For Alex Ovechkin to get the Washington Captials to the Stanley Cup Final, he will have to run the gauntlet in the postseason.
When the New York Rangers were eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs this past Saturday at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins, it marked the earliest that their season has ended since 2011. The Rangers enjoyed their second consecutive 100-point season, but the action in the National Hockey League this season was tightly contested with several teams having a legitimate chance to win it all. The Rangers faced a very formidable opponent in the first round and after being unable to keep up with the Penguins, there will be a ton of questions that New York must answer heading into the off-season.
For the past decade, goalie Henrik Lundqvist has been the face of the Rangers. Lundqvist has been one of the most dominant goalies in the National Hockey League during his career which included him winning the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goalie in 2012. This season Lundqvist led the NHL in saves with 1,788. But against the Pens, Lundqvist wasn’t sharp as the Penguins blitzed him for 15 goals in the five-gave series which included him being benched in three games by Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault in favor of backup goalie Antti Raanta on three occasions.
Lundqvist and the Rangers were fighting an uphill battle throughout the entire series as it was a clever game plan that was composed by Penguins head coach Mike Johnston as they pressured Lundqvist. For the series only three periods of hockey saw the Pens not score a goal. And aside from winning Game 2, the Rangers only led for roughly 26 minutes in the series as they were always in catch-up mode.
Pittsburgh came into the Stanley Cup Playoffs as the hottest team in hockey as they went 27-9-1 over the last portion of the season while the combination on center Sidney Crosby, right winger Phil Kessel, and rookie Matt Murray were too much for the Blueshirts to tangle with. And the domination by the Penguins in this series shows that the Rangers must find a way to get more athletic heading into next season while also finding a consistent go-to-guy as an offensive threat.
This past season the Rangers were seventh in the National Hockey League in goals per game average at 2.84, but they didn’t have any player finish in the top 20 in the league in goals, assists, or points. And that lack of a superstar player showed up against a Penguins team that is loaded with stars as the blue-collar approach that the Rangers have used over the past few years is not longer going to cut it if they want to win the Stanley Cup. But by hook or by crook, this will be a different Rangers team next season.
Center Dominic Moore, along with defensemen Dan Boyle, Keith Yandle, and Eric Stall are all set to become unrestricted free agents and I don’t see the Rangers signing all four players as it comes down to either age and attrition. The Rangers already have roughly $53 million committed to salaries for next season which would also more than likely put them out of the running to sign Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos who is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer. But make no mistake about that the Rangers must find themselves a star player that can shoulder the scoring mode in the same fashion that Lundqvist dominates between the pipes. The Rangers were hoping that left winger Rick Nash would be that type of player for them after they acquired him from the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2012: However after a 42-goal season last year, injuries limited Nash to just 15 goals in this campaign.
The Rangers still have a solid core which is led by Lundqvist and defenseman Ryan McDonagh who is their captain while Vigneault is the best coaching for the this team going forward. But after being so close in the past several years, the last thing that the Rangers want to do is to revert backwards which makes this summer very important for them.
Hands down the Washington Capitals have been the best team in the National Hockey League this season. The Capitals are seeking their first Presidents’ Trophy since 2010 while also attempting to win their first Stanley Cup Championship in franchise history. The Caps have one of the best goal scorers that the NHL has to offer in left winger Alex Ovechkin while goalie Braden Holtby is extremely difficult to score on. The Capitals also have a head coach in Barry Trotz that is battle tested while he also knows how to get the most out of his team. And once you add all of that up, this spring in D.C. could shape up to be very good for the Capitals. But even though that the Capitals are more than likely to finish with the best record in the NHL, it isn’t that cut and dry to see to see them reach the Stanley Cup Final as some long time rivals could stand in their way when the postseason rolls around.
After winning the Stanley Cup Title in 2009, the Pittsburgh Penguins remained a contender in the Eastern Conference. Led by a two-time National League MVP in center Sidney Crosby, the Penguins are always a tough out in the postseason and this year’s squad is no different.
The Penguins are currently in fourth place in the Metropolitan Division, but they are only 3 points behind both the New York Rangers and New York Islanders for second place in the division. Like the Capitals, the Pens have a sharp goalie of their own in Marc-Andre Fleury who’s 2.32 goals against average is 14th in the National Hockey League this season. With the likes of Crosby and center Evgeni Malkin who is currently injured, the Penguins have always had solid scoring, but they added to that last summer when they acquired right winger Phil Kessel from the Toronto Maple Leafs.
In spite of the fact that Ovechkin and Crosby are two of the top players in the National Hockey League, there’s no love lost between them. And once you factor in that Washington has lost to Pittsburgh in seven of their eight playoff meetings, the Pens are a potential postseason opponent that the Caps cannot afford to overlook.
