Thursday, March 31, 2011

Rangers-Islanders Preview: Listless effort can't happen tonight

Prior to yesterday's 1-0 shutout loss to Buffalo, Ranger coach John Tortorella termed it, 'Just another game.' Perhaps his team took that to heart as in heartless cause that's the only way to explain how lackluster the Rangers were with a chance to bolster their playoff chances further. In a game they knew meant plenty with the Canes taking care of the Habs in Raleigh to get even closer, Tort's club inexplicably mailed it in- allowing Swedish rookie Jhonas Enroth to cruise to a 23 save shutout (1st of career).

In a season filled with feel good moments, this was disturbing. For a fourth straight game, the Ranger offense was MIA with Marian Gaborik unable to fill the net due to the tight checking Buffalo applied. No doubt, the Sabres were hungrier after coming off a disappointing loss in Toronto the previous night. With the Rangers well rested, mustering up energy should've been no problem. Instead, they were two steps behind, often making life easy on Enroth, who was able to see every shot in only his 10th career start. Unlike the ridiculous Joe Micheletti, we're not going to give too much credit to the 22 year-old netminder. Sure. He made a few key saves but never had to fight through traffic or be under siege the way Henrik Lundqvist did in making 34 stops.

Unfortunately, Lundqvist was the only positive continuing his run of impressive play with just Tim Connolly beating him on a laser via the man advantage, following a dreadful Brian Boyle turnover. All year, Boyle's been one of the club's most consistent players but his poor decision on a 3-on-1 not to pass back to an open Ryan Callahan proved costly. Instead of getting a chance shorthanded, the Rangers were caught when Boyle's attempt was blocked, allowing the Sabres to transition with Connolly beating Lundqvist for the game's only goal. The team hasn't taken many penalties lately but Marc Staal's cost due to Boyle's blunder.

When you're unable to score goals, the mistakes are magnified because there's less margin for error. The Blueshirts simply have to be better in tonight's monster showdown with the Islanders at Nassau Coliseum. There's only five games left with the Canes three out with an extra game left. Don't forget too that the new tiebreak favors Buffalo, who steered ahead due to one more regulation/overtime win. Even scarier is that Carolina is right there. The Rangers can't afford not to show in what should be a chaotic atmosphere with their biggest rival looking to play spoiler. The Islanders can finish. Whether or not Michael Grabner plays due to his wife being in labor, remains to be seen. It will be a rematch from last time when the Rangers punished the Islanders with recently extended Al Montoya getting the hook in a blowout win at MSG. The pressure is on.

Full marks to Lindy Ruff's club for responding with a yeoman effort to get two crucial points, drawing them even in points (87). The Sabres were better all night, getting superb performances from Tyler Myers, Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville and Andrej Sekera, who blanketed Gaborik despite five shots, which Enroth had no problem with. Buffalo was harder on the forecheck, firing from all angles- forcing Lundqvist to be good. They wanted the game much more. Something that didn't sit well with Tortorella, who blasted his team's effort.

"They were the more desperate team than we were, for what reason I don’t know,” Tortorella said. “It’s not so much losing as how we played. We played better in the third. The first two periods are unacceptable.

When preparation and opportunity meet, he [Enroth] did a heck of a job for us tonight,” Ruff said. “He’s a cool customer.

Forget the disallowed goal that negated Artem Anisimov's third versus the Sabres in the series. Yes. It would've put the Rangers ahead. However, it was the right call even though Callahan was pushed into Enroth by accident. So, the incidental contact ruling was fine. Something the future Ranger captain alluded to, mentioning that if it happened to us, they'd want that call too. The bottom line is they didn't come to play. Erik Christensen was putrid, with a couple of lazy turnovers on a power play. Gaborik skated but never got the quality chance needed to beat Enroth, even if his last one was from in tight. The Sabres forced the Rangers to the outside, winning every loose puck battle.

Despite no Jordan Leopold or Jochen Hecht, it was Buffalo who wanted it more. They should've been tired. You wouldn't have known it the way they played in front of Enroth, who got the start in part because Ryan Miller needed time off due to taking a high Dion Phaneuf shot. As often is the case, a team responds when their backup is in by sacrificing. Every Sabre knew how vital this one was with the Hurricanes doing what they had to in roasting the Habs 6-2, highlighted by a pair of markers from Calder candidate Jeff Skinner. Had they lost in regulation, one point would've separated the clubs. Instead, Buffalo has a little cushion heading into the weekend with the Canes one of their games Sunday.

He gave us a chance to win,” Pominville praised of the cool customer in net. “We’ve come to know what to expect out of him, and he delivered it tonight.”

It won't be easy for the Sabres who first visit Washington Saturday before the big showdown with the Canes in Raleigh. However, they made life a little better last night. For the Rangers, it's put up or shut up. Outside of the Draft Line and rookie Derek Stepan, they generated little. There are no excuses. Tort's club has been resilient all season. The Islanders are standing in the way. It should be interesting.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Rangers-Sabres Preview: Battle Of New York looms large tonight, Enroth over Miller???

The stakes couldn't be any higher. When the seventh seeded Rangers visit Western New York tonight against the eighth Sabres, two points separate the teams with six games remaining. The Rangers enter with 87 points, winners of eight of 10- bringing a 23-14-1 road record that ranks only behind the Canucks, Flyers, Bruins and Red Wings. The Sabres have 85- their lead over ninth Carolina down to three due to a 4-3 loss in Toronto combined with the Canes' 3-2 shootout triumph in D.C.

Speaking of those Canes, they'll be in Montreal playing at the same time. You can bet there will be some scoreboard watching. Even with the emphasis on what's in front of each, some peeking at the festivities north of the border. It should make for quite a couple of hours if you're a fan of any of these clubs jockeying for playoff position as we count down to the final frantic week.

For Buffalo, they must have short memories after losing to bitter nemesis Toronto in a very exciting game that saw them combine for seven goals. The Sabres fell behind by two twice before rallying to tie it on lightning strikes from Jason Pominville and Rob Niedermayer 30 seconds apart in the third to stun the Leafs. But Toronto leading scorer Mikhail Grabovski shelved his 28th just past Ryan Miller to keep the Leafs alive in the race. With 80 points and only five left, they'll need to keep winning and get help.

It was a blown opportunity for the Sabres to push ahead of the idle Blueshirts due to the shootout tiebreak that puts more of an emphasis on regulation/overtime wins. Instead, Lindy Ruff's club made things more complicated for themselves with Carolina very much in play with a lot depending on what happens a few hours from now.

I had a chance to set the tone on my end and didn't do it, and it just kind of went from there," lamented losing goalie Miller who wasn't pleased with a goal he allowed to Leaf captain Dion Phaneuf from the blueline that got the ACC jumping. Figure the rating Vezina winner to be locked in after permitting four on 35 shots while rookie James Reimer made some clutch stops late for his 18th victory. It's probably too late for the 23 year-old former '06 fourth round pick to put his name into a packed Calder race that includes headliners Jeff Skinner, Logan Couture, Corey Crawford along with the Islanders' Michael Grabner.

Whenever the Rangers and Sabres meet, the goalie battle is always the main attraction, pitting Henrik Lundqvist against Miller. Though Miller's having a down season, he's fully capable of shutting down the opposition on any night. There's plenty of incentive against his sizzling counterpart who enters 8-1-1 with a 1.67 GAA, .936 save percentage and three of his league-high 11 shutouts coming over the past 10 starts, boosting his Vezina candidacy against stiff competition featuring Tim Thomas (9th SHO in 3-0 win over Hawks), Carey Price (27 saves for 35th W in 3-1 win over Thrashers) and Pekka Rinne. It will be King Henrik's 21st consecutive start.

UPDATE: In a stunner, the Sabres are expected to start Jhonas Enroth. The 22 year-old Swede doesn't have much experience with nine career starts. Eight have come this year with the '06 second round pick 5-2-1 with a 2.77 GAA and .906 save percentage. Respectable numbers but he hasn't started since 3/13, winning a wild 6-4 conventional shootout over Ottawa with 34 saves.The timing seems iffy. Maybe Ruff's trying to send a message to his team that last night was unacceptable. It should be noted that historically, the Rangers don't fare well against unknowns. So, if in fact Enroth is in, who knows.

Both teams know they can't rely on help from the Habs- a team they're still trying to catch. Montreal ended a near record futility of being blanked three straight times by pulling out a 3-1 home win over Atlanta, all but ending the Thrashers' season. Montreal has 89 points but owns the new tiebreak over the Rangers and Sabres. This is the final meeting between the state rivals with the Rangers holding a 2-1 edge. The last time they played at HSBC was the infamous season opener featuring Derek Stepan's hat trick debut, highlighting a 6-3 win. The other two games at MSG both were decided by identical 3-2 margins with the Blueshirts taking the second meeting on an Artem Anisimov OT winner while Buffalo returned the favor in regulation with Jochen Hecht's tally holding up.

There’s enough there. Doesn’t matter what team,” Tortorella told Jim Cerny on a feature. “I know everybody is concerned about the standings, but we can only worry about us.”

