Monday, January 31, 2011

Around the rink: Devils and All-Star thoughts

Figures, doesn't it? Right after we bury out of one week's worth of snow, another big storm's on the way tomorrow. I'm looking forward to the Devils' return for the final 33 games of the season in spite of our current position in the standings but I'll probably have to sit out of going to tomorrow's home game against Ottawa since it looks like the snow's going to wreak havoc on attendance yet again (see: December 26 against Toronto). Hopefully none of our players will be sleeping in their cars again tomorrow night.

Aside from the snow, it will be nice to have real hockey back, whether on TV or in the arena. Yes, I admit the All-Star game was a nice diversion...especially with the unique format of picking teams encouraged by former legend and current NHL exec Brendan Shanahan (can we just nickname him the Mad Scientist now?). Whether it was staged or not, I still got a kick out of Johnathan Toews staring daggers into teammate Patrick Kane - assistant captain for Nicklas Lidstrom's team - for bypassing him in the first several rounds.

The shenanigans of the 'draft' also included Eric Staal's theatrical hold once he indicated a certain pick was going to be from the Rangers, but instead of his brother (defenseman Marc) it turned out to be goalie Henrik Lundqvist. Of course he picked his brother in the next round and made sure to have his other two Canes teammates with him as well - wunderkid Jeff Skinner and goalie Cam Ward, the first draft pick thanks to team colors and the fact the game was going to be in Carolina. Hometown and family blood trumped Lidstrom's collection of talent in the skills competition and narrowly went down to defeat in an 11-10 shootout during the game itself.

Still, even with the new format (and my personal fave Patrik Elias being the Devils' only ASW representative) I can't really get into watching the game. It's hard to watch a game where teams don't even attempt to play defense. Then again, I got used to it during the first half of the season - well, at least one team wasn't playing defense then. Which perfectly segways into my team's return from the All-Star break tomorrow night against the Senators. To think, eight years ago these teams met in an epic conference final, now they're among the dregs of the league. Even last year, both teams made the playoffs but were ousted in the first round by Pennsylvania teams.

Thankfully the Devils played their best hockey of the season in the three weeks prior to the All-Star break, but will the long layoff and another tough loss in Detroit (still winless there since '96) stall the momentum gained by a seven-game point streak? At least the 3-1 loss to the Wings can quell the silly playoff talk for a while, since we're still twenty points back of a spot. Don't delude yourselves with futile playoff hopes, Devils fans. At least not until this team gets back to .500. Unlike the playoffs, .500 is at least a semi-realistic goal and I can't take the playoffs seriously until we at least get to that point since it's likely going to take being several games over .500 to get the eighth seed.

Even that will be a challenge though, since the team's overall record is 16-30-3. Can the team go, say 21-7-5 in its last 33 games? That's what it would take just to get to 82 points and a .500 record. Our last three weeks of January cautiously suggests it's possible but further complicating the march to respectability is the trade deadline looming at the end of February. Granted, the only likely candidate to be moved is center Jason Arnott, an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season - but I certainly can't picture the Devils adding anyone at the deadline.

Whether this team gets back to .500 or not, at least we're on our way to accomplishing what should have been the only goal at the halfway point - making the second half of the season fun to watch and worthwhile since we're seeing vets return to form (Brian Rolston's among the hottest Devils, for crying out loud!) and rookies learn from vet coach Jacques Lemaire. Both will serve us well next year, whoever the coach may be since Lemaire's already ruled out a return.

At least I'm glad I decided to go to the home game against the Panthers before the break, since that turned out to be another winning effort. My only regret was I should have stayed for the third period instead of rushing home to catch the Jet game. Not so much cause I missed anything at the Devil game (we were already up 4-1 when I left, well on our way to a 5-2 win) but because I had to watch the ridiculously lethargic start to the AFC Championship that doomed the Jets. Sometimes things in sports are just unexplainable, like the Jets' effort level in that game or the Devils' in Game 6 of the 2001 Stanley Cup Finals at home.

Maybe the first half of the Devils' season will fall into the 'unexplainable' category if this team returns to its winning ways and gets its pride back over the final two plus months of the season. Or then again, maybe the problems will be far more explainable given the two major changes from the first half of the season till now (offing the coach and captain).

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Rangers Clawed Again by Panthers

In Inspector Gadget, Dr. Claw was the evil character who he took on and outwitted in the entertaining cartoon when kids could be kids. These days with what passes for TV during the afternoon, there are no Claws trying to ruin Gadget's day or Lotors seeking to destroy Voltron. Skeletor versus He-Man won't be happening anytime soon but unfortunately for the Rangers, they felt the Claw last night against their kryptonite in the form of the Panthers, who came into MSG and posted a whacky 4-3 win.

For some reason unknown to the universe, the Rangers simply cannot beat Florida. Throw out the shootout win and we'd be 0-for-3. It doesn't matter what the records are. Even if half of Connecticut is on our roster, the bottom line is the Rangers are still sending three All-Stars who are thankfully all healthy. That Marian Gaborik isn't one speaks volumes. Maybe he needs more odd goals like the one that went off his stick and shoulder to tie the Caps, who our team rallied to beat in the skill competition the other day. Where would this team be without Brian Boyle, who will probably get overlooked for the Selke despite leading the team with 18 goals and doing everything the award for game's best defensive forward details? It's Boyle who John Tortorella trusts so much to the point that he stuck Gaborik with him and saw Gabby set up the big man's 18th which tied the game.

In a testament to their character, the Rangers again rallied this time from two down to tie Florida early in the third. One they absolutely owned except for the final tally. Sometimes, you're unlucky. Just ask goat Artem Anisimov who went from shootout hero to No.1 Star for the Cats in 24 hours. Alright, maybe that's a bit unfair. But come on. He had not one but two Panther shots go off him past a stunned Henrik Lundqvist for goals, including the bizarre winner off Mike Santorelli's stick which caromed off No.42's back and bounced over our helpless goalie. You can't make it up.

What is it about Florida that makes them such a thorn in the Rangers' side? Even when we win, it's by the slimmest of margins. Granted. Tomas Vokoun is a good goalie who never gets his due playing in obscurity. Now, he knows how Roberto Luongo felt all those years before forcing a trade to Vancouver. Sometimes, people forget that the former Predator is a top 10 netminder who can steal a game. So, losing to the Panthers isn't as humiliating as our favorite Ranger blogger Scotty Hockey makes it. What can you do when two shots go off a player for goals? What can be done when the Blueshirts dominate the third but the Panthers' only shot resembles Adam Sandler's winning shot in Happy Gilmore? Like all games, hockey's a funny sport. If bounces don't go your way, sometimes you lose.

Tortorella wasn't disappointed with the team's effort mostly because of how they responded after seeing Lundqvist give up a klunker that deflated the building. To those wagoners who gave him a Bronx cheer when it was 3-1, find another team to latch onto. Such childish behavior is inexcusable. You aren't real fans. Anyone who acts like that should be tossed from the building by the dopey Dolan security and never be allowed to attend another game. I've gotten on Lundqvist plenty in this space but without him, we're simply not a playoff team. He's played his ass off and deserves better than that garbage. His team didn't help much either being lazy on a pair with even Boyle's line getting victimized.

Of course, they'd atone later with warrior Brandon Prust igniting a rally and then Boyle depositing loose change in front for a power play goal. See how easy that is? Stick your hardest working player out with size and grit and watch him get dirty to score a PPG. That's how it's done folks.

So, am I upset about the bitter loss ending our team's play prior to the break? Of course. Losing to the Panthers irks me. Especially when they beat us in the flukiest way possible. But hey. Couldn't we say the same thing for Gaborik's goal that allowed us to steal two points in DC? Case closed.

Immediately following the game, the Rangers designated Mike Del Zotto, Kris Newbury, Chad Kolarik, Evgeny Grachev and Brodie Dupont for assignment so they could stay fresh in Connecticut. Enough can't be said about the play of Newbury and Kolarik whose hustle is indicative of what this team is all about. They fit right in. Big kudos to Ken Gernander and Jim Schoenfeld.

Mats Zuccarello and Derek Stepan were bright spots again last night with MZA dishing out three assists and Stepan tallying his 14th and 30th point. Not bad production from the 20 year-old out of Wisconsin. Oh btw, Zuccarello's up to 3-8-11 in 17 games proving he's going to stick. It won't be long before the little engine that could is scoring big goals. He's a keeper.

When they return for the Feb.1 home game against the Pens with probably Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin back, figure Ryan Callahan to be there for his teammates which should be a big lift for a team that's struggling to score goals. Brandon Dubinsky won't be far from behind. All things considered, Tortorella has done a superb job keeping our team in playoff position with a 29-20-3 record for 61 points, good for sixth seed- two ahead of Montreal and two behind Washington.

I'd say you got a Jack Adams candidate there. Hope the break treats our players kindly. They've earned it.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Islanders deserve better

Over the weekend, the Islanders put in a claim on free agent goaltender Evgeni Nabokov, who had signed for the rest of the season with the Red Wings. Obviously looking to cash in and win a Cup after a failed stint with SKA St. Petersburgh of the KHL in which five years, $25 million weren't enough, the former Shark has put himself in an unenviable situation.

By rejecting the Islanders after agent Don Meehan said his client would report anywhere for work, it reflects poorly on the 35 year-old Nabokov who guided San Jose to the Conference Finals twice. Even worse, if he did hang up on Islander GM Garth Snow and then speak to ESPN afterwards, it's very unprofessional. The rules are what they are. It wouldn't be fair to the other 29 teams if he just chose Detroit without the waiver rule in place. After all, he did leave the NHL to play in Russia before getting released by SKA. Even the veteran netminder was aware that this could happen.

"I understand the rules," Nabokov told ESPN.com. "We're not stupid. We knew what was going on before we made the decision. But I made this decision because the goal was to play with Detroit."
If only it were that simple. You can't just choose your destination without teams with poor records identifying if they want to pick the player up. The Islanders have a unique situation with Rick DiPietro in and out of the lineup and rookie Nathan Lawson on the mend with a left knee sprain. The organization doesn't want to rush Kevin Poulin, wisely deciding to keep the 20 year-old former '08 fifth round pick in Bridgeport where he can develop. So, it makes all the sense in the world for a team short on goalies to want Nabokov.

"I think I'm going to stay home for now, I'm sticking with my decision," Nabokov echoed yesterday. "It's nothing against the Islanders and their organization. It's nothing to do with that. It's just that I'm at the point in my career where I want to help a team win in the playoffs. I don't see how I could help the Islanders or what I could do for them. It doesn't make a lot of sense to me. And I hope they understand that.


