four for Ottawa with Boucher leaning heavily on Karlsson.

The Rangers are led by captain Ryan McDonagh. Even though he didn’t score a goal in the first round, he elevated his play in Games 4-6 playing some of his best hockey. After taking a tough hit, he played with more of an edge than we’ve grown accustomed to. Like old workhorse Dan Girardi, who had a throwback series with 21 blocks and 17 hits including a couple of heavy checks with one injuring Andrew Shaw, McDonagh threw the weight around. McDonagh recorded two assists including a wonderful primary helper that set up a big Nash goal for the game-winner in Game 4 last round. He wasn’t overworked by Vigneault logging 26:24. Vigneault did shorten up at times going with the big four of McDonagh, Girardi, Smith and Marc Staal, who got stronger. Rookie Brady Skjei is a very good skating D who scored twice and upped the physicality with 24 hits. He has formed a great partnership with Smith, who reminds of current assistant Jeff Beukeboom. He doesn’t take crap from anyone. Maybe that rubbed off. His play has been huge. Nick Holden remains the weak link. He’s turnover prone and can be scary at times. He did look more confident in the final two games. It’s about puck possession and offense for Holden, who needs to contribute with his shot.

Edge: Even

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GOALIES

In his first round battle against Carey Price, the 35-year old Lundqvist was locked in from the start after pitching a shutout in Game 1. He was unreal stopping 195 of 206 shots to post a 1.70 goals-against-average and .947 save percentage. One thing about the King. When he’s challenged, that’s when he’s most dangerous. Following a subpar season that saw career lows in GAA (2.74) and save percentage (.910), the Canadiens got the real Lundqvist and had trouble scoring. He’s carried the Blueshirts before helping them reach three Final Fours including the 2014 Stanley Cup Final.

He’ll go up against another proven vet in Craig Anderson. The soon to be 36-year old American netminder has battled courageously while wife Nicholle is battling a rare form of head and neck cancer. Somehow, between taking time off to be with her, Anderson has been tremendous for Ottawa. In 40 games, he posted a 2.28 GAA, .926 save percentage with five shutouts during the season. A true inspiration, he was just as good against the Bruins holding them to 13 goals on 165 shots to finish with a 1.94 GAA and .921 save percentage with a shutout. He’s faced Lundqvist before with the Sens pushing the Rangers the limit in the 2012 first round before a prime Lundqvist backstopped his team to wins in Game 6 and 7 onto the second round. Anderson is a big goalie who can make the net look small. He must be moved side to side.

Edge: Rangers

SPECIAL TEAMS

In the first round, Ottawa was good scoring five times on the power play. They have some big weapons including the best in the world in Karlsson. Plus Brassard, Turris, Ryan, Hoffman, Stone and Phaneuf. They went 5-for-23 clicking at 21.5 percent overall. Interestingly, they went only 1-for-11 at home but were a more precision like 4-for-12 on the road. They allowed one shorthanded goal. The Rangers did a solid job on the penalty kill going 17-for-20 for 83.3 percent. Up from the regular season. They scored a shorthanded goal (Fast). On the road, they went 10-for-11 while at home, going 9-for-11.

If there is a bugaboo, it’s their power play. Prior to getting Zuccarello’s power play goal in the second period of Game 6, they were 0 for the series. The Rangers went 1-for-15 going a awful 6.7 percent. Only the Blues were worse but they beat the Wild in six due to Jake Allen. The Rangers can’t be disorganized. Even if they don’t convert, they need better puck possession which stems from winning offensive draws. Also more shots instead of the overpassing we usually get. It’s up to the two units to figure it out. Nash needs to be more of a shooter. Kreider needs to make life difficult on Anderson. He didn’t against Price. McDonagh and Stepan weren’t factors in the first round. Zibanejad and Zuccarello combined for the lone PPG. The Rangers went 0-for-9 at Montreal and 1-for-6 at home. At least they didn’t allow a shorthanded goal. Using Skjei and Holden more might help. Ditto Buchnevich, who should play more.

Edge: Senators

COACHES

It’s interesting to note that Vigneault got his start behind an NHL bench with Ottawa. He actually was an assistant coach on the expansion Senators in ’92-93 for over three years before headed to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. So, like Montreal, he has ties to the opponent. So far, he’s 2-for-2 against the Canadiens, who were the first NHL team he coached. Can he make it 3-for-3 against former Canadian teams? If he coaches like he did against Montreal, then I believe he can. He made the necessary adjustments by inserting Buchnevich and changing all four lines. He also did a good job managing his D and getting better match-ups. The power play remains an issue that must be solved by him and assistant Scott Arniel.

