Has there ever been a more boring start to an NHL off-season than this one? Granted, the free-agent pool might not be as deep as it has been in years past, and is only going to keep on getting thinner due to all of these mega-deals, but still, there are enough names out there for this to have been a pretty exciting few weeks in July. It’s funny that when Ryan Suter and Zach Parise actually signed, aside from the initial, “Wow! Minnesota got both!” reaction, the excitement was limited, and people stopped talking about it within two days. Now if Parise had gone to the Rangers, Flyers, or Penguins, and Suter to the Red Wings, not only would we still be talking about it, but suicide hotline workers would be raking in overtime cash.
With the New York Rangers only one loss away from being eliminated from the Eastern Conference Finals, the farthest point in their playoff lives since 1997, all the what-if questions will now start to rear their ugly heads. While in a few weeks, regardless of the now ominous outcome that seems likely to unfold, we will all sit back and say this season was a success, and an immense one at that, but for now, positivity must be shelved to address the current problem: why are the Rangers having such a difficult time in these playoffs? While I was angry the last time I wrote about this team, something I do not do much anymore on this blog, I just want to make it clear that no matter what happens, no one can question this team’s heart and character, but unfortunately, heart and character do not win hockey games on their own, they act as a compliment with skill and help drive teams toward winning.
Even though the NHL season always seems like a long a grueling one (it is), I always find myself in amazement at how fast it actually all goes by. It is January 28th, and the proverbial first half of the season has come to an end with every NHL team skating into the All Star Break for a restful few days before the playoff chase officially begins. Who would have thought at this point, that the New York Rangers would be second in the entire league and in first place in the Eastern Conference? I can guarantee no one had it pegged as such. The highest aspirations I had for the team for the regular season were what they have been for the last few years: battling for a playoff spot the entire year, and going down to the last day.
Obviously, that could still be a possibility depending on which Rangers show up when the second half starts on Tuesday against the New Jersey Devils, but for now, let us look back on a first half that has, overall, been a great one. It seems like a long time ago that the Rangers were literally traveling all over the world to play hockey games and having a bumpy start to the season. But from then until now, Ranger fans have watched a team gel and combine to form a potent force that finds ways to win. If you think about it, it is kind of amazing that the Rangers are where they are when you consider a few things. First, the defensive core has never been healthy for a long period of time. Whether it was Marc Staal starting late, or him coming back and Mike Sauer and Steve Eminger going out, the D-corps has not been at full strength.
Yesterday’s game between the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers was the first meeting of the season between the two Eastern Conference powerhouses. For most of the season, these two clubs have just dominated the opposition and have vaulted themselves to the top of the league standings. It is no surprise that the Bruins are where they are, after having won a Stanley Cup this past spring and not having much of a turnover. The Rangers, however, have been a surprise for many who expected they would be battling for the sixth, seventh, or eighth spots in the East. Yes, you can count me as one of the surprised. When Marian Gaborik scored in overtime yesterday with 3.6 seconds to go, I was at work in the break room and yelled. Of course, being that many people were at my job, they were all confused and a few were afraid I think. But now that my emotions have leveled off and I have gotten a chance to watch the highlights a few times, there are a few things that have stood out:
What has changed in the last few months? What has changed since Brendan Shanahan gloriously took over as the NHL’s disciplinarian, promising much stricter action? The only noticeable one has been that things have not gotten better or even stayed the same, they have gotten worse. Blindside hits and cheap-shots never seemed to be a problem until the last couple of seasons, prompting a change and an ushering in of the new era of safer hockey. Suspensions would be handed out like candy to children at a carnival, and because of it, dangerous hits would stop, and the offenders would gradually find themselves out of a job. Well, as most teams near the 50 game mark in this safe hockey haven, thanks to the tireless efforts of Shanahan and league officials, do you feel that the status quo has changed at all? When your favorite players skate near the boards, do you feel any safer watching them?
