Tuesday, April 13, 2010

It's Deja Blue All Over Again

Now that a couple of days have elapsed since the scintillating Friday night Ranger victory over the Flyers at MSG and the equally disheartening defeat at the Wachovia Center, I have been thinking of how the Rangers sandwiched a plainly crappy, mediocre season around some wonderful and exciting play. It was enough to keep our interest at times but not enough to ever make us believe in the team.

A great modern day philosopher has said: "It ain't over til it's over." Well, it's over.

No need to recap the weekend's games because I cannot add anything to what we all witnessed either live or on t.v. but feel free to check out the official recaps (for posterity's sake) here (Friday's win) and here (Sunday's loss).

I am not yet in the mood for tossing around recriminations (perhaps my colleagues are) but I want to make some observations in keeping with the title of this post. . . .

For a team that was picked to sit at the bottom of the conference, the Rangers got out of the gate quickly surprising everyone with their 7-1-1 start that got everyone's attention. It looked like Coach Tortorella and GM Sather had struck gold with new acquisitions Marian Gaborik and Ales Kotalik (remember him?) and the infusion of youth in the defensive corps with Michael Del Zotto and Kevin Gilroy and an actually successful power play unit.

For the next 60+ games, fans witnessed mediocre, uninspired hockey with the team failing time and time again to capitalize on home ice. In fact, besides having a losing record at the Garden, the Rangers lost 8 home games in the 3rd period, often in the final minutes (NJ, Caps, Detroit, NYI, Ottawa, Pitt, Montreal and St. Louis).

Pushing half of these disastrous regulation losses to overtime (where the Rangers did not fare well) would have garnered them sufficient points to make a run for 6th plan in the conference, and possibly avoid exhausting Lunqvist for 73 regular season games (plus the Olympics). The Rangers would be gearing up for a matchup with the Sabres or Devils if they had respected home ice.

Still, just when we were ready to bury them, they turned it around by ending the season with a 7-1-2 run that proved the team had heart and resiliency, both of which were in short supply during the prior 5 months. Many of us got ankle sprains climbing back on the bandwagon we had jumped off after that brutal Sunday afternoon 2-1 loss in Boston.

Friday night's happiness became Sunday afternoon misery.
Ultimately, this season mirrored the past 2 seasons -- ending with heart-breaking excruciating one-goal defeats on enemy ice. Two years ago, it was the OT loss in Pittsburgh during the playoffs that ended the Rangers' playoff run in the second round. Last year, it was the equally sad 2-1 loss that capped the Rangers' collapse the opening round playoff series with the Capitals. This season, another 2-1 defeat in a shootout against Philly that ended the Rangers' run to avoid early tee times. I am sure some people will take away some positives from how this season ended. I do not. I see a disturbing trend downward to irrelevance.

Look at each of the past 3 season-ending losses -- each outcome was contingent on whether Henrik Lundqvist could stand on his head for 60 or more minutes to protect either a 1 one-goal lead (in the Capital and Flyer finales) or keep the Blueshirts in the game (Game 5 v. Pitt.). Ultimately, the weight of carrying the team on his shoulders was a burden that would cause even Atlas to stumble. Nik Antropov and Jody Shelley were the goal scorers in the last 2 season-enders and Lauri Korpikoski and Nigel Dawes were the scorers in the Penguin game. Notice anything? Like the lack of any meaningful contribution by the team's front-line offensive players?

Sunday's game against Philly was no different than the past 2 elimination games. The offensive stars were not a presence -- Gaborik was bottled up and had no room the entire game. Prospal (0 shots), Jokinen (1) , Dubinsky (1), Drury (0) were all ineffective, and in fact, pretty much invisible. Dubinsky was good on the penalty kill but he lost pucks left and right moving north toward the Flyers end.

