Despite the New York Rangers needing "help" to make the 2011 NHL Playoffs, this year's team was remarkably consistent given the fact that many of the players they were counting on to be big contributors were injured. Just four regulars played all 82 games this season, and the Rangers had to rely (for once) on their depth in the minors. What's different about this version of the Rangers, though, is that it has formed a true team identity -- one that predicates itself on out-working opponents. Tonight will be the first test of that identity when the games really matter as the Rangers visit the Washington Capitals for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Playoffs at 7:30 p.m. EST (MSG).
With a Game 1 preview all about setting the stage for what's to come, let's take a look at my keys to the series. Check out Joe's here.
1- Under John Tortorella, the Rangers have bought into his system and have formed a team identity that's admittedly not flashy but makes them a squad that's very hard to play against because they are hardworking, throw their bodies around, aren't afraid to sacrifice their bodies to block shots and are expected to play in both ends of the ice. If you don't buy into it, you don't play; there's no special treatment (just ask Marian Gaborik who sat for over 15 minutes against the Thrashers a few games ago). In the regular season, the Rangers have imposed their system on the Capitals and have shown that it works -- and being a much less talented team up front, they need to play this way to have a chance.
2 - The second key for the Rangers to win this series is getting pucks deep and working beneath the goalline. Sounds simple and boring, but it's when the Rangers do that that they're most successful. This team prevails when it dumps pucks deep in the zone, wins puck battles, establishes a forecheck and works from behind the goalline. They are not a finesse team who can work east-to-west and beat the Capitals with flair; they've played their best hockey when they play a north-south game and cycle the puck behind the net (which can be aggravating as a fan).
3 - Henrik Lundqvist. Plain and simple, if Lundqvist is on his game, he can win the series for the Rangers. I know there will be spurts when it will be Lundqvist vs. the Capitals and he'll need to be big. Lundqvist has played in 68 games this season, starting 26 straight because of Marty Biron's injury, but he's proven to be better the more action he receives -- and part of that is his overall mental toughness.
4 - Slowing down Alex Ovechkin. The tandem of Marc Staal-Dan Girardi has slowed Alex Ovechkin down to just two assists in the four games played, clearly frustrating him the past two games because they've played physically and been able limit his space. I don't expect him to have a quiet series - and it will be harder for Tortorella to match them against Ovechkin when they're playing on the road - but the Rangers' other pair, which consists of rookies Michael Sauer and Ryan McDonagh have grown immensely this season and will be counted on heavily as well to stop the Caps' most dangerous weapon.
5 - Scoring from all lines. The way Marian Gaborik has played this season, any scoring from him is icing on the cake, so I can't make him a key to the series. The fact is, this team has received contributions from all over this season (and lines have been interchangeable) - five players with 20-plus goals - and will need at least the top-three lines rolling because it makes them that much harder to match up against.
Tortorella has been mum about revealing his lines/scratches to the press, but revealed this morning that Matt Gilroy and Mats Zuccarello will be in. Steven Eminger and Sean Avery will sit. Michal Neuvirth is in goal tonight for the Caps.
Game 1 should be a fun one, so sit back and enjoy.
Wednesday, Apr 13, 2011, 7:30 PM EDT