Cup Fever Sweeps New York

For the first time since 2007, both New York NHL teams are in the playoffs – and both teams are making some noise.

The sixth-seeded New York Rangers, after falling behind the Washington Capitals 2-0 in the series, have tied things up at two games apiece. The Blueshirts’ best postseason performer (much like the regular season) has been goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who through four games has a 2.44 GAA and .922 save percentage.

“King Henrik” has allowed some soft goals thus far, but it’s the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and that’s just what happens. Things get weird in the playoffs – rebounds, deflections, etc. – but Lundqvist has stood tall through four games versus Washington. Hank has kept Capitals star Alexander Ovechkin to just two points (one goal, one assist) thus far in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.

On a half-related note, Ovi pulled this stunt in Game 4 at MSG Wednesday Night.

As far as skaters go, Carl Hagelin has arguably been the most impressive Ranger. After scoring twice in Game 4, Hagelin increased his playoff total to four – two goals, and two helpers. Hagelin’s speed, combined with his ability to finish, has been giving Washington fits in this series.

(Case in point: Hagelin netted this beauty of a goal during the Rangers’ Game 4 victory.)

If the Rangers wan to keep their momentum going, the most important factor for them is Rick Nash. Nash, one of the league’s most talented players, hasn’t really “Made it Nashty” too often through the first four games, as he only has one point – an assist – in the postseason. As a matter of fact, Nash has just two goals and an assist in his last eight games, including the regular season.

In fairness to Nash, he did take a page out of MSG co-tennant JR Smith’s book when he “got the pipe” near the end of regulation in Game 2. Close doesn’t cut it though, and after coming to New York in a big offseason trade, the Ranger faithful will surely be getting on Nash soon if he doesn’t produce when it matters most. He’ll get his next chance to impress Friday night at 7:30, when the Rangers and Caps drop the puck in our nation’s capital for a pivotal Game 5.

Now, let’s shift a few miles east.

The New York Islanders are in the midst of their first playoff appearance since 2007 – a first round exit to the Buffalo Sabres. Like 2007, the Isles are the Eastern Conference eight seed. However, unlike 2007, the Isles already have two wins over the heavily favored Pittsburgh Penguins and have forced at least a Game 6 in the series.

The Isles currently trail the Pens 3-2 in the series, but have a chance to even things up again on Saturday night at Nassau Coliseum. There have certainly been some problems for the Islanders this series – bad line changes, silly penalties and less-than-stellar goaltending have all proven costly through the first five games. However, the heart and resiliency this team has shown has the fans beLIeving (see what I did there?) that anything is possible – including another comeback, and potentially even a monumental first round upset.

Going back to that goalie thing, though. Veteran goaltender Evgeni Nabokov, who had a good regular season, simply is not getting the job done in the first round against Pittsburgh.

Nabokov has some ugly stats for the series, including a save percentage of .847% (yuck) and a GAA of 4.69 (double yuck). Believe me, I understand what Nabokov is up against. Playing against an All-Star lineup with an (at times) overly aggressive defense in front of him is certainly no easy task. However, Nabokov has allowed some absolutely brutal goals, including a Douglas Murray shot that hopped over his shoulder an into the net.

Now, while Nabby has been the Isles’ best goalie all season without question, I believe Jack Capuano has a serious goaltending decision to make for Saturday’s Game 6. Kevin Poulin has stopped 14/15 shots this series (having come in in relief in Games 1 & 5). Does Capuano go with the 23 year-old backup, or stick with the (struggling) guy who got him there? That’s a tough call, and I’m glad I’m not the one to make it.

Let’s get to the positives from this series for the Islanders, because there have been a few. For one, Kyle Okposo has finally turned into the player everyone thought he could be. Through five playoff games, he has four points and a team-leading three goals. One of his biggest contributions, however, had nothing to do with point totals. Coming off a 5-0 drubbing in Game 1, the Isles found themselves down early again in Game 2. Down 3-1, Okposo took matters into his own hands (or fists) when Pittsburgh D-Man Matt Niskanen took out Matt Moulson in the neutral zone.

