The Rangers teams since 2006-2007 have been teams that struggled heavily in the middle of the season and relied on an outstanding end-of-the-season run to save their playoff hopes. This year has been sort of inside out, with the Rangers having pretty a pretty solid grasp on a playoff spot virtually the whole season only to lose enough key games to leave us where we are now, hanging on by a thread. A team that once had a magic number of 3 with 5 combined games left now faces the cold reality that a regulation loss against the Devils eliminates them from the playoffs, and that even the most dominant win of the season would still require help from Tampa Bay to even make it relevant. The Devils have also had a bizarre season. After finding themselves last in the Eastern Conference, the Devils made an improbable surge back into playoff contention, only to then lose most of their games once they mattered again. Today does and doesn’t matter for the Devils. They’re well out of the playoff picture, but you know they’d love nothing more than to completely spoil the Rangers’ playoff hopes.
Henrik Lundqvist- Stop the puck. The team needs him now more than they did at any point last season, including the final game against Philadelphia. Lundqvist has a 1.32 GAA and .959 SV % against the Devils this year, which is absolutely ridiculous, even compared to his already incredible stats all-time against them. Lundqvist should already be in the Vezina discussion, but a great effort today that manages to get the Rangers into the playoffs would give GM’s even more incentive to vote him.
Devils Injuries- It’s as if the Hockey Gods are making up for a season’s worth of injuries in one must-win game for the Rangers. Zach Parise is out. Anton Volchenkov is out. Noted Ranger Killer Dainius Zubrus is out. Colin White is out. This Devils team was struggling to win to begin with. The additional injuries doesn’t make it any easier for them. We’re being served a wounded animal today.
Brandon Dubinsky- I’m all aboard the Captain Cally train, but Brandon Dubinsky is a different kind of yet equally important leader on this team. He’s the guy who will stand up in the locker room and rally the players. He’s the kind who will drop the gloves with an Ovechkin, or a Richards, to get some momentum and stand up for someone. He’s the guy who wills himself into the offensive zone with the puck. He’s the guy that doesn’t let 3 defenders in his way prevent him from forechecking and retrieving the puck. Stylistically speaking, Dubinsky is relatively similar to Mark Messier. Dubinsky’s the one guy I KNOW will show up today and step up his game. He’s a guy who wants to be the one that makes the season-saving play, more than anyone else. Especially with Callahan out, this is the time where Dubinsky needs to shine. He has 4 goals and 2 assists already this season against the Devils.
Mats Zuccarello- He returns to the lineup on a line with Christensen and Avery. Zuke and Christensen have had some chemistry together, so if Christensen decides he wants to show up today that might be a nice connection.
Henrik Tallinder – Mark Fayne
Anssi Salmela – Andy Greene
Mark Fraser – Jay Leach
Those are the Devils’ defensive pairings for the game today. Is there a slower, more lethargic defense in the NHL right now? Anssi Salmela, a guy who wouldn’t even be the Rangers’ 8th defenseman, is on their second pairing. Guys like Dubinsky, Zuccarello, Avery, Christensen, and Wolski have some serious wheels, but it’s not just about skating fast, but skating hard. This is a defense that our checking line of Feds-Boyle-Prust should be able to take advantage of. None of those three are fast skaters, but they enter the offensive zone quickly and create havoc along the boards and behind the net for opposing defenses. The forechecking game should not be an issue as long as the Rangers don’t make it one.
Stop Kovalchuk- Kovalchuk has had a down season, but he still has 30 goals on the season. Elias is the only other player above even 15 goals this season, and only 3 other players currently in the lineup have even as much as 10. Basically, stop Kovalchuk and you stop the Devils scoring. Really. Don’t give him time to wind up. Don’t give him time to place the puck.
I don’t know what else to say. As much as it sucks that it comes down to this, how many of us in August saw being out of the playoff picture in late March as a possibility? Especially with the injuries we’ve experienced, in a way we’re sort of in a position that’s better than what many imagined. We have a chance to win and put all the pressure on Carolina later tonight. It would be a shame to ruin what was basically 75 or so admirably played games because of a few forgettable ones.
Rangers clinch playoff spot with:
– Win against New Jersey and Carolina loss of any kind to Tampa Bay
– Overtime/shootout loss against New Jersey and Carolina regulation loss to Tampa Bay
That’s it, not as many options as only a couple of days ago, nor are they easier, but they still are there. Get the win.