Boucher is a quality NHL coach. It took him a while to get back behind the bench following a stint in Tampa. I never understood why. He’s a good tactician who has his team playing a tough defensive system. Like Montreal, the Senators will look to take away the Rangers’ speed and transition by standing up at the blue line and clogging the neutral zone. They are a very patient team who can capitalize on turnovers. So, the Rangers must do a good job managing the puck. The thing that makes Boucher’s team better is his players. He boasts the all world Karlsson along with better offensive threats like Brassard, Hoffman, Ryan, Stone and Turris. In other words, he has good personnel.

I’ll give the edge to Vigneault due to experience. He’s been here before and gotten teams through. He definitely learned something because look how the Rangers played against the physical Canadiens. He took the handcuffs off. They responded by playing the most passionate, active hockey we’ve seen since John Tortorella’s teams. They went back and didn’t back down while continuing to play fast, aggressive hockey. Vigneault also adjusted by having his players chip and charge and make soft dumps in the corner to limit Price’s stickhandling. They must do the same against Anderson, who likes to play the puck and fuel the transition. If they can establish the forecheck and work the Ottawa D, it bodes well.

Edge: Rangers

Analysis: This is another series of two different styles. The Rangers like to use their speed and transition to make life difficult. They are four lines deep and Vigneault showed more confidence rolling them once Buchnevich replaced Glass. They will need to bury a few more chances this round. Ottawa is more capable offensively. Karlsson is a weapon who must be shadowed. They must make it difficult on him. Brassard will be pumped for this series. If the first round is any indication, look out. How will Zibanejad play? I really was impressed with his response the final three games. If Lundqvist continues to stay hot, the Rangers have an edge. Anderson is good. He won’t be easy to beat as he proved in 2012. But I am expecting a little bit more out of Stepan, Hayes, Miller and Kreider this round. If it translates, they should get through.

SERIES PREDICTION

Rangers in 7

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MacArthur sets up Rangers/Senators, Johansson sets up Pens/Caps

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Derick Brassard will face his former team when the Senators take on the Rangers in an interesting second round match-up. AP Photo via Getty Images

The first round is finally over. It ended in record fashion. With the Maple Leafs pushing the top seeded Capitals to a record 18th overtime in Round One. For the fifth game in six, Toronto and Washington needed sudden death to decide a winner.

Like Game 4 when Mr. Game 7 Justin Williams turned the series around with an overtime winner, the Caps prevailed thanks to Marcus Johansson, who scored on a Williams rebound past heroic Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen at 6:51 of OT. Johansson had also tied the game with 7:09 remaining when his seeing eye shot went off Andersen and over the goal line. A big response following Auston Matthews’ fourth straight game with a goal on a great bounce off a Morgan Rielly dump in which he went top shelf on Braden Holtby.

There was no doubt the Caps were winning. They dominated the extra session and finally broke the Leafs’ will. Toronto put up a great fight. But ultimately, Washington’s relentless pressure finally got to them. Between the top line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie and the second unit of Williams, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Johansson, it was just a matter of time before they finally put the Leafs away.

Regardless, they have a very bright future. You better believe Toronto will be a viable threat soon. By that, I mean they could be the first Canadian team to win the Stanley Cup since the ’93 Canadiens. Unless the Oilers or Senators figure out a way.

So, the NHL gets the desired Pens/Caps rematch. Crosby vs Ovechkin for a second straight Spring in the second round. It’s disappointing that they have to play in the Conference Semifinals instead of the Conference Final. But that’s the current divisional playoff format they agreed to. So, it’s Holtby vs Marc-Andre Fleury until Matt Murray is healthy. Fleury did well in the Pens’ five-game first round series win over the Blue Jackets. Maybe he has it together in what might be his last time as a member of the Pens.

Pittsburgh has no Kris Letang for this run and still no Carl Hagelin. They have other players hurt on the back end. But somehow, they look like the favorites again. Crosby is playing lights out and Evgeni Malkin came back with a vengeance leading all scorers with 11 points in the first round. Plus Phil Kessel. They have help from speedy and gritty young forwards Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary. Plus Patric Hornqvist and future star Jake Guentzel. The forwards are very strong featuring versatile two-way veterans Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen. Plus gritty Tom Kuhnackl and Scott Wilson.

