Thursday, January 22, 2009

Special-Teams of the House

Forgive the tardiness of this post. The extra time enabled me to give further thought to Tuesday night's game and the overall status of the team.

In the Rangers' final game before a week-long All-Star game break, the Anaheim Ducks (one of the few Western teams the Rangers are playing twice this season) was the competition. Lundqvist started for the Rangers, Jonas Hiller for the Ducks. For Anaheim, it is a pivotal point in the season. The team has 51 points and is eighth in the playoff race. GM Brian Murray is faced with interesting trading deadline decisions (sell, buy, stay pat) as half of the team will be free agents at the end of the season.

Coach Renney wanted a bigger lineup to face the more physical Ducks so that meant to the sorrow of the fans, Petr Prucha and the Korpedo were being scratched in favor of Aaron Voros and Dan Fritsche. No one reported how much WD-40 was required to get the rust off them. Fritsche was not a factor; Voros was a mixed bag – he took 3 penalties but did try to renew his early season magic of being a strong presence in front of the opposing goalie.

For the Rangers, the more pressing question was who would show up – the sleepwalking bunch from Sunday's Pittsburgh game or the more energetic crew from the past week or so. At first, it looked like Pittsburgh again but then Markus Naslund and the Rangers 4th line led the team to an entertaining 4-2 win. The official recap is here.

The Blueshirts were scrambling after the Ducks came out flying to start the game. Fortunately, Henrik had his eye on the puck instead of the plane schedule to the all-star game in Montreal. He repelled several early Duck scoring attempts including a nifty one-timer blast from between the circles by Pronger after a beautiful feed by Scott Niedermayer. Those stops kept the Rangers in the game early and let his teammates know he was ready to play.

Meanwhile, the Rangers special teams got plenty of work with noteworthy success – 2 PPG and 2 SHG, thanks to several errors by the Ducks. For example, in the first period, after Kunitz was whistled for goalie interference, the Ducks failed to clear the puck, and Naslund jumped on the opportunity to zing a shot from between the circles past Hiller for a 1-0 lead. In the 2nd period, the Ducks lost control of the puck in the offensive zone on a power play leading to a cross ice pass from Roszival that sprung Sjostrom on a 2 on 1 for beautiful wrist shot for a SHG that gave the Rangers a 2-1 lead.

Naslund was energetic during the entire game often finding himself in the slot with opportunities to score. As the game progressed, other Rangers followed his example. Naslund and Drury had several good opportunities to score but could not convert. Gomez scored his game winner in the 3rd period after Naslund took control of the slot and seeing he could not shoot slipped a pass to Gomez for a pretty PPG. In the defensive zone, the Rangers did a good job of clearing the defensive slot, a key to recent success.

To their credit, the Ducks made several beautiful plays only to be thwarted by Henrik including an outrageous give-and-go leading to a Bob Ryan shot. Overall, Lundqvist had a solid game, controlling rebounds, playing angles well and using his stick for passes with confidence. Granted, a post and a crossbar saved him on a couple of shots but sometimes that is the only place a puck can when the angles are covered correctly. The 2 goals the Ducks scored were not his fault. The first (that tied the score 1-1) was the result of the Rangers’ inability to clear the puck during a penalty kill. The Ducks had 3 or 4 unguarded shots from close in before Bobby Ryan finally converted. The second goal (coming late in the 2nd that tied the score at 2-2) was the result of a spectacular move by Corey Perry, as he totally undressed Kalinin and then shot a seeing eye puck inside Henrik’s left knee. That goal came after Lunqvist stopped a similar breakout a minute earlier. In defense of Kalinin, he continues to show improvement as he has been skating confidently, taking an occasional body and not panicking. Granted, he was toasted on Perry's beautiful move, but for every Sportscenter-type highlight, someone gets victimized.

