Sunday, October 31, 2010

Devils' Halloween weekend split with Parise injury equals no treat

Ever since the Devils’ start officially became a crisis of confidence several games into the season, this long six-game road trip loomed as a potential pitfall this team might not get out of. After squeezing out a win over a subpar Ducks team on Friday night, the Devils dropped yet another two points against the Kings in a disappointing 3-1 loss that saw star forward Zach Parise miss most of the third period due to injury, as Derek already wrote about.

Before I get into what our 1-3 start on the trip of doom and expected loss of Parise for at least one game and probably more might mean, I might as well start with our only good news of the weekend – the two points in Anaheim in front of former Devils and Ducks’ captain Scott Niedermayer, who was in attendance at the Pond talking with Devils' GM Lou Lamoriello about a possible number retirement at the Rock later in the year. My advice to Lou? Please wait till next year and announce a date before the season to create demand, Nieds was a great Devil no matter what you want to say about his leaving…he deserves more than having 11,000 in the building for what feels like kind of a rushed ceremony due to the fact our attendance already stinks and will get to Met-like levels if this losing keeps up.

As far as the actual game, well I watched the first period and the early portion of the second and it took the character of one of our standard two games. Either we get blown out or we put a bunch of shots on the other goalie and still can’t score. This game seemed like it was headed for the latter conclusion after Jason Blake beat Andy Greene in front to stuff in a rebound from his own shot, giving the Ducks a 1-0 lead in a game we were dominating. At that point I’d had enough, I shut off the TV and hit the record button planning to go to sleep. I did shortly thereafter, but not till I found out we’d tied the game which was at least good news.

I didn’t know till the next morning that it was actually Jamie Langenbrunner who had tied it with his first goal of the season, a surprisingly soft goal against Jonas Hiller who was otherwise a wall for the Ducks. The only other time we would beat him Friday night was early in the third period when a nice play from rookie Alexander Vasuynov resulted in a Duck turnover and subsequent pass to Patrik Elias (who showed life for the first time in months playing back at center) for a one-timer that also got him off the schnied for the season.

While I was happy to watch the rest of the game on replay in the morning, I knew scratching out a low-scoring win against a bad team wasn’t going to go a long way toward solving our problems. Especially with much better opposition coming up in the Kings last night, even if they were missing stud defenseman Drew Doughty for a sixth straight game with a concussion. I was not watching this game for the most part, since I was at a Halloween party last night though it was on in the other room for long stretches during every period. Clearly all you have to do is look at the shot total to know it was another disappointing night for our $40 million offense, Johnathan Quick or no Johnathan Quick. At this point there’s really no excuse for our continued 1-2 goal output every game - which includes a power play every bit as bad as the one that ended the season last year, if not worse. With supposed power play guru Adam Oates behind the bench, this wasn’t supposed to happen.

Then again you could say the same thing about all of our supposed offensive stars and their performance this season. While it’s early, LA is getting the last laugh on Ilya Kovalchuk aren’t they? Feeling spurned by Kovalchuk's dalliance with the Kings before signing his $100 million deal with the Devil(s), the Staples Center crowd gave him the kind of over-the-top boos you never hear from LA fans. It sounded like our boos for Sean Avery and Scott Gomez, although it's a bit unprecedented to hear that level of booing for a guy who never played there or was any particular rival of your team beforehand.

It might be a good thing we threw Fort Knox at the former Atlanta sniper in one respect, especially if the losing continues and Parise gets too disenchanted with the downward direction of the team to sign an extension. Not to mention Parise probably feels a little slighted with his own contract having been put on the backburner due to the Devils’ cap woes and all the attention we paid to Kovy in the offseason. I didn’t think these kinds of things would affect Zach but they will if we continue to give our best Atlanta Thrashers impression…actually it’s not even a good Thrasher impression since the Thrashers have always put up a crooked number on the scoreboard several times during a season. We've yet to top three goals in a single game and seldom have even reached that total.

Since Zach’s UFA crisis is still two years away though, a more pressing concern is his current injury – which has already forced him back to New Jersey and the team ruled him out of Monday’s game in Vancouver, which might be another of the butt-whippings we’re getting accustomed to. Of course the ultimate concern right now is the overall state of the team, which is now 3-8-1 with two tough road games left (our second being in Chicago Wednesday) followed by tough home tilts against the Rangers and Sabres. If anyone thinks we’re scoring at all against Roberto Luongo, Henrik Lundqvist or Ryan Miller you’re looking at our forwards’ salaries and not current performance, or our injury list.

For at least a decade we were spoiled as Devil fans, not just with winning but with a team that never seemed to suffer key injuries. Maybe losing Bill Murray as trainer put more of a dent in our medical team than we thought, since we’ve had a myriad of injuries the last three seasons now. This year alone, we’ve had five defensemen on the shelf already including key free agent signing Anton Volchenkov for most of the season, contributing to our daily lineup of three rookies (two of whom really shouldn’t be up here including recent call-up Tyler Eckford). Volchenkov may be back Wednesday, but given the Devils’ penchant for medical mysteries we’ll see. Up front we’re currently without Brian Rolston and Jacob Josefson, with the potential absence of Parise looming as yet another storm cloud on the horizon. Things are so bad I may actually start to count down the days until Rolston’s return.

Then again maybe this just isn’t going to break our way no matter who eventually returns. This season incredibly already feels like the Mets from two years ago after a mere eleven games, with our combined underachieving (to a historic degree) and insane MASH injury list. Unlike the Mets we can’t blame the underachieving on the dimensions of a new rink either. It might not matter if Parise’s out four games or forty games at this point, with how dire our situation is even four games could be too much to overcome.

Assuming losses in all of them, (and why shouldn’t I given our level of performance and the opposition?) we’d drop to 3-12-1, and in that case you’re talking about a team almost ten games under .500. Considering the playoff cutoff in this new NHL is usually 92 points we’d have to go realistically from nine under to ten over. This team’s gonna play nineteen games over in its last 66 games when we have the worst record and goal differential in the league now? Extremely unlikely. People bring up the ’05-06 season where we were borderline to even make the playoffs as late as March as proof a run can still be made but my response to that is we were never worse than two games under that year, had a big winning streak in January and were still on the cutoff line with about a dozen games to go. How much harder is it going to be to dig out of a hole as big as we’re digging now?

The only other time since this run began that I had fear of a long, cold winter was two seasons ago when we started November 1-5 after Martin Brodeur’s four-month injury but even that Devils team had far more talent and desire than this year’s version, whether Brodeur or feel-good story Scott Clemmensen was playing. While effort hasn’t been a problem for this year’s team in the last couple of games it’s sad that it even has to be brought up as a positive. Plus there are plenty of veteran guys who have won Cups on this team that are going to be even more disinterested in the second half if this becomes the type of en masse rebuilding year it’s starting to look like (a la the Flyers of a few seasons back). Too bad we don’t have a second or third-round pick in a year it actually looks like we’re going to draft high.

What chaps my hyde the most if it does turn out to finally be the season where everything blows up for the Devils is it provides proof positive to all the negative nellies who feared signing Kovalchuk would be the worst thing this franchise could ever do. It doesn’t help that Kovy himself is underachieving thus far in his Devils tenure. I don’t think he’s a diva as some do, but being late to team meetings doesn’t exactly help you win the players’ player award. Is Kovy’s presence also a reason for Parise’s struggles this season? Zach’s been normally pretty consistent with 30+ goals in each of the last four years, including 83 in the last two but he was even off to a terrible start with three goals in eleven games (one that came several minutes into the season and another was a stat-padder late in a blowout loss to the Sabres).

I guess all that’s left to do is wait and hope everything turns around and fast…guys start getting off the IR, performing up to their contracts and stop worrying about the cap, who’s getting paid what and who the marketing campaign is centered around. Actually having a decent power play would help, too – since our struggles last year really began when our power play went to crap in the second half of the season and neither our losing or the historically bad power play has abated since then. Even if we turn it around though, will an older team have to gas itself just to make the playoffs?

At this point I can’t believe I’m channeling Met owner Fred Wilpon, but I just want meaningful games in March (as opposed to Wilpon wanting meaningful games in September). Otherwise it will definitely be a long, cold winter at the Rock. Well, maybe not for our new co-tenants the Nets who already have two wins there…two more than us this season. For the coup de grace just as I was finishing typing this article I read an article on TSN with a report that the Devils fear Parise could have a 'serious knee injury'.

Ruh roh...batten down the hatches boys, and start planning for who we're going to draft in the top ten this year. Guess the only thing we have to be thankful for is that we don't have to give up our first round pick this year as part of the penalty for the rejected Kovalchuk contract. Could you imagine what a disaster that would have been if we do wind up with a top ten pick for the first time in eons and had to surrender it?!

Parise leaves loss to Kings with injury

Things went from bad to worse for the Devils. During their latest defeat by a count of 3-1 to the Kings, homegrown star wing Zach Parise left the game with an injury following a collision with LA wing Kyle Clifford with 3:40 left in the second period. As WFAN radio tandem Matt Loughlin and Sherry Ross updated in the postgame, it's being termed a "lower body" injury.