Drury was great on faceoffs but I don't recall if he ever was on the gravy side of the Flyers' red line. Perhaps the absence of Callahan and Avery was fatal but the Rangers have been so lucky with injuries the past 2 seasons (compared to a team like Detroit, for example) that I am loathe to use that as an excuse, especially when they were both on the team during their dreadful 5 months of below .500 play.

The Rangers have been eliminated by Pittsburgh, Washington
and Philly the past 3 seasons. Yuck.

Commentators remarked during the game how energetic the 4th line was recently and it was the best line the Rangers had in the final few games. Henrik noted this himself:
Our fourth line was our best line the last two games and they played great, but it’s going to be tough to win two games against Philly when the fourth line’s the best line.
He's right. Jody Shelley seemed to be the only Ranger with the sense to drive to the net besides scoring the lone goal -- he recorded the most shots on goal for the Rangers during Sunday's game.

Double Duty. Jody Shelly & Brandon Prust have been
welcome additions, but the Rangers cannot succeed
if they are forced to be the team's enforcers and scorers.

Does this sound faintly reminiscent? Look at last year's Game 7 vs the Caps when Avery and Antropov tried to carry the Rangers to the second round while the team's legitimate front-line scorers -- Zherdev, Gomez, Naslund and Drury provided nothing to the team in support. Look at game 5 against Pittsburgh -- who scored in that elimination game? Look above -- Dawes and Korpikoski. You cannot defeat top-level teams when only the 4th or 2nd lines decide to play offense.

To Tort's credit, today he acknowledged what we all saw:
That’s what makes my stomach turn today, 48 hours after, is that we had zero top guys show up. And the way we fought to get back into the race, no matter how (anybody feels) about it, we were there and we played a ballsy game against Philly in our building, and we had zero top guys show up in Philly, which is despicable.
Torts failed to connect the dots that this has become a pattern. Over the past 3 seasons, the Rangers' seasons have been depressingly familiar -- retooling, free-agent signings, jettisoning of bad signings, borderline adequate defense, erratic scoring, superb goaltending, late runs to get into the playoffs, and finally heart-breaking defeats. It's deja vu, Groundhog Day, a recurring nightmare all over again. In each of those 3 concluding games, the Rangers' defense scrambled to protect Henrik who had no margin for failure. Sunday, he turned away 46 shots.

Atlas Shrugged. An exhausted Lundqvist finally yielded. Again.
Perhaps this season, if there had been one more week, the team's growing confidence and assertiveness may have been enough to propel them to a couple of more victories and a playoff berth. Despite some injuries, the Rangers started scoring more prolifically than since the first season after the lockout.

The defense markedly improved near the end of the season -- Dan Girardi finally started playing confidently, hit people, shot the puck and avoided turnovers. Marc Staal showed an offensive disposition that had been missing for his entire Ranger career. I saw Wade Redden check people and Roszival actually shoot the puck and move some people out of the crease. Where was this all season? (Also, note that the Rangers had a great record (8-2-1) when Avery was out of the lineup -- mull that over for a while, we have the entire offseason.) What awakened these guys? I have no clue.

Dubinsky made an interesting comment that indicts everyone in the organization from GM to coach to the players themselves -- “It’s frustrating because for the first time all year, we figured out what it meant to play as a team and to play for each other. The frustrating part is that it happened too late.” 70 games to get to that point? Let's hope whoever is on the team for next season learns this lesson because quite frankly, ever since Brendan Shanahan left the team, it seems that the roster lacks players with the fortitude to step into the spotlight to take over big games.

In future posts -- we have plenty of time and do not need to engage in the breast-beating, expletive-filled rants that are more emotion than wisdom that have filled the airwaves, Facebook pages and other media -- we will consider who we think should stay or go including reviewing the Rangers' own list of restricted and unlimited free agents. We have been kicking those topics around offline for a couple of weeks and I think some of our positions may have hardened during the final 10 games.

