Monthly Archives: May 2012

Can The NHL Seize The Moment?

It is almost an ideal matchup for the NHL in the Stanley Cup Finals.  A team from the top media market in the U.S. is facing a team from the second biggest media market.  Sure, the team from the top market is the Devils and they don’t have the following the Rangers do, but it is still a “New York” team playing a LA team.

People who are younger than 30 laugh at me when I say that in 1994 hockey was hotter than basketball, but it was.  Michael Jordan had retired from basketball for the first time and there was no one who could take his place.  Hockey on the other hand had seen Wayne Gretzky take LA to the Cup Finals in 1993 and had Mark Messier and the Rangers winning it all in a thrilling seven-game series.  FOX, which was considered the young, hip network had signed a deal to start broadcasting games in 1995.  Glowing pucks were on the way and you saw hockey “jerseys” everywhere.  (Pet peeve, it’s not a jersey, in hockey it’s a sweater.)

And then the NHL shot off it’s own foot.  The players and the owners couldn’t agree to a new labor deal and a lockout took affect before the start of the 1994-95 season. It lasted into January of 1995 and in the interim, the hockey buzz cooled off.

To be fair, the NHL had some bad luck in their timing because 1994 was also the year that baseball flushed away the World Series due to a labor dispute. Baseball locked out their players in August and news of that action and the subsequent negotiations dominated the headlines.  It wasn’t that the NHL lockout wasn’t reported, but it wasn’t the big story it might have been.  And, when the NHL finally did come back with a 48-game season they were upstaged again by baseball settling their dispute and starting their season in late April, right before the NHL playoffs were scheduled to begin.

Why do I bring all of this up right now?  Because the NHL is in a very similar position.  They have a chance to capture a lot of eyeballs between LA and NY with this Stanley Cup and they also have an expiring labor deal. I expect some very good ratings and I expect the NHL will have some momentum heading into the 2012-13 season.  Let’s hope they don’t blow it.

What’s A Knicks’ Fan To Do?

So the Final Four in the NBA are Boston, Miami, Oklahoma City and San Antonio.  This will be a long month for Knicks’ fans.

Start with the Eastern Conference Finals which are a matchup of the Knicks traditional enemy and their more recent enemy.  If you are a Knicks’ fan, you hate both Miami and Boston, so what do you root for?  I would suggest a seven-game series with multiple overtimes in each game that leave the winning team an empty shell of itself.

Then we have the Spurs.  You remember the Spurs, the team that denied the Knicks the NBA Title in 1999 and destroyed a remarkable playoff run?  Yeah, it’s pretty clear we can’t root for the Spurs.

So that leaves Oklahoma City.  On the surface, that would seem to be a pretty good option. They are a fun team to watch and Kevin Durant is not only a superstar, but he is in many ways the ‘Anti-Lebron”.  Durant not only refused to take his contract to free agency, but he signed his extension without any fanfare.

But, this is also the franchise that stabbed Seattle in the back.  They abandoned the 15th-largest metropolitan area in the U.S. and departed for the 43rd because of a lack of “fan support”.  Of course, there were thousands of fans who didn’t want to see them go, but their concerns were swept under the carpet. It’s hard to root for a franchise that abandoned its longtime fanbase.

Yes that’s what the Knicks’ fan is reduced to.  Either root for Oklahoma City, or make an even less palatable choice. Wouldn’t it be nice if the Knicks were actually still in the playoffs and not just spectators once again?

The Truth

As far as I can tell, nobody is really focusing on him, but the hard truth is that the Rangers lost their series with the Devils because of Henrik Lundqvist.  He simply wasn’t himself in that series and the Rangers didn’t have the offensive capabilities to overcome that.

I write that fully aware that without Lundqvist, the Rangers would probably have been struggling to get into the playoffs.  And without Lundqvist, they never would have gotten past Ottawa or Washington.  Believe me, I love having the guy as the Rangers’ goalie and he is their MVP in my book.

But, look at the hard stats.  In the regular season, Lundqvist had a 93% save rate.  Big deal you say, the regular season isn’t the playoffs.  Well guess what?  In Round 1 that increased to 94.5%, he carried the Rangers into the second round. But in that round it dropped to 92.7% before dropping to 90.5% in the Conference Finals.  If he had made saves at the same rate in the Conference Finals that he had in the regular season, he would have prevented two more goals.  That might have come in handy….

Again, I don’t think the Rangers get anywhere near the Conference Finals without Henrik, but those stats make me wonder if he simply wore down?  You can’t blame him, his  postseason ice time was almost 33% of his regular season ice time and the postseason was conducted over only 5 weeks. Maybe 62 starts were too many in the regular season?  I don’t know the answer, but I hope the Rangers think long and hard about it when they do their offseason planning.

*****

While it is disappointing to miss out on a trip to the Stanley Cup and infuriating to lose to the Devils, it is worth remembering how successful the Rangers were this year. This was their first trip to the Conference Finals since 1997 and they almost won the Presidents Trophy.  They are young and they are in pretty good shape with the cap.  The future looks bright and we will discuss that in the near future.