Parise immediately flew back to New Jersey to be examined by team doctors. It could be potentially serious with it being a knee injury. Hopefully for No.9 and the Devils, they'll get more encouraging news.

"I didn't see him come out for the third. Hopefully it's nothing major," linemate Travis Zajac told The Ledger's Rich Chere. "Right now is not the time to lose a player like that."

Throughout a seven-year career, the '03 first round gem has been one of the most durable players in the league, only missing three games while becoming an All-Star. Arguably the best American, he became a folk hero with his dramatic tying goal that forced sudden death against Canada in the Vancouver Olympics. Even though Sidney Crosby broke USA hearts, the clutch goal along with a virtuoso performance in the tournament put Zach Attack on the radar. It followed up a breakout '08-09 season in which he established career bests in goals (45), assists (49), points (94), plus/minus (30), power play goals (14), power play points (30), shorthanded points (3), shots on goal (364) and matched his previous high in game-winners (8).

In 12 games this season including tonight, Parise was 3-3-6. Under first-year coach John MacLean, the team's struggled to find chemistry despite having Ilya Kovalchuk signed long-term along with '00 Cup hero Jason Arnott reunited with Patrik Elias. Regrettably, the Minnesota native entered Saturday tied with Arnott and Kovalchuk for the club lead in goals. After getting Jamie Langenbrunner's first and Elias' second in a 2-1 win over Anaheim Friday, they only got one against Jon Quick despite outshooting LA 20-4 in the third minus Parise. Surprise rookie defenseman Matt Taormina notched the only marker, putting him into a share of the lead with three. Before the Devils could attempt tying a game they trailed by two, Jarret Stoll scored 24 seconds later.

The Devils fell to 1-3-0 on the six-game trip with a pair of tough games against Vancouver tomorrow and defending Cup champ Chicago Wednesday. When they finally return home, the Rangers will be waiting for them.

Losing Parise for any stretch would be a crusher. Especially since he's a tireless worker who combines his speed and skill along with a great work ethic that makes him a fan favorite. The Devils are also still without defenseman Anton Volchenkov, who sat out a 10th straight game with a broken nose. He has begun skating and could return soon. They're probably holding the gritty ex-Senator out until the November 5 game versus the Blueshirts.

In the mean time, it'll be up to Kovalchuk who again was held off the board and booed roundly by Staples Center to pick up the slack. The electrifying Russian superstar finished with only two shots along with a minus-one rating in 20:18. It'll take a total team effort for New Jersey to turn it around. They'll enter Monday's contest at Vancouver with an East worst 3-8-1 mark for eight points, trailing only other Battle disappointment Buffalo who fell yet again 4-zip at Dallas.

As noted NJD blogger Hasan might say, something has to give.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Missed call pushes Canes past Rangers

The home problems continued for the Rangers. Even if it wasn't all their fault in what amounted to a tough 4-3 loss to the Hurricanes sending MSG home disappointed again. I know what my #NYR Tweeps are thinking. Typical of this team to win tough road games against Boston and Toronto putting together a three-game win streak and then fall apart against the Southeast. When will it ever change? Even if a missed call led to Erik Cole's winner, it still is frustrating.

While I'll leave that for fave blogger Scotty Hockey to lament over, let's discuss why the Blueshirts wound up on the losing end. Well for starters, they never led. It's tough playing catch up all night, especially after playing a solid first period but ran into a bit of bad luck thanks to Cam Ward's best friend the goalposts. That and another misplay by Henrik Lundqvist put them behind the eight ball. That along with Canes' superior speed and killer instinct dealt the Blueshirts a second consecutive loss. These are the games they'll look back on if they miss the playoffs again.

It doesn't take a brain surgeon to conclude that this team isn't the most talented. Particularly without Marian Gaborik and Alex Frolov once again MIA. Can the Joe Micheletti excuses for a soft player that is playing too much on the perimeter. No wonder he's stuck on two goals and can't seem to find chemistry with anyone. When will Tortorella give him the treatment? If you can make an example of both rookie Derek Stepan and Erik Christensen who hardly are costing much on our cap, then isn't it about time the task master makes an example of the Russian enigma the Kings aren't exactly missing. Besides him, Marc Staal ain't too far behind. Yet another mindless game from the "shutdown guy" even if he scored. Twice he was out of position on Carolina goals including the winner with our goalie a sitting duck. Not that he could be blamed in a game both Henrik and Ward traded big saves in an entertaining contest.

Early on, the Rangers generated plenty of opportunities but both Staal and Mike Del Zotto rang shots off the post, allowing the Canes to find their legs. Both Ward and Lundqvist each robbed players pointblank keeping it scoreless. However, it was a Lundqvist miscue that led to the game's opening goal. Off a dump behind the net with Dan Girardi ready to take the puck, King Henrik mishandled the exchange allowing the Canes to keep it in. Eventually, Tuomu Ruutu made him pay when he steered home a rebound for a power play goal. Anton Babchuk and the game's No.1 Star, 18 year-old rookie Jeff Skinner picked up assists. The 2010 seventh overall pick was all over the ice, registering a career high three points, including half of Carolina's output. It's a pretty good bet the once great figure skater is staying in Raleigh off his virtuoso performance on Broadway.

Before they got back in it, a poor start to the second put the Blueshirts behind two. Albeit a bad bounce off Michal Rozsival which the youngest player in the league deposited for his first of a memorable night. Before Skinner did more damage in the form of a highlight reel that steered his team back in front, the Rangers fought back thanks to the power play out of all things. First, suddenly red hot Ryan Callahan tipped home his third in three games to get them on the board. Rozsival dished to Artem Anisimov, whose shot pass was deflected upstairs extending the Ranger alternate captain's point streak to five straight (3-5-8). He would also help set up Brandon Dubinsky's team-leading fifth later in the stanza. Since a slow start, Cally's playing some great hockey that's included three consecutive multi-point efforts. It's nice to see No.24 finally getting rewarded for his dedication. He never takes a shift off.

Before they could breathe, a poor read by Staal led to Skinner's spectacular goal. The new alternate turned the puck over in the neutral zone and then Skinner turned on the jets before deking Lundqvist out of his jock, going backhand, restoring the lead 55 seconds later. Undeterred, the Rangers again used special teams to knot it. This time with Ruutu off for slashing, a nice pass from Callahan to Dubinsky saw the emerging left wing fire past Ward, tying it at three with 4:17 left in the second.

It would stay that way until a bogus call on Brian Boyle finished off a bitter night for the guys in Blue. As fate had it, Skinner was involved again when he positioned himself for a rebound which forced Boyle to come hard on the back check. Apparently, this year's latest installment of blind mice can't tell the difference between good defensive play and a penalty. And yes. This one I'm blaming Bettman for. The majority of your officials don't read the game right and instead anticipate calls. Sometimes, like a blind squirrel they hit the peg. Other times like in a competitive game like last night, it winds up costing a team.

Not only did they make the wrong call when the teams should've played on and probably gone to overtime where it deserved to be. Instead, they missed clear interference on Ruutu as Cole was burying a Skinner rebound for the deciding tally with under 4:00 left. Off a faceoff win, the younger brother of pest Jarkko Ruutu got in Dubinsky's path, clearly not letting him skate out. Even if Sam Rosen and Micheletti whined about it, they happened to be right in this instance. A fuming Dubinsky yelled at one ref to no avail. The damage was done.

As was the case in the loss to Atlanta, they couldn't get it tied, partially due to Ward (40 saves) but also because it took too long to get set up. That's been a team epidemic for years. Late in games you trail, you have to move the puck quickly and efficiently. Don't overpass. Take your shots. Get traffic in front. Hopefully one of these days, they'll learn this. At least it's nice to see some homegrown kids getting results. But they got a long way to go. Now it's onto Toronto for a Hockey Night In Canada Original 6 battle.

Perhaps they'll be more at ease away from home.

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Cam Ward, Car (40 saves incl. 14/14 in 3rd)
2nd Star-Ryan Callahan, NYR (3rd of season, assist-3-5-8 over last 5, 7 SOG in 20:30)
1st Star-Jeff Skinner, Car (2 goals, assist-1st career 3 point game, +2 in 15:10)

Friday, October 29, 2010

Preview: Grachev to debut versus Candy Canes

The Rangers will try to put Thursday behind them when they play host to the Hurricanes tonight at MSG. John Tortorella received encouraging news on both Artem Anisimov and Michal Rozsival, who are both in the lineup. The MRI on Anisimov's ankle after he blocked a shot came back negative and is good enough for the second-year Russian pivot to play. He'll return to anchoring the club's best line with fellow draftees Brandon Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan.

Rozsival, who hyper-extended his knee and limped off with five minutes to go in the loss to Atlanta, is also good to go. Thankfully too because our blueline is very thin. Especially with Tort still not trusting Matt Gilroy even if he and Steve Eminger saw increased minutes the other day. Hell. Eminger actually played his best game. Hopefully, that's a good sign. Once again, Mike Sauer is out with a "mysterious injury." This reminds me of how the Devils operate, except it's probably Tortorella's way of keeping him out for whatever reason.