The Caps are four lines deep as well. They got three goals from ornery Tom Wilson in their win over Toronto. Lars Eller and Andre Burakovsky support it. The fourth line isn’t utilized as much with checking center Jay Beagle, veteran Daniel Winnik and 12th forward Brett Connolly. Even with the Caps possessing that lethal top line featuring Ovechkin, Backstrom and Oshie along with Williams, Kuznetsov and Johansson, it’s advantage Pens.

It’ll be up to the Washington blue line featuring righties Matt Niskanen, John Carlson and rental Kevin Shattenkirk to expose the Pens. The problem is Brooks Orpik and Shattenkirk had some issues with the Leafs’ speed. So did Carlson. Dmitry Orlov and Niskanen are their most reliable pair who can handle the big minutes and tough assignments.

The Pens rely on Justin Schultz to lead the offense while veteran Trevor Daley eats minutes along with Ian Cole and a now healthy Olli Maatta. But Maatta isn’t strong defensively. They also count on Brian Dumoulin and vet Ron Hainsey.

It may very well come down to the goalie match-up which should favor Holtby. He came on strong after struggling early against the Leafs. He has a Vezina and is up for it again against favorite Sergei Bobrovsky and surprising finalist Carey Price, who in my view wasn’t better than Cam Talbot. Holtby has all the pressure. Especially if it’s Fleury, who posted a .933 save percentage against Columbus while facing a lot of pressure.

Pens vs Caps is a scintillating match-up due to the stars. Sid vs Ovi. Geno and Backstrom. Is this the year Ovechkin gets out of the second round? I’m not sold. They have to prove themselves.

For the Rangers, they’ll start on the road against the Senators, who prevailed over a gritty Bruins despite being down players. Clarke MacArthur was the overtime hero converting in front from Bobby Ryan and Derick Brassard for a power play goal to lift the Sens over the Bruins 3-2 in Game 6 in Beantown to eliminate Boston. They won all three road games at TD Garden. Four of the six games were decided in sudden death with Ottawa winning the two in Boston while losing a pair at home.

They won with star defenseman Erik Karlsson logging the usual big minutes despite revealing that he played with two hairline fractures in his foot. That might explain why he was struggling in double overtime of Game 5. Astonishingly, the Sens captain is so good, he still played over 29 minutes and recorded his sixth point (all assists) of the series. He’s amazing. The Rangers will be facing the best defenseman in hockey in the Atlantic Division Final. It will not be easy.

There’s also the storyline of Brassard facing his former teammates. He was brilliant in Round One putting up eight points (2-6-8) to lead the Sens. Ryan, a Cherry Hill native- erupted for four goals and three assists after having a forgettable regular season. Brassard struggled during the season too. But as we know, Big Game Brass always rises to the occasion.

So, it’s Brassard’s experience versus his ex-team against Mika Zibanejad’s youth as he continues to learn what it takes to win in the NHL playoffs. Zibanejad came on strong the final three games- all Ranger wins. His clutch overtime winner in Game 5 along with two assists including one in Game 6 helped lead the Rangers with four points in a meat and potatoes ferocious six-game series victory over the Canadiens. The physicality and pace was frenetic. The hate was palpable. It was the best series of the first round. With great goaltending from Henrik Lundqvist, who outdueled Price to get a satisfying win.

Now, he’ll face another veteran in Craig Anderson. A likable player whose wife has been fighting cancer. Somehow, Anderson hasn’t let it affect his play. He was brilliant in the first round to best Tuukka Rask by posting a 1.94 goals-against-average with a .921 save percentage and a shutout. The Rangers should be familiar with him. It was in a hard fought first round back in 2012 that they needed to rally from a 3-2 series deficit to beat the Sens. Of course, there were many different players on both sides. But the goalies remain the same with Anderson vs Lundqvist a good match-up.

Karlsson remains too for the Sens as one of the game’s best players. The Rangers still have more core pieces left with Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, Ryan McDonagh, Derek Stepan and Chris Kreider.

Had Mats Zuccarello been healthy for that postseason under former coach John Tortorella, maybe they get past the Devils and face the Kings two years earlier before Alain Vigneault took over behind the bench. Zuccarello blocked a shot in a regular season game and was lost for that run. Ever since, Zucc has been amazing. His three goals led the Blueshirts against the Habs with the game-tying and series clinching in the second period on Saturday.

Veteran journalist Rick Carpiniello had this tweet response. A valid point too:

It makes you wonder. Kreider was big part of that run to the Conference Final. As a player who hadn’t played an NHL regular season game, he jumped right in from winning a national championship at Boston College and scored five goals and two assists in 18 games. You never know.

