There are several tough match-ups in round two of the Stanley Cup playoffs. In last night’s games, both Buffalo and Anaheim were favored to win. It is possible they may eventually meet up in the finals. Before both teams can think about that, they must concentrate on their current series.
Buffalo has now defeated the Rangers in five straight games. The first four took place during the regular season. Many had wondered whether those four wins during the regular season would be a good way to measure this seven game series. There is no doubt Buffalo is a scary team with lots of sharp shooting talent and a solid defense. The Rangers however are a different team than they were during the regular season. Many have said the acquisition of Sean Avery at the trade deadline turned this team around. While Avery has been a big factor, he has not been the only factor.
It is true; Avery has provided some necessary spunk in to the Rangers lineup. While Avery was hated in LA and has been polled amongst the players as the “Most Hated Player” he has managed to be very well liked in New York. Not only has Rangers Coach Tom Renney sung his praises, but also so have his teammates and the Ranger fans. Avery came to this team and started playing and defending his teammates as if he had been on the team all season long. Everyone respected that. He has in many ways brought a much-needed attitude to a team that only New Yorkers understand and appreciate. Let us call it the “John Starks Effect.” John Starks was a former basketball player for the New York Knicks in 90’s that was hated by most, but beloved by New Yorkers. During the Atlanta series, Avery managed to get under the skin of several Thrashers stars and throw them off their game. Last night, that did not happen.
While the Rangers did come out strong the first few minutes, Buffalo was able to re-grab the momentum with five straight power plays spanning the first and second period. The Rangers were never able to establish a flow to the game after that. Buffalo’s speed causes problems for other teams. They usually result in a hooking call in their favor.
We all know that Hockey is the greatest sport and there is nothing close to NHL playoffs. We also know that lots can happen in a seven game series. While Buffalo has the history of beating the Rangers, the home ice advantage, and the depth, it does not mean they will necessarily win their series. Game two at home is very important. If the Rangers can stay out of the penalty box and establish their game they can win this series.
One major difference between now and the regular season when the Sabres played the Rangers is the balanced Rangers attack. While trying to overcome injuries to key players, the Rangers experimented with line combinations and realized the offensive talent of Marcel Hossa. Up to that point Hossa had been a fourth line spare part that never really got the chance to show off his talent. Hossa’s size, puck handling and ability to make the right pass and play along the boards have opened up some ice room for Jaromir Jagr and Michael Nylander. With Hossa now on the top line, the Rangers have moved Martin Straka to the second line with Sean Avery and Brendan Shanahan. At age 34, Straka still has the speed and skill of a youngster but with a veteran twist. In terms of shots, Shanahan has one of the quickest releases in the game. Despite his instigator reputation, Avery also has offensive talent. The Ranger’s third line also has speed and offensive talent. Recently called up rookie Ryan Callahan provides a toughness and agility that will baffle many. Do not be surprised next season, when Callahan scores more goals than Petr Prucha.
The leg injury to defensemen Michael Rozsival in last night’s game can be a big factor for the Rangers. Not only has Rozsival been the most consistent and best defensive defensemen on the Rangers, but he has also been a key player on the Rangers power play. The Rangers defense will have to play better in front on goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. Paul Mara especially needs to play smart defense and fill in for Rozsival on the point.
As for Buffalo, in order for them to win, they must continue to use their speed and force the opponent to play their game. Buffalo has so many weapons; they can score with any line. The return of a healthy Tim Connolly and Maxim Afinogenov only makes this team even deadlier. In terms of fantasy, Thomas Vanek continues to produce. His two goals last night showed his talent and ability to be a major offensive threat anywhere on the ice.