Evgeny Grachev makes his NHL debut. The 20 year-old Russian who the organization converted to center at Hartford posted a goal and assist with the AHL club. He's up due to enforcer Derek Boogaard, who infected his thumb during a scrap. So, the Rangers give Grachev a look. He'll play on the fourth line alongside slumping Erik Christensen and Todd White. The former '08 third round pick went 12-16-28, -13 with four power play goals in his first pro season with the Wolf Pack. He possesses good size and skill as evidenced during last year's camp. The thing with Grach is becoming more consistent. Maybe that's why they shifted him to center, giving him more responsibility. The way Tort coaches, don't expect too much. We'll put the over/under at six shifts.

Brian Boyle, who continues to impress, has moved up to the second line where he'll join Sean Avery and Ruslan Fedotenko. The most improved Ranger deserves it. Rookie Derek Stepan, who is being challenged by Tortorella to compete better along with Christensen- slides to the third line where he'll try to get Alex Frolov going. The way the ex-King has played reminds us of Petr Nedved and even my boy Kovalev, who both played mostly on the perimeter skating around. What happened to the guy who impressed during preseason? Two goals just won't cut it. He's been invisible. At least the contract is only a year. Brandon Prust stays with Frolov. Hopefully, his grit will rub off. Here are how the lines look:


Del Zotto-Girardi

Henrik Lundqvist is back in following Martin Biron's forgettable home debut. Figure Cam Ward to be in for the Candy Canes, making for a good goalie match-up. With the Knicks visiting the Celtics on MSG, the game can be seen on MSG-Plus.

Devils and Sabres in unfamiliar territory

I shouldn't be up but somehow am because my schedule has been wacky lately. Well, maybe not as out of whack as the Devils right now but yeah. They're not the only Battle club struggling as the Sabres are stuck on three wins in 10 games (3-6-1) just a couple of points clear of last New Jersey (2-7-1). With October about to close, two of the East's top three clubs just last Spring are in the basement trying to get going.

Even the biggest doomsday scenario couldn't have predicted this for half the Battle clubs. Especially when they boast two of the game's elite goalies. I'm not about to write off Martin Brodeur yet. He's gotten off to slow starts before. It's just that now his defense is AHL caliber without Anton Volchenkov and Bryce Salvador, who remains on LTIR with a concussion. Hell. As our resident NJD blogger Hasan alluded to, even Mark Fraser is missed. Between a matador D reminding us of some of those dreadful Ranger teams and lackluster starts from Travis Zajac, Patrik Elias, Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner, it's no wonder the Devs are where they are. First-year coach John MacLean must think he became one of Freddy's nightmares. Benching Ilya Kovalchuk legitimately due to tardiness for a team meeting and unable to find the right combos. Even Zach Parise only has three goals, which sadly is good for a tie for first on the club with Arnott. Can it get any worse? They'll look to get back in the win column tonight at Anaheim.

As for the Sabres, they haven't looked much better. Not even with rating Vezina winner Ryan Miller doing his part. In a 6-3 road loss to old rival Philly, their lack of attention to detail was disturbing. Sloppy turnovers led directly to odd-man rushes which the Flyers were only too happy to take advantage of. Even if Lindy Ruff's club made it interesting late, they know they must be more consistent to get out of this funk. Since defeating Ottawa in the season opener, they've dropped seven of nine. In particular, Tyler Myers is going through a rough patch in his second year, posting a team worst minus-nine rating. When Steve Montador is your most effective blueliner, that's a problem. Thomas Vanek has just begun lighting the lamp after another MIA stint. Let's be honest. He hasn't been the same since he signed that huge Oiler offersheet which Darcy Regier matched. One of the game's top talents should be putting up between 40-50 goals every season. Not going through funks which have Western New York scratching their heads. Only Derek Roy, rookie Tyler Ennis and Drew Stafford have performed. More is needed from Tim Connolly, Jochen Hecht and even Patrick Kaleta, who's been far too quiet. They're still missing Jason Pominville, whose status is uncertain due to a concussion.

On a day in which both teams play with the latter visiting the house of horrors Atlanta, can they dig out of this early hole? For sure. But, it would be wise to get untracked soon before it morphs into Carolina last year, who despite a furious rally, couldn't recover from a horrid start. Over the next couple of weeks, we'll see what each is made of.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Devils' nightmare of a season continues

Well if two of the twelve stages of recovery are denial and anger, I've already had plenty of both and am just hovering in disbelief right now at how bad this Devils season has gotten before the end of October. Our third consecutive blowout defeat since the Ilya Kovalchuk scratching has dropped our record to 2-7-1, as this once proud franchise now sits last in the entire NHL. Don't expect this team to get out of the hole anytime soon either, with tough teams like the Kings, Canucks and Blackhawks to close out this trip after we go to Anaheim Friday for the first time since Scott Niedermayer's retirement. Without Niedermayer or long-time rival Jean-Sebastian Giguere at the Pond, for the first time in a long time playing the Ducks is just another game.

By the same token, nothing's just another game right now for the Devils. Of course our spoiled fans expect GM Lou Lamoriello to make liberal use of his quick finger and dispose of Johnny MacLean after just ten games. If that does happen - even if the GM takes over the team himself - I'll lose a lot of respect for Lou. You can't expect anyone to win with a roster that's been dogging it since January last year and a defense core that makes last year's mediocre overachievers look Norris-like. About the only way I could see a coaching change is if this team drives Johnny Mac to Larry Robinson-like emotional despair, which might be possible as the blowout defeats multiply. Heck, some people think the coach was fighting back tears last night.

However, when you do change the coach once as we did with Jacques Lemaire after last year's poor second half, and the core portion of the roster continues to underachieve then you're forced to conclude one of two things...either you gotta start getting rid of some players or your GM just can't pick coaches. Either way, that doesn't suggest any coaching change will make a difference to the rotting corpse that is the New Jersey Devils. I've already been on record as saying certain players must go, it's to the point of saturation where I'm tired even talking about it. While it's true it doesn't look like this team is playing any discernible system right now (offense, defense or special teams), it's hard to implement any system when you have guys either aging, underachieving or too green to play any system without making a ton of mistakes.

In addition to the Johnny Mac bashing another thing I'm getting tired of reading on the internet is the Kovalchuk bashing. Yes, he's underperformed like everyone else with just two goals and eight soft points in ten games...six after the first seven minutes of the season. And his being late to meetings isn't helping anything, though at least he was punished for that. Where's the punishment for other players that are dogging it? When Danius Zubrus has been the best forward so far (and pretty much the only one making over $1 million giving 100%) that's a problem.

Everyone knew there would be an adjustment period to fitting an individual talent like Kovalchuk into the team concept but nobody could have suspected the team would melt down around him as it was happening. If I have to hear one more time how the team won't shoot under 5% for the season I'll tear out my hair. Of course the offense will pick up eventually, it has to. Unfortunately that might not be until we're already too deep in the hole to get out a la Carolina last year. However, this defense is a bigger concern right now.

About the only good news with the defense right now is that help might be on the way soon now that Anton Volchenkov has begun skating, trying to recover from his mysterious injury that's kept him out of the lineup these last eight games and forced us to go with three rookies on defense instead of 'just' two. As foolhardy as it was to assume our D would go on playing well or even competently with kids like Matt Corrente who's not ready or Olivier Magnan, who wasn't even on anyone's rader to be on the team before the injuries to Volchenkov and Bryce Salvador, the real surprising part is a couple of the veterans haven't been playing well either.

My first reaction when we signed Henrik Tallinder was ugh...I thought he was just another one of those workmanlike no-name defenseman who got overrated because he was on the first pairing in Buffalo. I was talked into thinking it could be a good signing but I should have gone by my first instinct - he hasn't just been awful, he's been a total nightmare. As much as people want to crap about how Kovy ruined our cap, signing him and Johan Hedberg for a combined $5 million this year (and Tallinder for four years total) is far more of a waste of cap dollars. And we might have to decide whether Andy Greene's really worth giving an extension after the season. In spite of his goal last night he's looked more like the player pre-first half of 2009 than the one who turned the NHL on its ear for about 40 games.

Not that I really want to see another vet bite the dust, god knows our D's already at critical mass as it is with defections like Niedermayer, Brian Rafalski and Paul Martin. Signing Volchenkov and Tallinder was supposed to fix the decay but Volchenkov's played four periods and Tallinder's already a Vladimir Malakhov-like nightmare. Maybe it's a good thing we didn't trade Salvador after all but if we do have to deal him at some point, he'll have far less value post-concussion than he would have if it was the offseason. Our defense sure can't be any worse with him though, after we allowed Joe Thornton to get a hat trick with relative ease in last night's 5-2 defeat at the Shark Tank.

So the question everyone wants to know is when does this season reach critical mass for the GM? He's certainly not without blame for the construction of this roster and more importantly bad cap dollars but he's not being replaced either unless owner Jeff Vanderbeek channels the late George Steinbrenner (a la the '70's version) or Lou himself resigns, which the cynics think he might do anyway after the embarassing mess of the Kovalchuk signing since people think that wasn't really his call. I'd have to think something happens any day now, and really it has to. You can't be getting blown out every game with this kind of roster and not make any changes at all.

