By Steve Silverman
The Rangers have had a little blip at the start of the playoffs.
After winning the Eastern Conference title and finishing second overall in the regular season to the Vancouver Canucks, John Tortorella’s team is even with the Ottawa Senators after four games.
That’s fine. Teams are allowed to have a bit of a hiccup in the first round. Last year, the Boston Bruins lost the first two games of their first-round matchup with the Montreal Canadiens at home and went on to win that series — and a little thing called the Stanley Cup.
Now it’s time for the Rangers to stand up a little taller and brush the Senators aside so they can move on to the second round (likely vs. the Flyers or Devils). Quite simply, the Senators are a hard-trying team that doesn’t belong on the ice with the Rangers. They have some quickness and they have some offensive pop, but they just aren’t as good as the Rangers.
Craig Anderson is an ordinary goaltender. He’s capable of having a good game here and there but he is not going to dominate the series. The Rangers have to establish a net presence and make sure they get their share of rebounds and tips. They are not doing that to this point in the series. They are not finishing and putting their opportunities in the net.
Prior to the start of the playoffs, many of the experts liked the Penguins to emerge from the East because of the lift they had gotten from the return of Sidney Crosby and the offensive firepower that it gave them. The Rangers seemed like they would have to get past Pittsburgh at one point or another to get to the Stanley Cup Finals. It hasn’t played out that way because the Penguins have basically lost their minds and went into goon mode as they lost the first three games of the series to Philadelphia.
But the perception that existed was that the Penguins were somewhat better than the Rangers. Even though John Tortorella’s team played consistently during the regular season, the feeling was that the Rangers might have trouble scoring when the game was on the line.
“That’s the question I had about this team,” said NBC lead analyst Ed Olczyk. “You have to respect everything they’ve done during the season. But do they have enough goal scoring? Can they get the clutch goals at the most important moments? I’m not really sure.”
Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards are the two Rangers who have to carry the team when they need to step up and score those clutch goals. There are no questions in the other areas — at least on paper. Henrik Lundqvist is the likely Vezina Trophy winner. The defense is tough, nasty and active. The Rangers block shots and clog the lanes better than any team in the East and probably better than any team in the league.
None of that has changed since the end of the regular season. Tortorella still knows that his team can control a game with its defense. They certainly are quite a bit better than the Senators.
As Game 5 approaches, the two teams are tied and there is some life on Ottawa’s side. Overtime wins breathe confidence into an underdog opponent. But now that the crucial part of the series has been reached, it’s time for the Rangers to turn up the intensity level and get back to the constrictor-like defense they regularly played during the regular season.
This is a team that has a legitimate chance to win the Cup and bring back 1994-like euphoria. There will be tests along the way from teams like Philadelphia, New Jersey, Boston or St. Louis, but they shouldn’t have a real problem with the eighth-seeded Senators. It’s time to get legitimate and knock these imposters out of the way.
Steve Silverman is a longtime columnist who lives, breathes and eats sports 24 hours a day. He has covered sports since 1981, and his work has been published by MSNBC.com, NFL.com and ESPN The Magazine. He has written eight sports-related books, including “Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football?”
Will the “real” Rangers step up and take this series, or will they be the victims of a devastating first-round upset? Offer your thoughts and comments below…