For now, I need to take a break from the Rangers -- I missed a bunch of home games this season (just like a lot of my fellow fans) because they were so boring so often and were routinely outplayed in the 3rd period of so many games it was astounding. I was hoping that they would miss the playoffs until they resuscitated their season, which only served to suck me in and trample on my heart once again.

They gave us some great efforts during April and I am thankful that the Rangers played meaningful hockey.

It gives us something to cling to while some of us watch the playoffs with clenched teeth and count the days (but not too quickly) for next season.

---The Graying Mantis

p.s.: R.I.P. to my friend, classmate and favorite goalie, Tim, on the 37th anniversary of his passing,
4/13/1973. It's been a long time but I have not forgotten.

The End

Recap of the weekend on it's way and a look ahead, but for now folks, it's......

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

By a thread...


Well, we knew it would be a tough game. Perhaps we didn't expect it to be this tough and hoped our momentum would carry us through. An off night from Ryan Miller could have perhaps helped. No such luck, and the slugs clinched the Northeast Division against us with that win.

Read the official recap here.

Coming in to this one, we had been given some confidence that things had finally clicked in regards to our team, its temperamental coach and the "minutes for merit system" were promised at the start of the season. The newly discovered secret weapon of a spirited 4th line had been making a name for itself coming into this game and last night was no different. Brandon Prust continued to prove why he deserves a contract next season. P.A. Parenteau also made a case for his good in small doses reputation. That, however, is where our offense ended. The big guns were never really able to generate their expected output. The returning Ryan Callahan played his usual gritty, high energy game as he entered the area in front of the net to screen Miller, despite having to add a knee brace to his equipment...but it wasn't enough.

Miller made great saves for Buffalo when it counted...and our boys in blue were exposed for the one trick ponies they were, as our 4th line and Hartford imports couldn't carry the offense. We then got beat up the ice on every rush. Often the back checking forwards stumbled into the zone - if they got there at all... only adding to the confusion. Dan Girardi looked horrible on defense as he spun in different directions hoping a Buffalo player, any Buffalo player, would hand him a clue as they flew past. After 3 goals, Torts was ready for a change and brought in Alex Auld to replace Henrik Lundqvist. It's a coaches decision, and while its not the popular one, it was clear that it had little bearing on the outcome; as even the best goalies get flustered after they are faced with rush after rush and uncontested screenings from guys the size of coke machines.

Whats worse that the fly-girls from 'Philthadelphia' still managed to win their game, rising past Boston and gaining some distance from us. The good news is they can't gain anymore ground between now and our games on Friday, then Sunday. Our game in hand is tonight against Toronto. A win tonight is necessary for the home and home series to mean anything. We're hanging by the proverbial thread now, ladies and gents. Funny, it doesn't feel much different, does it? If we lose tonight or Friday... All I can say is prepare for Sunday... Bloody Sunday.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Will The Flyers Determine Our Fate?

Does the madness end in Philadelphia next Sunday?

With the Blueshirts (36-32-10) picking up another two points against the Florida Panthers 4-1 this past Saturday, rounding out a total of four of four points on their Florida trek, they remain in 9th place knowing exactly where they are in the standings and trying to ignore it.  This is just the type of pressure that tenses up their style, paralyzing the Tort's puck-moving-forward system.  When this team thinks about it, they lose. 

For a recap of the Panthers game (or just call it the '3rd period only Rangers Blitzkreig'), go here.

So the current points-a-plenty run of 5-0-1 is coming from a Blueshirts squad most of us are unfamiliar with this season - one whose current position is that they don't care about where they stand (or so they say) and are approaching each game as their last.  Frankly, I don't buy into this mentality or press angle and think much of this winning surge is due to our much criticized coach.

