Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Game Preview: Rangers clash with Hurricanes in crucial battle

It's slowly slipping away from their grasp. With every gut wrenching loss, the Rangers are making it more difficult on themselves to erase last year's bitter memory in Philadelphia. Having dropped another tough game to their Kryptonite by a 4-2 count with Kris Versteeg's late empty netter like a kick to the groin, the Blueshirts hold seventh place in the conference by two points over their next opponent tonight in Raleigh. The Hurricanes also aren't playing great either, having been unable to solve the Devils- losing a third straight time in humiliating fashion 4-1 a night removed from retiring former Cup-winning captain Rod BrindAmour's jersey.

Cam Ward makes his 20th consecutive start opposed by the opposite No.30, Henrik Lundqvist who is in a fourth time in seven days. Last time out, the close clubs played a superb game in which each All-Star netminder shined with Lundqvist able to pull it out 2-1 in overtime at MSG. A game Carolina coach Paul Maurice labeled "the best goaltended game this year." None of that matters when their teams do battle again in what amounts to a crucial contest with playoff positioning on the line. The Rangers don't want to lose three in a row because if they do, the Canes tie them in points (66) and would be seventh due to one fewer game played. It also keeps ninth Buffalo around the corner who trail by half a dozen while stumbling Atlanta, Toronto, Florida and the hot Devils and Islanders hang around.

The way things have gone, it's not far fetched for the Devils and Islanders to creep up even closer and make the most improbable playoff runs a reality. With over 20 games still left and a majority of teams above them struggling including our club, anything's possible.

With Marian Gaborik mysteriously leaving Sunday's game after the first due to a concussion they never noticed in previous contests, it forces the Rangers to once again summon up all the mental strength they have to win in the face of adversity. Something this team has done well- going .500 (7-7-0) without Gabby who's largely been MIA anyway. Brandon Dubinsky criticized himself following Sunday and expects better. He leads us in goals (20), assists (24), points (44), shorthanded goals (2) and shooting percentage (13.4). It's up to others to follow his and Ryan Callahan's (15-15-30 in 41 GP) lead. Everyone must step up including kids Derek Stepan and Artem Anisimov- both of whose production have suffered in the second half despite decent efforts.

There's always Brian Boyle of the career best 19 goals, 29 points and four power play goals who can chip in. Tonight, the jack of all trades is separated from banged up sidekick Brandon Prust who will play on a fourth line with Sean Avery and Connecticut recall Kris Newbury. Boyle will play with shootout ace Erik Christensen and Vinny Prospal. There's no real finisher here unless Boyle uses his size. Both Christy and Prosp are set up guys. That's the hope here. Meanwhile, Tort will keep his top two lines intact with D-Step teaming with Norwegian rookie Mats Zuccarello and Wojtek Wolski while Dubinsky, Anisimov and Callahan comprise the other line.

It's now or never for our young nucleus which might be getting a slight overhaul if the Bryan McCabe rumors to Broadway for possibly Matt Gilroy and a second round pick are true. Don't forget that last time there were Rangers/Panthers rumors, it involved Dan Girardi and Dubinsky with Stephen Weiss. Thankfully, it wasn't true. While the 35 year-old vet McCabe can help us on the powerless play, what's the point? This club isn't winning anything. I'd rather see Gilroy finally get a real shot to run the point instead of having Tort roll out Del Zotto over and over again. It's my belief that Hobey has been treated unfairly. Why is it only okay for the coach to give rooks Mike Sauer and Ryan McDonagh the second pair and not Gilroy, who at least shows assertiveness on the rush?

It's time for the coach to wake up before his team fails in its bid for the postseason, putting his job in jeopardy. A tough week which starts tonight with a trip to D.C. Friday and another Kryptonite Tampa Bay in town Sunday- will help determine if this club should buy or sell at the 2/28 Deadline.

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