Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Anatomy of a wild Devils shootout win

Generally as fans you tend to get more emotional with each save, each goal (and goal against) and each hit when your team is facing its biggest rival. All the more so when you have to deal with busloads of their fans in your building. With that in mind, I guess it's understandable tonight was the most emotional I've been at a game all year. To do this game justice by a cold recap is impossible, you had to be there to experience all the twists and turns of a great novel.

Truth be told, I wasn't too confident in this game...until I heard that Henrik Lundqvist was sitting this one out. It's not so much that Martin Biron is terrible, although we've always done well against him - it's that our team and our Marty (Martin Brodeur) seems to shrink in the presence of Lundqvist. Still, this game was always going to be a tough one with the Rangers coming in completely healthy and the Devils still missing two of their top centerman and one of their top defensemen in Henrik Tallinder, but at least the lineup would be helped by the return of Andy Greene from his own injury issues, and the signing of Steve Bernier to an NHL contract to further shore up our back two lines.

Walking around before the game, I saw the usual infestation of blue including a Ranger shirt on one of my good friends who recently got engaged and was with her fiance (of course a Rangers fan) at her first hockey game. If nothing else it certainly would prove to be a memorable night for all involved. I was less enthused to see all the blue in my section 120, including many seats in my row. I mean really, it's not good enough that we get $22 season seats, but you guys also have to flip the Ranger games for profit? Come on now, few of these people including one I know personally in my row need the money that bad...that's one reason why I will not sell Ranger tickets on the secondary market to make a profit, because more often than not they go to Ranger fans who are all too happy to pay prices that are still below or comparable to MSG level gouging.

Fortunately the Ranger fans in my section were only semi-annoying, and not as much so after the first period when I really felt I was either going to fling myself or someone else off the balcony...particularly after a wild last few minutes where Brodeur made several spectacular saves but finally the Devils' defense had one too many breakdowns and Anton Stralman of all people (a Devils camp castoff) scored to give the Rangers a 1-0 lead in the final minute of the period. For the first and not the last time tonight, I just threw up my hands and said 'I give up'. Considering my 2-10-2 record in the last five years at Devils-Rangers games, I was starting to get a little tired of the whole same script, different day nonsense.

Especially when ex-Devil Mike Rupp took a run at David Clarkson and upended him minutes earlier. Rupp's replaced the sideshow (Sean Avery) as my most loathed Ranger, partly because of his arrogant atitude about how he was treated here - he really believes that we stunted his career and that he would have been more than a fourth-liner if we 'gave him a chance'...all this despite the fact we saved his career after the lockout when nobody wanted him. Since leaving the Devils, he's seemed to take out his bitterness on his ex-mates, almost obliterating Jay Pandolfo with a cheap shot when he was a Penguin and now this. Once his contract is up with the Rangers, I'm sure he'll sign with the Flyers - both because he fits in there and because I'm sure he'll want to play with every one of the Devils' rivals before his career is over.

My anger at Rupp and the fact that it was Stralman of all people who scored only exacerbated my disgust over being behind and having to hear nonsense from the crowd (including one guy behind me who just could not stop chattering the entire game), especially the 'Devils Suck' chants during the National Anthem. There's chanting and making noise, and then there's nonsense you say just to be noticed. Fortunately the second period proved to be better than the first, and the Devils even managed to tie the game on a rebound goal from Zach Parise, who beat Biron shortside over the shoulder with a wrister that probably doesn't get past Lundqvist...but whatever.

As it turned out, the first two periods were merely a prelude to the madness in the third. Moments after Biron stopped Ilya Kovalchuk on a shorthanded breakaway, Brian Boyle took advantage of a Devils' breakdown and a fortuitous bounce of a blocked shot onto his stick to roof one over a prone Brodeur, giving the Rangers back the lead at 2:43. The game would stay at 2-1 for the longest time, as the clock ran down like sand in an hourglass, especially with the lack of stoppages in a third period with a lot of flow, but little action until late. Finally, the Devils managed to get one more power play chance. After bombing on their first two, the third time proved to be the charm, with Patrik Elias finding Kovalchuk open in the shot, and his wrister beat Biron to tie the game again at 15:25, and Kovy shared his excitement with the crowd throwing his arms into the air.

His - and our - euphoria proved short-lived however. Thirty-six seconds long, to be exact...just long enough for another breakdown, and another questionable Brodeur goal allowed to Michael Del Zotto after he'd made some brilliant saves throughout the match. One more time I was mad at the world and mad at everyone, including Brodeur who gave up the same type of back-breaking goal he usually gives up mano-a-mano with Lundqvist. That probably should have been enough to decide this one too...but with just forty-eight seconds left, a fortuitous bounce of a Greene dump in hopped right onto the stick of David Clarkson in front, and he wristed one past Biron in front to tie the game yet again.

By this time, overtime seemed like a cooldown period although both teams had their chances to win it before the shootout. Finally it went to the skills competition again, for the eleventh time in forty-nine games for the Devils...but not without some added suspense as the officials couldn't get one of the net pegs off the ice and the Zamboni driver had to hang around for several minutes - hours it seemed to me - before finally being able to freshen up the last patch of ice around Brodeur's net. When the shootout began, it began on a familiar note with Kovy scoring. Once, he was terrible in the skills competition but now this year he's been money, scoring on eight of nine chances. Conversely, Parise used to be money but lately he's been shut down and Biron stopped him again near post. Patrik Elias couldn't do much with his chance either as the puck hopped off his stick.

Needing to hold the fort at all costs, Brodeur did - watching Derek Stepan miss the net and stopping Brad Richards, setting up match point against Marian Gaborik. In a similar spot against Jason Pominville last week, Brodeur couldn't hold the lead but received instant redemption when he stopped Gaborik and sealed the win. After being emotional most of the game, I was just relieved by this point and did a simple two finger point to the sky - the Pedro Martinez salute (anyone who's a baseball fan knows what I'm talking about). Ironic that our final game before the All-Star break saw a bad bounce go against us for a critical goal and Brodeur not doing the job needing one save to win a shootout, whereas this week the bad bounce went in our favor and Brodeur did make the biggest shootout save...upping our skills competition record to 9-2 and pulling the Devils to within three points of Ottawa for the sixth seed.

Battle Of Hudson resumes in Newark tonight

The second installment of the Battle Of Hudson gets going tonight at The Rock in Newark. A great way to resume the season following an interesting All-Star weekend that was highlighted by Marian Gaborik garnering MVP honors with a hat trick and assist in Team Chara's 12-9 win over Team Alfredsson in Ottawa. Even cooler, Gabby made teammate Henrik Lundqvist eat his words by scoring on him twice while also imitating Artem Anisimov with the pointed gun celebration, following a neat Pavel Datsyuk pass. Pretty awesome even if Henke is being a bit childish about the Artie. Lighten up dude.

Speaking of which, for the first time in five-plus years, Lundqvist will not be in net against his favorite opponent with John Tortorella opting to give the Vezina frontrunner an extra day off- opting for Martin Biron instead. Interestingly enough, the last time someone other than Hank started against the Devils, the Rangers were routed 6-1 with Kevin Weekes in net. A streak of 32 straight will come to an end today with Tort opting to start Lundqvist at Buffalo tomorrow. Interesting decision considering Henke's record versus the Devils and Biron being the more logical choice for another return to Western New York. I don't have any issue. Keeping Henrik fresh is more important than the two points up for grabs.

It also could be a tactic of keeping his team on its toes. They had a week off and now are back at it against a desperate team who needs the 'W.' The Devils are locked into a tight race for the final two spots, entering play tied with the Panthers and Leafs with 55 points. Considering their shootout success, they actually trail Florida, who has four less wins (22). With the emphasis on regulation, that tiebreaker could be crucial. In the mean time, they'll go without top rookie Adam Henrique, who is still nursing a groin injury. Dainius Zubrus replaces him on the top line with Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk. Andy Greene could also return and play alongside Mark Fayne, which could boost the D. Martin Brodeur gets the nod in goal.

I'll be working tonight. Not like I could catch it anyway thanks to the Dolan/Time Warner mess. I'll get the usual text updates from the Rangers and maybe catch the end on the radio, which has been good. I'm sure Hasan will have more on it later or tomorrow.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Report Card: Grading The Rangers

Tonight, the second fantasy draft takes place in Ottawa with a unique All-Star gathering broadcasted on TSN, which NBC Sports Network will pick up. Last year's was quite a success with Phil Kessel getting plenty of ribbing for being picked last. Who will have that dubious distinction? Dan Girardi?

While the fun commences up north in preparation for All-Star weekend, the league has reached its break. There are a few surprises with the Rangers atop the East while the Blues are right behind the Red Wings in a wild four team race in the Central. Speaking of revelations, the Sens are tied with the Pens for fifth three points behind the Flyers while the archrival Leafs are in a three-way tie for the final two spots with the Devils and Panthers. You can bet Kessel won't last long tonight even if Daniel Alfredsson is captain of one team and Zdeno Chara in charge of the other.

For the Battle clubs, it's a chance to get some much needed time off and relax. Unless you're Henrik Lundqvist, who has carried the Blueshirts with the best play of his career. Other Rangers going are leading sniper Marian Gaborik, Girardi and rookie Carl Hagelin. John Tavares will represent the Islanders sizzling hot. Why did I give up on him again? :P Remarkably, the Devils have no one at the festivities with hot shot rookies Adam Henrique and Adam Larsson nursing injuries while Patrik Elias was snubbed. Perhaps that's what Lou Lamoriello prefers as Hasan noted yesterday. The Sabres boast two with deserving Jason Pominville and freshman Luke Adam both in Kanata, Ontario.