"I was surprised they picked me up. I was like, 'Wow, what's the point?"'

While it's understandable why Nabokov doesn't want to report due to the Islanders' place in the standings, it is still blatant disrespect and lacks class. It shouldn't be that easy for a player who returns to play on a winner with a chance. This isn't fantasy. Mr. Nabokov needs a reality check.

"It's a situation where I feel we got a talented player off waivers and we'd be thrilled to have him part of the organization," Snow said. "He has a standard player's contract with our organization."

"I'm not going to speculate," he added of whether Nabokov changes his mind a la Adam Banks in The Mighty Ducks. "I'm looking forward to having him in an Islanders uniform. We can cross those bridges when we get there. I'm not there yet."

Do you think a kid who gets traded midseason would not want to play hockey? Come on. The Islanders can toll the contract and have Nabokov owe them a season next Fall or place him on waivers again. I'd suspend him without pay. It's not right what he's doing and childish.

We'll see what happens.

Injuries Testing Ranger Character

Meet the walking wounded. Or in the Rangers' case, the skaters who are piling up on the IR. Injuries are part of sports. The Pens are dealing with life without the game's top player Sidney Crosby and finding out it ain't so grand. Yesterday, the Bears had to play the second half without Jay Cutler yet emergency third string QB Caleb Hanie nearly played unlikely hero with Chicago falling just short against archrival Green Bay.

There are always injuries which make life more challenging. Only the really good teams can overcome them and keep winning. Before the Ranger roster resembled the Connecticut Whale with Michael Del Zotto and Evgeny Grachev being summoned the other night with Dan Girardi going down and warrior Brandon Prust nicked up, they already were without key cogs Ryan Callahan and Brandon Dubinsky with spare parts Ruslan Fedotenko and Erik Christensen also out, plus Alex Frolov done. That John Tortorella's club have been able to keep it together is a tribute to this team's character which will keep getting tested with what's sure to be a tough visit to the nation's capital tonight with suddenly surging Alex Ovechkin and the Caps seeking revenge for a 7-0 humiliation last month.

So, it continues for the seventh seeded Blueshirts, who again found a way to win Saturday coming back twice in stunning the Thrashers 3-2 in a shootout with Selke candidate Brian Boyle tying it and shootout sniper Mats Zuccarello playing hero by faking Ondrej Pavelec out for the only goal, which Henrik Lundqvist made stand up. For a team that's scored two-or-less in 11 of their last 12 since the start of the month, the Rangers have managed to survive bringing a 6-5-1 mark into tonight's Versus showdown with the puck drop at 7:30.

We had many guys out,” Vezina hopeful Lundqvist stated after finishing with 20 saves including a stone job on Atlanta captain Andrew Ladd late in regulation to give his team a shot. “We tried to rebuild the team a little bit. We’re trying to get everybody on the same page.


We’re not in an easy spot, but we’re doing the best we can now to get points.
With a lineup that now features former Whale Del Zotto, Ryan McDonagh, Kris Newbury, Chad Kolarik, Jeremy Williams, Brodie Dupont or possibly Grachev who's fresh off a hat trick, these Blueshirts bend but don't break. No matter the adversity, they respond. Especially after a poor defensive effort that saw the Hurricanes blitz them 5-2 last Thursday with All-Star Marc Staal and Danny G with a rare dreadful showing. Not surprisingly, the Rangers were more focused and played with better intensity against another team trailing them in the standings.
 
When you twice battle back from one-goal deficits and allow only 20 shots with dangerous All-Star duo Tobias Enstrom and Dustin Byfuglien hardly factors, it speaks to the committment of your team. One that never quits nor backs down from any challenge. Even if Girardi got tagged by Ladd after stepping in for Staal following a clean hit that caught his partner turned the wrong way stumbling into the boards, it was another team building moment. So, Girardi sits out tonight with bruised ribs and probably a busted nose from his scrap. Just last year, he watched Flyer fodder Daniel Carcillo suck Marian Gaborik into a one-sided fight. A humiliation he took a lot of heat for. Those days are over. These Rangers fight, claw and scrap.
 
With two more huge games before the break including the Caps later with backup Martin Biron getting the call against Braden Holtby before Tortorella comes back with Lundqvist versus the Panthers in a Garden match tomorrow, it's important for the Blueshirts to finish the month strong. They know they're in a heated race with sixth place Montreal, eighth Atlanta who were routed by Tampa Sunday and ninth Carolina who you never can can't out as long as Eric Staal, Cam Ward and Calder frontrunner Jeff Skinner have anything to say about it.
 
Every point is so valuable. The Rangers are finding a way not using the injuries as a crutch. They've rallied around each other to make sure a bitter ending last year doesn't get repeated. So, they'll skate, check and sacrifice until Callahan returns with target date Feb.1 versus the Pens likely. They'll continue to plug away until Dubinsky's ready. Girardi and Prust will be back because they're leaders who exemplify what it is to be a New York Ranger. An identity formed under one of the league's best coaches in Tort who's handled things much better this time. Even he gets it. It's about keeping everyone on the same page and having them ready to work. That's why they're one of the hardest working teams in the NHL despite the lack of finish with Marian Gaborik using most of his ammunition against lesser lites Edmonton, the Islanders and the Leafs.
 
At some point, Gaborik must pick it up and carry the load. Putting it on the shoulders of kids Derek Stepan and Artem Anisimov won't work. Neither should Wojtek Wolski who's been good since he arrived from the Desert going 3-3-6 over seven contests. On this team, everyone contributes. McDonagh already evolving into a steady defenseman since Michal Rozsival exited stage left. Mike Sauer logging big minutes in place of Girardi to get the Rangers a 'W.' Newbury playing gritty bumping into anyone in his way while winning board battles. And Kolarik notching his first NHL point.
 
In every sense, this is a T-E-A-M. Exactly how Tortorella wants it. One True Blue faithful can be proud of. The job isn't done.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Picture of the day



Courtesy of the MSG broadcast...see how many mistakes you can find in this one screenshot!

Devils' third straight win cause for real celebration



If the circumstances favored us on Thursday when the Devils shut out a Pens team without Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, we had things up against us today. Facing our nemesis in Philly (who'd taken three of four from us so far this year), a team that's leading the entire NHL with 67 points while we're still fighting to get out of dead last. Not to mention we had backup Johan Hedberg in net for the first time in two weeks, since he got pulled after allowing two quick goals against that same team in that same city. To top that off, hot rookie Nick Palmeri sat out the game due to injury and we also lost top defenseman Colin White early in the game due to whatever-body injury.

Yet, the Devils overcame all that to pull off a 3-1 win that might have been the team's most satisfying of the season. For starters, it was the team's third straight win - as I've been harping on for a long time, a win streak of that long hadn't occured since December of 2009. In addition, the Devils don't have a regulation loss in their last six games, all since the halfway point of the season. You didn't even roll your eyes when you heard Steve Cangelosi and Ken Daneyko whispering in the postgame about how the resurgent Devils may be the hottest team in the league right now.

Hedberg played well with 26 saves, many of the highlight-variety in the final two periods. Yes, I would have played Martin Brodeur myself, especially after his shutout Thursday - and after all, there's really nothing to save Brodeur for this season (unlike prior years where I wanted him to sit more to have some gas in the tank for the playoffs). Thankfully Jacques Lemaire went with his own instinct and now Hedberg feels a part of the win streak as well, just like everyone else. Not to mention we don't run Marty completely into the ground before the break, since today's game was our fourth in a week's time.

While other vets like Patrik Elias - two goals this afternoon - you sort of expected to turn it around, even guys like Henrik Tallinder and Brian Rolston (!) are contributing to the six-game result streak, with Tallinder getting a goal and an assist today in about twenty-six minutes of icetime. Rolston added two assists, giving the embattled vet eight points (two goals, six assists) in his last six games, which is nothing short of remarkable considering that Rolston had just five points in twenty-four games before this. Maybe putting him through waivers, which seemed like a fruitless exercise at the time, actually did have an upside?

Now the Devils are just four points back of the Isles for last place, with two games left before the All-Star break, a home tilt against Scott Clemmensen and the Panthers tomorrow (unbeaten in his three starts against us since leaving) and then a trip to Detroit against a team that suddenly has problems in net - exacerbated when the Isles blocked the Wings' attempt to sign Evgeni Nabokov from Russia by putting in a claim for the former Sharks goaltender. Presumably Brodeur will be back in the net for those final two games as the Devils attempt to go into the break on the kind of high that seemed impossible just two weeks ago.

Of course, now the Devils' resurgence has left yours truly with a dilemma. Do I go to the game tomorrow afternoon, with the Jets playing at 6:30? True, the hockey game itself wouldn't overlap with the start of the AFC Championship since it starts at 3 but I would have to drive - something I've only done once since the move from the CAA - and pay for parking there in order to get home in time for the game (since the train wouldn't get me home till 7:15, unless I left the game early). With as bad as the team's played for much of the season I really do want to go now, especially since I've missed going to several games lately for a variety of reasons - blizzard, New Year's eve stuff, selling my pair against Tampa in case the Jets were playing that day on Wild-Card weekend.

Then again, the only bad thing about going tomorrow - besides the hassle in getting in home on time for the game - is the fact that most Devils fans seem to be bitter football Giant fans who get jollies out of chanting 'J-E-T-S suck suck suck'! Certainly the goofballs in the back of 208 were doing this on Thursday, as well as changing the 'Rangers suck, Flyers swallow' chant by substituting Sanchez for Flyers. Perhaps it was inevitable there'd be a confrontation at the end of Thursday's 2-0 against the Pens, with an incensed season ticket holder behind me going up after the instigators, with another sth in the back row (one of the main antagonists) egging him to come on up.

Fortunately the sth at the end of my row (who's also a Jets fan) held the other guy back to avoid any real fisticuffs but really if you're coming to a Devils game and ragging on a team you know at least a good portion of the crowd likes, you're just asking for trouble. And these guys are all sth's, they've all been at the games since the team moved to the Rock so one way or the other, everyone's gotta live with each other. I don't care for the chants, but if people want to act like doofuses, fine by me just so long as they're not in my face with it.

