The Rangers Game Log

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Playoff Tweak

- I got my invoice for playoff tickets on Saturday morning, and it was a far different experience than during the past seven seasons, when it was for the most part something to scoff at and ignore. Those seasons tend to blend together as one, just like the four consecutive playoff seasons ended at the hands of the Icelanders in the 80’s, a torture that only Ranger fans could be subjected to. My recollection now was that in each of those seven seasons, the team’s playoff fate was already fairly certain by the time the invoices arrived, even as they did so earlier and earlier each year in an attempt to at least generate some interest income for Cablevision.

This year is different of course, and I was excited to return it right away, not even waiting for the deadline. Then I turned on the TV to catch the end of the bronze medal game, and the very first words I heard were “..and Jagr doesn’t kill penalties, but he hasn’t returned either.” And once again, as it did when I read of his being helped off the ice during the Finland game, the season flashed before my eyes. The ups and downs of being a Ranger fan can strike at any time, even during a 2 1/2 months hiatus. I was glued to the set at game’s end, watching for the sight of #68 on the ice. Relief swept over me when I saw him join the celebration and participate in the handshake line (his handshake with Tyutin was particularly perfunctory); and I replayed the scene over and over and in slow motion in an attempt to discern any revealing body language, or to perhaps lip-read him telling Rangers teammates something like “Don’t worry, it’s fine, I just didn’t want to take any chances, and I would have played if the game was closer. Wanna go out for some beers?”

So the Daily News terms it a “tweak,” and he told Johnette Howard of Newsday: "But if the score was different, I think I could go." We can only see how he feels after the long flight home and recovery from jet lag. And for now, my playoff voucher is still sitting here.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Bring the Troops Home Now

- I’m just about recovered from the shock of reading the words “Jaromir Jagr was assisted off the ice..” the other day. The season flashed before all of our eyes, and with the competition sure to become even more intense as the tournament moves into the medal round, I don’t know if I can even bear to watch. Time to bring the boys home.

The nasty attack highlights perhaps the biggest challenge the Rangers will face as they move towards the playoffs – trying to protect their top player, whose number 68 seems to have become a more and more inviting target over the last few weeks. By gamely suiting up the next day in a game his team certainly could have won without him, Jagr may have sent a message that he won’t be easily cowed. But the Rangers need to send a message that they will not tolerate attacks on their most talented players; perhaps they can start by running Finnish goalie Antero Niittymaki if he starts in Philly on March 2.

OK, I’m kind of kidding about that, but the issue is a serious one; Ranger fans merely have to think back to the physical beating that the Blueshirts took the last time they were in the playoffs, a mere nine year ago. In the opening round, Kirk Muller slew-footed the pesky Bill Berg, breaking his leg. In the second round, John McLean broke the arm of Niklas Sundstrom with a senseless slash. Sundstrom had had his best season to this day with 24 goals, 28 assists and a plus-23, and had been one of the team’s best players in the playoffs to that point. In the semis, the Flyers targeted Brian Leetch from the opening faceoff of the series, and it took only to Game 2 until Trent Klatt wrecked his wrist with a hard check into the boards. Leetch gave it a try in Games 4 and 5, but couldn’t shoot the puck and the series was effectively over at that point. He won the Norris Trophy that season and finished with a plus/minus of +36. The injury bothered Leetch well into the next season, and I would argue that he’s never been as good as he was before; he hasn’t been close to being a plus player since that year. For good measure, Klatt nailed his brother-in-law Ken Gernander in Game 3 with one of the most vicious and mean-spirited checks I’ve ever seen; Gernander’s major league career was effectively ruined.

A willingness to strike back at the other team’s top players would make teams think twice about taking liberties and help keep Jagr safe. So would a quick end to the Czech team’s run in the Olympics.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Liv For The Gold

Stefan Liv started in goal for the Swedes today. Why change a winning formula?


Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Are They Over Yet?

