Monday, November 7, 2011

4-1-1 Homestand: Great weekend provides home cooking

At the beginning of the newly renovated Garden, it looked like the Rangers would tease us. After dropping one to the improved Leafs, they blew a 4-1 third period lead against the Sens- falling in a shootout. That put our record at a bizarre 3-3-3 with games still against the Sharks, Ducks, Canadiens and newly reformed Winnipeg Jets.

With John Tortorella's continued odd line combos, something finally worked when the Blueshirts responded to two consecutive San Jose goals that tied a pivotal game by getting the next three, including the Goal Of The Week scored by captain Ryan Callahan, recapped on NHL Network yesterday by Kathryn Tappen. Sparkling goaltending by popular backup Martin Biron got the team going. It was followed by a repeat versus Anaheim but this time Henrik Lundqvist prevailed in the shootout thanks to shooting stars Erik Christensen and Marian Gaborik, whose beauty gave them two straight wins.

With the team feeling better about itself thanks to some high character performances from club leaders Callahan, Lundqvist, Gaborik and ultimate warrior Dan Girardi, it set up a big weekend with Les Habitants and their legions of fans invading Manhattan the other night with Winnipeg right behind. In the coolest, most chaotic atmosphere of the season, the Rangers came out strong scoring the first three on Carey Price in a dominant first period that saw them score a power play goal (Christensen) and two others (Girardi & rejuvenated Mike Del Zotto who donned the Broadway Hat afterwards) while outshooting the Habs 16-3. But before you could breathe at the beautifully minted place which happened to be my '11-12 inaugural debut, Montreal reversed momentum with goals from Max Pacioretty and Andrei Kostitsyn much to the delight of a strong Habs contingent that even had fans in our section and 412 with one waving a Montreal towel. Precisely why these games have superceded Isles, Devs, Flyers and Pens as the most entertaining in my view.

The Canadiens were dangerous the rest of the way, outshooting us 25-12. Lundqvist, who fought the puck a bit, had to deal with breakaways and odd-man rushes- making some tough stops while also having his best friends, the crossbar and goalpost at his disposal. Part of the issue for the Rangers was the ejection of Mike Sauer following a wild first period scrum that featured a pair of fights with Captain Cally pummeling Mike Blunden in retaliation for Brandon Dubinsky. With things breaking up, Sauer squared off with Petteri Nokelainen, also getting the decision to loud cheers.

Between the crazy Habitants driving our area nuts and the scraps, it was some kinda time. The predictable "USA, USA" chants were a result of their traditional "Ole, Ole, Ole," led by an energized row in front of us. Real funny kids with one even telling me he went to the same high school as Pacioretty at Taft in Conneticut, referring to the Habs' pest in a way not worth repeating. However, he also added that Patch tore it up and praised his play. We agreed that he's a solid player. One worth keeping an eye on for Montreal. If only they had kept Ryan McDonagh. Thanks again Bob Gainey. Speaking of which, he continues to excel alongside Danny G. The skill the former Badger possesses is something to behold. He makes great reads, anticipates well and is now jumping in offensively. There's a lot to like about this kid, who is really mature and is making a lot of experts look good for ripping the Scott Gomez trade, which was better known for the return of now rejuvenated Canuck Chris Higgins.

With our team on its heels most of the second, Brad Richards stepped up with a momentum swinging goal late in the period by beating Price with a wrister from the left circle, restoring a two-goal lead. With McD, Danny G, MDZ and Steve Eminger logging the bulk of the minutes, it was enough for our team to hang on even though known killer Brian Gionta made things interesting with Price pulled. McDonagh and Dubinsky combined to set up Callahan for his sixth into an open net, sealing it. A fun night. I'll have a review of the building and update on our Section 411 in a latter post.

After coasting to a 5-3 triumph the night before, the Rangers gave a complete team effort in a 3-0 shutout of Winnipeg. Its first game in 16 years at MSG. Only then the names were a lot different with Cup hero Mark Messier still leading us instead of finishing the NYC Marathon yesterday in 4:14:21 at age 50 for a great cause. The man is so admirable. He personifies what our city's all about. Congrats to all the runners who ran, including the champions in the men's and women's field.