In any case, I don't know how much hockey's going to be on my mind tomorrow as the football game draws closer but I do know with two games left before the All-Star break I finally want to see this Devils team play. And that's about as big an accomplishment as I could have hoped for out of the second half, at least intangibly. Tangibly, there's a chance this team can still get to .500, as far away as that seems. It would take something like a 22-8-5 stretch to do it but with what I've seen in the last six games, why not?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Gaborik 4 Rangers 3 Leafs 0

If you were playing the lotto, the winning numbers were 43. Well, at least a successful pair that worked its magic for the Marian Gaborik and the Rangers in a game of 7up over a bad Leaf team last night on Broadway. It'd be easy for us to poo poo the offensive explosion 10 games in the making due to the opponent. However, unlike other bloggers I'm going to accentuate the positives of a game the Rangers badly needed to snap a two-game skid.

For starters, Gaborik answered the bell after learning Brandon Dubinsky was out with a stress fracture three to four weeks. It's essential for the Great Gabby to pick it up and by that, I don't mean just the first four-goal game in the league this season. Here's the facts. With his finest outing that also included a helper for a five-point effort since that virtuoso five goal, six point performance victimizing us when he played for Minnesota, that makes it 10 of his 15 goals scored in three games with the other two hat tricks coming against lesser lites Edmonton and the Islanders. One thing I agree with from the cynics is that Gabby must remember to save some ammunition for stiffer competition starting with a visit to ninth Carolina tonight. The Blueshirts need No.10 to be consistent during this pivotal stretch before the break.

Yesterday was a great start with John Tortorella taking our easy advice of moving Sean Avery up with Gabby and Artem Anisimov, who netted a career high four assists, including a pair of beauties right on the Slovakian sniper's stick which was smoking literally. He started quickly thanks to a great Avery feed with Gaborik doing the rest undressing poor Leaf starter Jonas Gustavsson who was without a stick for the first goal.

It began an onslaught of four in a 4:45 span, blitzing a putrid Toronto club that may have been feeling the effects of a recent road swing that includes stops out West. Ironically, Ron Wilson's club laid a smackdown on the Thrashers recently. On this night, they were no match for a determined group of Blueshirts who made a statement after finding out before the game about Dubinsky's injury. Brian Boyle followed up Gaborik with a neat redirect of a Marc Staal shot for a power play goal. Already with a goal and assist, Gabby lit the lamp again courtesy of a brilliant Anisimov backhand feed across the goalmouth for a tap-in 36 seconds later.

It feels good," Gaborik said after ending an eight-game drought in fine style. “It has been a battle lately. I need to get going. It is always a big relief to get the first one. It just took off from there.
They weren't done with Ruslan Fedotenko's peculiar shot dipping under temporary reliever J.S. Giguere for 4-zip 2:19 later. Brandon Prust set it up with a nice pass in the neutral zone. His second point in three after going dry the previous seven this month.

With Wilson wanting to save Giguere for his ex-team tonight, Gustavsson mercifully came back in for more punishment. Before Gaborik completed his third hat trick followed by No.4, the Leafs played more physical with Mike Komisarek throwing his weight around. One such hit came after Fedotenko released the puck with the rugged defenseman going shoulder to shoulder KO-ing the ex-Lightning forward for an extended period. Fedotenko suffered a separated shoulder, meaning Brodie Dupont gets recalled from Connecticut. The way things have been going in that department, pretty soon we'll be fielding an AHL roster. I'm not gonna bother listing the guys who are still here for fear of jinxing them.

Rookie Dale Weise lost a fight to Luke Schenn. Kris Newbury would late take on Dion Phaneuf stemming from a hit from boarding the Toronto captain early on. Former Ranger enforcer Colton Orr also got involved, taking a charging minor which Gaborik finished off for his fourth with a laser past a helpless Gustavsson. Prior, Gabby turned the trick when a harmless shot snuck through The Monster. Anisimov and Wojtek Wolski netted helpers.

Up six having allowed just 13 shots with Henrik Lundqvist hardly breaking a sweat, the Rangers made it a touchdown and a PAT when rookies Derek Stepan and Mats Zuccarello worked a give-and-go with MZA finishing off his third 53 seconds into the final stanza. Wolski drew his second assist as well. He's 2-3-5 over five thus far and seems to have good chemistry with D-Step and Zucc. The Rangers will need that trio big time without Dubinsky with Ryan Callahan close to returning. The target date is February 1 versus his favorite opponent Pittsburgh. He began holding a stick the other day.

As sometimes happens when you're up big, you let down. That allowed the Leafs to take a few cracks at breaking the shutout. However, Lundqvist wasn't biting. The King made a pair of scintillating stops from in tight late to huge support and the familiar chants of "Hen---rik, Hen---rik, Hen---rik." Even in a rout, the emerging Vezina candidate kept his focus stopping all nine shots in the third (22 overall) for his league high seventh shutout- tying him with frontrunner Tim Thomas.

They got a couple of chances,” Lundqvist said.I wanted to get a shutout.”
With the contest winding down, Orr lost his mind intentionally slashing Steve Eminger, earning a major and game misconduct. The kind of ugliness we didn't see when he donned our jersey. I don't know if it's because he's playing for Brian Burke but the way that team plays sometimes leaves something to be desired. Colby Armstrong again tried to pull some shenanigans but Ryan McDonagh wasn't having it. Speaking of McD, he quietly gets better and better combining with Eminger to go plus-six while logging a career best 21:21, including a late power play shift and some PK time as well.

This was one game against inferior competition. The Rangers finished 3-0-1 in the season series against the Leafs. Now, it gets tougher with the Canes tonight, visits to Atlanta and D.C. before returning for the Panthers. Eight points up for grabs. Every single one valuable. Time to put the pedal to the metal.


BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Sean Avery, NYR (3 assists-1st helpers since 12/16 vs Phx)
2nd Star-Artem Anisimov, NYR (career high 4 assists, +3 in 13:56)
1st Star-Marian Gaborik, NYR (4 goals-12, 13, 14, 15/assist, 7 SOG, +3 in 17:28)

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Dubinsky injury the latest challenge for Rangers

When it rains, it pours literally. How else to explain Brandon Dubinsky going down at the most important stretch? A day after Larry Brooks wrote a suggestive piece advocating returning our leading scorer to center to boost slumping Marian Gaborik, the Rangers learned that the fourth-year emerging star has a stress fracture in his left leg which will keep him out three to four weeks.

To say I'm mystified would be an understatement. When you don't have a working computer and your brother needs your phone, you fall out of the loop. I had no idea Dubinsky was out until I saw a Facebook status which of course said our season was over here at the Library in Great Kills. Look. I'm not going to overlook Dubinsky's importance. It's my opinion that he's been the Team MVP in this surprising season that still has the Rangers seventh a point behind the Canadiens and two up on Atlanta. When Ryan Callahan went down, Dubinsky elevated his play to another level. It might not always be scoring goals cause he'd also cooled off considerably since a hot start but the plays he made helped the team win games. Whether it's winning a battle along the wall to set up Sean Avery a couple of weeks ago or just being in the right position defensively, Dubi has grown up this year.

He's more than the club-leading 17 goals, 21 assists, 38 points, four power play goals, two shorthanded goals and 124 shots. The 24 year-old Alaskan is playing the best hockey of his young career and is about to eclipse career bests across the board. For the Blueshirts to lose him now when Gaborik isn't scoring and the team hasn't scored more than two since a 3-1 win over the Devils concluding 2010, it's dire. There's no questioning the heart of a team that leaves everything out on the ice. Now, they're facing the toughest challenge of their season. Will they bury their heads like a few nervous nellies or will they stand up as they've done all year and fight a la William Wallace's epic speech in Braveheart.

"He's been struggling through it for the past couple of weeks here," John Tortorella pointed out. "He still was playing very well. It was a surprise. But you've got to move right by it, give the other guys opportunities and just go out and play."

"You can't worry about how difficult it is. You have to find a way to get it done. We have five games in seven nights here. There's no time to think, no time to whine. It's time to fight and you have to find a way to get points."

Well stated by a coach who's gotten the most out of his players. This is a team that wouldn't be where it is without the valuable contributions of Brian Boyle, Brandon Prust and Ruslan Fedotenko. They've been a constant. No question Tort needs them to chip in when they can. As was echoed in yesterday's post, it's time for Gaborik to step up. Henrik Lundqvist can't do it alone. Sure. Marc Staal, Dan Girardi and Mike Sauer have his back along with an underrated D corps that still makes mistakes due to being the youngest in the league. More will be asked of Artem Anisimov who's capable of scoring more. Maybe they should slide Sean Avery with them. He's been playing much better lately by forechecking with vigor and winning battles. He can create space for our Gabby and Arty.

Keep Derek Stepan, Wojtek Wolski and Mats Zuccarello together. They scored both goals in a grueling 3-2 loss to No.1 overall Philly. The trio combines speed, skill and playmaking forming solid chemistry. It doesn't make sense to break them up. Tort has to be careful not to tweak the lines too much. Chris Drury is what he is at this point. A veteran who can win draws and kill penalties. Keep him on the fourth line with Dale Weise and Kris Newbury if he's still trusted after his idiocy the other night jumping Matt Walker from behind. They'll have to recall someone. Perhaps Chad Kolarik or Jeremy Williams.

In the meantime, the challenge presents itself. They host Toronto tonight, visit Carolina tomorrow and then take on Atlanta and Washington on the road before returning to MSG for Florida. A tough stretch which could prove pivotal if they're to make it back to the postseason. These five games in seven days come before the All-Star break.

"He's in every situation," Tortorella added of losing Dubinsky. "He's maturing, becoming a leader. That's just stuff on the ice. You can see him maturing off the ice. He's a big player for us. He's a very important guy in all situations, offensively and defensively. Because of our struggles in our faceoffs, we've been using him more there. It's a big hole."

Are the Rangers ready to step up? We're about to find out.

Pominville's OT winner pushes Sabres past Canadiens

Not much has gone right for the Sabres. A season disappointment that's included injuries to top stars Ryan Miller, Derek Roy, Tim Connolly and Jason Pominville hasn't helped Lindy Ruff's club. However, last night a couple of those now healthier parts helped the Sabres post a nice 2-1 overtime win over the hated Canadiens at HSBC Arena.

Not surprisingly when these two bitter rivals get together, there was plenty of chippiness with antagonist Patrick Kaleta infuriating former Islander James Wisniewski after boarding one of his teammates from behind. Wisniewski lost his cool and negated a Montreal power play with a retaliatory crosscheck on Kaleta's teammate Nathan Gerbe. At the moment, Montreal was already leading 1-0 thanks to diminutive rookie David Desharnais' second of the season on their first man-advantage. Wisniewski helped set up the goal along with another ex-Islander Roman Hamrlik to loud cheers from a strong Habs' contingent. Whenever these teams get together, there always are Montreal fans who make the trip across the border to support their heroes. Something quite familiar to Buffalo whenever another top rival Toronto visits.

