NHL Playoffs: Gearing Up For Game 7

Rob Celletti gears up for game 7 of Rangers/Senators

Man oh man, was I wrong.

In my first round preview, I predicted a fairly easy five-game win for the Rangers in their series over the Ottawa Senators. instead, what’s played out over the last two weeks has been nothing short of an epic clash featuring everything that NHL playoff hockey is all about. In addition to some wonderful and timely goals, there has been tight checking, physical play, and unsung heroes emerging from both sides.

Ottawa has simply answered the bell in this series. I criticized them for not being physical enough to compete with the gritty Rangers, yet Game 2, which really changed the tenor of this series, saw Ottawa become the physical aggressors. They have played on the edge, and sometimes over it, but it caught the Rangers off-guard. Ottawa has been the better team in this series.

Make no mistake, the Rangers have not played well. They’re no offensive juggernaut, but the nearly 200-minute shutout streak put together by Ottawa goalie Craig Anderson from the 2nd period of Game 4 through the 2nd period of Game 6 was nonetheless frustrating and flabbergasting. But with their season on the edge, Brad Richards, he of the 9-year/$60 million contract signed last July, stepped up and justified the money invested in him, leading the Rangers to a season-saving Game 6 victory.

So now, Thursday night arguably becomes the best New York sports night of the year so far. Two area Game 7’s (Devils vs. Panthers in addition to Rangers/Sens), the NFL Draft (which of course, TOJ has been all over), and the Knicks’ season finale.

I refuse to make a prediction, I just look forward to watching the first Rangers game 7 at MSG since June 14, 1994.

NHL Playoffs: This Physical, Beautiful Game On Ice

Justin Fritze discusses the violent beauty of the first round of the NHL playoffs

As both the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils head into decisive Game 5’s tonight, Guest contributor Justin Fritze discusses the violent beauty of the first round of the NHL Playoffs so far…

For as long as I can remember, I have had some sort of connection to hockey. My Uncle used to play ice hockey religiously growing up and even into his 20’s in an amateur league about a mile down the road from my grandma’s house. In the summer he would play deck hockey, and at the end of games he even used to ask the guys who ran the place to let him stay late and shoot around with me for about half an hour.

My Dad’s best friend growing up was a guy named Matt Janney, whose brother was Craig Janney, a first round pick of the Boston Bruins in 1986, and who according to the NHL Alumni board had the “softest hands in hockey”. To say he was a legend in Enfield was an understatement. He was pretty much god in that small Connecticut town, and despite being 6 years old, I still remember the insane party he had at his house after getting selected in the NHL Draft.

After that, I pretty much had hockey ingrained in my psyche. I went to Bruins games, went to Whalers games…that’s right. Look it up. Hartford Whalers. Pretty much the coolest jersey to ever exist. I watched every Craig Janney game I could, and the Bruins recent bruising of the Canucks on the way to the NHL Stanley Cup brought a smile that only a kid who grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts could understand.

I never did make it into ice hockey, but I did play roller hockey. Outdoors. In January. On Long Island, where the average nightly temperature was around 20 degrees. Not so fun getting checked into the boards when you’re having trouble feeling your fingers.

I also benefited from a next door neighbor whose father was a firefighter and brought us to the yearly NYPD vs. FDNY hockey game that took place in the hellhole that is Nassau Coliseum, where fighting was so rampant that the two fan-bases were literally separated on opposite sides by barricades. At one game I counted 12 fights on the ice, and probably about 6 more in the bathrooms. It was one of the greatest sports events I have ever been to.

And so, this year’s NHL Playoffs. Did the NHL make a mistake in not coming down “hand of god” style a la Roger Goodell against all this blatant violence? I’m not someone with a horse in the race, so to say I don’t like the violence of the NHL would be an outright lie.

You know what the best part of NHL 94 for Sega Genesis was? Watching some poor bastard come up the side from their own blue line, getting a head full of steam, and knocking him through the glass. That’s right. Through the glass. Oh yeah, and the inevitable 2nd period throwdown. THIS IS HOCKEY. Even the video games were preprogrammed with checking, guys getting carted off, and literal Mike Tyson Punchout matches in the middle of the ice.