Figure it to be tight.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Races intensify: Closer Look at New Tiebreak

As the season races down the stretch with desperate teams scrambling for the postseason, it's been hard to keep track of. What, with the chaotic West that at one time included the Wild and Blue Jackets before fading out. In the Wild Wild West, they're down to just 9 fighting for the remaining seven spots. The NHL leading Canucks already clinched a playoff berth. Nine points better than East leader Philly, it looks like Vancouver will win the President's Trophy- putting even more pressure on a franchise that's never won Lord Stanley.

While that's a great story for another day, 11 points separate second Detroit from 10th Dallas with less than two weeks left. It's probably far fetched that the Stars and Flames can leap frog the Red Wings and Sharks, who both have 97 points. However, there's still enough time for each to throw a wrench into the middle of the pack led by Phoenix (93) that features the Kings (92) minus Anze Kopitar (broken ankle-out 6 weeks), Nashville (92), the Ducks (89) led by emerging Hart candidate Corey Perry (leads league with 44 goals) and the defending champion Blackhawks (88), who are hanging on by a thread.

Here's a closer look at the Western race:

                  GP   Pts   GR
+*1.Canucks 76   109   6
+2.Wings      75     97    7
+3.Sharks     76     97    6
4.Yotes       77     93    5
5.Kings       75     92    7
6.Preds       76     92    6
7.Ducks      75     89    7
8.Hawks      74     88    8
9.Flames      77     87    5
10.Stars       74     86    8

+division leader
*clinched playoffs

One of the new underlying factors in case of tiebreakers is how many regulation/overtime wins a team has excluding shootouts. A perfect example of this new format is the Rangers, who despite having one more win (41) than Montreal (40) still are ranked seventh due to four less games won in reg/OT. The Blueshirts have eight shootout wins, which means you subtract eight and come up with 33. The Canadiens have only won three via the skill competition, which explains why they still boast four more victories (37) under the new rules. If the two Original Six clubs finished tied in points, the Habs would get the edge for sixth. Right now, each has 87 with six games remaining. Unless Montreal continues to struggle, the only way the Rangers can finish ahead of them is by having more points. Eighth Buffalo has also benefited from the shootout, winning five to Carolina's four. If the Hurricanes can make up the five point deficit which features a pivotal 4/5 game against the Sabres, that extra shootout win could work against Buffalo.

Here are teams who could be affected by the new tiebreaker:

                      GP   Record   Wins      Reg/OT   Pts
1.Los Angeles  11    9-2        43          34           92
2.Pittsburgh     12    9-3        45          36           98
3.Calgary         16    9-7        38         29            87
4.Rangers        11    8-3        41          33           87
5.Nashville       10    6-4        41          35           92
6.Tampa Bay    12    6-6        40          34           91
7.Buffalo          6      5-1        38         33            85
8.Chicago         10    5-5        40         35            88
9.San Jose        10    5-5        44         39            97
10.Dallas           11   5-6        38         33            86
11.Anaheim       6     4-2        42         38            89
12.Detroit          8    4-4         44         40            97
13.Phoenix        8     4-4         41         37           93
14.Carolina        9     4-5         35         31           80
15.Toronto        9     4-5         34         30           78

Note: Of teams in playoff position, only the Flyers, Bruins and Canadiens have less than four shootout wins.

It's very possible that the Sabres could finish ahead of the Rangers due to the format. The two Battle Of New York clubs meet Wednesday in Western New York. Here's a closer look at the Eastern Race:

                    GP   Pts   GR
+*1.Flyers     75   100   7
+*2.Capitals   76    98    6
+*3.Bruins     75    94    7
*4.Penguins   76    98    6
5.Lightning    75    91    7
6.Canadiens   76    87    6
7.Rangers      76    87    6
8.Sabres        75    85    7
9.Hurricanes   75   80    7      
10.Maple Leafs 76 78    6

+division leader
*clinched playoffs

Playoff Note: The most points the Canes can get are 94. Leafs-90 Thrashers-90 Devils-87

In any year, winning down the stretch is crucial. If the Rangers and Sabres take care of business along with the Canadiens, then there's little hope for the Canes or long bets like the Leafs, Thrashers and Devils sneaking in. The remaining schedules for the bottom part of the race:

6.Montreal 87 Pts 6 GR-3/29 Atl 3/30 @ Car 4/2 @ NJD 4/5 Chi 4/7 @ Ott 4/9 @ Tor

7.Rangers  87 6 GR-3/30 @ Buf 3/31 @ NYI 4/3 @ Phi 4/4 Bos 4/7 Atl 4/9 NJD

8.Sabres    85 7 GR-3/29 @ Tor 3/30 NYR 4/2 @ Wsh 4/3 @ Car 4/5 TB 4/8 Phi 4/9 @ CBJ

9.Canes     80 7 GR-3/29 @ Wsh 3/30 Mtl 4/2 @ NYI 4/3 Buf 4/6 Det 4/8 @ Atl 4/9 TB

10.Leafs    78 6 GR-3/29 Buf 3/31 @ Bos 4/2 @ Ott 4/5 Wsh 4/6 @ NJD 4/9 Mtl

11.Thrashers 76 7 GR-3/29 @ Mtl 3/31 @ Phi 4/2 @ Bos 4/5 @ Nsh 4/7 @ NYR 4/8 Car 4/10 Pit

12.Devils    73 7 GR-3/30 NYI 4/1 Phi 4/2 Mtl 4/5 @ Pit 4/6 Tor 4/9 @ NYR 4/10 Bos 

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Devils' season starts to wind down, but with hope for the future on and off-ice

Let's face it, I'd rather not talk about tonight's game in Buffalo (which so far looks like what I feared it would...the mother of all letdowns now that we're really out of the playoff chase) or the prior two games of our road trip where we only got one point in a drab scoreless tie in Pittsburgh that ended with a shootout defeat. First of all, I didn't see either game for different reasons - I caught Limitless at the theater Tuesday, then saw maybe one of the ten best live sporting events I've ever been at Friday with the Kentucky-Ohio State regional semi at the Rock.

Having not attended a basketball game yet at the venue where I've been to over a hundred hockey games, I lucked out both with my seat (on the aisle with nobody directly in front of me and a nice corner view in the lower bowl), as well as with the second game - which was an instant classic. Sad but true, I'm more excited to attend tomorrow's regional final than I am to go to any of the Devils' last few home games. Although I will try to enjoy them as much as possible seeing as if it looks like the last three games I'm going to will be my last in 208, barring a miracle before Friday.

Not that I can knock the team at all, after the Titanic-like disaster of John MacLean's tenure led to a historically bad first half, we got more excitement than we had any right to expect in the second half. Yes, this will be our first non-playoff season in fourteen years - but given everything that's gone on, from the cap issues to start the season to Mac's tenure and the unfortunate end to Jamie Langenbrunner's career in New Jersey to go along with the meniscus injury that caused leading goalscorer Zach Parise to miss the last 63 games, the deck was stacked against us from the start. With the team's second-half run under Jacques Lemaire, there's every reason to think that with even a competent coach and a healthy Parise next season that we'll once again be competing for the division and be a contender to go deep in the playoffs.

Yes, there are still deficiencies - starting with the offense. Even with our two-month winning bonanza, the Devils are going to be last in the NHL in goalscoring by far. While some of that can be attributed to the loss of Parise as well as $100 million man Ilya Kovalchuk's nightmare first half, there are issues to be worked out. This season might have proved that those issues can be solved from within though. Clearly we need more scoring from the right wing and on defense but rookies Mattias Tedenby and Matt Taormina (injured for most of the season) look capable of filling those voids. Indeed, the most meaningful part of the Devils' second half run has been the kids - led by Tedenby and fellow rookie Jacob Josefson up front, as well as defensive revelations Mark Fayne and Taormina. Even lightly regarded Anssi Salmela stepped up in his first half-season as a regular to fill a void on defense in the second half.

While the rookies earned their keep, vets like Martin Brodeur, Brian Rolston and Henrik Tallinder also had bounceback second halves and proved they can still play - a development almost as meaningful as having the kids step up. Indeed, the goaltending tandem of Brodeur and Johan Hedberg was one of the league's best in the second half, though Hedberg has strangely been put on the back of a milk carton since his eight-game winning streak ended and Brodeur returned to the lineup. At least there should be a few more Moose sightings down the stretch now that the team's playoff run is officially over.

Both goalies were helped by an improved defense, perhaps the best the Devils have had in the post-lockout era. Considering the potential career-threatening injury to Bryce Salvador, season-ending one to Taormina and defection of Mike Mottau during camp this came as somewhat of a surprise but with the addition of vets Tallinder and Anton Volchenkov in the offseason to go along with the kids stepping up, the Devils look to be in good shape for years to come. Even if the Devils likely still need another puck-mover to go along with Taormina (if you want to consider him 'proven' after 20 games) and might have to replace Andy Greene - the team's biggest UFA in the offseason.