It makes for an incredible atmosphere. Even if I've never been to a Sabres game, just listening to the "Go Habs Go," chants followed by "Let's Go Buffalo" is enough to enjoy the action. Perhaps that's why Versus wisely selected the heated Northeastern battle over a depleted Red Wing squad that fell to the Crosby-less Pens last night. For those who went, it must've been awesome. When the viewer can feel the environment through the television, it speaks to the nature of an intense rivalry similar to what we get closer to home whenever the locals do battle.

Carey Price was on making it tough for Buffalo to put one past him. The 23 year-old former No.1 pick who's flourished since the club dealt Jaroslav Halak to St. Louis was on top of his game, making plenty of sparkling saves en route to a game high 37 in what amounted to a losing effort. It was still good enough to earn the Habs a point, pushing them one up on the idle Rangers for sixth in the East. One issue for Montreal was that of fallen teammates with Jacques Martin's club losing Max Pacioretty for the remainder after a Wisniewski point shot struck him in the right side. While he was taken to the hospital, top line finisher Mike Cammalleri was already lost due to the dreaded upper body injury. They also lost Jeff Halpern as well. Down three, the Habs competed hard supported by Price's strong goaltending.

It took the power play for the Sabres to finally draw even when rookie Tyler Ennis was able to put home a Thomas Vanek rebound for his 11th with Connolly netting the other helper. The first-year left wing hasn't gotten much pop in a deep rookie class but deserves more attention. His playmaking and wherewithal to get dirty despite a smallish 5-9, 163 pound frame can't be ignored. Ennis wasn't done also helping set up Pominville's OT winner which also came via a power play. He's now up to 23 points (11-12-23) in 45 games after impressing with nine (3-6-9) in 10 last year. The 21 year-old former No.1 pick selected 26th overall in the '08 Draft is definitely one to keep an eye on for Sabre fans, who must admire the edge he brings.

It’s big, but we have got to have some consistency here," explained the kid from Edmonton of getting two points while erasing a bad 5-3 loss to the Islanders victimized by John Tavares' second hat trick of the season. “We’ve got to build off this.
Ultimately, it was a loss of discipline from ex-Devil/Ranger Scott Gomez which proved to be the difference. Late in regulation, he lost his cool during a battle with Nathan Gerbe retaliating a slash with a punch to the face. While his second minor of the contest didn't cost his team a point in regulation, it had to hurt watching the Sabres work some magic with Ennis handing for Vanek who wheeled to the front before making a sweet dish to a vacated Pominville for the decider 69 seconds into overtime.

"I’m not going to sit here and blame anyone,” Gomez lamented. “I know better than that. I know not to put myself in that position. I did and it cost us a chance at two points.
 “Gerbe did a great job getting the penalty to get that power play,” Ennis noted. “When you get a chance in overtime like that, you have to bury it. It was big for us for Pommer to do that.”
In his career high 22nd consecutive start, Miller was also solid turning aside 29 of 30 in notching his 18th win of the season. The Sabres also were down a player with the sizzling Drew Stafford lost after two shifts after injuring his groin. The former University of North Daktota product has come into his own scoring 15 goals, which ranks second on the club behind Vanek (17). He has 23 points in just 30 games thus far, having missed 15 games. Buffalo can ill afford to lose him.


BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Jason Pominville, Buf (OT winner at 69 seconds-9th of season)
2nd Star-Carey Price, Mtl (37 saves)
1st Star-Tyler Ennis, Buf (11th of season, assist)

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Lost Weekend cause for concern

For most of the season, the Rangers have overachieved courtesy of hard work and determination- willing themselves to big wins such as the Pens and Canucks. That kind of yeoman effort is what Garden Faithful have come to expect from Jack Adams candidate John Tortorella's club which is tied with Montreal for sixth with 55 points entering tomorrow's match-up against Original Six Toronto at The Garden.

However, as the lost weekend proved in gut wrenching one-goal defeats to the Canadiens and Flyers, there's still work to be done if this team is going to get back to the playoffs. By dropping both ends of a crucial back-to-back against two playoff calibre clubs, the Rangers suddenly find themselves two points up on eighth Atlanta who pulled off a crazy late comeback win over Florida Sunday. What's even more is that the Hurricanes sit just five out playing better hockey until taking it on the chin 7-zip in Beantown yesterday. Loose translation: Unless Marian Gaborik gets it together, the Blueshirts could be in trouble.

Since the new calendar year, they haven't scored more than two goals yet. That's nine games with a slump also hitting leading scorer Brandon Dubinsky, who had a horrific night in Montreal Saturday getting nabbed for a couple of retaliatory penalties due to rookie punk P.K. Subban. It's understandable why our Team MVP wanted a piece of Subban for his unpenalized and remarkable unsuspended spear to Marc Staal's private area in a previous match last Monday. But getting sucked in hurt the team's chances with our club out of sorts giving up three goals in less than three minutes putting them behind the eight ball. The 13 shots on Carey Price through two periods wasn't enough. Especially with Henrik Lundqvist responding strongly by taking action on Benoit Pouliot for bumping him. Lundqvist is playing his best hockey, emerging into a heated Vezina race with Tim Thomas, Jonas Hiller, Marc-Andre Fleury, Price and Ondrej Pavelec.

If not for King Henrik's stellar play, it could be worse for a club that's a mediocre 4-4-1 in January with no let up in sight. Not even the visiting Leafs should be easy with them able to score goals thanks to Mikhail Grabovski, Clarke MacArthur, Nikolai Kulemin and dangerous sniper Phil Kessel. It's a must win for the Blueshirts who then see those Canes in Raleigh Thursday as part of a pivotal three-game Southeast road swing with stops at Atlanta and Washington before the pesky Panthers visit the Big Apple before the All-Star break. Now isn't the time for the Rangers to fall into bad habits with poor starts that have them playing catch up as we saw in falling behind 3-1 and 3-0 to the hated Flyers before a furious rally fell short thanks to splendid goaltending from Brian Boucher and a couple of Dubinsky near misses.

Consistency has been a key in why the Blueshirts are 26-18-3 still in playoff position. They can't let up now. Perhaps Tortorella benching Gaborik for long stretches Sunday will finally ignite the slumping Slovak, who's got only three goals in his last 19 games. Hardly the kinda production you expect from one of the game's top finishers. Finding the right linemates shouldn't matter. Gaborik hasn't made any excuses, noting that he must be better by working harder to get out of this. Needless to say, the power play has struggled mightily with so much depending on Gabby. It's not just about the megastar in his second year but also about kids like Artem Anisimov finding the net with more regularity. He has one of the best shots but has only 10 goals so far. Not enough for a guy who should easily be 20-25 goals with any consistency.

The Rangers can't depend solely on rookie Derek Stepan to carry the burden with new linemates Wojtek Wolski and Mats Zuccarello. They need more from Sean Avery who's playing better aside from his stupid cheap shots on a fallen Matt Carle with him beaten up. Ruslan Fedotenko and Brandon Prust need to pick up the slack as does Chris Drury, who really must contribute a little more.

Now we find out what this team is made of.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Devils' resurgent offense leads the way on a successful trip



Earlier in the season it was an accomplishment for the Devils to score more than one goal in a single game. However, during these last eight days a hibernating offense has suddenly come to life by getting eighteen in just four games, including five today on Long Island - finally gaining a measure of revenge for two humiliating defeats this season by disposing of the Isles 5-2 to conclude a three-game trip where the Devils got five of a possible six points. Yes, they failed to win Saturday in Florida to extend a streak to three straight wins for the first time in thirteen months but even getting points in four straight games is something of an accomplishment and now I'm finally starting to feel some life watching this team.

Not so coincidentally the kids have figured prominently in this recent surge, with Nick Palmeri getting a goal Saturday to help the Devils get to overtime against nemesis Scott Clemmensen. Our younger players were even more prominent today though, with Matthais Tedenby finally getting out of the doghouse after six straight games as a healthy scratch in a big way, registering a goal and an assist. Most satisfyingly, that assist went to second-year player Vladimir Zharkov, who finally scored his first NHL goal off a rebound in his 49th game early in the first period though if you watched him play you'd be astounded it didn't happen sooner.

Even our kid defensemen haven't been too bad lately since Jacques Lemaire came back. True, Mark Fraser was caught out of position twice as the Isles put on their one surge in the game, turning a 3-0 lead into 3-2 in a matter of less than a minute but Fraser also got two assists in just over eighteen minutes today. And Mark Fayne has been a lot better since his second recall from Albany. Heck, Lemaire's finally gotten Andy Greene above a -20 on the season, how about that?

Yes, other than a young, flawed Tampa team the Devils haven't exactly been playing the murderers' row my Jets are going through in the NFL playoffs and might catch a break Thursday if Sidney Crosby is still out due to a concussion that's caused him to miss the last several games but who we play is kind of irrelevant at this point. You're just looking for progress, particularly from the younger players but you also want to see the vets show they not only can still play but want to be here.

Sure enough, the vets figured into today's game as well with Ilya Kovalchuk scoring on the power play in the first, creeping his goal total upward (he now has 13 on the season). Danius Zubrus scored a second-period goal for his seventh of the season and the Devils' fifth of the game. Even fourth-line grinder Rod Pelley was getting into the act with a goal and an assist this afternoon against Isles prospect Kevin Poulin. And there's no way I can leave out the resurgent Martin Brodeur, who was again strong with 27 saves for his fifth straight good-great performance since returning to the lineup last Saturday in relief of Johan Hedberg.

About the only dark cloud over this streak was the fact that the team's continued improved play seems to prove that much more that longtime Devil John MacLean was over his head earlier in the season. You do start to wonder how different things could have been this season if then-captain Jamie Langenbrunner didn't lead a mutiny against Lemaire last year, causing Lemaire's 'resignation' at the end of last year. Of course this recent streak didn't start until Langenbrunner's trade so one could say having an unhappy captain around was part of this team's malaise, which to be fair did start late last year.

