The weekend in South Florida wasn't too kind to the Rangers, who fell to the Lightning for the third straight time this time 2-1 in overtime on a Nate Thompson goal 19 seconds in from David Tyrell. Seriously. Thanks to outstanding netminding from Henrik Lundqvist, they shutout Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis and Vinny Lecvalier. However, it took a Marian Gaborik goal with the King pulled to finally solve rookie Cedric Desjardins, who was superb in his second career start. The same Gabby then failed to take Thompson for the winner with Matt Gilroy sliding out of position.
A day later, the Blueshirts were blanked by of all teams Florida 3-zip, making it one goal in their last six-plus periods. Something that must change when the red hot Hurricanes come to town Wednesday for a pivotal match. Carolina is making some headway, having reeled off three in a row to climb to 40 points- trailing eighth Montreal by five and us by seven. Boasting a star goalie Cam Ward in net and Eric Staal and hot shot rook Jeff Skinner up front, the Canes are the one team to fear in this playoff race. With Carolina also hosting the Panthers tonight, they could be within five 48 hours from now.
In other words, the Rangers need to buckle down this week with a challenging back-to-back on the road that starts at Dallas and ends in St. Louis, who manhandled them earlier this season. And with the Cats ending the perfect 9-0 mark in the second of back-to-backs, it's time for John Tortorella's group to reestablish the success that's made them road warriors. Perhaps for the first time since he went down, they miss key ingredient Ryan Callahan. Losing Erik Christensen doesn't help either even if he's not steady. Ruslan Fedotenko left nicked up after blocking a shot yesterday. However, a healthy 1-12 up front is a team strength that's now being challenged with Dale Weise getting his second look.
There's no shame in losing to Tomas Vokoun, who plays in obscurity. However, sloppy play has crept up into the club's play and that trend can't continue this week. This is a very tough month ahead with next week proving to be no easier with two games versus the Habs sandwiched around the sizzling Canucks at MSG. In Week 3, they'll see the Canes again with the Flyers, Leafs and Thrashers on the horizon before concluding January with a back-to-back against rejuvenated Washington and Florida. Essentially, these next three weeks could determine what kind of year it will be for a team that's big on heart and low on skill. That means a few more goals off Gabby's stick.
In another piece of news, the Rangers sent down struggling defenseman Mike Del Zotto to Connecticut and recalled Ryan McDonagh. The big part of the Scott Gomez cap relief trade is 1-7-8 with a plus-one rating in 38 contests with the Whale. The 21 year-old defenseman who was originally selected by the Canadiens 12th overall in the '07 Draft gets to reunite with former Badger teammate Derek Stepan. With Gilroy sitting out last night, it looks like McD is set to make his NHL debut against Carolina. Unless Tortorella sits vet Michal Rozsival, Hobey looks to be the odd man out for now. Mike Sauer has gained the trust of the staff, rewarded with more responsibility.
For Del Zotto who a year ago took the city by storm with his electrifying rushes and whirlwind playmaking, it's been a sophomore slump. He's followed a 37-point (9-28-37 in 80 GP) '09-10 with only nine points (2-7-9) over 35 contests often looking timid. On the second Florida tally by one-time Blueshirt Christopher Higgins, he took himself out of the play entirely. Poor reads that have led to odd-man rushes and goals against like a Tyler Seguin crusher earlier have been the trend for a gifted player who must regain his confidence. Down in the 'A,' he'll get the chance to work on breaking the habits that have seen his game slip.
DZ is a big piece of the future. This is an important time in his young career. He's only 20 and we must remember that. Hopefully, the time spent with the Whale will benefit him, making the '08 first round pick a better player. In the mean time, this is a real test for the Rangers. We'll see if a few fresh faces are up to the challenge.