For months we all felt that John Tortorella was washed up as Motivation Director in Blue, but it is obvious that it may be simply a matter of players finally getting comfortable actually playing for more than 20 minutes a game.  Torts has been more recently critical of veteran players not giving their all, assaulting the media and (sometimes) benching them (players and, ah em...the media - i.e. see Larry Brooks), our controversial coach hasn't been afraid to substitute harder working minors from The Wolfpack in Hartford over the much greater paid roster.  The experiment is working and much deserving commuters P.A. Parantheau and Aaron Voros have added the much needed sparks, an element of desperation every game -- a motivation that has fired-up all cylinders with the entire team.  Even defenders Marc Staal and Dan Girardi have risen from hibernation, feeling more comfortable pushing the puck forward -- in many ways Torts has allowed them to learn it and make their own.  Even 'The Horrible' Wade Redden is not as dreadful as the first 2/3 of the season, (I take back comparisons to Marek Malik -- a MUST-SEE goal by the way, M&M) - and his sidekick Rozsival still stinks as far as I am concerned.

It is refreshing to see the Rangers making a desperation run with eyes on the final playoff seed of the conference, trailing the ailing Philadelphia Flyers.   After the Panthers win on Saturday, our hopes of Phllly's continued losing streak came to an end as they miraculously beat the Detroit Red Wings yesterday afternoon - giving them a 2-points advantage with three games left in the season.  The Rangers have one game in hand.  So providing the Rangers win one game against either the Buffalo Sabres (tomorrow night) or the Toronto Maple Leafs (Wed night) - and assuming the Flyers win vs. Toronto tomorrow night --- the Rangers will need to sweep the home & home series this coming weekend to make the playoffs.

We've done it before.  We'll do it again.  To the death.   One positive outlook for the Rangers is Philadelphia's goalkeeper problems -- starter Ray Emery is out for the remainder of the season and even their backup Michael Leighton is out as well.  Some half-ass minor goalies are in net, and that is a huge thing to take advantage of.  If you can get past the monster Pronger line, the Rangers need to shoot twice the shots as they normally have and something is bound to go in.  With the Wall in net also known as Henrik Lundqvist, our beloved goaltender will need to stand on his head and withstand what is sure to be an offensive onslaught of Orange and Black.  Hang in there Hank -- it's going to be a long weekend.

And if you've ever wished a player to get hurt this week (and not that The Dark Ranger would ever wish this to happen to anyone) keep names like Jeff Carter and Mike Richards in your thoughts....

Let's go BLUE and show 'em how to play playoff hockey in season....  Sabres tomorrow night, expecting the win.


Saturday, April 3, 2010

Thunderstruck! Rangers' 4 in the 1st Brings a Playoff Spot Closer | NYR 5 TAM 0

Perhaps with a week to go in the season and after about 72 games, the Rangers have finally got a handle on playing like a team. Scoring 20 goals over the past 5 games and gathering 9 points out of a possible 10, the Rangers have pulled themselves into playoff contention.

Friday night, in stark contrast to their last game against the Islanders, the Blueshirts came out strong, exploited the terrible Tampa defensive coverage and the wandering goalie Michael Smith and potted 4 goals in the first period on 7 shots.

Lightning get struck twice. Goals 25 seconds apart in the first period
gave the Rangers an early advantage that they built on.

This was a statement game showing that the Rangers recent streak and continued overall success on the road are no illusions. What was especially impressive that the lineup did not put any fear of scoring as Sean Avery and Ryan Callahan were both out again thanks to left leg injuries. Nonetheless, the Rangers got scoring from 5 different players from all positions and lines. The recap is here.

With the Canadiens shutting out the Flyers in Philly, the Rangers pulled closer to the 8th playoff spot. Meanwhile, the Rangers formally ended Tampa Bay's chances of making the playoffs.

When the Rangers last played Tampa Bay, the last game before the Olympic break, the Lightning were 6th in the conference. Since that time, the Lightning have fallen going 5-14-1 to fall out of contention. Much of that downfall can be attributed to Tampa's porous defense that came into the game near the bottom in the NHL. Still, they have elite scorers including Steven Stamkos (46 goals), Martin St. Louis (63 assists) and Vincent LeCavalier.

