Saturday, February 17, 2007

Rangers Hit Hard In Loss

U2 had the hit song "Sunday Bloody Sunday." For the Blueshirts, this might go down as Saturday Bloody Saturday. They took it on the chin in a costly 5-3 home defeat to the Flyers. Still out of the playoffs with 24 games remaining, this loss was potentially damaging.

From the very outset as I noted in my previous entry, they just didn't look as sharp as they were in winning their last three to give them hope. But it wasn't the spotty play against a hardworking Flyer club which was getting the attention afterwards. But rather, the unknown status of Brendan Shanahan. The team's leading goalscorer collided with Flyers' forward Mike Knuble in a freak accident as neither player saw the other. The impact left the 38 year-old future Hall of Famer knocked unconscious for several minutes. Hardly even moving before a stunned MSG crowd, he eventually required medical assistance and was carried out on a stretcher and taken to St. Vincent's Hospital. The encouraging news is that early reports indicated that was he "was alert, awake and most importantly had movement."

While we won't know the full extent of Shanahan's injury, the same also could be said for starting goalie Henrik Lundqvist. The Swedish gold medallist took a hard Geoff Sanderson shot right into his left shoulder. Though he remained in the game for the second period, he would eventually not return for the final stanza and watched emergency backup Stephen Valiquette allow two soft goals which proved to be too much for his teammates to overcome. I questioned Tom Renney right away when he opted to leave Lundqvist in because he didn't look comfortable. Hopefully for Renney and his club, it's not serious. With Kevin Weekes already on IR, the last thing they need is to lose Lundqvist for any length of time.

So banged around were the Rangers in this tilt that they also were without defenseman Marek Malik for the third. The lanky Czech who anchors the top pair with Michal Rozsival left with an upper body injury after taking a high hit from Flyers' pest Ben Eager. Whether or not he's back for tomorrow's crucial NBC network game against Original Six rival Chicago remains to be seen.

The bottom line in this one was this: The special teams which had played such a huge role in rallying the team back into the playoff hunt killed them today. When you have six power plays in the first due to several bonehead plays by Todd Fedoruk and Company, you have to make the opposition pay. But the Flyers proved that their No.4 ranked penalty killing unit was a fluke. Playing very aggressively, they forced the Rangers into bad turnovers and got better chances shorthanded, including R.J. Umberger's SHG off an awful Rozsival pass in the neutral zone.

Even if you count Petr Prucha's PPG in the third from Jaromir Jagr, the 1-for-8 effort with allowing a shorthanded goal wasn't the recipe needed for success. You can't win much against any opponent when that's the case. Also, the Flyers got a power play tally from new acquisition Scottie Upshall on a routine wraparound early in the third which gave them a three-goal cushion.

Aside from getting solid performances by top liners Simon Gagne (goal, assist) and Geoff Sanderson (goal, assist), the Cheesesteaks also got a superior effort from netminder Antero Niittymaki. The Finn was razor sharp in making 40 saves, including stopping 21 of 23 Ranger shots in a busy third. Yes, the Rangers never quit after Shanahan went down. They attacked and attacked but Niittymaki was equal to the task. A key sequence which changed the outcome was when the Philly goalie robbed Martin Straka pointblank. If he scores there, it's suddenly a one-goal game with plenty of time left. But after the stop, Fedoruk took Jagr off the puck and it eventually came to Dmitry Afanasenkov, who then made a nice move and then beat Valiquette with a wrister in the high slot to put the Flyers back in command up 5-2 instead, finishing the Rangers off. Saves such as that one gave Philly its third win in four and first since trading Peter Forsberg to Nashville.

What this game proved is what I've said all along about the Flyers. Even when they were losing all those games especially at home, they easily could've won more. Just ask Steve about some of the games his team pulled out when they had no business even getting points. Credit must go out to Flyer coach John Stevens for keeping his club together under a very tough season. His team works extremely hard and can't be taken lightly by anyone as Detroit found out this past Monday when they were blitzed for five third period goals in a 6-1 rout on Versus. If you take them for granted, more teams are going to learn the hard way.

For the Rangers, the question is how will they bounceback from this one. The bigger one is who will be available for them tomorrow afternoon? We'll see. But one thing is certain even with this disheartening loss. Sean Avery continues to be a great pickup. The former King once again agitated well and suckered a couple of Flyers into silly penalties. He also picked up another point with an assist on a brilliant Matt Cullen shorthanded goal with just over a minute left. Avery is making management look really smart. As I said before, too bad they didn't get him sooner. He is a very solid player. Kudos also to Marcel Hossa on scoring for the fourth time in six on a nice redirect of a Daniel Girardi point shot. The 26 year-old Slovak continues to play well and is growing in confidence since being moved up to the first unit. Congratulations also to the 22 year-old Girardi on notching his first two NHL points (both assists). But I'm certain he would've liked to have done it in a win.

Eastern Race In Full Swing Tonight: Don't forget that there are many games on the slate tonight affecting the Eastern race including the Devils visiting the Island, the Sabres hosting Boston, Carolina facing Montreal, Tampa Bay visiting Florida and Toronto hosting Edmonton. In a game that finished a while ago up in Kanata, the Senators got two more points with a 5-3 victory over slumping Atlanta. The Thrashers remain stuck on 69 points, just one ahead of the Lightning for the Southeast division. If the Bolts win, they vault ahead. Keep an eye on that.

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