The excitement gets underway in an hour. We'll reveal the rosters tomorrow and then have our very own Fantasy All-Star Draft. It should be a doozy. In the mean time, the break gives us a chance to look at all four teams. How have each fared? While one has exceeded expectations, another has underachieved. The other two are probably where they should be. Let's start with the best and work our way down.

NEW YORK RANGERS (47 GP, 31-12-4, 66 Points, 1st East)


GF: 132
GA: 96

If ever a stat typified a roster, it's the league low 96 goals the Blueshirts have allowed. Lundqvist has been a beast, ranking third in GAA (1.87), and save percentage (.937) while his fifth shutout the other night tied him for second behind Vezina darkhorse Jon Quick (6). King Henrik is far from alone with Girardi leading the D with 119 blocked shots while sophomore Ryan McDonagh has 115. Danny G also is second in hits (138) behind captain Ryan Callahan (171) with warrior Brian Boyle (130) third.

Offense has come from Gaborik (25 goals, 39 points) even though he's cooled considerably while Brad Richards is tied with Captain Cally with six game-winners. Derek Stepan has been solid with 31 points including a team best 21 helpers but hasn't lit the lamp in seven. Perhaps the break can help him and ice cold Artem Anisimov (pointless over last 15) recharge. Callahan has been the most consistent, demonstrating why he was a no-brainer for the 'C.' Brandon Dubinsky has finally emerged but his five goals in 44 games are brutal. Surely, he has to produce more the rest of the way for this team to have any chance.

Mike Del Zotto has had a nice bounce back year pacing the blueline with 24 points and a club best plus-22. However, his play has suffered lately, probably due to the increased responsibily. Even with Marc Staal back, John Tortorella is relying heavily on MDZ and McD- third-year and second-year players. The defense has shown some leaks without Mike Sauer, who is our most physical guy since Jeff Beukeboom. Steve Eminger and Jeff Woywitka are getting close but Slats may want to explore a trade to sure up the back end.
If not for the contributions of Hagelin, soldier Brandon PrustJohn Mitchell, Anton Stralman and the much overlooked Ruslan Fedotenko, who knows where this team would be? It doesn't boast much talent. Of course, you can't overlook Marty Biron, whose nine wins, 1.87 GAA, .930 save percentage and two shutouts have allowed Lundqvist to stay fresh. It's why he's only won 22 of our 31 games. If ever he does get snubbed for the Vezina, it'll be due to more victories from Quick and Jimmy Howard.

Tortorella has squeezed every ounce out of this team that gets by on grit and determination. Their willingness to get dirty is why they're where they are. Can they maintain this pace? I doubt it. Unless Richards and Gaborik heat up again and other players pick it up, it's hard to grind your way through an 82-game schedule. While the Rangers continue to be one of the best ranked teams on the penalty kill, which makes them tougher to play along with Henke, their power play continues to be a sore spot. Sure. Boston won despite it. However, they boasted a much more complete roster. At the beginning of the season, I picked our team to finish fifth. But I also had Buffalo winning the Northeast. Oops. I had the Blueshirts ousting the Bruins and Pens. If the season ended today, I can't see that happening.

Adding another scorer would go a long way to legitimizing their postseason aspirations. Especially the idiot owner. When you win as consistently as they have, it raises the bar. So, I'm judging this team on my Conference Final prediction. Anything less would be a bitter disappointment. With the East stronger than it's been in years, it could come down to the match-up. Winning the division and gaining home ice could really help even if it's no given.

Suggestions: I'd like to see the Rangers add a hardnosed D like Tim Gleason, who's won before. I don't think the price would be astronomical. With his $3.5 million coming off the cap at the end of the year, Gleason would be a rental. Unless Carolina believes it can still win the Southeast (only 10 points separate them from the top), they might sell. A second or third round pick should be sufficient. I doubt they'd get a prospect/pick. The Blueshirts may take a run at Shane Doan if the Yotes fall out but perhaps a guy like Ray Whitney would come cheaper. He's a better guy for the power play and boasts skill. Not that Doan's big body couldn't help in front. It's all about the cost. Both would be rentals. If Brenden Morrow becomes available, I'd put in a call to Joe Nieuwendyk. The Dallas captain has another year left at $4.1 million. So, Slats would have to get creative.

It all depends on if management believes the team can win now. They're probably another year off. No way would I sacrifice top prospects such as Chris Kreider, Christian Thomas, J.T. Miller and Dylan McIlrath. Like at the end of Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade with the holy grail, the Rangers must choose wisely.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Devils hit All-Star break with a thud

With only one game tonight before the league descends on Ottawa for the All-Star exhibition weekend, the Devils (like most of the NHL) played their final game before the break last night. Unfortunately for the men in red and white, the last week hasn't gone so well for them. Things have gone steadily downhill since the third period against Boston last Thursday, where the Devils surrendered a 1-0 lead and gave up three quick goals en route to a 4-1 loss. A desultory afternoon loss to the Flyers on Saturday by the same score drove home once again the point that the Devils can't play with the big boys, since they're just 1-6 combined against the Bruins, Flyers and Rangers - arguably the East's top three teams.

Tuesday's match against the Sabres - a talented team struggling with injuries and dissapointments and mired in a twelve-game road losing streak - was supposed to be a get-well card for the team before their week-long break but the script got complicated even before the game when the Sabres welcomed back not one, but two veteran blueliners to their lineup (Christian Ehrhoff and Robyn Regehr) off of injury. Embattled goalie Ryan Miller, who had allowed five goals or more in each of his previous four starts, stopped 27 of 28 Devils shots in regulation and overtime last night and eventually the last three shots of the shootout.

Counterpart Martin Brodeur would only need to make thirteen saves, by contrast, but allowed a freak goal off the boards to Jordan Leopold in the first period. Then in the shootout, Jason Pominville's wrister tied it up when just one more save would have won it and then after Adam Henrique was stopped by Miller, Nathan Gerbe scored the winner - condemning the Devils to their third straight home defeat in the middle of a six-game homestand, with the Rangers looming after the break next Tuesday.

Worse than the three-game losing streak and dropping back into a tie for the final playoff spot, the Devils announced today that there is no timetable for Travis Zajac to return from the achillies injury that's plagued him all year. Now missing Zajac and defenseman Henrik Tallinder long-term from a team that was already going to be on the bubble to make the playoffs, the Devils face a potential crisis over the next two weeks when they have to play not only the Rangers twice in the next six games, but also the Flyers, Penguins and the surprising St. Louis Blues along with the struggling Canadiens.

Of less concern right now, both Henrique and Adam Larsson will miss All-Star weekend due to various 'ailments' - with Larsson resting a sore wrist (and staying in NJ for treatment instead of going back to Sweden over the break) and Henrique supposedly tweaking his groin last night, in a game where he not only finished the contest but took the final shot of the shootout. Without Henrique or Larsson, the Devils won't have a single All-Star weekend representative, and something tells me that's just the way GM Lou Lamoriello likes it.

The fact that players are either held out of All-Star weekend or decline themselves, like the Caps' star Alex Ovechkin, only serves to make the festivities even more unneccesary. Or at the very least, ill-timed. At this point, the NHL might as well hold their All-Star game after the season the way the NFL does with the Pro Bowl (or at least did before stuffing it in between the Conference title games and the Super Bowl). Not that I'd ever want to see an artificial solution to gin up the All-Star game the way baseball does by tying home-field advantage of the World Series to the winner of the ASG.

With all this bad news around the Devils, it's easy to overlook the good - like Alexei Ponikarovsky scoring a goal in his first game as a Devil, or the near-imminent return of Andy Greene to the lineup. Not to mention the improved play of Brodeur. However, the offense scoring a goal a game in each of the last three is just not acceptable, and that average likely won't improve against Henrik Lundqvist next week. Neither is the flat way the Devils came out in the first period last night - freak goal or not, the team was asleep in the opening twenty minutes after having lost two in a row.

Things will have to improve for the Devils to get back on the beam, before this slump continues and people start speculating on how far out of the playoffs we need to be before the team should trade star winger (and UFA-to be) Zach Parise.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Quick Hits

Since I've been quite busy lately with work, here are some quick hits:

-Once again, the NHL has a double standard when it comes to league discipline. While a star like Ovechkin as a repeat offender gets three games, a guy like Malkin uses his stick as a weapon without even a fine. Oh. Same team who has Matt Cooke, who got away with a slewfoot on Brad Richards. And same team with Zbynek Michalek, who also should've been suspended. Unbelievable.

-John Tavares' recent 12-game point streak is proof the kid is coming into his own. But it still should've been Matt Moulson who represented the Islanders as he's been more consistent. Full credit to JT91 for his elevated play and Moulson for continuing to make the Kings look foolish.