Okposo’s first career fighting major sparked the Isles to an inspired comeback, and very well may be the reason the team is still playing games.

Another positive for the Isles thus far has been the first overall pick from the 2009 Draft, John Tavares. The young superstar’s first playoff series is going quite well. Tavares has two goals and two assists through five games, and scored the eventual game-winner in Game 5, and it was a beauty. JT danced through the defense, put a shot on Fleury, knocked home the rebound, and sent the already-raucous Nassau Coliseum into a frenzy.

The Old Barn will be rockin’ again this Saturday night, but with a more nervous feel to it. Facing elimination, the Isles need to do a better job defensively against Crosby, Malkin, and the like. Just a reminder to Isles fans: In 1993, the Islanders dropped Game 5 of their playoff series to the Penguins.

Two games later, David Volek put the nail in Pittsburgh’s coffin. It ain’t over yet, folks.

So maybe neither the Islanders nor the Rangers are top-notch NHL squads. Maybe they’ll both be out within a few days. But for now, buckle up and enjoy the ride. Not much is better than the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Follow James on Twitter at @JamesStumper.

We Want Playoffs!

Grabner, who scored twice Tuesday, rips a puck down the ice against Florida. (Photo by Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images)

Grabner, who scored twice Tuesday, rips a puck down the ice against Florida. (Photo by Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images)

Tuesday night at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum was Fan Appreciation Night, and for the first time in a while, the Islanders faithful finally have something to appreciate.

The Islanders won again Tuesday night, lighting up the Florida Panthers 5-2. The Isles got contributions from all over, including two pretty goals by Michael Grabner.

The latest win gave the Islanders 49 points, good for sole possession of seventh place in the Eastern Conference and one point out of sixth. The Isles are now 7-1-2 in their last 10 games, and the playoff-starved fans on Long Island (and this one, who’s currently in New Jersey) are flying high. April the last five years at Nassau Coliseum hasn’t sounded like much of anything, because it’s been empty. However, these days, the old barn in Hempstead sounds like this.

The fan base is energized, and with good reason. The Isles haven’t made the playoffs since they snuck in as the eighth seed in 2006-2007, when folk hero Wade Dubielewicz led the team to an improbable late-season run. Now, they are in prime position to do so.

At the season’s outset, it didn’t seem like the Islanders would have much of a chance with the much-improved (or so we thought) New York Rangers, perennial-favorite Penguins, Flyers and Devils all in their division. However, the Isles have surprised everyone, and now have a magic number of eight points to get into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.  Any combination of eight points gained by the Islanders or lost by the Winnipeg Jets will put the Islanders into the playoffs for the first time in what seems like an eternity.

The final push will not be easy though, as New York hits the road for their final five games of the regular season, including a huge game in Winnipeg this Saturday night.

There have been many individual players that have impressed this season. John Tavares, with 24 goals, is making a legitimate case to be the Hart Trophy winner. Evgeni Nabokov has been front and center for a goaltending crew that hasn’t allowed more than two goals in nine consecutive games, tying a franchise record that was set in 2001.

However, what has been most impressive about the Islander’s playoff push is the team aspect that has finally come together. Secondary scoring  (as in goals from people who aren’t named John Tavares or Matt Moulson) is finally coming from players that we knew had potential all along. Guys like Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey are finally starting to come into their own after years of underachieving. This squad also has role players who do the dirty work, as Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Colin McDonald have all become fan favorites.

And let’s not forget Mark Streit. The captain since signing a deal in 2008, Streit has experienced zero success in the orange and blue. In the final year of that contract, he is finally in contention for a spot in the NHL’s big dance. Last night Streit addressed the Coliseum faithful after the win, thanking them for their support all season.Hopefully for Streit and the Isles, they’ll be back on the ice at the Nassau Coliseum sooner rather than later. As for now, they’ll take their act north of the border, with their next game Thursday night in Toronto.