Whatever the case it's clear Lemaire's a lot stronger of a coach with Langenbrunner no longer here. Not to mention having old buddy Larry Robinson behind the bench with him for the first time since 1995 helps. Having Brodeur return to form certainly doesn't hurt either, you can't really blame MacLean or goaltender coach Chris Terreri for Marty's early-season injury and uncharacteristically long slump. And if Lemaire actually lets the kids play then hey, just leave him alone and let him do what he does best - teach.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Ranking Goalies Part I

When it comes to ranking lists, they're always fun and subjective. You'll always get different opinions on who belongs where and why. Over the years, goalie rankings have become one of the hottest topics for puckers- emerging into great debates.

In this part, we will give our criteria for why a goalie should be where they are. Where do Henrik Lundqvist and Ryan Miller fall? And is there a place for arguably the greatest ever Martin Brodeur? If you judge off current seasons, the incumbent Miller would drop out of the top 10 while Brodeur wouldn't even crack the top 25. However, is such a reactionary way of thinking conducive to ranking our favorite goalies overall? Perhaps there needs to be a change in how we view the most important position in the game. You're seeing more goalies victimized by injuries, bad teams and sometimes slumps which allow cynics to write them off.

The question is is it fair? Not long ago, Lundqvist was struggling and some were even pondering if Martin Biron was going to get the job. About as nonsensical as when Brent Johnson got out hot while Marc-Andre Fleury couldn't stop a beach ball. Eventually, the best rise up and reclaim their status, regaining confidence of both peers, media and fans.

So, how should we rank the goalies?

1.Consistency-in any sport, the best must show that they can perform on a nightly basis. Otherwise, they wouldn't reach the pinnacle. For goalies, it's based on number of starts, winning and their history. Are they where they should be?

2.Durability-it's vital for any No.1 goalie to be able to carry the workload, meaning at least 60 starts. If they can't be depended on, what's the point?

Friday, January 14, 2011

Devils sweep home-and-home, break road skid against Tampa


During 2010 there wasn't much to cheer about as a Devils fan, what with the team being dead last by a mile during this season and going 30-42-8 overall in the calendar year. Despite the fact the team was finally starting to be more competitive after a series of frightening blowout losses, 2011 wasn't starting much better with losses in their first four games and trailing 2-1 against Tampa on Sunday after two periods at home.

However, the third period Sunday and the first period tonight show that maybe, just maybe there's some fun to be had watching the Devils in the second half after all. In the third period of that game Sunday the Devils scored five - yes FIVE! - goals including a couple of empty-netters to break a four-game losing streak with a 6-3 win. Fortunately four days off didn't dull the momentum from that sudden goal-scoring binge as the Devils came out flying with four more goals in the first tonight (all after Steven Stamkos opened the scoring for the Bolts on the power play), getting vet Dwayne Roloson pulled before the first twenty minutes were over en route to a relatively smooth 5-2 win.

At some point last week, Jacques Lemaire compared the Devils' predicament to having heart surgery. What he could have added was that the surgery entailed actually giving this team a heart. Or at least an opponent it can get goals against although perhaps they deserved a better fate in some recent games. Still, the team needed tangible proof of progress and these two games against a playoff-caliber team provided it. Tonight's win, in particular was our first road win in over two months after eleven straight losses outside of New Jersey.

Perhaps just as encouraging as the goal-scoring is who's getting them. For only the second time as a Devil, Ilya Kovalchuk had a multi-goal game tonight, pushing his total to a team-leading twelve. Patrik Elias also got into double digits with his tenth during the first period tonight and a short-handed tally by Travis Zajac near the end of the period gave him his seventh. Even twice-waived Brian Rolston got into the act, with a goal and an assist. Other struggling Devils, such as David Clarkson and Jason Arnott were among the heroes in Sunday's third period outburst and Clarkson in particular is finally starting to look like the well-rounded player of two years ago again.

If the scoring's been encouraging at last it's also nice to see Martin Brodeur start to resemble his old self again, after sitting out those three games he's been strong since returning to the lineup early last Saturday against the Flyers in what turned out to be a scoreless 50+ minute relief effort (though the team still lost 2-1) to go along with 30+ save performances in the last two games against Tampa. Ironically with the team so far out of the playoffs there's really no reason to worry about Marty's workload at this point so I'd expect him to get the call tomorrow in Florida for a big game.

Why is tomorrow a big game, you ask? Well, the Devils' last three-game winning streak was two Decembers ago - that's December 2009. In case you've been hibernating for the last month we're now in 2011. And even if the Panthers play ex-Devil Scott Clemmensen against us again (he won both his starts last year in New Jersey), Florida's still a beatable team. If we finally get over that hump and win more than two in a row, maybe this could be the start of a really fun second half...well unless you're one of those weenie fans that wants the highest draft pick - in a weak draft ironically enough.

And if you're keeping score at home that's three straight good performances by the team (including the loss in Philly) since former captain Jamie Langenbrunner was traded. Coincidence? It's starting to look far less so with each game. Maybe that was the real heart surgery Lemaire was talking about. Yes the coach isn't thrilling me with placing top prospect Matthais Tedenby in limbo, scratching him for the last several games without either giving him a chance or sending him down but that's an argument for another day.

For now I'm just glad to see a competitive team again, one that can actually score more than a goal a game. Hopefully this success isn't fleeting.

Hey Tort: Yes We Can!

Entering yesterday's big showdown against the league best Canucks who came in having not lost in regulation in 18 games, Rangers coach John Tortorella didn't believe his team could win 1-0 over such a lethal opponent. Considering that goals have been hard to come by lately despite the Rangers' good play, you had to figure they needed to heed Tort's advice. Perhaps the fiery coach was just using a wise tactic to get this cohesive group ready to play.

It sure worked. In one of the most exciting 1-0 games you'll see this season, the Rangers responded again following a disappointing 2-1 loss to the Canadiens by going toe to toe with The Sedins and the torrid Ryan Kesler- coming away with a well earned shutout that felt like a playoff game. Dare we say Cup intensity?!?!?!?! Considering how well each team played along with how hard, this wasn't your normal regular season game. Even if unsung hero Brian Boyle's former college Boston College teammate Cory Schneider got the call over Roberto Luongo who was in the previous night in a win over the Islanders, it didn't change the dynamics. Not when the Canucks' superb backup entered unbeaten in regulation with an 8-0-2 mark, making it easier for Alain Vigneault to rest Louie.

The headline was how could our lesser skilled club slow down the high flying Canucks? They'd been a thorn in Henrik Lundqvist's side with our Swedish King having never won against them. That included an embarrassing blowout loss a couple of years ago in which he removed himself from the game, drawing criticism. Last night proved to be different with Lundqvist intent on making every big save after permitting Benoit Pouliot's winner from a sharp angle the other night. Indeed, the All-Star netminder was at his best turning away Daniel and Henrik Sedin along with Kesler and antagonist Alex Burrows, stopping all 31 his way en route to his league-tying sixth shutout and 30th career.

“Every shutout is important,” he said after recording his 196th win a Ranger, closing in on 200. “Even though there is a lot of hockey left, you want to keep your position in the standings.”

While Henrik made some awfully tough stops on tricky shots like a Kesler try that hopped forcing him to kick it out and another off a seeing eye left point shot with similar results, he also got plenty of help from teammates led by Boyle. His line with Brandon Prust and Ruslan Fedotenko had a rare off night versus Montreal victimized for the tying goal. However, they redeemed themselves with a virtuoso performance limiting the Sedin line to only six shots. Tremendous attention to detail along with physicality neutralized maybe the best line in hockey. In particular, Boyle had a night to remember coming through with an inspired penalty killing shift with the Blueshirts down two men thanks to a bogus call on Marc Staal after Burrows speared him in the jewel area, retaliating with a slash. As our coach put it, how two refs could miss such a cheap/dangerous play is beyond me. Disgusting. What made it even more galling was Chris Drury getting nabbed for an equally bogus delay of game when he made a great defensive play batting a pass with his stick in mid-air which unfortunately went over the Vancouver bench.

Protecting a 1-0 lead on newest Ranger Wojtek Wolski's first off a wild scramble in front on the power play, the defining moment of the game came on the next shift when the Canucks couldn't find a way to beat Lundqvist. That they only got four shots through was a credit to one of the game's best PK units which always does whatever it takes to get the job done. There was Boyle standing out with not one but two gigantic blocks still limping with the Garden in a frenzy. That kind of warrior-esque effort is what's made him a heart and soul player for this team. It's why his line gets so many minutes against top scoring lines and is out at the end of games, helping boost our one-goal record to 13-3-3. If that's not Selke worthy, then you need your eyes checked. In a star-cessed league where it'll probably be Kesler, Henrik Zetterberg and Mike Richards, Brian Boyle is a throwback resembling former Devil John Madden. He never quits. Neither does Robin sidekick Prust who can always be counted on to be in the right position. Whether it's playing physical or making a strong defensive play transitioning to offense like they did last night with Schneider beating Boyle with a sliding glove save, this duo epitomizes what the Rangers are. Perhaps they should share the Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention how well everyone played. Every Ranger contributed. Especially the fourth line of Drury, Sean Avery and rookie Dale Weise who is looking better, even coming close to his first goal. They don't see as many minutes but you wouldn't know it by how they work the corners providing a lift. It was nice to see Drury out in that final minute winning a big faceoff and then getting more stellar defensive work from Boyle, who somehow wasn't named one of the Three Stars. Yes, Wolski scored his first as a Ranger but even he'd tell you that Boyle deserved his No.2 Star.

What else was encouraging was that Marian Gaborik looked better with Artem Anisimov generating chances, including a breakaway after blocking a shot. But Schneider beat him, refusing to give five-hole. Every line is working right now. It's just a matter of time before they break out. Perhaps in tomorrow's Habs rematch with the Flyers the following day.

The defense played superb with Marc Staal and Dan Girardi getting plenty of support from improving kids Mike SauerMatt Gilroy and Ryan McDonagh. Steve Eminger was large again. So much to like about this team. A reason to cheer!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Lundqvist, Staal head BONY All-Star List

Yesterday, the NHL released the rest of the 2010-11 All-Stars with teams getting decided the old fashioned way. Like a pickup game with two captains choosing which players they want in what should be a fun format. Imagine Henrik Lundqvist coming up against Marc Staal or better yet, Staal facing off against brother Eric. Could the Sedins be matched up against each other or perhaps Crosby battled Malkin assuming he recovers from a concussion to play in Raleigh.

The possibilities are endless for nothing more than an exhibition showcasing the game's best talent. Thus adding a little spice to it which should liven things up for everyone involved.