-The Ranger win in Boston was another example of team character following a bad loss. Nice to see the right guys light the lamp. But it's worrisome about McDonagh and Sauer's setback is alarming. They still will need to go get a D at the deadline.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Devils: The good, bad and the ugly of the last 48 hours

Going to Thursday night's game against the Bruins, it kind of had the feel of being the first playoff game of the new season, with all the hype surrounding the game after the Stanley Cup champs kicked our tail two weeks ago at the Prudential Center. The teams' second matchup in fifteen days would provide a barometer for New Jersey, to see how far they'd come in their last twenty games, where they went 14-5-1. Ultimately, the results were mixed as the Devils played very well in the first two periods but couldn't finish on some terrific chances...then collapsed in the third period, as a 1-0 lead turned into a 4-1 loss.

During the third period surfing the Internet (since the game ceased being interesting once the Bruins got out front by two) I found out that the reason Henrik Tallinder was a scratch - something I had no idea about until I saw the scratch list before the game - was because of a blood clot in his leg, and that the big defenseman was expected to miss 6-8 weeks. Yikes...while Tallinder's play has been streaky as a Devil, his calming presence will be missed. So far, Matt Taormina's filled in just fine when called upon though, and Andy Greene's supposedly expected back after the All-Star break.

If the loss was the bad and Tallinder's ailment was the ugly, then last night's trade for Alexei Ponikarovsky was the good...maybe. While Ponikarovsky's career has fallen off the map since his days as a Maple Leaf, giving up a fourth-rounder and defenseman Joe Sova (someone I literally never heard of until last night) for a guy that even in this part of his career is still an upgrade over the dreck we've been running out on the third and fourth line is a trade you have to make. Almost certainly Ponikarovsky's arrival will lead to the demotion of the dissapointing Mattias Tedenby, who's put up just one goal, five assists and is a -15 in 43 games this year after a promising end to his rookie season in 2010.

Assuming Travis Zajac returns soon after the All-Star break (not a safe assumption, I know), the Devils can actually run out three effective lines with Parise-Henrique-Kovy and Sykora-Elias-Zubrus the set lines for the last couple of months and a likely third line of Poni-Zajac-Clarkson. Perhaps going 0-3 against the Bruins and struggling against other top teams drummed in the importance to Lou Lamoriello that the team didn't quite have the depth to compete. Clearly in this day of the NHL, you need at least three lines that are able to score with a fourth line that isn't going to kill you during its 5-10 minutes a night. When healthy, our fourth line will be Jacob Josefson and friends, assuming the staff decides to use him in that role. Anything would be an improvement over goon central, although perhaps Pete DeBoer's finally realizing he can't have 'both' Cam Janssen and Eric Boulton in the lineup at the same time with the scratching of Boulton the other night.

While I'm looking forward to seeing how the new changes flesh out, I'm rather annoyed at this inconvenient first snowstorm of winter putting my plans of going to today's Devils-Flyers game in jeopardy. Perhaps it's for the best if I don't go since I haven't gotten a lot of sleep lately due to my allergic rhinitis but I'd hate to miss three out of four games (with the one I went to being the dissapointing Boston loss) since I sold both Tuesday games last week and this week, one to go to the movies and the other so my friend could go to the game. Especially missing Devils-Flyers, though I already had to do that once during a snowstorm a couple years ago where the Devils contreversially announced the number through the turnstiles instead of the actual tickets sold for their attendance.

I guess we shouldn't complain much since it took a month for the first actual snowstorm of winter, I thought this winter would be bad when we had the pre-Halloween mountain of snow...but there's plenty of time for winter to provide more inconveniences. Hopefully the snow stops sometime in the next three hours or so, since I pretty much have to decide by 11 whether it's worth it to go. Just like Ponikarovsky - who may or may not get here in time for today's game - I'm a game-time decision for today.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Ranger Stuff: Dolan, Pens debacle, Staal

I'm not quite sure where to start this post. Should I just get into last night's forgettable home tilt against the Pens, who whipped us 4-1? I did wind up going to my fifth game and my record is now 3-2 after Evgeni Malkin dominated us. Kris Letang's return was huge for Pittsburgh, who turned the tide by picking up their first win in three tries against the Rangers.

Instead of getting into the particulars of one of the poorest efforts this season, I am still a bit peturbed by the ridiculous commentary of the most evil owner in sports, Mr. Dolan. Following Tuesday's 3-0 shutout of Nashville in which our boys didn't play a full 60 minutes (unless you had blinders on), the biggest jerk that's run MSG into the ground decided it was a good time to brag about his hockey club. Mind you John Tortorella was standing right next to him, discussing the win when Dolan went out of his way to blow praise Slats for his work that's seen our team win exactly two rounds in over a decade. Unbelievable.

If that wasn't enough, he then mentioned the 'C' word. As if their work was finished because the Rangers are first in the East. This is a good team who wins by outworking the opponent and getting quality netminding from King Henrik. Could they erase the Dolan Curse and win two rounds? Possibly. To even utter Stanley Cup is nonsensical and doesn't benefit anyone. There's so much more work to do, which a fuming Tortorella pointed out while blasting Dolan's misguided nonsense by calling it what it was. To paraphrase, BS. Well done coach.

The Blueshirts have let some bad habits crawl into their play and we're starting to see them pay on the scoreboard. They weren't good enough against Ottawa and did their usual nap in Montreal following a shutout at Toronto. The Nashville win saw our team grind its way past Barry Trotz' list of no-names sans Shea Weber. Yesterday, a flat start put them behind with Chris Kunitz burying a rebound following a close call in Marc-Andre Fleury's crease. The Rangers didn't throw one check in the period and chased the puck constantly. Full credit to the Pens, who strategically used our aggression to its benefit by chipping the puck out, leading to odd-man rushes. Pittsburgh also pinched in wreaking havoc for long stretches. They also stood up at their blueline, forcing sloppy turnovers. They deserved the win.
The Rangers picked it up in a better second with rookie Carl Hagelin slipping one through McFleury thanks to a beautiful backhand saucer pass from Marian Gaborik. Gabby has struggled lately putting the puck in. He's got one over the last 11. He was good in spurts, nearly beating Fleury off a great feed from Hags but shot the backhand into him with a gaping net. I won't complain about Gaborik because the effort was there. More than you could say for Brad Richards. Did anyone see him last night? The one time he had a clear chance to shoot on our first power play, he passed up a left circle blast for a foolish pass to no one. Richie hasn't been good enough lately. Sure. There's not a ton of finish with Artem Anisimov in a malaise and Ryan Callahan held in check. But Richards needs to be better.

Tort broke up the Boyle unit in hopes of getting Richards going by sticking Brandon Prust with him and Brandon Dubinsky, who looked good again. The Rangers did many good things but only came away 1-1 after two. Unfortunately, they were dreadful in the third where the Pens gave their supporters who braved the trip plenty to cheer about. A terrible pinch by Marc Staal led to a three-on-one with immortal Richard Park finishing off a nice passing play started by otherwise invisible Matt Cooke. Still, he made a big play that decided the game. Cooke's a shell of himself minus the physicality.

Staal struck again when he mindlessly kicked the puck right to Malkin, who only was too pleased to take it off the wall and then blow by a falling Mike Del Zotto (why did he go down???) and roof a backhand top shelf. Just brutal. I get that it's only Staal's ninth game back but what the hell was he doing there? You got to take the body and make sure it gets out. Especially with Geno breathing down your neck. He sucked on the foolish pinch in a tie game mind you that led to Park's go-ahead and then compounded it with a boneheaded play that put it out of reach, sending some of our fraud fans home. You know. The ones who take forever to find their seat and then disrespectfully stand up while play is going on. This is what you get with Dolan's new MSG.

Marc Staal is a minus-four so far with zero points. Sure. The defensive habits are still there like on the PK. And he has jumped into the rush a few instances, creating offense. But games like last night against a potential playoff foe raise questions. Will we see the Staalsie that everyone loves? Hard to predict. He is still a long way away. I didn't like the pairing with Del Zotto, who's in a rut. He has to at least stand up with Malkin coming in and try to get in his way. When MDZ doesn't contribute offensively, his game suffers.

I also don't get the sudden lack of confidence in Anton Stralman and Stu Bickel. Why? Cause Bickel had a brutal game at Montreal when our entire team royally sucked. One thing is apparent. The more we see inconsistency defensively, the more they miss the physical presence of Mike Sauer. Sauer's our most physical D since Jeff Beukeboom. He is sorely missed. Hopefully, after the two games and then the All-Star Break, we'll soon see Sauer return. If not, Glen Sather may want to make a call to buddy Brian Burke and inquire about Luke Schenn. Just the kinda hardnosed D that would fit our system if Sauer doesn't return.

Is it panic time? Hardly. Though I'm working all weekend and will miss the big match in Beantown, I'll be curious to see how they respond. Losing streaks haven't been common. Boston wiped out a one-goal Devil lead in one period by putting up a four spot in the third Thursday. They are explosive and really test every area. The best team in the league. It's the first of four meetings tomorrow. This will be a good test.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Devils sweep home-and-home with the Jets, prepare to host Bruins tomorrow


Things are good right now in the swamp. Not only are the Devils winning (14-5-1 in their last twenty games) but they're having fun as well, both of which are evidenced by this YouTube video of Patrik Elias's crucial goal in Winnipeg on Saturday. Fellow linemate and buddy Petr Sykora tried to get the puck to Elias in front, but Elias adroitly let it go through his legs to Adam Larsson at the point. Larsson in turn, had the presence of mind to fire the puck right towards the stick of Elias, who tipped it in for one of the Devils' highlight goals of the season and the eventually winning tally in a 2-1 win over the Jets.

