Saturday, December 30, 2006

No Kidding Around, Win No Accident As Rangers and Caps Turn Back Clock In Old School Patrick Division Battle

I see Steve called it an "accident" that the Rangers actually won a game for the first time in over two weeks. Normally, I would agree based on how poorly this team has been going. But not tonight buddy. Was it also an accident that the Devils found a way to beat the Islanders? Sorry. Couldn't resist. :)

To say I was absolutely shocked with what I saw would be an understatement. It's almost as shocking as another lifeless New York team that wears blue leading 20-7 at halftime in D.C. against the other Washington team. Well they did win but not without making it an adventure. Meaning both teams won. Did hell freeze over? An investigation is underway as we write this.

What took place the Garden tonight was a miracle. The Rangers and Capitals battled old school in every sense of the word, turning back the clock to when the game wasn't soft and these two were bitter Patrick Division rivals. How good was it? By far the best game the Rangers have taken part in this season. Forget some of the other wins they've had. The first two against the Devils were nice. So were the couple of big ones out West at Anaheim and San Jose. But those take a back seat to how the club snapped their seven-game skid.

From the very opening shift, I could tell that something was different with Tom Renney's club. Instead of the passionless East/West pansy hockey which had been sucking the life out of them, the Blueshirts decided to come out and play a throwback North/South style which will suit them well when they visit The Meadowlands this Tuesday starting the New Year. Whether or not they do it is up to them. But this new classic style worked well and paid dividends in a 4-1 statement victory which energized fans for a change and didn't leave them blue during this holiday season.

So what was different aside from the unusual rough stuff and rock'em sock'em antics which had to have league commish Gary Bettman shaking in his boots? Well, for starters, there was a Petr Prucha sighting. Reunited for the second straight game with Opening Night linemates Matt Cullen and Brendan Shanahan, the slumping second-year winger scored twice (not a misprint). Both goals were the kind he scored last year en route to 30. The first came just 1:55 in when Prucha did the grunt work in front of the net finding a Karel Rachunek rebound and flipping a backhand home past Olaf Kolzig. It was his first goal in six games and got the team off to the kind of quick start they needed- also ending that long goal drought which lasted over seven periods.

Continuing to carry the play to a tired Caps team who was shorthanded due to the flu and playing their fourth game in five nights (can someone please explain why), the Rangers took the body and controlled play in a dominant first outshooting their opponents 16-5. Not long after a key Henrik Lundqvist stop on Alexander Semin, Nylander increased the lead to two when he tapped home Martin Straka's centering feed for his 13th. The play wouldn't have been possible without the work of underrated defenseman Michal Rozsival, who jumped into the play down low and created the seam for Straka to thread the needle to an isolated Nylander. A potential NHL All Star on the backline (no joke), Rozy earned a secondary assist.

In the second, the hardworking Caps raised their intensity level and tested Lundqvist, who was equal to the task swatting aside all nine shots which included four Caps' power plays. Lundqvist and the Ranger PK did a solid job killing them off. It seemed in this one a Ranger was in the right spot for a change, breaking up a play or getting in the path of an Alexander Ovechkin blast. Speaking of AO, he had an eventful night. It's worth noting that in the first during the first goal by Prucha, he was nailed by Darius Kasparaitis near the end of a long shift. While Ovechkin got retribution by nailing Nylander, Prucha put away the rebound. It was all part of another active night for the fiery Russian star who played his usual no-nonsense physical style.

Back to the second period where this game changed and intensified to a boil. During his shifts, goon Donald Brashear was pulling the usual antics nailing several Rangers including Rozsival and team captain Jaromir Jagr. That's always been how Brash plays. He makes you pay out there. The book on this Ranger squad is to be as physical as possible because they can't deal with it. So the ex-Flyer was only doing the smart thing in trying to mix it up and spark his club. On one shift in which he skated with Dainius Zubrus and Chris Clark, the always underrated big man almost setup the tying goal but Lundqvist held the post on Zubrus and froze the puck.

It was a little later in the period when things started to get heated. After third line energizer Ryan Hollweg caught a Cap near the boards, a hustling Brashear rushed to the aid of his teammate and punched Ryan twice with his glove on. Hollweg responded with a punch before Brash hit him square in the face with two more, drawing an additional two minutes for roughing. In essence, Hollweg did the job and went to the box with a grin. I can only hope he does the same thing Tuesday and goads Devil goon extraordinaire Cam Janssen into as silly a penalty. He's not as ornery as Brash yet. So we'll see.

With under a minute left in the second, the Rangers got a huge goal from out of all people Kasparaitis (again not a misprint). On a play made possible from hard work from Jagr who was much better tonight than the past three losses, No.68 took a Straka pass behind the net, drew a delayed penalty and two Caps and still setup a streaking Kaspar for his second goal in two Saturdays. He also tallied in that awful blowout loss at Toronto. This was different circumstances entirely and gave his team a three-goal margin.

