First off, congratulations to both the Ottawa Senators and New York Rangers for a thrilling, stress-inducing, and hard-fought seven game series. It truly epitomized what hockey was all about when the playoffs roll around: scoring, toughness, excitement, and timely goaltending. While all of us, I am sure, had a few minutes [or hours] removed from our lives because of how close all the games were, would you have it any other way? Of course not! The Rangers did what they were supposed to do, and it was not easy, but they find themselves advancing to the second round to face the Washington Capitals, a team I did not want to face in the first round at all, because the Rangers’ last two playoff exits have come at their hands. You could look at the situation in one of two ways: 1) The Rangers are due for a playoff win because the law of averages states that Washington cannot continue the success they have had, or 2) The Capitals just have the Rangers’ number and are in their heads, therefore they will win yet again. Either way you want to look at it, there is not time for much thinking, as Game One is tomorrow afternoon. Not having much time off will probably go to benefit the Rangers more than hurt them; after winning such an emotional game, it would be good to get right back out there as soon as possible, rather than sit around.
To sum up the first round, as always, there are heroes and zeroes. There are players we expect to perform that do not, and players who become the unsung heroes by having themselves a clutch moment in the playoffs when we were not expecting much from them. While you could go through the Rangers’ roster and pick out a bunch, I have limited myself to only three heroes and two zeroes (in no particular order), as well as two wild-cards at the end.
Brian Boyle (5 GP, 3 G, 0 A, 3 P)
While Boyle struggled in the scoring department for most of the season, he still provided the Rangers with solid checking and great penalty killing. He got hot right at the end of the year, and even though many of us expected that offense would carry over into the playoffs, most would have just been content with the status quo. However, Boyle really becomes our true unsung hero here in the first round, as the man who scored only 11 goals in 82 games was able to net three in the five games he played in before he got injured with a concussion and missed the final two. Boyle did not just get lucky with his goals, though, but actually became a force to be reckoned with and the team’s best player, especially when Gaborik and Richards were struggling after an excellent first game. The Rangers will now miss Boyle’s size if he is out for an extended length of time, but also the intangibles he brings to the table. Every team that makes the playoffs always has that one player who comes through in the clutch. For the Rangers in the first round, that man was Brian Boyle.
Anton Stralman (7 GP, 2 G, 2 A, 4 P)
For a player who Coach Tortorella “didn’t know who the hell he was”, Anton Stralman surely stepped up to the plate with some solid defense and a surprising little offensive outburst. Again, this was totally unexpected, even though Stralman showed flashes of talent during the season, with his rush-joining speed and hard shot. Even so, he only had two goals in the 53 games he played during the season, which he equaled by Game Four of this series. While his defense was always hit or miss during the regular season, the same cannot be said for the playoffs, as he was spot on with his positioning and always ready, willing, and able to lay in a hip-check on someone, something that we rarely see anymore. I do not see Stralman continuing this offensive pace for the rest of the playoffs, but if he can play the same way defensively, the Rangers are in good hands.
Henrik Lundqvist (7 GP, 4-3, 1.70 GAA, 1 SO)
What would a heroes list for the Rangers be without their goaltender Henrik Lundqvist? The Vezina and Hart nominee was one of the main reasons why they even made the playoffs, much less win the Eastern Conference. Many doubted his abilities in the postseason, as he has only won two series in the past, but the extra rest he had during the season paid dividends. Lundqvist was sharp in every game, and kept the Rangers in it when they needed him most. There were no momentary lapses of concentration as we have seen in years’ past. This is the Lundqvist that became a brick wall and led his team to victory, and of course, made a few highlight reel saves along the way.
Marian Gaborik (7 GP, 1 G, 2 A, 3 P)
While this is not a harsh zero because Gaborik did play well in most of the games, the stat sheet does not reflect that, and if you are the team’s top player in the playoffs, you need to put the puck in the net. When the Rangers were en route to a 4-0 lead over the Senators in Game One, Richards and Gaborik were flying, and that is when the Elegant Assassin scored his only goal of the first round. Two games later he added two assists on the powerplay, and other than that, he has nothing to show for all of his speed. One could notice maybe a little trepidation on his part during the middle games of the series, when, instead of going toward the net after entering the zone, he would enter and cut towards the middle or go down the side, which limited him to 13 shots in seven games (by comparison, playmaking center Brad Richards had 31). The Rangers won the series, so the critics will stay quiet, but if the Rangers ended up losing, you can be sure Gaborik would have been one of the scapegoats.
Brandon Dubinsky (7 GP, 0 G, 1 A, 1 P)
Okay, so why should we expect a player who struggled so mightily during the season to come alive in the playoffs? Well, for starters, he told reporters that he just could not wait to get started; it was time for a new beginning and the playoffs were going to bring that. No one can question his hard work and ability to stick up for his teammates, but once again, Dubinsky is just invisible on the scoresheet, with no goals yet again, and only one assist. While I will give him major kudos for sticking up for Brian Boyle in Game Two, something he had to do despite the game misconduct, that cannot spare him from the criticism that may lead to his way out of New York this summer, unless he can really turn it around in the next round, something I do not see happening.
Boom or Bust
Brad Richards (7 GP, 2 G, 3 A, 5 P)
How can a player who led the team in scoring in the first round not make the heroes list, you are wondering? Well, because in the four games Richards did not record a point in, he looked dreadful. He had a big Game One, which led everyone to decry him as the proven playoff performer, and then the torches and pitchforks came out as the series went on, until Game Six when he finally scored again. To put it simply, when Richards was on, he looked amazing; that proven player I mentioned earlier. But when he struggled, lets just say it looked like he was trudging through cement. I know he will snap out of it in the next round, but showing more urgency instead of taking his sweet time, namely on the powerplay, could be a start.
Chris Kreider (5 GP, 1 G, 0 A, 1 P)
Call it a miracle in disguise, if you will, that Carl Hagelin was suspended for three games and the Rangers got to look at their top prospect Chris Kreider in this baptism by fire. While the coaches admitted it was unfair that Kreider had to make his NHL debut in the middle of the circus known as the NHL playoffs, all is fair in love and hockey. He got a limited amount of playing time in his first two games, and with the Rangers losing their grip on the series and falling behind 3-2, it was time for Tortorella to throw the two-time college champ right into the mix on the top six. All that ensued was him meshing amazingly well with Derek Stepan and Ryan Callahan (the Rangers second line next season?) and scoring the game-winning goal in the series-tying Game Six. If that was not enough, he was used in all situations in Game Seven, including being on the ice with under a minute to go in a one-goal game, and actually made a play that led to the Rangers’ first goal in the second period. I have never seen a rookie look so comfortable. It was like he had ten years of experience under his belt.