Saturday, March 31, 2012

Devils can clinch playoff berth tonight in Carolina

At times this season's been fun and at times it's been like a tooth extraction, but tonight the Devils face off in Carolina virtually assured of a playoff spot. New Jersey only needs one point out of their game or the Caps or Sabres losing a point in either of their games to officially clinch with just three games remaining in the regular season after tonight. With the Caps still in the hunt for the playoffs (and a division!), it's probably unlikely they lose against a bad Montreal team so we'll have to get a positive result out of ours, or Buffalo will have to lose a point against rival Toronto - who's also playing out the string. Then again I've already had egg on my face assuming teams in the hunt facing off against teams playing out the string would win...but more on that later.

To do that, the Devils have to carry over the momentum of their last 30-35 minutes against Tampa, where after another dreary first period following a terrible game against the Blackhawks Tuesday that they somehow won in a shootout, suddenly the team came to life and popped in six goals in the final two periods (four in the second period alone!). Every goal was scored by a different player, as the depth the Devils have struggled to find this season was in full force Thursday night. Of course, the return of Travis Zajac - he's alive! - helps in that regard though ironically Zajac was one of the few Devils not to register a point and was a -2. On the plus side he was 14-4 on faceoffs, and that's definitely an area we've needed help in all year.

After a Ryan Malone goal with 44 seconds left in the first period ended a bad twenty minutes of hockey with the Devils down 1-0, I wasn't as much angry as I was thankful we somehow won a game Tuesday which I didn't see but by all accounts the only Devil to show up in the final two periods was Martin Brodeur - who turned in another 35+ save performance and won a shootout (with Zajac getting the game winner) after the Hawks' Andrew Shaw hit the post in 'extra innings'. If the Devils had lost in regulation Tuesday, coupled with a bad effort Thursday that could have really spelled trouble, the way I feared it might in my last blog.

However, after a two-week hibernation the Devils suddenly came to life through a familiar method - scoring shorthanded. After a Petr Sykora penalty early in the second, Patrik Elias and Danius Zubrus found themselves on a two-on-one going the other way, and Elias found Zubrus with a perfect feed for the big Russian's 17th goal of the season at 3:04. Even that bit of prosperity didn't quite wake the team up though, as Brodeur of all people made a puck-handling mistake with poor rebound control on a 200-foot dump-in that went right to Eric Brewer, who fed Malone in front for his second goal of the game.

If one line was playing well in the first period, it was the fourth line of Jacob Josefson, Ryan Carter and Steve Bernier. That line would eventually factor into the Devils' second goal, with Carter getting the primary assist on Josefson's second of the year at 6:54. After a scoring drought for much of the season, it's nice to see the young Swede get going in time for the postseason and become a viable contributor, especially while he's stuck below Zajac, Elias and Adam Henrique on the pecking order as far as playing center. Even that didn't stop our run of mistakes, as Malone capitalized on yet another breakdown in front to tie the game and get a hat trick barely halfway through the contest.

Once more, the Devils tied the game at 13:26 with Ilya Kovalchuk jumping on a loose puck in the slot and firing a quick wrister past Dwayne Roloson for his team-leading 33rd of the season. Moments later, the Devils won a power play and deadline acquisition Marek Zidlicky fired a rocket past Roloson that gave the Czech defenseman his second goal as a Devil, put them into the lead at 14:37 and caused confusion on the Tampa bench. Immediately after the goal, Tampa coach Guy Boucher was signaling for one of his other players (winger Teddy Purcell) to go onto the ice, but Roloson mistakenly thought he was getting pulled and went to the bench with backup Sebastian Caron coming in before the goalies switched again. It was so goofy I thought it was a cheap trick by Boucher to get a timeout without having to use one or actually pull the goalie, but apparently it wasn't.

As it turned out, that moment was a harbinger as the Devils put two more past Roloson in the third and got him pulled for real. First, Bryce Salvador made a brilliant play to keep a puck in the zone and put it on net with Alexei Ponikarovsky getting a tip-in goal for his 13th overall at 2:25 of the third. Then David Clarkson pounced on a rebound at 6:05 for his 29th goal of the season and the Devils' final tally of the night. A goal by Trevor Smith with less than nine seconds left only served to dent Brodeur's GAA as the Devils won the game 6-4 in what was a dominant last half of the game, outshooting Tampa 30-11 in the final two periods.

New Jersey could have clinched its playoff berth Thursday if the Caps had lost against Boston, but despite giving up a two-goal lead late that restored some hope to us for an arena celebration, the Caps did win the shootout. I'd cleared out by then, unlike the fans I saw in an NJDevs picture huddled around a radio listening to the end of the game, but I was following the end of the contest on my NHL GameCenter app and knew about the shootout loss by the time I got to the light rail. Oh, the wonders of modern technology. So, instead of clinching at home they can clinch in Carolina tonight in front of former coach John MacLean - an assistant on the Canes' bench, as the Canes are on their way to their third straight playoff-less season since breaking hearts in New Jersey (and Boston) in 2009.

In fact the Devils can get all but locked into the sixth seed tonight if they win and Ottawa loses in regulation in Philly. Those results would mean the Devils only need a point (won by them or lost by the Senators) to guarantee finishing ahead of Ottawa and would also keep them four points behind the Flyers, without a tiebreker and with just three games left - and Philly also has a game in hand. However, the reward for finishing sixth is getting more questionable by the day. Those same Caps that are currently on the outside looking in still have a chance to win their division because of an almost unfathomable collapse by the Panthers.

True, Florida's still four points up with four games left for each team but the two teams have a showdown in D.C looming in the penultimate game of the season, and the Panthers just botched a six-game portion of their schedule I was sure they would do well in. Especially after beating teams like Boston, Buffalo and Philly just before this stretch. Yet, the Panthers have somehow managed only one win in their last six games, all against teams out of the playoffs. My joke before this stretch was that they were facing off against a who's who of the draft lottery, but after losing three games in OT/SO (including a heartbreaking loss in Minnesota the previous night) they got whipped by the worst team in the NHL last night in Columbus and the joke's on me.

Ironically with a week to go in the season, the real race we as Devils fans are watching is the Florida-Washington race. In fact, other than the race for the eighth seed it's the only real excitement in the East in the last week of the season. Amazingly, the Isles helped out their blood rivals the Rangers big-time by sweeping the Penguins in a home-and-home, virtually assuring the Rangers of the #1 seed in the East with just four games left (five points ahead, though the teams still have a game in Pittsburgh) and annoying their own fans who were already probably doing draft position calculations. There seems little doubt the 4-5 series will be a Pennsylvania classic but with the Penguins' recent struggles the Flyers now have a chance to steal home-ice in the first-round, only four points behind with a game in hand AND two more head-to-head matchups in the season's final week.

Florida's struggles have seemingly locked up the #2 seed for Boston - four points up with a game in hand on the Panthers - and currently they'd face off against division rival Ottawa in the first round though the Sens aren't assured of a playoff berth by any stretch with a mere two-point lead on surging Buffalo and Washington, though they still have a game in hand themselves. Really, it's a battle between four teams for three spots factoring in Florida and the division race, as well as the #7 and #8 seeds. Buffalo's been the hottest team on the bubble recently but a home-and-home with Toronto could prove decisive. After a surprisingly good start, Toronto's out of the postseason hunt yet again this year (haha), but at this point they'd love nothing more than to take the rival Sabres out with them.

Either way, it'll be a fun last week - especially adding in the West with all the craziness in the Pacific Division (four teams within two points battling for three spots, including the #3 seed). Even with what could be two meaningless home games for the Devils in the final week I'll be there. In fact, thanks to their good performance on Thursday, all fans in attendance can use their ticket stub from the game to get a free order of buffalo wings at nearby Edison Ale House before Tuesday night's home contest with the Isles. I can only handle a few wings myself but I do like the taste so I'll probably try to redeem that before Tuesday's game.

For Thursday's game at Detroit, there'll be a viewing party at a new Irish tavern in Parsippany that I'll be going to. At least it's closer than Miami Mike's, off of Route 10, but it'll be different cause every other viewing party I've been to has been there. And for Fan Appreciation afternoon on Saturday, it's stated that everyone is guaranteed to win a prize but really that isn't true, what every fan gets is a scratch-off ticket where you 'can' win a prize but most people just get a discount at the Devils Den. I know, cause it was the same last year and when I tried to go to the Devils Den to use my card it was a zoo, so in the end it wasn't even worth it. At least we do get the team poster out of it.

Del Zotto's two goals push Rangers to fourth straight win

I didn't see any of tonight's game due to work. But from the sound of it, our team took care of business with a 4-1 home win over Original Six rival Montreal. Even if they rank last in the conference, it always is sweet to beat them because they really own us up north. And when I saw the score update via texts, it was nice to see the Rangers go from 1, 2 to 4 up. For once, there was an easy win and at this time of year, that's never bad. Especially with what's on the horizon.

Mike Del Zotto tallied twice for No.'s 9 and 10, following up a multi-point effort in our comeback 'W' over Winnipeg. I'm always pining for Del Zotto to shoot the puck more. Maybe that game gave him confidence, which certainly bodes well. Let's face it. Flaws aside, the third-year blueliner is by far our most skilled and we need him to have a good postseason. Too bad I didn't get to see it. At least Dad did live as he went to MSG.