Once again the 4th line was the one to watch against Anaheim. Doesn’t every team wish it had a unit of Betts, Orr and Sjostrom? Betts has demonstrated the entire season that he is the anchor of the defense among forwards and the king of the PK unit. He earns every penny night in and night out and deservedly received a #1 star for this game. He also has 5 goals and his empty netter SHG to close the scoring was a well-deserved reward. His desire to block a shot with his body during a Ducks PP after losing his stick was reminiscent of Straka’s efforts last season and just as successful. Sjostrom is a joy to watch skate and his effort was rewarded on the 2 on 1 SHG opportunity he converted. How many times (a baker's dozen but who's counting) have we seen the Rangers get burned for SHG on similar plays this season? Orr made some nice offensive moves and should not be overlooked. While physical, he stays in control of his emotions unlike the boneheaded Hollweg.

When the season began, I predicted that the 4th line would produce 20 goals because I believe in these guys and I suspected Sjostrom would elevate that line’s offense. So far, a little more than halfway through the season – the line has 9 goals (including half of the Rangers 6 SHG) and 8 assists, so my prediction is nearly on the mark. Putting this line on the ice is no longer a white flag surrender – I know, it’s not the old GAG line, but I hear fans at MSG remark how much fun the line is to watch.

Some of the youngsters, Girardi, Dubi and Callahan showed an edge that provoked the Ducks into 2 fights and a dumb penalty (Getzlaff’s hit to the back of Girardi’s noggin). These guys play clean, hit hard and get under the skin of opponents. Girardi has recently been checking opponents off their feet (let’s not forget the dumping of Crosby several weeks ago) and opponents are distracting themselves to the point of retaliating.

That last point illustrates the difference between the Rangers from Tuesday night and the team on Sunday vs the Pens. When they skate as if they are gliding through a sea of rose petals as in Pittsburgh, the team has no traction and no chance for success as the losses against the Habs and Pens vividly demonstrate. Victories come when they disrupt other teams rhythms by bringing their lunch pails and doing the dirty work. It is obvious that this is not a team filled with "stars" of the Jagr, Messier, Gretzky variety. The roster lacks the skill players you see populating the Red Wings and Sharks rosters. Instead, the lineup is a patchwork of singles and doubles hitters (just look at the stats – no player has yet reached 40 points.) that needs contributions from several players to succeed on any given night. Tuesday night, Naslund, Henrik and the 4th line led the way.

After the win, more good news arrived as the Caps, Penguins, Canadiens all lost so the Rangers gained 2 points on each. Unfortunately, with their win against Montreal on Wednesday night, the Devils (curse them) are on a 5 game winning streak and now lead the Atlantic division. And everyone's favorite goalie is starting to skate in preparing for his return. Thankfully, most of the Eastern conference teams have just about caught up to the Rangers in games played so the point totals are more accurate as to where teams are in the standings.

Coming into the break, some players are noticeably improving or emerging from slumps -- Drury, Dubinsky, Naslund and Kalinin being the notable examples. Despite his game winner, Gomez remains an enigma (he has one PP goal all season?) and an underachiever (he has one PP goal all season!), while Redden, Zherdev and Voros are not contributing.

The Rangers are 28-16-4 at the break, good enough for 60 points (garnering 5 points for every 4 games) and 5th place in the conference. Despite the ups and downs I think many of us would have signed up for those results so far.

-- Tony


  1. Nice post J_ watching the Ducks game at MSG I totally agree that this was not the same team that played Pittsburgh the game before - though they always have it in them to get smeared - I now look at the Penguins shutout as one of those fluke games, as the Blueshirts seem to be getting their system under order recently. I don't like this horrible one-game goal winning defensive Renney system, for whatever reason, it appears to be working even if I don't understand it. A better name for this system should be called "The Lundqvist System".

    It is nice to see Marcus Naslund getting comfortable and no better than against a former Ducks rival. He looked comfortable against them, as well as ur gifted fourth line, but agreed that Zherdev, Gomez and others were invisible.

    I fear the All-Star break was not good for our Blueshirts, as we are a team that performs when we are overworked, tired and behind a goal.

    I hope I'm wrong.


  2. Chris Drury will step it up this second half of the season. Slats should be careful at how much contract he offers to Nik Zherdev....I fear he will overpay as usual! I lastly fear that we have no assets to effectively trade by the February deadline.


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