The Rangers Game Log

Monday, March 13, 2006

Five is Jive

- I think that every Ranger fan has had this little fear all season somewhere in our minds that there would come a point where we would wake up from the rapturous dream that has been the 2005-06 season. For many of us, the 6-1 win in Philly that resumed the season may have temporarily doused those doubts, and for Ranger fans, thoughts like “we’re for real” and, especially, "we can win the Cup" can be extremely dangerous ones. But does the winless streak continued by the agonizing 3-2 OT loss to Atlanta portend the end of the line?

One of my favorite sayings by the sagacious long-time Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver was: A team is never as good as it looks when it’s winning, and never as bad as it looks when it’s losing. And the Rangers looked very, very good indeed during the winning streak that propelled it near the top of the conference and league standings.

However, if this is how bad the team looks when it’s losing, it doesn’t really seem all that bad. The goaltending remains solid and at many times spectacular, the work ethic is still there; and these two critical factors are reflected in the mere nine regulation goals allowed in the 0-3-2 streak. And thanks to the two points earned in overtime losses, the team retains its two point first place lead. Yeah, dig it man – we’re still in first.

But that the team is in a slump is beyond doubt now; all the classic signs are there, particularly the fact that the games are all starting to look basically the same. Last night was a variation on the theme – the Thrashers hit two posts in the first period; the Blueshirts shots-on-goal onslaught came in the second period instead of the third; and the team actually had the lead. But still there were the many missed chances, the wasted power plays, and the penalties – of the deserved, unlucky, and questionable variety. For the second game in a row, a fruitless five-on-three power play loomed large in the outcome; and once again a bad late third period penalty - oh, a very bad penalty by Betts at a point when the Rangers had seemed to regain their equilibrium in a 2-1 game - followed immediately by an unfortunate clear-into-the-crowd call helped to seal the deal.

The Rangers have exactly one play for their five-on-three power play; unlike most teams, there’s no attempt to work the puck down low in an attempt to find an open man within easy range. Just feed the puck to Jagr in that spot just to the right of the high slot. When you’re hot, you’re hot, and the pucks flew past Robert Esche in Philly and many other befuddled victims; when you’re not, you’re not, and Kari Lehtonen and Cristobal Huet seemed to swat the pucks away with the ease of Keanu Reeves waving away the bullets at the end of The Matrix. The palpable relief of the crowd when the home team was up 2-0 dissipated with each missed shot, each wasted power play, and the sense of doom took over. By the time Martin Straka was whistled for an incredulous holding the stick call in the overtime, I don’t know that anyone in the stands didn’t anticipate the unhappy outcome.

A slump can be a tough thing to break out of, especially with a game in Carolina coming up. But it’s a long season, and teams have to weather these periods; note that the Hurricanes are themselves winless in three since the win here last Monday. To me, the signs point to a slump and nothing more. An 0-3-2 streak with nine goals allowed doesn’t make the Rangers a bad team anymore than the Islanders’ 5-1 streak makes them good. Of course, the ominous sight of Jagr grabbing that spot on his hip/groin and his post-game wavering on his availability for Tuesday’s game, can change everything. But for now, we have to keep the faith. Prucha is back and seemed to regain his confidence as the game wore on. Imagine the scoring depth he could bring to this team? It’s all good, really….it’s a sometimes annoying sports cliché when people point out that: well, if someone told you in September that we’d be in first place yada yada yada. But in this case, it applies, so until further notice or the sight of Lundqvist doing a Mike Dunham impersonation, we have to keep the faith. What else is there to do?

- Well, we got the HMO line again, but with an Orr instead of Ortmeyer, who Renney said needed the rest. The line did its job a few minutes into the second period. After a listless start to the period, they kept the puck in the Thrashers’ zone with some hard work and a couple of solid bumps by Orr on Eric Boulton, whom he tried, unsuccessfully, to goad into a fight off the opening faceoffs of the first two periods. The shift seemed to pick the team up and the two goals followed shortly thereafter. However, once again there were too many missed opportunities, especially by a hapless Rucinsky, who perhaps had to re-adjust to Jagr’s pinpoint passes after being moved back up to the top line. He was credited with four shots on goal in the second, but missed at least a couple of others, committed two turnovers and a penalty before leaving with a knee injury described as just a tweak.

- Sanders Ozolinsh looks shaky on D; his failure to clear the puck led to the first Atlanta goal, and he looked tentative and downright scary at times deep in his own zone. But he also showed his offensive prowess, unleashing a wicked wrist shot in the third that Lehtonen came up big on soon before his team rallied, big save.


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