Interestingly enough, Ottawa actually has just as many players left over. Anderson. Karlsson. Turris. Neil. Smith. Mike Hoffman was a 21-year old rookie who didn’t play. Neither did hard hitting blue liner Mark Borowiecki. Neil probably won’t play this time due to the Sens’ depth. Borowiecki is hurt. So, his status is questionable. Hoffman is one of their most dangerous skaters. He and Mark Stone are two players to keep an eye on.

Former Blueshirt Viktor Stalberg also will go up against the Rangers. The Sens have Dion Phaneuf paired with Karlsson. The same Phaneuf who ended Mike Sauer’s career with a clean but mean hit during that ’11-12 season. He’s been effective for them. Cody Ceci and Marc Methot do the grunt work. Ottawa’s third pair could be exploited. They were forced to play Chris Wideman in five games in the first round. Unproven Ben Harpur and Fredrik Claesson played tonight.

There’s also the annoying Alex Burrows from Vigneault’s past with the Canucks. He was very good after the Sens acquired him. But only had one assist in Round One. You know he’ll raise his game and be a royal pain in this series. Btw…that guy has three career overtime winners. Three more than Messier. Just saying. Burrows and Smith will finish checks and be physical factors.

The Sens play a tough defensive system under smart tactician Guy Boucher. They can fluster you with their discipline and patience. The Rangers had to contest with this against Claude Julien and Montreal. It might not be as physical. But they’ll have to manage the puck well through the neutral zone and get behind Ottawa’s D and recover pucks to feed their cycle game.

They need better series from Stepan and Kreider. Both of who weren’t factors against the Habs. That can’t happen again. Stepan was miserable in the face-off circle winning just 37.2 percent. He better not be that bad against the Sens, who have old buddy Brassard and Turris. Smith is pretty good in the dot too and Jean-Gabriel Pageau is a pesky player who must be watched shorthanded along with Smith.

As for Kreider, he better step up. He only had one assist and took two ill advised penalties on the forecheck. He can’t be persona non grata. Maybe staying with Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich will wake him up. He showed a pulse in Game 5. Game 6 he was just out there. Buchnevich should score a goal or two in this series. He’s good.

Kevin Hayes showed up the last two games. Zuccarello rubs off on teammates. Hayes’ pass to Zuccarello on the series clincher was remarkable. Hayes can do that when he’s right as well as protect the puck and control possession. He can be even better. J.T. Miller also must come alive. One assist won’t get it done. Neither will those silly back passes or selfish penalties. In other words, the Rangers’ best must become their best to advance.

The fourth line of Michael Grabner, Oscar Lindberg and Mr. Charlie Hustle, Jesper Fast is very reliable. They are good in all three zones. They forecheck and win puck battles. They back check. They can win draws thanks to Lindberg. They defend well. They do what it takes. Grabner gives them that dangerous countering speed. Lindberg came close to scoring against Montreal. Maybe he pops one.

McDonagh and Girardi were magnificent in Round One. That must continue. Brendan Smith was a warrior in the Jeff Beukeboom mold. Beuke must really appreciate the rugged style Smith’s added to the back end. It’s rubbed off on polished first-year defenseman Brady Skjei, whose two goals and tenacious D along with skating make him a future stud. Marc Staal battled hard. He will face some tough match-ups speed wise with vulnerable partner Nick Holden. Vigneault must manage well in this area.

Obviously, Lundqvist was awesome against Price. The huge saves he made on Shea Weber and Tomas Plekanec got them through. He allowed 11 goals on 206 shots for a .947 save percentage, 1.70 GAA and a shutout. He’ll face even more pressure because the Sens possess more high end skill. It should be interesting watching him face Brassard.

If there’s one difference maker, it could be Rick Nash. He really was in beast mode. Even though he only wound up with two goals and a helper, he was taking the puck to the net and getting the jersey dirty. He crashed into Price which wiped out a goal for goalie interference. If he continues to play the same way, then he really could do some damage. Ditto for gritty rookie Jimmy Vesey, who had two assists and his first playoff scrap against an angry Max Pacioretty, who was shutdown.

This should be a very good series. It’s all about strategy and tactics. The Rangers can’t play into Boucher’s neutral zone trap which will include standing up at the blue line and taking away transition and the stretch pass. They can still counter it with their speed and intelligence by chipping and charging like they did the final two periods against the Habs.

Both match-ups have the potential to go seven. We’ll see. Predictions for Round 2 tomorrow including the Western match-ups of Preds vs Blues and Oilers vs Ducks.