Of course the second question is what happens when the other shoe drops? Everyone assume it'll be the coach...god knows if we had hired an outsider like Mike Haviland and this had happened he might be gone already. Everyone knows the coach is the easiest piece to change and Lou's had enough random coach firings to basically expect it but again, we already did this after last year. And I don't think Lou wants to do that to Johnny Mac, not after all the time and effort he spent getting him back in the organization and grooming him for the job. To can him after this short a period of time with all the other problems on the team would be Len Barrie-like (giving Barry Melrose the hook in Tampa after sixteen games).

Whatever happens needs to happen fast though, otherwise there's no point to doing anything at all other than blowing up the team on our own time and rebuilding. Not a word you want to even consider with 39-year old Martin Brodeur playing out his final days in this mess.

Uneven Rangers Thrashed

There are going to be nights like this. You just hope they don't come at the expense of players as was potentially the case for an already shorthanded Ranger club, who were thrashed literally and figuratively by a more determined Atlanta bunch who after nearly blowing a 5-2 third period lead, held off the Broadway hosts 6-4.

The loss halted a three-game win streak. What John Tortorella's guys did so well during it is what they didn't Tuesday. In spite of a strong start in which alternate captain Ryan Callahan scored his second in two in the opening minute, the Blueshirts were often sluggish by Craig Ramsay's more physical squad that won battles all night. It all added up to a deserved defeat, which had Tort fuming afterwards. If this team wants to be taken seriously, they can't take nights off. In this case, at least two periods and that maybe generous. Already without Marian Gaborik, Chris Drury and Vinny Prospal, they now could be facing life minus second-year pivot Artem Anisimov, who left the contest with an ankle injury. Early word is it's not too promising. They also could be without Michal Rozsival, who hyperextended his knee. He's a gamer. So, if he misses any time, then you know it's bad.

Up one, the Rangers didn't finish the first period well. After a shaky start, the Thrashers began to dictate with their speed and forecheck, which was an issue. Especially grinders like Chris Thorburn and Ben Eager, who gave our D fits. They nearly combined to set up one-time Ranger Nik Antropov but surprise starter Martin Biron snuffed it out. Eventually, Atlanta's hard work paid off with a superb second which saw Rangers caught flatfooted while doing too much stick checking. Never was this more apparent than on Bryan Little's tying marker in which he took an Andrew Ladd pass in his end and then went coast to coast by Sean Avery and undressed both Marc Staal and Biron for a highlight reel goal, going to the backhand. Amazingly, it was his first. Why does that always seem to happen to us? Adding insult to injury, pest Eric Boulton scored later.

The Thrashers continued to outplay the Rangers, who couldn't be bothered to take the man. This time, a turnover led to a four-man rush with a streaking Evander Kane intercepting a pass from a teammate before turning Anisimov inside out and then wiring his sixth off the right post for Atlanta's first lead. It was at that point that Tortorella had seen enough, calling timeout and then chewing out the bench. At least they responded thanks to Sean Avery, who again had a standout performance. Boy, has he ever been a different player. This time, he outhustled Brent Sopel behind the net. A pinching Dan Girardi kept the play alive and then Avery did the rest, stuffing one home past Chris Mason for his first of the season.

However, they couldn't sustain thanks to a horrible pinch by Staal who was just brutal. Not to kill what's supposed to be our No.1 defenseman. But he has been less than adequate so far. There have been too many instances where our "shutdown guy" has gotten beaten. He is earning close to $4 million because Glen Sather overpaid Girardi, who at least is holding up his end of the bargain. This is Staal's fourth year. It's time for him to start earning that raise. Back to the pinch from Hell. Let's just say it led directly to another first goal. This time, it was ex-Devil Niklas Bergfors who picked high glove on Biron to give Atlanta the lead for good. Our backup was honest, admitting that he could've done more. In particular, Dustin Byfuglien's unscreened power play blast from the right circle which followed Boulton's early tally 49 seconds into the third was the back breaker. His glove was again victimized.

Suddenly up by three, the Thrashers couldn't handle prosperity. With Anisimov out, vet Todd White stepped up and scored his first in just his second game. Off a turnover which both Callahan and Brandon Dubinsky forced, White put home a rebound cutting it to 5-3. Before you knew it, as Dad and I were watching his Giants end Cliff Lee's night, it was suddenly a one-goal game thanks to do everything forward Brian Boyle. You really have to admire what he's done thus far. He came into camp in better shape, having improved his skating and finishing checks. Something, we rarely saw last year. He no longer is a waste. Also elevated with rookie Derek Stepan struggling again at MSG, Boyle combined with Avery and revelation Ruslan Fedotenko to make things interesting. Off some grunt work by his linemates, Boyle cleaned up in front for his third, giving the home club two goals in 131 seconds, pulling within one.

Unfortunately, that was as close as they got with Atlanta doing just enough to hold off the comeback. In particular, Byfuglien was a beast not only notching the winner and firing rockets but from a physical standpoint, he broke up plays and did a stellar job taking our smurfs off the puck. That kind of attention to detail from one of four former Cup champion Hawks resulted in the bad guys coming out of Manhattan with two points. Big Buff's familiar teammate Ladd sealed it with an empty netter.

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Sean Avery, NYR (1st of season, assist in 15:43)
2nd Star-Alex Burmistrov, Atl (1st career NHL point-assisted on Kane's 6th, penalty drawn in 17:18)
1st Star-Dustin Byfuglien, Atl (PP GW w/14:59 left, game high 6 SOG, +1 in 23:24)

Monday, October 25, 2010

Young Guns deliver in win over Hudson rival

For once on Broadway, youth is being served. Best of all, opponents are finding out that the homegrown Rangers can play a little. At least that's what the club's third consecutive victim, the Hudson rival Devils learned last night. Brandon Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan each had a goal and an assist as the Gaborik-less Blueshirts defeated the Kovalchuk Devils 3-1 at MSG. Michal Rozsival also notched a goal and helper while teammate Henrik Lundqvist stood tall, besting rival Martin Brodeur with 27 saves including some dandies late that prevented a New Jersey comeback.

John Tortorella's suddenly improving club won most of the battles against a fragile nemesis that can't seem to get out of its own way. The Rangers were stronger on the puck and more diligent defensively coming back hard and blocking 21 shots, including four from stalwart Dan Girardi who blanketed Ilya Kovalchuk most of the night. The greater attention to detail is a big reason they've reeled off three straight in succession.

"If you don't play the system you're just going to stick out like a sore thumb...everyone is doing it," was the way an effective Sean Avery described the difference after helping set up Rozsival's second of the season which opened the scoring. Sticking mostly to hockey, the Ranger assist leader (5) is playing his best hockey in a couple of years. While foe David Clarkson tried to goon it up, Avery stayed within himself while continuing solid chemistry with rookie pivot Derek Stepan and vet Ruslan Fedotenko. Only in on one goal, the unlikely trio generated chances.

Against a team without an identity thus far despite oodles of talent (sound familiar???), the Rangers came out and attacked, generating plenty of opportunities. They outshot the Devils 17-10 in the first but couldn't get the puck past a sharp Brodeur, who turned away Girardi and Mike Del Zotto on two good power plays where they moved the puck well and got shots through. With the game still scoreless, the penalty kill came through with Avery in the box. When he returned, his initial shot from the left circle caught the Devil goalie up high. A Fedotenko wide offering then caromed off the boards to Rozsival, who one-timed it past Brodeur for a 1-0 lead 86 seconds into the second period. Like the defenseman's first goal also on home ice despite little support, the puck changed direction- this time going off Andy Greene.

Following a Rozsival penalty, the Rangers maintained their lead with stellar D and a more aggressive offense that made Brodeur work. In fact, they held a 29-16 edge after two. As fate would have it, it was a Kovalchuk minor that resulted in Callahan's first. A hustling Girardi got position on the returning Russian who was scratched previously, forcing the Devil company man to take him down. Callahan had done it all except score. In a game where the future Ranger captain registered a game high seven hits and blocked four shots, Cally finally got the collective monkey off his back when he deflected home a Dubinsky shot pass over Brodeur, increasing to 2-0 at 12:22. Rozsival added an assist. His two goals and four helpers pace all Ranger blueliners yet was still booed.

"It's unfortunate. I know it gets under my skin a bit when it happens," noted Callahan.

It could've been more but Brodeur kept the Devils afloat with a couple of stops on favorite target Avery. The Blueshirts failed to take advantage of New Jersey captain Jamie Langenbrunner's third minor and also couldn't cash in with Oliver Magnan-Grenier off early in the third. With John MacLean's club finally showing a pulse, they dictated play tilting the ice. Lundqvist, who hardly broke a sweat early except for a sliding denial of a Kovalchuk bid- made some key stops in a busier third that saw the Devs outshoot his club 12-5. He turned away Langenbrunner from the right circle to keep the hosts up a pair.

