Rangers

Hartnett: Rangers Have Found Their Playoff Blueprint, Need To Keep Foot On The Gas

(credit: Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

(credit: Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

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‘Rangers Inside And Out’
By Sean Hartnett
» More Columns

The Rangers finally have reason to feel relieved after winning consecutive games and taking away points from two playoff-chasing rivals — the Carolina Hurricanes and New Jersey Devils.

In typical fashion, demanding head coach John Tortorella isn’t getting carried away.  Tortorella understands the big picture.  He’ll continue to lean hard on the Blueshirts and challenge his players reach the next level.

“I’m not going to pick it apart,” Tortorella said after the Rangers’ 3-2 victory at Prudential Center.  “We’ve played a lot of hockey here.  We’ve done some really good things, but there are certainly things as we continue to go — we need to get better at.”

Despite being humbled by a recent stretch of sub-par performances, the mission hasn’t changed for this Rangers team. They have the same goals in mind as last year, and it all starts with playing consistent hockey on a night-in, night-out basis.  Early struggles will be forgotten if the Rangers can prove their consistency over the course of 19 remaining regular-season games and carry momentum on their backs going into the playoffs.

“I’m happy with the team — two big wins to get four points when we struggled for a little bit.  Now, we need to continue to get better and steady ourselves and take it day-by-day,” Tortorella said.

Tuesday night’s victory over the Devils at Prudential Center allowed the Rangers to leapfrog New Jersey to 8th place, knocking their hated rivals into 9th.  More importantly, this was the closest the Blueshirts have looked to a real solid unit from top to bottom in a very long time.

The puck control was there, especially in the third period as they protected their 3-2 lead after Rick Nash pulled the Blueshirts ahead with a trademark goal of individual brilliance at 7:25 in the second period, beating Johan Hedberg through the five hole.

“His ability to make plays and shed guys off, and create open ice for other guys is so dynamic. You want to put the puck on his stick,” Del Zotto said of the danger Nash causes for opponents.

After Nash’s go-ahead goal, there was more than half of a game left to play – 32 minutes of disciplined hockey was needed to ensure the Rangers came away with a confidence-building victory over an old enemy.

The Rangers put the clamps down in the third period, only allowing Henrik Lundqvist to face seven shots in the final 20 minutes.  Their tough-willed play was reminiscent of the high point of last season, when New York was able to protect slim leads and frustrate opponents by not letting them get too many bites of the apple in the third period.

That’s not to say the Rangers didn’t have a great deal of success in the offensive zone – they certainly did.  There were stretches where they confidently circled Hedberg’s net like sharks.  A lot of the Rangers’ chances were jump-started by Del Zotto’s long-distance tape-to-tape passes.

Derek Stepan was impressed with Del Zotto’s ability to create offensive chances with his tremendous vision.  It was Stepan though, who assisted Del Zotto’s check-swing goal when Hedberg ventured out of his crease and lost control of the puck.

“He sees the ice so well,” Stepan said of Del Zotto’s vision. “When he’s got the puck on his stick, he knows where the open ice is and is able to make good passes like that.  His game is getting better each game.”

Del Zotto’s improved play has come at the right time for the Rangers, who are without Marc Staal indefinitely.  Tortorella piles the minutes on top defensive pairing Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi every night, so it’s important that Del Zotto has been able to find his game over this recent stretch.

“He did some really good things tonight,” Tortorella said of Del Zotto.  “Some other things he struggled at — as all players do.  Made a great defensive play at the end of the game.  He scores a goal, has been fairly consistent for us through here on a banged-up blue line.  We’ve asked him to do quite a bit, and I think he’s handled it pretty well.”

That’s probably the closest you’re going to get from Tortorella in terms of praise, but that’s what makes Tortorella an effective head coach.  He’s always concerned about the small details and his attention to detail is what has paved his successes both in Tampa and most recently under the spotlight of the Big Apple.

Tortorella’s blueprint hasn’t changed.  What made the Rangers great last season was their ability to kill off games and protect third-period leads.

It’s up to the Rangers to follow that blueprint in order to replicate last season’s success, and give themselves every chance of making a prolonged playoff run.

Can the Rangers prove their doubters wrong by finishing the regular season on a high note?  Share your thoughts below and send your tweets to @HartnettHockey.