When it comes to the cities of New York City and Washington D.C., there has always been an intense sports rivalry. We’ve seen it in men’s college basketball with the St. John’s Red Storm and Georgetown Hoyas, in the National Football League with the New York Giants and Washington Redskins, and also in Major League Baseball with the New York Mets and Washington Nationals. The ice doesn’t take a backseat to any of the other sports as the Capitals have been known to get it on with both the Rangers and Islanders.
After the Caps made their National Hockey League debut in 1974 as an expansion team, they failed to qualify for the postseason in their first eight seasons. Things would change for Washington in 1983 when they made their first of 14 consecutive playoff appearances. However the next five years would see the Capitals make the playoffs, but in five matchups with the Islanders, they lost four times.
The Isles and Caps have met in some memorable postseason affairs which is highlighted by their epic seven-game duel in the 1987 Patrick Division Semifinals. Game 7 of the series would go to a fourth overtime before Islanders center Pat LaFontaine score the game and series-winner. Overall the Caps and Islanders have met in the playoffs seven times with the most recent meeting coming last year in another seven-game battle: this one however would be won by Washington.
The current Islanders team has solid goal scorers in centers John Tavares and Brock Nelson. But unlike the Penguins, the Isles are not as strong between the pipes with their goalies Thomas Greiss and Jaroslav Halak. In a potential playoff series with the Islanders, the Caps would have a decided home-ice advantage as the Barclays Center in Brooklyn doesn’t have the same appeal for the fans of the Isles like the Nassau Coliseum did.
And then there’s the case of the Rangers. The Rangers and Capitals have met in the postseason six times with New York emerging victorious on four occasions including last spring. The Rangers might not have the star power that the Capitals have, but they do have one of the best goalies that the National Hockey League currently has in Henrik Lundqvist. And when Lundqvist is on, you have a better chance of navigating through gridlock traffic in the Big Apple than scoring on him.
But maybe the thought of the Capitals having to deal with some of their longtime rivals in the playoffs could be just what the doctor ordered for them. Ovechkin has accomplished all of the personal accolades that the National Hockey League has to offer which includes him being being a three-time league MVP, but he continues to hear the growing banter about him not being able to lead his team to a Stanley Cup Title. Trotz put Nashville Predators hockey on the map as he was their head coach in the team’s first 15 years of existence. Trotz got the Predators to the postseason seven times and only eight head coaches in NHL history have won more regular season games than his 652. However Trotz is still searching for the elusive Stanley Cup Title to put on his soon-to-be Hockey Hall of Fame resume.
The Nation’s Capitol is seeking its first title in one the four major sports leagues in the United States since 1991 when the Washington Redskins won the Super Bowl. The Capitals have the potential to go all the way this spring, but it won’t be easy with some bona fide heavyweights potentially standing in their way.
When the New York Rangers won the Stanley Cup Championship in 1994, it marked the end of the long suffering for their organization as their last prior title to that was secured in 1940. The Rangers are an Original Six club and they are also one of the most iconic teams in the National Hockey League. But twenty-one years later after hoisting the Stanley Cup, the Rangers are still searching for another opportunity.
The past four seasons have seen the Rangers become one of the top teams in the National Hockey League as they have enjoyed some deep runs in the postseason. In 2012, the Rangers made their first trip to the Eastern Conference Finals since 1997, but there they would meet an old nemesis in the New Jersey Devils who proved to be too much for the Blueshirts to overcome. Last year the Rangers made their first appearance in the Stanley Cup Final since winning it all in 1994. But there the Rangers met a Los Angeles Kings squad that was a team of destiny and they succumb to them in five games. This season was the second one for the Rangers under head coach Alain Vigneault and they felt that this was going to be their year.
After a slow start to the season, the Rangers caught fire down the stretch of the regular season and they earned the Presidents’ Trophy for just the third time in franchise history. And in order for the Rangers to get back to the Stanley Cup Final for a second consecutive year, they knew that they were going to have to go through some of the game’s best scorers. In the first round of the playoffs, it was all hands of deck defensively for the Rangers as they faced the Pittsburgh Penguins and their center Sidney Crosby. But the Rangers were up for the challenge as they got past the Penguins in five games. In the second round, the Rangers had to overcome a 3-1 deficit in their series with the Washington Capitals and their star left winger Alex Ovechkin, but the Blueshirts would prevail in seven games. In the Eastern Conference Finals. the Rangers knew that they would have to contend with Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos. But unlike the Pens and Caps as far as Crosby and Ovechkin respectively, Stamkos had plenty of help around him which meant that the Rangers defense could not completely zero in on him as the Lightning and Blueshirts counter punched in a grueling seven-game series.
Madison Square Garden in New York City has proven to be tough on Rangers opponents in Game 7 situations, but when the Lightning won their this past Friday night, it marked the third time in the series that Tampa Bay was victorious at the famous venue. And with that the Lightning added to the angst of the Rangers.