Even with that, it always bring a smile to my face when our team has success while I'm busting it. Makes my shift go easier. And hell. It improved leaps and bounds once the game started, which had nothing to do with the hockey. Maybe the hockey gods were lending me a helping hand. In any event, a 4-1 triumph over the Habs made it four straight. Even if the previous three all on the road didn't come easy, it definitely had to give the Blueshirts a lift. You take it anyway you can. To think our club now has 50 wins is kinda sick. But it still is Bettman induced even if they're not a shootout team. All the better.

Combined with the Islanders' sweep of the Penguins, who finally got back on track tonight with a damaging 5-3 win at Buffalo, the Rangers are in great position to finish atop the East and claim home ice. Their win also put them temporarily ahead of the Blues for the league's top spot. It still boggles the mind how not the most talented team has 107 points. Of course, you could argue that St. Louis is a cardinal copy out West and they trail us by one with four left. Vancouver also won over Dallas which puts them at 105.

Marian Gaborik scored his team best 39th and also set up another in the win. Brad Richards notched his 25th on the power play and Del Zotto also had a helper for a three point outing. That effort put him over 40 points for the first time in his career. MDZ now is 10-31-41 over 73 games. Three points better than his rookie season in '09-10. A great turnaround after last year which saw him demoted. Del Zotto had his first power play goal this year. Hard to fathom. But he is a pass oriented blueliner who always looks to find teammates. Sometimes, he needs to be more selfish. So, the two goal night is great. Derek Stepan added two assists and Carl Hagelin ended a five-game pointless streak with a helper.

With recent strong outings from Brian Boyle and Ruslan Fedotenko, it's a plus to see our supporting cast getting involved. The Rangers are a T-E-A-M in every sense of the word. That's the only way they'll have success. Henrik Lundqvist made 19 saves in his eighth consecutive start. The only question is when might John Tortorella give him a day off or is he going for it all. He is playing better with the heavier workload not unlike Marty Brodeur across the Hudson. Let's just hope he saves the best for last like another former Ranger hero. 

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Rangers/Jets recap: Captain Cally burns Winnipeg

In his first year as Rangers captain, Ryan Callahan has gone above and beyond in meeting the requirements of a team leader. Whether it's blocking a shot, delivering a hit or scoring a big goal, Captain Cally has delivered. If ever there was a game that proved why the classic overachiever is the heart and soul of our first place club, it was on display in last night's come from behind 4-2 win over Winnipeg.

With nothing going right in what amounted to a dismal first half where the team lost discipline in falling behind two, Callahan took it upon himself to lift the Rangers with a great individual effort that led to a Mike Del Zotto shorthanded goal that turned the tide. Needing the game to keep any faint hope alive, the Jets used the momentum of some unnecessary Ranger penalties to finally go ahead by a pair. Spencer Machachek and Bryan Little had put the Manitoba hosts up a deuce less than a minute apart, turning hockey's biggest home ice edge into a frenzy.

It looked like it was headed for a rout when Brandon Dubinsky took another one of his mindless penalties, slashing a stick out of a Winnipeg player. Even though our penalty killing unit had more than done the job which included a lengthy five-on-three, you were waiting for the other shoe to drop. It never came thanks to Callahan, who outhustled the Jets down the ice, creating a couple of chances. The first which Ondrej Pavelec denied but the hardest working Blueshirt stayed with it, sending a backhand stuff attempt on the Winnipeg netminder which a cutting Del Zotto put home. From that moment, everything changed.

“The entire building felt it,” Henrik Lundqvist said while picking up career win number 250 after turning in a solid performance. “We started to get our game going. It was a big turning point."

“The turning point in the game really was the short-handed goal that we gave up because they didn’t have a lot of life,” Jets coach Claude Noel said.
Sometimes, all it takes is a hustle play to swing momentum. As Callahan has proven, he'll do anything to help our team win. Not surprisingly, John Tortorella kept sending him out, awarding him over 27 minutes. By far the most. Sure enough, the captain came through with the tying goal late in the second when he took a Marian Gaborik feed in front and slid the puck past Pavelec for his career best 28th.

“Our special teams need to be great in the playoffs for us to have success. It’s something for us to build on,” Callahan noted following a two-point night in which he did a bit of everything. “We showed character. We have been doing it all year long.”
Not coincidentally, there were no more Winnipeg power plays after Callahan set up Del Zotto for his first goal in 22. Speaking of the third-year blueliner, he also notched an assist on Callahan's PPG for his first multi-point game since Mar.4. A big positive for a key player who the Rangers need in the postseason. Despite his flaws, he logs important minutes and is our most skilled defenseman. He shot the puck more yesterday. Something that must continue for our power play to have success.

Brian Boyle's backhand from in tight eluded Pavelec early in the third, proving to be the winner. It was his third goal in four. Another positive. His play has picked up at the right time. As has been mentioned before, our team isn't the most talented. They need everyone contributing. Boyle and Ruslan Fedotenko have been involved lately, which bodes well. And Brandon Prust is always working. Boyle also won 15 of 26 faceoffs in 18:05.

The Jets never recovered from Callahan's big play to Del Zotto. They once led in shots 15-4 due to five man-advantages. From that point, the Rangers outshot them 24-9 the rest of the way, getting back to the hardnosed hockey we're used to. That's how it has to be no matter who they face in the first round. They now lead the Pens by five points for the top seed and are tied with the Blues for the President's Trophy. Pittsburgh looks to avenge a loss to the Islanders tonight when they visit Long Island. Each rival will have five left following it.

Even more encouraging is that Derek Stepan got on the board with a power play goal that sealed it. He'd been ice cold and just hasn't looked right since being taken off the Gaborik line. Maybe the goal will get him going.

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Marc Staal, NYR (3 hits, 3 blocked shots, strong throughout, +2 in 22:10)
2nd Star-Mike Del Zotto, NYR (SHG-snapped 21-game drought, assist)
1st Star-Ryan Callahan, NYR (PPG, game-turning assist for MDZ SHG, 4 SOG, 4 blocked shots in 27:20)

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Minny Mac: McDonagh delivers

Copyright Getty Images
There should be more homecomings like this one. Well, at least for Ryan McDonagh, who continued his outstanding play in a big 3-2 win over the Wild earlier tonight. In front of family and friends, Minny Mac delivered offensively and defensively as the Rangers steadied late to edge Minnesota in St. Paul. Coupled with a Penguin 5-3 loss to the Islanders, the Blueshirts now hold a three-point lead with six to go for the East's top spot.

They wouldn't have gotten it without McDonagh, who notched two assists, including a breathtaking set up on Ruslan Fedotenko's winner that was more than enough to give Henrik Lundqvist his 36th win of the season. After an unbelievable play that allowed Fedotenko to score his ninth, McDonagh and partner Dan Girardi were stellar as the Rangers shutdown the neutral zone, limiting the Wild's chances. Combine that with a tremendous effort from the trio of Brandon Dubinsky, Brian Boyle and Brandon Prust and there were enough positives despite not the greatest game from our club.

Dubinsky was solid in all facets after again earning the wrath of John Tortorella in a recent win over Toronto. His presence in front following a faceoff allowed Boyle to deposit his eighth and second in three games. A good sign. Dubinsky picked up a primary helper on the play that steered the Rangers in front early on. He was defensively responsible along with Boyle and Prust with each physical. That kind of attention to detail is what's been missing from our team's game for quite some time. Lundqvist saw a couple of routine shots which he stopped and the defense did the rest. King Henrik also was sharp stoning Devin Setoguchi following a Mikko Koivu rebound with the game tied.

The problem for the Rangers was they fell asleep in the second, allowing an opportunistic Wild club to get back into it. Lazy penalties led to a pair of Minnesota power play goals, which allowed them to hang in after two periods. Kyle Brodziak steered home a Cal Clutterbuck rebound for his career best 20th that knotted it 1-1. However, former Wild star Marian Gaborik restored order thanks to a great feed from Brad Richards, beating Josh Harding with his club best 38th four and a half minutes later. McDonagh drew an assist.

A Marc Staal penalty allowed the Minny hosts to tie it again when this time a great passing play saw Dany Heatley make a sweet dish for Koivu for a gimme. A play like that reminds you just how skilled Heatley is, who was drafted just before Gaborik in 2000. It's a mystery how he's went from elite status to second tier. Good thing Slats got Gabby and didn't ante up for Heater. His 21 goals and 27 assists for 48 points are a far cry from Marian's 38-31-69. Plus he's played all three zones this season, making it by far his most complete as a Blueshirt. Part of it's the club Heatley's on but it's still sad to see.

For too much of the third, the Wild played well with some chances to go ahead. Something which MSG radio analyst Dave Maloney noted while pointing out on my drive back home that someone needed to make a play. As I walked in the door, that someone turned out to be McDonagh, who turned a harmless Girardi pass across into a goal by skating past Wild defenders and then centering a seeing eye pass for Fedotenko, who didn't miss.

Dad gushed how it was remarkable as did Sam and Joe. Considering that he celebrated a birthday Saturday, it was nice to see our team win two in a row even if they weren't pretty. At this time of year, they don't have to be.