Now, to play devils advocate, would I be able to sit comfortably if I was related to the leading scorer on any of the playoff teams? Of course not. I would be terrified. Everyone is one severe hit away from a concussion that could last months. But this is the ancient element of hockey. No escape. Locked in. And they’re coming from all directions. Even the goalies aren’t completely safe.

For the sake of objectivity, I will admit that hockey fans are a different breed. A guy who may be a corporate lawyer will turn into a Hell’s Angels when it comes to playoff hockey, especially when it’s a matchup like Flyers/Penguins. If the Bruins and Rangers make it to the next round, I’m going to have a dilemma so deep, because of the Boston roots and the teenage years in New York (remembering Messier/Richter/Leetch/Graves and that whole insanity of 94) I may just have to wear a different jersey every single night to help the balance.

But I’ll be damned if someone doesn’t admit playoff hockey is exciting unlike any other sport in the world. It’s what soccer should be. Goals/Saves/Hits at a rate that turns your nerves into downed power lines in a hurricane. Your blood boils and your brain is on the edge of adrenaline overload. Your eyes can’t keep up, and you’re beginning to scream for no reason other than the eventual hit that is about to send someone backwards or into the boards with the force of two Mac trucks hitting each other at 35mph.

Thank You NHL. Now shorten the season, and let’s hope no one gets seriously hurt.

New York Rangers: NHL Playoffs First Round Preview

Rob Celletti previews the New York Rangers series versus the Ottawa Senators and the rest of the NHL’s opening round

On Thursday, Madison Square Garden’s “other” tenants begin their push for what is often called the most difficult trophy in sports to win: The Stanley Cup.  The New York Rangers, winners of the Atlantic Division crown and the number one seed in the Eastern Conference will face an interesting test from their first round opponents, the Ottawa Senators.

Having watched an overwhelming majority of the Rangers 82-game regular season (it’s true, I have no life), this matchup seems like a blessing when compared to what seemed like the most likely scenario just a week ago: a rematch with the Washington Capitals, who swiftly knocked the Rangers out of the first round last season in just 5 games.  Yes, the roles were reversed – the Caps the #1 seed last year, the Rangers #8 – but the Capitals remain extremely dangerous because of the presence of Alexander Ovechkin, one of the few non-goaltenders in the modern NHL capable of dominating a series like Mario Lemieux or Wayne Gretzky in decades past.

Instead, the Rangers face an Ottawa team that is front-loaded with skill and speed, but one that is neither very deep nor very tough. The Rangers made their mark this season playing playoff-style hockey throughout their 82-game schedule.  They paid extraordinary attention to defense, blocked a ridiculous amount of shots and relied somewhat heavily on their goaltending. When playing their best, the Rangers are also a very physical team that’s capable of scoring enough, despite what some pundits think (2.71 goals per game, good enough for 11th in the league). Their previously woeful power play has shown signs of life during the final few weeks of the season.

While it’s true that an average goaltender (like Ottawa’s Craig Anderson) getting hot can change the tenor of a series and render the seedings meaningless, it’s hard not to pick the Rangers to sweep this series based solely on the goaltending matchup.  Henrik Lundqvist is slowly but surely entering the mainstream of the New York sports lexicon (the New York Times’ 5-page profile on him from over the weekend is evidence enough) and has not hesitated to mention that he already feels like “the clock is ticking” on his chances to win a Stanley Cup.  The motivated Lundqvist put together a season that should net him the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender. But he wants to accomplish much more than that.

