By Neil Keefe
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What a difference a weekend makes. On Friday, I tore apart the Rangers the way my friend’s college roommate would tear apart their dorm room every Thursday night during freshman year in search of his fake ID, and I basically asked John Tortorella to turn in his resignation to Glen Sather and for Sather to then turn his resignation into James Dolan. I sounded the late-season collapse alarm and booked a flight during the final weekend of the season to evacuate the tri-state area in anticipation of the Devils clinching an improbable playoff berth at the expense of the Rangers in Game 82.
Then the Rangers went out and scored 11 goals in 40 hours (it took them nine days and 13 periods to score their previous 11 goals) and embarrassed the Flyers from the opening shift until the final horn as chants recognizing Henrik Lundqvist’s league-leading ninth shutout of the season polluted the Garden air like the asbestos that canceled a Knicks-Magic game in November.
So now I’m faced with a dilemma. I have all of this bottled water and canned food that I stocked up on in preparation of a meltdown from the John Tortorella Rangers and I don’t know what to do with it. Because after the Rangers’ win on Sunday, there isn’t going to be a collapse of any sort. This team is headed to the postseason, and a lengthy postseason run, and there’s no doubt about it.
I’m not doing anything with this water and food. I’m not prepared to buy into the John Tortorella Rangers because they beat the worst team in the Eastern Conference and the best team in the Eastern Conference in a three-day span. I’m not about to let the inconsistent play of the Rangers skew my opinions and writing to be inconsistent too. I’m not going to fully buy into this hype until I see it for an extended period of time.
Don’t get me wrong, I was excited as anyone after Sunday’s result. For nearly three hours the Rangers tricked me into believing in them and disguised their real problems the same exact way they did just over a week ago when they shut out the Capitals in a lopsided 6-0 win. And even though I still believe in this team (I’m not sure why), I can’t let one win against the East’s best make me forget about all the issues that have the Rangers trying to fend off a handful of teams from catching them in the first place.
Look at the Knicks. They win in Carmelo Anthony’s debut, and it’s, “The trade was the genius!” Then they lose to the Cavs and it’s, “D’Antoni’s defensive style is terrible and he needs to be fired!” Then they beat the Heat and the Knicks are for real and it’s, “The Knicks are for real and Chauncey Billups is a “true” Knick!” Then they blow a late lead to the Magic and it’s, “The same old Knicks!” Then they beat the Hornets, and it’s, “The Knicks are back … again!” Then they lose to the Cavs, and it’s, “They still have a lot of work to do.” Then they beat the Hawks, and it’s, “Hey, they can win on the road and beat playoff teams.” It’s too much. There shouldn’t be this many emotional swings in the span of 11 days for a sport that plays an 82-game schedule. Maybe over the course of an entire season, but not over the course of seven games.
The same thing is happening to the Rangers, and Rangers fans are falling into the same trap, but I’m not going to fall into it. I’m here to weather the storm and make sure more people don’t fall into the trap either. The Rangers are so inconsistent that the stories about them are equally inconsistent. Last week the feeling about the team was that they’re currently on the inside of the playoff picture, but won’t be for long, and that the Devils, who are still 10 points behind them in the standings, are actually in a better position despite so few games left on the schedule. That all changed on Sunday after back-to-back wins for the Blueshirts and the most important and significant win of the season that proved the Rangers could actually beat elite competition on home ice.
Sunday was the best Rangers game of the season, and I don’t think it’s debatable. Sure there are the 7-0 and 6-0 wins over Washington, but with what was at stake on Sunday at the Garden, the matinee against the Flyers put it over the top. It’s always easy to get pumped up for a Rangers-Flyers game, especially the NBC Sunday games. It’s even easier to get up for them when Carolina, Buffalo, Toronto and New Jersey are winning as frequently as Charlie Sheen and creating a traffic jam at the bottom of the Eastern Conference for the No. 7 and No. 8 seeds.
Now I’m about to say something that might sound insane … The Rangers are built for the playoffs. Relax. Let me explain.
It’s very possible that the Rangers aren’t built to withstand the 82-game schedule of the NHL season, but are better suited for a seven-game series, even against a higher-seeded opponent. They have the best goalie in the league and are used to barely ever scoring, which means they’re used to low-scoring games and one-goal games. But most importantly, they’re better suited for the playoffs because they’re already playing playoff hockey.
The reason there are so many “upsets” in the NHL playoffs isn’t because home-ice advantage is dead in this era of cookie cutter rinks (though that plays a major part), it’s because the low seeds have been in postseason mode for weeks entering the playoffs and don’t need to turn on the “It’s Time To Get Serious Because Wins and Losses Matter Again” switch. In baseball and football and basketball, turning that switch on for the start of the postseason isn’t that much of a problem. In hockey, it’s a major problem.
The Flyers had their switch “off” on Sunday. What you saw was a team that’s going to the postseason no matter what happens over the next five weeks and now they’re just coasting waiting for the games to matter to them again. (This is about to change though now that the Bruins are trying to take the No. 1 seed from them).
