If the 2011-12 Stanley Cup Playoffs have proved anything, it’s that seeding has zero meaning, aside from home ice advantage, once the puck is dropped to begin the postseason. We’ve seen it in four out of the eight playoff series so far, and one of them happens to be the 1 versus 8 Eastern Conference Quarterfinal match-up between the New York Rangers and Ottawa Senators.
The Sens outplayed their opponent in a game that momentum tilted the ice all different ways over the course of the night, and battled to earn an overtime win to tie this series at two. This one is far from over as the series prepares to head back to Madison Square Garden for Game 5 on Saturday, and the Blueshirts have a hill to climb after this deflating loss.
Another trend that’s made many storylines during these playoffs has been forfeited leads. The Rangers got off to a marvelous start in this contest with back-to-back powerplay goals within the opening seven minutes of the first period. The first came from Anton Stralman just 45 seconds in for his second tally of the playoffs, and then captain Ryan Callahan would strike again for the Blueshirts on the man advantage at 6:10. Quickly, though, Ottawa began to fight back to the point where the Rangers were just hoping to get out of the period with the 2-0 lead they had earned.
That they did, but not for very long. While on the powerplay in the middle stanza, Brandon Prust was absolutely robbed of a goal by Senators goaltender Craig Anderson that would’ve put the score at a commanding 3-0 for New York. But instead, Anderson’s sprawling stop led to the Senators clearing up ice, right to Matt Carkner exiting the penalty box. Carkner then made a beautiful saucer pass to a crashing Milan Michalek, who rather easily redirected the puck over the shoulder of Henrik Lundqvist.
Later, with 2:10 left on the clock in the period, Sergei Gonchar’s slap shot from the point somehow squeaked through the legs of Lundqvist to tie the game, 2-2, heading into the second intermission. The Michalek goal is on the skaters for getting caught pinching and then not coming back to defend quick enough, but this Gonchar tally is completely on Henrik. Shots from the point cannot be splitting the wickets in the playoffs, no matter who is taking them. That needed to be stopped.
After being completely dominated in the second, the Rangers came out with a slightly stronger showing in the third period. They began to press offensively and created some quality chances against Anderson, all of which he shut the door on. Their effective forecheck earned them a powerplay with just 5:25 remaining, and right there was their moment to get the job done. Unfortunately the failed to even threaten with that man advantage, and suddenly all of the momentum went Ottawa’s way.
The Sens, despite several mad scrambles in Lundqvist’s crease, could not find the game-winner in regulation. However, it only took them 2:42 into overtime to wrap this up, when Kyle Turris came down the ice two-on-two with Jim O’Brien and sent a seeing-eye shot through Anton Stralman and top shelf on an unsuspecting Lundqvist.
Just prior to the goal being scored, the Rangers produced some of their best scoring chances of the game led by the forechecking efforts of Mike Rupp, but were denied several times by Anderson. McDonagh was caught (and held) in the corner of the offensive zone at that time, so the Senators’ quick transition of the puck left Stralman and Ruslan Fedotenko, a forward, as the only two players back to defend. A blown coverage by Derek Stepan as the centerman didn’t help, either, so the Rangers were doomed right then and there.
And if you want to look at this game from a technical point-of-view like that, then in reality, all three goals scored by the Senators could have easily been prevented tonight. A stronger backchecking effort on the first goal cuts Michalek off from receiving the pass, Lundqvist should’ve stopped the second one, and then improved awareness would have better defended the final rush of the game that led to Turris’ goal.
The Rangers’ problems in this game, though, began when they started taking trips to the penalty box. Only one of Ottawa’s three goals were scored on the powerplay (Gonchar’s), but their lethal unit saw them steal the momentum from the Rangers often tonight. Plus, instead of focusing on gaining a 3-0 lead in that first period, the Rangers were forced to waste four minutes killing off penalties to Brandon Prust and Ryan McDonagh. That was the turning point right there.
Also, the battle level can be much better. This is certainly something coach John Tortorella will be addressing with his club before Saturday, even though he didn’t necessarily say so to the media. It’s all about holding a poker face as a coach in the playoffs, remember, so Torts did the right thing by making encouraging comments even after a frustrating overtime loss. But it’s almost guaranteed that several players will be called out once time to review the film of this one comes.
At the very least, the top two lines were more noticeable tonight, but Tortorella did finally break up Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards like many have been calling for. The coach went back to combinations that had success earlier in the year: Anisimov-Stepan-Gaborik and Dubinsky-Richards-Callahan. They generated some legitimate scoring chances, but it obviously all comes down to finishing and that’s where they struggled.
Richards and Gaborik both recorded two assists on the night, and Callahan a goal.
Lastly, rookie Chris Kreider looked even better in his second NHL game, despite the fact that he only played a total of 3:29. When he was out there, he was better positioned and he also found himself with two prime scoring opportunities around the net area. For someone to nearly put the puck in the net twice in just 3:29 is impressive, especially as a rookie, and I’m actually quite surprised Torts didn’t chose to play the kid more. He definitely looked hungry out there.
Hopefully that hunger spreads throughout the lineup, because as I see it, the Rangers have a must-win game coming up on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden. Going down 3-2 and then having to go back to Ottawa for Game 6 is not a situation the Blueshirts want to find themselves in, so a rebound effort in front of their home crowd will be required if they want to come out of this series victorious without having to face much more danger.