Controlling rebounds, pressuring puck carriers work wonders in postseason

Henrik Lundqvist makes a save against the Detroit Henrik Lundqvist makes a save against the Detroit Red Wings in the first period of a game at Madison Square Garden on Sunday, March 9, 2014. Photo Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

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Steve Zipay Newsday columnist Steve Zipay

Steve Zipay is an award-winning journalist who has covered events from Super Bowls to World Series and issues

In the spirit of all the March hoopla, one way to scan the Rangers defensive landscape as they head down the stretch is to recall Pat Riley's mantra: "No rebounds . . . no rings."

In other words: battle.

Not that the Blueshirts have reverted to the bruising, block-shots-or-sit orders of former coach John Tortorella.

But the concept sketched out by assistant coach Ulf Samuelsson of attempting to double-team puck carriers in the zone and clearing pucks out of danger with quick sticks and shorter passes has taken hold.

If executed consistently, it can provide a path to advancing in the postseason in the changing NHL, although the Rangers appear to be a little shy of a contender's depth and size on the blueline.

Henrik Lundqvist, of course, and his backup, Cam Talbot, have to be first in line in controlling shots. On Friday in Columbus, for instance, after Lundqvist kicked numerous attempts out of danger, he said: "It felt like they were on top of me on almost every shot; you have to work hard to fight through screens," he said, "and the rebounds are huge. You have to make sure you put them in the right place."

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To be sure, there have been speed bumps. Earlier in the week in Ottawa, some Blueshirts were lost in the ozone, and the Senators scored four goals.

"We wanted to tighten things up defensively," Rick Nash said after Friday's grinding 3-1 victory in Columbus. "We knew they were the type of team that gets all their offense from the middle."

This is not to insinuate that the Grade-A shutdown pair of Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh, both signed to long-term deals, haven't played physically or blocked shots. As of Saturday, Girardi had 156 blocks, McDonagh 120. Girardi also was in the top 10 in the NHL in hits with 170.

Beyond that, Marc Staal, who will be in the final year of his contract next season, has rebounded from his eye injury and hopes to have a Girardi-like extension hammered out this summer. And although he has been solid defensively and had two assists in the key win over Columbus, Anton Stralman's numbers have slipped. Stralman, an unrestricted free agent, said there haven't been any substantive talks about a new contract.

Kevin Klein started slowly on the third defense pair, but the trade with Nashville on Jan. 22 has been a plus for the Rangers. Michael Del Zotto hasn't scored a goal in 19 games with the Predators and was a healthy scratch last week.

The certainties end there. Both general manager Glen Sather and assistant general manager Jim Schoenfeld have long maintained that entering the playoffs, a team needs to have eight defensemen ready.

Should John Moore, who left the Columbus game with an upper body injury, be unable to return to form, the options are skilled but slight Raphael Diaz, who was acquired at the trade deadline from Vancouver, and Justin Falk, who has played 20 games, but none in 2014.

Down in the minors, the only defenseman who would seem to fit into the puck-moving system is 6-2, 210-pound Conor Allen (5-21-26 in 60 AHL games).

So the question is: Is a faster pace and smart puck management enough to fend off heavier attackers and sustained net presence (Example: Boston, a team in which the road to the Eastern Conference finals likely will go through)? The Rangers don't have boatloads of size up front, either.

In the end, as the saying goes, defense wins championships. A few goals from Rick Nash and Martin St. Louis this spring wouldn't hurt, either.

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End game

With 10 games to go, a look back. In the previous six seasons, the Rangers have averaged 13.3 points in the final 10 regular-season games. In all but 2009-10, they made the playoffs.

2012-13 7-3 14 points(2 OT wins, 1 SO win)

2011-12 6-4 12 points(1 OT win, 1 SO win)

2010-11 6-3-1 13 points(1 SO loss, 1 SO win)

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2009-10 7-1-2 16 points(1 SO win, 1 SO loss, 1 OT loss)

2008-09 5-4-1 11 points (1 SO loss)

2007-08 5-1-4 14 points(3 SO losses, 1 SO win, 1 OT loss)

Prospect report

You haven't read much about the Hartford Wolf Pack in this space lately, but the news is: They're not making the AHL playoffs. After 61 games, they are 14 points out of the final spot. J.T. Miller (35 points in 33 games) likely will be added to the Rangers roster at the end of the season.

There are bright spots emerging in the lower ranks. With 50 goals and 99 points for the Quebec Remparts, Anthony Duclair, 18, is a finalist for MVP in the Quebec Major Junior League. Adam Tambellini, another third- round pick last June, has 17 goals and 39 points in 31 games for the WHL's Calgary Hitmen.

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