This is not really a post-game recap, just my general thoughts on yet another amazing and magical Winter Classic that the NHL has put on for us, between the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers. Surprisingly, for what seems like the first time in the brief five-year history of the event, there were no ice malfunctions, and the passing and skating was pretty smooth early on. Though the game did slow down in the second, I would definitely rank the overall pace of this afternoon to be one of the better ones yet. And of course, there was plenty of drama with yet another photo finish—something that seems to happen every year, which I will elaborate on later.
Coming off a huge win over the Phoenix Coyotes, when Brad Richards scored the game-winning goal with .1 seconds remaining to give the New York Rangers the win and snap a two-game losing streak, the team finds themselves down a defenseman yet again, as Steve Eminger took a check and went shoulder first into the boards during the second period. While we do not know what exactly is wrong, we do know that he left the arena with his arm in a sling, and by looking at the replay, it seems as if he might have separated his shoulder. Severe or not, the Rangers are in a bind. Marc Staal has been out the entire season with post-concussion syndrome and Michael Sauer, more recently, suffered a concussion as well. The Rangers, who, at the beginning of the season, had one of the best defensive depths in the league, are now losing that by the game.
Yes, Virginia, he can write a positive article on the Rangers!
The New York Rangers, after starting off with an abysmal record and level of play seem to have reversed themselves in a stunning 360. Perhaps it was overreaction, or maybe a European trip hangover, where recovering from many different changes in time zones while traveling more than 10,000 miles took its toll. Now, 14 games into the season, the Rangers are playing how everyone expected. Okay, so all of these games have not been masterpieces, but they did not have to be—the bottom line is, the Rangers are playing some great hockey, coming through when they need it the most, and all while experiencing some self-examination and quite a few blessings in disguise.
The Rangers needed a center for Marian Gaborik, but unbeknownst to them, he was already on the team when Brad Richards was signed. After starting out the season like almost everyone else, youngster Derek Stepan seems to be blossoming into a force to be reckoned with, after being placed on the team’s first line (one that has gone three games without be juggled by John “The Mixologist” Tortorella). He had only one assist in his first eight games, and he now has three goals and six assists in his last six. Meanwhile, Marian Gaborik continues to be the goal scorer that they signed two seasons ago, when he put up 42 goals in his debut year on Broadway. After experiencing a myriad of injuries last season and never being able to find his game except in a few multi-goal outbursts, he has settled in nicely with his new-found linemates, with nine goals and six assists for 15 points in 14 games. Should he score two more goals, he would have cut last season’s 62 game total in half. In actuality, he only scored in 14 games last season, including two hat tricks and one four-goal game. This season, he has already scored in seven.
The blessing in disguise here, for the Rangers, is the fact that Brad Richards is not centering Marian Gaborik, the exact reason why he was signed to a very expensive, multi-year deal to begin with. This is actually the best thing that could have happened to the Rangers, because now, instead of a first line, two third lines, and a fourth line, they have lines 1a and 1b, followed by a third line and a fourth line. Everybody has found their niche and the role they are supposed to be playing in—no one is being asked to do more, at least offensively. Defensively, poor Dan Girardi is probably going to have a heart attack by Thanksgiving, after averaging nearly a half a game’s worth of playing time every night. Not to jinx him, but his play has been nearly flawless, and his style has been gritty and effective. Throw Ryan McDonagh, and a nice $4 Thank-You card from Hallmark to Bob Gainey, into the mix, and I would say that the Rangers have the best defensive corps in the league, one that additionally sports the solid and physical Mike Sauer and a revitalized Michael Del Zotto, who has matched the amount of goals he scored in 47 games last year already this season.
As much as we Rangers fans like to complain, we sure like to eat crow as well. Who would not want to eat their words as opposed to seeing this team transform right before our very eyes? The development over the last two weeks alone is very encouraging, because they will only get better. As much as I like to rag on Brandon Dubinsky, he is not going to go the entire season without scoring a goal. Hopefully, once he nets one, they will come in bunches. Until then, though, fans do have a right to be on him, especially since he is coming off signing his first really big contract. He reminds me of Chris Higgins, during his short stint in New York. Higgins too did everything right, everything except score— he got plenty of shots on goal and chances, and was good at killing penalties, he just could not get that little black disk into the net. Once he gets going, and Richards actually has wingers to pass to, the Rangers may find themselves as one of the more formidable teams in the eastern conference.
