Henrik Lundqvist and Dan Girardi celebrate a Rangers victory.
The roller coaster ride that was the New York Rangers’ 2013 regular season has finally come to an end, and although it didn't seem likely a month and a half ago, there will be playoff hockey in the big city for the eighth time in nine years.
Their first-round opponents are, naturally, the Washington Capitals, because it wouldn't truly be the NHL playoffs without the two facing off at some point. It’ll be the fourth time in five years the Rangers and Caps meet in the postseason, and Washington will look to get equal with New York, who beat them in seven games last spring.
Despite the Rangers’ tumultuous regular season, they’ll be expected to at least match their playoff performance from a year ago. The defense is still intact; Henrik Lundqvist is still between the pipes, and of late, the team has been scoring. New York fans expect nothing short of a return to the Eastern Conference Finals.
It all comes down to execution. Playoff hockey truly is a different animal, and if the Rangers plan on being 2013’s version of the Los Angeles Kings, they’re going to have pay special attention to detail and leave it all on the ice.
Here’s a look at New York’s playoff blueprint, which outlines the specific areas of focus imperative to the team’s success.
Special teams are important for any club looking to win a game, and if that game happens to be of the playoff variety, the importance is even greater.
The Rangers have struggled for most of 2013 on the penalty kill and to a much higher degree, on the power play. In the playoffs, five-on-five hockey is played incredibly tight and scoring chances may come sparingly. Therefore, it’s vital for special teams to be firing on all cylinders because a bulk of the scoring chances will come on the man advantage for both teams.
In their first-round series, the Rangers will have to neutralize the Capital’s No. 1 power-play unit. Half of Alexander Ovechkin’s goals this season have come on the man advantage, and if the Rangers make a habit out of taking penalties, this series may be over early.
Their penalty kill was middle of the pack, so the less they’re in the box the better chance they have to limit Washington’s scoring chances.
Coincidentally, New York was the league's least penalized team during the regular season. Their discipline will not only make things difficult for Washington, but for any team they face.
As for the power play, it’s something the Rangers have struggled with all season, and hopefully the crude nature of playoff hockey will help them simplify their tactics on the man advantage. If it doesn't, the Rangers’ second season could end prematurely.
Ryan McDonagh and Derek Stepan.
The Rangers’ mantra of defense-first hockey has both propelled them to great things and at times, hurt them.
They've made a name for themselves as a shot-blocking hockey team, and it’s become their identity, so to speak. Although it can be a very effective tactic, it can also be the team’s undoing.
The Rangers often collapse in front of Lundqvist, allowing their opponents to move the puck freely and gain precious momentum in the offensive zone. This happens because their main defensive scheme is to block shots, but it’s very difficult to weather a storm when your opponent has had nearly a minute of zone time, and as for a counter attack, well, you can just forget it.
A team like the Capitals will relish the opportunity to pin the Rangers in the defensive zone for an extended period of time; it’ll give them more opportunities to beat the impenetrable Lundqvist.
The Rangers must be aggressive in their own end. Wingers have to man their points tight, and the defensemen need to keep plays to the outside. If they can do that, they’ll severely cut down opponent’s offensive-zone time and scoring chances.
Another way the Rangers can limit opponent’s scoring opportunities is to establish a consistent forecheck. I am a major proponent of getting the puck deep and smothering the opposition, because when the Rangers do that, they’re a wildly successful hockey team.
An effective forecheck has a multitude of advantages. For example, when you forecheck well, you put your opponent under pressure and that can lead to scoring opportunities. If you can’t bang one in, you’re still capturing momentum, and when that happens your opponent has a hard time getting anything going.
Simply put, forechecking allows a team to take their game to the opponent, and more times than not, the imposing team will emerge the winner.
Coach John Tortorella knows it; the players know it, as do the fans: This team needs to forecheck and be aggressive to win. Realistically they won’t be able to pressure all game, but they have to do it more than their opponents over the course of each 60-minute game.
In terms of specific execution, the Rangers have to either carry the puck into the offensive zone or dump it in. From beneath the hash marks, they need to outwork their opponents and eventually get the puck to the front of the net. If the opposition can break up plays, the Rangers’ defensemen should step up and aggressively pinch to keep the pressure on and hopefully, keep the puck in the zone.
It takes hard work and a relentless attitude, but their ability to execute that game plan will be a major determinant of how long their playoff run will be.
A team has the best chance to beat the Rangers if they consistently force them to the outside, break up their attempted passes and then beat their aggressive forecheck out of the zone.
The Rangers make that easy for their opponents when they fail to get enough bodies to the front of the net. When forechecking, it’s of dire importance to eventually get the puck to the cage. If you can’t do that, you’re just cycling in the corner, wearing yourself out until the opposition intervenes and initiates its attack.
Plus, you can’t score goals without getting both bodies and the puck to the net.
Goalies these days are borderline perfect. Sometimes traffic is the only way to beat them. It hinders their ability to clearly see shots and increases the chances of a redirection. Rebounds, too, cannot be capitalized on without net-front presence.
The Rangers lost too many games in 2013 because they couldn't force their way into the scoring areas. Teams know that if they keep the front of the net clear of opponents, they’re putting themselves in a position to win a game, but that doesn't mean the Rangers should be intimidated to battle in front.
Playoff hockey is ugly, and ugly is what the Rangers will have to be to score goals.