After eliminating Canada’s hockey capital (Montreal) it is only fitting that the next obstacle for the New York Rangers to climb would be Canada’s capital (Ottawa) in a rematch of their 2012 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals won by the Rangers in seven games after trailing three games to two.
This year’s Eastern Conference Semifinals features many intriguing off-ice and on-ice stories that bear watching.
Ottawa goalie Craig Anderson has split his time this season tending goal for the Senators and tending to his wife Nicholle as she battles cancer – a situation that I am all too familiar with and as a result wish Craig and Nicholle nothing but the best.
Clarke McArthur’s triumphant return from missing nearly two full seasons recovering from a concussion and its aftermath was capped off with his Game 6 winning goal in overtime to eliminate the Boston Bruins.
Of course, one can’t talk of the senators without mentioning the “impending domination” of perennial Norris Trophy candidate Erik Karlsson and Anderson’s mastery over the Rangers (10-5-3 with a 1.77 GAA, .941 SV% and four shutouts).
In the minds of a lot of Rangers and Senators fans, this series will go a long way in deciding which team won the Mika Zibanejad-Derick Brassard trade. Early returns look good for the Sens as “Big Game Brass” is tied for second in the playoffs with eight points while Zibanejad has half as many points for the Blueshirts. Speaking of Brassard, the series reunites him with his former Rangers BFF Mats Zuccarello.
Alain Vigneault will be coaching against the organization that gave him his first NHL job as he served as an assistant coach for Ottawa for three and a half years.
Vigneault offered an interesting take to the media on the Zibanejad-Brassard trade leading up to the start of the series. The Rangers were able to acquire a 2018 second round pick from Ottawa in that deal which, in turn, allowed the Rangers to package a 2018 second round pick to Detroit as part of the Brendan Smith deal.
All of these off-ice and on-ice stories make for nice print and on-air talking points, but the main story for this series will come to down to “1-3-1” – the defensive system used by Ottawa’s coach Guy Boucher. It is a system that Boucher started when he was Tampa Bay and caused Philadelphia Flyers’ coach Peter Laviolette to mock Boucher’s strategy.
The Rangers ability, or inability, to break the 1-3-1 is the key to the series. Job (sounds like rob) is to be as patient as Job (sounds like robe) when it comes to breaking Ottawa’s trap. In order to counter Boucher’s plan to stifle puck movement through the neutral zone, the Rangers must resist resorting to what MSG.com Rick Carpiniello likes to call their “fancy-boy” way of playing hockey where the Blueshirts put more reliance on piling up style points rather than shots or goals.
Whether they like it or not, the Rangers will have to play dump-and-chase hockey (emphasis on their need to chase). Considering on how much Boucher relied on his top four defensemen against Boston (without Mark Borowiecki who missed four of the six games, but should be back sooner rather than later), the Rangers can make good use of putting bodies on the Ottawa d-men, especially early in games.
In a discussion on the NHL Network, the analysts believed that the Rangers physical pressure on Karlsson would pay off late in shifts/periods/games. If the Rangers attack and put bodies him, they can take advantage of Karlsson – and by extension the rest of the Ottawa blueliners.
The Rangers need to implement a strategy that former Canadian Junior Brian Kilrea used to employ. In racking up nearly 1,200 wins with the Ottawa 67’s, Kilrea’s forechecking strategy was “asses and eyeballs”. In Kilrea’s book, “They Caller Me Killer”, Bryan Trottier explained what Kilrea means by “asses and eyeballs”:
“If you see their asses, let’s pressure like hell! If you see their eyeballs, we’ll just send one,” Trottier explained.
In addition to hard forechecking and dump-and-chase, the Rangers will need to be in constant motion to break the 1-3-1 with quick crisp passes – as opposed to their preferred method of looking to stretch the ice with long passes (which can play into the Senators’ trap).