The Rangers will be well represented with both Lundqvist and Staal appearing in the game while bright rookie Derek Stepan takes part in the Skills Competition. While you could make a strong case for Brandon Dubinsky over Lundqvist, it's hard to argue over the selections. Though one wonders if maybe Jonathan Quick should've gotten the nod over Henrik or hometown Cane Cam Ward, who we have always been a fan of. It'll be Lundqvist's second appearance while Marc Staal makes his first. Well deserving in our book, emerging as the Rangers' top defenseman while teamed with overlooked Dan Girardi, who you could make a case for.

The Islanders are represented by rookie Michael Grabner, whose fared well since the club claimed him off waivers from Vancouver. With John Tavares being passed up, Grabner gets the call. His nine goals rank fourth on the club with each coming at even strength. If he can become more consistent in that department, he could be a vital part of the Isles' core. One which will include Kyle Okposo, who's finally skating.

Patrik Elias goes for the Devils over team minus Ilya Kovalchuk and sentimental choice Martin Brodeur. This is probably the right call for the last place team who's still getting a decent year from the popular veteran left wing. Despite only nine goals, the classy Elias paces the club with 21 assists, 30 points and five power play goals, proving he's still a good player even in a trying year. Just look at his plus/minus (-9) compared to Kovalchuk (league worst -29). It tells you everything you need to know about the prideful Elias, who will always be one of our most admired Devils.

The Sabres will be represented by Thomas Vanek, who after a slow start has done his part pacing Lindy Ruff's club in goals (16), power play goals (8), power play points (15) and shots on goal (128). If only Derek Roy hadn't gone down, Buffalo might have a shot at getting back in it. At least Drew Stafford's (14 goals) finally fulfilling potential and Jordan Leopold (10-14-24) has been a pleasant surprise. Rookie Tyler Ennis will also take part in the skills with his 19 points showing promise for Buffalo's future.

Along with fan selections consisting of Pens Sidney CrosbyEvgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury along with Hawks' tandem Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith, here's a look at the entire roster by team:

Ana-Corey Perry, Jonas Hiller
Atl-Dustin Byfuglien, Tobias Enstrom
Bos-Zdeno Chara, Tim Thomas
Buf-Thomas Vanek
Cgy-Jarome Iginla
Car-Eric Staal, Cam Ward
Chi-Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp
Col-Matt Duchene
CBJ-Rick Nash
Dal-Brad Richards, Loui Eriksson
Det-Nick Lidstrom
Edm-Ales Hemsky
Fla-Evgeny Dadonov*
LA-Anze Kopitar
Min-Brent Burns
Mtl-Carey Price
Nsh-Shea Weber
NJD-Patrik Elias
NYI-Michael Grabner*
NYR-Marc Staal, Henrik Lundqvist
Ott-Erik Karlsson
Phi-Claude Giroux
Phx-Oliver Ekman-Larsson*
Pit-Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Marc-Andre Fleury
Stl-David Backes
SJ-Dan Boyle
TB-Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis
Tor-Phil Kessel
Van-Henrik Sedin, Daniel Sedin, Ryan Kesler
Wsh-Alex Ovechkin, Mike Green

Rookies

Logan Couture, SJ
Jordan Eberle, Edm
Taylor Hall, Edm
Cam Fowler, Ana
Tyler Ennis, Buf
Derek Stepan, NYR
Kevin Shattenkirk, Col
Tyler Seguin, Bos
Michael Grabner, NYI
Evgeny Dadonov, Fla
Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Phx
Jeff Skinner, Car

Outhustled, Outgoaltended by Les Habitants

Alright. By show of hands, who actually thinks the Canadiens are better than the Rangers? I sure don't and that's even after they came into our town and owned the rink earning a 2-1 win to crawl within two of sixth.

Perhaps we're a bit biased but I digress. Montreal is a well schooled team coached by defensive staple Jacques Martin. So, it was no surprise that the game was tight checking with goals at a premium. What irks me most a day later is that they got away with starting backup Alex Auld, who yes outdueled Henrik Lundqvist despite the King seeing more rubber. Two things that I can't stomach:

1.When we make a journeyman who had a coffee stint on our roster last year into Patrick Roy.
2.When Lundqvist makes as many great saves as he did and then lets in a traditional stinker he has no business giving up.

That along with the Canadiens' superior speed and hustle added up to a frustrating loss, halting the club's three-game win streak. Still no four-game win streak for a team clearly superior to last year. It doesn't get any easier with the Canucks visiting town and then a rematch up north with a quick turnaround against the Flyers in the Big Apple. A game we'll be there for.

Simply put, John Tortorella's crew has to solve the scoring issue which has crept in despite the team's good play that has it a few points behind the Pens and Caps for fourth and fifth. It's not that they aren't generating scoring chances but just aren't finishing. There were enough opportunities to increase the 1-0 lead off team leader Brandon Dubinsky's early rush off a brilliant Matt Gilroy bank pass. They controlled the first part of the game, forechecking the Habs to death but couldn't cash in despite power plays and plenty of buzzing.

That included newest Blueshirt Wojtek Wolski who was around the puck a lot with new linemates Artem Anisimov and Marian Gaborik with the invisible man showing a pulse. Problem is he again couldn't find twine and neither did Wolski who had a couple of great chances, including the tying goal clanging off the Auld's best friend, the left goalpost with over two minutes to spare. It was that kind of night for our heroes.

Sean Avery was moved down to the fourth line with an effective Chris Drury and improved Dale Weise. The trio were solid on the cycle generating chances. Their best opportunity came off a rush when Weise took a hit in his end to spring Drury and Avery on a two-on-one. With a chance to draw even, the captain's slapshot hit the post. If only it had gone in for a player whose role is way different than the hefty check he cashes. Dru puts in a good effort every night. It would've been nice to see him rewarded.

Truth be told, Montreal deserved the two points by lifting their game and outworking our team. Particularly Tomas Plekanec who's line finally created the tying goal on a dominant shift against the Brian Boyle line late in the second. Much credit goes out to goalscorer Jaroslav Spacek for some great keeps and then a wise move to get a sharp angle seeing through shot off with a traffic jam distracting Lundqvist enough for the puck to just cross the goal line. Even if there was a delayed signal, it was obvious by the way the Habs reacted that they scored with conclusive replays confirming it.

Usually, the Rangers respond with their backs to the wall. They've owned third periods this season. Not last night as their Original Six opponent came out with more jump, taking nine of the first 11 shots, including Benoit Pouliot's decider off a rush catching Lundqvist a little off the post. It was a great shot similar to one Ruslan Fedotenko scored last month. However, it also was one Lundqvist admitted he'd like to have back. For as good as the two-time All-Star's been, he still has the penchant for allowing weak goals at inopportune moments. Unfortunately, his teammates couldn't pick him up.

Oh. They tried but the stingy Canadien D controlled the neutral zone, making it tough for the Rangers to get a consistent attack going. Auld made a few sparklers including a tricky one with Lundqvist on the bench, just getting a blocker to push it wide. Ultimately, the Blueshirts ran out of time with Dubinsky looking to get one more set up in front as the buzzer sounded.

Maybe Auld's groovy glove on Mats Zuccarello off a great Derek Stepan set up in the second should've told us the story. Journeyman backup comes back to New York and makes good with Carey Price taking it in. Go figure. As Jay Z would say, "Onto the next one."

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Alex Auld, Mtl (25 saves)
2nd Star-Henrik Lundqvist, NYR (36 saves)
1st Star-Tomas Plekanec, Mtl (assist, 6 SOG, dominant)

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Rangers send Rozsival to Desert for Wolski

Just as I had finished yesterday's post, the Rangers decided to one up me by trading Michal Rozsival to the Coyotes for Wojtek Wolski. As I was singing the vet's praises for steadier play than the previous two seasons, he became the odd man out after Alex Frolov went down. Considering that the team suddenly had to fill a void up front while also continuing to play well defensively minus the '05-06 holdover, it made sense to move him.

So, once again Glen Sather hooked up with pal Don Maloney and acquired a player he'd been after for a while. Slats had interest in Wolski last year before the Avs dealt him to the Coyotes in exchange for Peter Mueller. At the time, the cost was too much. So, he held firm. You know how Heinz says good things come to those who wait. In this case, it has merit because following a career best 65-point season (23-42-65) with the Avs and 'Yotes, Wolski came back to earth dropping to 6-10-16 in 36 contests this year. So, the Rangers got him cheap and saved $1.2 million in cap space by dealing the pricier Rozsival ($5 million) who has another year left on his contract. As for Wolski, he also has one year remaining and is set to earn $4 million in '11-12.

"It gives us more opportunities to do a few other things that may come up in the future," Sather noted of more cap flexibility that also includes LTI (Long Term Injury) for Frolov. "It was a situation that was easy for us to make for a lot of reasons."
The 24 year-old Wolski brings size with his 6-3, 210 pound frame talented enough to bolster our offense. On a grinding team that's been scoring by committee, adding someone like the former Avs' '04 No.1 pick should bode well for the Blueshirts. He's expected to donn the unusual No.86 and debut in tonight's big showdown versus eighth Montreal, who enters four points behind us for sixth. The two Original Sixes will also be meeting back up north on Hockey Night In Canada following a big test against the Canucks.

When he's taken part in the playoffs, Wolski's fared well recently putting up four goals and an assist for Phoenix last year while going 2-3-5 in '07-08 for Colorado. It wouldn't be surprising if John Tortorella tries him with slumping star Marian Gaborik and Artem Anisimov. That would demote Sean Avery, who's elevated his play the past three games, back to the fourth line with Chris Drury and Connecticut recall Kris Newbury, who KO'd Devil Bryce Salvador back in preseason, concussing him.

For Rozsival who was a frequent MSG target despite contributing on the blueline, he gets a fresh start in the Desert where he'll bolster a 'Yotes back end that includes Ed Jovanovski, Keith Yandle, Derek Morris and Adrian Aucoin. Given a chance by Sather following the lockout as a camp invite, Rozsival made the most of it growing into a top four D who worked well with Czech Marek Malik as part of the Euro-Rangers led by Jaromir Jagr, Martin Straka, Martin Rucinsky, Petr Prucha and Michael Nylander. Six Czechs and one Swede led the Blueshirts back to the playoffs where they hadn't been in nearly a decade.

The most memorable highlight for Rozsival and the same hypocritical Garden Faithful had to be when his one-timer from the point beat Ryan Miller in triple overtime, giving the underdog Rangers life in a dramatic Game Three Eastern Conference Semifinal at a pumped up MSG. As someone who was fortunate enough to be there, it ranks as my best Ranger game. I'll never forget the animosity towards the refs for screwing us at the end of regulation when a goal was disallowed. The Sabres forced sudden death and could've put a stranglehold on the series. Instead, our guys wouldn't let it happen with Rozy playing the hero. The place just exploded. Everyone mobbed each other in one of the most awesome scenes ever. If you were there, you know how special it was.