If Lundqvist plays at a high level and the Rangers avoid major injuries, they’re expected to make a deep playoff run this spring  In terms of this first round series against Ottawa, I expect the Rangers to – pardon the cliche – pound Ottawa into submission. They’re simply a more physical team that has been through one of the most challenging and ultimately rewarding regular seasons in team history. Ottawa’s top line of Jason Spezza, Milan Michalek and Daniel Alfredsson poses a threat, but the Rangers boast arguably the best pair of shutdown defensemen in the NHL in Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh, who will no doubt spend most of their time opposite the Senators’ stars. In addition to the Rangers usual scoring suspects Marian Gaborik (3rd in the NHL with 41 goals) and Brad Richards (playoff MVP for the Cup-winning Lightning in 2004), look for Brandon Dubinsky to have a big spring as well.

Prediction: Rangers in 5

And now for quick predictions on the other 7 first round series in the NHL:

Eastern Conference

#2 Boston vs. #7 Washington – Capitals in 6

#3 Florida vs. #6 New Jersey – Devils in 5

#4 Pittsburgh vs. #5 Philadelphia – Penguins in 7

Western Conference

#1 Vancouver vs. #8 Los Angeles – Canucks in 6

#2 St. Louis vs. #7 San Jose – Blues in 7

#3 Phoenix vs. #6 Chicago – Blackhawks in 6

#4 Nashville vs. #5 Detroit – Predators in 7

What The Jets Can Learn From The Rangers

What the New York Jets can learn from their city counterparts, the New York Rangers

One of the ways I’ve been able to distract myself from the ulcer-inducing aftermath of the 2011 New York Jets has been to focus on another New York team that I’m extremely passionate about: the New York Rangers.

In case you don’t know (and you might not, since “the worldwide leader in sports” has chosen to bury hockey for the last decade, especially now that it no longer broadcasts hockey games), the Rangers currently stand tied with the Chicago Blackhawks for the best record in the entire NHL.  Say what you want about the Giants, but the New York Rangers have been this city’s most consistent winner since October.  Still, it was no easy task to get to where the Rangers are, and they really aren’t all that close to the ultimate goal of winning a Stanley Cup anyway; almost three months of regular season, plus four grueling playoff series stand between them and hockey nirvana.

However, I began to think: maybe the Jets could learn a thing or two from the Rangers, despite the fact that hockey and football are two entirely different sports.  The history of these two teams is not all that dissimilar.  Flashes of past glory, but a tradition that consists mostly of disappointment for a large, passionate fanbase.

For those of you not well-versed in Rangers history, here’s the Cliff Notes version:  They have won exactly one championship in the last 72 years.  For the last two decades, the Rangers have largely built their team by bringing in high-priced free agents with flashy names (sound familiar?), with only one instance of success: 1994.  After Mark Messier, the Rangers inked the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Holik, Pavel Bure, Jaromir Jagr, Scott Gomez and Chris Drury, with results ranging from one-and-done playoff appearances to complete and utter disaster.

So, it was time to shake things up.  Sometime within the last six or seven years, the Rangers have instead focused on building their roster through the draft and minor league system.  They brought in a coach with a specific style and personalty and have stuck with him (rather than firing him for missing the playoffs in the 2009-2010 season), allowing the players to mature.  They have supplemented a very young roster with shrewd trades and yes, one or two big-money free agent acquisitions.

Here are five lessons the Jets can learn from the Rangers:

Lesson 1: Patience

When the Rangers hired coach John Tortorella in the winter of 2009 after firing Tom Renney, the organization began to change its philosophy.  The changes were subtle at first, and they would take time to implement.  The first lesson the Jets could learn?  Patience. Tortorella knew that the roster he inherited in 2009 was not one that could win a championship. The goal was, instead, was to simply improve the team on a day-by-day basis, not only in hockey terms, but also in terms of how it was built (read: slowly, and through the draft). “One step at a time” might be the most insufferable sports cliche of them all, but it has become the Rangers’ mantra. Now in 2012, three full years later, they are seeing the results of that approach.

Lesson 2: Leadership

One of the organization’s goals was also to cultivate an internal leadership group among the players so that “the locker room could sustain itself,” as Tortorella likes to say. Sounds like the complete opposite of the Jets, doesn’t it?  One of the most direct comparisons between the two teams across completely different sports is the choosing of captains. Football has even gone so far as to copy hockey and put the letter “C” on the designated player’s uniform.  Tortorella’s choices for captains (one player gets a “C” and two get “A”‘s as alternate captains, for the uninitiated) were easy:

Ryan Callahan, captain – a player who embodies the Rangers’ aggressive yet responsible style of play and leads by example; 4th round pick (127th overall) in the 2004 draft.