With the Devils still unable to breakthrough, it looked like King Henrik might record his 25th career shutout. But some hustle from Matt Corrente and the Devs' best forward Dainius Zubrus made it more interesting. Rozsival swung the puck around which took a funny bounce out of Brandon Prust's reach. Stepan over skated allowing Corrente to keep it in. The Devil rookie blueliner then fired a low wrister on Lundqvist that drew a rebound. Zubrus got inside position on Rozsival and made a sweet backhand dish to an uncovered Kovalchuk, who deposited his third, cutting it to 2-1 with 5:52 left.

The Devils pushed for the equalizer but Lundqvist twice shutdown rookie Jacob Josefson and then made the save of the game on Matt Taormina, whose one-timer with over a minute left fooled the Ranger goalie, who wasn't sure he got it before Brian Boyle cleared the puck. "He really cemented it there for us the latter half of that (third) period," Tortorella said.

With Brodeur on the bench for an extra attacker, it was the solid defensive play of Dubinsky and Callahan that salted it. With time winding down, the Devils nearly had Kovalchuk set up but Callahan got to him and the two inadvertently collided with the puck coming to Dubinsky, who shot it down into the vacant net for his club-leading fourth with a second to go.

 “We knew coming in that we needed to have a big year,” Callahan told NY Sportsday's Joe McDonald afterwards. “Losing those guys is tough, but it put a little bit more responsibility on us and it seems like we have taken off.”

No coincidence that they've been instrumental in the team's resurgence. Callahan. Dubinsky. Anisimov. Stepan. Staal. Girardi. Del Zotto. Gilroy. Lundqvist. Get used to it.

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Henrik Lundqvist, NYR (27 saves, incl.11/12 in 3rd for 1st win MSG win this year)
2nd Star-Michal Rozsival, NYR (goal, assist, 2 SOG, blocked shot in 22:52)
1st Star-Callahan/Dubinsky, NYR (2-2-4, +2, 6 SOG, 10 hits, 7 blocked shots, 4 takeaways)

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Are we at rock bottom now?!

Certainly it looked like last night's embarassing loss to the Sabres at home might have been rock bottom for this underachieving Devils team but tonight in some ways might actually be worse. Sure the score's only 2-0 after two periods but if it was Johan Hedberg instead of Martin Brodeur in goal tonight it would be about 7 or 8-0. Our offense continues to look like it's in a pot haze, our defense is nonexistent and we've been outshot 28-16 in a game we needed before the real meat of this road trip gets underway Wednesday in San Jose.

Is there anything really worth talking about from this game so far? Not unless you're Derek. So I'll beat the dead horse that is the Ilya Kovalchuk scratching some more...apparently the veil of secrecy finally got pulled back by The Record's Tom Gulutti on why the Devils' $100 million man did not dress for last night's game:

A source said that Kovalchuk was late for a mandatory team meeting prior to Saturday’s optional morning skate at Prudential Center.

When I asked Kovalchuk if there was a team meeting before the morning skate, he said confirmed that there was. When I asked if he attended the meeting, he said, “no comment” and then said he had to go and would talk again after the game.

MacLean also would not comment when I asked if Kovalchuk attended the team meeting.

Assuming that's true I have two main thoughts...number one I'm fine with the benching, even if a more benign punishment like being sat for a period might have gotten the message through without compromising the team's chances to win last night. Still, sometimes you have to go overboard to really stand on principle. However, my second thought is that if that's all that happened, then what exactly was the reason for the initial secrecy in the first place?!

I mean really, the Devils would have been supported in the media and the fans wouldn't have batted an eye if the team had just put out a statement saying that Kovalchuk was scratched and this was the reason. Instead, nobody knew that Kovalchuk was a healthy scratch until at least two periods into the game and we - as fans and paying customers - deserved an explanation why. It's one thing to scratch a random fourth-liner or hide an injury from the opposition (god knows we've been doing that long enough with Anton Volchenkov and his 'stiff neck') but no tactical advantage was gained by this cloak-and-dagger nonsense with our supposed franchise player. And as a result, the Devils looked like a Mickey Mouse organization being mocked for healthy scratching a $100 million player for no apparent reason...there I said it.

Of course after all the hulabaloo that followed, the Devils finally had to leak what happened otherwise it would still probably be a secret but why did it even take the fact that this became an international news story to do it? Someone in the PR department or Lou Lamoriello himself should have recognized when you scratch your marquee acquisition that people all over North America are going to be asking why (and inventing theories when you don't tell them), starting with your own fanbase. It's not like indicating he was being disciplined for off-ice reasons would be talking out of school.

Sometimes I honestly think we keep secrets just for the principle of keeping secrets. And you can get away with keeping everything in house when you're a winning organization but when you're about fifteen minutes away from being 2-6-1 with a team that's been awful for the entire 2010 calendar year you can't get away with hiding every little thing. Especially after an offseason where we, as a fanbase, were continually kept in the dark over what was going on during those six weeks where Kovalchuk was in an NHL-induced purgatory.

We also made our rookie coach look like the second coming of Mike Keenan seven games into his tenure by not coming clean initially. Not that I think Johnny MacLean will be in trouble, even as the zombified performances multiply at an alarming rate. I wonder how long it'll take Lou to throw the jelly jar this year...this time around he might throw a grenade, and it won't land on the coaching staff. I wouldn't be entirely shocked if one or more big-name players don't make it to San Jose on Wednesday, because something has to give and right now. When you have Jamie Langenbrunner committing nine million penalties, Patrik Elias continuing his invisible act and so on, you know that something beyond just firing yet another coach has to be done to shake things up.

Especially since our cap situation isn't fully cleared up yet and won't be until something is done. Maybe it hasn't helped this band of mental midgets that Lou keeps that axe over their heads as long as possible, but tough noogies. They honestly don't deserve the benefit of the doubt after what happened last year, and I thought if anything Lou did too little to change the culture of the locker room this offseason. At this point though, they're forcing his hand and fast.

Rangers go for three straight with reeling Devils visiting

In an hour, the Rangers and Devils will do battle at The Garden. It'll be the first meeting of six exciting regular season match-ups between the Hudson rivals. However, this one could have more scrutiny attached to it due to John MacLean's benching of company man Ilya Kovalchuk during last night's 6-1 drubbing at the hands of the Sabres.

How will Kovalchuk respond? The better question probably is how the Devils will off this unexpected move which stunned the hockey world. In particular, social media who feed off these kind of things. As a blogger, I don't consider myself that important. I merely see this space as a way to express my feelings pro/con on our game. Did MacLean push the panic button by sitting out his megastar following a solid win in Montreal? Or was it the right move after a game in which the supposed new cornerstone didn't even register a shot in the team's second victory?

I'm old school. No player is bigger than a T-E-A-M. If that means making an example of Ilya, so be it. Somehow, bloggers like Puck Daddy's Greg Wyshynski have forgotten what their team concept has been. The Devils have always been group-serving, which explains all the success they've had spanning two decades. Perhaps Johnny Mac was simply saying to his team, 'Nobody is above the rules. If we don't shape up, it could be you next.' Even if it does seem urgent to do it in Game No.8 on a Saturday night at home stunning the Kool Aid drinkers, there's a strong message attached. While true no Anton Volchenkov and no Bryce Salvador have made the blueline a mess, there's enough talent to get by. However, if they're under performing which has been the case for most, you're not going to get results. As Hasan noted in his recap rant last night, the six-game road trip which begins tonight could make or break their season. Did we just type that? You have to figure they'll be plenty ready to go against the bitter Broadway rival.

While they try to get things sorted out there, the Rangers are coming off their best two games of the year, netting back-to-back road wins over Toronto and Boston. Both by a goal over improved Northeast competition. Last night, they held off the Bruins 3-2 thanks to a strong first period that saw both Artem Anisimov and Alex Frolov tally with one even coming via a nifty power play redirect by Arty. After Boston's Zdeno Chara sliced it in half with a screened five-on-three rifle past Henrik Lundqvist, the Blueshirts got into penalty trouble but were able to get it done. Marc Staal came out of the penalty box and beat Tuukka Rask on a breakaway going backhand deke for the winner. A rarity that got chuckles. Lundqvist stood tall stopping 35 in a building he's had success in to notch the 'W.'

Why have the Rangers won two in a row? Because they're simply competing better as opposed to the first four games. They're winning battles and getting better defensive efforts from just about everyone, including Michal Rozsival who put together two consecutive big games. Can he carry it over at the unfriendly Garden? Will the fans allow it? Something Devil captain Jamie Langenbrunner alluded to with the fans all over Johan Hedberg last night. Sometimes, fans can be hostile and unfair. I hope Rozy has a good game. He's become our best penalty killer. Aside from him, Mike Sauer had a second straight strong game even making a nice pinch that helped setup Frolov's second. He really deserves to stay in and hopefully will get that chance.

