Thursday, January 4, 2007

Rangers 3 Flyers 2

Try figuring this team out. I dare ya. From reeling off five straight in early December to dropping seven in a row in awful fashion to now winning their last three. These Rangers are the most Jekyll and Hyde team I have ever followed.

You know they have the ability when they put together solid efforts like tonight to snap a three-game Flyer win streak. Still, it shouldn't have been as difficult as it proved which Coach Tom Renney pointed out during his postgame press conference courtesy of ESPN Radio after his unpredictable club held on for a one goal triumph in front of an energized Garden.

I am still trying to figure out two things:

1.How close the Flyers came to rallying from two goals down when they hit two posts before Martin Straka broke up a pass and beat Robert Esche to the backhand for his sixth career hat trick.

2.What the heck was Henrik Lundqvist thinking when he attempted to try to score into an empty net only to get it blocked by ex-Ranger Mike York and put into a vacated net to cut the margin to one with 21 ticks left? Luckily for Lundqvist, he made one more save or he would've had some explaining to do.

Otherwise, this was another solid effort. For the third game in a row, they did things the right way. Playing more of a north/south game and taking the body and again playing team defense. Oh. And then there's this. Ryan Hollweg banging bigger man Ben Eager in the second period and then getting the better of him in a scrap which energized the crowd, who gave him a worthy standing O. He has a lot of guts.

Since Brendan Shanahan dropped the gloves with NHL bad boy Donald Brashear, this team is sticking up for each other. They're playing a tougher brand of hockey collectively. Ironically, the last two efforts have come with the gritty Jed Ortmeyer back in the lineup. Oh...and for those who believed the always hustling No.41 wouldn't make a difference, all they had to do was watch Ort's shifts tonight. He was all over the ice in his 10:07 of action. He even nearly scored on his one shot. But as usual, that wasn't the story with the popular American from Omaha, Nebraska. Just being in the proper place on the ice backchecking and throwing his body around with a vengeance drew a reaction from the crowd. This kind of hustle was sorely missed for much of the first half. Maybe he won't score many goals. But you could see what kind of impact his energy had.

Is it also any wonder that suddenly Renney wasn't afraid to play all four of his lines. Outside of Hollweg (7:30), who gained enough trust from his coach to be out there in that final sequence protecting a lead, every other Ranger forward played at least 10 minutes.

Now to Straka's big night. There's little question that the diminutive winger has always flown under the radar throughout his NHL career. This year, he has been the best forward on that all European top line. As Renney pointed out during the postgame, night in and night out, he consistently plays hard and has the kind of work ethic the affable coach would like to see from the rest of his roster. It is very nice to see the hardworking Straka being rewarded finally. His hat trick gives him 21 goals which places him second on the club to only Shanahan, who hasn't lit the lamp lately. Some will say Straka is benefiting from whom he plays with. But any Ranger fan who has followed this team knows better. No.82 doesn't take dumb penalties like his linemates. No.82 is never invisible. No.82 doesn't take shifts off and always backchecks. No.82 is the best skater on that line. It's time for Martin Straka to get recognized and make the All Star team!

Since we're talking about unsung guys on this team, Michal Rozsival defines that as well. He's playing out of position as the top defenseman. But here's a newsflash for the critics: The guy who the club re-signed to a multiyear deal worth $4.2 million looks like one of the best bargains on the blueline suddenly. He's just a steady player who rarely panics. And with a helper in his team-leading 24+ minutes tonight, that's 22 points on the season to go with a +9 rating. Can you say All Star? He deserves it.

Now I know there are many Marek Malik cynics who dislike the lanky Czech. But in his return from a groin injury after missing the past seven, he logged over 20 minutes teaming well with Rozy and was plus-three. There are instances where the slowfooted Malik has his moments like the one near the end of the second where a Flyer went around him to get off a last second shot which went wide. But more often than not, he's a reliable partner for Rozsival. More than anyone could say for the uneven play of 25 year-old rookie Thomas Pock.