Marc Staal, alternate – when healthy (he missed roughly the first half of the season with a concussion and is just getting his feet back under him after about 10 games now), one of the best shutdown defensemen in the NHL; 1st round pick in the 2005 draft.

Brad Richards, alternate – Richards was the Rangers big free agent splash last summer, but he played under John Tortorella in 2004 with the Tampa Bay Lightning.  That team won a Stanley Cup; Richards was the playoff MVP, awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy. Tortorella felt that Richards was the perfect veteran role model that some of the younger Rangers needed to show them how to be a professional, on and off the ice.

Lesson 3: Identity

Perhaps what doomed the Jets even more than their locker room squabbles was the loss of their identity as a team that wanted to dominate the line of scrimmage, run the ball, and play great defense. Ground and Pound was forgotten. The Jets were all of a sudden slow at linebacker and were gashed by opposing running backs more than anyone could have predicted.  What could they learn from the Rangers in this regard?  Pick your style, embrace it, stick to it, and build your team around it.

The Rangers have become one of the toughest teams in the NHL to play against.  They’ve allowed the 2nd fewest goals in the league.  They are built from their net out, with goaltender Henrik Lundqvist providing the foundation that the team stands on. If quarterback is the most important position in football, goalie is that position in hockey. The Rangers are covered there, as Lundqvist is putting together another Vezina Trophy caliber season as one of the league’s best goalies.

The similarities between the teams are more obvious than you’d think. Neither the Rangers defense-first approach nor the Jets “ground and pound” mantra will consistently score style points or entertain the masses. They leave open the possibility of close, late losses, simply because the offense might not generate enough goals or points.  But they are both effective philosophies that, applied over the long-haul, can lead to consistent winning.

Lesson 4: Narrow the Focus

Earlier this week, Madison Square Garden Chairman James L. Dolan made a bold proclamation that the Rangers were “close” to winning a Stanley Cup. John Tortorella quickly fired back, calling that “a bunch of bullshit”. Tortorella wasn’t trying to embarrass his boss, rather, he was trying to keep his team’s focus where it should be: on the next game. Cups are not awarded in January.

Super Bowls are not awarded in June.  I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the Jets often let their focus stray too far down the road.  I’m not saying the Super Bowl shouldn’t be the goal every year, because it should be.  But it might be time for Rex Ryan to shelve some of his dramatic predictions (no matter what their motives actually are) and just focus on winning the next game.  In all professional sports, there’s an element of “grinding” through a long season to get to where you want to be.  The 2011 Jets were not a team that was willing to grind (their losses to the Raiders and Eagles are great examples of this, I think) through the less exciting parts of their schedule.

Lesson 5: The Right Amount of Swagger

There’s a fine line in all sports between confidence and cockiness. A team is in danger though, when it begins to believe its own hype. Part of what made the Jets successful in 2009 and 2010 was their brash, “we can beat anybody” attitude. The other side of that coin is the overconfidence that this cultivates, and results in a season like 2011.

The Rangers are never going to be guaranteeing victories in the media before games (unless Mark Messier laces ’em up again), but the belief in their ability is there.  The team plays with a quiet confidence. Young defenseman Michael Del Zotto has said repeatedly that coach Tortorella urges him to play “with swagger”.  The message is there, it’s just not broadcast.

So there you have it: five lessons that the Jets would be well-served to learn from their unlikely hockey counterparts before they kick off their 2012 campaign.  There are plenty of football-specific moves that need to be made, and will be discussed ad nauseum here and plenty of other places.

In the meantime, I urge even non-hockey fans flip on MSG (provided you’re not subject to the Time Warner Cable/MSG Network mess) and take a look at a team that has been New York’s most consistent winner since October. There’s a lot to like.