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Rangers fans owe Dan Girardi an apology

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Old Reliable Danny G: Dan Girardi was his nasty self in a big first round series win over the Canadiens. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy NYRangers.

For a decade, Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi has given his heart and soul along with a few body parts to the cause. Outside of elder statesman Henrik Lundqvist, who was splendid in turning aside the Canadiens in a gratifying six-game first round win, the 32-year old Girardi is the oldest remaining skater.

Somehow, the proud veteran who originally was signed as an undrafted free agent by former architect Glen Sather has survived. He went from partnering with Fedor Tyutin to Marc Staal and eventually current team captain Ryan McDonagh. Make no mistake about it. He’s been through the playoff wars. Number 5 has been a common denominator in three Rangers’ deep runs that included its first trip to the Stanley Cup Final since 1994. His leadership and intangibles have never been questioned.

Girardi always leaves it out there. These days, it’s more about the health of a core player who most believe could be playing his final games with the only team he’s known. It would seem with three years remaining on a contract that averages a hefty $5.5 million cap hit thru 2020, he could be a likely buyout candidate this summer. If not, then perhaps it will be the other veteran Staal, who’s signed thru 2021 with a $5.7 million cap hit.

No wonder both elevated their game in the series victory over the Canadiens. Sure. Staal got victimized pretty badly by Habs rookie Artturi Lehkonen on a wrap around goal in Game 5. But he did get steadier and edgier as the series went on. It doesn’t help that he’s partnered with Nick Holden, who is mistake prone. But the 30-year old was a key contributor following a poor start.

As for Girardi, maybe the best thing that happened was an ankle injury that kept him out a month. It allowed him to recover and get healthy. There were still questions surrounding how effective the gritty right defenseman could be. He played in seven games prior to the first round. Coach Alain Vigneault rotated him with Kevin Klein to figure out what was the best way to go. It was obvious that Girardi was healthier than Klein, whose back remains an issue for the future. He might already have played his final game.

When Vigneault decided to go back to Girardi with McDonagh on the top pair, there was criticism by some who had doubts. Sure. It wasn’t a given that he would play well. How much more did he have to give? He was a convenient scapegoat for the Stanley Cup loss to the Kings. A series he struggled in. But far from the only defenseman.

Sometimes, when you lose players get blamed. In Montreal, there are ignorant fools pinning it on Carey Price. A franchise goalie much like Lundqvist who performed well. It was a tight checking and low scoring series. Max Pacioretty has received most of the blame for failing to score a goal. A fair criticism. At the end of the day, you win and lose as a team. Ultimately, the Rangers were better top to bottom.

Girardi was a big part of why they prevailed. The old Danny G returned. Playing with an edge like the past, he delivered some vicious hits including a big one that injured key Hab pest Andrew Shaw which kept him out of Game 6. That hurt them. Shaw has always been a key performer in such big moments. Just ask the Blackhawks, who are golfing after being unceremoniously swept by Nashville after finishing with the most points in the West. There also was this message delivered to Montreal’s Brendan Gallagher at the end of the second period:

It wasn’t just the hitting. With Girardi, you always get a hard nosed player who will do whatever it takes to help the team win. Take for example, this diving block of a Lehkonen shot that led directly to Derek Stepan’s series sealing empty netter with 17.8 seconds remaining.

In a tight checking series where goals were at a premium, Girardi excelled. He averaged 22:13 a game while renewing old chemistry with McDonagh, who stepped it up big time the last three games. All wins. When the Habs came after the captain, he got mean and went back after them becoming even more effective. A trend started by key acquisition Brendan Smith, who was nasty in his battles with the Canadiens. Rookie Brady Skjei, who scored twice in the series, was hitting everyone.

For the series, Girardi led the Blueshirts with 21 blocked shots and delivered 17 hits. He also was credited with a team high 18 giveaways. But sometimes, stats can be misleading. He played the tough minutes with McDonagh against Montreal’s top scorers. That meant more defending in his zone. It didn’t take into account the physicality and tenacity he played with. The edge was back.

He and McDonagh each finished plus-two and were only one for one goal against at even strength. The Alexei Emelin first period goal on Saturday in which Alex Radulov outhustled Stepan behind the net to set it up. So, it wasn’t either’s fault.

We even saw an active Girardi making several key pinches to keep pucks alive in the offensive zone. He had some looks in the series registering eight shots. His play was strong in the neutral zone. Overall, it was a real good start for a player that has become an easy target for a spoiled fan base.