It'll be Lundqvist versus Martin Brodeur, which is always a treat. Marty should be sharp having only worked relief last night while Henrik played a full 60 and made some outstanding saves. The rivalry isn't complete without Sean Avery, who got underneath Kovalchuk and David Clarkson's skin in a meaningless preseason game. For his part, Avery's playing some of his most inspired hockey thus far keeping the antics to a minimum while meshing well with impressive rookie Derek Stepan and Ruslan Fedotenko. He must stick to hockey.

So, who will prevail in this first match? The angry Devils or the happy Rangers. One thing's certain. There won't be any smiles once they take the ice.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Devils, Hedberg shame themselves against Sabres

When I left for Newark just after four to partake in some pregame festivities (meeting up with friends, getting a mystery puck and seeing the pregame skate) I never could have imagined I'd be sitting here seven hours later with so much to type up in what won't be a recap as much as it will a rant, and a timeline of this bizarre day which saw the Devils lose to the Sabres at 6-1 to stay winless for October at home, turning $100 million man Ilya Kovalchuk into a healthy scratch due to a 'coach's decision' and Kovalchuk buddy Johan Hedberg into Devils' fans version of Luis Castillo after less than half a hockey game.

My first clue that something rotten was in the air came at about 6:45 when I was told by one of my friends that Kovalchuk was a scratch and Alexander Vasuynov was brought up to take his place. I was like, geez we kept that secret pretty well and figured this was some minor injury that the Devils didn't want disclosed. I didn't find out the truth till much later...but the funny part was I actually watched several minutes the pregame skate and didn't notice Vasuynov there or Kovalchuk missing. I mean geez, I don't actually think to take a roll call of who's on the ice, except maybe for who the starting goaltenders are. Plus with all our new players it's still hard to adjust to the guys we already have on our roster - like Matt Taormina wearing #20 or even Tim Sestito wearing #14.

Maybe I should have thought I was in for it when I was one of the last people to buy a mystery puck and wound up with the aformentioned Sestito. I can't complain though, all the proceeds from the mystery pucks (either $20 or $25) go to breast cancer research anyway so at worst it's a charity giveaway. And last year I did wind up with Patrik Elias as one of my other mystery pucks - though I already have his signature on a jersey anyway. Regardless, I was still looking forward to the game and thought geez, what if we win this game without Kovy - then all the people who were complaining he was bad for the team would have more ammo.

Well, soon after the game started I stopped worrying about that...around the time I saw the first bad goal go in off of Hedberg when Drew Stafford floated one in from just inside the point at 6:57 on the Sabres' first shot of the game. Combined with Hedberg's bad preseason and hideous relief appearance against the Caps I wasn't in the mood to see that. Especially considering he was supposed to be able to play 15 or so games to give Martin Brodeur some relief at last this season. Pretty much Hedberg could do nothing right after that, allowing goals in rapid succession to Tyler Myers, Tyler Ennis and finally Patrick Kaleta for the coup de grace 8:17 into the second period.

How bad was the crowd? Early in the second period I noted that the Bronx cheers when Hedberg finally made a save were the loudest the crowd got all night. That is, until the boos which followed Hedberg's fourth goal followed by the standing ovation when MacLean finally pulled the veteran and threw Brodeur in the mix on what was supposed to be his day off. While I'm sure Hedberg's been pulled a number of times before, it's doubtful it was ever his first game for a new team, not to mention in front of an angry crowd just over 14,000 (which included a fair number of giveaway tickets) that wasn't in the mood for him to stink when the whole team's been bad for much of this season.

Following Brodeur's entrance into a game we were trailing 4-0, a funny thing happened...the crowd actually got into the game big-time. To the point where you would have seriously thought we were 1-1 in the third period of a playoff game. I personally don't get it, you would like to see more of this from the fans when it actually mattered. I mean come on, we were not coming from four goals down against Ryan Miller of all people, and Brodeur was not going to shut down the suddenly hot Sabres coming in cold. It's the oddest crowd metamorphisis I've ever seen and it came during a second period where we got outshot 14-4, with Thomas Vanek scoring on a power play late in the period to finally send people heading for the exits at 5-0 including me.

Not that I normally would bother leaving early but considering the difference in train time (I could get out of Newark 9:30 by leaving early in the third period as opposed to 10:30 if I stayed the whole game) I quickly determined it wasn't worth it to waste an hour watching a car wreck when the passenger was already dead. As I was walking back to the Broad Street train station though, it was then I received the shocking news via a text from my friend Scott - better known as CRASHER on the NJDevs message board - that Kovy was in fact, a healthy scratch with Lou Lamoriello not commenting. My response at the time was simply...'ruh roh'.

Now, I'm all for a coach scratching stars to send a message to prove anyone isn't above the team and Kovy wasn't particualrly effective in Thursday's shutout win over the Canadiens, to put it mildly. Still, a part of the scratch left a bad taste with me - cause it seems like Kovy was punished for trying too hard and not listening while other players (I'm looking at you Jamie Langenbrunner, and you David Clarkson for starters) get to skate by on the rails for not trying hard enough and not listening. If Kovy is a healthy scratch, least fifteen other people better be healthy scratches after this disgrace of a performance tonight.

If you've read my blogs for any period of time you know my issues with Jamie, and I won't rehash them here except to say that with each pointless game - pun intended - I'm just that more certain that Lou made the wrong decision giving him a second chance after he quit on the team last year. With Clarkson I personally think his problem is that he signed a big contract and now thinks he has to be a 30-goal scorer to justify it instead of doing what got him to the NHL in the first place...playing with grit and starting fights when the team needs a momentum shift. And they're not the only ones that have struggled for a long time. As much as I love Elias, I'm not entirely sure he's alive right now.

One of the few people I actually would not want to punish after tonight is Rod Pelley, who took a puck to the face in the first period, broke his nose but still came back to play in a hopeless cause during the third period. That I didn't find out until I managed to catch the tail end of the postgame on the radio, since I didn't see a minute of the third period. If we had twenty like him, hell if we had ten we'd be a lot better off. I'm seriously getting to the point where I'd rather watch a talentless team of gritty players (better known as the New York Islanders) than this talent-laden disgrace.

About the only good thing you can say about tonight's fiasco is that we are already at DEFCOM 1 in record time...if certain high-priced players don't respond soon, it will at last be their heads that roll and not the head coach's. Aside from the fact that even being at DEFCOM 1 eight games into the season is frightening in itself, you have to think Hedberg's not going to play a game at the Rock the rest of the season. Which means we're once again in for Brodeur playing 77 games and wearing out come April, even if this sorry excuse of a team manages to straighten itself out.

To think, the Jets are the mature, steady team for me right now and my sports salvation with the Devils being a mess. Usually it's the other way around, I'm not sure how I can handle this bizarro world. All I know is it couldn't be better timing for the Devils to get out of dodge for this six-game road trip that can either make or break their season.

Hedberg to debut for Devils at Newark

The time has finally come for Johan Hedberg to put down the clipboard. Tonight, the man known as Moose will give Martin Brodeur a rare night off when the Devils host the struggling Sabres at The Rock. His first start as a Devil comes in Game No.8 following the club's best performance- a complete effort that saw them blank the Canadiens 3-zip the other night. As usual, Brodeur owned his native club stopping all 29 en route to record shutout No.112.

Oddly enough, both Devil wins have been via the shutout. What does it mean? That perhaps John MacLean's talented club is better off playing smart hockey instead of opening it up. Especially still without top D Anton Volchenkov and Bryce Salvador on LTI. The Devs have gotten nice contributions from unknown rookie Matt Taormina, who paces their blueline with four points (2-2-4). The just turned 24 year-old undrafted player the club signed following a breakout season in the 'A' under MacLean has evolved into their offensive threat from the back end. He's been used on the power play and has a good idea when to pinch.

At 2-4-1, Taormina's been one of the bright spots on a vet club that needs better from Patrik Elias (goal), Travis Zajac (1-3-4), Zach Parise (2 goals) and franchise finisher Ilya Kovalchuk (2 goals). Parise scored Thursday and Jason Arnott notched a goal and assist, tying Kovalchuk for the team lead with five points (3-2-5). Jamie Langenbrunner had a helper but still hasn't lit the lamp. Dainius Zubrus has been a constant which explains why he's on the top line. David Clarkson remains a mystery with no points and a club worst minus-six rating. Is he getting lost in the shuffle? No question the Devs need more from the energizer. They can also use better play from '09-10 revelation Andy Greene (2 assists, -4), who hasn't gotten untracked.

It's the second meeting already between New Jersey and Buffalo, who dropped their fourth in five at home to enemy Ottawa yesterday by a count of 4-2. Even worse, Daniel Alfredsson notched a hat trick to reach 1,000 career points. Tim Connolly tallied twice for the Sabres, who fell at home to the Devils Oct.13 1-0 when Taormina forced a turnover and fed Kovalchuk for a one-time blast in overtime. With the Devs still in search for their first home win (0-3-1) and the Sabres scuffling, something has to give later. It'll be interesting to see how Hedberg performs. The ex-Thrasher was part of Atlanta's mastery over Buffalo along with Kovalchuk, who owns them with 19 goals and 12 assists in the last 29 games. He'll have to outduel Ryan Miller, who basically is left to man the Sabre net by himself.