Perhaps the two biggest questions of the offseason will be the RFA status of Parise as well as the seemingly never-ending coaching search. After MacLean's failure it seems unlikely GM Lou Lamoriello will go with another first-time head coach in what could be Brodeur's last season. But aside from Lemaire himself - if he can be talked out of retirement for a third straight offseason - what other vet coaches are out there who are really appealing? Michel Therrien? Ick. And certainly Parise's injury complicates matters toward getting him signed to a long-term deal. To that end, it's a good thing he is coming back for the last seven games this season. At least management can see how their best player has responded to such a long-term absence and Parise himself won't have to go eleven months between playing games.

Parise's return will also help soothe some of the pain for fans attending the Devils' last five home games this year. Ironically as the Devils' on-ice fortunes took a turn for the worse this year, their off-ice issues started getting better due to both the team and fans taking initiative. As Facebook, Twitter and the like continue to grow the Internet, the Devils are trying to make the most of this by launching Mission Control. What's Mission Control, you ask? Basically a volunteer staff of dedicated fans (called 'Devils generals') who use social media to advertise ticket discounts and promotions, as well as inviting suggestions from the fans how to improve the whole gameday experience.

I'm sure the full impact of Mission Control won't be felt until next season since the Devils only began this in the last several weeks but already there have been some changes for the better, with a new feature involving one song played before every game that's a 'random' tweeted request - Runnin' with the Devil by Van Halen was one (that should always be played at Devils games), as well as a couple of Springsteen songs. Also an improvement was the return of the 'Jersey's Team' marketing, at least inside of the arena. Not to mention the anticipated change of the intro this year - which stunk horribly.

Perhaps the most tangible improvement for the gameday experience has come from a different movement though, a fan-inspired idea called the Supporters Section. Basically the idea orginated on various message boards involving a section where Devils fans could stand and chant the whole game. Similar sections do exist with other teams - I think the Isles have one called 'Loudville' and the Blues are also promoting something similar now with 'Bluenatics' - but somewhat surprisingly the idea of this section really caught on in the midst of our darkest days in December. Fans get offered discounted tickets in a designated section or two with the accepted idea that it will be a standing, chanting section.

Admittedly I thought some of the chants were hokey at first - like the 'I believe that we will win' one that seemed like it would be too unwieldy and wouldn't rhyme...but hearing it at games, somehow it works and it's caught on big-time, especially since the Devils were doing nothing but winning for two months. For the most part, the section's been an unqualified success and now it appears as the Devils are going to offer partial or even season tickets in a designated section for next year in the 100's (balcony/mezz area). Having a full-time designated section should only help, since in certain games the supporters got spread out over two sections. Plus the link to the tickets spread too well, and people who had no idea what the section was meant for wound up sitting there for Retro Night as some people bought seats in the section with the express purpose of selling them at a huge profit. If you want to see the Supporters in action one more time before the season ends, they will be standing and chanting at the April 6 game against Toronto.

Generally ticket prices themselves are always a bone of contention between fans and management, I'm sure my fellow blogger can give chapter and verse on MSG's current gouging of Knick and Ranger fans. While there are still issues with the Devils having among the highest ticket prices in the league for a bottom-half attendance team, at least things should improve in some areas next year with price slashing in the balcony and mezz to the tune of $22 season tickets behind the defending net and $28 tickets behind the net where the Devils attack twice. Considering those areas were a ghost town this year - at $56 face and $39 for season ticket price, that should only help matters, as does the anticipated move towards tier pricing (charging more for Ranger games and Opening Night than for a mid-week tilt against Florida for example).

Still, some things could be improved. Having the entire upper bowl remain at $29 season ticket price when the upper corners were also a ghost town most nights was odd enough but now with all the mezz and balcony sections slashed below that, it seems ridiculously dense to freeze upper-level prices in all but the center ice area. There really has been no official indication of sth prices anywhere but the balcony yet as the Devils are pushing this new discount hard, but it doesn't seem like the overall price of the uppers will change.

Of course this doesn't include the extreme corners, still at $15 a seat for 'priviledged' season ticket holders. Unfortunately it doesn't look as if I'll be in their ranks anymore, partly due to the fact the Devils gave my friend (the actual account holder of my tickets) such a hard time about transferring the tickets to me the last couple of years that now when it finally looks as if someone's willing to help us, the friend's been too busy to send a transfer letter so it looks as if I won't be able to retain the season tickets once the deadline expires Friday. I will miss the characters of 208, no question. Then again I'll just miss Devils hockey period, going six months without it after the season ends April 10.

As far as attending games next year, I'll probably wind up getting a partial plan elsewhere and going to a few more games via the secondary market and discounts, doubt I'll know in what fashion I'll be going to games next year until the Devils do finally come out with prices for all sections. Going to games shouldn't be an issue for me in any case, although on principle I don't want to start paying $30 for seats near where I paid $15 for so the uppers are probably out for me unless it's center ice. And most nights I don't like sitting in the mezz when it is a ghost town although hopefully the influx of new and relocating sth's there helps fix that.

Being a season ticket holder elsewhere is probably out since aside from the few 'perks' they give you - access to team-related functions among them - price-wise it probably isn't advantageous to be a season ticket holder elsewhere in the building when I can get a partial plan (with an option to purchase playoff tickets) for the bigger games and pay below face for other games on the secondary market. That latter point is a big bone of contention with other sth's incidentally, especially with all the team-related discount and giveaway tickets factoring into the mix the last few seasons since the team got more agressive on offering discounts.

Whatever may come, I don't plan on missing much next season. Things should be improving on and off the ice and I'm gonna be a part of it, one way or the other.

King Henrik makes case for Vezina

King Henrik isn't done shutting out opponents. Neither is his run towards a first Vezina, which could finally be in the cards. His 26 saves against a potential first round opponent, the Bruins boosted the Rangers to their eighth win in 10. Lundqvist pitched his career and league leading best 11th shutout, allowing rookie Derek Stepan's 20th goal to stand up in Beantown.

Until a late second period surge that included Patrice Bergeron bumping into Lundqvist shorthanded, his day had been routine thanks to outstanding defensive efforts from everyone. Both the D and forwards were in synch, keeping the Bruins on the perimeter while the Blueshirts forechecked vigorously.

Sean Avery was back in for Mats Zuccarello and had a solid afternoon, playing mostly with Erik Christensen and Wojtek Wolski on the fourth line. When John Tortorella sent the trio out, they did a solid job along the boards, generating a couple of chances including a Marc Staal shot that Tuukka Rask shutdown. Filling in for Tim Thomas, the second-year Finn was outstanding finishing with 22 saves. The only blemish a nifty Stepan redirect of a Mike Sauer shot due to a controversial faceoff. I didn't catch it but apparently the refs screwed up. Guess we'll hear more about this later.

The Rangers misfired on three power plays, including one Marian Gaborik had all day to shoot but remarkably chose a low percentage pass to a covered teammate. That kind of play was particularly frustrating for our star, who after the nice stretch of five goals in five games has cooled off. It would also be his silly boarding penalty that awakened the Bruins from their mid-day nap. Though they didn't capitalize thanks to strong penalty killing with Brian Boyle returning after being hobbled by Ruslan Fedotenko accidentally bumping into him. Boyle and sidekick Brandon Prust didn't miss a beat nor did the rest of a PK that got the job done. In particular, Dan Girardi who was big all game with some outstanding work alongside partner Marc Staal while improving rookie tandem Ryan McDonagh and Mike Sauer stifled the B's.

A Girardi clean freight train on Lucic frustrated the big power forward, who eventually got duped by Brandon Dubinsky into a phantom slash. By then, Boston was finally playing better, ratcheting up their trademark physicality. One reason why I don't want to see them early assuming we make it. With nothing happening on the power play, Staal misjudged a puck, allowing the Bruins to come two-on-one. Brad Marchand got the puck to a streaking Bergeron, who had a step on Staal and crashed into Lundqvist after he denied the centerman's shorthanded bid. In truth, there was nothing Bergeron could've done as his momentum carried him into Henrik, who stayed down for a good minute before looking punch drunk when trainer Jim Ramsay came out. Amazingly, the guy I said is tougher than he looks stayed in and saved his best for last.

While Justin and I searched for birthday cards for a girl's party tonight, Lundqvist was doing his best to stifle an all out Boston assault. At least it wasn't criminal. :P When we got back to the car for the final eight minutes, the Bruins were like bees getting in Lundqvist's path. But he stood up to every challenge, denying the dozen shots sent his way. When he wasn't robbing someone, his hustling Ranger teammates were sacrificing their bodies in full playoff mode, blocking some 16 shots in one period. That's got to be some sort of record for a regular season game.

The last four and a half minutes was all Bruins. They fired from everywhere with a couple of times, it sounding like Kenny Albert was ready to say, "They score." But that moment never came as me and Justin looked at each other. In between all the huge saves Lundqvist made were crucial blocks by Boyle, Girardi, Sauer, Callahan and countless others. That's what's defined this team from Day One. Not the flat account they gave the other night versus Ottawa. It's that kinda resiliency which makes this the most rootable Ranger team I can remember in over a decade. Their work ethic wins you over along with the desire to get it done, which has always been Tortorella's mantra.