The Agony and The Agony

I have to admit, when the Devils scored their second goal of the game, I figured the Rangers were about finished.  When they scored the third, I was convinced of it.  Even after Prust made it 3-1 before the end of the first period I was convinced they were going to lose. I just didn’t think the Rangers had the ability to score four goals.

And then Ryan Callahan got them within one, right at the start of the second period and I forgot everything I had thought up to that point.

Then Martin Brodeur, one of the best stick-handling goalies ever, misplayed that puck to let the Rangers tie it and I became convinced the Rangers were going to win.  How could you not be?  Down 3-0 and to only only tie the game, but to tie it in that fashion?  Plus, the Rangers had absolutely dominated play from the moment the Devils score the third goal to when it was tied back up.  I was convinced a victory was coming.  But a funny thing happened, the Devils recovered.  They managed to start doing the things they had done all series to win games and sure enough, their hard work paid off.

There are bad losses that stand out in my mind.  My personal worst one was the final game of the 1995 ALDS.  I think of the Giants meltdown against the Vikings in the playoffs and Super Bowl XXXV.  I think of Reggie Miller hitting those three’s against the Knicks in the playoffs.  I think of Games 4+5 of the 2004 ALCS. (Yup, those two and not the two that happened later. By that point I was convinced the Red Sox were going to win.) This loss is right up there with them.  To go from the absolute horror of the first ten minutes to believing they were going to win and then having that yanked away sucked.

So now what?  Well, the Rangers are certainly in trouble, but we have seen them here before.  Not only this team, but their ancestor the 1994 team.  It was the 1994 team that had the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference, faced the Devils in the conference finals, dropped Game 5 at home and then had to win Game 6 on the road and Game 7 at home. Ironically, Game 5 of the 1994 series happened 18-years ago yesterday.  Game 6 happened 18-years ago tomorrow.  And yes, Game 7 happened 18-years ago Sunday.  Is there some sort of divine significance in all of that?  If I pick up the papers tomorrow and read that Ryan Callahan has guaranteed a win, I just might believe it.

Best Of Three

We’ve been here before.  For the third time in these playoffs, the Rangers are facing a Game 5 at home with the series tied at 2.  They’ve lost a Game 5 and won a Game 5, but in both cases they won the series in 7 games.  Tonight I think the Rangers better find a way to win this because unlike in the last two series, they are not the better team.

I’ve said it before, but it is worth repeating, the Rangers look tired.  I can’t blame them.  On April 15th they started their playoff run and since that date they have played 18 games with no more than 2 days off in a row. The miles are piling up and it has shown in the way the Devils have been able to dominate play in the offensive and defensive zones.

The question now is, can New York find the adrenaline to overcome their fatigue?  You know the crowd will be into things at the start, but if the Devils jump out early, that can quickly change. Someone needs to step up tonight and deliver some offense.  If that doesn’t happen, the Rangers are in deep trouble.

Cheap Shot

I’m not sure what Mike Rupp was thinking tonight, but I was disgusted by his swing at Martin Brodeur.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no love for the Devils and I hold a special enmity for Martin Brodeur, but Rupp’s play was a cheap shot and nothing more. I don’t expect the Rangers to win every game or even compete in every game, but I do expect them to be honorable. Rupp’s play was a dishonorable moment from a player who hasn’t shown that tendency in a Ranger’s uniform.

I also have to question Torts’ coaching in this one.  I understand that Del Zotto made some bad plays in the first period and cost the Rangers on the scoreboard, but he has been one of their best defensemen all year. Plus, with Prust out, the Rangers moved Bickel to forward and dressed Emminger on defense, leaving them exposed.  Yet, Torts nailed Del Zotto to the bench for most of the second and the third period tonight, despite being behind on the scoreboard.

That strikes me as stupid. He was quoted in the papers earlier this week saying that this “wasn’t the time” to teach Chris Kreider about defense. So, why is this the time to teach Del Zotto?  Michael is a wonderful offensive player and a somewhat suspect one on defense.  That scouting report is not a surprise to any Rangers’ fan, so why is it one to the coach?

 

A New Ballgame

For a few minutes last night, the Rangers seemed poised to take absolute control of this series. Chris Kreider made a beautiful tip in to give New York a 2-1 lead and you could feel the momentum tipping heavily in their favor.  But, New Jersey had some deflection magic of their own and they tied and then went ahead on two magnificent goals. The Rangers had some chances after that, but they couldn’t get the equalizer and now they head to New Jersey with things tied at 1.

I can’t claim to be surprised by this event.  After all, apart from winning Game 6 and Game 7 against Ottawa, the Rangers have not had back-to-back wins in the playoffs.  They have won the first game of all three series and then lost the second. So, you could say last night was just a continuation of a frustrating pattern.  That pattern has still resulted in the Rangers advancing, but there are some things to worry about in this series.

First and foremost, the Rangers have been pathetic at even strength.  They have one goal in 120 minutes of hockey this round and they had only 34 goals total in the 16 games they have played. At least the power play is working this round, but those are some bleak numbers.