Winnipeg didn't have Teemu Selanne, which still even after all these years, doesn't feel right. And there was no Keith Tkachuk, Alexei Zhamnov or Teppo Numminen either with all represented by the now Phoenix Coyotes franchise which is struggling mightily at their fancy arena in the Desert. Instead, a list of former Thrashers led by ever improving '10 first rounder Alex Burmistrov with Dustin Byfuglien, Tobias Enstrom, Andrew Ladd, Evander Kane and overlooked goalie Ondrej Pavelec, who was heroic in defeat much the same way Jonas Hiller was in his visit here. The first was kind of a drag with the teams combining for 13 shots, probably a bit tired from the night before.

However, it picked up the rest of the way with chances for both sides. A lack of discipline on Winnipeg's part allowed our team to go ahead thanks to a wonderful power play goal. Brad Richards started it with Del Zotto dishing across for intended target Gaborik. But the puck went off Gabby right to a wide open Derek Stepan, who buried his second. D-Step was sensational, latter setting up Gaborik's first of two in the third, while earning First Star. Despite all the penalties that allowed the Blueshirts to have back-to-back two-man advantages, they couldn't put another past Pavelec, who other than a stone job on a flubbed Christensen shot, didn't see as much rubber as he should've. Both Richards and Gaborik misfired and also made some poor choices. Fortunately, it didn't cost us.

Despite generating quality chances, it remained a one-goal contest with Pavelec's splendid play allowing his team to stay alive. When they finally tested Marty Biron, the unflappable vet was perfect stopping all 23 in his path, including a few sparklers. I'll tell ya. The former No.1 for Buffalo and Philadelphia was a great move by Slats as was Tort favorite Ruslan Fedotenko. We love to bash the GM and justifiably so for not one advance past the second round during a lengthy tenure. But he's also made some good moves that have worked out. Even if Mike Rupp needs arthroscopic surgery for his knee that will sideline him, there's Crazy One Andre Deveaux making the case to stay, earning his first NHL point the other night.

In the third, our guys didn't sit back, instead forcing Pavelec to be good by firing 14 shots. Okay. Only 13 counted due to the empty net. But you get the point. Artem Anisimov, who's been in Tort's doghouse, was elevated to the top line and didn't disappoint. A day after netting two helpers, the enigmatic Russian made a strong defensive play along the wall that sprung D-Step and Gabby on a two-on-one. Anisimov cleared it to Stepan, who waited and headfaked before dishing across for Gaborik for a lay-up. Gabby's reaction was priceless. D-Step has that knack and more and more reminds me of Chris Drury. A guy with a high IQ who makes the big play when the game's on the line. He's so solid defensively and his physical game is coming. But it's Derek's vision that really stands out. His patience with the puck is fun to watch. Another non-first rounder who we stole in the second round that looks like a keeper. His poise is why I'm genuinely excited about D-Step.

I guess it’s just an instinct to find the shooter on the line, and Gaby is quite a shooter,” Stepan said. “You look at Step, his game is really stepping out, no pun intended there,” Tortorella added to some chuckles. “The game is clear to him, you can tell. I think he’s allowing himself to play.
"We showed some resilience, some battle and some heart,” Biron noted after notching first shutout in two years. “It’s hard when you go on the road for that amount of time because sometimes there’s a let-down feeling that we’re home and it’s going to be a lot easier. There was none of that. It was a lot of hard work that has paid off in the end and that has to keep going.

There's a lot more to be happy about with a team that finally seems to be gelling. Now, they hit the road mostly with a stop in Ottawa Wednesday before a quick return home for the Canes Friday with a visit to Air Canada Centre Saturday. Sure. Brandon Dubinsky remains without a goal but it'll come. Brian Boyle and Brandon Prust were better Sunday too. Another plus. The Rangers should be pleased with reeling off four straight to conclude the big homestand 4-1-1 (4-2 really). Now, comes another challenge.

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