Friday, December 17, 2010

Big Week concludes tomorrow in Philly

In what's been a big week for the Rangers, they complete it in Philly tomorrow where they'll battle the league's best in an old Patrick showdown. Or shall we say throwdown. The bitter rivals have met once with the Flyers prevailing a month ago. A lot's happened since as both clubs have played good hockey, climbing up the standings.

First overall Philadelphia boasts plenty of scoring led by quartet Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, Claude Giroux and Daniel Briere. There aren't many holes in a well balanced roster that boasts big and mean Chris Pronger anchoring a blueline that includes Kimmo Timonen, Matt Carle and Braydon Coburn. With surprising rookie Sergei Bobrovsky getting the job done in net and Brian Boucher doing his part, these Flyers are a force to be reckoned with. It's no wonder they ended the Penguin win streak at 12 thanks to a late goal from pest Scott Hartnell. They can play you any way, also boasting their own Sean Avery in Daniel Carcillo plus former Rangers Blair Betts and Jody Shelley. Even Nikolay Zherdev's contributed 11 goals, albeit in spurts. James Van Riemsdyk's also been lighting the lamp recently. This is Philly's best team since the '96-97 one that went to the Finals before getting blitzed by Detroit. It's their best chance to end a 36-year drought since the Broadway Bullies dominated in '74 and '75.

So, how will the Rangers deal with it? Nothing seems to faze this pesky bunch. Not after hammering the Caps Monday, then exploding for four goals in the final 10 minutes in a character building win at Pittsburgh, limiting Sidney Crosby to an assist for the second consecutive game. Then there was last night's come from behind 4-3 shootout home win over an angry Coyote team who no showed against the Devils. The perfect streak in second games of back-to-backs was in jeopardy when the Blueshirts came out flat with Martin Biron allowing a pair of softies in the first six minutes. But the backup battled through making big saves to keep his team in it.

That's what we've come to expect from a resilient club that never is out of a game. Never was there a more defining example that in Pittsburgh after losing emotional leader Ryan Callahan for six weeks with a broken left hand from what else but blocking a shot. They fight till the buzzer. Something Brian Boyle alluded to along with mini-Callahan Brandon Prust. Losing Cally stinks. But all year, they've faced obstacles overcoming no Marian Gaborik, Vinny Prospal or Chris Drury and also holding up okay without Michal Rozsival, who's playing some of his best hockey as a Ranger. After setting up two goals including one from Alex Frolov, Rozy set up Derek Stepan's tying goal late that forced only the second skill competition for our heroes. It was the clean faceoff win by a sharp Drury in his second game back that allowed them to tie it. They lost Callahan and Drury replaces him in many facets playing with Artem Anisimov and Brandon Dubinsky while providing great penalty killing and winning faceoffs. Something that's plagued us all year.

I said it the other night when Cally went down. It's an opportunity for other players to step up. Then Erik Christensen displays that skill with a laser over Brent Johnson and also wins the shootout yesterday with a fancy deke. Frolov, who's been much better since being moved to the Boyle/Prust line, gets dirty and notches the winner versus the Pens, setting off an explosion with Anisimov wiring his ninth and Boyle putting the exclamation point on the finest win of the season. There's the dominance of All-Star candidates Marc Staal and Dan Girardi, who are fulfilling expectations since the new contracts. Both adding offense to their game while getting better defensively, limiting time and space from skilled players such as Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Alex Ovechkin. There's Prust outhustling Jason LaBarbera to a loose puck and scoring a gigantic shortie with five seconds left in the second, giving our team momentum they ride into the third. And what about an overtime they dominated, getting numerous chances to end it with Boyle trying to atone for two penalties the 'Yotes scored on. The coach hates the shootout. The improvement in four-on-four has stood out. If only Marian Gaborik would remember that his job is to bury a few.

This is a T-E-A-M. In every sense, they come together standing up for each other with Mike Sauer throwing down and Sean Avery standing in for anyone. How great was it when he pulled Arron Asham away from Henrik Lundqvist after another cheap stick and dropped 'em. Did we mention Prust, who has become so valuable, takes on all comers? This is the kind of team the Garden Faithful have wanted for years. One that bands together and rallies around each other. They've made life easier on Lundqvist, who occasionally has to make big saves like the few he made against the Pens, holding them at one. It's no longer about the goalie but rather centered around a solid mix with a good core featuring home growns Callahan, Staal, Girardi, Brandon Dubinsky, Mike Del Zotto, Sauer, Stepan and Anisimov. Holdovers Rozsival and Lundqvist understand that as does Drury. Where would they be without Boyle and Prust? Remember how much we roasted Slats for that third round pick last year? No more. What Boyle has done is way above anyone's expectations. Hire the figure skating coach. The transformation has a two-way center capable of neutralizing the opposition. Come to think of it, that sounds like exact requirements for the Selke. Forget all the fancy names who will get preferential treatment. Boyle should be up for that award!

When it comes to Extra Effort, Callahan has always gone above and beyond the call of duty making officer Steven McDonald proud. You could say that about many Rangers this time. Boyle and Prust are my top two choices. They really exemplify what this team is all about. When John Tortorella singles out Prust after admitting they didn't know much about the 'throw in' in the Joke-in-en trade, it tells you everything. Sometimes, a player only needs a change of scenery to blossom. Before he arrived on Broadway, Prusty was used primarily on the fourth line by Phoenix and Calgary, playing sparingly as an enforcer. Who knew? You can't make it up.

There's no doubt these Rangers won't be intimidated by what the Flyers bring tomorrow. They'll battle. Compete. Fight. Because that's what they do. A shot at running the table this week against good competition. I've never been prouder to be a Ranger.

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