By Steve Silverman
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This time, the Rangers are not burdened by an overbearing coach who specialized in wearing down his players instead of building them up.
It took time for the vast majority of the Broadway Blueshirts to get used to the fact that John Tortorella was not getting ready to jump on them for some perceived lack of effort, usually on the defensive end.
Alain Vigneault is nothing like Tortorella, particularly in his on-ice philosophy. He does not want to squeeze out one or two goals and hang on for victory. He wants his team to create scoring opportunities with its speed and skill, and the Rangers are far more adept at doing that now than they were at any point in the Tortorella regime.
Whether it’s good enough to have them make a long run in the Stanley Cup playoffs is up for debate, but they should be able to handle their resurgent rivals from Philadelphia in the first round.
The Flyers were floundering at the beginning of the season, and players tuned out former head coach Peter Laviolette for some reason or another. It didn’t appear that Craig Berube would be able to work any kind of magic with the Flyers, but they had a dramatic turnaround and became one of the more dangerous offensive teams in the league from mid-December to the end of the season.
Claude Giroux, Scott Hartnell, Wayne Simmonds and Jakub Voracek can be quite a load to handle when they have the puck and start a relentless round of forechecking. The Flyers will make the Rangers work and will probably take a couple of games, but the Rangers are deeper, better defensively and have a huge edge in goaltending.
The Flyers won’t have their best goaltender in net as the series begins. Steve Mason (upper body) will remain in Philadelphia as the series gets underway Thursday night. Inconsistent Ray Emery will likely give the Rangers plenty to shoot at in his absence.
Henrik Lundqvist will not do that for the Flyers. Lundqvist has not asserted his dominance in the playoffs very often, but that was often because all the Rangers’ expectations were on his shoulders. If he couldn’t hold opponents to two goals or less, the Rangers were simply doomed.
The Rangers have a plethora of scorers now, not to mention an offensive mentality that has gotten stronger as the season has gone along. You can’t slay the ghost of Tortorella overnight, and the Rangers have not always appeared to be fluent in the offensive ways of the game.
But they are moving in that direction, and with Rick Nash, Brad Richards, Derrick Brassard, Carl Hagelin and the surprising Benoit Pouliot, the Rangers have options.
We didn’t even mention perhaps the most dangerous option, Martin St. Louis. Yes, St. Louis has gone through a goal-scoring drought since getting traded by the Tampa Bay Lightning. But the regular season is over and St. Louis will have a chance to put his signature on the postseason.
There was pressure on St. Louis after he arrived, and he was held to one goal and seven assists in 19 regular-season games. But the pressure will be spread around dramatically during the postseason, and the burden will not solely land on his shoulders.
St. Louis will see that Nash, Richards and Brassard have just as much to prove as he does in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and the shared burden should make things easier for the tightly-wound St. Louis.
As the games go by and the victories mount, look for St. Louis to play the game with the same kind of joie de vivre he displayed in Tampa for so many years.
The Eastern Conference should have one huge obstacle for the Rangers, and they won’t see it unless they get to the conference finals. The Boston Bruins are a formidable team that seems intent on getting back to the Stanley Cup Final after losing in that round last year.
The Bruins are tougher and more physical than any of the Eastern teams. They took out the Rangers in five games last year and were unbeaten against them in the regular season.
However, if it’s New York-Boston again this season, the high-flying Bruins may just find that the Rangers are nothing like the team that they dominated for the last year.
That would be a remarkable series, and don’t be surprised if the Rangers make a long postseason run this spring.
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