Second, they look spent physically.  This doesn’t surprise me as they have essentially played a game every other night for the past month, but it is a troubling trend.  John Tortorella is starting to remind me of Joe Torre in the way he uses his defensemen.  Torre only had a few relievers that he trusted and he worked them to death in the playoffs.  Torts has only a few defensemen he trusts and it looked like all those minutes on the ice were affecting Girardi and McDonaugh last night.  I’m not saying Stu Bickel is anything great, but Torts has to give some of these guys a rest.

Martin Brodeur looks as good as usual, much better than he did in the regular season. On a side note, watch Brodeur when he handles the puck, he is a master at it.  Henrik Lundqvist is a great goalie, but he is terrible at that skill.  It’s a subtle difference, but can lead to odd-man rushes when Brodeur makes a quick pass out of his zone.

I’m not saying the Rangers can’t win this series, but they need to control Game 3 and they need an easy game.  In 16 games they have had to fight and claw for everything.  Even Game 1 of this series wasn’t really decided until the final few minutes.  You won’t have a blow out in the playoffs, but the Rangers have had a multiple-goal lead only a handful of times in 16 games.  That is taking a toll on the players and it is up to Torts to figure out how to manage that.  He can keep riding the same guys, but he risks burning them out.

Oh, and if they survive the Devils, they will probably have to face a Kings squad that has walked through the playoffs so far and may have the hottest goalie on the planet.  But, that’s something to worry about at another date.

Game 7 Take Two

Here’s a sobering stat right off the bat.  No team that has played in Game 7’s in the first and second round has ever won the Stanley Cup.  Of course, that doesn’t mean anything for tonight, just something to keep in mind.

As for tonight’s game, it comes down to the effort. I was amazed at how bad the Rangers looked Wednesday.  They played terribly and they didn’t really look engaged until the final few minutes.  Something tells me their coach won’t let that happen tonight.

But, the coach needs to take responsibility for some lineup choices he has made.  The Hagelin-Richards-Gaborik line is usually great, but the lines that follow have not been so.  I understand the worries about Kreider in the defensive end, but when the Rangers are losing they can’t afford to be picky.  I am still amazed that he only got 9 shifts in all of Game 6. The Rangers should get Kreider involved if they need some offense.  How about a redo of Kreider-Stepan-Callahan?

The other interesting lineup issue is that Torts doesn’t trust Stu Bickel.  We saw this in the triple-OT game and we saw it again Wednesday.  The Rangers are leaning heavily on McDonaugh, Staal, Girardi and Del Zotto.  That could cost them if they get to keep playing after tonight.

And finally, how cool would it be to see Brandon Dubinsky skate out and pull a Willis Reed tonight?  I don’t think it is remotely happening, but it would be amazing.

 

39 Years

Well the Knicks ended their season last night and today is the 39th anniversary of their last championship.  What I hope this series made clear to the decision makers at MSG is that the Knicks, as presently constructed, are not going to win a title.

What I fear is that management will fallback on the injury excuse to explain this loss.  Something along the lines of…”if we had a healthy Lin, Shumpert and Davis, plus Amar’e in Game 3, we would’ve won.”  Anyone who knows basketball knows that simply isn’t the case.

Here’s the brutal truth: Carmelo+Amar’e+Lin<their respective talents.  These three players do not work well together.  The combo of Carmelo and Amar’e gives you two guys who need the ball, but do nothing on the defensive end. The Lin and Carmelo combo doesn’t work because Carmelo needs the ball at the beginning of an offensive set and isn’t good at waiting for it. The only combo that works is Lin and Amar’e because their talents work together.

What the Knicks have to decide this offseason is what formation to build around.  The could decide to build around Amar’e and Lin, which means they trade Anthony.  They could decide to build around Anthony and Chandler which means they trade Amar’e and Lin.  What they can’t do is presume that a healthy roster gets them a title. The Knicks are right up against the salary cap and they don’t have a first round pick in the upcoming draft.  The only way to make this team better is to make some trades.

So who do you pick?  Carmelo and Chandler or Anthony and Lin?

They Don’t Come Easy

I give the Rangers all the credit in the world for pulling that game out last night. Tying things up with 6 seconds left and then winning in OT was amazing, but do they have to keep doing this to me?

Last night was their 12th playoff game and in all but three of them, the final difference has been a single goal. This series has now seen four-straight contests with a single goal differential and two of those games have gone to OT.  This is edge of your seat hockey and these games are very draining to watch.  I can only imagine what I would have felt like if they had taken that game through a couple of OT’s last night.

But, while I would love to see the Rangers win in a landslide, the important thing is that they keep winning.  Wednesday is going to be a brutal game, you know the Washington crowd will be loud and into it from the get go.  New York needs to do what they did in Game 5, come out and dominate play.  Last night, they out-shot Washington 17-4 in the first period.  Contrast that with Game 4 where they were out-shot 14-3 in the first.  It’s hard to keep that level of intensity up and in both games it reversed to the other team in the second period, but the Rangers need to get off to a good start.

Wednesday will also present the dilemma of the Rangers and Knicks playing each other at almost the same time.  It’s too bad the schedule makers couldn’t find a way around that, but such is life.