Not only did the New York Rangers win their first round series in convincing fashion, sweeping the playoff-neophyte Atlanta Thrashers, but the Blueshirts also won the NHL’s first round.
No team made a bigger statement in the conference quarterfinal stage of the 2007 post-season than the upstart Rangers. And that’s quite a turnaround from a year ago.
Last season at this time, it was the Rangers who were being swept of the playoffs, after making their first appearance in the post-season since 1997. Jaromir Jagr sustained a separated shoulder early in the opening round and rookie hotshot goalie Henrik Lundqvist suddenly went cold Â– and neither was a factor in the four-and-out series against New Jersey.
This spring, though, Jagr has been healthy and lethal and Lundqvist surrendered only six goals in four games against a team stocked with snipers such as Ilya Kovalchuk, Marian Hossa, Slava Kozlov and Keith Tkachuk.
The series was effectively over after Game 3’s 7-0 Atlanta thrashing; the 4-2 Game 4 decision was merely a formality (although, give Atlanta some credit for showing up).
It looks like the Rangers will draw the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Buffalo Sabres in Round 2 (the Sabres led the Islanders 3-1 in their first round series at the time of this writing.)
Once again, though, New York’s playoff future is under New Jersey’s control. Should the Devils lose to Tampa Bay (the series was 2-2 when my editor demanded I submit this column), the Rangers would face Ottawa.
Either way, New York will have to knock off an established Eastern power to advance any further Â– and then, probably have to knock off the other one in the Eastern Conference final if they hope to play for the Stanley Cup.
If there’s an under-the-radar team that can do it, though, it’s New York. With Jagr, Michael Nylander, Brendan Shanahan and Martin Straka, the Rangers have the top-end talent Â– and experience Â– to match up with anybody.
Secondary scoring wasn’t a big strength this year, but forwards Petr Prucha, Matt Cullen and Marcel Hossa all came on strong in the second half. Not to mention, trade deadline acquisition Sean Avery has been a productive pest since arriving on Broadway.
And while the defense may be a no-name bunch Â– Michal Rozsival, Paul Mara and Fedor Tyutin were the ice time leaders Â– they’ve done the job. You know who else had a no-name defense corps? The Carolina Hurricanes, when they won the Stanley Cup last seasonÂ…
Ottawa certainly impressed with its display of speed and skill in dispatching Sidney Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins in five games in the first round. Just as impressive, though, was the Senators’ physical play in the series.
The Sens are a soft touch no more. That point was emphatically made in Game 3, when Ottawa’s slight-of-frame captain Daniel Alfredsson ran into Pittsburgh playoff warrior Gary Roberts in the corner as they chased a loose puck. The collision sent Roberts tumbling to the ice, while Alfredsson picked up the puck and skated away.
In Game 4, the shift of the series was turned in by Ottawa center Mike Fisher. In quick succession, Fisher absolutely hammered Maxime Talbot and Jordan Staal into the boards Â– the Staal hit was right at the Pens bench Â– and then broke in alone and fired a one-timer at Marc-Andre Fleury, who somehow came across and made the saveÂ….
It’s no surprise that Anaheim has advanced to the second round. It is, however, a little surprising the Ducks were able to dispose of the Wild in five games.
While it was No. 2 seed vs. a No. 7, the Wild are a much different team with a healthy Marian Gaborik and Pavol Demitra in the lineup, as both were in Round 1. But the Slovak two-pack couldn’t much going against shutdown specialist Samuel Pahlsson and the ever-present defense duo of Chris Pronger/Scott Niedermayer.
Minnesota scored just five goals in its four lossesÂ…
If you asked any expert Â– including, ahem, this one Â– prior to the start of the playoffs, the biggest crease disparity was the Martin Brodeur-Johan Holmqvist matchup in the New Jersey-Tampa Bay series.
But it has been Holmqvist who has played to rave reviews, while Brodeur has had to answer all the Â“what’s wrong?Â” questions.
Despite Game 1 jitters in his NHL playoff debut, Holmqvist has showed the form that earned him the starting job in Tampa after Marc Denis faltered at mid-season.
Holmqvist, who turns 29 May 24, was signed out of Sweden as a free agent last summer as Tampa tried to solve the perpetual netminding problem it has had since Nikolai Khabibulin left for Chicago after the Lightning’s 2004 Stanley Cup.
The 2-2 series is far from over, and New Jersey has experience and a culture of winning on its side Â– as well as the knowledge that Brodeur is due to steal a game. But the Lightning can play with confidence in its goalie, something Tampa hasn’t been able to do in the past couple of years…
It’s too bad one of the Predators or Sharks Â– probably Nashville Â– has to bow out in the first round.
Nashville finished the season with the third-best record in the NHL; San Jose was fifth.
The series has been fast and furious Â– emblematic, really, of the energy and entertainment the NHL would like to see in all playoff games.
San Jose appears to be winning with depth, determination and better goaltending. Plus, Joe Thornton is having his best playoff in recent memory.