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Henrik Lundqvist, NYR (24 saves, including a big one on Setoguchi)
2nd Star-Brian Boyle, NYR (8th of season-2nd in 3 games, 5 hits, 10-5 on draws, +2 in 17:10)
1st Star-Ryan McDonagh, NYR (2 assists incl. great set up on GW, 3 blocked shots, +2 in 21:46)

Notes: With his 36th victory, Lundqvist is two shy of his career high 38 set in '08-09. He did that in 70 games. This year, the 36 have come over 57. It was the sixth consecutive start for King Henrik, who allowed two or less for the fourth time during that stretch. He previously permitted seven in the last two starts against Buffalo and Toronto. ... In defeat, Harding turned aside 29 of 32. ... Erik Christensen was scoreless with one shot and three faceoff wins in his first appearance since being traded. ... Jed Ortmeyer also saw limited action. ... Fedotenko's goal snapped a nine-game drought. ... With an assist, Dubinsky has five points over the last five. ... Derek Stepan was held to one shot and has no points over four. ... Since returning, Mike Del Zotto has one assist over six. ... In place of Tim Erixon, Anton Stralman saw 21 shifts (19:45) while picking up a helper, going plus-one and blocking a team high four shots. ... Rangers visit Winnipeg tomorrow. Figure Martin Biron to get the call.

                  GP    ROW  PTS   Games Remaining
1.Rangers  76      44       103    3/28 @ Wpg 3/30 vs Mtl 4/1 vs Bos  4/3 @ Phi 4/5 @ Pit 4/7 vs Wsh
2.Penguins 76      38       100    3/29 @ NYI 3/30 @ Buf 4/1 vs Phi 4/3 @ Bos 4/5 vs NYR 4/7 vs Phi

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Rangers at Wild Preview: Homecoming in St. Paul

In a few hours, the Rangers will pay a visit to St. Paul to face the Wild. For a few players, it'll be extra special. Derek Stepan, Ryan McDonagh and Stu Bickel will return home to great support from family and friends, who'll be at Excel Energy Center for tonight's game. Maybe it's exactly what Stepan needs to snap out of it. He's been vital during this season and the Blueshirts need him if they're to go anywhere in the playoffs.

While Stepan tries to get untracked, McDonagh returns as arguably our best defenseman in only Year Two. So advanced is the former Badger that it amazes that Bob Gainey basically gave him away in the Scott Gomez deal. He was in Stan Fischler's Hockey Night Live top five shot blockers list. Though it could be debated that teammate Dan Girardi could've gotten the edge for his experience along with Pen bruiser Brooks Orpik, McDonagh does everything you'd want with great skating, anticipation and physicality. Sure. He'll make a mistake every now and then as most kids do but the man is steady enough to go against Ilya Kovalchuk. No small task.

For Bickel, it's even a better story because he was not really on the radar. Even after an impressive camp, Stu became the odd man out sent back to Connecticut. If not for injuries, we probably don't see him. Sometimes, positives come out of adversity. Bickel plays with the edge needed to stay in our top six. Especially without Mike Sauer, who I sure hope they bring back. Let's just pray for a full recovery. It's going to be awfully tough in the second season without the toughest D here since Beuke. Especially with Marc Staal a shell of himself. Bickel is very rootable as he always stands up for teammates. Yes. He does have a few brain cramps. But he's easy to respect. It sure would be nice to see him score a goal tonight.

While the focus will be on our three kids from Minnesota, Marian Gaborik also returns to face the franchise that selected him in the top three 12 years ago. It'll always be remembered for the Islanders trading Roberto Luongo and taking Rick DiPietro. Then two stars in Gaborik and Dany Heatley followed. The rest is history. Once, a Gabby led Wild team went on a miraculous run to the Western Conference Final before J.S. Giguere and the Disney Ducks did them in. Hard to believe that was nine years ago. Now, Gaborik's in his third year on Broadway in line for his second 40-goal season- needing only three. Wouldn't it be something if he turned back the clock and scored a hat trick against his former team to get it?  I'm sure Henrik Lundqvist wouldn't mind.

This game is important because basically, the Pens seem to have two points when they face the Islanders. No disrespect. But I just can't see John Tavares & Co. holding off the machine that is Pittsburgh. They are scary. It's not like the Rangers should expect any help from their blood rival. That game will already be going when they take the ice an hour later. So, it's about getting the job done against a team they should beat. Even if Erik Christensen has other ideas.

Lately, our team's been struggling. There are still too many breakdowns and Lundqvist isn't seeing the puck like he did most of the season. It could end up costing him the Vezina, which might just go to the Blue duo of Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak or Marc-Andre Fleury. Pekka Rinne has slumped. Jon Quick remains the darkhorse, especially if he can get the lowscoring Kings in. Jimmy Howard would've been in the mix if he didn't get hurt. Bottom line King Henrik needs to start making the big saves and tightening up the rebound control. That's why he's paid handsomely.

While that's another focus, one other key storyline is the return of Anton Stralman, who'll get another look from John Tortorella while rookie Tim Erixon sits. This isn't a benching but rather Tort just wanting to see if Stralman can show him something. He was good initially but has faded since. Erixon has looked solid since his recall, making no glaring mistakes and tallying two assists his last two games. I am fine with Erixon as our sixth. But Tort has his own way of doing things. Hopefully, he makes the right decision.

Whether they want to admit it or not, there'll be some scoreboard watching. And you know both the Rangers and Penguins had to be relieved that the Lightning did them a favor beating the Flyers yesterday. It looks like a two horse race for the top seed. Who wants it?

Monday, March 26, 2012

Rangers sign Andrew Yogan, Surgery for Zuccarello

While on the rink, it's been a mixed back lately with our team doing just enough to hang onto the top seed over the surging Pens, the Rangers made some news off it today by signing prospect Andrew Yogan to an entry level contract.

The former '10 fourth round pick scored 41 goals for Peterborough of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) this season. That was a career best along with the 78 points he tallied. From Blueshirts United:

Yogan, who led Peterborough in both goals and assists, ranked sixth in the OHL in goal scoring and tied for 15th in points this season. IN 240 career games in major junior, Yogan recorded 96 goals, 186 points and 287 penalty minutes.

Last year Yogan completed his season by playing in two games on an amateur tryout with the Connecticut Whale of AHL, notching a pair of goals in his pro debut and finishing with three points in two games. He has already played three games with the Whale this season on another amateur tryout, and he is scoreless.
What this signing means is that we add another young forward to our already strong farm system. Had they not reached agreement, Yogan could've turned unrestricted on July 1. Instead, he's signed and should be part of our 60-man roster next Fall.

Of course, some fans were already speculating if we would see Yogan this Spring. But the contract is for next year and would've been unrealistic to expect an unproven 20-year old to basically skip Connecticut and contribute on our roster that's challenging for tops in the league. Come on. Meanwhile, Chris Kreider and Boston College advanced to the Frozen Four with a dominant 4-0 blanking of former champ Minnesota-Duluth yesterday. He didn't get on the score sheet but in their previous win, scored both goals. His size and speed are evident. It'll be interesting to see if he turns pro after two weeks when the college hockey tournament concludes.

Zuccarello to go under knife: In their recent defeat to Buffalo Friday, forward Mats Zuccarello fractured his left wrist while diving to block a shot in the 4-1 loss. Unfortunate since the mighty mite had looked good since his recall, tallying twice on the power play and setting up another. Zucc was more feisty on the forecheck and adding skill to an otherwise putrid unit. His creativity is gone unless the team goes far.

Instead, Zuccarello will undergo surgery tomorrow which will keep him out indefinitely. It really stinks because he looked like he was finally going to stick. Who knows if he'll ever play for us or even in the NHL again? His contract is up. Even though the Rangers hold a club option, it's a two-way deal, which makes it very unlikely MZA would stay. I wouldn't. John Tortorella didn't exactly treat him fairly. This isn't an extreme case like Sean Avery, who is expected to retire after his banishment from the Whale. Zuccarello was younger and had more ability that could've helped our inconsistent offense.

I really hope we do see him again. Just don't get your hopes up.

Devils' spring hibernation continues

I admit, I've been as guilty as anyone thinking the playoffs were a given for the Devils since their 9-1-1 record after the All-Star break distanced themselves from the bubble. And since the Devils beat the Caps a few weeks back they have done just enough to keep the bubble teams at bay. Problem is, you're not going to win a lot of games at this time of year with flat performances the way we did against Colorado and Ottawa last week when the other team was tired and our goalie played well. As Sherry Ross said on the radio in the pregame, the Devils are in a bit of a rut since they seem locked into the sixth seed.

Problem now is, the bubble teams (Washington and Buffalo) never seem to lose anymore and for the last two weeks the Devils have been sloppy and uninspired. As a result, the Devils are now just six points up on each with six games to go after yet another loss to the Penguins last night where they again looked least in the parts of the game I was paying attention to. Ottawa's within four points after - surprise, surprise - they actually beat the Penguins on Saturday. What a novel concept, a playoff team beating another playoff team. Maybe we should try it sometime before the postseason begins.

Yes, the Devils did manage three wins against the Pens earlier in the season but that was without Sidney Crosby, and even in a couple of those games we gave up 40 shots, but Martin Brodeur played well. Last night he wasn't as fantastic, giving up a clunky opening goal. Funny how these bad bounces only seem to happen to Marty now and not Johan Hedberg - who seems to pitch shutouts every time he comes in. While there aren't any back to backs the rest of the season, it's become obvious you can't play Marty every single game between now and the end of the season. He's given up a bad goal a game for about a week it seems, since he had two games' worth of work in the St. Patty's Day massacre last Saturday and for Marty's last three games he's surrendered thirteen goals. In Hedberg's last three games, he's given up one goal total. When you have a useful backup, there's no crime in actually using him.