The Rangers can also say they have one of the best goaltending tandems in the league, with perennial Vezina candidate Henrik Lundqvist, and the always dependable Martin Biron. Combined, the two have a 1.96 GAA, which is good for third best in the league. The Rangers have also shown a considerable amount of toughness in and around their own net. As opposed to years past, where opponents had free reign near Henrik Lundqvist in the crease, the defense, namely Ryan McDonagh, have done a good job in promptly setting such people on their rear end.
This may finally be the Rangers team we can be excited about. There is still a long way to go, but this is definitely a step up in the right direction, and if they keep playing this way, we will all be in for a treat on Broadway in this 2011/12 NHL season.
If you want to hear from John Tortorella his reason for why the New York Rangers lost in a dismal game against the Edmonton Oilers, 2-0 last night, you are going to have to take a rain-check. The head coach, who pulls the stunt of not wanting to talk to the media in a post game press conference a few times a year, coming with more regularity as the season progresses, is not helping his image any, one that is already tarnished because of the way his team has started. Though I suppose it was more mature than dropping F-bombs on Larry Brooks, a clunker like the Rangers had last night is one that comes with many questions, two of which included, “Why was Marian Gaborik playing on a line with Dubinsky and Anisimov?” and “How come Richards was centering Stepan and Callahan?”. I know Johnny Juggles has the compulsion to mix up his lines every two shifts, hindering any formulation of chemistry on his own, but is there much sense in putting the team’s best scorer with two players who can’t pass, and putting the team’s best passer with two players who couldn’t hit the ocean if they were standing on a boat?
Sometimes I can find explanations for questionable moves, but the switching of the team’s two best offensive players to lines with zero skill and hockey sense is mind-boggling. Gaborik and Richards have excelled together, so only on the Rangers are they the pair that is split apart. Tortorella is as much to blame for the sloppy play in all of these six games as anyone else. Has there been one game where the four lines he started with actually remained intact? The fact is, the Rangers have not yet had a game this season where they looked decent from start to finish, and had control of the puck for more than a few shifts in a row. The Rangers, who, thanks to overtime’s ridiculous loser’s point, can claim themselves to be a .500 team, have played two good periods in six games. Yes, you read that right; not two good games in six, two good periods. They played great in the third against Vancouver on Tuesday night, where they scored all four goals in their shutout victory over the Canucks, and they looked pretty good in the first against Calgary on Thursday, even though they left the period tied at two. The Rangers have been a dog chasing its tail in these six games, struggling to even get shots on goal.
The Rangers’ two off-season money-makers, Ryan Callahan and Brandon Dubinsky, have had an abysmal start, combining for a goal and three assists in twelve games. Callahan, newly sporting the Captain’s “C”, has been completely invisible, not throwing his body around and being physical, while Dubinsky has stood out for all the wrong reasons. Callahan is a shell of himself, for no apparent reason, and Dubinsky has played downright stupid hockey, which is worse than if he was just playing bad. Anisimov could be added to the list as well, but at least he isn’t making more than $4 million. Then comes Dubinsky’s mindless and undisciplined penalties, but at the risk of ranting even further, I will leave them alone.
As good as Lundqvist, McDonagh, Gaborik, Richards, and even Prust have looked, is as bad as everyone has been, save for Dan Girardi who is logging so many minutes on defense, he is probably going to pass out by January. There is all this talk about Staal and Sauer being out, but the Rangers would not have a different record even if they were in the lineup. Their problems have not been defense, they have been puck control and getting shots on goal. Callahan has been famous for missing the net, even when close by, but it seems to have rubbed off on everyone else, as shot after shot sailed wide past Nikolai Khabibulin last night, when the Rangers had their best chance of the game on a minute-long 5 on 3 in the second period. Then came Dubinsky with a glorious chance to tie the game, at that point, with the puck on his stick just inches away from the blue paint of the goal crease, and he elected to pass it over to Callahan instead, a play never coming to fruition, and no pucks being put on net. The Rangers looked so bad at times that when Lundqvist left his net and went to the bench in the third, I thought to myself that he must have quit and got tired of playing behind these pylons. Thank goodness it was no serious injury, and just a leg cramp, otherwise this season would have really been over.
