'Rangers Inside And Out'
By Sean Hartnett
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Some of the names and faces have changed, but this current Rangers group is playing hockey worthy of comparison to last year's team that came closest to reaching the Stanley Cup Final since that magical year of 1994.
After falling into a 2-0 hole, the Rangers have proven their resiliency by evening their first-round series with the Capitals at two games apiece. They've done it by playing gritty hockey typical of a John Tortorella-coached team.
Seeing massive underdogs in the Islanders draw even with the usually mighty Pittsburgh Penguins -- and the San Jose Sharks sweeping the Vancouver Canucks in what was supposed to be a tight series -- has proven anything can happen in these playoffs.
The Penguins have been exposed. Huge question marks surround Pittsburgh's goaltending situation. Even if Tomas Vokoun shakes off the rust and brings his best game, he could be undone by the slow-footed Swiss-cheese defense in front of him.
WHY NOT THE RANGERS?
Let's face it, the Rangers have a lot of positives going for them right now. They're playing shutdown 'D' on Washington's biggest offensive weapons, boast a number of emerging play makers of their own and have seized the momentum in this series without major contributions from Rick Nash or Henrik Lundqvist playing at the peak of his powers.
GIRARDI NEUTRALIZING OVECHKIN, DOING IT ALL
Dan Girardi leads all playoff defenseman with 19 blocked shots. During Game 4, Girardi blocked five shots and his pairing with Ryan McDonagh completely neutralized Washington superstar Alex Ovechkin.
"These last couple games, especially – we've had a lot better neutral zone structure. It's minimized his, you know, everybody's speed," McDonagh said.
Girardi and McDonagh put the clamps on the explosive Ovechkin all night. They were on the ice for 44 of 46 Ovechkin shifts and only allowed him one shot on goal. The stout blue-line duo held Ovechkin and playmaking center Nicklas Backstrom to just two total shots.
As a whole, the Rangers blocked 34 shots in Game 4. Captain Ryan Callahan had a team-high seven blocks in the Blueshirts' 4-3 victory.
Meanwhile, Girardi was the player who breathed life into the Rangers' power play. Derick Brassard worked a bit of magic and unleashed a nifty pass to an open Girardi at the top of the left circle. Girardi hammered a one-timer past Braden Holtby stick side low.
While Girardi scores only four or five times in a typical season, Derek Stepan believes the heart-and-soul defenseman has a knack for getting the important goals.
"He's been great for us all year," Stepan said. "He scores big-time goals. It's something he's always done since I've been here. You look at this year alone, he scores a big goal against the Islanders in overtime. Tonight, it's a big goal on the power play. He's going to continue to score big goals and play big minutes for us."
As Stepan said, big minutes is what Girardi is all about. Girardi logged 29:35 minutes in Game 4. He was only surpassed by McDonagh, who led all Rangers with 31:29 minutes of total ice time.
Together, Girardi and McDonagh are on the ice for half of the game and are able to shut down aces like Ovechkin and Backstrom. Their contributions have been invaluable.
BRASSARD CONTINUES TO WORK HIS MAGIC, HAGELIN FINDS HIS GROOVE
For anyone watching Games 3 and 4, it's clear that Derick Brassard has magic hands. The 25-year-old has established himself as an assist wizard and displayed tremendous vision in Game 4 when he combined with Carl Hagelin and Girardi.
"It's quite amazing… his skill set. We've seen it consistently here, we know what his abilities are," McDonagh said. "When he plays a simple game through the neutral zone and gets into that offensive zone, that's where the thrives. He's a big asset right now."
This was Hagelin's best playoff game in his young career. The energetic Swede rifled a top corner shot past Holtby's glove in the second period and later combined with Callahan for a tremendous 'team goal' by making a neat pass to set up Stepan on the Rangers' fourth goal of the night.
TIME TO GIVE STRALMAN HIS DUE
At times this season, Anton Stralman struggled with inconsistency. He's quietly grasped a number of aspects of his game where he once struggled. In Game 4, Stralman displayed physical dominance over Capitals forwards and poise on the puck.
"Stralman is unbelievable," McDonagh stated. "He's such a good skater. It goes unnoticed, I think at a lot of times. We know his ability to carry the puck and cut guys off. You see him close out so well on loose pucks. It's great to see him getting some reward here.
STAAL DECIDES TO SIT OUT
While the Rangers were boosted by the return of physically imposing winger Ryane Clowe, Marc Staal wasn't able to go in Game 4. It was Staal's call to sit out for reasons believed to be blurred vision.
"It's a honest and humble decision by him knowing that he didn't want to put the team in any kind jeopardy," McDonagh said. "It takes a lot of guts to do that."
When the puck drops at Verizon Center at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, it will be a stern test of everything the Rangers have proven over their past two victories. Doing it at home is one thing, but being able to replicate their success in a noisy away building with Ovechkin and the Capitals needing to prove a point is another thing entirely. Should they continue their positive trends in Washington, it will be a hugely positive sign of what this team might be capable of doing going forward in the playoffs.
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