Not only did Elias's third period goal win the game, but it also provided comic relief as Sykora went to hug his Czech comrade, but Elias veered towards Larsson and Sykora literally went splat, missing the hug. It led to a nice moment last night when Elias and Sykora did hug during the three stars after a more convincing 5-1 win over the Jets at the Prudential Center. Not to mention more amusement when postgame host Deb Placey didn't even realize why they'd made such a big deal of hugging until Elias told her about what happened Saturday and that it was all over YouTube. Then the postgame crew - including Ken Daneyko and Chico Resch - pulled the highlight of the play and laughed about it themselves.

While it's certainly easier to have fun when you're winning, you do get the sense this Devils team genuinely likes each other and pulls for each other. Perhaps some of the looseness is just a product of coach Pete DeBoer's calm, upbeat demeanor. Admittedly at times I've been critical of the fact DeBoer doesn't seem to have a strict side, but two things are becoming more obvious. One is that this team thankfully doesn't need a boot up its rear end every few minutes the way many past Devil teams have - certainly there have been a minimal number of games this year where the team's lacked effort. The other is that it does seem like DeBoer is willing to get on these guys in the locker room when it's required (during one game a few weeks back where the Devils struggled early, he admitted he did 'yell a bit' at the team during the intermission). DeBoer does seem to agree with the philosophy that you don't rip your team in public, but you can do it behind closed doors.

In addition to DeBoer, the leadership of the team is certainly strong with Elias, first-year captain Zach Parise and even the much-maligned Ilya Kovalchuk - who's played some of his best hockey as a Devil over this last month and has even become as much of a force shorthanded as Parise or rookie Adam Henrique. There's been none of the moodiness or worrying about players' roles on the team that existed the last few years under a veteran core that's mostly been swept out the door. Along with the stars, you have role players like Cam Janssen and Mattais Tedenby who also help keep the room upbeat. I've only been half facetious when I suggested elsewhere the only reason Tedenby's still here and not back in Albany (given his dissapointing first half) is that he's a good, fun kid that seems to be a positive locker room presence. Even when some quasi-contreversy flares up like Martin Brodeur being pulled after six minutes in Calgary, it seems to blow over quickly without any lasting impact.

Personalities and demeanor only tell half the story though...despite the injury bug that's sidelined three of the team's top four centers at one point or another - including Henrique, who's sat the last two games with a mild groin pull - the Devils have picked up their play since early December, when the team came up with a critical road win in Toronto that kept them from going winless on a tough four-game road trip. Since then, the Devils have won consistently and haven't even needed the shootout to do so - indeed, none of the team's last seven wins have come with aid of the skills competition after an early season run where it seemed the team could only win in a shootout.

Every facet of the game has picked it up - offensively the Devils are starting to break out more and more frequently, scoring twenty goals in their last six games. Even the power play is starting to creep upward in terms of efficiency. Defensively, the team's picked it up even while Andy Greene continues to remain on the shelf. Kurtis Foster's slowly found his niche and helped the power play recover from its two-season long coma while the Bryce Salvadors of the world provide a steadying presence. In a season where many key players around the league have been sidelined due to concussions, Salvador's comeback after missing an entire season has been one of the more suprising aspects of this Devil season.

And yes, the goaltending has picked it up lately after the disaster that was last Tuesday in Calgary, where both Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg got whipped, despite only facing a combined fourteen shots. Both have responded off that game well, as the Devils have only given up a single goal in each of the last three contests. While Brodeur's numbers have been poor for the balance of the season, he's given up just one goal in five of his last eight starts overall.

One of the games where Brodeur did give up more than a goal was the Devils' last machup with the Cup champion Bruins, who racked the legend for six in a rare noncompetitive effort from the Devils this season. After losing 6-1 at the Rock barely two weeks ago, the Devils get another shot at the Bruins tomorrow night in the same building. Unlike last time where the Bruins had won every game seemingly for a two-month stretch (and most in blowouts), Boston comes into this game playing like mere mortals after suffering road losses to Carolina and Tampa Bay over the last week. Despite the team's three-game winning streak and the fact the Devils are now a season-high nine games over .500, they have the look and sound of a team coming into tomorrow's game hungry, after being embarassed in front of their fans two weeks ago.

With just three games left before the All-Star break, the Devils aren't just looking to gain revenge on the Bruins but also create more seperation between themselves and the pack of teams fighting for a playoff spot. As much as it annoyed me not being able to go to last night's game, hopefully the team gives everyone more to cheer for tomorrow night.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Rangers face challenging week

Having lost two of their last three, the Rangers finally have cooled off. You can't expect to win every night. Our team has set a high standard, which hasn't existed in 15 years. Ironically the last time they won two rounds and reached the Conference Finals, led by Gretzky, Messier, Leetch, Graves and Richter.

This year's group, who still carries the East's top mark (28-11-4) with a league tying 60 points (tied with Blues) into tonight's home match versus a rejuvenated Nashville club- are being led by mostly core players such as captain Ryan Callahan, Henrik Lundqvist, Brandon Dubinsky, Dan Girardi, Mike Del Zotto, Marc Staal, Derek Stepan and slumping Artem Anisimov. It's refreshing for Garden Faithful to have our own home grown kids leading the charge. However, without the clutch scoring of Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik, the team wouldn't be where they are, still atop a four-headed monster in the ultracompetitive Atlantic. The Flyers aren't going away and the Devils are lurking while the Pens are getting their act together led by Evgeni Malkin. They'll also benefit from the return of Kris Letang for you guessed it, Thursday's pivotal game at MSG.

Right now, the Blueshirts have slowed down. Over their last three games (1-2-0), they've been blanked by surprise contender Ottawa while scoring only four goals during a weekend that included another Montreal stinker. Part of the problem is Dubinsky (shoulder) and Ruslan Fedotenko missed games, which forced John Tortorella to adjust the lines with the likes of Wojtek Wolski and recently demoted Kris Newbury. When your one win is highlighted by the play of Brian Boyle, who finally got his second in a 3-0 shutout of Toronto, that's not a good sign. Fact is the offense has dried up thanks to Anisimov disappearing completely. Ever since HBO's 24/7, Artie has gone 11 straight without a point. Impossible. Perhaps he celebrated a bit too much versus Tampa. The enigmatic Russian is too skilled to go this long without one single point. He now finds himself on the fourth line for tonight against a Pred squad that's won five straight.

Tortorella has bumped up rookie Carl Hagelin to the top line of D-Step and Gabby. His speed and willingness to shoot can only be a plus. Here are the rest of the lines:


With Staal getting healthier each day, his ice-time has increased to nearly 20 minutes. Considering Stu Bickel's nightmarish game at the Bell Centre Hell Centre and Del Zotto cooling off, Tortorella has eased Marc back into the rotation. Ryan McDonagh has also been a bit up and down lately, which is to be expected for his first full year. Even if McD isn't a true freshman, rookie walls can be hit. That's the challenge of an 82-game schedule that can be taxing. The Rangers are getting healthier with Jeff Woywitka and Steve Eminger close to returning while Mike Sauer hasn't had any post-concussion symptoms over the last week. However, there's still no timetable for Sauer Power's return with it awfully hard to predict. You have to be so careful. The concussion epidemic continues to haunt a league that now has confused fans to the point that some can't tell what a clean hit is anymore.

Albeit, there was nothing wrong with pesky Rene Bourque's hit on Hagelin with the newest Hab coming from the side with a clean shoulder. The same 4-1 nightmare that I only caught lowlights of also had another rumored controversy involving P.K. Subban and Del Zotto with the second-year D supposedly spitting on MDZ, which both denied. Judging from one replay, it was much ado about nothing. I have no love for PK but that was unintentional with him just spitting while Del Zotto was skating back to the bench. Geez.

Getting to this week's slate that begins without Pekka Rinne, who will rest for the Islanders with capable backup Anders Lindback challenging Lundqvist, who just lost to the immortal Peter Budaj. The Preds are playing better than us. So, even if there's no Rinne and probably no Ryan Suter, our team needs to reestablish the identity that's given them this cushion. Nashville is a lot like us. Match their work ethic. The Pens visit Thursday. It's always interesting and it'll be my fifth game. I'm 3-1 so far. Not too shabby. Figure it to be heated with Pittsburgh trying to avenge a loss to us. This week ends with the mighty Bruins in Beantown. They still are top dog, boasting everything you could want to repeat. It promises to be a stern test.

How our boys respond to a little adversity should be good. Tortorella has succeeded at preventing losing streaks. Let's see what the Rangers got.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Devils conclude Canada swing this afternoon in Winnipeg

In Alberta, the Devils endured a mixed bag of success and frustration. Their 1-1 record barely scratched the surface of what kind of week it was for the Devils, who haven't gotten good news on the injury front lately. After coming back for eight games last month, Travis Zajac will remain shut down until at least the beginning of February due to 'soreness' in his surgically repaired achilles tendon. Super rookie Adam Henrique (one of the Devils' two All-Star weekend representatives along with fellow rookie Adam Larsson) will miss at least today's game against the Jets due to a mild groin strain, and Andy Greene will have to wait at least another week to resume skating.

With Henrique out, Danius Zubrus will take his place on the top line, centering Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk with David Clarkson getting bumped to play with Patrik Elias and Petr Sykora. In goal will be Martin Brodeur, for the first time since getting pulled on Tuesday after allowing two bad goals on just six shots in Calgary. Unlike other times where Brodeur was pulled early, Johan Hedberg didn't fare much better - allowing four goals on just eight shots the rest of the game. Shaky goaltending and ill-timed defensive breakdowns condemned the Devils to a 6-3 defeat against former coach Brent Sutter and his Flames despite outshooting Calgary 38-14 during the game.

