- Matt Ehalt, ESPN New York contributor
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GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- Playoff experience isn’t high on Rangers coach John Tortorella's list of critical components for a playoff contender.
“The more guys without playoff experience the better as far as I’m concerned,” Tortorella said. “There’s not going to be a lot of explanation to them. We just want them to play. I think having innocence in these situations is very good for a hockey club.”
Luckily for Tortorella, he’s going to have more than enough players who have never skated in the NHL playoffs.
The Rangers have eight players on their roster who will be preparing to potentially make their playoff debut when the Blueshirts travel to face the top-seeded Capitals on Wednesday night. Most of the players will be counted on to play key roles for the Rangers and could help determine their fate.
“We just want to play hockey,” Rangers rookie forward Derek Stepan said. “Gotta go out and play our team concepts and do what we’ve done all year long. Obviously it’s going to be a little different that eight guys don’t know what it’s like yet, but I think we’ll be all right.”
The list of Rangers newcomers to the playoffs spans across all positions, including Stepan and fellow forwards Brandon Prust, Brian Boyle and Mats Zuccarello; defensemen Ryan McDonagh, Michael Sauer and Matt Gilroy; and goalie Chad Johnson.
Of that group, Stepan, Prust, Boyle, McDonagh and Sauer are the most active contributors and play key minutes, while Gilroy and Zuccarello could be healthy scratches in the playoffs and Johnson is the backup to Henrik Lundqvist.
Talk to the guys who have not played in the playoffs and the biggest thing that sticks out is their excitement. For some of the guys, like Stepan and McDonagh, they’re getting the chance in their rookie season. Others, like Boyle and Prust, have a few seasons under their belt.
“A lot of guys don’t have that experience but there are a lot of guys that do and I think the guys that don’t are going to be really excited and really hungry going out there,” Sauer said. “It’s something you dream about growing up, playing in the NHL playoffs and winning the Stanley Cup -- and this is the start of it and this is a stepping stone that we had to do and we got here. Now it’s a whole new season.”
In terms of preparation, the general consensus around the team is that the playoff noobies have to just jump in. They can ask around to the veterans for advice, but as Lundqvist said: “[The] playoffs [are] something you have to experience and learn for yourself.”
It’s that mentality that has Tortorella enthused about his newcomers heading into the quarterfinals. They all have a blank slate. They haven’t felt the pressure of being in those games before and don’t have to get caught up in the negatives. They can just go play hockey, as they did down the stretch when the Rangers could afford no breathing room.
“You don’t want to overthink anything,” McDonagh said. “You want to stay focused mentally and prepare yourself the same way you would for any other game. You don’t want to change anything up because it’s the playoffs. Same goes for our system and our structure that’s why we got here, because we’re detailed in those areas and we need to make sure we stick with that.”
The intensity of the stretch run was also valuable experience for the group of eight. The last two months of the season were essentially packed with playoff games for the Rangers -- although those games pale in comparison to the pressure that a single postseason game brings.
Just ask the Rangers coach.
“I think this is such a great opportunity for players,” Tortorella said. “This is where you get defined, in the playoffs. This is where teams get defined, players are defined.”
Wednesday night, that group of eight gets its first crack at greatness.
NEW SEASON FOR GABBY: The playoffs are called a second season, or a new season, for a reason. For Rangers forward Marian Gaborik, a clean slate is appreciated after a down regular season.
Now, it’s time for the Rangers’ sniper to try and find his groove.
“It’s big not just for myself but for everyone,” Gaborik said. “It’s a motivation and a challenge. I’m very excited for this opportunity we have and we have to grab it.”
After blasting 42 goals and tallying 44 assists last year in his first season with the Rangers, Gaborik struggled this year, tallying just 22 goals and 26 assists. He played 14 fewer games and struggled through portions of the season, getting benched amid long stretches without goals.
Tortorella said this season was a struggle for Gaborik, but said Gaborik has to look forward to this opportunity and “express himself as a player," which he believes Gaborik will do against Washington.
“I think Gabby cares,” Tortorella said. "If it’s one guy, it’s a great situation for him. You need to have a short-term memory and move on. You’re not defined by regular season play as a player, you’re defined as what you do in crucial situations and that’s playoff hockey. I know Gabby is willing to grab a hold and try to get this club to where it wants to be. That will go game to game, shift to shift with him.”
While he might have had a down season, Gaborik’s confidence in his team hasn’t taken a hit. He provided perhaps the only trash talking line by any Ranger, as tame and unintentional as it might’ve been.
“I don’t think [Washington] wanted to play against us. I think they would rather have played Carolina because they have a good record against them,” Gaborik said. “We have to be ready and make sure we play good defensively and make sure we know where their top guys are on the ice and create offense and make sure we get a lot of shots and create chances.”
GET SOME POWER: The Rangers power play isn’t blossoming heading into Game 1, as the Blueshirts went just 14-of-72 on the power play in their final 21 games. Finding ways to take advantage during a power play, while also limiting Washington’s advantages, will be important for the Rangers against the Capitals.
“Special teams are going to the key. We know we have to be disciplined,” Gaborik said. “They have a good power play and if we get on the power play -- we practiced it yesterday -- we know they are going to come out hard and be aggressive. So we need to move the puck quick and make sure we create chances and do the job.”
Tortorella said that he’s still working on the groupings for the power play, but did say that Gaborik could help the Rangers there if he finds his stride in the playoffs.
"[In the] playoffs, special teams is always a huge component of trying to win a series,” defenseman Marc Staal said. “I think it will be big. Coming up this week we obviously need to pay attention to defense in our zone and making sure we’re doing those things properly to try and give ourselves a chance to score.”
CHAMPIONSHIP RESUME: Tortorella, who won a Stanley Cup with the Lightning in 2004, said his coaching staff will try and be “guidance counselors."
Torts said he’s grown since '04 as that guidance counselor.
“This is a new team for me,” Tortorella said. “ I grew with that team in Tampa. I changed over the years with Tampa. ... If you’re still trying to teach the lessons and be the person that you were back then, it’s disrespectful to the players, so we’ve all grown together here and I think coaches have to go along with that as your players start growing as people and players.”
NO HINTS: Tortorella will not divulge any information about the lines or the roster spots for Wednesday’s game, but here were the lines (in no order) during practice Tuesday: Zuccarello-Chris Drury-Sean Avery-Erik Christensen; Gaborik-Artem Anisimov-Vinny Prospal; Stepan-Brandon Dubinsky-Ruslan Fedotenko; Prust-Boyle-Wojtek Wolski.
38dPierre LeBrun and Joe McDonald