Say the Czechs and the Russians are playing for the gold medal. With overtime ticking down, the Czechs intercept the puck at their own blue line, and Jagr comes steaming up the right wing boards into the offensive zone. Darius Kasparaitis is caught a little flat-footed; he has a chance to make a play, but only by taking Jagr out with a hip check along the boards. Kinda like the completely clean, but injury-inducing check he laid on the Sabres' Tim Connolly at the Garden a few weeks ago. What does he do?

Unlikely situation to occur? Probably. But they'll be many cases I'm sure in which a player has to make some kind of play against an NHL-teammate, and there are entirely possible scenarios that nobody wants to think about. I don't think I've ever approached any hockey tournament with such a combination of anticipating great hockey and dreading the unthinkable. Mostly the latter.

Are the Olympics over yet?

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Big Picture Gets Smaller

- ‘Surprising’ is no longer adequate to describe the Rangers season; the Blueshirts’ 35th win of the season put them past even amazing and incredible, straight into Rod Serling territory. A convincing sweep of the obnoxious Leafs was more than one could have asked for, or even imagined. Not that the Rangers aren’t a better team and shouldn't have won both games, but coming after the dramatic win in Philadelphia, the sheer humiliation of an Islanders’ team that didn’t seem to be in the same league, and the eye-opening win against Ottawa in front of a raucous crowd, one could have easily imagined and accepted a split with a desperate Leafs team that the Rangers always have a problem with.

The big picture, once a 2-3 year (optimistically) project, is presently the next two and a half weeks, as we all hold our breath that we get the team back in one piece for the resumption of the season on March 2. You never quite know what you’ll get when you throw a new mix with young, hungry guys together with a new coaching staff; add in great goaltending and a guy playing like he’s the best in the world, and suddenly the future becomes now. There’s something magical about a team that just comes together like this one has, and we’ve seen teams like this go far into the playoffs. Despite the emphasis on the future, there’s more than a little “now” element to this team – Martin Straka, who I never imagined was this good (even if he should have twice as many goals as he has), is a Group III free agent after the season, as is, according to this chart on the Hockey Trade Rumors website, Rucinsky, Ward, Poti, Rucchin, and Strudwick.

And we’ve heard some strange rumblings from Jaomir Jagr about wanting to play in Russia. He’s certainly playing like a man with a particular mission, and with that being the case, should the team continue to roll after the break, Sather and Maloney may feel that, as unimaginable the thought would have been in September, they’re in a position to trade one of the surplus of valuable prospects in the system for a veteran that can help now. If you happen to stumble upon a team that just happens to click, you gotta go for it. Just the defection of two or three of the abovementioned players can completely change the chemistry, and in this era, changes are the rule rather than the exception.

The break might be a good thing; it will be a chance for the role players like Moore and Ortmeyer and Rucchin to recharge their legs. Sykora is looking forward to the rest, and Prucha will be safe and sound and working towards his return. Whether the recent good karma we’ve seen since Rucinsky’s ping-pong shot off Sykora’s mask tied the game in Philly will continue remains to be seen – there was the fortunate deflection on Kasparaitus’ pass to Poti on his breakaway goal at the Garden; in Toronto, Rucinsky’s centering pass was conveniently returned to him by a Leafs defender, allowing him to set up Sykora in the slot; Straka’s pass bounced off a Leafs skate right to Jagr for his 40th.

One thing I was a bit disturbed about was the way the Leafs went after Jagr without any retribution. Bryan McCabe was penalized for a hard and particularly vicious and uncalled for blind-side check after the puck was gone; and Darcy Tucker drew an elbowing penalty that didn’t look as bad on replay as it did originally. But still, in the not-so-old days, many teams (usually other than the Rangers) would never allow their best player to be abused like that, and even now, I doubt that a Pat Quinn-coached team would allow that to pass without a response. Yeah, I’m an old-time hockey guy; but if teams see that they can slam Jagr without consequence, the consequences for the Rangers could be catastrophic.