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.

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