It allowed our team to get back in the series, winning Game Four to push it even back to Buffalo. We all know what happened there. Straka scored late in regulation with lone '05-06 member Henrik Lundqvist on the verge of stealing Game Five. But as fate had it, Chris Drury got to a rebound and buried it with 7.7 seconds remaining. The same amount of time Valeri Zelepukin scored with a lifetime ago for the Devils. This time, there was no Matteau Matteau Matteau. Instead, Maxim Afinogenov broke our backs when his shot deflected off a diving Jed Ortmeyer past King Henrik. The Sabres would win a real shootout in Game Six to wrap up the series. Still, to this day, it's hard not to go back and contemplate just how close that team was to advancing to its first Conference Final since Messier and Gretzky teamed up with Leetch, Graves and Richter. Oh. What could've been.

It's hard to believe that Rozsival evolved into a reliable defenseman here. I remember laughing at the '05 signing thinking, 'The former Pen. Come on.' Well, the joke was on me. In his first year, Rozsival scored five goals and 25 assists for 30 points while posting a plus-35 rating along with three power play goals. Amazing. Of course, it helped to have No.68 to pass to during his record-breaking season. Still, Rozy proved it wasn't a fluke by increasing to career highs with 30 helpers and 40 points along with seven PPG, 20 power play points and three deciding markers. In '07-08, he again had a strong season tallying a career best 13 goals with 25 assists for 38 points along with half a dozen PPG and 18 PPP. Even if he sometimes was an adventure in the corners, one couldn't dispute his contributions- helping guide Marc Staal and Dan Girardi who now are a shutdown tandem.

It would be foolish not to think Rozsival had something to do with their development. He was the one vet the organization kept. Even if Slats messed up giving him four years, $20 million while foolishly spending a ton on the immortal Wade Redden. His real folly while gambling on Nikolai Zherdev for Fedor Tyutin. True enough, Rozy wasn't the same after Jagr left becoming overly passive on the power play driving fans nuts with his tenativeness to shoot despite a deadly one when it hit the net. For a year and a half, he struggled badly while playing through injuries- continuing to log big minutes and never complaining once about the unfair treatment from the home crowd. Sure. It was frustrating because of some of the chances he passed up. However, it's also accurate to say he was our best passer, often making perfect outlets that strung teammates for breakaways.

There also is the notion that Rozsival was soft. While he'll never be confused with Jeff Beukeboom, the guy always battled and often sacrificed his body to get in front of shots. He was a superb penalty killer and that should be valued in his new home. Under Tortorella, he regained confidence and became more active in all facets. To ignore the marked improvement wouldn't be fair to the kind of character he had. Rozy stuck up for teammates shoving players away from Lundqvist's crease. He did have pride and it showed during the final portion of a solid Ranger career. In nearly six seasons, Rozsival finishes with 42 goals and 134 assists totaling 176 points over 432 games. He went 4-10-14 in 31 games during the postseason on Broadway.

"It was a good opportunity for us to get younger and bigger and give the kids the opportunity on defence to play," Sather said of the change. "I was very happy with the way Rozie played. He's a good player, he's durable, he works hard, he played through a lot of pain through his career. We have nothing but good things to say about him. He was treated a little unfairly once in a while, but he was a guy who was the ultimate professional."

Monday, January 10, 2011

Rangers continue to be Road Warriors

They are NHL Road Warriors. How else to explain the Rangers' league best 15 wins away from MSG? After dropping an uncharacteristic two in a row in Florida last week, John Tortorella's resilient bunch again rose up- stringing together back-to-back impressive wins over the Stars and Blues over the weekend.

That they had to fight back twice against one of the West's best teams before prevailing in a shootout and then follow it up by bouncing back from a goal down to edge St. Louis 2-1 is indicative of what this team is all about. No matter who goes down, these Rangers fight and scrap their way to two points. They've already been without emotional leader Ryan Callahan for 10 games. How have they responded since a dissapointing Florida trip? By winning three straight including an equally satisfying overtime win over ninth Carolina. Three consecutive one-goal triumphs puts them at 6-2-2 since Cally went down at Pittsburgh in the first of ironically a character building 4-1 win that saw the club stun the Pens with four unanswered in the final nine-plus minutes.

It's that kind of never say die attitude that has these Blueshirts 25-15-3 with 53 points in sixth knocking on the door behind fourth Pittsburgh and fifth Washington. The 15-7-1 road record demonstrates how closely knit this gritty bunch is. Along with an impressive 10-1 mark in the second of back-to-backs, Tortorella's crew doesn't know the word quit. Are they perfect? Far from it. Aside from struggling finisher Marian Gaborik, the Rangers lack the big play ability of the Crosby Pens, Ovechkin Caps, star studded Flyers and Stamkos/St. Louis Lightning. They get it done as a group through hard work by outhustling opponents and winning all sorts of battles.

If one player epitomizes the yeoman effort, it's Brandon Dubinsky. The fourth-year Alaskan has flourished since being shifted to left wing. Dubi as fans and teammates call him is on pace for a career season with his contract up after the season. While it'd be easy for us to concern ourselves with that, that's for Dubinsky and management to handle. This season, the 24 year-old forward paces the Rangers with 16 goals and 36 points. But it's more than just the numbers with one of the hardest working players who is a PK fixture hounding opponents and always is willing to sacrifice for the good of the team. Lately, it's resulted in defining moments like the one where he came off the wall beating two Blues to set up Sean Avery's winner. Since his running mate Callahan went down, Dubinsky has stepped up contributing nine points (2-7-9) during the latest Ranger run helping put some distance between them and the Hurricanes. Dubinsky is still a little streaky but his constant puck pressure makes him so valuable. It's why he'll definitely get extended by Glen Sather, who'll have to recognize the improvement.

While Dubinsky has led, he's gotten plenty of help from Marc Staal and Dan Girardi, who have fulfilled their new contracts by becoming the shutdown pair the Rangers envisioned. Not only are they limiting scoring chances against but also assuming more responsibility by performing admirably on the power play and also jumping up more when it's needed. Perhaps the best example this season came from Staal, who scored a huge shorthanded goal tying the Pens before Dubinsky set up Callahan in overtime for a huge win. That kind of leadership after how Pittsburgh stunned a frustrated Henrik Lundqvist with two straight cannot be underestimated. It's a play Staal doesn't make last year. Whether it's throwing the body, getting in the path of a big shot or warding off checkers for a huge clear, each has grown in stature.

It's that kind of committment that has this team looking like a dangerous out come Spring. However, they still have plenty of work left with two games against eighth Montreal this week sandwiched around the sizzling Canucks, plus a third meeting against the Flyers. It promises to be tough but one thing about the 2010-11 Rangers. They've met every challenge. Whether it's the constant checking of Brian Boyle and Brandon Prust or the equally surprising Ruslan Fedotenko, they come hard. Rookie Derek Stepan continues to grow all the time, tying the Blues off a nice feed from Mats Zuccarello, who looks like he'll stay on Broadway even when the Rangers get totally healthy.

Of course, they won't be that now that Alex Frolov is done for the season with a torn ACL/MCL suffered in St. Louis the other night. A bitter end to probably his only year in the Big Apple. Say what you will about the lack of production from the former King. But he was still trying. His forecheck had improved leaps and bounds after a stint with Boyle/Prust. From that standpoint, they could miss the enigmatic Russian who finishes with seven goals and nine assists in 43 games. Much like it's been all season, it'll be up to someone else to step up. They'll need more goals off the stick of Artem Anisimov, who when he shoots is dangerous. Just ask Dallas goalie Kari Lehtonen, who had no chance on an absolute ripper that forced extras last Friday. Arty has taken 97 shots thus far. He needs to shoot more. If he does, 20 goals is possible.

Of course, Tortorella needs more from Gaborik who couldn't even get a gimme which looked in to snap a slump. Hell. Even Sam Rosen and Joe Micheletti were convinced it was in only to have replays confirm his one-timer off Dubinsky's brilliant feed went off the cross bar before Avery followed it up. At this critical juncture, it's no longer about who he plays with. I could care less if he doesn't have the marquee center to play with. Gabby has proven he can finish with Erik Christensen. Another injured player who won't be back anytime soon. Simply put. It's time for the Big Ticket to remember who he is. There are no excuses. It looks Avery is finally getting it. Maybe he can rub off on Gabby.

Goaltending has been a strength. When you have Henrik Lundqvist, it should be. He's been more consistent lately and even is contributing offensively. It was his brilliant pass that caught the Stars changing, allowing Anisimov to wire his 10th for the equalizer. As scary as he is playing pucks which led to a goal against over the weekend, believe it or not King Henrik leads all goalies with three assists. Let's just hope he minimizes the adventures. What's even better is the way backup Martin Biron performed Saturday, making key stops in the second to give his teammates a chance. The ex-Sabre has already started 11 games and won seven posting a respectable 2.26 GAA and .920 save percentage. Exactly what Tortorella was looking for to keep Lundqvist fresh down the stretch. Just maybe it'll make a difference.

You can't forget the contributions from Mike Sauer, who's become the team's third best blueliner. Credit goes out to the Sauer Man on persevering despite injuries to finally work his way into our top four. He rarely makes mistakes and is rock solid in his end. The kind of sturdy defender we've always needed. Then there's Matt Gilroy, who has gone long stretches sitting in the press box but never complained. And now, he's being rewarded and rewarded the coach with better play by getting involved offensively while playing stronger defensively. Enough can't be said about both these two who have made a huge impact to boost our back end. Michal Rozsival probably will miss more games this week but the vet's had a better year. And there's not enough praise for Steve Eminger.

It's been an exciting season for our Blueshirts. One which they have earned.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Devils midseason review: A nightmare scenario



For those of you who don't know, DEFCON 1 is a national defense condition that indicates World War III is imminent, as depicted in the '80s movie WarGames. How does that apply to the Devils season? Well when you have just ten wins and 22 points in 41 games, good for last place in the NHL (a full ten points behind the 29th place Islanders) with a team that was supposed to be a Stanley Cup contender after the post-July 1 signings of Ilya Kovalchuk, Anton Volchenkov and Henrik Tallinder, that pretty much qualifies as a situation which needs the most drastic measures available to fix.

