Rangers

Kallas: Rangers Playing Not To Lose

Milan Michalek #9 of the Ottawa Senators celebrates his second period goal with teammates in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the New York Rangers during the 2012 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Scotiabank Place on April 18, 2012 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)

Milan Michalek #9 of the Ottawa Senators celebrates his second period goal with teammates in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the New York Rangers during the 2012 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Scotiabank Place on April 18, 2012 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)

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By Steve Kallas
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It’s hard to believe but it is true: the Ottawa Senators have not had the lead (except, obviously, when they win a game in overtime) at any point during their series (now tied at 2 games) with the New York Rangers.  The Rangers have been unable to hold leads in Game 2 and Game 4 and now stand even with a best-of-three to decide whether another number eight seed can beat another number one seed (this isn’t the NBA, it happens in the NHL more often than you think).

WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?

Well, the problem is that the Rangers somehow lose their aggressiveness when they are trying to protect the lead.  In football, it’s obvious when this happens; teams go into their “prevent” defense.  In the NFL, sometimes teams lose games they should have won because they back off, they lose their aggressiveness, they give up huge chunks of yardage which often lead to touchdowns.  Then a bad bounce here, a lucky play there and poof … they change victory into defeat.

In hockey, it’s the lack of an aggressive forecheck that is the equivalent of the “prevent” defense in football.  That is, everybody on the Rangers falls back on “D” and the losing team (in this series, Ottawa) has free rein into the neutral zone.

Game 2 of this series was the prime example.  If you are a Ranger fan, you were actually a little concerned in Game 1.  After the Rangers dominated to take a 4-0 lead, they allowed two goals in the third period.  The “prevent” defense had something to do with that but, with a four-goal lead, very unusual in the playoffs (unless it’s that video game series between Philly and Pittsburgh), it didn’t matter.

Or did it?

MARC STAAL GETS IT

After giving up a third-period lead and losing Game 2 in OT, Marc Staal totally understood the problem.  Being interviewed on MSG after Game 2, Staal grudgingly admitted that the Rangers were playing too defensive; that they should have used “more of the forecheck”; that they should not have “gone backwards” defensively.

Clearly, this is the mode the Rangers have gone into late in games in this series.

WHAT’S A COACH TO DO?

Well, John Tortorella (a Stanley Cup-winning coach), according to Joe Micheletti of the MSG Network, preaches aggressiveness even late in games when the Rangers have the lead.  Assuming that to be true, the Rangers simply have not followed the orders of their coach.

Make no mistake, it’s a fine line to draw.  If a forward goes behind the net or gambles and loses when Ottawa is bringing the puck up the ice, that could lead to an odd-man rush for Ottawa which could result in a game-tying goal.  But the flip side of that is that the Rangers just can’t lay back and wait, hoping to control the puck in their own end and get it out to the neutral zone.  That kind of prevent sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t.

In Game 2, the game Marc Staal was talking about, Brian Boyle scored 2:41 into the third period to give the Rangers a 2-1 lead (already up 1-0 in games in the series).  But the Rangers couldn’t play defense for over 17 minutes and wound up giving up the tying goal to Nick Foiligno in one of those throw-the-puck-at-the-net plays and hope for the best.

Ottawa would go on to win the game in OT.

So, too, in Game 4, the Rangers opened up a 2-0 lead on two power-play goals (more on them later) but eventually gave up that lead and would lose again in OT.  In Game 4, they didn’t have a shot on goal for about 18 minutes, something that is unfathomable.  But that lack of aggression (coupled with Ottawa’s defense, forechecking and their ability to score) eventually allowed Ottawa to tie up the game and win it in OT.

WHERE HAVE YOU GONE, RICK NASH?

This writer was one of the minority who wanted Rick Nash to bolster, among other things, the power play of the Rangers.  But if the price was way too high (and you can already tell that Chris Kreider is going to help the Rangers down the road, if not this playoff series), then that’s a decision for upper management.

But if the Rangers get bounced in Round 1 or, frankly, if they don’t make a deep run in the playoffs because of their ineptness on the power play (23rd in the NHL during the regular season – 15.7%, tied for 8th of 16 teams in the playoffs – 16.7% (3 for 18)), some (most?) of it will be blamed on a problem that the Rangers knew they had all along – a not-very-good power play.

We’ll just have to wait and see what happens but it does make you wonder:  in a year where there is no clear-cut Cup favorite (if the favorites were the Canucks and the Penguins with a healthy Sidney Crosby, well, they both might be bounced in the very first round) and in a year when (finally) the King came into the playoffs rested (thank you, Marty Biron), it seems to this writer that many NHL teams would have gone out of their way to get Rick Nash (or someone like him) to bolster the obvious weakness.

Stay tuned.