While the Devils are in no real danger of missing the postseason yet (they still need 'both' Washington and Buffalo to pass them, as well as other teams), it's now to the point where they need to win soon before this gets any closer and it starts becoming a mental thing. I saw this all too much with the Mets when they were actually relevant a few years back, I don't need a repeat now. Especially since a massive choke would entail wholesale changes - re: Zach Parise being gone, maybe Marty and other guys getting traded. Ironically now as the Devils' path to sixth gets murkier, the picture is getting clearer as to who the third-place opponent would be after Boston won its last two on the West Coast and the Panthers have struggled to close out the division with their so-called easy schedule.

For those reasons and just the fact they need to get back to being more efficient, they need a big performance Tuesday against the Blackhawks. With just six games left before the postseason, the NHL isn't kind to hibernating teams. Or as coach Pete DeBoer likes to say, 'It's an unforgiving league'. While he couldn't exactly bag skate them when they were playing seven games in eleven days, it might be time for the coach to put his foot down now. Really, all the Devils need to clinch the postseason - and likely sixth place - is a couple of wins, but the longer they wait to get them the harder it'll become. Even given the fact our next three games after the Blackhawks are Tampa at home, at Carolina and home against the Isles. We didn't exactly take care of business Friday against a horrid Maple Leafs team, despite outshooting Toronto 46-17 we still managed to lose a shootout and drop a point.

Even if the Devils manage to beat a couple of those teams and limp into the postseason playing .500 hockey, how long can they last playing like this, Florida or no Florida in the first round? I've seen too many times in recent years where the Devils have coasted into the postseason and their opponent has come in hot and beat us as a result.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Down the home stretch

With just nine or fewer games left for everyone in the NHL, now is truly the final push towards the playoffs. Ironically, right now there's more drama across the river as the Rangers try desperately to hang on to the #1 seed and avoid a likely first-round date with the Flyers (even if the Rangers own their Philly rivals lately). While things could change, right now the Devils look more and more solidified in the #6 seed by the day, given that they're five points plus a tiebreaker behind a streaking Flyers team for fifth, and conversely they're five points ahead of Ottawa for seventh - and Ottawa's division leader Boston isn't even ahead of us on points so really 'both' would have to pass us for Ottawa to do so.

However, for most of the season the smart money said the #6 seed would be the most desired playoff position given that a potentially weak Southeast winner would occupy the #3 seed. Recent developments have proven that theory incorrect, as the Panthers' hot streak coupled with Boston's malaise has threatened to shake up the playoff picture with the Panthers just two points and a tiebreaker behind the Stanley Cup Champs for the #2 seed. Not to mention Boston's in the middle of a West Coast trip while Florida's upcoming schedule reads like a who's who of the draft lottery (Edmonton and the Isles at home, followed by road trips to Minnesota, Montreal and Columbus).

Granted, I hate the idea of 'picking' an opponent, but avoiding one is another story. No sane Devils fan would want to play the Bruins in the first round, recent struggles or not. Yes, things are so screwy in Beantown right now that Devil and Isle reject Brian Rolston has actually been one of their better players lately. However, the champs are still a deep and strong team that beat us all four times this season and in the event we do play them in the playoffs will have sufficient motivation to beat us after Claude Julien's still-sketchy firing by Lou Lamoriello a few offseasons back.

This isn't to say the Panthers would be an easy matchup, not by a long stretch although admittedly I'd be slightly more confident in beating them with starter Jose Theodore in net than ex-Devil Scott Clemmensen, who's basically owned us since leaving here as a FA three years ago following his Cinderella season in the red and white. Both teams will have motivation in that matchup, with coach Pete DeBoer having been fired by the Panthers last offseason and having to watch with I'm sure a bit of envy as they did a total roster remake over the summer. Florida's holdovers also want to prove a point to DeBoer, especially guys like big defenseman Jason Garrison, a breakout player this year under new coach Kevin Dineen.

While the Devils use their last nine games to fine-tune for the playoffs and wait to see who they play, it's going to be a mad scramble for most of the league. John Tortorella's Rangers still hold a tenuous one-point lead over a white-hot Penguins team with both teams having nine games left, but for how long? A huge win against Detroit held off the Penguin freight train for a couple more days but with time running out, the teams' penultimate game on April 5 in Pittsburgh looms with monumental importance.

Philly looks to be the likely 'consolation' prize for the Atlantic loser, with the Flyers four points behind the Penguins and five behind the Rangers with only eight games left for them. Right now the Caps and Sabres are in a heated battle for the last playoff spot with Ottawa barely above them, as close to division leader Boston as they are to falling out of the playoffs entirely. Even Winnipeg (with a game in hand on everyone in front, though they're five points back of the Caps) and Carolina are making last-gasp pushes to get back in the mix.

Out West, I admit looking at the standings a couple weeks back I was stunned to see the Blues have the best record in the league and are in the lead for the President's Trophy, especially given the Red Wings' unbelievable home winning streak a while back. But there they are, led by Ken Hitchcock, a mortal lock for the Jack Adams this year after taking over a team with no post-lockout success at all and leading them to the top spot in the league. All this despite playing in a killer division with three other legitimate playoff teams (Nashville, Detroit and Chicago - the latter two recent Cup winners). Just four points behind them is Vancouver, a lock for either of the top two seeds after coasting to yet another Northwest title.

However, the real story out West is in the Pacific division, where four teams are within two points of each other in a dogfight for their playoff lives as the Kings, Coyotes, Stars and Sharks are doing battle with the Northwest's Avs and Flames for just three playoff spots (the #3 seed to the Pacific winner and the #7-8 seeds to the other two best teams). While the Kings' offensive woes seem to have been helped by the trade for the Blue Jackets' Jeff Carter, they're still underperforming expectations as people hoped they would be ready to take the next step after two consecutive playoff appearances. At least they're doing better than their California rivals - the Ducks, who were doomed by a nightmarish first half similar to our last year, and the Sharks, who are still in the hunt but their window may have finally slammed shut after two straight Conference Final sweeps.

While some didn't have the Stars or Avs being in the mix this year, the Stars did fall just short last year and are looking to avoid a similar fate this time around and the Avs made the playoffs two years ago but had to rebound off a dissapointing year last season. Personally I didn't have Phoenix as a contender this year after the defection of Ilya Bryzgalov to Philly but Mike Smith has stepped in to fill the goaltender void and Dave Tippett's club continues to defy the critics - though they face a tough challenge down the stretch with captain Shane Doan serving out a three-game suspension. On the outskirts are Calgary, with the current eighth seeded Stars being ahead of them by two points with a game in hand as coach Brent Sutter seeks to avoid missing the playoffs for the third (and likely last) straight time since going 'home'.

Whatever happens, it surely won't be boring with just fifteen days left until the end of the regular season. I'll be at the Devils-Toronto game tonight hoping the Devils can find their goalscoring after a recent drought of five goals scored in their last five games - of which we were fortunate to win two of them (while scoring a combined one goal in those games). Maybe we can finally pick up our scoring against a Leafs team that's packed it in as evidenced by their 8-0 loss against the Bruins and 5-2 loss to the Islanders in the last week. Or maybe some other no-name goalie will steal the show against us.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Battle Preview: Red Wings visit MSG tonight

Hockey Town meets Broadway tonight at The Garden. Two Original Sixes the Red Wings and Rangers meet for the final time this season. Granted. They only play twice a year.

For Blueshirt fanatics, it's a chance to see one of the game's premier players in Pavel Datsyuk, who just returned a couple of games ago from a knee scope. And in my view, the best overall player in the game with apologies to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Datsyuk will never put up the gaudy numbers of either Pen star but he is the most complete player who magnifies with his blend of skating, skill, grit and attention to detail. He also is clean compared to his Russian comrade who will win the Hart in a runaway.

While the Pens continue to chase us for the top spot, the Wings are slumping due to health. Without Nick Lidstrom and a banged up Jimmy Howard, they're not the same. However, anytime the Rangers face them, it usually results in a loss. So, they better come ready. John Tortorella's club is fresh off the emotional 4-2 win over the Devils with plenty of discussion about the game's start. While Tort and Pete DeBoer exchanged barbs, it's time to put the hard hat on and get back to business.

The Rangers may get back Artem Anisimov, who declared that he felt great this morning. If so, I can't see how Mats Zuccarello stays out of the lineup. He's been a spark offensively, particularly on the power play and is playing more physical given his small stature. It's hard to say what I'd do with the lineup. I don't think you mess with chemistry. Keep RGH and USA together. Maybe slide Anisimov on the fourth line in place of Ruslan Fedotenko, who's not 100 percent. That would give the fourth line some skill while allowing Zucc to remain with Brian Boyle and John Mitchell.

Figure the blueline to stay the same with Tim Erixon in for Steve Eminger while Henrik Lundqvist should start against Ty Conklin. On paper, it seems like a mismatch. But given our history against backup goalies, the Rangers can't take anything for granted. Especially against the skilled Wings who still boast Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Valtteri Filppula, Jiri Hudler and bruiser Nik Kronwall with Darren Helm and Johan Franzen sidelined. In other words, expect it to be competitive. Detroit has a lot of pride and want to get back on track.

The game will be another 7:30 start on NBC Sports Network with probably Doc Emrick calling the action. I'll be lucky if I catch any as I am heading into work now. Should be a good one.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Blueshirts answer Devils challenge

Maybe it was fitting. How else could one describe "Line Brawl" three seconds out of the gate between blood rivals, the Devils and Rangers? At least in the final regular season installment of the Battle Of Hudson, blood was shed at the opening faceoff between two teams who can't stand each other. Whatever side you're on, it was old-time hockey that would've made Paul Newman's Reggie Dunlap character proud.