Coach Pete DeBoer stuck with his plan to start Hedberg in Edmonton the next night, despite the fact he wound up playing the majority of the game in Calgary. This time, Hedberg fared much better allowing only an Ales Hemsky third-period power play goal. It was enough to send the game to overtime though, after the Devils could only manage a short-handed Ilya Kovalchuk goal in the second period. However, a power play that's suddenly coming to life helped win the game for the Devils in overtime as Elias found Parise in front for a redirection goal and a 2-1 overtime win.

Despite their inconsistencies in net and constant injury issues, the Devils remain in playoff position with a 24-17-2 record and their schedule gets easier, at least travel-wise over the next month. Over the next three weeks including the All-Star break, the Devils will play six straight home games and will be at the Rock for ten of their next thirteen with the only road games at the Garden, Philly and Buffalo. In other words, the Devils don't leave the tri-state area for another month, until their trip to Montreal on February 19. In fact, other than a trip to Detroit in April, the Devils won't leave the Eastern time zone for the rest of the season.

That said, it's not as if home games against the Jets, Bruins, Flyers and Rangers before the break are going to be by any means easy. At least the All-Star break will actually be a real rest for the entire team with none of the veterans being selected this time around. Henrique and Larsson (the Devils' only reps for All-Star weekend) won't exactly be getting major minutes in a twenty-minute long Young Stars game. Not to mention the week between the Devils' last game before the break and first game after it will give the walking wounded more time to heal.

None of that will mean very much if the Devils don't continue to win and maintain playoff position though.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Turning Point

It was Saturday Morning on November 12th and the NHL season was still going through the puberty phase, where some teams reach it earlier and fly out to a fast start, and some teams take a little longer to reach their goals.

It was a warm evening that night in Boston, where the temperature were hovering around a balmy 50 degrees by face-off, definitely a warm number for Boston in November, much less September.

The action inside the TD Garden was going to reflect the warmer temperatures outside as well.

The Buffalo Sabres, winners of 4 straight and a team with high expectations based on the actions of new owner Terry Pegula, and sitting 1 point behind the surprising Toronto Maple Leafs in 2nd place with a 10-5-0 record, rolled into town to play the defending Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins, who were also on a 4 game winning streak, appearing to have completely shaken off the Stanley Cup hangover that plagued this team in October.

The game started off on the right foot for the Sabres, as Thomas Vanek scored his 11th at the 5:38 mark of the 1st period. This game had that look, a preview of what could come in the future, maybe a Eastern Conference Finals preview?

Then, the roof caved in, compliments of one play.

Milan Lucic took a 'run' at Ryan Miller on a breakaway attempt in the 1st period, and while Miller stayed in the game, you can tell something just wasn't right. Miller did make 19 saves in the 2nd, but the Bruins scored the next 3 goals of the game in a 22 shot onslaught in the 2nd period. And to start the 3rd period, enter in Jhonas Enroth, who gave up another three goals and the Bruins routed the Sabres 6-2.

At the time, Miller had what was described as a sore neck. Turns out it was a concussion and Miller once again would miss an extended period of time.

What was more stunning about this incident (besides other hockey fans calling Sabres fans whiners, as if they wouldn't react the same way), was the lack of retaliation by the Buffalo Sabres. What kind of message did this send throughout the locker room? I bet not a good one, especially with Miller, who is viewed as a team leader. And maybe that was one of the warning signs of this team: A goalie generally should not be viewed as one of the leaders of any hockey team.

The implications of this event at TD Garden? Lets examine the numbers:

Before Lucic On Miller:

Buffalo: 10-5-0 20 points +13 goal differential
Boston: 7-7-0 14 points +13 goal differential

After Lucic On Miller:

Buffalo: 8-14-5 21 points, -29 goal differential
Boston: 20-4-1 41 points, +57 goal differential.

Wow. Just wow.

Is this the sole reason the Sabres have fallen to the depths of the Eastern Conference? One never can know. Sure, the Buffalo Sabres have had their share of injuries, just pointing to this as the SOLE reason for the demise is a cop-out, much like NHL fans who moan about a lack of effort and caring being the reason for losing. It starts with talent, mixed in with staying injury free, effort, etc.

Harping on these excuses just turns one away from the truth: Maybe the Buffalo Sabres as currently constructed, just are not a good hockey team, and that very much looks to be the case. As a fan of this team for over 30 years, the idea of getting hot, sneaking into the playoffs, and losing a tough 1st round series just does not excite me as a fan. That act is old and tired in Western New York and that should be a thought from the past.

Remember Pegula's "Our whole reason for existence is to win the Stanley Cup" mission statement? I do, and want that thought to stick for good.

At this point, I would support bottoming out the roster, selling at the deadline, playing some of the younger players on this roster, and analyze for 2012 and beyond. Why do I say that? When you lose to the lowly Carolina Hurricanes, give up a GWG to the likes of Johnny Oduya and the Winnipeg Jets at home, and have a lifeless performance at Toronto and get shutout by The Monster, that is a sign that this is just not the year.

I am sure this is not a popular thought amongst Sabres fans, but is this team really ready to compete with the likes of the Boston Bruins?

Not a chance.

Below we will start a series on How to Fix the Buffalo Sabres, here goes the maiden voyage:

How To Fix The Sabres Version 1.0:

Let's analyze this from the top: Owner Terry Pegula has arrived on the scene with tremendous fan-fare and for good reason: He clearly wants to win, and appears to be ready to do whatever it takes. But this alone, is never enough. Was he too eager when dishing out huge contracts to Ville Leino (who had 1 good playoff run, notably against Buffalo which probably blinded Darcy Regier from reality when assessing Leino) and Christian Ehrhoff (the never ending 4 million dollar cap hit)? Perhaps he was. But trying is better then the alternative that was generally the norm in Buffalo for many of-seasons. Only fear I have ever had about Pegula is that he is too aggressive, look at owners like Jerry Jones in the NFL, sometimes caring too much as an owner can be an issue, a delicate balance must be found.

Looking over the Sabres roster, I see a lot of B+ to C players and not one 'A' type player. Tomas Vanek is a excellent sniper, capable of getting hot for stretches, and has become much more responsible defensively, but as the #1 go-to option? Yes he is the 19th leading scorer on NHL.com as of this article, but Vanek needs help, another star is needed on this roster.

Tyler Myers
was expected to be the other star on this roster was out for a few weeks, but he needs to stay healthy and be more of a consistent force on the blue line. Can Myers, Ehrhoff and Jordan Leopold all exist together? Did Ehrhoff's arrival upset the chemistry of the defensive pairings? More time to me is needed for this group to gel, but something needs to change, and fast, to turn around this dreadful season.

Looking at trade possibilities, the Anaheim Ducks are rumored to be making just about everyone available. If I am Darcy Regier, I am placing a call to the Ducks to inquire about Ryan Getzlaf. This team is in dire need of a #1 center, and while Getzlaf is not a elite center, he is absolutely a #1 center that would fit nicely with Vanek on the top line. In addition, his effect would trickle down to the 2nd and 3rd lines, take some pressure of Leino, Drew Stafford, and others who got big paydays and allow them to just be who Pegula is paying them to be.

Version 1.0 of How To Fix The Sabres is just the beginning, look for more thoughts/trade ideas going forward. And please feel free to fire back at me about my thoughts, offer other ideas, always love to hear back from you!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Save The Trophy Talk

At nearly the halfway point, the Rangers' record (26-9-4) is tops in the NHL. Their 56 points are one better than the Canucks, who've played more games. Boston has 53 but have played one fewer game. The West boasts the most competitive division with a three-team tie for first in the Central between Detroit, St. Louis and Chicago, who all have 53 in more games played than either New York or Boston. There's also the Flyers with 52 and one more played than our Blueshirts.

It all sounds nice on paper. In fact, the Rangers' start is almost identical to the 27-9-3 mark the '93-94 team posted. Without sounding off any alarms, save the Cup talk for later. John Tortorella's club has a lot of work left to even be in the discussion with a championship team that boasted Hall Of Famers. There also were no brownie points, with a thing called ties still part of the league. In terms of talent, it's not even close. Aside from Henrik Lundqvist, Marian Gaborik and perhaps Brad Richards, that's where the comparisons stop. Mike Keenan could roll out Mike Richter, Mark Messier and Brian Leetch along with leading scorer Sergei Zubov, who combined to run one of the best power plays. Adam Graves was money. Even if the former single season record holder with 52 goals overachieved, you can't ignore his output. Gaborik (23 goals) probably will fall short of 50 but has been a monster. Lundqvist is statistically better than Richter but Richy was unflappable and repeatedly stole series. Aside from the five-game win over the Devils, Henke hasn't had a defining moment. If the season ended today, he'd win the Vezina and be in the Hart discussion.