The D looked more in synch tonight in allowing 24 shots which made Lundqvist's night (22 saves) easy. They didn't panic much with the puck and had an easier time getting out of their end. That said, I still cringe whenever Karel Rachunek and Darius Kasparaitis are out there. One is brutal in his end while the other is too slow. If there's an area that needs to be addressed, it's here. But something tells me the vets will continue to get the benefit of the doubt unless this team falls out of the race.

Another plus was Lundqvist, who for the fifth consecutive game permitted two or less and was solid. He looks sharper and more focused. That will need to continue if the Rangers (21-17-4, 46 pts) are to continue the push up the crowded standings securing their playoff position for a second straight season. They're now in a three-way tie for fifth in the conference with Ottawa and Carolina. It won't get any easier as they visit Montreal Saturday afternoon at a special time of 3 PM. The Canadiens currently are fourth in the conference with 51 points. They should be angry after being blown out 5-1 in the nation's capital. So it should present a big challenge for the Blueshirts. We'll find out if they're up to the task this weekend.

Just a few notes from three other wacky games tonight that you won't usually see:

1.With Edmonton about to lose to Dallas, former 1999 first overall pick Patrik Stefan opted not to shoot into the open net. Instead the former Thrasher selection nonchalanted it and went for an easy stuff but then inexplicably lost balance and the puck. With his teammates obviously thinking it was in the bag, the Oilers quickly transitioned the puck up the ice to Ales Hemsky, who beat Marty Turco with a backhand to miraculously tie it at five with just two seconds to spare. It prompted color analyst Ray Ferraro to rip Stefan to shreds even referring to the play as "maybe the dumbest thing I've ever seen." The bizarre conclusion to regulation didn't prevent Dallas from prevailing 2-0 in a shootout thanks to usual suspects Sergei Zubov and Jussi Jokinen. Still, that extra point for Edmonton in a crowded playoff race out West could wind up pivotal. Stefan's lazy play should earn him a nice seat upstairs for the rest of the month. It was befitting of a classic underachiever.

2.After giving up the first three on home ice to Detroit in a bad opening period, the Sharks responded by scoring the next eight on Dominik Hasek, dealing the shoe-in Hall of Famer his worst night ever. Never before had he allowed that many. To his credit, he stayed in after it was 7-3 because of an injury to backup Chris Osgood. But eight was enough for Coach Mike Babcock to make the change. During the onslaught, Sharks captain Patrick Marleau scored to become the all-time club leader in points. The Sharks set a franchise record by scoring nine unanswered in their 9-4 win.

3.Trailing by a goal at Boston, the Leafs responded by scoring the final nine in an unusual 10-2 rout of the Bruins. Alexander Steen recorded a hat trick and two assists in the win. Entering play, the second-year slumping forward had just 10 points. So in one night, he got half that. Bates Battaglia also scored twice while John Pohl added a goal and two helpers. Amazingly, offensive defenseman Bryan McCabe didn't record a point but was plus-five. Meanwhile, Toronto captain Mats Sundin only notched one assist. Go figure. Definitely a night the hometown B's would like to forget.

Just want to say belated congrats to the always classy No.19 Steve Yzerman, who saw his Red Wing jersey go up to the rafters at The Joe Tuesday night. It's rare these days when an athlete can play as long as Stevie Y did with the same team. For over 20 years, he was the ultimate Wing. The longest tenured captain in league history (20 years), Yzerman led the franchise to three Stanley Cups including a Conn Smythe during a 1998 repeat in a sweep of the Capitals. The popular Wing was one of the all-time greats finishing in the top 10 in goals (692-8th), assists (1063-7th) and points (1755-6th). He became only the sixth Wing to have his jersey retired joining Howe, Sawchuk, Lindsay, Delvecchio and Abel. Congratulations!

Later today, Canada aims for a three-peat at the WJC against Russia while Team USA looks to rebound from a heartbreaking 2-1 shootout loss in the Bronze medal game against host Sweden.

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