How else to explain defenseman Stu Bickel taking the first draw against Ryan Carter which predictably led to six players squaring off side by side. Aside from Bickel and Carter throwing heymakers, the participants included Brandon Prust and Cam Janssen pairing off while Mike Rupp and Eric Boulton danced, creating the NHL version of Slap Shot to NBC Sports Network in front of a national audience. I'm not sure how well it went over but for those at The Garden, it was riveting in a bizarre fashion. Truth is the majority of hockey fans love fighting. Scripted or not, the entire crowd got into it. And there were enough Devil jerseys there too.

Do I support staged fights? Unequivocally, no. I'm going to side with resident Jersey blogger Hasan, who gave a good account on why it was a mistake from Devil coach Pete DeBoer to start his enforcers. Anytime the visiting coach turns in a lineup that features two noted goons and one bruiser who put Brandon Dubinsky out of action for a bit, they're asking for it. While it's more of a challenge than anything, especially after how the Devils manhandled us earlier this month in Newark, you have to answer the bell. And so a couple of days removed from real boxing upstairs at The Theater in a traditional St. Patrick's Day MSG special seen on HBO by me and Pop, the capacity crowd got treated to an old fashioned downeybrook.

The positive out of the three entertaining scraps is that there were no more the rest of the way. It also eliminated the cheap shots that have become all too common in today's game. For those who want fighting out, even if this was a negative example for the league due to John Tortorella countering with his tough guys, it still supports why we have it. Both teams got the rough stuff out of the way and then hockey was played. Given the bad blood dating back to our December visit along with the Devils last month that included Boulton going after Marian Gaborik following a goal, it was gonna happen. I'd say lay the blame on both coaches and move on. There was no way a fuming Tort, who screamed obscenities no matter what he said could start our skill guys against DeBoer's lineup. He wanted to push us around. You can't tolerate that on home turf.

The Rangers responded better to the challenge that also cost Devil blueliner Bryce Salvador a misconduct for justifiably jumping in to save fallen teammate Carter, who Bickel kept pounding. Definitely something I didn't agree with. Once a guy's down, you stop. End of story. As for what ensued, it didn't take long for Dubinsky to take advantage of a four-on-two, beating Martin Brodeur low stick-side, firing us up even more. To be in the building for what easily was the best crowd of the season made it worth the price of admission. And we again had our 50 percent off for the obstructed view in Sec.411 with new areas visible for big screens they'll be installing for next Fall. Considering the price is staying under 30 bucks for '12-13 and we're getting a 10 percent playoff discount by March 26, the Garden actually deserves to be commended for turning an ugly situation into a great one. That and ten dollar food vouchers per seat has been nice. Especially on a hot night where $5 water bottles came in handy. :P

It was pretty clear that the Blueshirts played their most inspired hockey in weeks. They flat out dominated the first, outshooting the Devils 13-6 and outchancing them by a mile. Maybe something good did come out of the Colorado loss. They forechecked, finished checks and got shots through on a shaky Brodeur, who still saved his team's bacon later on. Say this for both goalies. Neither was particularly sharp with both Marty and Henrik Lundqvist allowing a pair of soft goals. Dubinsky's wasn't. If not for a few big saves from Brodeur, his team probably would've trailed by three instead of one.

Tortorella reconstructed the third and fourth lines, finally breaking up Prust and Brian Boyle, who recently along with Ruslan Fedotenko had struggled. Instead, Boyle played with John Mitchell and Mats Zuccarello, who notched a power play goal and played well. Meanwhile, Prust formed a crash line with Rupp and Fedotenko that forechecked and was defensively responsible. The top two lines stayed intact with the RGH line (Richards-Gaborik-Hagelin) and USA line (Dubinsky-Stepan-Callahan) doing their part. The nice aspect of last night was they didn't rely on Gaborik who couldn't find the range on a great chance. As usual, Carl Hagelin was on the scoresheet with two helpers. You could give him a star almost every time out due his combination of speed, skill and grit that drives opponents nuts.

It was Hagelin who rode a Devil off the puck before finding Dan Girardi for a routine wrister that eluded Brodeur, going off his stick and skate for a two-goal lead 33 seconds into the second. Before they got too comfortable, the Devils cut the lead in half when all-time leading scorer Patrik Elias found the shortside on a Petr Sykora feed. By that point, they'd turned it up with relentless pressure and got just reward even if it wasn't a good goal for Lundqvist to allow.

On this night, the Devils were their own worst enemy. Two undisciplined penalties came back to haunt them. The first on Boulton for boarding Zuccarello hurt any momentum when the feisty Norwegian got to a Brad Richards rebound for his second two and a half minutes later- restoring a two-goal lead. Callahan netted a primary helper by deflecting it off Brodeur for a juicy rebound that MZA deposited. The second two-goal lead lasted less than four minutes with Sykora somehow beating Lundqvist in an identical spot. Marek Zidlicky and Ilya Kovalchuk drew assists. On the first, he was without a stick. This one was unforgivable. Hank fought it all night, leaking rebounds. Good thing our D cleared the garbage.

The rest of the second saw the Devils press for the equalizer, including a golden opportunity with Dubinsky taking a needless boarding minor. However, the penalty killing unit marked Kovalchuk, who on a previous power play got off three one-timers in succession with the last gloved by Lundqvist. Ironically, the man who got the assignment Boyle talked to Pierre McGuire after the win. Kovalchuk tried his best to find room but either had his shots blocked or overpassed. At even strength, he found it difficult against Ryan McDonagh, who again effectively neutralized one of the most dangerous scorers. Adam Henrique had trouble and Zach Parise outside of a couple of strong shifts following a DeBoer timeout, was held in check.

One of the themes in this game was the Rangers' attention to detail, winning the neutral zone battle in the first and most of the third. Our guys became sloppy in the second and it almost cost. Not surprisingly, they tightened up the screws. In fact, the Devils couldn't mount anything during the first half which led to DeBoer's timeout with still over 11 minutes remaining. His team responded with better shifts, pinning our D in. Particularly Marc Staal, who was a step behind. Mike Del Zotto wasn't much sharper but was quicker at least. Stu Bickel had some shaky moments too. Oddly enough, rookie recall Tim Erixon didn't panic. David Clarkson did some good stuff on the cycle for the black and red but was checked properly and took a couple of big hits. Even though I can't stand him, he's a player you have to contain because he does a lot of things for the Devs.

A McDonagh trip with 11:22 left gave the Devils another chance. They never came close due to outstanding PK work from usual suspects Boyle/Prust along with Stepan and Callahan. Hagelin also was good. Girardi excelled and Staal played his best down a man with McDonagh in the box. Following the kill, a loud "Let's Go Rangers" chant went up. There were plenty of those for once. A pleasant welcome on a night they became the first Eastern team to wrap up a playoff berth, joining St. Louis out West.

Soon, the Blueshirts picked it up and started taking away center ice, forcing the Devils into several turnovers. Some came in their own end, leading to odd-man breaks. On more than a handful, our guys overpassed with even Dubinsky on a day he notched his eighth (2nd in 20) passing up a shot. When will they ever learn? There also was another sequence which seemed destined to be a goal but a sliding Brodeur stoned them. Gaborik and Boyle also whistled chances from 10 feet out wide.

Finally with New Jersey putting one last rush together, Jacob Josefson hi-sticked Callahan while trying to keep a play alive putting his team shorthanded with only three and a half left. Predictably, our team decided to go four corners and wait for a dangerous shorthanded club that boasts Henrique, Parise, Elias and even Kovalchuk to generate chances. Luckily, Salvador couldn't keep a puck in to save his life or who knows. When it was finally concluding, Dubinsky did the wise thing and shot with Stepan deflecting home his 16th for 4-2 with 70 seconds to go.

As the final buzzer sounded, the season series was done. The Rangers prevailed 3-2-1 but were outscored 14-12. I think NHL Network had the shots as being nearly dead even, favoring us by one. These teams are evenly matched. While it looks like a long shot for the first round, an Eastern Conference Semifinal against the Devils would be great theater. I don't think we've seen the last of them.

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Mats Zuccarello, NYR (power play goal-2nd of season, 3 SOG, 3 hits, spunky in 16 shifts-13:37)
2nd Star-Martin Brodeur, NJD (23 saves, including some big ones)
1st Star-Brandon Dubinsky, NYR (8th of season, assist, 5 hits, 8-5 on draws, +2 in 17:57)

Notes: The physical affair saw a  combined 56 penalty minutes (NJD-33, NYR-23) 64 hits (NJD-23, NYR-41) and 22 blocked shots (NJD-9, NYR-13). ... D Steve Eminger sat out a second straight due to injury with Tim Erixon (Even in 15 shifts-12:29) effectively replacing him. ... Lundqvist finished with 20 saves, picking up his 33rd victory. ... C Artem Anisimov (shoulder) missed another game and is a "game-time decision" for tomorrow versus Detroit. ... Devils scratched RW Steve Bernier. ... New Jersey visits Ottawa tonight with three points separating them from the seventh seeded Senators. The Devils have 87 while the Sens have 84. ... Rangers conclude homestand with two against Detroit and Buffalo.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Devils' goon tactics come back to bite them at MSG

I'm sure Derek will be around later with a more detailed recap of tonight's chippy 4-2 Rangers win at MSG that split the season series for both teams (well technically the Rangers 'won' it by a point since they were 3-2-1 while we were 3-3) and are making the Devils' last nine games more exciting than they need to be, but I just wanted to talk about a couple of pet peeves of mine - one in general, one specific to coach Pete DeBoer, but they're both related tonight.