When you think about this team, it's really about core players stepping up to lead us to first overall thus far. Ryan Callahan, Derek Stepan, Artem Anisimov, Brandon Dubinsky, Mike Del Zotto and Dan Girardi are the glue of this team. Throw in Marc Staal now that he's back along with Ryan McDonagh, who Slats stole from Bob Gainey for Scott Gomez. Carl Hagelin has been a breath of fresh air since arriving from Connecticut, combining blazing speed with tremendous hockey sense. His skating and work ethic along with the skills he possesses make him a key rookie, who's scored big goals. Still, it's hard to overlook the contributions of Alexei Kovalev, Sergei Nemchinov, Steve Larmer, Esa Tikkanen and a guy by the name of Stepane Matteau. That team also boasted the underrated Kevin Lowe and Beuke, who would do anything to win. Danny G is similar but does it differently while Jeff Beukeboom was the big bruiser who would knock you on your ass for even breathing in Richter's direction. The closest guy we have to that is Mike Sauer (concussion), who remains out. There is no timetable for his return, which means revelation Stu Bickel takes part in his 10th game tonight when the Rangers go for five in a row versus the Coyotes.

There's a lot of season left and still plenty of tough games on the schedule with the surprising Sens visiting MSG Thursday before the Blueshirts hit the road this weekend in Toronto and Montreal. There's three left with the Flyers, five with the Devils, four with the banged up Pens and four with the machine-like Bruins with the first one in Beantown January 21. The Islanders are never easy to play against due to the rivalry. Basically, all Tort's crew has accomplished is giving themselves a cushion. But if you've glanced at the standings, you know how close the race is. The Flyers aren't going away and the Devils have upped their play since our win in Newark. Dan Bylsma will find a way to keep the Pens afloat. Especially with studs Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury still there and them getting great news on James Neal.

I love the way this team plays. They compete and are a breath of fresh air to watch God willing. No thanks to Dolan and Time Warner. Be that as it may, nothing's been accomplished yet. The second half will ultimately decide where our True Blue wind up. No time for the weary.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Devils finish first half with comeback win over Pens

Some people look at the turn of the new year as the second part of the NHL season, others point to the All-Star game as the point where things start turning serious. However, the 41st game of the season is the true halfway point for each team and right now things couldn't be more different for the Devils compared to last year. The halfway point in early January last season represented the lowest ebb of the Devils' season as they finished 10-29-2, leaving them twenty-seven points out of a playoff spot. This year however, the Devils are 23-16-2 and in fifth place of a competitive Eastern Conference - including a 10-4-1 stretch in their last fifteen games after their second 3-1 win over the Penguins in eight days.

As was the case last Saturday in New Jersey, the Devils' best players again played key roles in the win, led by Martin Brodeur who turned back the clock with a 41-save performance, allowing only Evgeni Malkin's first period goal at 4:48. After Malkin opened the scoring, the first period went downhill from there as the Devils went nine minutes without getting a shot and were outshot 12-3 in the opening twenty minutes. Fortunately they managed to escape the first still down only one, though James Neal tried to push one in off his hand but the refs disallowed the goal. Neal's attempted chicanery came just moments after Pete DeBoer had used his timeout because the Devils were getting dominated to such an extent, however the turnaround wouldn't come until the second period.

In a wild second period where each team managed to get seventeen shots on net, the Devils came out the better team early but the game didn't truly turn until a dumb Eric Boulton interference penalty left the Devils shorthanded. As the saying goes, a tiger's most dangerous when it's wounded. This Devils team is most dangerous when down a man, and sure enough Adam Henrique would get a breakaway courtesy of a Zach Parise pass and cash it in at 8:39 to tie the game. That goal showed the rook's determination, since watching the game I threw my head back when Marc-Andre Fleury made the intial save on the breakaway thinking he had it. However, Henrique kept buzzing and found the rebound by Fleury's left pad, stuffing it in.

There turned out to be an additional complication though, as the ref's whistle apparently blew just before the goal...seems the refs were paying about as much attention as I was. However, it sounded like the whistle only half-tweeted before the goal, and fully blew just after it and the refs eventually upheld the goal that tied the game. Moments later Ilya Kovalchuk nearly had another shorthanded breakaway goal, but Fleury did stop this one. Kovalchuk wouldn't have to wait long to get another chance though, and he would convert on it, cranking a slapshot home from the blueline at 11:23 to give the Devils the lead. Linemates Parise and Henrique each got an assist on Kovy's fifteenth goal of the year.

Now it was Dan Bylsma's turn to take timeout and try to change the momentum. And to their credit, the Penguins did pick it up but Brodeur was equal to the task, making a bunch of good saves including a stop on Chris Kunitz's one-timer just before the second period buzzer went off. Up 2-1, the Devils wanted to do something they rarely do - put the game away with another goal. During the whole season, the Devils have had their share of third period leads but only once have actually added to it...against Dallas on Niedermayer Night. Usually that has to do with a terrible power play that not only can't put teams away but usually keeps other teams in games with horrendous breakdowns.

Last night would be different however, as the Devils took advantage of an early power play to extend their lead after some nice passing from Kovy and Patrik Elias led to a tap-in goal by Danius Zubrus at 1:28. Zubrus's 12th of the year doubled the Devils' lead and for once, there was no third-period dramatics though they had to kill off a penalty after Henrik Tallinder threw one over the glass later in the period. Pittsburgh did get another thirteen shots on Brodeur in the third, but the NHL's all-time wins leader was equal to the task against a Pens team missing forwards Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal along with defenseman Kris Letang.

After the buzzer sounded on the first half of the Devils' season they headed to Western Canada for three games next week - at Calgary Tuesday, Edmonton Wednesday and Winnipeg Saturday. Brodeur's win last night gave him a victory in his 49th different NHL arena, since he'd only started once before in the Consol Energy Center and lost a shootout. He can run that total to an even 50 if he wins in the new Jets' arena next weekend. Following the game against Winnipeg though, the Devils will return home for the rest of the month - playing their next six games at the Prudential Center (with the All-Star break in between).

Pretty much the main concern for the team right now is the injury situation, with centers Travis Zajac and Jacob Josefson still out, along with forwards Anton Volchenkov and Andy Greene. Ostensibly the first three are all close to a return, but who really knows with the Devils? Volchenkov did get put on IR yesterday, but is still eligible to return at the start of the Devils' Canada swing.

Even without their full lineup however, the Devils are proving more and more by the game that last year was the exception and this could very well be a playoff team again.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Is this the year for Lundqvist?

Henrik Lundqvist is on a roll. He continued his assault on the league last night by turning away the Pens in a 3-1 road win. Right now, you can make the argument that there's no better goalie on the planet. That's how outstanding Lundqvist has been, running his personal winning streak to six last night while silencing Evgeni Malkin.

It sure would be nice if we could see it but the ridiculous greed between MSG and Time Warner continues to hinder viewers. Not that I'm complaining. I haven't seen many games this year due to my schedule. Given the success rate of the Rangers, text updates, the radio and Twitter have been plenty. It's almost become ritual for me not to tune in and then read a winning text like Marian Gaborik's 23rd goal that beat the Panthers in overtime the other night.

The set up was made by Derek Stepan, who looks more and more like a player to watch. A guy I was excited about from his time spent with Team USA when they won the World Junior Championship (WJC) over Canada. He led the tournament in points and John Carlson's OT winner is a much better image than the blanks they fired this year. Congrats to Sweden on winning their first in 31 years thanks to future Sen Mike Zibanejad's awesome backhand deke in sudden death to upset Russia. It truly is a great tournament that I love watching. A shame that NHL Network cut away from exciting endings in both semis. I'll get to that and more WJC in another entry.

The numbers don't lie. King Henrik has 18 wins, a 1.89 GAA (goals against average) which ranks third, and a gaudy .939 save percentage that places him only behind Boston tandem Tuukka Rask and Vezina incumbent Tim Thomas. His three shutouts aren't quite NHL leader Jon Quick's six thanks to dull LA replacement Darryl Sutter, who has the Kings winning 1-0 games routinely. You can't dispute the hire as the Kings have yet to lose in regulation since he replaced Terry Murray. I just don't like Sutter due to a bad experience when I worked with the Devils that I'll not publish.

When you look at our team that's surpassed all expectations at this point with the league's best record (26-9-4) and most points (56), leading the Bruins by three who host Vancouver now with another game at hand- it's hard to ignore the contributions of Gaborik (23-11-34), Mike Del Zotto (23 points, +25 rating), Ryan Callahan (14-17-31, 7 PPG), Stepan (18 assists, +13), Brad Richards (15 goals, 6 GW), Dan Girardi (110 hits, 100 blocks, 15 Pts) and Ryan McDonagh (17 Pts, +9). With Brandon Dubinsky coming around following a shorthanded goal and helper along with Artem Anisimov, who lately has been cool, these Blueshirts are well balanced. Rookie Carl Hagelin can't be overlooked, whose speed has been an asset along with his scoring (seven goals incl. 2 SHG to lead the club). Anton Stralman, Brandon Prust and even hexed Brian Boyle have all been instrumental as has Winter Classic hero Mike Rupp.

Wherever you look, this team surprises you. On any given night, a player you're not expecting can step up like Ruslan Fedotenko did versus the Flyers at MSG when I eerily picked him to score a big goal. That's what you get thanks to Jack Adams candidate John Tortorella, who has everyone playing hard but still feels the wrath of the Avery Army, who can't sense the obvious. That Sean Avery isn't needed anymore. If he was really that coveted, some team would've picked him up. Maybe it will come at the deadline with him again exiled to Connecticut. I don't feel bad for a guy who has made the most of his popularity, opening up a bar and dating models. Save the drama. It's time for the Avery supporters to go home and support this team entirely. Without the coach, it doesn't happen. Where are the Renney apologists? He's doing a bang up job in Edmonton.