Two seconds after the puck was dropped, retribution was saught from Ranger enforcer Colton Orr on Brashear. Sticking up for Hollweg, Orr took his lumps and predictably lost to the bigger man. No shame there. What was better was that it was for a great cause. If Orr does that when he plays, then he's winning a lot of points in my book. It's the only way Renney can justify keeping him in the lineup over Jarkko Immonen, who still should see PT over either Marcel Hossa or Adam Hall.

With the Rangers ahead by three in the third, that's when things got even more interesting for those tuning in. During a faceoff, Brashear snuck a short elbow into Jagr's kisser. The cheapshot was noted by the Czech, who returned the favor by taking down Brash and earning an interference minor. It got more troublesome for New York when Aaron Ward went to the box on a trip giving Washington a two-man advantage. But during it, it was a determined Blueshirts PK showing something they hadn't for quite some time. A spark. Rozsival hustling and even defensive enigma Thomas Pock breaking up plays. He also prevented an Ovechkin breakaway in the first. They killed off the penalties and got big cheers from the crowd.

But the best part of this old school game took place a couple of minutes later. During Jagr's retaliatory penalty, a ticked off Shanahan had words with Brashear between the benches. The message was delivered. Despite how poorly and inconsistent his Original Six club has played, the 37 year-old North American has been terrific all season. Already a fan favorite entering the game due to his team-leading 23 goals and 42 points which ranks third along with gritty play, Shanahan took it upon himself to challenge Brashear during his next shift before a faceoff. Maybe the big guy thought it was a joke. But when Shanny dropped the gloves, Brashear obliged and the two then traded blows to a raucous atmosphere. Truth be told, the future Hall of Famer who's scored over 600 goals didn't do badly. He took some shots from Brash but hung in there and got a couple of uppercuts in to the delight of the crowd. It really was fun to watch and see that for one night, the Rangers were sticking up for each other. After the scrap ended, the usual circus which is Brashear cheapshotted A. Ward by suckerpunching him in the face. Ward said something to draw such a reaction and got an unsportsmanlike conduct. But it was worth it in his book. He got the big teddybear tossed out of the game.

Meanwhile, Shanahan got a huge reception headed to the box and an even louder roar of approval when he got out during a break. This was New York hockey fans paying tribute to a throwback hockey player who throughout his accomplished 20-year career has done all the little things to win games. Those fans recognized that. It was also recognized by the beat writers who tabbed him the game's 2nd star despite not registering a point, rewarding his spunk.

Too many instances this year, the Rangers have been getting pushed around. For one night they pushed back and showed some life that I didn't believe they had. It continued with less than five minutes remaining when Orr delivered a cheapshot to Ovechkin, catching him not looking with his stick up, drawing a charging penalty before taking on Shaone Morrisonn who did the right thing stepping in for his superstar teammate. I don't approve of Orr's antics there. I'd rather it be a little cleaner with AO having the puck. But I also understand why Orr did it. If opponents want to go after Jagr, then our guys need to do the same thing to opponents. I hope they do this to that little pest Brian Gionta Tuesday. It's him and not Patrik Elias who is always in the middle of everything the first place Devils do. Gionta is the sneaky guy who slashes defensemen in front of the net and creates chaos for goalies. Making him pay the price is the least the Blueshirts need to do.

The good news after the Orr cheapshot which got him the rest of the night off and probably a one-game suspension is that nothing else ugly occured. The two teams instead traded late goals eight seconds apart when Prucha notched his second of the night for his first two-goal game of the season on a rebound via power play before Ben Clymer took a Lawrence Nycholat pass off a faceoff and got just enough of it to spoil Lundqvist's shutout bid. Why does that always happen to Ranger netminders? This team just doesn't know how to get their goalies shutouts. It happened way too frequently with Mike Richter and continues to happen with Lundqvist and even Kevin Weekes. Just once I'd like to see them play as boring a style as the Devils so they can pad their goalie's stats the way the Swamprats do for their future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur. Oh well. Not on this night.

All in all, it was just nice to see the Rangers get back in the win column. It was good enough in this mediocre new NHL to vault the 19-17-4 Blueshirts (19-21 in regulation for those keeping score) back to seventh in the East with 42 points, one ahead of the Islanders and Bruins. The bad news is they've played three more games than the Isles while Boston still holds a ridiculous five games at hand. Can anyone explain that to me? What the hell kind of scheduling is that? That's something I'll never understand about this half ass backwards league. But whatever. It is what it is. It also means the Blueshirts are going to need a serious push in the second half starting with the game January 2nd to make the postseason a second straight year. We'll see what they're made of.

Happy New Year!!!!! Hope everyone enjoys it and stays safe!

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