It feels like a long time since New York Ranger fans have been able to feel so comfortable about a playoff series. The last three the Blueshirts took the series to Game 7 (Capitals, Flyers, Penguins) and left their fans biting their nails until the very end.
But, in the 2014 Eastern Conference Final, the Rangers have given themselves quite a cushion by stealing the first two games at the Bell Centre and coming into a MSG with a chance to sweep.
Their successes in Montreal must, and will, transfer to their play at the Garden in order to close out this series. I’m not saying the Rangers will sweep, but 5 key things have led them to this 2-0 lead and will carry them to the Stanley Cup final whether it be in 4 games or 7.
1. Henrik Lundqvist: He’s called the King for a reason. Although Hank had some struggles in Philly, Pittsburgh and even MSG, this series he is proving why he is the best goalie left in the NHL playoffs. With a playoff GAA of 1.93, Lundqvist has already stopped 60 of 63 in this series while making a handful of highlight-reel saves. There’s a collective sense on both teams that when Lundqvist is at his best it’s a tough game for the Rangers to lose, and it certainly looks like he’s at the top of his game.
2. No Carey Price: When Montreal Canadiens Head Coach Michel Therrien broke the news that starting goaltender Carey Price would be out for the series he called him their best player, and its hard to win a playoff series when your star is not on the ice. In this year’s playoffs he had a 2.35 GAA and in his stellar performances in Games 6 and 7 against the Boston Bruins, he held them to just 1 goal on 56 shots. This is certainly a huge loss for the Habs and a tremendous advantage for the Rangers that’s already evident after Game 2. Peter Budaj and Dustin Tokarski have already given up three goals each to the Rangers this series and it doesn’t look like either will solve the New York offense anytime soon.
3. The power play: In recent playoff appearances the two words Rangers fans dreaded most was “power play.” Year after year no matter what star offensive players were brought in, (Jagr, Drury, Gomez, etc.) the power play just never seemed to click. Too much passing and ill advised point shots always caused more stress than excitement for Rangers fans. Granted the power play was sluggish in Round 1 this year, but in the tail end of Round 2, and now in the first 2 games of Round 3, the Rangers power play is finally looking good. After ending a 0 for 36 drought without a power play goal in Game 5 against Pittsburgh, they seem to be on a roll. The Game 7 winner was a power play goal by Richards, Game 1 in Montreal saw 3 PPG’s in the third period, and St. Louis drove home yet another in Game 2. Whether it’s what Alain Vigneault has been working on in practice, St. Louis’ great passing, or just better communication, the power play has new life and will carry the team to a series victory if sustained.
4. Ryan McDonagh: Ironically, a first-round draft pick of the Canadiens in 2007 may very well be the reason the Habs won’t be making the 2014 Stanley Cup final. In the two games against Montreal, McDonagh has 2 goals, 4 assists, and is a +3. In Game 4 of Round 2 it seemed like McDonagh, and the rest of the Rangers for that matter, had given up and were simply being out hustled by a powerhouse Penguins offense.
He lost races to the puck, was easily bodied, and provided no offensive spark. But, McDonagh picked up his game and carried it through to Round 3, and AV knows it. He leads the team in ice time at even strength, short-handed, and on the power play. He seems much more at ease in this series and is playing aggressive, smart hockey on both ends of the ice, especially on the power play where he has earned 3 of his 6 points. If McDonagh stays hot, so will the Rangers.
5. Chris Kreider: Despite Canadiens fan’s hatred for the left-winger for his “reckless play” that knocked Carey Price out of the series, Kreider has made a difference for the Rangers in many other ways. After being injured in late March, Kreider made his return in Game 4 against Pittsburgh and since then the Rangers have a 5-1 record with him in the line-up. His incredible speed and tenacity has re-energized the Rangers top line consisting of him, Stepan, and Nash. His goal in Game 1 would end up being the game winner and the Nash’s one timer in Game 2 would not have been possible without Kreider’s skilled passing. And I assume being made public enemy No. 1 in Montreal for the Price incident will only help to continue his impassioned style of play. Look for Kreider to keep making an impact in this series, as well as to be the target of some jabs after the whistle. His play will be a huge factor in getting the Rangers to their first Stanley Cup final appearance since 1994.
***Note: Head Coach Michel Therrien announced today that he will be starting Dustin Tokarski in goal once again for Game 3 on Thursday.