They say history often repeats itself and the New York Rangers are living proof of it. The Rangers’ third-round playoff series against the New Jersey Devils has mimicked the first two seesaw-like rounds in which the East’s No. 1 seed won the first game, lost the second, and rebounded for a Game 3 victory.
The home team Devils actually dominated the first two periods showing plenty of toughness and out-shooting the Rangers 26-14 en route to a goose-egg tie heading into the third period of play. Henrick Lundqvist was phenomenal throughout and when push came to shove - both literally and figuratively - New York’s offense pulled its head out from you know where to smoke New Jersey late for the 3-0 win.
It took some nudging on behalf of Rangers coach John Tortorella to wake his boys up. By way of verbal lashings and line shake-ups, Tort reminded the guys, “Hey! You fools are the freakin #1 Rangers, so get out there and act like it.”
Apparently Rangers right winger Brandon Prust heard that message loud and clear as he elbowed the back of Anton Volchenkov’s head, dislodging his helmet right after a Tortorella pep talk. While wanting to prove to your coach that you get the point, that was a less-than-ideal way to do it as Prust is almost certain to be suspended at least one game for the play in which no penalty was called.
Much like in Game 1 of this series, the tables turned completely in the third period. Dan Girardi, a proud member of the Rangers’ fourth line, was the first to inflict pain on the Devils, scoring a only a few minutes in. The Devils didn’t even have time to suffer the pain of an 1-0 deficit as Chris Krieder -a rookie who was playing for BOSTON COLLEGE in April, and now has a goal in each of the last three games - scored 1:57 later, changing the landscape of the game in a hurry.
Lundqvist and the 40-year-old Marty Brodeur were both fantastic in the first two periods, but the Rangers goaltender could not be matched over the long haul. Lundqvist finished the game with 36 saves while Brodeur’s 19 saves -many of them spectacularly physical and heroic- were not enough to to combat the two he let in early in the third period, the first, coming right off a face-off during a power play.
New York’s third goal came on the cheap, an empty-netter from Ryan Callahan providing icing on the cake with only a few minutes remaining in the game.
Lundqvist, who logged his second shutout of the series, said after the game that it was just a matter of time before things started to go the Rangers’ way, and he was right, as the more physical and skilled team eventually prevailed. The Devils, who with the loss broke a four-game win streak on home ice, were unable to capitalize on the power play going 0-5.
The bazillion-dollar-man himself was no match for the super-human Lundqvist as the Rangers netminder stopped Ilya Kovalchuk on a breakaway 49 seconds into the second period before logging a set of back-to-back saves shortly after. The sequence set the tone for the rest of the game, letting Los Diablos know that that whether or not his teammates were going to block shots, Lundqvist wasn’t letting a penny squeak past him today.
Between old man Brodeur, Hollywood Henrik and the rookie Krieder (whose story is sure to be made into a Disney movie if he keeps playing at this level), there is no shortage of great story lines and physical play forcing our fingers crossed in hopes of this series going 7 games.
And if the Rangers’ recent history repeats itself, seven games it is.
After last season’s transformation under then-rookie head coach Tom Thibodeau, 2011-2012 was supposed to be “the” season in which Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls would fully bloom into a team that could legitimately challenge the Heat for a spot in the NBA Finals.
But something was wrong from the start.
First and foremost was the NBA lockout which kept many players away from their typical off-season workout and conditioning programs in efforts to adjust to an unknown timetable of when the season might start up again. This affected every player.
Then, Rose was the passenger in a car when his buddy, the driver, was pulled over and arrested for DUI. While Rose wasn’t in any trouble personally, surely the incident shook the quiet 23-year-old who goes out of his way to keep his personal life private.
But things seemed to turn around in late December as Rose agreed to a five-year contract extension worth a whopping $94.8 million just days before the start of a shortened NBA season.
The much-deserved reward from his Chicago bosses would prove be the high point of Rose’s season which turned ugly quite quickly as the All-Star guard suffered a myriad of injuries.
Toe, back, groin foot and ankle injuries forced Rose to miss 27 of the Bulls’ 66 regular season games. Rose had only missed six games in his first three NBA seasons combined.
The Bulls logged a respectable 18-9 record without Rose and held on for the No. 1 seed in the East, despite the frequent absence of their superstar.
It was only fitting, in sports’ version of a cruel shakespearean tragedy, that Rose would wilt for good late in his team’s first playoff game against the Philadelphia 76ers, sidelined for up to eight months with a torn ACL in his left knee.
Kyle Korver said after the game, “It’s the saddest win,” as Rose’s teammates were clearly shell-shocked by the severity of his injury and the impact it would have on what was, just minutes earlier, a postseason full of promise and potential.
Leading the series against the 76ers 1-0, the Bulls have enough talent to dispose of Philadelphia, even without Rose. As fate would have it, Rose’s teammates are fairly used to playing without him, having figured out a system that worked well enough in the regular season. Chicago’s stellar defense, combined with adrenaline and the competitive spirit will propel the Bulls for the rest of this series against an inconsistent 76ers team.
It’s the long-term prognosis that is worrisome for the Rose-less Bulls.
While the Bulls beat Miami once and Boston twice without Rose during the regular season, a seven-game playoff series is a completely different animal.
Rose is so important to the Bulls not just because of the points he puts up, but because of the opponent’s perception of him as a scoring threat, forcing double teams which allows open looks for his Bulls teammates.
Who will opponents double team now? It won’t be Carlos Boozer or Joakim Noah. They SHOULD be the guys drawing a double team but they won’t be because neither is consistent offensively warranting the additional attention. Rip Hamilton and Kyle Korver certainly won’t draw the double team, thus the big guys shouldn’t get many easy scoring opportunities down low.
Ideally, opponents tried to force Rose to shoot outside instead of driving the lane, the place where he often put on a spectacular show while having his way with the defense. With veteran guard C.J. Watson set to start in Rose’s place, the defense will strive for the opposite in forcing Watson closer to the rim rather than allowing him to shoot from his comfort zone outside of the key.
This will be Luol Deng’s time to shine, even brighter than he has already this season. He has to make good choices and consistently execute offensively. Boozer, whose biggest knock as a pro has been that he doesn’t play up to his potential, finally has the chance to prove the haters wrong by stepping up and leading my example.
The biggest challenge for Chicago, in this series at least, will likely be mental, not physical. Losing your MVP can shatter one’s psyche. The Bulls have to find a way to quickly shake off the stench of losing Rose and focus on the immediate task, which is the 76ers.