But it’s not crazy to think that the 2009-10 Flyers, who locked up a postseason berth at the last possible second a year ago, might be better off than the 2010-11 Flyers, who have had a spot in the playoffs for months now. Home Game 7s in the NHL don’t matter, and being the No. 1 seed is no different than being the No. 4, and being the No. 8 seed really has no downfalls.
Sure, it’s better to know you’re going to be playing in the second season rather than not knowing what the final five weeks of the season might bring you. But if the Rangers do get in, I’m becoming more and more of a believer that they will be a tough out, and might be able to do some damage based on how they’re built and the type of hockey they have played over the last few weeks.
Since the Rangers’ fate is still hanging in the balance and since the seeding at the bottom of the Eastern Conference is now changing on a nightly basis, I decided to look at three reasons why the Rangers will make the playoffs and three reasons why they won’t.
WILL MAKE THE PLAYOFFS
1. Still In Control Of Their Own Destiny
This is more important than anything because once you lose control of this then everything changes. And it usually changes for the worse and very rarely ends up working out in your favor.
Right now if the Rangers keep on winning, they’re in the playoffs. It’s that simple. I don’t want to sit here in five weeks and be scoreboard watching and forced to watch Buffalo and Carolina and New Jersey games all night needing the help of some team counting down the hours and minutes until the offseason. There’s no worse feeling in sports than needing help and not being able to take care of your own business. You don’t want to need to help. You want other teams needing your help.
2. Efforts Like Sunday
As much as one game isn’t going to completely change my mind about the Rangers, it’s hard to ignore what happened on Sunday. Sunday’s win over the Flyers reminded me of A.J. Burnett’s performance against the Red Sox on August 7, 2009 (7.2 IP, 1 H). You know the ability and talent is there and then when you see it, you wonder, “Where has that been?”
There’s no question that the level of talent is there for the Rangers and when they’re firing on all cylinders you get results like Sunday. And as much as I can’t believe that they still won’t let me down, I do believe that there are more efforts like Sunday’s somewhere deep down inside the Rangers and I’m hoping that maybe, just maybe they can put a few of those efforts back to back.
3. Getting Offense From Offensive Players
If I told you that the Rangers would score seven goals on Sunday in Marian Gaborik’s first game back, you would probably think, “Well, that makes sense.” But then if I told you that Gaborik would not have any of the seven goals, you would probably think I was lying to you like Frank Abagnale Jr. in “Catch Me If You Can”.
It would be nice if Ryan Callahan could score four goals every game, and it would certainly make things a lot easier. But since he can’t do that it’s good to know that Mats Zuccarello has figured out how to find the back of net again and that Artem Anisimov and Derek Stepan can pitch in too. It’s just good to know that there really are other scoring options other than Marian Gaborik.
Gaborik can’t do it all the time, and he didn’t have to on Sunday or on Friday when the Rangers scored four goals against the lowly Senators. If some of the other 11 forwards can contribute then maybe we can turn off the late-season collapse alarm.
WON’T MAKE THE PLAYOFFS
1. Inconsistent Scoring
One of the reasons the Rangers will make the playoffs is also a reason they won’t. Scoring. The Rangers have proved that their defense is young, but capable of shutting down elite competition, and Henrik Lundqvist has nothing left to prove. But the offense doesn’t exactly have a credible attendance record this season, and it’s the biggest flaw of the 2010-11 Rangers.
Marian Gaborik needs to get completely healthy and find his scoring touch, and the other players I just mentioned a few paragraphs ago need to continue their recent outburst. I’m not exactly sure what Gaborik was doing on Sunday getting into scrums after the whistle and even dropping his gloves at one point. Given Gaborik’s injury track record and playing in just his first game since a concussion, is dropping his gloves really the most sensible decision?
2. Backup Goalie
The same way I fear anything happening to CC Sabathia is how I fear something happening to Henrik Lundqvist. Take Lundqvist out of the equation and the Rangers might be fending off the Senators as the worst team in the Eastern Conference.
Lundqvist is being forced to play every game right now because the only other option is Chad Johnson, the 24-year-old backup with five NHL games under his belt. Not exactly the best option for a team needing points every single night in a battle for their season and a playoff berth.
Lundqvist has now played 12 games in a row and I don’t think that streak is going to stop anytime soon. I also don’t think it should. If the Rangers are going to hold their ground in this race, they might as well do it using every last bit of energy Lundqvist has this season. They have ridden him this far. They might as well ride him a little longer.
3. Young Defense
There are glimpses of what this young defensive core is going to do in the future and how Glen Sather might have finally built something successfully from scratch during his tenure in New York. There are still going to be a lot more bad days than good days with a defense with an average age that’s barely legal to buy alcohol and still not of age to rent a car. But the hope is that on the days that the Rangers defense shows their inexperience that the offense will bail them out. It hasn’t happened that often so far this season, but things can change. They just need it to change before it’s too late.
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