The Rangers pride themselves as a mentally tough hockey team. But toughness alone couldn’t get it done in this series as the Lightning have incredible team speed which was tough for the Rangers all series long. And just as New York torched Tampa Bay for 7 goals in Game 6, they were shutout by Lightning goalie Ben Bishop in Game 7. As always the Rangers rely on goalie Henrik Lundqvist to bail them out of any situation and even he cannot do it all as he is not a goal scorer. But aside from losing Game 7, the Rangers lost something else which is time.
The Rangers still have a solid core on their club which is led by Lundqvist, but in the world of sports you can never take something for granted as title windows can close rather quickly. With the NHL’s salary cap expected to climb next season, New York is in good shape as they have their key players under contract being that Rangers general manager Glen Sather has done a good job in managing the team’s payroll while giving them flexibility going forward. But unfortunately for the Rangers and the folks at MSG, the off-season got started a little quicker than they anticipated.
The New York Rangers found out the hard way about the value of having a good goalie. Rangers starting goalie Henrik Lundqvist has not played since February 2 as he has been dealing with a neck injury. The injury to Lundqvist appeared to be set to leave the Rangers at a clear disadvantage until the emergence of backup goalie Cam Talbot. Talbot went undrafted by the National Hockey League in 2010 when the Rangers signed him as a free agent. Talbot played in the Rangers minor league system until reaching the big club in 2013. But there was no way that Talbot was going to beat out the nine-time NHL All-Star in Lundqvist as far as being the Rangers top goalie. However Talbot has been doing his best Lundqvist impersonation this season.
When Lundqvist went out with his neck injury, the Rangers had a record of 29-15-4 and they were looking up at the New York Islanders in the Metropolitan Division. Now the Rangers are 47-19-7 and they have surpassed the Islanders for first place in the Metropolitan with an eye on their first division title since 2012. Talbot hasn’t missed a game in the absence of Lundqvist and he has become an anchor for the Blueshirts. Talbot is only allowing 2.16 goals per game which is currently tied for fourth in the NHL. This month alone Talbot has only had one game in which he has allowed more than two goals and with it the Rangers have only lost three games over that stretch. Now Talbot gives the Rangers something that they have not had in a long time which is depth at the goalie position.
In the past few seasons more than ever, some National Hockey League teams have been using tandem goalies just like National Football League teams use multiple running backs. Teams in the NHL have done this in the effort to keep their main goalie fresh coming down the stretch and heading into the playoffs. Lundqvist has been the heart and soul of the Rangers for so long and at times he has carried the team. But as good as Lundqvist is, he like anyone needs a break. For Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault he now has double indemnity at the goalie position. The Rangers are only allowing 2.23 goals per game this season which is second in the NHL. Teams that are facing the Rangers tend to fear Lundqvist as when he’s on, he is indeed a handful between the pipes. Now Talbot isn’t giving opponents of the Rangers a night off with his skills as well.
In defeating the Ottawa Senators this past Thursday night, the Rangers are heading back to the postseason. The Rangers fell three games short of winning the Stanley Cup Championship last season and overall they are playing like a team that has a bitter taste in their mouths about it. Lundqvist will return today and he’ll more than likely be eased back in as the Rangers starting goalie, but New York wouldn’t be where they currently are without the emergence of the young Mr. Talbot.
There is nothing quite like rivalries in the world of sports as they ignite fan bases while bringing out the best in teams. The New York Islanders came into existence as a National Hockey League franchise in 1972 and in the process they infringed on the domain of the New York Rangers. Since their inception the Islanders have called the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York home as the play in the shadows of New York City. The Rangers call Madison Square Garden in New York City home and about 28 miles separates these two venues. It didn’t take the Islanders that long to put their stamp on this rivalry as they secured their first playoff series victory in franchise history by defeating the Rangers in 1975. From 1975-1984, the Islanders and the Rangers would meet in the Stanley Cup Playoffs six times with the guys from Long Island getting the best of the Blueshirts on five occasions. The Islanders would ride this wave of momentum to four consecutive Stanley Cup Titles in the early 1980’s. Overall the Islanders and Rangers have met in the postseason eight times with the Isles winning five of those encounters. The last time that the Rangers and Islanders met in the postseason was 1994 in the first round of the playoffs. And it was the Rangers that would go on to win the Stanley Cup that year.
This season the Islanders and Rangers are two of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. The Isles and Rangers are first and second in the Metropolitan Division respectively and they have engaged in some battles this season. The Islanders won the first three games against the Rangers this season by a combined score of 13-4. On January 27 when the Isles beat the Rangers 4-1 at the Nassau Coliseum, chants went up from the crowd of “you can’t beat us” and “Henrik, Henrik” to mock Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist.