Right now, the players are asking the fans to do one thing: beLIeve.

New York Rangers: Season in Review

With only a minute gone by in overtime and the puck loose in front, it was apparent the blue-shirts were in trouble. Seconds later, Adam Henrique swooped in behind Lundqvist to tap the loose puck into the open net to end the Rangers dream of being Stanley Cup champions. With Devils now on the brink of being swept by the Los Angeles Kings in the finals, Rangers fans can’t help but think, it should’ve been us. But the Rangers were not going to be handed a spot against the Kings, they had to earn it. The Rangers and head coach John Tortorella could not find enough gas to put in the tank to beat the Devils. However, when asked if playing so many games played a part in their elimination, Tortorella disagreed saying “It has nothing to do with being tired.” But the fact that the Rangers played more games in 3 rounds than any other team cannot be denied. After an entire 82 game season, the few extra games seemed to catch up with the Rangers. The Rangers just squeaked out of a hard fought series with the Senators in 7 games, and against the Capitals it was like a new Rangers team showed up. They lacked the offensive firepower that they showed at times throughout the season and the usually grit and energy was lacking in the series. The Capitals were beating the Rangers are their own game, blocking shots and receiving spectacular play in net by Braden Holtby. While the Rangers were able to grind their way out of the Capitals series, the Devils, while only a 6 seed, presented a much tougher test than the Capitals or the Senators. The Rangers couldn’t pass the test.

While they did manage to win games 1 and 3 easily with the incredible goaltending of Henrik Lundqvist, the Rangers were being outplayed in nearly every game and were not playing the style of hockey they played all season. Down by 3 goals early in game 5, the Rangers finally reminded everyone why they were the best team in the east all season. It was almost as if the power was turned on at the end of the first period. The fore checking, hard hitting Rangers showed up for the first time in the series, and powered their way back to a 3 – 3 tie. But there just wasn’t enough electricity to keep them powered, and the Rangers eventually allowed a goal and then an empty netter to seal the deal, leading to their downfall in the next game.

While the Rangers season ended in disappointment, the season was one to be remembered. With the powerhouse Flyers and Penguins in the Atlantic, the Rangers were expected to be a playoff team, but not to compete for the division title. But on the backs of Marian Gaborik and Henrik Lundqvist, the Rangers made it an incredible season for their loyal fans, and give them something to look forward to in the future.

The Good

Marian Gaborik in the Regular Season: If the NHL handed out a comeback player of the year award, Gaborik may have very well been the winner. After scoring a mere 22 goals in 62 games in 2010-11, Gaborik led the offense for the Rangers the whole season, scoring 41 goals, good for 3rd in the NHL.

Brad Richards: For once, the Rangers big money free agent acquisition paid off. While his season started off slow, Richards presence could not be denied. Richards was well known as being a mentor to defenseman Michael Del Zotto, helping him through the season. Richards came on strong at the end of the season once united with Gaborik and Hagelin, and was the Rangers best forward through the majority of the playoffs.

The Defense: Backstopped by the Vezina favorite Henrik Lundqvist, the Rangers maintained one of the stingiest defenses in the league, giving up a miniscule 2.22 goals per game in a division that included the top 2 scoring teams in the league. Lundqvist was fantastic all year and was always there to save the Rangers during breakdowns. However, these breakdowns were few and far between. The Rangers top four defensemen were arguably the best in the league, led by the top unit of Ryan McDonough and Dan Girardi. But it was not only the defensemen that provided defense, the forwards were shot blocking machines as well. It’s hard to find a more dedicated player in the league than Ryan Callahan, who came up with huge blocked shots seemingly every game. The Rangers established an incredible defensive system that led them to 1st place in the Eastern Conference.