During the game, the Rangers paired Marc Staal and Dan Girardi to shut them down successfully. The fact that Girardi got the first star demonstrated how effective he was on the ice without being very conspicuous. Meanwhile, his partner, Staal, scored for the 2nd game in a row by scoring 25 seconds after the Rangers scored their first one.

The game started ragged as the Rangers immediately gave up two 3-on-2 rushes for the Lightning before settling down. It became obvious that the Lightning had not tightened up its defense since their last two visits to the Garden that resulted in 8-2 and 5-2 victories.

Southern Comfort. The Rangers entered the game with a winning record on the road. It almost seemed like a home game as the arena was filled with plenty of fans wearing Ranger blue.

Large swaths of ice were open for the Rangers during the first period and they took advantage of controlling the offensive zone and beating a terrible defense and a shaky goalie. (I watched Michael Smith's 3-0 shutout of Pittsburgh at the Igloo on VS earlier this week. How he did it is a mystery to me as he wandered aimlessly to play the puck, he was vulnerable to being stripped of the puck. I know the Pens were missing Gonchar and Malkin, but still to be shut out at home when trying to solidify 2nd place in the conference is a bit surprising. In this game, Smith was nearly victimized by Prospal when he wandered too far from the net.)

Also what became evident is the continued success of the 4th line led by Brandon Prust and Jody Shelly. Aaron Voros skated quite well and even scored the Rangers' final goal. This line was on the ice for 10 minutes during the game. Both Prust & Shelley have thrown their bodies around and have shown an ability to forecheck and keep the puck out of the defensive end. Also, Shelley has settled in to become a presence on the ice and Prust has shown a nice skating ability.

Unfortunately, it took about 60 games for the Rangers to develop a reliable 4th line after letting last year's highly successfully trio to leave for other teams. Who knows how many points the Rangers may have not gotten because of the ill-advised experimentation by GM Sather and coach Tortorella?

During the first period, Shelley leveled Vladimir Mihalik of Tampa Bay to keep the puck in the Tampa end. It worked its way behind the net to Prust and then to Artem Anisimov who dished the puck back to Prust. Meanwhile, Mihalik, feeling a need to chase Shelley instead of covering the front of the goal, gave Prust enough open space to advance unimpeded to the net and forced the puck through Smith for a 1-0 lead with 3:09 gone.

Laugh or Cry? During the past month, Ranger fans have been
riding a rollercoaster of emotion as the Rangers seemed to fall
out of contention, reassembled their forces and now are making
a legitimate run during the final 10 games.

During the very next shift, the Rangers cruised up ice as Marian Gaborik had the equivalent of Montana to skate through the defensive zone. I am still wondering why Tampa Bay had no one covering the Rangers' premier scorer. Gaborik pulled up inside the blue line and patiently waited to find someone skating in and zipped a cross ice pass to a rushing Marc Staal on the left side, who in turn snapped a shot to Smith's left side that he fanned on. Rangers were up, 2-0, with only 3:34 gone. For Tampa Bay, it would only get worse. And it was important that the Rangers padded the lead in the first because it took pressure off the rest of the team and Lundqvist as the lead swelled from 2 to 3 then to 4 by the end of the first period. The next 2 goals, scored by Vinny Prospal and Brandon Dubinsky (both scoring their 19th of the season), came off deflections off Lightning defensemen past Smith, demonstrating that getting the puck to the net can lead to good results and also proving that it does not happen only to Ranger defensemen.

During the second period, Tampa Bay made a run at the Rangers and had a 2 man advantage for 1:20 early in the first 5 minutes. But the Rangers PK unit, which has now stopped 18 out of the last 19 situation continued to excel and Henrik Lundqvist faced only one shot.

During the second half of the period, the Lightning exerted some sustained pressure on the Rangers' defense and Lundqvist kept Tampa Bay off the scoreboard. By the end of the second period, the outcome was a foregone conclusion thanks to the combined efforts of the defense on the PK and Henrik's goalkeeping.