These two rivals met last night once more at the Coliseum and it appeared to be more of the same as the Isles jumped out to a quick 2-0 lead. It was almost 3-0 in favor of the Islanders, but the Rangers would quickly shift the momentum when defenseman Ryan McDonagh scored to cut the Isles lead to a point. This would be a seesaw affair until early in the third period when Islanders center Ryan Strome would score to give them a 5-3 advantage which brought on the “you can’t beat us” chants once again from the crowd at the Nassau Coliseum. But playing without their star goalie Lundqvist, the Rangers offense picked up backup goalie Cam Talbot as center Derek Stepan, right winger Martin St. Louis, and defenseman Kevin Klein each scored in the third period to give the Rangers the 6-5 lead. The Islander faithful may have quieted down, but for the Ranger fans in attendance there could now flex their muscles.
The Rangers would escape Uniondale with the 6-5 win and this game brought back memories of the days when these two teams consistently met in the playoffs and it is something that we could see this spring.
With this being the final season for the Islanders at the Nassau Coliseum as they are set to move to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn this fall, there has been a sense of nostalgia for their Long Island fan base this season. Those Islander fans on Long Island will still be able to see their favorite hockey team: they will just have to travel a little bit further to do it. But with Islanders finally fielding a team this season that can actually contend for the first time in over 20 years, the fans on Long Island have come out to support them. The past two decades have seen the Ranger fans dominate the seats at the Nassau Coliseum when these two teams meet, but it hasn’t been the case this year with Islander fans strongly showing their support and even finding their way to the Garden in Manhattan as well. And with the intensity of this rivalry it would only be fitting to see these two teams meet one more time in the NHL Playoffs before the Isles move from Nassau County to Kings County.
Both the Islanders and Rangers have good teams this season. The Rangers are looking to get back to the Stanley Cup Final for a second consecutive season while the Islanders are trying to push away two decades of frustration. The games this season have allowed fans on both sides of the rivalry to reminisce of the days when goalie Billy Smith was in the net for the Isles trying to stop the charge of Ron Duguay and Phil Esposito of the Rangers. Even to the current teams there is no love lost between the Rangers and Islanders which spills over to their fans as well which also makes for must-see TV. The NHL like any other sports league is all about the money and what better way to captivate the New York media market than to have the Rangers and Islanders meet this spring in the postseason. There still needs to be a ton of work done by both sides before it could be done, but the thought alone gets the blood flowing.
When the Columbus Blue Jackets drafted left winger Rick Nash with the first overall pick of the 2002 National Hockey League Draft, he was looked at as a building block for their club. The Blue Jackets didn’t begin playing in the NHL until 2000 and like most expansion teams they struggled as they only made one playoff appearance with Nash which wasn’t any fault of his. With the Blue Jackets, Nash was a five-time NHL All-Star along with finishing third in 2003 for the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie. In eight of his nine seasons in Columbus, Nash led the Blue Jackets in goals. Nash is the Blue Jackets all-time leader in games played (674), goals (289), assists (258), points (547), and game-winning goals (44).
After rampant trade rumors, the Blue Jackets finally traded Nash to the New York Rangers in 2012. Like many players before him, there were many expectations placed on the shoulders of Nash upon his arrival in New York City. In Nash’s first season with the Rangers, New York was eliminated in the Eastern Conference Semifinals by the Boston Bruins in five games. And one of the scapegoats by the New York media for this was none other than Nash. The Rangers would make the Stanley Cup Final last season for the first time since 1994 and when they lost to the Los Angeles Kings in five games, it was Nash that was once again public enemy number one in the Big Apple. But so far this season things have been different for Nash.
After a slow start to the season, the Rangers have surged and become one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference with Nash being a big part of it. This season Nash has been on fire as he leads the NHL in goals with 28 including a pair in the Rangers 5-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins this afternoon. Nash’s strong season has not gone unnoticed as he has been selecting to the NHL All-Star Game for the seventh time in his career. But this year’s game will have added meaning for Nash because it will be played in Columbus where he starred at for so many years.
Overall, Nash appears to have finally gotten comfortable with the Rangers and in New York City. There was so much that was expected from Nash as soon as he joined the Rangers due to the fact that many people simply expected him to put the Blueshirts on his back and lead them to a Stanley Cup Title and unfortunately it doesn’t work that way. To quote Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, Nash has simply been able to “R-E-L-A-X” this season and the proof is in the pudding. Nash has focused on playing hockey while letting everything else take care of itself and it has benefitted both him and the Rangers alike.
After falling three victories short of winning the Stanley Cup Championship last season, the only thing left for Nash and the Rangers to do this spring is to bring the coveted trophy back to Madison Square Garden. If the Rangers are able to once again hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup it will be a team effort, but Nash will have a big say in it as well.