He remains the best option to play with McDonagh. Something the Adam Clendening proponents can’t seem to get out of their heads. Sometimes, having that experience helps. In the Rangers’ case, they certainly got what they needed from Girardi, who’ll continue to be a key moving forward. Whether it’s Ottawa or Boston in the second round, he must keep it up.

The Blueshirts will need better performances from Stepan and Chris Kreider. Neither of who were factors against Montreal. They’ll probably need to score more goals. And of course, the King in net.

Girardi proved he still has something left. Corsi be damned. Now, they wait for the next opponent. It only gets more fun from here.

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Lundqvist outplays Price in big first round win

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In a epic battle of great goalies, Henrik Lundqvist prevailed over Carey Price to lead the Rangers to a very satisfying six-game series win over the Canadiens. He stopped 195 of 206 shots to win the battle head to head. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy NYRangers.

Entering the playoffs, the lingering questions still were being asked. Could Henrik Lundqvist put behind the worst season of a brilliant career? The proud 35-year old Swedish King answered it loudly. In resounding fashion, he outplayed Carey Price in the Rangers’ big first round series win over the Canadiens.

When the chips were down, the veteran netminder was there to make the key stops against an offensively challenged opponent. In the end, the Rangers’ superior depth won out. Both up front and on the blue line, they were the better team. Even playing a more physical style unfamiliar of an Alain Vigneault coached team, they hit back just as hard. Indeed, they turned back the clock to the days of the John Tortorella Black and Blueshirts sacrificing their bodies at every turn.

On a night they came out flat falling behind early, the Rangers showed the playoff mettle and resilience of an experienced group that had been there before. The best aspect is they did it in front of the Garden Faithful to prevail 3-1 in a hard fought Game 6 eliminating the Canadiens to advance to the second round. They’ll either play the Senators or Bruins in the Atlantic Division Final.

They won because Lundqvist was the better goalie. He got the better of the 29-year old all world Price, who honestly deserved better too. His team didn’t score enough. Following their Game 2 and 3 victories in which they totaled seven goals, they were held to four in the last three. In the Rangers four wins, they outscored the Canadiens 10-4. Lundqvist stopped 114 of 118 shots in Games 1, 4, 5 and 6.

For the series, he allowed only 11 goals on 206 shots. How good is that? Try a 1.70 goals-against-average with a .947 save percentage and a shutout. Comparatively, Price  gave up 12 goals on 179 shots. That translated to a 1.86 GAA with a .933 save percentage. He didn’t get enough support. If anyone in Montreal is pinning the blame on the former Vezina winner, they should look at a roster that featured captain Max Pacioretty, who was held without a goal in the series.

The Habs’ best skaters were Alex Radulov, Brendan Gallagher, Artturi Lehkonen, Tomas Plekanec and Shea Weber. Radulov was dangerous throughout setting up defenseman Alexei Emelin’s goal in the first for a Montreal 1-0 lead. He led all scorers with seven points including the overtime winner in Game 2 after getting the primary helper on Plekanec’ tying goal with 17.3 seconds left. Gallagher was a royal pain in the neck taking the puck to the net while battling hard. He finished with a goal and two assists. Plus a few bruises. Lehkonen had a fine series tallying two goals and two helpers. Plekanec wound up 1-2-3 while dominating on face-offs going 56.2 percent.

The Rangers prevailed despite only getting an empty net goal from Derek Stepan with 18 seconds left that clinched the series. He had a goal and assist and admitted to struggling afterwards. Mats Zuccarello came alive with two goals including the game-tying and series clinching. The pesky Norwegian wound up with three goals including two game-winners while being the Blueshirts’ more skilled version of Gallagher. He took his lumps and dished out some punishment. Some of it illegal in a nasty series where they let them play.

Mika Zibanejad turned his series around with the overtime winner in Game 5 along with a primary helper on gritty teammate Jesper Fast’s shorthanded goal. He really played better between Pavel Buchnevich and Chris Kreider. The trio had chemistry just like they did at season’s start. Buchnevich added a lot of speed and skill but also wasn’t afraid to get the jersey dirty. He made Kreider more effective. Kreider was more noticeable. He set up Zibanejad in Game 5 by using his speed and firing a shot that worked as a perfect pass off Emelin for the OT winner.

Coach Alain Vigneault gets a ton of credit for realizing he needed to make changes to the lineup following a dismal performance in Game 3. He subbed Buchnevich for Tanner Glass and mixed up his lines. All four were more effective afterwards. This isn’t a knock on Glass, who did a fine job in his role on the fourth line even getting the winner in a 2-0 Game 1 win. They just needed better offensive balance. Buchnevich allowed for that.