Of course, I'm talking about the stupid opening sequence where for the third time this season, there was a fight within the first five seconds of the game, and multiple fights for the second straight game at MSG. I'm fine with fights in the course of the game, usually they're done to change the momentum or to avenge hits but doing it at the drop of the opening faceoff is obviously premeditated - and to me that's the kind of fighting I don't like. As much as Henry Winkler on the Ranger bench wanted to scream and stare down DeBoer, John Tortorella was equally as culpable, since he was the one that started the fourth line when Mike Rupp and Cam Janssen fought at the Rock a couple of months back and he was the one that put his fourth line out to counter our fourth line.

Not only is premeditated fighting at the opening faceoff dumb, but doing it when you've beaten the Rangers the last two times and they're coming in slumping is beyond dumb. Especially in front of their home crowd. After our last win against them, the Rangers' Brian Boyle said 'they (the Devils) wanted to kill us, we need to match that intensity'. What better way to get your opponents fired up than to stage a mass triple fight at the opening faceoff on their ice with Janssen, Eric Boulton and Ryan Carter all squaring off with counterparts Brandon Prust, Rupp and Stu Bickel? Those theatrics gave an angry Tort an excuse to go off on DeBoer and predictably, the Rangers scored soon after through Brandon Dubinsky and swarmed us the entire first period.

After Martin Brodeur let in a soft goal from Dan Girardi early in the second, the game looked all but over but fortunately the Devils came to life with goals in the second period from Patrik Elias and Petr Sykora. Sykora's goal in fact came shortside, an unusually bad goal for Henrik Lundqvist to allow against us (or anyone really this season). Even after getting back in the game however, DeBoer's goon fascination came back to bite us again when Boulton took another stupid penalty and Mats Zucarello scored a goal on the ensuing power play that proved to be decisive.

It was this penalty that annoyed me almost as much as the stupid fight sequence itself. When we signed both Boulton and Janssen simaltaneously in the offseason, I figured maybe one would play and one would be a healthy scratch or Janssen would be in Albany, since he was signed to a two-way deal. I never dreamed we would have a lineup where they both played at the same time, but our head coach has a fascination with Goon Central I can't understand. When the Rangers play Prust and Rupp, well they're fourth-liners that can actually play hockey. Despite his odd hat trick against us last year, Boulton's shown zero in terms of hockey skill this year and Janssen never has.

Yet, DeBoer continues to play both at the same time and every time he does the fourth line is the worst in the league. From Janssen's screwups against Vancouver and Tampa to Boulton's dumb penalties like tonight, having staged fights is not worth dressing two players who are collectively a -20 with one single point in 92 games combined. Not only are you playing bad hockey players, but you run up the icetime of Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise and Patrik Elias, all averaging at least two-three minutes more than they have in recent years. Is it any wonder they're looking tired at the end of season or the end of games so frequently?

With the lead, the Rangers' third period became much different than it would have been in a tie. Predictably they put up Fort Knox up in front of Lundqvist and the Devils resumed their recent clinic in overpassing and finding ways not to put the puck on net, and eventually another penalty from Jacob Josefson late led to a Derek Stepan goal that put the game on ice.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Rangers flattened by Varlamov Avalanche

Copyright Getty Images

An Avalanche struck MSG tonight. At least it wasn't a real one with a virtuoso performance on display from Colorado netminder Semyon Varlamov. The Russian was brilliant in making 41 saves to backstop the Avs past the Rangers 3-1. It was our second straight defeat and now the sizzling Pens are two points out with their extra game tomorrow versus hated Pennsylvania rival Philly. After the way they manhandled the Devils as Hasan noted here, it looks like it's a foregone conclusion that they'll tie us by Monday when we host New Jersey.

The way it's gone for both Hudson rivals this week, there should be an awful lot of blood at stake in the final regular season meeting tomorrow. One which we'll be at in Section 411. To be perfectly blunt, both teams need the game. The Devils to stay afloat in the race for fourth or fifth and the Blueshirts if they want to fight off the Pens for the top spot. Considering that the Flyers picked up a brownie point in a shootout loss at Boston, we're only five points ahead of them. Yes. Unfortunately, it really is time to start scoreboard watching. Especially if the Rangers continue their inconsistency.

However, they couldn't be faulted for last night. Not the way they battled against a desperate Colorado club locked in a crazy five-team race (or is it six) out West. Trailing thanks to a Gabriel Landeskog deflection that steered the visitors in front, the Rangers threw everything but the kitchen sink at the former Cap netminder who the Avalanche gave up a first round pick for. They fired 14 of 41 shots in the third but never found a way past Varlamov, who was a human brick wall. Ironically enough as one of our fans tweeted, he did the same thing to us once in the playoffs. Never the less, it still was impressive how well he saw the puck. Even through traffic and miraculously good power plays, Varlamov was the difference.

“I think their goalie kind of saved the day for them,” Henrik Lundqvist said afterwards in the loser's locker room. “We played really well. We created a lot of chances. If we just get another goal, maybe two more goals, I think we’d all sit in here and feel pretty good about ourselves.”

Far from displeased after his team outshot Colorado 42-19, John Tortorella thought it was one of our best efforts. Ironically Lundqvist (17 saves), Ryan Callahan (7 SOG, 25+ mins) and Mike Del Zotto (25:20) all returned. Only Artem Anisimov sat out with a shoulder injury sustained in a loss to Pittsburgh. Gee. Who else would it come against? Despite being healthier, they only could muster one goal and it didn't come from the RHG line (Richards-Hagelin-Gaborik). But rather recently recalled Mats Zuccarello, who tipped in a Dan Girardi pass for his first of the season. He saw a lot of power play time late and also nearly tied it off a faceoff win, only to see his shot ring off the post. Zuccarello makes things happen, which is why it's ridiculous that it took this long to recall him. He adds more skill which our team sorely lacks.

Sorry. But Brandon Dubinsky ain't getting it done. Oh. The try is always there with him making a good rush and shot only to see Varlamov harmlessly glove it the same way he robbed Ryan McDonagh earlier. McDonagh's shot came with traffic and was labeled that the athletic netminder grabbed. Such is life when you face a hot goalie at this time of year. Teams are more desperate and that's what we're seeing with our team dropping five of its last seven. They still have time to right the ship. The playoffs are a certainty. Home ice is still in their grasp. It's up to them.

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Jan Hejda, Col (28 shifts-23:10 vs top line, 3 hits, 4 blocked shots)
2nd Star-Gabriel Landeskog, Col (game winning goal-21st of season at 9:51 of 2nd)
1st Star-Semyon Varlamov, Col (41 saves incl. 14/14 in 3rd)

Notes: As speculated, D Tim Erixon returned from Connecticut and took 12 shifts, finishing minus-one in 9:57. ... Anisimov and Steve Eminger sat out. ... C Derek Stepan has a six-game goal drought and only one point during that span. He started the month hot with a four-game point streak but hasn't been the same since Tortorella switched lines. Perhaps he should try Zuccarello next game over Dubinsky. With his next point, Stepan will surpass his rookie total. He's 15-30-45 in 71 GP. ... Landeskog's goal put him in first by a point over the Devils' Adam Henrique.

                                        GP   PTS
1.Landeskog, Avs             74   47
2.Henrique, Devs              64   46
3.Nugent-Hopkins, Oilers  51   45
4.Read, Flyers                  68   41
5.Hagelin, Rangers            53   35

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Current Devils nowhere to be found on Retro Afternoon

Fortunately, I missed the last two Devils games on Tuesday and Thursday for the most part, other than being able to tune on the radio for parts of the Avs game Thursday. I say fortunately because the Devils didn't score a goal in either game, though a shutout by Martin Brodeur and another skills competition success enabled them to escape Thursday's game with the two points at least and keep up their place in the standings - if not their strong play of the previous week.

Today there was nowhere for me to hide though, as part of a sellout crowd on hand to witness Retro Night, or afternoon as it were with a 1 PM start. As in the past two years, the Devils wore their retro red and green jerseys on St. Patty's Day. Just like last year, old PA announcer Bob Arsena was on hand to announce the starting lineups, goals and penalties. And unlike last year, where there were no goals against the Caps - this time we actually scored a couple, giving us the nice suprise of this year's game...hearing the CAA goal horn again. After hearing rumors that the NJSEA held the rights to the goal horn and wouldn't let us use it, this was certainly unexpected.

However, those were about the only positive developments from tonight's game, which was an utter disaster even more than the 5-2 score would suggest. Yes, the Penguins are the hottest team in the NHL right now and look like a machine that's striking fear into the NHL the way the old Soviet teams loomed over international hockey in the '70's and '80's. Still, that's no excuse for being outshot 44-14 and basically showing up for five minutes of the game. The 5-2 scoreline made the game seem twice as close as it was. For giving up five goals, Brodeur actually had an outstanding game for the most part, making several spectacular saves including a Chris Kunitz penalty shot in the first couple of minutes.

In a sign of things to come however, the stop on Kunitz was followed immediately by a one-timer goal from James Neal off the ensuing faceoff. Apparently there's some clause in the CBA that doesn't require the Devils to show up for afternoon games, since they've stunk the joint out on more than one matinee this year and were outshot by a whopping 14-2 to start this game. Even Andy Greene's goal late in the first period that somehow got us tied at the end of twenty minutes did little to stem the tide that was coming.