"He’s going to give us 110 percent,” Kovalchuk told the Devils’ website. “Every practice, every game, he gives it his all. He’s a great competitor and he’s going to battle hard. He’s going to give us a great game. He won a lot of games for us in Atlanta. I’m sure he’s going to do the same thing here.”

Will the more rested home club take advantage of a weary opponent? They shouldn't take at easy. Figure Lindy Ruff's team to be plenty angry when the puck drops an hour from now.

Future now for Long Island???

Rebuilding can be a tedious process. For Islander fans who waited for centerpiece John Tavares to fall into their lap last year, they already could be seeing a quick return on Garth Snow's retooling. Even minus top blueliner Mark Streit, power forward Kyle Okposo and a few games without JT91 before the top dog returned from a concussion, here is Long Island's team sitting atop the Atlantic with a stellar 4-1-2 record good for 10 points- trailing just the sizzling Lightning by a point in an East that also has the surprising Leafs in the top three.

Is this the time for Scott Gordon's Islanders? Last season despite plenty of injuries, the third-year coach's club fought tooth and nail hanging around the playoff race until the final couple of weeks when their inexperience caught up. A year older and wiser with key offseason additions James WisniewskiMark EatonMilan Jurcina, Mike MottauP.A. Parenteau, Zenon Konopka along with a healthy Rick DiPietro, they're starting to prove themselves. Perhaps new MSG-Plus analyst Butch Goring wasn't so nuts when he proclaimed that the club he helped turn into a dynasty was going to make the playoffs. Credit him for mentioning how hungry this team is as evidenced by their aggressive play thus far.

Continued improvement from Josh Bailey and Blake Comeau helped give the club a boost without Tavares. And what can you say about captain Doug Weight, who wasn't even certain he'd return? All he's done is lead this pesky bunch while tallying a goal and five helpers while turning back the clock. Not bad for the slick 39 year-old American who should one day have a place alongside new USA Hockey Hall Of Fame members Jeremy Roenick and Derian Hatcher.

The Islanders are getting contributions from everyone, including ex-Ranger Parenteau who leads the club in scoring (2-5-7) with six of the seven coming via the power play while the team on Broadway remains stuck with two power play goals. There's also been the solid play of steal Wisniewski, money finisher Matt Moulson along with the tandem of DiPietro and Dwayne Roloson doing their part. Frans Nielsen has also been a factor and the youngest player in the league, Nino Niederreiter already notched his first NHL goal and assist in the club's first seven games. Even waiver wire addition Michael Grabner has chipped in with a couple of goals, displaying some of that world class speed and skill that made him a first round pick in '06 with Vancouver. It's not like the 23 year-old Austrian didn't produce in a brief stint with the Canucks going 5-6-11 in 20 games last season. Might they regret letting him go? Only time will tell.

For a team that just lost blueliner Andrew MacDonald six weeks after breaking his hand in Thursday's overtime win over Tampa Bay, they'll find someone else to fill in. Most notably Jack Hillen. That's what we've learned in three years under Gordon. His teams never break. That maybe the best reason for fans off the Meadowbrook to believe that this year's outfit can reach the postseason. What happens when Okposo returns? What if Streit somehow makes it back for the home stretch? When does vet grinder Trent Hunter find his game? You can bet he will. Do the Islanders keep Niederreiter? Why not. He's a solid two-way forward with speed and grit.

As the Islanders enter Game No.8 when they visit Florida later tonight, there's a lot to admire about what they've done. The work ethic. The way they go about their business. The focus. Should we be jealous? One thing we've learned. Don't take them lightly.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Brodeur plays spoiler in his hometown once again

Of Martin Brodeur's 112 career shutouts, nine of them have come against his hometown team in Montreal, including a 3-0 win last night that gave the Devils just their second win in seven games - both of them shutouts by Brodeur. Aside from the goaltender's predictable dominance against the Habs, the story last night was a much better team effort from the Devils. New Jersey scored a goal in every period and despite being outshot 29-20 allowed fewer scoring chances than Montreal.

Granted, the Devils' first period after a four-day break wasn't particularly strong as they were outshot 10-3, but they did grab the lead when strong forechecking work from the Zach Parise-Travis Zajac-Danius Zubrus line led to Parise's second goal of the season at 4:20 from just outside the crease with assists from his other two linemates. Although coach John MacLean changed his other three forward lines for last night's game, he left Zubrus on the top line after their strong game against the Bruins on Saturday and that proved a good decision as the Parise line was again having an impact after a slow start with Ilya Kovalchuk on the right side.

Things got a little more hectic in the second period as ex-Devil and current Canadien captain Brian Gionta received two penalties for goaltender interference. On the first one he probably got schnookered by his old buddy Brodeur who got position and went down much to Gionta's frustration. In his between periods interview on MSG+ he admitted as much, calmly and discreetly making the point the first one shouldn't have been a penalty. It did seem like Gionta was going out of his way to get in Marty's grill, the way the other ex-Devils have like Mike Rupp and his hit on Jay Pandolfo last year or Scott Gomez getting into it with Jamie Langenbrunner in the 2008 playoffs.

Whatever the case, our power play wasn't particularly effective last night. Of our four chances, I counted one very good showing with the man advantage and the rest...not so much. I do think eventually new assistant Adam Oates will get that straightened out. I'd rather the power play struggle now, as opposed to later in the season - the inverse of last year where we were the top team in the league on the power play early and almost historically bad late. However, the Devils would add to their lead when Jason Arnott's quick shot deflected past Carey Price at 14:59 for Arnott's third goal of the year. Again Zubrus would get an assist, along with Langenbrunner who started the play with some more good forechecking.

For all intents and purposes the game ended early in the third period when rookie defenseman Matt Taormina's blast beat Price through traffic in front at 3:39, giving the Devils a 3-0 lead and Taormina his second goal of the season, off an assist from Arnott. Under normal circumstances, with the defensive woes we've had this season I wouldn't have thought this game was over but really, there was no way Brodeur was blowing a three-goal lead in Montreal of all places. We did give up fourteen shots in the third plus one missed open net by Gionta, who had a tough night against his former team, but the real quality scoring opportunities were few and far between.

Johnny Mac rolled his defensemen pretty evenly with Henrik Tallinder leading in icetime at 20:51. While you would have expected rookie Olivier Magnan-Grenier to be sixth in icetime, he definitely had an impact - playing 16:12 and finishing with a +1 and one shot on net in his NHL debut, also in his hometown. In a nice gesture, the coach let his kid defenseman take the opening shift and get introduced in front of at least twenty-five members of his family and friends in attendance at the Bell Centre. Also, the forwards' icetime was somewhat spread out with only Kovalchuk and Zajac getting over twenty minutes with fourth-liners Adam Mair and Tim Sestito being the only skaters with under ten minutes of icetime (both had just over eight).

In every way possible last night's game was just what the doctor ordered, especially this early in the season when you want to see how all of your players can respond to different situations. And after our mini-crisis of a 1-4-1 start with 21 goals allowed in those six games, a strong performance was definitely welcome. Our next step is to do it at home, since we're 0-3-1 at the Rock to start this season compared to 2-1 on the road...and our last chance at improving the home record will come tomorrow against the Sabres before a six-game road trip that will be crucial early.

BoNY Three Stars:
1. Martin Brodeur (29 saves, SHO)
2. Jason Arnott (goal, assist, +2)
3. Danius Zubrus (two assists, +2)

Biron: Team played a solid 60 minutes

For the first time this season, the Rangers came to play from start to finish. At least that's how new backup Martin Biron termed it after looking sharp while making 24 stops, including a few money ones down the stretch to help his new team snap a three-game skid. The former Islander and Sabre who completed the New York hat trick made Ruslan Fedotenko and Artem Anisimov's first period tallies stand up in a well earned 2-1 road win over the Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre- avenging last week's home opener.

“As a team, I think this was the first time this year that we played a solid 60 minutes,” Biron said. “We have to play up to that standard the rest of the season.”

Minus Marian Gaborik a second game in a row, this time the Blueshirts competed in all aspects. They went to the dirty areas to score both goals and stifled the Leafs by blocking 30 shots. The trio of Dan Girardi, Mike Del Zotto and a strong Michal Rozsival combined for 18 of the 30 while Ryan Callahan played like a future captain- doing his part even though he wasn't rewarded with a goal in nearly 22 big minutes. The popular alternate did help setup the winner, which came 61 seconds after Fedotenko stuffed home his first of the season. He also disrupted the Toronto power play which took the collar in five chances, marking the first time the Rangers held an opponent without a power play goal. 

John Tortorella made one other lineup change, sitting vet Steve Eminger for Mike Sauer, who again did nothing wrong paired alongside Matt Gilroy. Both were on the ice for a goal for, finishing plus-one apiece. Even if neither saw any time late, it's now up to the coach to give them more games. He again leaned heavily on the front four of Marc Staal, Girardi, Rozsival and Del Zotto and got the kind of performance necessary for the club to compete. In particular, Del Zotto and Rozsival were outstanding. Only the '05-06 Czech mainstay is over 30. It was nice to see the frequent booing target make a sweet dish across for Anisimov's decider. With a mostly inexperienced group, that's the kind of game they need from him. When he's not in the box or fumbling the puck at the point, Rozy is a solid contributor. 