Vigneault moved Jimmy Vesey up with Stepan and Rick Nash. A combo that was very effective as well as responsible. Vesey only finished with two assists but his all around effort was noticeable. He finished checks and was around the puck a lot. His play to draw two Montreal defenders and pass for Nash, whose rebound went right to rookie Brady Skjei for the momentum shifting goal that tied Game 5. There he was taking a pounding from a frustrated Pacioretty, who crosschecked him twice. Eventually, Vesey went back at him with both earning matching fighting majors and two extra for seven penalty minutes.

The combination Vigneault was waiting on finally came up big. For two games, Kevin Hayes, J.T. Miller and Zuccarello were out of sync. Particularly Miller, who played two miserable games. It looked it would be much of the same from him following an awful first in which he made some back passes to nobody fueling Montreal’s transition. But Vigneault stuck with them. In this instance, he was right. I thought maybe it was time to try Fast on the line and put Miller with Oscar Lindberg and Michael Grabner. Luckily, the coach didn’t.

Hayes had come off a effective Game 5. He had been winning face-offs but still hadn’t registered a point. Both he and Miller were without one entering Saturday night. But in the second, the Rangers were a different team. The trio of Hayes, Miller and Zuccarello led the way with great puck possession and a relentless forecheck that got the crowd into it. Zuccarello converted a power play goal off a great touch pass from Zibanejad in which he handled the puck and in one motion fired it past Price with little room. The one power play goal they needed in the series.

Vigneault’s best chess move was countering with the Hayes unit when Claude Julien sent out his fourth line and third D pair for a defensive draw. It made no sense. The Montreal fourth line was effective in the offensive zone crashing and banging bodies. But they were no match for the shift Hayes, Miller and Zuccarello put together. Hayes didn’t give up on the play recovering a loose puck on a back check. Then Miller eventually got the puck to Hayes in the slot where he didn’t shoot. Instead passing across for Zuccarello, who got loose to put a shot off Price and in with 6:29 left in the second.

But in a series that was about the goalies, Lundqvist had to come up with two fantastic saves. The first coming on Weber during a Montreal power play. With Miller off for high-sticking, here came a lethal Weber one-timer from the left circle ticketed for the top of the net. The velocity was top shelf but Lundqvist reached back and got enough of the puck with the thumb of his glove keeping it out. He then shook his head as if to say, ‘No.’ A remarkable stop that will be replayed for a few days.

The second save came with under two minutes left in regulation. On a goal mouth set up in which he was a little out of position due to going for a poke, he recovered just in the nick of time to rob a wide open Plekanec pointblank by shutting the five-hole and kicking out the puck with his left pad. Here’s how it looked:

That save was the one that finished the Habs. Along with 27 blocked shots including a diving one from who else but Dan Girardi, it led to Stepan flipping a perfect lob clear all the way down into the empty net to seal the victory.

In the end, their best players stepped up including captain Ryan McDonagh, who picked up an assist on Zuccarello’s power play goal. He only finished with two assists but was instrumental in turning around the series. He and partner Girardi were outstanding throughout in stifling Pacioretty and Montreal top center Phillip Danault. Neither scored a goal only totaling five assists between them.

As a team, the Rangers proved to be better. They can thank Lundqvist for a clutch performance. Who said he was done? He ain’t finished yet.

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The Lundqvist Save on Weber

Sometimes, words don’t need to be expressed over a great player. Henrik Lundqvist has and still is great. Don’t believe me? Ask Shea Weber after this absolute rocket of a one-timer that Lundqvist got with his outstretched glove to rob the scary Canadiens defenseman with the hardest shot.

Look how hard and accurate it was. And it didn’t just sit in Lundqvist’s glove. It went into the thumb and juggled indicating the velocity Weber got on it. Think Fulton Reed in The Mighty Ducks.

At this point with a period to go, Lundqvist has been the best player in the series against the Canadiens. If the Rangers win, it’s due to the King, who has outplayed Carey Price.

It’s not over yet. It all depends on the mindset of the Blueshirts. But make no mistake about it. They can thank Lundqvist for leading 2-1 with the third period about to start.

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Blues advance over Wild in OT, Vezina candidates named

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The Blues celebrate their overtime win that eliminated the Wild in a very close five game series. They’ll face the Predators next. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy St. Louis Blues.

Before puck drop for a huge Game 6 between the Canadiens and Rangers at MSG, here are a couple of notes to pass along.