In addition to patience, the Rangers will have to remain disciplined and not try to force a round peg into a square hole. The importance for discipline carries over to eliminating, or at least limiting, the lazy stupid penalties they took against Montreal – like all of those high sticking penalties late in the series.
In a way, the Rangers will have to do like they did in the Montreal series, adjust their style of play to meet the needs of the game. It is something that Derek Stepan recognizes.
“You have a game plan, but you also have to be ready to take what series’ give you and I think that’s how teams succeed in the playoffs,” Stepan admitted to Larry Brooks of the New York Post. “We have superstars on our team, but we don’t rely on superstars taking over games. We’re team-oriented and built that way.
“I go back to what Marty [St. Louis] preaches about the importance of being able to make adjustments. That’s what he did as an individual to be able to succeed in the league for so long, and that’s what teams need to be able to do.”
It is ironic that Stepan mentioned St. Louis because Marty was part of that Lightning team that implemented the 1-3-1.
Of course, the easiest way to break the 1-3-1, or any trap for that matter, is to get the lead and then add to it. The more Ottawa falls behind, the greater the pressure is to change their style of play and open the game up – which will play to the Rangers skill and speed advantage.
One way for the Rangers make sure they get the early lead is to win the special teams battles. The Rangers penalty killing helped do them in during their Game 3 loss and their power play goal in Game 6 helped win the series. With the way Anderson and Henrik Lundqvist are playing goals are expected to be at a premium so the special teams should be crucial.
Interestingly enough, success on special teams hasn’t been all that successful for playoffs teams this year. Calgary leads all playoff teams in PP% (37.5) and they were swept in four games. Minnesota and Montreal had the playoffs best penalty killing units (93.3) and both of those teams are out of the playoffs.
The Rangers need some of their young stars to pick up their play in the Ottawa series. Kevin Hayes, Chris Kreider and J.T. Miller were far too inconsistent in the Montreal series, although Hayes began to show life towards the end of the series. Kreider and Miller got lucky after taking some really stupid penalties late in the series and can’t afford to do so now. With Montreal and the Carey Price Affair a memory, perhaps Kreider will regain his confidence to go to the net utilizing his size and speed.
While Stepan helped ice the series with his empty net goal, two points in six games is not going to get the job done – especially when you are only winning 37.2% of your faceoffs. That was the one part of Hayes’ game that was strong (57.6%).
The Rangers had success against Price when took advantage of him going down to the ice early. While he is a very athletic goalie, Anderson can fall into that same trap as well. The Blueshirts will need to get traffic in front of him in the hopes he will have problems going side-to-side and picking up the puck through traffic.
In addition to shutting down Brassard and Karlsson, the Rangers will have to deal with the resurgence of Bobby Ryan who scored four goals and three assists against Boston. He was using his Rick Nash-like ability in a way that the Rangers need to see from Nash and their big forwards.
Many Rangers fans were pleased with the extra rest they received thanks to eliminating the Canadiens in six games instead of the usual seven games it always seems to take the Rangers. Frankly, the rest probably did more for Ottawa given the four overtime games they played against the Bruins – not to mention the “healing time” Karlsson’s hairline fracture in his foot received. The Senators captain averaged over 30 minutes of ice time that was topped off by nearly 42 minutes in double overtime in Game 5. Karlsson had to battle through cramps in that game so any extra rest for him was welcomed.
This series is going to be like the typical Rangers death struggle when it comes to the playoffs. There are going to be time when they resemble the team that started the season 13-4-0 and then there will be times when they play like the team that limped home during the final few weeks of the regular season.
Ottawa’s trap is sure to lead some ugly hockey at times, and that is to be expected. The Rangers response to the trap will determine the outcome of the series. As we have seen this year, home-ice is not the advantage it is cracked up to be. The Rangers were the NHL’s road warriors while the home team in the Ottawa series was just 1-5.
In the end, the Rangers depth, skill and speed will win out. The Rangers won their second straight playoff series against Montreal in six games so I expect the Rangers will win their second straight seven game series against Ottawa.