By Steve Silverman
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The Rangers are into the playoffs and are approaching a high level of achievement.
They were good when they needed to be in Game 1 against the Capitals, and that was good enough against a team that may have peaked by beating the Boston Bruins in Round One. The Capitals may not have enough left in the emotional tank to challenge a superior and motivated team like the Rangers that pulled its own escape act in Round One.
That’s the funny thing about the NHL playoffs. The first round is almost totally unpredictable with No. 8 seeds regularly challenging the No. 1 seeds and beating them fairly frequently. However, once teams get past the first round, the better teams seem to find their skating legs, calm down and do the expected.
The Rangers face a critical psychological hurdle in Game 2 because they will have an opportunity to seize control of the series if they can take a 2-0 lead to Washington. Once they get to Washington, achieving one win in two games would basically give the Rangers a pass into the third round.
Teams have come back from 3-1 deficits, but the circumstances for that kind of showing doesn’t appear to be in the cards for the Capitals. For a team to really have a chance to register one of those come-from-behind series miracles, players have to know that they have at least one significant advantage over an opponent that they can count on. The Capitals have no advantage over the Rangers in any one area.
Against the Bruins, the Capitals surprised them with uncharacteristically strong defensive play. The Rangers can pop in the tapes of those games to figure out the Washington defensive scheme. There is no surprise there as Washington uses its big and strong defensemen to limit opposing forwards ability to get to the front of the net and establish position. Their forwards also challenge shots from the point. That leaves the areas around the half boards fairly wide open. The Rangers can make plays patiently and find the openings in the areas that players like Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik are extremely dangerous.
Once the Rangers know that there is an answer against the Washington defense, they know that every other advantage belongs to them. The biggest of those edges is in goal, where Henrik Lundqvist does what is expected of a player who is likely going to end up with the Vezina Trophy. He makes all the saves he has to and then will come up with spectacular efforts in order to spur his team further. For everything that Tim Thomas did in winning the Vezina and the Conn Smythe awards last year in leading the Bruins to the Stanley Cup, Lundqvist everything just as well and perhaps a little bit better. When the Rangers play their game knowing that their goalie is better than the opposition’s it leads to unfettered confidence.
Lundqvist knows he is playing for a place in history and legendary status among all-time Ranger greats in the net. Nobody will ever top Eddie Giacomin in popularity, but Lundqvist is a great athlete with superb technical skills. On the other side, Braden Holtby is really just playing to win himself a job as the Capitals goalie next year. He has a good chance at achieving that goal, but after a stellar first round, he looked vulnerable in Game 1. The Rangers sensed his vulnerabilities and took advantage of them on Artem Anisimov’s wrap-around goal and Chris Kreider’s well-placed slap shot. Richards’ goal ultimately proved to be the winner and may have provided the key to the series. He was allowed to skate unimpeded toward Holtby and he measured the opening on the short side of the net and easily hit it. A goalie can’t give up the short side and Holtby did. He’s got big question marks on his side of the ledger.
The Rangers were good enough in Game 1 and they should be better in Game 2. If they can hold on to home ice tonight, the Capitals are not likely to win two games in a row at home. The Rangers have a chance to find their playoff legs and great teams don’t let those opportunities slip away.