Brodeur gave up his one bad goal of the game off a rocket from Pascal Dupuis from the boards midway through the second. Yes, that broke the game open but Brodeur had been the only thing keeping the dam from bursting in the first place. It was just a matter of time before the Pens broke through - one way or another. Within the span of two and a half minutes, it was 4-1. First, Matt Cooke's skate directed a pass past Brodeur and the goal call on the ice stood after review. Then on a power play, Evgeni Malkin got his fortieth of the season on a tap-in in front. Right then, it was already too late.

Our only legitimately good run of the game came in the first five minutes of the third, as the Devils briefly restored hope when Petr Sykora scored off a rebound to cut the deficit to 4-2. However, rookie Adam Larsson got beat like a drum - again - and Cooke cashed in his second of the game, sealing the deal at 5:56 of the third. Our dirty little secret is that right now Matt Taormina is a better defenseman than Larsson, whose play has regressed since getting whomped by P.K.Subban. However, sending Larsson down to the AHL at this point isn't possible, and healthy scratching him (apart from giving him a day or two off, which I would support) when the playoffs are all but assured anyway would be a bit counterproductive - now. I hope coach Pete DeBoer does what's right by the team if Larsson's still struggling in the playoffs.

Misconduct penalties by Eric Boulton, David Clarkson and Steve Bernier only served to crystalize the Devils' frustration. Even though the last ten games of the season are only going to be about seeding, since even home-ice in the first round is a longshot at this point, it would be nice if the team remembered how to score goals before the playoffs started. Not to mention getting their power play going again, after it had seemingly got on track with the acquisition of Marek Zidlicky, they've regressed back to early-season form of too much passing and not enough shooting in recent games.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Healthy Pens overmatch Blueshirts in Sid's return

It was billed as Sid's Return Part II. But really had a lot to do with the Pens' top defender Kris Letang, who was a bigger factor in Pittsburgh's 5-2 win over the Blueshirts. Letang finished plus-five along with an assist while teammate Sidney Crosby helped set up two of the Pens' five goals en route to their 10th consecutive win, cutting the Ranger lead to four.

Crosby was good in 16 minutes, flashing off the gamebreaking speed and playmaking that's made him the game's best player. Though he got plenty of help from Evgeni Malkin (goal, dominant), Matt Cooke (2 goals), Pascal Dupuis (goal) and Chris Kunitz (goal), who did damage on the scoreboard. James Neal and Steve Sullivan each had a pair of assists as the healthier team was too much for the Rangers at The Garden.

Aside from their lead down to four, there has to be concern about how they've been handled by the Pens, who after dropping the first two, have taken three straight in the season series with one more left that could very well decide the division and top seed. The theme has been the same with Pittsburgh jumping in front quickly and then controlling the tempo with puck possession, making our team chase throughout. Against a talented team who also boasts their own elite goalie in much overlooked Marc-Andre Fleury (29 saves), you just can't fall behind. Finally intact, the Pens are deeper than anyone and are the favorites to come out of the East even if Boston's the defending champ. You wouldn't know it lately.

It would've been nice to have Ryan Callahan, Henrik Lundqvist and Mike Del Zotto for last night but it's more imperative for them to be 100 percent down the stretch. Despite taking the morning skate, Lundqvist rested due to the flu. Marty Biron (27 saves) wasn't bad. Early on, he kept us in the game with some big stops and really couldn't be faulted on the Pens' first three, which exposed terrible D lapses. However, with our team fighting back down 3-2 thanks to Marian Gaborik's 35th late in the second, he allowed a backbreaking goal to Kunitz right as a Pittsburgh power play expired. It killed any momentum and Dupuis soon put it away on a broken play.

The Pens were quicker to the puck and deserved what they got. Crosby centered a third line flanked by Cooke and Tyler Kennedy (2 helpers). He drew a penalty and created space for unguarded linemates. How else to explain the horrible gap that Kennedy had to find Cooke at the doorstep for his second that came 72 seconds after Malkin undressed Ryan McDonagh for his 39th? McDonagh had one of his worst showings, getting outmuscled by Kennedy on the first Penguin goal to Cooke that set the tone. John Tortorella eventually switched McDonagh and Marc Staal, who was reunited with Dan Girardi while Ryan worked with Stu Bickel.

In a game like yesterday's, you can't get away with playing seventh defensemen like Anton Stralman and Steve Eminger. Tortorella was forced to use them due to the schedule. He's no longer overusing Girardi, who needs to stay fresh for the postseason. The numbers were ugly with our top four going a combined minus-nine. Del Zotto was missed. So too was Mike Sauer, who we probably won't see again till the Fall hopefully. Brian Boyle and Brandon Prust tried but went minus-five. Both continue to play through pain due to how much they sacrifice. There's no way you can match them against a top line right now. But Tort continues to while trying to find a spark for slumping Derek Stepan, who worked well with Brandon Dubinsky on a few shifts in the second. Unfortunately, Artem Anisimov didn't return for the third due to a bad shoulder from a hit. Just what they need. Another key player hurt. Hopefully, it's not too bad.

Both our goals came from who else but the line of Carl Hagelin, Brad Richards and Gaborik. They've been everything. I erred the other night when I said they combined for seven points. The correct total was nine. My apologies. After the Pens dominated the first half of period one, Hagelin continued his brilliant play when he combined with Richards and Gaborik for his 14th, which he buried top shelf from in front. Fourteen goals and 21 assists for the former sixth round pick, who studied four years under Red Berenson at Michigan. Can you say gem?

For the most part, our team stayed disciplined only taking three penalties. However, Bickel's hi-sticking double minor hurt because the Pens basically scored on it thanks to a nifty Crosby backhand feed for Kunitz, whose shortside shot eluded Biron. The rough Prust picked up in the first was a good penalty cause he took the body on Malkin, who of course retaliated with a two-handed to the face. No penalty was called. Unbelievable. We'll just leave it at that.

There was also a missed elbow on Pitt bruiser Deryk Engelland. Ironically, right before Hagelin tied it, Brooks Orpik punched Gaborik. Maybe it was poetic justice that they scored. It's not like our power play would've done the job. Though they did get two opportunities against one of the best penalty killing units, who made it 23 for their last 23. There just aren't many flaws with the Pens. Not when they can roll out a Norris caliber defenseman in Letang and one of the best defensive blueliners in Orpik. Zbynek Michalek is probably their most underappreciated. Even Paul Martin has picked it up. When you boast Jordan Staal as your third center, you are loaded. They will be a handful this Spring.

The bigger questions center on Crosby and Letang, who both have concussion history. They'll get tested. Even if Sid told reporters afterwards that he rested more than his first comeback where he ramped up the physical play. As dominant as Malkin is and Fleury, the Pens would be hard pressed to win without Crosby and Letang. Though I'm of the belief that Letang is the most valuable Pen because of how he can control a game. There are few better.

As for our Blueshirts, it's back at it tomorrow when the stingy Avs visit. In case you missed it, J.S. Giguere and Martin Brodeur turned back the clock to '03 with each pitching a shutout. The Devils prevailed in the shootout with Ilya Kovalchuk getting his record seventh skill competition decider. Just dandy. Figure Semyon Varlamov to be back in on St. Patrick's Day against Lundqvist, who should be ready to go.

Both Callahan and Del Zotto practiced this morning. Whether they're ready to go remains to be seen. In the mean time, we'll probably see Mats Zuccarello again. He was robbed by Fleury on a great chance. I hope the flashy Norwegian sticks. Here's hoping we see Tim Erixon before too long.

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Carl Hagelin, NYR (14th goal, 21st assist-5 Pts in last 2 GP)
2nd Star-Kris Letang, Pit (assist, +5 in 24 shifts-24:42)
1st Star-Evgeni Malkin, Pit (39th of season, 8 SOG, +2, 5-1-6 vs NYR in '11-12)

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Richards smokes Canes

Brad Richards is on fire. He scored two more and set up another in the Rangers' 4-2 win over the Hurricanes last night for the club's second consecutive victory. The timing couldn't be more perfect with Ryan Callahan, Mike Del Zotto and Henrik Lundqvist all out. Lundqvist wasn't available due to the flu. So, the club recalled Chad Johnson as an emergency backup to Marty Biron, who had one of his best games since the calendar year turned. He finished with 27 saves, including a handful of big ones early.

Since being reunited with Marian Gaborik, Richards has found chemistry along with ever improving freshman Carl Hagelin, who recorded his first three-point game with his 13th goal and two helpers. Gaborik also notched his club best 34th as the line scored all four goals, combining for seven points. Gaborik got it started when he took a favorable carom (ironic eh) and steered home No.34 at 3:02. Dan Girardi's wide shot went right to him and his goal put him in a four-way tie for third behind runaway Rocket Richard leader Steven Stamkos (49 & 50 yesterday) and the Pens' Evgeni Malkin, who visits along with Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang tomorrow in a big showdown. The Rangers will take a six-point lead for the conference lead into the anticipated match-up.

Following Gaborik's tally, Carolina made life difficult on Biron due in part to a Stu Bickel penalty. One of the issues during their slump has been untimely penalties. Even though the Blueshirts killed it off thanks to some outstanding netminding from Biron, they must buck the trend. In the postseason, such loss of discipline could come back to bite them. Before they knew, it the Canes led 7-4 in shots. But they finished better.

Putting some distance between them and the Canes, Richards struck twice 2:59 apart halfway through the middle stanza. On both goals, he used great patience before beating Cam Ward on feeds from Hagelin, whose rookie push will be too late to make up ground on Calder trio Adam Henrique, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Gabriel Landeskog. Richie's 22nd and 23rd made it five goals over the last four. A great response by the vet who I called out following last week's Devil disappointment. He finally is seeing the ice well and shooting at the right time, which will make us a much better club the rest of the way.

