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.


  1. Excellent assessment of the 2009/10 season.

  2. Amen, Tony... Amen. Couldn't have been put a better way. The backlash will always be there... over the summer, during the playoffs, draft day...Replayed over and over again... Reflected in the light of the longstanding problems...it all amounts to deafening silence as the day to day highs and lows are ignored as we all listen for a shred of hope in the whispers of a change in administration.

  3. Thanks, Kotsy and J -- you know I always enjoy discussing/ commiserating over the Rangers with both of you.


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