Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Nothing Doing As Slump Hits Six

It's sad to admit but the Islanders are just better than the Rangers. In many ways, it reminds me of last year's Blueshirts who silenced critics which picked them near the bottom by working hard and coming together for a cause. That's the Ted Nolan Isles. Nolan who hadn't coached in nine years due to a well documented battle in Buffalo hasn't lost his touch and already should be the leading Jack Adams candidate. Btw...he won it once coaching those pesky Sabres.

Entering the season, everyone poked fun of the Islanders due to zany owner Charles Wang. Wang hired and then fired ex-Ranger architecht Neil Smith this past summer and replaced him with former backup Garth Snow. Then he gave former top overall pick Rick DiPietro a 15-year contract. It read like a circus. Naturally, the Fishsticks were treated like last year's Rangers with hardly anyone respecting them due to Wang. I guess people including myself forgot that sometimes, all it takes to motivate a team is all those doubters plus the best coach in the Atlantic by a mile.

The fiery Nolan who finally got his second chance gets results. Captain Alexei Yashin works his butt off every shift. So does Devil castoff Viktor Kozlov. Players such as Chris Simon, Mike Sillinger, Brendan Witt and even Tom Poti fit in. If this sounds like a nightmare, it isn't. It's really true. Go up and down the Islander roster and you'll be hardpressed to name a more balanced team in the division. They get contributions from everyone by outworking opponents. The grit and physicality was obvious tonight when they once again made misplace Ranger captain Jaromir Jagr look invisible.

You want to know the difference between the bitter rivals. Just look at the stat sheet from tonight's Isles 2-0 win:

Jagr was held to no shots through two periods and finished with five even though none were of the quality variety due to solid checking from Witt and underrated defense partner Radek Martinek. While No.68 sulked throughout and did little, the Isles' dynamic duo of Yashin (6 SOG, 1 assist) and energizer Jason Blake (21st goal and 10 SOG) were everywhere. It was a sharp contrast in what was a tightly contested game.

Remember when Yashin had that "lifetime contract" and no coach could get anything out of the quiet but friendly Russian? Not anymore. He now wins every battle including in the defensive end. It's no wonder he's now up to a +17 rating. Think the coach hasn't had an impact? Think again. Nolan knows how to motivate his players. Kozlov, who was an afterthought on the Devils (even scratched for fourth liner Cam Janssen in the playoffs) already has as many goals (13) as he had all last season along with 24 points. He is playing much harder and using his size to create problems for opponents.

Aside from the fact that the Rangers don't have the necessary grit or physicality in the corners to deal with the improved Islanders, they also are now coming up short in goal. Go figure. Remember when DiPietro sucked and was a laughingstock? Not anymore. In tonight's game, it was the moody Isles' goalie who made every big save and recorded his second straight shutout (28 saves) and fourth of the season. Meanwhile, Henrik Lundqvist who was brilliant at times let in a questionable goal to one of those Isles' role players Arron Asham on a slapper late in the second. That was all it took. Sure, the Asham shot came through Ranger defenseman Karel Rachunek but it also was one Lundqvist needed to stop. Instead, he suffered a concentration lapse and let it go through him. So while he did make 36 saves and played well, it wasn't enough because the Isles played the kind of overall game the Devils are known for. That's how much they're on the same page. They're a confident bunch unlike the Blueshirts who are seemingly lost and "Falling To Pieces" much like a Velvet Revolver song.

Late in the second top pivot Michael Nylander took a careless high sticking double minor after getting his stick up on Martinek and drawing blood. It gave the Islanders a 4:00 power play which spanned the second and third periods. Though they didn't connect on it, they continually recovered the puck and got chances (another contrast between the two teams where as the Ranger PP was so predictable the Isles defensed it perfectly) forcing Lundqvist to make some tough stops. And because unlike their opponents who got to pucks and cleared them out, the Rangers couldn't do that and ultimately paid the price when ex-Ranger whipping boy Poti setup Blake, who ripped a perfect slapper into the far corner as time expired. Right there, you knew the game was over. The Rangers hadn't shown an ability to penetrate the Isles' D and get the kind of sustained attack needed to beat a sharp DiPietro.

So with his club struggling to find offense, Coach Tom Renney decided to make an example of Nylander and not give him a shift in the final period. Look. I am all for benching players. But what was more vital? Sitting his top playmaking center or getting a win? He always could've sent the message by healthy scratching Nylander the next game at Ottawa Friday night. Hey. It worked last year. Nylander took some bad penalties last December and sat out before returning and picking up his game. What's Jagr's excuse though? If he were anymore invisible, I would've thought he was in street clothes.

It just seems like the magic which Renney had last year is gone. The one good thing he did was give rookie Jarkko Immonen and slumping sophomore Petr Prucha ice-time with Jagr. Of the three, Immonen was the one in the middle creating stuff. There's really not much else to say about this game.

Maybe the coach will say his guys tried harder and played smarter which is true. But the bottom line is they lost once again and couldn't get anything going. This club is very fragile to begin with.

I am going to make one comment regarding the coaching changes in Columbus and St. Louis plus Chicago. Look at how those teams have responded since. They're all competing better and winning more. The Hawks suddenly could make the postseason while the Blue Jackets and Blues are playing much harder under no-nonsense style coaches in Ken Hitchcock and Andy Murray. Now I like Renney and will always respect him. He's genuine. But he isn't tough enough for this club to go anywhere. They need a different voice. Someone who will not be afraid to ruffle feathers. I can't believe it but I am advocating the return of Mike Keenan to Broadway. This team isn't built to miss the playoffs. When you have as many vets as they do plus superstars such as Jagr and Shanahan, you are expecting to contend. Right now, this club is lost under Renney.

There might be a lot of time left in the season but it's slipping already and is eerily similar to how last Spring ended. For all his theatrics, Keenan has won here and usually can get the most out of a team that's build the way these Rangers are. It's time for Glen Sather to stop smoking his 1,000,000th cigar and make the move. Keep Renney in the organization. Bring back Iron Mike!

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