The last three games, our offense has cooled considerably, scoring only once in each yet we've come away with five of six points- thanks in large part to Lundqvist who has half his four shutouts over the three since Martin Biron went down. The 28 year-old Swede has started 20 straight and notched four of his league high 11 blankings. The way he has stepped up is what you expect from your best player. Make no mistake about it. It's Lundqvist who's defined this run with some of his finest work during his sixth season. One which started shaky with Biron even giving him a few nights off. There have been peaks and valleys but when the chips are down, Lundqvist's stepped up like a real King.

To win his first Vezina, he'll have to beat out a strong cast that features Tim Thomas, Carey Price and Pekka Rinne. All worthy candidates who have had great seasons. Only Price has been the most valuable, which is why I'd throw him and Marc-Andre Fleury in for the Hart if that's still permitted. In a down year offensively aside from The Sedins, where would the Habs or Pens be without their goalies? Enough of this Corey Perry MVP talk when his team may not even make it. Steven Stamkos still is in the convo as well.

What about Lundqvist, who on a team minus a 60-point scorer, more often than not becomes the story when his team looks in trouble. How about the shots he's taken, which scared the beejesus out of Garden Faithful. I thought he looked woozy after the Bergeron incident. Of course, he stayed in. The same man who responded to his coach's challenge earlier this week following another collision with Benoit Pouliot. The man has so much pride and must do it under the spotlight. Sure. The other candidates are good. But if it really is coming down to goaltending and pressure without much of a security blanket, then it should come down to Lundqvist versus Price. You can make a pretty good case for Price, who's also suffered some pepperings from us and recently these same B's who couldn't solve our goalie.

Counting today's yeoman effort, The King is up to 33 victories, 11 shutouts, 2.24 GAA and what would be a new career best in save percentage (.924). It's all but impossible to ignore how he's performed during this run. Over the last 10 games, Lundqvist's 8-1-1 with a 1.67 GAA, .936 save percentage plus three shutouts. This is the kinda superior goaltending our team's needed just to reach this point. Last year, they fell one point shy with the skill competition doing us in. Today's win matches the points (87) they had last year with six remaining. Now, the Rangers get three days off to rest their franchise netminder, who hopefully will be fresh for a crucial test in Buffalo Wednesday before paying a visit to Long Island the following day.

Ryan Callahan is the heart of this team. Brandon Prust the warrior. Brian Boyle the soul. Brandon Dubinsky the axe. Henrik Lundqvist is the backbone. It's time for him to win the Vezina.

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Derek Stepan, NYR (20th goal of season for GW-5 20-goal scorers for NYR-06-07)
2nd Star-Dan Girardi, NYR (outstanding defense, four hits, four blocked shots in 26:24)
1st Star-Henrik Lundqvist, NYR (26 saves-league leading 11th SHO, career No.35)

Friday, March 25, 2011

Karlsson sinks win streak

Henrik Lundqvist wanted the streak to reach six. Erik Karlsson had other ideas. The fellow Swede beat his countryman in the fifth round of the shootout, giving the Senators a 2-1 win at MSG last night. The loss also snapped a four-game home winning streak. The Rangers still gained a valuable point in the playoff race on the Canadiens, who got demolished in Boston 7-zip in their first meeting since Zdeno Chara ended Max Pacioretty's season. At 85 points with seven left, the Blueshirts find themselves only two behind Montreal for sixth. They're four ahead of eighth Buffalo who holds two games at hand with one getting made up tonight against Florida.

The brownie point puts some distance between the club and ninth Carolina, who trails by seven. With a 4-3 win yesterday, the Leafs stayed alive tying the Canes with 78 points but only have seven games left. Carolina has nine including a crucial home-and-home versus Tampa Bay tonight and tomorrow. The Thrashers also earned a 2-1 win over the Islanders with former Isle Rob Schremp getting a measure of revenge with the winner to give Atlanta 74. They and the Devils need a ton of help to have any shot. New Jersey visits Pittsburgh, who notched a shootout win over the Flyers to climb within four of the division lead. So, there's plenty to play for on both sides.

As for the Blueshirts, the effort simply wasn't good enough against a pesky Ottawa club that's taken well to playing spoiler. When you only have nine shots through the first half of a scoreless contest, you're not getting it done. Following an offensive explosion, it was the second straight lowscoring contest John Tortorella's club played against a non-contender. Perhaps that's why after Ryan Shannon's tally off a nice set up from Bobby Butler that broke the scoreless tie late in the second, Tortorella adjusted all his lines by switching each center with the same sets of wings. Brian Boyle played with Brandon Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan while Derek Stepan centered Vinny Prospal and Marian Gaborik. Artem Anisimov slided between Brandon Prust and Ruslan Fedotenko while Erik Christensen, Mats Zuccarello and Wojtek Wolski went long stretches without seeing the ice.

"We stole a point. We haven't played without energy many times this year. Tonight everybody did. Even in the shootout, we didn't look right. So we take the point, stuff it in our back pockets, and move by this," Tortorella accurately assessed.
It paid off when Prust notched his 12th off a Marc Staal feed. Taking a Fedotenko pass in his end, Staal skated through the neutral zone and was hooked by a falling Chris Phillips but still managed to get the puck to Prust, who went far side from the right circle to tie it at 2:45. The Rangers responded by swarming the Sens the rest of the way but couldn't find the next goal on Craig Anderson. The recently re-signed veteran matched Lundqvist save for save, denying our club of another point. Though the Blueshirts came close with Dubinsky set up but couldn't lift the puck.

The first half was about Lundqvist, who was outstanding in making several athletic stops that featured a reflex save with his left leg, keeping Ottawa at bay. It was one of those frustrating nights where his teammates couldn't score enough to get him the 'W.' Even a late power play that turned into a 4-on-3 in overtime produced zilch with the Sens' aggressiveness the story. There also was some edge with a few scrums as the game wound down in regulation. Perhaps Mike Sauer standing up for Zuccarello against tough customer Zach Smith explained why. There also was an instance where Callahan took two shots from behind with neither detected, which infuriated him. He was ready to go when Dubinsky and Smith got matching roughs along with Boyle and Jesse Winchester.

It may have lacked in the scoring department but the intensity was fun. Despite six shots in OT, the Rangers went to a shootout. Ironically, Tort's doghouse came out for the first three attempts and not surprisingly were cold. Anderson snuffed out Christensen, Zuccarello and Wolski with ease. But Spezza, Shannon and Marek Svatos couldn't beat Henrik, forcing sudden death. As fate had it, Callahan broke his stick in the fifth after Dubinsky missed high, setting the stage for Karlsson to outsmart Lundqvist. A nice deke and quick shot just underneath the glove made the Sens winners. That was enough for our goalie to do his patented temper tantrum as he skated off, slamming the stick against the glass in frustration. Every point counts. Even if they deserved none.

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Brandon Prust, NYR (12th goal of season tied game w/17:15 remaining)
2nd Star-Henrik Lundqvist, NYR (29 saves incl. 4/5 in shootout)
1st Star-Craig Anderson, Ott (29 saves incl. 5/5 in shootout)

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

King Henrik blanks Panthers for league best 10th shutout

The King delivered. Sometimes, if you work hard enough, you reach your goals. Prior to this season, Ranger goalie Henrik Lundqvist had one individual task in mind in addition to backstopping the Original Six club back to the playoffs. Last night, he attained one of those goals by turning aside all 22 Panther shots in a 1-0 home win for his league best 10th shutout. It's the second time in his career King Henrik's hit 10 in a season, making it the first year since '07-08.

I feel great,” Lundqvist said after his 34th career shutout in only his sixth season. “I don’t think my body felt this great in a lot of years.”
Even with the recently turned 29 year-old Swede having to start almost every game down the stretch minus vet backup Martin Biron, it was just his 60th appearance (59th start) yesterday. The former 2000 seventh round steal has won seven of eight, including a season high five-game win streak that's seen him post a 1.97 GAA with a .932 save percentage- pushing him into Vezina contention with frontrunner Tim Thomas, Carey Price, Pekka Rinne and Marc-Andre Fleury.

“I keep reminding myself every day that last year was one point. I don’t want to be there and I don’t think anyone else wants to be there. This is a game that could be the difference.”

Even though the Rangers controlled much of the game against a team they have trouble with, they still found themselves locked in a scoreless tie after 40 minutes due to Tomas Vokoun, who made 26 of a game high 32 saves during the first two periods. Instead of getting frustrated, they finally solved the much overlooked veteran thanks to persistence from their hottest line with Ryan Callahan and Brandon Dubinsky combining on the winner. After a near miss, Dubinsky tapped home a Callahan pass for his 22nd with 12:11 remaining.

"This was a good test for us—a playoff-type game that you have to grind away,” the club's leading scorer noted.
“We feel like we are a line that needs to produce and put up points for us to be successful,” Callahan added of the chemistry the reunited Draft Line (Anisimov-Dubinsky-Callahan) have. Lately, they've been the difference during a run of seven wins in their last eight, boosting their postseason aspirations. With both the eighth Sabres and ninth Hurricanes also winning, the seventh seeded Blueshirts have 84 points with eight games left. Three better than Buffalo (9 GR) and six clear of Carolina (9 GR). Toronto kept their faint playoff hopes alive with a 3-0 shutout over Minnesota but trail us by eight and the Sabres by five with eight left. With the Devils falling in Boston 4-1, they've dropped three of four and are on the brink, nine behind Buffalo and technically trailing Atlanta for 11th due to one more game played.