Of course, the work of Lundqvist could boost any coach. No question this is the best hockey of Henrik's career. Every weakness seems to have been fixed. It's a pleasure to watch him make save after save when I can. The accolades are well deserved. Perhaps GMs who were blindfolded last year will actually come to their collective senses and nominate our goalie for an award he has a great shot at. One other thing that stands out is how accomodating King Henrik is, never complaining when Tortorella rests him like he did for Florida by playing dependable backup Marty Biron,who notched his eighth win the other day. It really helps that Biron is such a great team guy who also can get the job done. Tortorella has managed the goalies perfectly, which bodes well for the Spring.

Lundqvist always has a good pulse when the team does lose, which hasn't been often. Since falling at Washington 4-1 when Biron was in net, the Rangers have reeled off four straight, including the hard fought Classic that ticked off Scott Hartnell to the point of crying. He may as well have with how he acted during the HBO 24/7 series. You gotta love how even Claude Giroux was talking trash to our goalie and Anisimov as if that was going to get Hank off his game. After having a goal wiped out yesterday, the Pens crashed Lundqvist's crease but were pushed aside by our boys. These aren't your grandma's Rangers. Every player wears the logo with pride not shown since the last time our team made headlines. That said, any comparisons are preposterous.

Like Tort stated, they're not thinking about winning the Cup when they haven't even reached the halfway point. It's all about the next game/what's ahead. Given the superior goaltending they're getting from Henke and Biron along with the continued contributions from everyone, there's no reason for Garden Faithful not to be confident about this group. They are cohesive and hungry to prove themselves. It's still a tough conference that goes through well oiled machine Boston, who entered today plus-69 in goal differential. A ridiculous stat that borders on insane. Who can beat the Bruins? That's a pretty loaded question. Right now, the Rangers are in the mix with the Flyers and Pens, who I still believe will be there at the end despite struggling since Sid The Kid went down. The Pens play a big game for fifth versus the Devils, who come off a nice home win over Florida. If we were ranking right now:


Notice the resurgent Caps are absent from the list. The way Ovechkin's finally playing along with Tomas Vokoun remembering why they signed him, you have to think Washington will replace Florida. Also keep an eye on the Jets, who if they ever overcome their road troubles, could be dangerous. Don't discount Buffalo either who somehow are only a few points out despite an inconsistent Ryan Miller. Lindy Ruff usually turns it around. There aren't many pushovers. All could be tough outs. So, ranking may not matter. Especially considering past Springs. It's all about staying hot.

Our team's play can't be ignored. But the moment they get ahead of themselves is when it could blow up. Just don't expect them to take anything for granted with Tort pumping the troops up. At the beginning of the season, I curiously picked the Blueshirts to upset both the Pens and Bruins to reach the Conference Final. If it happens no matter the opponent, it would be the first time we've been legit since Mess, Gretz, Leetch, Gravy and Richy still played. That's how I'm judging them.

There's a long way to go but you have to like our chances with Lundqvist doing his thing.

Devils finally break through in 2012 with 5-2 win over Florida

After a terrible start to the new year, blowing another two-goal lead Monday in Ottawa before losing in OT and then getting waxed by the Bruins 6-1 at home Wednesday, the Devils needed a win badly last night with a tough four-game road trip looming on the horizon. As usual it was a five-siren game, with blown leads and head-scratching mistakes before the Devils finally broke a 2-2 tie for good with the first of Ilya Kovalchuk's two goals at 11:40 of the third period. For once, the Devils not only managed to hold a lead but also extend it with two empty-netters in the final minute, scored by Kovy and Zach Parise to give each their 14th goal of the season and account for the final 5-2 margin.

Going into last night's game there were two fascinating subplots, one involving Patrik Elias, who was playing his 1000th NHL game last night. Although the accomplishment was acknowledged in the middle of the first period, he'll formally be honored by the team and the NHL before the Devils' next home game - on the 17th against Winnipeg. The other subplot involved the newest Panther...John Madden, who had remained unsigned until coming to terms with the Panthers days ago on a $600k deal, and his first game (wearing an unfamiliar #10) was ironically enough against his long-time former team last night. Madden did get a nice ovation before the game, as did Elias during it.

Early on, things were looking good as the Devils outshot Florida 13-6 in the first period and got on the board early against Jakob Markstrom at 3:59, when Parise found Calder candidate Adam Henrique in front, where all he had to do was make a quick move and beat the Panthers goaltender for his tenth score of the season. Yet, despite the early good signs the Devils would only exit the first period tied after a series of ill-fated pinch attempts led to a two-on-one for the Panthers, and when Marcel Goc found an open Mikael Samuelsson you could have guessed the result. Sure enough, Samuelsson beat Johan Hedberg for only his second goal of the season at 7:33 to tie the game.

However, just thirty-six seconds into the second period, the Devils grabbed the lead again through an inspired Elias. After being teed up by Henrik Tallinder, Elias cranked a one-time slapshot through traffic and past Markstrom to give the Devils' all time offensive leader his fourteenth goal of 2011-12. Tallinder and fellow defenseman Mark Fayne got the assists on Elias's goal, which gave the Devils a lead they kept...for a whole two minutes and ten seconds. This time it was the ill-fated fourth line of Cam Janssen, Eric Boulton and Ryan Carter that screwed up, slow to arrive in a play that developed into a four-on-two, with Krys Barch slipping a wrister through Hedberg's legs to tie it again. Honestly, I love Cam and he'd have a place if he was the only enforcer but how many games of two minutes TOI and -1 do we have to go through before Pete DeBoer realizes playing two no-talent goons is just not viable in today's NHL?

Part of the problem right now is the Devils continue to be bitten by the injury bug. Travis Zajac is again on the shelf, this time due to achilles soreness, the same achilles he tore in the offseason. Allegedly, this is minor but I don't consider any injury that forces you to miss multiple games and is in the same area where you had major surgery anything 'minor'. Not only is Zajac out, but defenseman Anton Volchenkov also missed his second consecutive game due to 'lower body soreness'. At least Jacob Josefson's getting closer, being mentioned on the scratch list again and even subbing in as the team's sixth defenseman in practice (sadly, he would be better there than some of our actual defenseman). Also, talented but struggling forward Mattias Tedenby was a healthy scratch last night for the faceless Steve Zalewski. With Zalewski and Tim Sestito part of the Devils' third line, the team just has too many bodies in the lineup that don't belong in the league right now.

Fortunately the Devils' top line would pick it up after a hairy second period which included near misses by Madden and Kris Versteeg, the latter being somewhat comical as Versteeg broke his stick over his knee after missing an open net on a play where Hedberg was flopping all over the place. After plenty of anxious moments throughout most of the second and the first half of the third periods, the Devils finally got back in front again when Elias found Kovy with a gorgeous feed and Kovy directed the puck past Markstrom to give the Devils their third lead of the night. Thankfully the third time proved the charm in holding a lead although a delay of game penalty on Parise led to a real scary final three minutes, with the Devils' best PK'er in the box.

Despite not having Parise, the best PK unit in the league did their job and even extended the lead when the Panthers pulled Markstrom and Bryce Salvador's chip out of the zone found an open Kovy who streaked past the D and slipped it into the open net with a minute remaining, providing this blogger a huge sigh of relief. Matt Taormina and Henrique also put up secondary assists on the Kovy goals. Elias would complete his great night, finding Parise for another empty-netter (with help from another secondary assist by Danius Zubrus), a rarity for a Devils team that usually doesn't even find the empty net once!

Notes: After I got home last night, I read the somewhat surprising (or not) news that the NHLPA had rejected the NHL's highly publicized realignment plan for next year. Even though I had my issues with the new format of four 'conferences', the fact that the NHLPA cited travel - which was supposed to be made better by this - as their reason for rejecting it is comical and a bit disingenous. With Donald Fehr at the helm, it looks like the latest NHLPA-NHL war everyone feared is going to come to fruition with this rejection the first shot across the bow. I would have felt a lot better or at least not cared as much about the rejection if it wasn't directly related to the new CBA and the kind of approach the revamped NHLPA's going to take with this labor negotiation.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Winter Classic Observations

The fifth Winter Classic had a bit of everything.

-Great goaltending due to Vezina hopeful Henrik Lundqvist, who finished with 34 saves.

-Tight checking with the first portion of the game between the Rangers and Flyers scoreless.

-Big hits, featuring a Classic record 91 from throwback rivals intent on inflicting pain- which featured 50 from our Blueshirts with Ryan Callahan (12) and Brandon Dubinsky (11) leading the way while Flyer antagonist Scott Hartnell had an unlucky 13 along with a nifty assist on Claude Giroux's goal that had the hosts up two.

-Goalscoring with the teams combining to light the lamp five times over a 13-minute span, including unlikely hero Mike Rupp's two which sparked the guests to three unanswered highlighted by Brad Richards' decider. He may not be scoring much but almost half his goals (14) have been game-winners (6).

-Comebacks with Ranger defenseman Marc Staal finally returning after missing the first 36 games with post-concussion symptoms (PCS). A year following brother Jordan Staal's return in Winter Classic IV, there was Staal replacing Jeff Woywitka on the third pair with Stu Bickel looking a bit rusty in 20 shifts over a well managed 12:41 that included 1:14 of penalty kill time where he's always shined. It'll take time for Marc to round into form. But the encouraging news is he felt fine and should be ready to make his home debut tomorrow night in an anticipated rematch with the Panthers.