John Tortorella: Yes, he may give the worst interviews in the league, but the Rangers fully bought into Torts’ system. His defensive, shot blocking system was perfectly suited for the hard working Rangers, and it shows by his nomination for the Jack Adams Trophy for the best coach in the NHL.

The Flyers and Winter Classic: Not only did the Rangers beat the Flyers in the highly anticipated Winter Classic, they swept them in the season series.

So many things were good for the Rangers, so you may be asking yourself, well why aren’t they the ones playing for the Stanley Cup? Well, here is why:

The Bad

Where’d you go, Marian?: While Gaborik may have been the Rangers most potent offensive weapon during the regular season, he faded under the bright lights in the playoffs, leaving the Rangers with a less than potent offense. Scoring just 11 points in 20 games, Gaborik could not be relied on to score clutch goals or have 2 goal games to lead the Rangers like he did in the months before. He was even benched multiple times by Tortorella and at one point was delegated to the 4th line.

Brandon Dubinsky: Who led the Rangers in points in 2010 – 11? No, it wasn’t Marian Gaborik. No, it wasn’t Ryan Callahan. It was Brandon Dubinsky. After scoring 24 goals last season, Dubinsky was expected to be a close to 30 goal scorer on the second line. Instead, he scored 10 goals and spent most of his time on the 3rd or 4th line.

The Power Play: Every year it’s the same old story: the New York Rangers power play is downright awful. Ranking 23rd in the league, the Rangers needed something to help solve their 5 on 4 woes, and Brad Richards was not the answer.

The 5th and 6th D-man: McDonough and Girardi were number 1 and 2 in terms of blocked shots in the regular season, Del Zotto re-emerged as one of the best young defensemen in the game, and after Staal returned to form, he was as good as ever. However, that is only 4 defensemen. The Rangers 5th and 6th defensemen was a problem all season and especially in the playoffs. After Michael Sauer went down early in the season with a concussion, the last 2 spots were always a question, rotating between Anton Stralman, Tim Erixon, Stu Bickel, and Steve Eminger. While Stralman settled in late in the season and during the playoffs, Bickel’s play was less than par. Tortorella opted to bench him during most games, leaving the Rangers with 5 defensemen. In the end, this played a significant role in the Rangers downfall as the defense seemed tired against the Devils.

What Now?

After a first place finish in the conference, the Rangers still have to make some moves to make them a Stanley Cup contender yet again. A huge factor in this offseason will be the recent surgery that Marian Gaborik underwent on his right shoulder. Gaborik will be out up to 6th months, a span that will cut into the beginning of next season. Maybe the playoff sensation Chris Kreider can step into his role, but Gaborik leaves a big void. The Rangers would already be looking to acquire a top notch scorer, and this adds to the need for one.  The possibility of a trade for Rick Nash, who was rumored to be coming to New York at the trade deadline, is still a possibility. The Rangers find themselves with $21 million in cap room, but first must resign Michael Del Zotto (RFA), Brandon Prust (UFA), and depending on the status of Sauer come next season possibly Anton Stralman (RFA). Another answer for the Rangers may be in one of the players that eliminated them from the playoffs: Zach Parise. Parise will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason and is not a guarantee to stay in New Jersey.

The last defenseman slot also must be addressed. The Rangers could go after a top notch defenseman via trade or free agency such as Ryan Suter or Shea Weber of the Predators. Landing one of these players would not only address the depth issues on defense, but would greatly improve the power play. However, landing one of them would likely take away the possibility of landing a top notch forward. The Rangers could instead dive into a plentiful pool of solid defensemen that are not as pricey to upgrade from Stu Bickel.

After a season full of great moments, The Rangers have most of their pieces in place. Goaltending? Check. 40 goal scorer? Check. Determined Captain? Check. Machine like top 4 defensemen? Check. However, the Rangers seem to just be missing one piece that will keep them going on all cylinders all year. If the Rangers can land either a high scoring winger or defensemen, look for them to be right back at the top of the standings again next year to contend yet again for Lord Stanley’s Cup.