When I talk about fixing the Devils it certainly isn't something that's going to happen overnight or be evident in this year's results. Obviously, the Devils are going to miss the playoffs for only the second time in the last two decades and are somehow managing to cement even finishing in dead last below the AHL-quality Islanders - despite the Isles shedding players left and right (goaltender Dwayne Roloson and defenseman James Wisniewski in trades, as well as fellow goalie Rick DiPietro with another predictable injury).

Clearly the first step toward fixing the problem is to figure out how things got so bad so fast. I mean just last April the Devils were winning their ninth division title in the last thirteen seasons. To have such a pronounced dropoff from that to now being in the middle of what could be a franchise-worst season recordwise, and one of the worst offensive outputs in league history is still inconceivable to me. Especially with expectations going through the roof after retaining Kovalchuk and adding defensemen Volchenkov and Tallinder.

Such unfulfilled expectations and dissapointment has led to a two weeks unlike any other in franchise history. To wit: Coach Johnny MacLean was axed two days before Christmas, captain Jamie Langenbrunner was traded two days ago and future Hall-of-Famer and multiple Vezina winner Martin Brodeur was demoted to second-string goaltender last week. All in two weeks! I can't exactly accuse GM Lou Lamoriello of sitting on his hands anymore, although it appeared as if he was for the longest time - since his lone move before December 23 was the futile gesture of putting Brian Rolston through waivers, then re-entry waivers - only for the $5 million man to go unclaimed.

About the only thing I'm sure of is there's no one single reason you could point to for this kind of a meltdown in record time. Are there talent deficiencies? Sure...after all, not having a puck-moving defenseman is a big reason the offense has been stuck in neutral for most of the season. Coming into the year the only defenders you could describe as adequate puck-movers were Andy Greene (who is looking more and more like a three-month wonder), and Matt Taormina - who had never played an NHL game till this season. While Taormina was one of the few pleasant surprises for the team early, he's all but dissapeared after a high ankle sprain and multiple setbacks have left him in limbo, with a return date unknown.

Even with Taormina, this D's a far cry from the Scott Niedermayer-Brian Rafalski-Paul Martin days of having guys who could skate and move the puck. Not to mention the defensive talent is lacking as well, what with playing green kids such as Mark Fayne, Matt Corrente, Alex Urbom and Anssi Salmela for long stretches and frequently having two or three of them in the lineup at once. Hold-the-fort vet Mike Mottau leaving due to cap concerns and Bryce Salvador getting a career-threatening concussion on the eve of the season downgraded the defense from passable to troublesome, even with the additions of Volchenkov and Tallinder - though the latter's been an utter disaster so far (four points in forty-one games with a -26) as the 'replacement' for Martin.

If our defensive woes were somewhat predictable, our offensive issues have been downright mind-boggling. Yes, Zach Parise got hurt before the season and after playing through it for about a month has basically been shut down for the duration after surgery (he won't even skate till the beginning of March). Clearly missing our best player doesn't help. Still, the offense should at least have been respectable with fellow ZZPops members Travis Zajac and former captain Langenbrunner, $100 million man Kovalchuk, all-time franchise leading scorer Patrik Elias and other complementary pieces like one-time A-line member Jason Arnott also returning via trade. Heck, even Rolston was a 30-goal scorer multiple times although he's never come close to showing that kind of form here.

Not only has the offense been dissapointing, they've been historically bad with just 70 goals in 41 games (the standings say 72 but two of those 'goals' are due to shootout wins). Our leading point-getter - Elias - has just 27 in half a season. Despite being the only player to get to double-digits in goals Kovalchuk's season has been a disaster with just ten in forty games despite getting the second-most icetime in the league behind Sidney Crosby, and has a ghastly -30 to go along with his unfathomly bad shooting this season. Talented centerman Travis Zajac had 66 points last season and just 21 so far this year. No Devil has twenty assists halfway through the season.

Sure, you can say the lack of puck-moving defensemen is a factor in the offense's woes and age is also no doubt a factor in the performance of players like Elias, Arnott, Langenbrunner and Rolston (with desire also lacking in at least the latter two). How to explain the struggles of guys like Kovy and Zajac though? Not to mention David Clarkson, who looked like a 20-goal scorer in the making in '08-09 but has become more finesse and less gritty despite a dramatic downturn in his goals from the 17 of two years ago. I guess like a bad virus, when so many people are playing way below par, it eventually eats away at your team until everyone gets sucked down into the same bottomless pit.

That might also apply to Brodeur, who was a Vezina finalist this year and has AHL-quality numbers this year. Some, but not all of his decline can be traced to the defense in front of him. After all, Marty propped up an average defense just last year to win a division title with a 2.24 GAA and .916 save percentage in 76 starts. This year, Brodeur has an unghastly 3.15 GAA and .882 save percentage. Maybe in his case age really is catching up, after all he missed a month with what was described as an elbow bruise. For someone that has been extremely durable in his career perhaps that was the biggest sign that we can't count on Brodeur to be a high-quality performer from here on in.

In what seemed like a mutual decision, Brodeur even acquiesed to going to the bench last week in favor of Johan Hedberg. Predictably the results were no better as Hedberg's lost all three of his starts and was pulled this afternoon against the Flyers in the first period after giving up odd deflection goals in back-to-back games. At least it was a good sign that Brodeur came in and shut out the Flyers the rest of the way, so maybe extended practice time has enabled him to find some of his old form. Tomorrow's game against the high-powered Lightning should tell a lot about what to expect from the legend going forward.

Having an inexperienced coach like MacLean didn't help either, he sure didn't have the answers once things started getting rocky (which was basically the latter part of Opening Night when we blew a two-goal lead against Dallas). Nor did he seem inclined to do anything to put his foot down, other than his well-publicized scratching of Kovy for missing team meetings in October. While it's almost unprecedented to fire a coach thirty-three games into his tenure - Barry Melrose is the only quicker one I can think of in the NHL and he was a known quantity - things had gotten so bad that despite the hopeless predicament the team found itself in by early December, Mac just had to go. When you lose three games in a row by 7-1, 5-1, 5-1, that's a pretty good indicator that the team isn't trying.

Even with all that, you have to say in hindsight a bad feeling existed in the room from the outset both because of the Kovy fiasco this summer and the resulting cap elephant in the room, which was never solved by Lou until it got 'solved' for him with early-season hernia surgery for Rolston and the more serious injuries to Parise and Salvador. I was never in favor of leaving our homework till the last minute, so to speak but maybe we would have done something earlier if the Kovy contract had been resolved in July. Still, you have to blame Lou for giving everyone an out to stink by the resulting distraction of trade rumors and speculation swirling nonstop.

For a team which had such a bad finish to last season, I was dissapointed more people weren't moved out of the locker room regardless although one of the byproducts of the recent Langenbrunner trade was the revelation that in fact, Lou did attempt to trade Jamie in the offseason but the captain used his NTC to nix the deal. While on the one hand that makes me feel better that Lou did recognize Langs needed to be moved, on the other when you have a captain of the team knowing the GM wants to trade him before the season and it never happens that's a definite black cloud in the room. Especially considering Jamie's insubordination towards coach Jacques Lemaire created a black cloud over the locker room last year.

Not that I resolve Lou or Lemaire from any blame, on the contrary. Bringing Lemaire back to coach much the same team that tuned him out last year was unconscionable. And Lemaire's own treatment of some players (specifically Jay Pandolfo and Nicklas Bergfors) last year was ridiculous, while he too often let Kovy have free rein to do what he wanted. Maybe the Kovy fiasco this offseason wasn't Lou's fault, if that's the case owner Jeff Vanderbeek definitely deserves his share of the blame as well.

Now for the $64,000 question, how do we get out of this hole we've dug for ourselves? Well if you mean getting out of the hole to get to the playoffs that isn't happening. Based on current projections, we would literally have to go 37-4 just to have a chance at a playoff berth. About the only team who could put that kind of a stretch together was the '76-77 Canadiens. What the rest of the season should be about is putting the team in the best possible position to win next year and beyond. Here's my checklist of 'to-do' things to ensure that happens (in no particular order of importance after #1):

1. Re-sign Parise to a long-term deal this offseason, if that isn't accomplished nothing else really matters cause this team'll be screwed big-time if he walks after next year.
2. By hook or by crook get at least one more quality NHL defenseman in here who can skate and move the puck, probably two if I'm being honest. Volchenkov and Colin White fill our quota of stay-at-home guys and you can add Salvador to that mix if he returns, what we really need is mobility back there.
3. Do what you should have done this offseason and bring in an outsider to coach the team, let him pick his own assistants and run a progressive system that accentuates the talents of Parise, Kovy, Zajac and Elias.
4. Play the younger forwards and see just how much NHL-ready talent we have in the organization. Sorry Jacques, your 'tough love' with Matthais Tedenby doesn't fly with me when vets don't get punished for their screwups.
5. Get another NHL-caliber center in here, for too long we've been trying to make do with converted wingers centering a top two line, this year's acquisition of Arnott was supposed to alleviate the problem at least temporarily but it hasn't.
6. Clear out Arnott and other expendable players before the trade deadline to continue recouping some of the draft pick value we lost this offseason - both in the initial trade for Arnott and the Kovy contract penalty. Not having our 2nd and 3rd this season proved to be more disasterous than anyone could have predicted considering we're likely to have a top three pick at worst.
7. Clear out Rolston this offseason as an expiring contract.
8. Play to compete and win the second half of the season. Yeah you have the weenie Devil fans who want the team to lose to secure the best chance for the #1 draft pick (not even the pick itself, just the best chance to win the lottery) and we're gonna have to trade a couple impending UFA's in all likelihood but really a lot of these guys are going to be here next year as well, either because of talent or contract. You can't expect to be successful next year if we never get out of this constant state of misery the franchise is now in. Especially since any improvement the second half of the season will likely be tied into both hungry kids and vets who prove they want to stay and be part of the solution.
9. Make the vets accountable as well as the rookies. Including the $100 million man. We might not be able to change all the players but we can certainly change the atitude around here and that starts with accountability.
10. If we're not going to find a future goalie next year at least we have to find one capable of starting 20-30 games minimum to protect a declining Brodeur as much as possible, while still giving him the respect he deseves and allowing him to finish out his contract.

At least part of one step has already been done in the trade of Langenbrunner. How much of the rest of my list the Devils can accomplish is anyone's guess but if they don't accomplish most of those steps, you can count on an extended rebuild in the very near future. Since Lou detests the word rebuilding, odds are it would happen without him.

The Puck Stops Here

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