Saturday, December 3, 2011

Preview: Rangers aim for five straight

Tonight in St. Pete, the Rangers try to ride another hot streak when they battle John Tortorella's former team the Lightning. Who knows what to expect? The Bolts are the oddest team this season where you literally don't know what you'll get. They're hot and cold. Boasting one of the league's premier finishers in Steven Stamkos along with sidekicks Martin St. Louis and Vinny Lecavalier, Tampa Bay can explode.

What it'll come down to is discipline from the Blueshirts, who have been handling business methodically. Even Sidney Crosby and the rest of the dangerous Pens fell short in the game of the week at MSG with our team holding on for a well earned 4-3 win. The Rangers are playing well. I won't go overboard because I don't know how good we are just yet. It's too early to put us in the league's elite. Quite honestly, I hate that word. Rankings don't mean anything. What matters is that they're there at the end of the season, hopefully not scrambling for a spot.

Ever since the organization recalled John Mitchell and rookie Carl Hagelin, the Rangers have been a different team. With four lines Tortorella has faith in, everyone's playing. Hagelin has been unbelievable, notching a point in his first four games. His speed, playmaking and hockey sense are proof that sometimes, a late pick (sixth round folks) who stays all four years at college can develop properly and potentially turn into a steal. Mitchell deserves a ton of credit too. Not much was expected from the former Leaf, who also was on the same line in Connecticut with Hags. We acquired him last deadline for a seventh round pick. Mitchell always was a decent enough skater who could be reliable defensively and shoot the puck. In a fourth line role, he's perfect, meshing with Hagelin and rejuvenated Brian Boyle to give us an effective energy line that gets things done. No wonder crazy guy Andre Deveaux was waived.

While the chemistry has been superb for the unlikely trio, Tortorella also deserves credit for shifting Brandon Dubinsky back to center where he's teamed with Brandon Prust and Sean Avery to form another gritty line that can forecheck and draw penalties. Sure. It's not what's expected from our four million player who's stuck on one goal despite unselfish teammates trying to get him No.2 the other night in a 5-3 win at Carolina. Dubi is working hard and had a nice set up on Ryan McDonagh's goal. It has to turn around for him soon. He deserves a break. Maybe that happens tonight.

The other two lines have been money. The GAS line continues to be impressive with Marian Gaborik flat out dominating. His speed and compete has been a 180 from last year. I admit I had doubts. But Gabby has been terrific. Some of the plays he's making are outrageous like the one end to end where he went through the Pens PK and then dished for Ryan Callahan to tie Tuesday's big clash. Unbelievable. Gabby is doing everything right, also hustling defensively and making his teammates better. It's a luxury for Tort to be able to separate Gaborik and Brad Richards, who has been everything you'd want in Year One. He makes amazing reads and the right decisions when it comes to shooting the puck as his nine goals attest. Many of them money like the rifle he ripped past Marc-Andre Fleury on an odd-man rush. Richy has been cohesive with Captain Cally and the much overlooked Ruslan Fedotenko, who's such a nuts and bolts player. No wonder the Bolts' Cup hero won another championship with the Pens. The man always works.

The D continues to be led by Dan Girardi, who should make the All-Star team on merit. He has stepped up tremendously in the absence of Marc Staal. McDonagh continues to flourish. Thank you again Bob Gainey. What did Slats have on him? Mike Sauer and Mike Del Zotto have been solid with MDZ contributing offensively while Sauer Power rarely is out of position. Jeff Woywitka continues to be a revelation with Steve Eminger. And of course King Henrik has been splendid.

This team is clicking on all cylinders making one ponder if Joe Thornton's "soft" label was the turning point. I don't put much stock in bulletin material. But you can't ignore the response. Maybe our season really did begin when they ticked off Thornton in the first win at MSG. Ever since, they've been excellent. Oh. And there's a home ice advantage with the team reeling off seven in a row.

Can they keep it up tonight against a skilled opponent who blew us out a couple of times last year? Stay out of the box. Will be nice to see former Ranger Matt Gilroy. Should be fun.

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