Crazy as it may sound, the hot streak has the Rangers just three off sixth Montreal who were blanked by Ryan Miller 2-zip on a pair of Nathan Gerbe markers. Both Original Sixes have eight games to go but the Habs own the season series (3-1-0) and probably have the edge in the new tiebreaker excluding shootouts. The Lightning sit fifth with 89 after falling to the Islanders 5-2 highlighted by 36 saves from Al Montoya and rookie goal leader Michael Grabner's 31st (ENG).

The hot play couldn't have come at a better time for a club that has given fans plenty to cheer about. When you put out a consistent effort, you deserve to make it. The journey is far from over with the pesky Senators paying MSG a visit tomorrow. All Ottawa's done is essentially knock out the Devils with two backbreaking stunners in which each goalie (Craig Anderson and Curtis McElhinney) took turns stifling them. Jason Spezza's playing his best hockey of the season and Erik Karlsson's been on fire. By no means will it be easy. Especially if McElhinney continues his strong play in net.

The Rangers are aiming for six straight and five overall at MSG. We'll see if they can keep it going.

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Brandon Dubinsky, NYR (game-winning goal-22nd at 7:49 of 3rd)
2nd Star-Tomas Vokoun, Fla (32 saves incl. 17/17 in 2nd)
1st Star-Henrik Lundqvist, NYR (22 saves for season best 10th SHO-34th career)

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Devils' playoff run on life support after loss to Bruins

Being out all night at the movies, I had hopes that when I came home to see the NHL scores, the Devils would be within five of a playoff berth. After what's happened in the second half of the season part of me still felt there was more excitement to come and Buffalo did have a tough game in Montreal. Instead though, the Devils' playoff run is all but over now after a 4-1 loss to a slumping Bruins team that came to play and the Sabres' 2-0 shutout in Montreal. Not to mention the Rangers, Carolina and Toronto also winning in front of us.

Really you had to figure Boston had too much talent to go on stinking up the joint the way they have the last couple weeks. As Chico Resch adroitly pointed out in the pregame the start of their slump coincided with the Zdeno Chara-Max Pacioretty incident. And now it's obvious the Devils have finally run out of gas after not only having a Game 7-like intensity to every game for two months, but taking just about every game down to the wire in the process. I know theoretically the team can still win nine in a row and make it interesting, but it just ain't happening. Even if it does, I'm not sure we get in with how the teams in front of us are playing anyway.

I should feel happy that the Devils didn't give up on a season that was an utter embarassment halfway through and from that we managed to restore the pride in the uniform. And really you can't expect to come back from a 27-point deficit to make the playoffs, not when the largest deficit overcome was 12. Even getting that 27-point deficit down to six (with a game in hand) and having a chance to finish over .500 is a tremendous feat in itself. Many good things happened in the second half, from the development of the rookies to the resurgence of Ilya Kovalchuk as an elite player and improvement of the defense as a whole.

Yet, right now I'm sitting here in a melancholy mood like I would at the end of a playoff series. I guess part of it is you do get greedy when you have a chance to make all-time history, and another part of it is just the fun coming to an end after the two best months of being a hockey fan outside of our three Stanley Cup runs. Arguably, even those runs didn't have the sheer excitement or the number of dramatic finishes that we've seen the last two months. MSG+ showed a montage of all of our critical goals recently before one of the games last weekend and that made me want to stand up and cheer.

However part of my sadness is also for reasons having nothing to do with this improbable playoff chase. Due to issues beyond my control this season might be my last as a Devils season ticket holder. I've loved having the seats in 208 for each of the four years in Prudential Center history, especially given the people around me in that section and the $15 price of the seats. I'll never be able to thank the buddy enough who's let me have the seats (they were in his name but he couldn't use them since he had to move out of the state) but he no longer has the time to help me out, and it's been a hassle trying to get season ticket holder rights transferred from him to me.

That's a long story in itself but suffice it to say, if we're not able to do it within a couple weeks I doubt I'll be able to continue getting season tickets there since there is a deadline of April 1 to retain your rights to a specific seat. And if I'm not an sth there I probably won't be one anywhere else since there are numerous discounts available elsewhere in the building and cheap tickets on the secondary market. Needless to say I figured if this was going to be my last season as a season ticket holder I wanted to go out with a bang but it looks like that won't be possible. Our last five games will mean little other than playing spoiler to the Leafs maybe and perhaps affecting division and seeding races against the Flyers, Bruins and Canadiens.

Oh, don't get me wrong - I still want to finish above .500 and with nine games left it's very possible the Devils finish above 82 points, which would be a tremendous tangible achievement after the start we had. And one other thing I want to get out of this last nine games is to see Zach Parise return. I know the school of thought probably will be don't risk his health now but I honestly think if there's no danger of reaggravating his injury then he should play, even if we're just playing out the string. He hasn't played since Halloween, it would do his own psyche good to step on the ice at least once or twice before this season's over with. Not to mention we're gonna need to figure out how he and Kovy can share the ice sooner or later.

And playing spoiler is a new role for us, I don't know whether we'll embrace it or not but my hope is with so few games left in the season that we - players and fans alike - give it all we've got the last several games. I mean the players'll have long enough to rest after the next two and a half weeks and the fans'll also get a well-deserved rest after we had our offseason hijacked by the Kovy contract nonsense and with the wild roller-coaster ride of this season. Plus, sportswise there's really little else for me to look forward to until the Jets come back...assuming no NFL lockout into September anyway. Well nothing except for this weekend when I'll be attending the NCAA tournament regional games at the Rock, after taking advantage of a presale last year and winding up with a seat in section twelve for a reasonable price ($200 for the three games).

Another day and another time I'll write a post on how the second half was good for us, on and off the ice. I do have a lot to say on that end too, from the strides the Devils have made in public relations off the ice to the growth that this second half has shown in the team. Right now I'm still too depressed about everything, and determined to enjoy my final three or four home games as much as possible given the circumstances (I won't be at the game on the 30th and might not be at the one on the 2nd next month but will be at every other one). After all, it'll be another six months until the Devils play their next meaningful game.

Man, that really is gonna be a long wait.

Who deserves to be Battle MVP

With only a handful of games left in the season, I've added a new poll. Who deserves to be named Battle MVP? What we did is took two candidates from each of our four teams (Buf, NJD, NYI, NYR). Seven are traditional in the sense that they're players. Renarkably, we decided to include a coach for one of the best turnarounds in league history regardless of how it plays out. The choices are as follows:

Sabres-Tyler Ennis, Drew Stafford

Devils-Ilya Kovalchuk, Jacques Lemaire

Islanders-Michael Grabner, Matt Moulson

Rangers-Ryan Callahan, Henrik Lundqvist

What you have here are in my opinion, the best eight in what's been a crazy season for every club. All have had incredible peaks and valleys highlighted by the Devils' first half ineptitude to an incredible run which is still alive. That can be attributed to Jacques Lemaire, who turned Ilya Kovalchuk into a better player and got everyone to buy into his defensive oriented system. Never an easy thing to do midseason. The Islanders are right behind thanks to a similar transformation under Jack Capuano, who amazingly still hasn't been named head coach. What are they waiting for? While Blake Comeau and John Tavares have made improvements, the nod still goes to Calder candidate Michael Grabner, who became only the third Islander rookie to score 30 goals, joining Islander greats Mike Bossy and Bryan Trottier. Matt Moulson was an easy choice because he's the glue of the club, scoring 30 a second consecutive year to prove last season wasn't any fluke. Representing the Rangers are the team's heart and soul Ryan Callahan and the backbone Henrik Lundqvist. It's impossible to ignore Callahan's stellar play down the stretch. He's already got 14 points (7-7-14) in the month featuring his first career hat trick- a virtuoso four goal, five-point performance in a 7-0 rout of the Flyers, which sparked the club to six wins in seven including the current four-game win streak they bring into tonight versus Florida. He already has new highs in goals (23), assists (23) and points (46) despite missing 20 games. As for Lundqvist, since Martin Biron went down, all the King has done is elevate his play winning six of seven while recording a record sixth straight season of 30+ wins and pacing the league with nine shutouts. He definitely should be included for the Vezina.

There were other choices that could've been selected. But we tried to limit it to two. So, who deserves to be the first ever Battle MVP? It's up to you! Not Frank Sinatra.

Monday, March 21, 2011

NHL suspends Cooke 10 games plus Round One

Sometimes, even a blind squirrel finds an acorn once in a while. Make that one for NHL Deputy Colin Campbell, who got this one right by suspending controversial Penguins forward Matt Cooke the rest of the season along with the first round of the playoffs, stemming from his blindside elbow of Ranger rookie defenseman Ryan McDonagh yesterday.

