1) The playoff picture. Not much changed Saturday, other than the Rangers’ failure to clinch a berth. That is virtually inevitable, given that the Rangers need one point out of their last three, or for the Devils to not run the table. New Jersey is home for Calgary Monday, and that could be the Rangers’ clincher. More important is the race for that 2-3 seed (and I still maintain, maybe more than ever, that the 3 is just as good as the 2, maybe better, especially the way the Rangers play on the road). If the Rangers get four points out of the final three games, they will be in the 2-3 series. And they can get there without getting four, depending on how Columbus does in its last four games.
2) Did some checking yesterday, because I wasn’t sure about the way this new whacky playoff works. We all know 2-3 play in each division, and that 1 plays a wild card, based on best record playing worst wild card. What I wasn’t sure was how the next round is determined. The 2-3 teams stay in their division with the division champ, and that’s their bracket. So, if for example Pittsburgh plays Detroit and the Rangers play the Flyers, the bracket will be Pittsburgh, Rangers, Flyers Red Wings. The two winners play each other. Same in the other bracket.
3) And how did it came to this playoff format? Well, the NHL and its governors (owners, GMs) wanted the realignment for various reasons. The league wanted to go back to four divisions, with the top four making the playoffs in each, like the old, old days, to continue to build the natural divisional rivalries. The players’ union complained that two of the divisions would have seven teams and two would have eight and that wouldn’t be fair—not thinking it through, obviously, that the seventh and eighth teams are no factor in a four-team playoff race ever—and demanded the wild card scenario instead. The NHL, headed to the lockout, didn’t want to fight that battle and gave in. Thus this clumsy wild-card format.
4) Now onto the game. The Rangers, I thought, got what they deserved. They were a step slow, didn’t take very good care of the puck, especially in the neutral zone, weren’t very good in their D-zone coverage against a very gifted (and extremely underachieving) team. Ottawa needed this game more, let’s face it, and played that way from the start. And I think teams convince themselves about that “first game back from a road trip” thing until it becomes self-fulfilling. And yet they could have won it because Ottawa sure gave them plenty of chances—just as Teddy Roosevelt’s team usually does, especially with that rover playing, ahem, defense. There’s a reason they underachieve.
5) I thought most of the D-men struggled, especially Dan Girardi, who sometimes gets into a “do too much” mode and tries to block everything and chase everything. The first two goals were on the Rangers’ defacto first line of Derick Brassard, Mats Zuccarello and Benoit Pouliot, who were all to blame and who did atone. The third was a mess caused by Brad Richards turnover and weak backcheck, and the stick-checking around the net by Marc Staal and Anton Stralman.
6) And this time, unlike that 8-4 game in Kanata, Robin Lehner was pretty good.
7) So let’s move onto the end. I thought, certainly, that Chris Neil could have been called for interference, charging or boarding, but certainly something on his late, predatory hit on a vulnerable Marc Staal. It was shocking that, after that mayhem, Ottawa got a power play, though to be fair, the Rangers’ power play hardly was ready to make a difference. I thought Staal showed a great deal of courage, but a fair lack of decision-making given his concussion and eye history, to rush in and drop his gloves with Neil. By the way, does Neil ever get called for anything when he tries to maim somebody? Ever? Guy is an absolute force, but the league and the referees sure let him be more of a force than he should be, IMO. And his hit on Staal, fully aware of his concussion history, and then pummeling away at him while he’s down, is a blatant lack of respect from one player to another. But that’s today’s NHL. The union should be ashamed.
8) That said, though the Rangers hardly kicked tail and took names there, they did show up in the fracas, and I think, judging by the feeling afterward, that they felt some of that all-for-oneness that the 2011-12 team had. Again, it’s not so much getting vengeance or winning fights or kicking tail. It’s about showing up, and I thought the Rangers showed up there and showed some onions again. They’ve done that a bit lately, and that’s a good sign going into the postseason. They also angered the Senators many times through the course of the game with big hits on some of their skill players, they really did, so that’s kind of new too,
9) Three last things on that. Derick Brassard did indeed get a misconduct for going a bit overboard in his verbal trashing of the referee for the non-call on the Neil hit. You have to wonder, after the Simmonds slash on McDonagh, then the Burrows hit that injured McDonagh’s shoulder, and this predatory hit on Staal, where the hell are the referees looking. … And I thought the linesman—I wish I knew which one—did a great job recognizing what was happening as Neil had Staal down and was punching him in the head. The linesman wrapped his upper body around Staal’s head to protect him. Well done.
11) Daily Nash-O-Meter. Not even going there. He created plenty. Didn’t finish. Wasn’t a culprit on any of the Ottawa goals.
12) Brian Boyle with Brad Richards and Martin St. Louis. Hey, here’s an idea. Get St. Louis away from Richards and with either somebody who can skate, or somebody who can go get the puck, because the two ex-Lightnings together don’t work. St. Louis is so out of sorts. How about that play where he skated into the zone and left the puck outside the blue line? Then he had a breakaway and Norris Karlsson, who never does a thing defensively, did a great job of catching St. Louis from behind and getting his stick on the shot. Gotta add, St. Louis peels away from the net a lot for a guy who has scored so many goals. Maybe it’s part of this funk.
13) As the regular season winds down here, I want to mention that John Amirante’s national anthems just get better and better. Did both the US and Canada’s brilliantly again last night and the crowd appreciated it. So did I.
My Three Rangers Stars:
1. Mats Zuccarello.
2. Benoit Pouliot.
3. Derick Brassard.
Kenny Albert’s Three Rangers Stars:
1. Mats Zuccarello.
2. John Moore.
3. Carl Hagelin.
Your poll vote for Three Rangers Stars:
1. Mats Zuccarello.
2. Derick Brassard.
3. Henrik Lundqvist.
Photos by Getty Images.