The Blues eliminated the Wild by defeating them 4-3 in overtime at Excel Energy Center in St. Paul. Magnus Paajarvi’s OT winner from Vladimir Sobotka and Jori Lehtera at 9:42 was the difference, allowing St. Louis to advance to a second round match-up against the Predators.

Minnesota showed a lot of heart rallying from a two-goal deficit in the third after having a goal wiped out for interference. Without Eric Staal, who left the game with an upper body injury that sent him to the hospital, the Wild rallied back on goals from Mikko Koivu and Jason Zucker to tie the game. It was a tremendous effort.

In sudden death, the Wild had the better chances. But couldn’t beat unflappable Blues goalie Jake Allen one more time. Instead, late Spring addition Sobotka made a great move towards the net following a Devan Dubnyk turnover. He drew players towards him and kicked for an open Paajarvi, who didn’t miss from in front. The Wild coverage was late with Zach Parise blowing the assignment.

So, the Blues are now playing the Preds in the Central Division Final. The third place and fourth place teams for the right to make the Western Conference Final. It’s not surprising. I did take St. Louis over Minnesota in six. I just felt they were playing better entering. Particularly Allen, who’s been much better since legend Martin Brodeur worked with him. Brodeur fixing a goalie. Shocking. I bet the Devils wish they still had Marty in the organization.

The most shocking development was Pekka Rinne only allowing three goals against the Blackhawks in Nashville’s four-game sweep. I thought the Preds stood a chance but didn’t take them due to Rinne. He had been up and down all season. Nobody could’ve predicted that. Funny too because I blindly took Chicago to the Conference Finals. But knew they were flawed. They are so top heavy that it’s no longer the same group. So, they were always beatable. Jonathan Toews had another bad performance and Patrick Kane only scored one goal.

These NHL playoffs are funny. You just never know. I think Nashville can give St. Louis a series. But I think you have to give the Blues the edge due to Allen. But it should be a good series. One final thought on the Wild. They were in every game. To quote John Tortorella following his team’s tough five-game defeat to the Pens, “It wasn’t a five-game series.”

Some series are like that. When the Rangers lost to the Kings in 2014, it was a whole lot closer than five games. The Wild’s loss to the Blues reminded me of when our ’97 Rangers got past a very good Devils team in five to make the Conference Final. In that one, Mike Richter outplayed Brodeur and they benefited from that dumb crease rule which saw the Devils have a couple of goals wiped out. A asinine rule they kept around too long. Brett Hull anyone? That still hurts in Buffalo.

Speaking of which, what the heck are the Sabres doing? So, Jack Eichel already has that much pull after two years. He got both Dan Bylsma and Tim Murray fired. Boy oh boy. I agree with axing Bylsma, who wasn’t the right fit. But I felt Murray did a solid job. But he didn’t want to get rid of Disco Dan. So, Terry Pegula did it for him and Murray lost his job. You wonder why every time a new owner emerges for the Sabres, it turns into a disaster. We’re not there yet. But they better get it right.

So, the Vezina candidates were revealed by the NHL on Twitter and on NHL Network. And there was one surprise. Carey Price is up for the award along with co-favorites Sergei Bobrovsky and Braden Holtby. Nothing against Price, who most agree is the world’s best currently. But he didn’t turn it around until Claude Julien took over for Montreal.

In this blogger’s opinion, Cam Talbot was better and more consistent in Edmonton. He’s continuing to play well in his first postseason as a starter with two shutouts. He has the Oilers one win away from the second round. Talbot tied for the league lead in wins with 42 while posting a 2.39 GAA, .917 save percentage and seven shutouts in a league-leading 73 appearances. He got shafted.

Price wound up with 37 wins, a 2.23 GAA, .923 save percentage and three shutouts. Respectable numbers. I didn’t feel he was a top three goalie this year. You could argue Tuukka Rask did more with a Bruins team by pitching eight shutouts with identical wins and GAA but a .915 save percentage. They weren’t as good defensively. He is the reason they haven’t been eliminated yet by Ottawa.

At least the three Norris finalists are as expected. Brent Burns, Victor Hedman and my choice Erik Karlsson. The Selke candidates are Patrice Bergeron, Ryan Kesler and Mikko Koivu. As expected, Patrik Laine, Auston Matthews and Zach Werenski are the three up for the Calder in a very strong rookie class that included William Nylander, Mitch Marner, Brady Skjei, Matt Murray and Matthew Tkachuk.

Alright. It’s game time. The face off should start some time before 8:20. I hate NBC.

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