The 32 year-old Cooke is quite familiar to illegal hits that can hurt opponents such as the unpenalized one he committed on Marc Savard last year, whose career might never be the same. The Boston center suffered a concussion and then another one in his return that derailed his 2010-11 season. Last year, the Pens' pest was banned two games for knocking out Artem Anisimov, which was his third suspension. Following a four-game sentence for a dangerous hit from behind on Columbus blueliner Fedor Tyutin, a month later Cooke struck again when he stuck out his elbow with McDonagh in a prone position. Fortunately, the former Badger was alright. However, he did sit out team practice as a precaution today.

Following Mario Lemieux's heavy criticism of the league's mishandling of the Pens-Islanders brawl that included 19 games for Trevor Gillies and a mandatory 10 for Eric Godard along with a single digit ban for Matt Martin and a hefty $100,000 fine for the Islanders, the league had no choice but to severely punish one of the Pens' own. Cooke is a repeat offender who hasn't gotten the message. Yesterday's latest incident, a blindside hit to the back of McDonagh's head, was potentially dangerous. These are the type of cheap shots that have no place in the game and must be phased out. In a statement from Campbell, he said:

"Mr. Cooke, a repeat offender, directly and unnecessarily targeted the head of an opponent who was in an unsuspecting and vulnerable position. This isn’t the first time this season that we have had to address dangerous behavior on the ice by Mr. Cooke, and his conduct requires an appropriately harsh response.”

Oddly enough, I said I wanted 10 games plus Round One. Something that at least would put some emphasis on the postseason. If you look past Cooke's record, he's a valuable player to the Pens who is a chief penalty killer, able to contribute offensively. In 67 contests this season, the former Canuck has 12 goals and 18 assists for 30 points along with three shorthanded goals while racking up 129 penalty minutes. Considering that Sidney Crosby's return is still questionable despite practicing, it's a huge loss for a team that plays on the edge. Pittsburgh leads the league with 72 majors. Even if you're the biggest Cooke detractor, he's a solid player despite his idiocy tendencies. Explained Penguins GM Ray Shero of a suspension that was “warranted because that’s exactly the kind of hit we’re trying to get out of the game:

"Head shots have no place in hockey. We’ve told Matt in no uncertain terms that this kind of action on the ice is unacceptable and cannot happen. Head shots must be dealt with severely, and the Pittsburgh Penguins support the NHL in sending this very strong message.

I don’t think you can talk about eliminating head shots from the game, as we have as an organization, and not expect (Cooke’s hit) to be examined,” Pens coach Dan Bylsma said following yesterday's 5-2 loss to the Rangers. “It’s what looks to be a contact right to the head on the play, so the league will look at that and treat it as such.

This is a step in the right direction for a league who too often looks the other direction when these types of illegal hits take place. Hopefully, it will set a precedent and further discourage players from taking part in such actions. Let this be a lesson. Further perpetrators will be properly disciplined.

Callahan sets career high in big win aided by Cooke

Even in a year which he missed time, Ryan Callahan has managed to set new career highs across the board. The next captain delivered big time with his career best 23rd goal and two assists in a Matt Cooke induced 5-2 stirring comeback win over the NHL's dirtiest team, the Pens yesterday. In 53 games, the '04 fourth round gem from Rochester now has 23 goals and 23 assists for 46 points, putting him only behind scoring leader Brandon Dubinsky, whose three-point outing (ENG, 2 A) finally allowed him to reach 50 on the season.

It was another game where our Blueshirts dug in, showing tremendous heart in bouncing back from a dismal second in which they were outshot 19-7 to pull out a season high fourth straight win. Combined with Buffalo's stunning overtime loss to Nashville that featured rookie Blake Geoffrion's first hat trick, the Rangers gained a point on the seventh Sabres- extending to a three point lead and five better than ninth Carolina. Toronto trails by eight and the Devils, who hung in on yesterday's 13 save Martin Brodeur shutout, are 10 back.

A fiercely competitive game that was closer than the final score got marred by the latest Cooke shenanigans. With the game still tied at one thanks to a standout performance from gutsy Henrik Lundqvist (38 saves) battling pest Max Talbot and a stiff neck, Cooke deliberately elbowed rookie defenseman Ryan McDonagh from behind in the head. Precisely the kind of blindside hit the league wants out of the game. In light of all the concussions due to such disrespectful cheap shots, it was another strike against a player who either won't get it or doesn't seem to care about the livelihood of his peers after hockey. Just ask Keith Primeau, who still has days where he can't get out of bed five years after retiring. Luckily, the future shutdown Ranger blueliner was okay enough to return and contribute on Derek Stepan's insurance marker that erased all doubt.

I didn’t see him coming. I know it hurt, that’s for sure,” McDonagh said of Cooke's vicious elbow that forced trainer Jim Ramsay to use protocol by asking him three questions before allowing the University Of Wisconsin product to return. “I would hope it wasn’t his intent. It’s a tight game. I’m sure he’s not trying to get his team a five-minute penalty. He’d probably just trying to finish his check and just caught me wrong.”

I don’t think you can talk about eliminating head shots from the game, as we have as an organization, and not expect (Cooke’s hit) to be examined,” Pens' head man Dan Bylsma stated without remarkably defending the latest action from his controversial pupil, who actually is an effective player when he isn't injuring opponents. “It’s what looks to be a contact right to the head on the play, so the league will look at that and treat it as such.

Of course, it would occur on NBC with Pierre McGuire and Ed Olczyk at a loss for words. A rarity for the do everything TSN analyst who loves chiming in. Astonishingly, with Cooke immediately ejected for an elbowing major, the Penguins No.1 penalty kill struck when Chris Kunitz took advantage of some sloppy Ranger play in the neutral zone to tally shorthanded. After a couple of minutes of zilch, Kunitz stole the puck and used Dan Girardi as a screen, going high stickside on Lundqvist for a 2-1 Pittsburgh lead with 13:34 left. On a day Lundqvist responded to John Tortorella's challenge to play following Benoit Pouliot running him over in Friday's rout of Montreal, perhaps he could've had it. But it was a great individual effort by the Pens' most underrated player and perfect shot.

With it looking like the major penalty would go to waste, Matt Niskanen who Lundqvist denied twice, took an undisciplined double minor after high sticking Callahan, who returned with a bloody beak. Finally, rejuvenated Marian Gaborik got to some loose change in front, burying his fifth goal in five games. The goal was set up by Bryan McCabe, whose low one-timer through heavy traffic caromed off Marc-Andre Fleury right to Gaborik for his 21st. Still on the power play, Callahan cashed in thanks to a broken play. Mats Zuccarello's shot went wide behind the net to ex-Pen Erik Christensen, who also missed. But the puck caromed right to Callahan who noticed Fleury down and immediately fired his 23rd upstairs for two goals in 11 seconds, suddenly moving the Rangers in front.

It’s pretty easy to get down on ourselves (and) hang our heads after letting up a goal on the power play like that,” said Callahan, who extended his goal streak to three straight. “But to our credit, we showed a lot of character coming back and still working.”

Not surprisingly, in a game where the Pens benefited from two generous penalties, they finally got a legit one when McDonagh lost position and tripped Kris Letang,who had a path to the net. Ironically, the stripes ignored a Dubinsky chop that broke a stick on one of those earlier power plays. Go figure. In any event, Pittsburgh had a great chance to tie it with 3:25 remaining. They pushed hard, getting all sorts of pressure on Lundqvist, who made a sprawling pad save with at least three Pens searching for the rebound. On a day where they were minus Marc Staal, the Rangers stood up for their goalie with Callahan roughing up Talbot earlier even though it was okay for him to get an extra shot in on Lundqvist. This time, Mike Sauer pushed Kunitz down and Tyler Kennedy was shoved away by teammates with the puck lying right next to our goalie.

The critical moment was the best shot Pittsburgh had. Our penalty kill got the job done. Just after it expired, Lundqvist made one more difficult stop on a tricky offering from Dustin Jeffrey. Able to kick it out to McDonagh, who pulled away from a couple of Pens for a mini-break. With the chase on, McDonagh forced Fleury to make one save and then followed up his rebound which then sailed out to Stepan, who deposited his 19th at 18:45 to salt it away. All too fitting that the recipient of a Cooke elbow that the league actually got right suspending him the rest of the season (10 games) plus the first round, was involved in the finish.

With Fleury off for an extra attacker, Callahan found Dubinsky for an empty netter that put the exclamation point on the latest huge win.

Earlier, Artem Anisimov traded first period goals with Jordan Staal in a well played stanza that saw each Patrick rival take turns controlling the action. Anisimov, who also added an assist for another multi-point effort, benefited from a nice Callahan feed from the right corner- steering home his 18th with 9:40 left in the first. However, the Pens bounced back thanks to a great James Neal outlet that sprung Staal, whose forehand deke beat Lundqvist clean 4:39 later. On the play, Girardi was exploited with fill-in partner Steve Eminger. Each were too close when Neal threaded the needle for Staal's 10th. Rookie Ben Lovejoy added a helper.

Girardi and Eminger struggled all day but Tortorella kept them intact while utilizing go-to rookie tandem McDonagh and Sauer, who were strong again finishing plus-four with an assist. The Pens generated plenty in the middle frame but couldn't solve Lundqvist, who was at his best.