If I don't look, it's not there. Fans of the Flyers, the preseason choice of many to succeed in the Eastern Conference, don't want to face the ugly prospect that the Rangers are within 2 points of kicking them out of the playoffs.

The Rangers have 80 points and have caught the Thrashers, who play today in Pittsburgh. Tonight, the Rangers are in Sunrise FL to play the Panthers. By Monday, after the Flyers a matinee against Detroit, we will have a good idea as to where the Rangers will be set up for the final week.

--- The Graying Mantis

Thursday, April 1, 2010

April Fool Scoreboard Watching | Rangers In Control of Playoff Destiny

About 10 days ago, after the Rangers had lost at home to Montreal and St. Louis and then lost in a critical Sunday matinee to Boston in Beantown, their playoff hopes were seemingly dashed.

Now an interesting series of April Fool's Day results presents a potential turning point for the Rangers' 2009-2010 playoff hopes.

The 4 teams immediately above the Rangers -- Atlanta, Philly, Boston and yes, even Montreal -- have decided that they cannot stand prosperity and have tumbled back toward the Rangers, the current denizen of 10th place in the conference.

Tonight saw the Thrashers lose in regulation in D.C. to the Caps in a 2-1 squeaker.

Meanwhile, in Boston, the Florida Panthers made an early goal stand up as Ryan Clemmensen shut out the Bruins 1-0. I watched the final few minutes of the game and heard a raucous chorus of boos greet the Bruins as they left the ice. Meanwhile, the Bruin announcer commented that once again the Bruins made a second-rate goalie look like a Vezina candidate. How many times have Ranger fans said the very same thing the past couple of seasons when a rookie or backup goalie appears?

Finally, in the shocker of the evening, the Isles broke their 15 game losing streak to the Flyers (Stretching back to February 2008) with a 6-4 shellacking of the Broad Street Bullies in Uniondale. Although the Flyers tried to recover from a 6-2 deficit, they simply ran out of time.

As a result, Ranger fans can dream a little about a possible playoff berth. In fact, according to our calculations, if the Rangers can finish the regular season undefeated by winning 6 in a row, they can claim the 8th spot (as long as they sweep the Flyers and win one of those 2 end of season matches in regulation).

Then the Rangers would end up with 90 points and would make it because they would pass Atlanta (who can max out at 88) and Philly, regardless of what Boston and Montreal do.

TEAMGames LeftPoints

I, for one, am not quite ready to drink the proverbial Kool-Aid but it's hard not to start to dream about a possible playoff berth, the possibility of the Rangers knocking out either the Habs or Flyers from the playoffs and even a possible run for 7th place to lead to a possible payoff date with the Devils, and their inept offense and Marty in goal, and . . . STOP ME, PLEASE!!!! before I get sucked in once again.

Further enticement came from the Rangers today who called me to let me know that buying playoff tickets had gotten cheaper as the initial commitment for the first round is now only 3 games instead of the usual 4 for the purchase of the round-by-round plan. Decisions, decisions.

Bottom line -- win them all and they are in. The Rangers have back-to-back games with the pesky Florida teams this weekend.

First up is a Friday night encounter with Tampa Bay, who only shut out the Pens at the Igloo on Wednesday and then a Saturday night contest with the Panthers, who shut out the Bruins in Boston. No game going forward is a gimmee.

To Drink or Not To Drink?
The agony of being a Ranger fan.
It is so tempting to believe in them.

We will know much more by the end of the weekend.

In the meantime, I am inclined to take a chance on playoff tickets, knowing full well that I may be damned if I do buy them (the Rangers won't make it) and damned if I don't (the Rangers go on an Edmonton 2006-like run).

Regardless, I may be a damn April Fool for even considering any of these possibilities but I am enjoying the ride right now.

---The Graying Mantis
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