Monday, March 5, 2012

Blueshirts eyeing the top spot

There's still a month to go but don't tell the Blueshirts. Despite a poor effort against Boston yesterday, John Tortorella's club still found a way to edge the Bruins 4-3 at The Garden- extending the division lead to 10 over Pittsburgh and pulling 12 up on the defending champs.

It didn't seem to matter that the B's doubled the Rangers in shots and chances in Sunday's NBC matinee. One which Dad and Justin attended in our seats with buddy Mike. This team finds a way. Something that you couldn't always say prior to this season. I refuse to say it's special until we see if they can replicate it this Spring. But it still amazes that a team with a very young core is where it is, fighting the Canucks, Red Wings and Blues for the league's best record. While winning the President's Trophy would be nice, let's focus on winning the division. There's still a couple of games left against the Pens, who don't lose much anymore. And they handled us the last two times. There's plenty still to play for.

A lot can change in a few weeks, which is why Tortorella will continue to hammer the point home. I doubt he was thrilled with yesterday and probably reminded them about not getting lazy. Granted. The Bruins are still the team to beat until proven otherwise. With their bruising style and aggressive attack, they will be a handful in the playoffs. Zdeno Chara gives them an edge and Milan Lucic is a royal pain in the butt as he proved at the game's conclusion, delivering a hit from behind on Ryan McDonagh, who went right back at him. Exactly the kind of response you want to see.

The game between the Original Six old hat featured three first period fights, including a pounding Lucic gave Brandon Prust following a Bruins goal. I love Prusty and what he stands for but that wasn't the wisest move challenging the big power forward, who's out of his class. Prust will take on anyone, even if he's playing on guts as when he gradually accepted Eric Boulton's challenge last week against the Devils. Sometimes, I'd like to see Prust stick to hockey. He'll be needed the rest of the way and supplies energy along with Brian Boyle and Ruslan Fedotenko. Our bottom lines boast plenty of grit with revelation John Mitchell along with bigs Mike Rupp and John Scott, who of course Boston didn't rile up.

Brandon Dubinsky responded well to Tortorella's benching by forcing overtime at Tampa with a blistering wrist shot top shelf. As our fiery coach alluded to prior to that match in which he admitted the struggling '10-11 team leading scorer wouldn't have even played had Ryan Callahan and Steve Eminger been healthy, Dubinsky needs to be part of this. Even if it's in a supporting role with Swedish rookie Carl Hagelin continuing to hold down a spot on the second line, the Rangers need the enigmatic Alaskan to be at his very best in April and May if they are to go anywhere.

While that works itself out, leading sniper Marian Gaborik continues to play more in the trenches, getting another garbage goal for his fifth over his last six Sunday. After a forgettable second year on Broadway, the Slovak has bought into Tortorella, who deserves some Jack Adams consideration even if there are better cases in St. Louis, Ottawa and Florida. Gaborik's adjustment has made us a believer. He continues to play more physical and has been the perfect complement for super soph Derek Stepan, who notched the game-winner some 38 seconds following David Krejci's goal that knotted it. Stepan has been instrumental all season. He has a knack for being in the right place at the right time kind of like a former captain from Trumbull, Connecticut who had a great career.

Even more encouraging has been the reemergence of Artem Anisimov, whose skillset is finally noticeable. He's scoring again and also one of our best defensively. Indeed, Artie always hustles back and makes good reads. So much of what happens depends on two/thirds of last year's Draft Line. You know what you'll get from Callahan, who is the unquestioned leader. In the three games without Captain Cally, the Rangers have won two but aren't as effective overall. Callahan is that one constant.

The Blueshirts are still waiting on Brad Richards, who despite a team-tying seven game-deciders, has been too much on the perimeter. He also isn't shooting the puck enough, particularly on the power play where he was supposed to help. Richie needs to find that extra gear and kick in when the games mean more. Our team can't go far without him.

The defense remains steady thanks to the reemergence of Marc Staal, who's seen increased minutes due to Mike Del Zotto, who returned Sunday after missing two with a bad hip. Staal's confidence is growing, which bodes well for the club. With ultimate warrior Dan Girardi finally springing some leaks, it'll allow Tortorella to reduce Danny G's ice-time along with Ryan McDonagh, who's been nothing short of brilliant. The last thing Tort wants to do is run his top pair into the ground. So, if the minutes go from 27-28 to 22-23, it's all the better in the long run.

As for Henrik Lundqvist, he continues to be the Vezina frontrunner despite an oddity. Consecutive games of three-or-more allowed. Expect him to be sharper when the Rangers pay a visit to Newark tomorrow night against Martin Brodeur and the Devils. The Battle Of Hudson always brings out his best. Plus the games are usually great theater. Figure it to be another barn burner with more at stake for the Devs, who haven't been firing on all cylinders. They still are in good position but need to tidy up.

The Rangers continue to impress with their resiliency. It's been a trademark this season. That'll be the key if they are to finish atop the East and give the Garden Faithful a fun ride this Spring.

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