There was even a Derek Boogaard sighting with the new enforcing taking on former Ranger Colton Orr early on with Orr getting the knockdown on a right. Afterwards, the Blueshirts took control outshooting the Leafs 15-8 while scoring twice, cashing in on Leafs' neutral zone turnovers. The first goal was all Derek Stepan, who stole the puck at center and turned on the jets before centering a pass which both Sean Avery and Fedotenko took whacks at with the latter getting rewarded with his first as a Ranger. Good to see this cohesive trio back together. Before the Leafs could recover, a beautiful passing play started by Callahan saw a pinching Rozsival hit Anisimov perfectly for his second. 

Only some superb netminding from Leaf backup Jonas Gustavsson kept the Rangers from getting more. The Monster finished with 30 saves, giving his team a chance to comeback. The Rangers' 32 shots were the most Toronto had allowed with them becoming the first opponent to reach 30 against Ron Wilson's improved club who lost for the first time in regulation- falling to 4-1-1. It was their second consecutive home loss following an overtime defeat to the Islanders. 

Gustavsson's goaltending nearly swung the contest. Though they didn't permit a shot the first half of the third, the Blueshirts couldn't put it out of reach. Instead, Public Enemy No.1 Colby Armstrong tallied his first as a Leaf when he was neatly set up by former Sabre Clarke MacArthur who got inside position on a sliding Girardi and made a great play which cut it to 2-1 with 8:56 remaining. As they did last year, the Leafs came hard but Biron turned them away making a pair of strong denials from in tight. During the postgame interview with MSG's John Giannone, he spoke about just being ready when Kris Versteeg moved in on a power play breakaway. He knew he had to shoot and gave him glove before taking it away and then denying a point blank rebound. The two biggest saves came after Tomas Kaberle threaded the needle to the streaking ex-Hawk, who couldn't beat Biron.

Even more gratifying was how the Rangers played the final 46 ticks controlling the puck and not giving the Leafs a sniff. Both Callahan and Anisimov were out for that final shift and Rozsival made two good defensive plays while working well with Del Zotto. In a game I hardly saw due to 90 minutes in the gym, I could tell how badly our guys wanted it. That was something new which must continue when they visit a tough Boston team Saturday that won again last night. 

It's real simple. If they want to have a season, this is how they must perform. Thursday was a nice start.

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Ryan Callahan, NYR (assist, 4 SOG, +1 in 24:42)
2nd Star-Michal Rozsival, NYR (primary assist on GW, +1 in 24:00)
1st Star-Martin Biron, NYR (24 saves incl.11/11 in 2nd for 1st win in 1st start as Ranger)

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Tortorella on Retaliation

Kudos to New York's Jim Cerny for his preview of tonight's rematch between Original Sixes Toronto and our Blueshirts.  Here, John Tortorella discusses what he would like to see from his club in response to Colby Armstrong's boarding that separated Marian Gaborik's shoulder:

We’ve discussed the things that went on in that game. We’re trying to instill in our players ways to protect your teammates, but there are ways to do that without being an idiot. We’re striving to do that. We need to play hard and we need to play through people. All of the things that come into the game, like the Armstrong hit, we don’t focus on that, but we have talked about team toughness and handling situations when they arise.

Biron to start tonight

In a baffling move, the Rangers will start Martin Biron at Toronto. They just had two days off and are playing gutless hockey. Think maybe John Tortorella was afraid to play Henrik Lundqvist after what happened at last Friday's home opener? Regardless, that's no way to coach. Between that and his message about not retaliating on Colby Armstrong who only took out our best player, it's enough to make you sick. Armstrong had a funny comment about the rematch, via this Jim Cerny tweet retweeted by cool Ranger fan Carolena10. Who does he think is playing? The Charleston Chiefs?!?!?!?!?!

True enough, Biron was going to get a start in this three in four. So, maybe Tort figured, 'Let's get this out of the way.' I assumed Lundqvist tonight and Biron tomorrow in Beantown. So much for that. Can the vet backup who's now completing the New York hat trick (Buf, NYI, NYR) by debuting for us, deliver at the ACC? Based on his year on Long Island and what we saw in preseason, it doesn't inspire much confidence. We can only hope he'll surprise us. To think this was once a goalie who backstopped the Flyers to the Conference Finals. At least his mask won't suck when he dons our new third jersey:

Pretty cool, eh? Unfortunately, we won't get to see it later.

Time for kids to shine

Once upon a time in this town, the kids were alright. Already facing a crisis four games into this new season, the Rangers must call on some of their own young pups to shine.

Yes, Year Two for Marian Gaborik won't be injury free thanks to Colby Armstrong boarding the Big Ticket during last week's hellacious home opener which KO'd the superstar for at least two weeks. Six days later following just a paltry goal in an uneven home loss to Colorado that drew boos and "Fire Sather" chants, John Tortorella's walking wounded visit Toronto for the first of a challenging three in four with Boston to follow before returning home for the Devils Sunday. Not exactly the greatest timing for a club that did zilch in five power plays, stuck on two-for-17 that has them near the bottom. What's more depressing is the once strong PK has also come undone with Tort's crew permitting two more Monday to fall to 29th overall. Hardly a winning formula.

While the embattled coach desperately tries to find the right combos to cure the potential scoring issues minus the Great Gabby, the onus is on some of the young core to step up. A couple of Americans pace the team in goals with both third-year Alaskan Brandon Dubinsky and rookie Minnesotan Derek Stepan each entering Game No.5 with three goals each. While it might be a stretch to expect the 20 year-old Stepan, who debuted in style with a hat trick to finish plays he starts, the same can't be said for Dubinsky, who the coaching staff is expecting more from. Especially now that he's shifted to left wing where he can use his big frame around the net. Playing on the club's most cohesive unit anchored by sophomore Artem Anisimov and flanked by third-year alternate Ryan Callahan, he must be good for 25 goals. At least he has three thus far while linemate Cally hasn't lit the lamp yet despite good scoring chances. They're counting on the North American-Russian Alliance big time. While it may seem ideal to break them up in an attempt to spark Alex Frolov, Tortorella would be wise to keep them together. Precisely what rebuilds are about.

If patience is a virtue and it must be for the Blueshirts to turn this around, then Tort also must put Stepan and Ruslan Fedotenko back with Sean Avery, who complements them well. As Devil beat writer Michelle Kenneth noted in a tweet while covering Monday's contest, that trio has generated the club's best opportunities. Why mess around? It's up to Frolov to follow up his first goal as a Ranger with a streak. That means meshing with Erik Christensen and whoever the coach sees fit to play top line. Obviously, the choices aren't great. Either move Brian Boyle up based on how he's performed or try vet Todd White. We doubt he'd put Brandon Prust on the first line even though he's got some sand to his game. Something the Rangers lack.

The other early problem is Tortorella's lack of faith in the fourth line and his third D pair. Derek Boogaard only got three shifts in the club's third consecutive loss. What's the point of bringing in the former Minny enforcer if you refuse to play him? How can he protect teammates? Between his refusal to roll four lines and the continued minimal ice-time Matt Gilroy, Mike Sauer and Steve Eminger are seeing, it's no wonder the Rangers are struggling to get out of their end. It's no way to run a bench. Even if Marc Staal, Dan Girardi, Michal Rozsival and Mike Del Zotto are all capable of logging big minutes. However, by double shifting them, it's also a way to run out of gas, which may better explain the inconsistencies shift to shift. If he doesn't find a third pair he can trust, the team's play will continue to suffer and Henrik Lundqvist will be hung out to dry.

Speaking of King Henrik, if it's true he hasn't yet found his A form, how would you like to be in net with this roster? One that never defends him and repeatedly allows point blank chances within 10 feet. It's no wonder he permits the occasional softy. Not that that's an excuse. He is after all the backbone and unquestioned leader. He'll have to steal games for this outfit to be competitive. Already a top five goalie, Lundqvist will have to carry the load. Do you really want to see Martin Biron in Beantown tomorrow following say a fourth straight loss?!?!?!?!?! About as promising as A.J. Burnett being kept in too long in Game Four by Joe Girardi.

If Lundqvist, who continually gets run into by fearless foes who know there' ll be no payback- wants to survive Year Six, it's time for him to step out of character and hit back. If nobody else will, then he must. Use your equipment and go Billy Smith. That might be the only way to stop the madness. The book's been written about this team forever. Drive hard to the net and get to the goalie. I swear. This franchise should be permanently sponsored by Hostess. The time has come for him to erase his squeaky clean image. Maybe it would strike a nerve with teammates and send a message that this team won't get pushed around. Or is Boyle wrong? He and Del Zotto shouldn't be the only ones standing up. Starting tonight at the ACC, there needs to be a lot more passengers.

Whether they're successful depends on the play of the kids.

The Puck Stops Here


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