Hank played with some (guts), didn’t he?” praised Tortorella. “He played very well right on through. He gave us a chance … and then we capitalized on their penalties in the third period.”

Right now it’s fun,” Lundqvist added with his club's next big one tomorrow against the Panthers at home. “When you’re winning, everybody’s having fun.”

Who could disagree with that?

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Ryan McDonagh, NYR (assist, 2 PIM, +2 in 28 shifts-18:09)
2nd Star-Anisimov-Dubinsky-Callahan, NYR (3-5-8, +3, 9 hits, 3 blocked shots, Dubi 11-6 draws)
1st Star-Henrik Lundqvist, NYR (38 saves incl. 19/19 in 2nd)

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Devils win in Columbus to stop losing streak, keep faint hope alive

I admit, I thought our semblance of a playoff chase was done Thursday when we lost for a second time to Ottawa. Some more dirt got shoveled onto our grave the next night when we somehow managed to lose 3-0 to the Caps despite outshooting them 33-12 and generally outplaying them on Retro Night. Despite the shot advantage of that game though, it seemed as if every chance the Caps got was perfect while when we got chances they were hurried, low-quality or turned out to be excellent saves by Caps goalie Michael Neuvirth.

Thankfully the Devils got a rare easy win in Columbus to break the mini-losing streak, shutting out the Jackets 3-0 with Martin Brodeur getting his 115th career gooseegg, only having to make thirteen saves to do it. Although Ilya Kovalchuk had another frustrating afternoon (getting stopped on one more breakaway and hitting a post), David Clarkson continued his recent resurgence with two goals and Nick Palmeri finally broke out of a slump - two goals in his previous twenty-one games - with a third-period tally that essentially put the game away.

Despite our win, with the Rangers winning three in a row and the Sabres destroying the Thrashers last night, it looked as if the bubble teams were pulling away from us, especially when Buffalo took a 3-1 lead on Nashville at home this afternoon. However, the Preds' late rally and OT win restored a glimmer of hope, if only because the Sabres also have a tough game in Montreal Tuesday and play us on Saturday. If we can win in Boston and Pittsburgh (no easy task) we have a decent shot to be within five before our showdown in Buffalo.

That's still far away though, and yet the end of the season's closing in with just ten games left. The fact we're even talking about meaningful games at this point is remarkable. As is the fact we're again at NHL .500 with 72 points in 72 games, after starting with just 20 in our first 41. If we're going to find a way to finish the job though, the offense needs to keep improving. Even with this stretch, the Devils have by far the worst offense in the NHL, averaging barely two goals per game. For a time, Kovy was carrying our offense but despite getting insane icetime the last two games he's gone cold again.

Fortunately, another line seems to be picking up the slack - Clarkson and fellow rookies Mattias Tedenby and Jacob Josefson. Clarkson - who had two goals this afternoon - looks reborn with the kids, finally playing as well as he did in his breakout 2008-09 season before injury last season and a general malaise this year contributed to him being overpaid and underperforming. Both of the kids chipped in, with Tedenby getting assists on both of Clarkson's goals and Josefson firing the inital shot on net that Clarkson swatted in a rebound from to open the scoring at 9:24 of the first with his eleventh goal of the year.

Remarkably, Clarkson almost had a hat trick - after scoring again in the second period, he got a breakaway in the third, but lost the puck off his stick. Fortunately Palmeri put the game away with his seventh goal of the season at 3:22, giving the Devils a rare third period with breathing room. Yet after the Rangers' comeback (aided by Mario's favorite goon Matt Cooke) and the Sabres' early lead, it looked like today was going to be another total wash for our playoff chances. That is until Nashville scored twice in the final two and a half minutes of regulation, then won in OT to give themselves two important points in their own playoff race and deny the Sabres one.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Prust sets tone in statement over Habs

#InPrustWeTrust. That's become a familiar rallying cry over on Twitter between Ranger tweeps. It sticks for good reason. Gritty Blueshirt Brandon Prust has been a constant from Day One of the season. When it came to choosing who deserved the Extra Effort Award, there were only two choices for myself between Prusty and running mate Brian Boyle. I voted for Boyle, who carries more responsibilities anchoring our grind line that's back intact with Ruslan Fedotenko finally healthy. It's no secret that this trio has been the club's most valuable due to the relentless forecheck and battles they win, injecting energy.

In a game versus another team we hadn't beaten in God knows how long, John Tortorella started their line against the Canadiens last night. Prior to the final regular season meeting which included a strong contingent of roughly 5,000 screaming Montreal fans (never seen anything like it), the Rangers had dropped the previous three all by a goal. Bad starts were the theme before in each, our team rallied only to fall short. Ironically, that had been an Achilles heel on home ice till blowout wins over the Flyers and Islanders. At the most critical time of year, suddenly our guys are coming out flying. In winning convincingly over the Habs 6-3, the start once again reigned supreme. Not shockingly, Prust got the Original Six contest that was like a playoff atmosphere by challenging Travis Moen off the opening draw. They talked right away with a buzz and then each danced for what felt like forever with Prust landing a couple of better shots before a takedown- setting the tone for the evening.

You had to know Tortorella was in their ear about the other three games. When you see our warrior start off by beating their similar rugged vet, it sends a message. It didn't take long for Prust's teammates to follow suit in what amounted to the best period of the season. The Rangers responded by putting a five spot, chasing Carey Price, who really was blameless in the second of a back-to-back. Our guys came ready and won every single battle. The five-goal explosion happened methodically with the fireworks in the second half, highlighted by an odd Ryan Callahan tally that took several minutes up in Toronto before touching off a three-goal barrage in 67 seconds.

Artem Anisimov has made improvement during this critical stretch. In his second season, the lanky Russian has probably blown almost as many chances as Marian Gaborik. After he missed from 12 feet out, I overheard Anthony and his buddy discussing how Arty could have 30 goals. The talent's there and was on display when minutes later, he broke in on Price and went backhand deke, steering the Rangers ahead. The unassisted tally was his 17th.

But before we could breathe, the Canadiens came right back when loathed rookie defenseman P.K. Subban wisely waited before firing a laser thru a double screen to tie it 1:43 later. The controversial talented blueliner then ran Prust from behind, leading to a scrum post-whistle. They nabbed Prust for a questionable interference taking both players off after Subban refused to fight. Playing four-on-four, the Habs' Roman Hamrlik was taken off for a cross check, handing us an unconventional four-on-three power play. On it, our guys got looks but couldn't beat Price. However, after Prust and Subban returned, they kept the puck alive. After it expired, a mad scramble ensued with Price kicking out an Erik Christensen shot right to Dan Girardi, who made no mistake burying it upstairs as our section was screaming for another penalty for a hit from behind in the corner. No one cared anymore with Christensen and Mats Zuccarello setting it up for 2-1.

Leading by one, the Rangers asked Henrik Lundqvist to make a few important stops, which he obliged. The eerie period got even wilder when Brandon Dubinsky outmuscled Scott Gomez and tried a stuff in which caromed out to Ryan Callahan, who seemed to score through a maze of players only to have the refs blow it dead. They couldn't tell if the puck was in, going upstairs for a lengthy review. From our vantage point, it had to cross the line because the puck bounced and Price was inside his net. As it took longer and longer to determine, I wondered if we'd get the shaft due to no conclusive replay. Instead, they managed to get it right, giving Callahan his career tying 22nd from Anisimov and Dubinsky at 17:09.

That's when the real fun began. With fans mocking "Go Habs Go," Gaborik scored for a second straight off a broken play, taking a Christensen pass and roofing it past Price 32 seconds later. Vinny Prospal also assisted, extending his point streak to eight (2-8-10). Before the Habs could breathe, an odd-man rush led by Prust and Marc Staal allowed Boyle to join the party for his 21st 35 ticks later. Prior to the game, he mentioned to Larry Brooks that he had gotten away from what had worked when he was scoring regularly. It was nice to see one of our hardest working players get rewarded. Price's night was over, allowing five on just 12 shots. He really was hung out to dry as his team fell apart following the Callahan review.

Replacing Price was one-time backup Alex Auld, who played strong finishing with 18 saves including a stone job early in the second that would've made it a laugher. Instead, a sharper Habs team warmed to the task courtesy of former Islander James Wisniewski's right point blast eluding Lundqvist, cutting it to three with plenty of time left for a comeback. Having reminded a few buddies along with a very nice couple from Sudbury, Ontario where Marc Staal starred about the ridiculous five-goal comeback a couple of years back, I didn't like what I was seeing. Montreal was quicker to the puck and forcing Lundqvist to come up big. You knew the Canadiens wouldn't quit because they're a good team. In a period they played better even getting a couple of power plays, they were only able to get one with our goalie and the PK doing the job.