-Snow with some flakes decorating Citizens Bank Park as the second period began, making it even more special like the inaugural game (Pens-Sabres) and the third at Fenway (Flyers-Bruins). Maybe there is magic when they lace 'em up for pond hockey.

-There also were questionable calls that drew the ire of winning coach John Tortorella, who couldn't fathom two in particular, including Ryan McDonagh being called for Delay Of Game for "covering up the puck" in the crease which allowed Daniel Briere a penalty shot with 19 seconds left with a chance to tie. The sophomore defenseman saved a goal with his hustle even though it looked like he never closed his hand on it- instead sliding it over for Lundqvist to cover. Be that as it may, the call was made and Briere's forehand try was denied by the Swedish star, who closed up the five-hole, ensuring victory for his first place club.

-Fireworks, which set off despite our team prevailing much to Ed Snider's chagrin along with many Philly faithful who watched as the Rangers and the fans who braved the elements celebrated in the Phillies' ballpark. You just can't make it up.

-Trash talk with Hartnell infuriated over Rupp's salute after his first goal mocking Jaromir Jagr, who unfortunately reinjured his groin and took only one shift in the second before just sitting on the Flyer bench to lend support. Of course, who could blame the orange pumpkin for getting irked over such silliness when later there he was stewing it up as the final horn sounded. Perhaps the three losses are getting to Hartnell, who acted like a baby.

-Surprising playmaking and contributions from Brandon Prust, who opted to use his hands over his fists by making not one but two perfect backhand feeds that set up Rupp's pair. John Mitchell also assisted with the tough trio a huge part of another team win.

-A great crowd with over 46,000 strong coming out for this once in a lifetime unique event that's become the NHL signature. Despite a hike in prices, the demand is there. If I had the cash, I would've coughed it up too. To those who were able to, just remember how lucky you are.

-Conspiracy theories with Tortorella wondering if the league and officials Ian Walsh and Dennis LaRue met to try to get the hotly contested game into overtime. It would've been a boon for the NHL and NBC a la the epic finish in Buffalo. Of course, Tort apologized for his commentary which included "disgusting" to sum up the third and wanting to make amends in person with both refs. Sadly, he wasn't wrong on anything he said. But it'll cost plenty.

-My favorite part was the Alumni Game with the Flyers prevailing 3-1 highlighted by ageless Bernie Parent putting the pads on one more time and making two huge saves in his classic stand up style. He only played four and a half minutes but to do that and skate off under his own power to thunderous cheers was one of the coolest things ever. And of course, Eric Lindros getting the deserved loud ovation he deserved after 11 years away. Him and Bobby Clarke sharing the ice with the former GM and all-time great supporting the Big E in one day making the Hockey Hall Of Fame. How wonderful it was to see Lindros flying down the wing to set up former Legion Of Doom 'mate John LeClair. And on the other side, we had Mark Messier and Brian Leetch along with Adam Graves turning back the clock. Sure, we only scored one with Glenn Anderson finishing off a nice pass from noted playmaker Darius Kasparaitis. But it was awesome to see guys like Mike Gartner, Darren Turcotte and Dan Blackburn, who made some sparkling saves. I love the Alumni Game and hope to one day catch one up close.

-Blocked shots with the Blueshirts dominating with 20 of a total 28, including four from Superman Dan Girardi and three apiece from Bickel and evolving Anton Stralman.

We could easily write so much more about the Classic. But just the sights and sounds were enough. Here's hoping it never goes away.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Devils close old year and head into a new one on high

Although the Devils aren't even halfway through the NHL season yet, in a sense their 3-1 win over the Penguins on New Year's Eve did close a successful chapter as they finished 2011 with nine wins in twelve games. Overall, 2011 proved to be a gigantic improvement on 2010. Between the latter part of the '09-10 season and the ill-fated beginning to last season, the Devils were 30-42-8 with 68 points in 80 games during 2010. With their revival in the second half of last season combined with a plus .500 start this year, the Devils finished 2011 with a 49-29-4 record and 102 points.

That difference represents quite the turnaround for this Devils team, who ended 2010 on the lowest of notes, in last place in the NHL and with once-popular Devil (and longtime assistant) John MacLean getting the ax just 33 games into his coaching tenure. This year's Devils are 21-15-1 and moving up in the standings fast, with a team that's getting healthier by the day - although they got a scare when defenseman Anton Volchenkov left yesterday's game late in the first period and didn't return. Ostensibly he won't be out too long, but Matt Taormina did a good job filling in for Henrik Tallinder when he missed six games due to back spasms, so he'll be counted on to step in if Volchenkov misses any time.

Among the regulars only Andy Greene and Jacob Josefson remain on the shelf, with Josefson having made significant progress from a serious collarbone injury, and the latest is he's expected to accompany the team on their Western Canada swing next week, with an eye on returning then. Greene might come back closer to the All-Star break but otherwise the pieces are starting to come together with Travis Zajac now four games into his return from achilles surgery.

Other than good health, the team has more reasons to be optomistic about what lies ahead in 2012. Rookie Adam Henrique, former A-line star turned camp tryout Petr Sykora and fellow vets David Clarkson and Danius Zubrus have all provided welcome and somewhat unexpected contributions. All Henrique has done is put up 28 points in 34 games with a +7, after coming into the season with exactly one game of NHL experience. Clarkson - after a couple of dissapointing seasons - is surprisingly tied for the team lead in goals with thirteen, with Sykora and Zubrus also chipping in ten to this point.

Those four, along with team leaders Zach Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk and Patrik Elias have given the Devils an NHL-high seven double-digit goal scorers. A nearly ageless Elias leads the team with 34 points in 36 games, having made a full-time switch to center this season. After slow starts, Parise and Kovy have each picked it up, with the captain tallying 7 goals and 10 assists in fourteen December games - and best news of all may be that the clock's started again on a potential long-term contract negotiation. Kovy has put up ninteen points in his last sixteen games, and may finally be on the way to silencing his critics once and for all, especially with more games like Saturday's. All Kovy did was put up three points including a spectacular penalty shot goal in the first period, as the Devils squeaked out a game against a stubborn Penguins team.

Defensively it hasn't been as pretty at times but things could be worse, if Bryce Salvador wasn't playing some of his best hockey as a Devil the last few weeks and Mark Fayne hadn't come out of nowhere last year to become not only a blueline regular, but one that frequently gets used against other team's top scorers. At times vets Tallinder, Volchenkov and Greene have been shaky, along with new acquisition Kurtis 'The Statue' Foster but all are capable of better play in the second half, especially once they become more acclimated to coach Pete DeBoer's system. Last but not least, teen sensation Adam Larsson has alternately defied the skeptics by becoming a regular (and playing big minutes) as a teenage rookie, but also showed why he's a teen at times with mistakes that the team's just going to have to live with. For what it's worth, Larsson is already the team's leading point-getter from the blueline - granted with just thirteen in 35 games, and he's been taken off the power play to focus on his five-on-five game.

In goal it's been a bit of a mixed bag with Martin Brodeur finally showing signs of recovering from a nightmarish injury-marred start to 2011-12 in his last few starts, holding both the Sabres and Penguins to one goal apiece. He was rooked out of a star yesterday afternoon, but during his own interview for MSG+ at center ice after the game, Kovy gave Marty his due props for a strong 29-save performance against the Pens. For the most part, Johan Hedberg has been strong again as the Devils' backup/injury fill in and his stats are still a lot better than Marty's, though his last few outings haven't quite been up to early season standards.

As far as DeBoer and the system, it's been a mixed bag so far. Clearly the team is finally attempting to break the mold of its pre-lockout thinking of trap, checking line and playing in one half of the rink with a more up-tempo system - changes I think were overdue, especially with the lack of defensemen that could execute the old style system. Analyst Pierre McGuire couldn't emphasize enough how much he liked our new system in a recent VERSUS telecast. However breaking in a new system and shelving old methods of thinking haven't come without growing pains. For every game the team's come back from two and even three goals down in, they've also give up multiple two and three-goal leads. Special teams has also emphasized the mixed bag of the new system, as the Devils have become shorthanded terrors when on the penalty kill, but a power play disaster when it comes to both scoring and giving up shorthanded goals.

My only real problem with DeBoer so far has been his insistence of doubling up on enforcers, frequently dressing both Eric Boulton and Cam Janssen, but that's really a bit of a nitpick since the fourth line isn't going to win or lose us too many games this year. Thankfully, with some of the regulars that have come back in recent weeks the icetime of our top players has been cut down from ridiculous to 'normal' top player levels. I've liked his use of timeouts for the most part, though his timeout yesterday in the midst of a penalty kill was a bit puzzling - and soon after the Penguins scored their only goal to cut our lead to 2-1.

All in all though, things are looking up for the Devils as 2012 begins. With young players like Henrique, Larsson and Fayne playing key roles along with a solid core of vets and role players, this version of the Devils may just get back to the playoffs after missing last year for the first time in fifteen years. What this team could do in the big dance is anyone's guess, it'd depend on a lot of factors - such as how Marty's playing, how much the defense progresses and whether the offense can keep putting up points at the rate it's been doing so lately. Not to mention whether the team makes any big deadline deals and how that affects the team.

The Puck Stops Here


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