Tortorella is going to live and die by this team because these are the players he wanted. Six games in is a little too early to call for the axe, but if they are still playing like this in December, I think Glen Sather will have to be on the lookout for a new coaching staff (is Mike Keenan still wandering around MSG?). This is a team without chemistry or control. Maybe we did overreact after the third game of the season, but then we also over-celebrated after the two wins that followed. An actual good game has been elusive for the Blueshirts here, and they better figure it out before their home opener on Thursday (still one more chance in Winnipeg tomorrow night), or else they will get the usual Broadway treatment: cheers during the introductions, and boos during the first intermission.
I am really looking forward to that new show on MSG called Beginnings, where they will profile a different player in each episode, telling us about their life. I am most curious to see who Ryan Callahan’s first hockey coaches were when he was little, you know, the guys that were supposed to teach him how to actually hit the net with his shots.
When last season ended, New York Rangers’ coach John Tortorella knew he had to change things. The hot-tempered firebrand of a coach, who was used to yelling and having conniptions to get his way, realized that his way of coaching was falling on deaf ears. I once said that Tortorella makes a good team better and a bad team worse, and with the Rangers in the middle of the pack, how would he react? At the end of last season, I would not have minded the Rangers letting him go. He gave it a shot and failed, and although I love the passion he brings to the game, it was not suitable for the type of team the Rangers were going to field, a team loaded with rookies and inexperienced youngsters.
But this season, that all changed. Tortorella morphed into someone a little more coddling, and a little more calm. Though he still kept up his heated, look-of-death exchanges with the media, it seems he took his foot off the gas in the locker room, realizing that he had a hard-working team that bought into his system. Instead, he nurtured and instructed his players, rarely blaming their greenness as a reason for a loss. The result was taking this team that was supposed to finish near the bottom of the standings to a playoff berth, and giving a team they had no chance of defeating a run for their money.
Tortorella was rewarded for this effort, as we have learned this morning, with a three-year extension. The rumor is that the deal was actually signed months ago, and just not announced until today, but that is unconfirmed. All I can say is congratulations to Mr. Tortorella, because he deserves this contract. We are all upset after yesterday’s loss, but it is an important step in the road to building a real team. There was an old saying that a team cannot rebuild in New York, because the market demands a winning team, and rebuilding years rarely give results in the standings to smile about. But this year nixed all of that—I call it a success all the way. The rebuilding Rangers finished with a 44-33-5 record, their most wins since the Jagr/Renney-lead Blueshirts in the season after the lockout.
We got to see the emergence of Ryan McDonagh and Michael Sauer as legitimate rookie defenders, the confirmation that Dan Girardi and Marc Staal are one of the best shutdown pairs in the league, the advent of Ryan Callahan developing into this team’s next captain, and finally, a breakout rookie season for center Derek Stepan, who put up 21 goals and 24 assists. All this coming during a warlike campaign from October through April that saw injuries and disappointments left and right. One cannot help but think of what this team would have looked like if Chris Drury and Ryan Callahan did not get injured, Alex Frolov found a way to score 20 goals, and if Gaborik repeated what he did last season, with more than 40 goals and 40 assists—these are things that cannot be blamed on the coach.
There are going to be those out there that disagree with this extension, but I must ask you, who would you rather have? Who would be a better fit than Tortorella? The Rangers have a habit of bringing someone in, then after a cup of coffee, getting rid of them. The Rangers had success after the lockout because they believed in and stuck with Tom Renney and played his system. These players are young and wanting to impress, and we know they have already bought into Tortorella’s. It would be extraordinarily detrimental to disrupt that now, and for that, I tip my cap to Rangers’ brass for making the right call.
In three seasons with the New York Rangers, John Tortorella owns a 94-73-18 record, with two playoff appearances.