Of course, Subban ran into Lundqvist for an obvious goalie interference, drawing a crowd that included Mike Sauer, who immediately challenged him. In typical punk fashion, Subban skated away hiding behind the refs who didn't want any part of it. Considering that the Pens and another talented douche Kris Letang are next, it felt appropriate. Sauer is the kind of defenseman we haven't had since Jeff Beukeboom. No. I'm not comparing the two as there's only one Beuke and Sauer has a long way to go. But in a year it wasn't even a given he'd become a regular, he's our toughest blueliner, never putting up with any shenanigans. This kid is the most overlooked rookie in the league. Thank God Slats at least held onto him. The last link to the unpopular Brian Leetch deal looks like he'll stick around a while.

In the second, the Rangers didn't play smart with both Christensen and even Callahan taking offensive zone penalties with the latter roughing up a Hab with under a minute left. As predicted, the Canadiens finally made it 5-3 thanks to a nifty tip-in by American captain Brian Gionta off a Wisniewski shot. The little engine that could got position in front and I knew it was coming. He's always killed us since the Devil days. It was his 26th of the season from Wiz and Hamrlik that made it 5-3 with still 19:06 left.

A once potential rout became a hockey game with each team taking turns attacking. Our cycle came back with some effective shifts, stemming the tide. However, Lundqvist flat out robbed a Hab on the doorstep with a sliding glove stop that had everyone chanting, "Hen-rik, Hen-rik, Hen-rik." The biggest save of the night allowed his teammates to breathe easier. When Prospal converted at the doorstep on a late power play for 6-3, the Rangers had their biggest win to date, allowing them to move four points up on both Buffalo and Carolina, who rallied past the Islanders 3-2 to stay in the race.

The reason for the power play was Benoit Pouliot running over Lundqvist, who was shaken up and stayed down for a while before getting up to cheers. For a goalie that is extremely popular and has the GQ look ladies can't get enough of, the King is also tougher than he looks. He stayed in for his record-setting sixth straight season of 30 victories or more to start a career. Even if shootout induced, it's still impressive and speaks to the competitiveness of a guy who was stolen in the seventh round, becoming our franchise netminder. Sometimes, you luck out. Hopefully, he'll be alright.

Lundqvist is usually a regular after each win or loss but suffered from a stiff neck and didn't partake afterwards. Tortorella wouldn't rip the Canadiens for going hard to net, terming it a "hockey play." He's not wrong here. Every team does it. Lundqvist is questionable for tomorrow versus the Pens. If he can't go, former Pittsburgh draft pick Chad Johnson will get the call. A pretty interesting development with 10 games remaining. If it comes to that, it would be nice to see Ocho Cinco stun his former club. We'll just have to wait and see.

PLAYOFF PICTURE: With the Caps shutting out the Devils 3-zip for a crushing defeat Friday, the Devs now need a miraculous 10-1 stretch to reach 90 points. Here's how the race looks.
              GP  Pts   GR
*1.Flyers  70   94   12
*2.Caps    73  94    9
*3.Bruins   70  88   12
4.Pens      71  90  11
5.Bolts     71  88   12
6.Habs     72  85   10
7.Rangers 72  80   10
8.Sabres   70  76   12
9.Canes    72  76   10
10.Atlanta 71  72   11
11.Leafs    72  72   10
12.Devils   71  70   11
13.Florida  71  67   11
14.Isles      72  66   10
15.Sens      71  61   11

*Division leaders

Saturday: CBJ 4 Min 3 3rd 
               NYI @ Fla 7 ET
               Atl @ Buf 7 ET
               Bos @ Tor 7 ET
               TB @ Ott 7 ET
               Det @ Nsh 8 ET
               Phi @ Dal 8 ET
               Col @ Edm 10 ET
               Ana @ LA 10:30 ET
               Stl @ SJ 10:30 ET

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Devils' dream run interrupted by familiar nightmare

Sometimes I've heard the phrase 'woman's intuition' to describe something that you feel in your gut and can't explain why, it's just there and more often than not the feeling turns out to be correct. Maybe for a man it'd be called a premonition, I don't know...whatever it is I just really felt with every fiber in my body like I should avoid tonight's Devils game in Ottawa. I don't know why, there was no earthly reason to think Ottawa would shame us again, especially when I heard that Craig Anderson (a tormentor for us) was out with a hand injury and the immortal Curtis McElhinney would be in net tonight.

Maybe next time I'll listen to my own premonitions. Oh, I did avoid the first fifteen minutes of this game since I was enjoying the weather and out at the mall though I could have gotten back in the car and listened to the radio. Unfortunately the roof didn't start falling in until after I started listening to and watching the game as Ryan Shannon scored a power play goal in the final minute of the first period, Chris Neil scored in the first minute of the third and McEhlinney turned into the second coming of J.S. Giguere circa 2003, making 33 saves in what would turn out to be a 3-1 Devils loss. For all the good the Devils managed in their 22-3-2 run, they've practically undone it with two losses to a terrible Ottawa team in the last nine days where they could only muster a combined two goals.

Of course no matter how accurate my premonition turned out to be I just couldn't avoid this game entirely. Not with what was on the line for the Devils - a chance to pull within four points of eighth-place Buffalo and complete a six-game stretch against non-playoff teams at 5-1 before getting into the death valley portion of our remaining twelve games. From what it sounded like via Matt Loughlin and Sherry Ross on the radio, the first ten minutes or so was a feeling out period with not much action until the Devils started peppering the former Duck scrub and making him look like so many goalies did in the first half of the season against us.

Then, back-to-back penalties by Patrik Elias and Anton Volchenkov gave the Sens lots of power play time towards the end of the first period, and eventually they took advantage when Shannon scored just after the short 5-on-3 expired. Perhaps the second period was the most maddening of all, as the Devils outshot the Sens 11-3 but still could not solve McElhinney. It's proving about as hard for me to spell his name right as it was for us to get a goal on him tonight. Still, only being down one there was some reason to hope things would turn in the third, that we would continue to dominate and finally get a bounce that would turn the game.

Unfortunately that never happened...instead it was Ottawa who got a bounce when Neil scored at fifty-five seconds on a play where I still don't know how Martin Brodeur lost the puck. It seemed to be a popup that spun out of his grasp, whatever the reason it was his second questionable game-losing goal against Ottawa in nine days. Perhaps we finally left February hero Johan Hedberg on the bench one day too long.

Although Colin White did score shortly after that, the goal was eventually waved off due to 'incidental contact' by Adam Mair. This is a hockey rule I still don't can you wave off a goal on something that isn't a penalty? By that theory a defenseman should always be able to throw a forward into his goalie and get a goal disallowed. To me either it should be a penalty (and it did look like Mair hit the goalie's skate or pads before the puck got there) or it should be a goal.

Be that as it may, we did still have our chances in the third period, finally converting on a powerplay when Brian Rolston scored his thirteenth at 5:02 on (what else?) a slapshot from the blueline. Rookie Jacob Josefson and vet Elias got the assists on what turned out to be our lone goal of the night. And we'd have opportunities to tie the game after that, most notably when seconds after coming out of the box, Ilya Kovalchuk got sprung for a breakaway...but unlike the game against the Rangers a month ago, he would not convert on this golden opportunity to get a tie and perhaps at least a point out of this game. Instead, Neil put it away with an empty-netter in the final minute.

This loss was so crippling I'm barely upset at the Flyers' continued tank job against all of the teams we need them to beat to continue our improbable run (losses to the Canes, Sabres, Rangers, Leafs and Thrashers twice, all in the last month). When the Panthers are giving you more help than the Flyers that's just...telling. But whatever, they probably won't have to worry about tanking much longer to keep us out of the playoffs if we have even a couple more losses. As it is, the Devils need to go 10-2 in their last twelve games just to get to ninety points and that might not even be enough.

That's presuming we can even get to 90. When you lose twice in nine days to the worst team in the conference, then have to play the Caps, Blue Jackets, Bruins, Penguins and Sabres in your next five with the latter four being on the road...well you're just not leaving yourself any margin for error. Realistically, if you can't beat Ottawa one out of two games you probably don't deserve to make the playoffs anyway. All along I've always been more reserved about our playoff chances than most, though it's gotten to a point where I was starting to think some divine intervention was going in our favor I don't think I lost sight as to just how improbable this run would be.

Still, hopefully the team cranks it up one more time and gives the fans at least a final glimmer of hope tomorrow night against a Caps team that was white-hot until Detroit finally dulled their long winning streak last night. I've taken this stretch in groups of in I hope we're alive through this homestand or going into the next homestand. If we're fortunate enough to win tomorrow I'll say well, I hope we're still alive after our four-game road trip. Even then it won't get any easier with home games against the Isles, Flyers (watch them crank it up for us if we're still in it somehow by then) and Habs at home before their final four games at Pittsburgh, against Toronto, at the Garden and against the Bruins. But hey, at least we don't have to play the Sens again since they love sticking it to us - see '96, '98, '06 and this year with '03 being the lone exception.

If this roller-coaster is going to come to an end tomorrow or on the upcoming trip, well at least the team made it fun for a couple of months in a season that was a death valley and with the younger players producing as well as having Kovy being fully assimilated, there's even more hope for the future than ever. That's for this offseason though - right now, tomorrow's game is the season. Lose and it's pretty much over realistically.

The Puck Stops Here


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