Before they could relax, a bad penalty from Mats Zuccarello led to Tim Brent breaking the shutout on a neat deflection from Eric Staal and Jeff Skinner. One thing about the Canes. They play hard for Kirk Muller, who looks more and more like a great hire along with former Devil coach/current assistant John MacLean. They won't make the playoffs this season but should be competitive for years to come. Drayson Bowman made it two goals 32 seconds apart when he finished off a Brandon Sutter feed, stunning the crowd. Just like that, a three-goal lead became one with still four-plus minutes left. The Canes nearly tied it on a four-on-two rush but a big stop from Biron denied Staal.

Biron did the job until Hagelin tallied with seven minutes to go in the third. On the play, Ward had just denied Gaborik but he quickly fed Hagelin who snuck in from behind the net and surprised the scrambling former Conn Smythe winner with a wraparound. Both Gaborik and Richards picked up their 30th assists. It would be enough to hold off the Canes.

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Martin Biron, NYR (27 saves for emergency win)
2nd Star-Brad Richards, NYR (2nd straight 2-goal game-22nd, 23rd, assist)
1st Star-Carl Hagelin, NYR (13th of season, 2 assists for 1st career 3-point game)

Notes: Hagelin has points in four of his last six (2-4-6) with a plus-six rating. He leads all rookies with a plus-23 and is tied with the Flyers' Sean Couturier for second in shorthanded goals (2) behind the Devils' Henrique (4). Of the rookie top eight scorers, only Nugent-Hopkins has played fewer games (49) than Hagelin (51). ... Richards has a four-game point streak (5-3-8) and has registered a point in six of eight games this month. He's 5-6-11 in 8 GP after finishing February 2-7-9 in 13 GP. ... Gaborik has six points (2-4-6) over his last three. He has seven goals over the last 11. ... It was the first time in seven games the Blueshirts permitted less than two goals also doing it on Mar.1 against the same Canes in a 3-2 win.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Great Gabby delivers

The Rangers were in dire need of something. Entering last night's final regular season match versus the blood rival Islanders, they came in on a three-game skid, doomed by two third period collapses along with a no show at Jersey when the streak began. With the Pens nipping at their heels after posting another win to creep within two, the Broadway Blueshirts got peak performances from their stars to end the frustration in a thrilling 4-3 overtime win over the Islanders.

Whenever these teams get together, throw the records aside. Truthfully, the Isles are much improved this season. If not for a couple of awful finishes, including the Devil backbreaker a day earlier, we could be talking about all three metro area teams making the playoffs. Heck. The entire Atlantic for good measure. Sometimes, luck is a strange thing. Otherwise, Anders Nilsson would have two shutouts over the surging Devils. Instead, the Islanders did what they usually do, picking themselves up and giving our team trouble. Oh. Not in the way of shots with the Rangers doubling up in that department. But just being opportunistic to make this one part of the crazy rivalry.

The fun started minutes in when Michael Haley and Stu Bickel exchanged bombs during an entertaining scrap that got the building up. Haley was subbing for hit machine Matt Martin. You knew he'd battle someone. Bickel is always willing to go and certainly looks like our sixth D if Tim Erixon is recalled. Right now, Bickel has played better than Anton Stralman and Steve Eminger, who didn't see the light of day in the third. I admire Bickel for his toughness. Never afraid to take the body, he brings needed edge to our lineup. Without Mike Sauer, there's not enough of it to a blueline that's slumped.

Not shockingly, Henrik Lundqvist's play has also dipped. Sunday marked the fourth consecutive game he allowed three-or-more goals. He admitted afterwards that he fought it a bit but still came up large when the Rangers needed him. Oddly enough, our team hasn't been allowing many shots. Lundqvist was on the hook for three goals on 18 shots during regulation. Fortunately, his teammates had his back, which was refreshing.

The Islanders had us behind early when John Tavares banged home a P.A. Parenteau rebound for his 28th. The rush saw some nice passing as they flew past the Brian Boyle line, who weren't up to par defensively. Considering what John Tortorella said afterwards about Boyle playing hurt, it's no wonder his play has suffered. The culprit in Chicago who fumbled a puck that turned into a Hawks' Globetrotter set up for Patrick Sharp, has struggled mightily in his end. Why Tort tried to match Boyle, Brandon Prust and Ruslan Fedotenko versus the blazing Isles' top trio of Tavares, Parenteau and Matt Moulson was anyone's guess. They had issues all night defensively. The nice aspect for a character guy like Boyle, who I do like is that even with his shortcomings that also included an undisciplined boarding on Tavares, he always fights. It came in handy.

One of the guys I've been all over is Brad Richards. On this night with myself, Dad, Justin and Mike in 411, Richards was outstanding. He had one of his best games of the year, scoring twice and setting up Marian Gaborik's dramatic OT winner. You could tell from the outset that he had it going. Perhaps ending a goal drought with a late one in the recent 4-3 loss to the Hawks was enough to reinstill confidence. Sometimes, even a garbage goal can get a key star back on track. He also skated with constant Carl Hagelin and Brandon Dubinsky, who returned in place of banged up Ryan Callahan. Callahan is still not 100 percent from the shot he blocked in the Devil loss. Better to rest him. Mike Del Zotto also sat out again with a sore hip.

Despite trailing on the scoreboard, the Rangers generated plenty against Evgeni Nabokov, who made some sparkling saves. He finished with 32. A couple of Islander penalties late in the first finally resulted in Richards knotting the score. For what seems like forever, I've begged him to shoot due to his halitzer. This time as I joked sarcastically about our power play issues, he went end to end and beat Nabokov with a wrister with 1:13 left. I turned away when it happened and had to duck down to see the replay. No Islander touched Richards. It was brutal. They gave assists to Lundqvist and Stralman for breathing on the puck. :P

Despite outshooting them 11-5, it was tied. A loss of discipline from one of our most clean players ended up biting us a few minutes into the second. Stepan highsticked Parenteau, who got caught high and went down for a few minutes. It was kinda scary. I like to refer to him as PA Lemieux because when he faces us, that's who he turns into. Plus he is gonna command a lot on the open market. After skating to the locker room and missing a good chunk of the double minor, Parenteau returned. The guy has 46 assists. Must be fun playing with talent.

With our team having an inspired penalty kill, they were seconds away from getting it done. There were even "Let's Go Rangers" chants. Something that wasn't common. The atmosphere sucked. Too many people who came in late and couldn't find their seats. Not only that but they also would just go back to them while play was going on. Whatever happened to wait for the whistle? This is what Dolan wants. Great vision. :\ In any event, the Isles caught a huge break when Moulson banked home his 29th off a Mark Streit wild shot that caromed off the back boards. If it were comedy, our home ice played a bad joke. At that point, I was thinking, 'Not even our arena can help.'

Trailing again, the Rangers kept coming. The play of Mats Zucarello, who I've been begging for, was good. The pint sized Norwegian brought some spunk along with needed skill to our power play. Given another chance, he helped set up Richards' second with some smart play along the boards. Taking a pass from Gaborik, I yelled for Richards to shoot and he obliged by whistling one past a screened Nabokov. It was Boyle's big body that made it impossible for him to pick up Richie's 21st.

Following another strong shift that forced Andrew MacDonald into a minor, a Zuccarello near miss to an open 'mate produced a gasp. Then, at the tail end, an open MZA had a wide open shot but overpassed for a tough angle. Before you knew it, the Islanders had transitioned the puck up the ice and a pass went off a skate right to MacDonald, who came out of the box and beat Lundqvist on a breakaway. Now, I get that it was a quality scoring chance but it was Andy freaking MacDonald! King Henrik has to stop him. He's delivered all year. Just humiliating.

All our momentum was gone as the Isles took a 3-2 lead into the dressing room. The one thing I love about our team is their resilience. They're never out of a game. They came hard in the third and got it tied thanks to a Boyle faceoff win to Ryan McDonagh, whose shot was deflected home by Boyle for his sixth. The kind of goal we need from his line. Prust scored in the last game too off hard work. Hopefully, it's a sign of things to come.

With the game tied again, the Blueshirts had opportunities to go ahead but Nabokov made some tough stops, including a great sprawling save on Gaborik off a set up. Still, the Islanders gave us a few scary moments late with Tavares coming close only to see Lundqvist close it up. It would go to overtime. In it, the Islanders had a couple of great chances to win. First, Moulson found Tavares open with daylight but he missed. Then, Tavares abused Stralman and dished for Frans Nielsen, who was flat out robbed by a sliding Lundqvist.

Instead, the Rangers got a break when Travis Hamonic was nabbed for tripping. There was 2:02 remaining. At that point, I'm thinking 'Our team will find a way not to score and they'll lose in the shootout.' I was almost prophetic as they bumbled the puck around as fans screamed "Shoot The Puck." As I was headed down, I caught the winner on the screen. It took until five seconds for Richards to pass for Gaborik, who ripped one high stick side on Nabokov for a great finish. His 33rd sent the home part of the rivalry out of their seats happy.

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Marian Gaborik, NYR (OT winner at 4:54-33rd of season, assist)
2nd Star-John Tavares, NYI (28th of season, assist-38)
1st Star-Brad Richards, NYR (2 PPG-#'s 20 & 21, assist, dominant)

The Puck Stops Here


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