‘Rangers Inside And Out’
By Sean Hartnett
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The NHL playoffs are a completely different animal. Gaining the No. 1 seed and being a dominant force over 82 regular-season games is meaningless if you can’t answer the bell come playoff time.
Over the past three seasons, the Rangers were an ‘almost team.’ They missed entry into the 2010 playoffs on the final day via a shootout loss to the rival Flyers. That heartbreak was sandwiched between two humbling first round exits at the hands of the Washington Capitals.
All of that is of course, the past. The Rangers entered Madision Square Garden Thursday night with a point to prove. These are the ‘new Rangers,’ a group ready to escape their past and create an entirely new playoff identity.
No player defines what the Rangers are about more than captain Ryan Callahan who threw himself wholeheartedly into checks and seemed to be everywhere on the ice.
Callahan played more like a wrecking ball than a hockey player, causing havoc to the Senators’ puck possession and his hard work was rewarded when he scored the game’s opening goal.
“He was a monster. Cally was unbelievable. A big goal, he was throwing his body around,” Brian Boyle exclaimed following the Rangers’ 4-2 Game 1 victory.
“He’s known to play physical and can play an all-around game. Again, proving it tonight, scoring a big first goal. That got us going,” Marian Gaborik mentioned.
Marc Staal spoke about Callahan’s impact in Game 1. “It was a big first goal. It’s always good to get the first one and he was physical and doing the things he’s done all year long. I didn’t really expect anything less from him tonight,” he stated.
Callahan’s example has filtered through the entire Rangers’ locker room. Every player who pulls on the Blueshirts’ sweater plays with a similar intensity level as their leader. It would be wrong single out Callahan’s work ethic alone as Brian Boyle, Brandon Dubinsky and Brandon Prust went all-out on the forecheck and disrupted the Senators’ possession and confidence.
Rookie Carl Hagelin is renowned for his speed, agility and offensive attributes but his steady work ethic can sometimes be overlooked. He’s fit into the Rangers’ identity as well as any rookie who’s come along in quite some time.
Hagelin earned an assist through sheer effort. He won the puck by closing down on Nick Foligno, stealing the puck and coolly setting up line-mate Brad Richards to give the Rangers a 4-0 advantage.
I asked Staal about Hagelin’s poise in his first career playoff game. “He was great. I’m sure he had a few nerves going into the game. It’s always tough to play in your first playoffs but he handled himself really well and had a big game for us,” Staal responded.
Gaborik credited Hagelin and others such as Anton Stralman and Stu Bickel for how they handled their first taste of the playoffs. “A lot of guys played (their) first playoff games, everybody looked good. He’s got good speed and was hunting pucks. He created that fourth goal by Richie. He made some big plays,” Gaborik explained.
I also made a point of asking Staal about his individual game. After recovering from concussion symptoms and making his return to the Rangers’ lineup at the Winter Classic, Staal struggled for stretches but improved during the final weeks of the regular season.
“Playoffs is a whole different season and a different style of game. I felt like I’ve been improving the last couple weeks of the season and I’m looking to carry that into the playoffs,” he stated.
Staal and his fellow blue-liners held strong for the majority of Game 1 and excelled on the penalty kill which caused Ottawa to go 0-for-3 on the man-advantage.
The Senators out-shot the Rangers 13-8 in the first period and controlled the puck in the early stages but the Blueshirts didn’t buckle.
Had the Rangers defensemen or net-minder Henrik Lundqvist faltered early, the shape of the game would’ve changed entirely. Lundqvist was on his game and importantly stopped early breakaways that could’ve given Ottawa the early momentum.
“It’s great to start with a win. That’s what you are looking for going into a series, wanting to feel good right away and from there you just keep building. I think we did a really good job going out there and not being too excited. We stayed pretty cool,” Lundqvist explained after Thursday’s victory.
Over the regular season, the Rangers learned how to become winners and how to grind out victories against tough opponents. Now they’re beginning to take flight in the playoffs and putting their previous playoff demons behind them.
Is this the Rangers’ time and are their past playoff woes behind them? Share your thoughts below and send your tweets to @HartnettWFAN.