Sunday, October 10, 2010

Stepan Nets 3 in Debut to Blunt Sabres | NYR 6 BFO 3

Opening night in Buffalo. Typically a house of horrors for the Rangers dating back to the days of Gil Perreault and the flashy French Connection Sabres of lore. This season, the Sabres are celebrating their 40th anniversary with a return to their old uniforms and a nod to the old Buffalo Bison uniforms in their alternate sweaters which they donned to greet their downstate rivals.

However, like ungracious guests, the Rangers brought nothing to the HSBC Arena except an insatiable hunger for the net and a new offensive balance that left their host's heads spinning.

And leading the rush for the Buffalo buffet table that the Sabre defense set out was Rangers' rookie Derek Stepan, playing in his first NHL game as he scored a hat trick and led the Rangers to a 6-3 opening night victory. Official game recap here.

Stepan started out with scoring the Rangers' first goal on a deflection - a case of being in the right place at the right time -- in this case, the front of the net to Ryan Miller's right. Then with the score 2-1 in the final five minutes of the second period, Stepan used his skills on his next 2 shots -- wristing a shot around Ryan Miller on a pas from Marc Staal and then 3 minutes later going high above Miller to complete a hat trick to convert a Sean Avery pass from behind the net. 3 shots = 3 goals.

A quartet of hats floated on to the ice and don't we all wish our first day on the job was always like this.

Ice Treatment. America's Olympic hero

did not bring his A-game last night.

Yes, the Sabres were playing the second of a back-to-back (the first of 22 such pairs this season) but to look so slow and so out of sync was unexpected. One would figure the Blueshirts would show opening game jitters, especially with the new players on the ice, but they continued their outrageous pace of offense first, defense second as they peppered Ryan Miller, America's goalie, by getting 5 past him within the first 41 minutes of the game.

The Rangers offense showed a lot of what brought them success early last season -- a tenacious forecheck supplemented by strategic pinching by defensemen. Dan Girardi was outstanding at keeping the puck in and was rewarded with 2 assists. Marc Staal and Michal Roszival also had strong games in the offensive end. The defense chipped in with 3 assists and were pivotal for the offensive success.

Brandon Dubinsky scored twice, Avery had 2 assists and the first line also appeared on the scoring card when Eric Christensen scored the Rangers' 5th goals.

So now eyes around the NHL (including Ranger fans) were opened to the possibility that the Rangers may have scoring threats on more than one line. That would be a dramatic change from recent seasons. Of course, we should not get too excited about one game -- many rookies appear like comets in every sport only to flame out, but it was an enjoyable debut and we know that Stepan certainly has major league talent.

It is the first game and the Rangers have much to work on. Their defense maintained their helter skelter pace by being inefficient in protecting Henrik and clearing the puck. During the final 2 periods, the Sabres had 32 shots, outshooting the Ranger 19-9 in the 2nd and 13-9 in the 3rd.

The 3rd period saw the Rangers permit the Sabres to pull to within 5-3 with 5 1/2 minutes left before Dubinsky put the game away an empty net short-handed goal with 85 seconds to go.

R.I.P. Buffaslug.

Henrik was under siege during the second half of the game and thankfully was sharp and lightning- quick. Late in the third period, he also was saved by the right post on a shot that hopped over his pad and veered to the left before hitting the post. Fortunately, the Rangers exploited the opportunities they were given by a charitable porous Buffalo defense to convert nifty passes into goals and that was the difference.

As I mentioned last week, Stepan sweaters may be a big seller at MSG now.

Grabbing 2 points in Buffalo is always sweet. Seeing the Rangers' offense start out on fire is terrific.

I will go out on a limb and suggest that Stepna will not keep up his pace to score more than 240 goals and the Rangers are not a 500 goal team. Still, the thought that the Rangers may have some firepower is intriguing.

What is important right now for the Rangers is to work on the defense because there is no guarantee that they will continue to average 5 goals a game as they have since preseason started.

--- The Graying Mantis

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