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?

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