The Rangers Game Log

Thursday, March 30, 2006

More Fish Sticks Please

- The Rangers will resume the major league portion of their schedule in Ottawa tonight, after a 5-1 scrimmage win over the combative but not competitive Icelanders at the dismal Coliseum. It doesn’t get any better than this. Ranger fans took over the building with chants of “MVP,” “We Want Fish Sticks,” “DP Sucks,” and the obnoxious “WOO” that follows the home team’s occasional goals there. For those of us who endured the days of “1940,” “Last Place,” and “Double Chili,” we can’t possibly rub it in enough. The Blueshirts won three out of four there, all in completely dominating fashion. Since Kevin Weekes, returning too soon from a groin injury, gave up three goals on the first three shots of the first game, the Rangers outscored them by 20-7. We can only revel in the fact that there are two home games left against the hapless “rivals;” the only negative is that there will be hardly any of their fair weather fans to taunt on those nights.

- Could it be that Colton Orr is a hockey player? Following up his competent performance against the Sabres, Orr played a big role on this night, challenging and decking Eric Godard (again) after the latter left his feet to sandwich Kasparaitis, who had a dynamic return with five hits. Did we miss Kaspar, or what? Orr showed discipline and smarts when refusing to fight John Erskine, and then drew a four minute power play after delivering a clean hit. He nailed Miroslav Satan with another clean hit in the first, and was on the ice for Blair Betts' goal, one of his ten shifts.

- Renney rolled out the genuine HMO line for ten minutes of action, and they provided their usual energy. Can we have that regularly please?

- Jagr told John Giannone after the game that he was trying out new skate blades, and that he was a little “taller” for the game. He said that made for good playmaking, as evidenced by his four primary assists, but that he didn’t have a good shot. Could have fooled me; his shot that deflected off of Straka was his patented cut to the middle wrister that certainly would have gone in anyway.

- Does anyone feel sorry for Howie Rose?

- Interesting to see if Tyutin gets back into the lineup tonight. The defense performed nearly flawlessly; Strudwick had a strong game, though this game may not be a good judge. Lundqvist should be fresh for the Sens after practically getting the night off; he made just 18 saves but fanned on Yashin’s goal. That’s 25 goals for the big waste, who makes about as much as Jagr. Think about that. Islander fans must have been thrilled to hear Stan Fischler speculate that Milbury would be asked to stay because of the young players performing so well of late.

- As impressive as Jagr’s accomplishments are this year, keep in mind that Jean Ratelle missed 17 games at the end of his 109 point 1971-72 season when he suffered a broken ankle after being hit with a slapshot off the stick of teammate Dale Rolfe in a 4-1 win over the California Golden Seals. I was there, and will never forget the groan from the crowd as Ratelle went down (one of many such groans heard throughout the years). Bobby Rousseau scored two goals that night as Gilles Villemure got the win in one of the most costly wins in Ranger history.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Back From the Brink

- OK, I guess that’s a bit too dramatic; it’s not like they were facing elimination, nor even a significant blow to making the playoffs. But I still feel as if they came back from the brink of something with their dramatic 5-4 shootout win against the Sabres. The Rangers have lost 20 games in regulation this year; but for each of those, even including the four that occurred during the recent six game winless streak, I had some kind of rationalization or excuse – they didn’t get the bounces, they were tired, they ran into a hot goalie, or they were plain just due to lose.

But to me, this one would have been tough to take, and would have shunted them closer to the pack of ordinary teams fighting for playoff spots. They needed to follow through from the two points earned in Florida, to show that they were indeed on the way back to something resembling pre-Olympic form. They were facing a slumping Sabres’ club that was ready to be had. A loss would have made a finish higher than the 5th seed increasingly unlikely and left them with just three wins in 12 games. And worst of all, down 4-2 after two periods, I was starting to think that perhaps the magic of this season had run its course. There’s little short of a ten game losing streak to close the season (unlikely with three games against the woeful Icelanders remaining) that could detract from the unexpected delights of this season, but I think we all are anticipating some playoff topping on the cake. And I was starting to have my doubts.

Instead, the Broadway Blueshirts reached back, and despite little jump left in Ranger legs towards the end of one of the most brutal schedule stretches I can ever recall, may have topped much of what has occurred in this amazing year. The bursts of energy are coming only in fits and starts, such as the fierce forechecking by the RMO – Rucchin, Moore and Ortmeyer – line that led to the second goal. They still spent far too much time pursuing opponents than controlling the puck. But this team hung in – you could see the desperation level rise after the Sabres’ 4th goal, as Colton Orr, playing with Betts and Ward, delivered his best shift as a Ranger.

And once again, as it should be, it was the team’s two stars that were able to lift them to victory. Jagr, in another brilliant performance, set up Sykora on the third goal with a deft one-touch pass, and virtually willed the puck past Ryan Miller from the side of the net to tie the game. On the subsequent five-on-three, he hit the inside of the post on the first shot of what seemed like batting practice, with Roszival lopping up the fat pitches. Though he couldn’t break through on that, or on the overtime power play, it all made for another memorable performance by a true superstar playing the hockey of his life. He was credited with nine shots on goal, but must have had at least that many blocked, deflected, or wide…possibly on the two abovementioned power plays alone!

Henrik Lundqvist replaced Weekes, who fought the puck all night, did a great imitation of a stone pyramid on the Sabre’s two wraparound goals, and failed to make a big save all night. Lundqvist made big stops at the end of regulation and overtime, and didn’t give Buffalo even a chance in the overtime. What a great moment after Afinogenov’s shot, when the crowd went silent waiting for the referee’s signal of no goal.

So two more games in this ridiculous stretch, and then a welcome four days off during which the Blueshirts will hopefully be able to recharge. If they can get two points before the break – a good possibility given Wednesday’s trip to Long Island – they should be in excellent shape for the final chapter to an amazing season which was brought back from the brink at the Garden last night.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Rangers Take a Costly Point

- I went into last night’s game in Florida with a real sense of doom after watching the pre-game show. Kevin Weekes spoke about the difficulty of staying sharp for what would be just his second start in the last ten games. On top of that, we heard about the red-hot Panthers, back in the playoff race and desperate for points, and how they’ve been regularly generating 37 shots or more per game. The Rangers are 1-3 in games without Darius Kasparaitis, we were told. Not the kind of stuff to give me a lot of confidence.

Yet that changed in the opening minute, when a sharp series of passes - Malik to Jagr to Rucinsky – led to the opening shot of the game. It was a good first period for the Blueshirts, despite being outshot 9-4. They withstood the expected Panthers attack with some excellent crisp short passing in their own zone, some of the best we've seen of late, and the team looked extremely sharp. And when the amazing, incredible, words-can’t-even-describe Jaromir Jagr snapped home his 50th of the year, it looked like the team was on its way to a big win.

Not so fast. Once again, it was a series of Rangers penalties that helped to turn the game around. Four straight in the middle of the second period; two of them of the cheap, hooking variety, which becomes far more maddening in the light of the uncalled slash that has apparently ended Rucinsky’s season. Thus, most of the second period was spent in the Rangers zone, leading to a 2-1 deficit.

But the Rangers did a lot of things well in this game. The power play came through with a huge tying goal by Sykora at the end of the second. They came back with a strong third period, only to be foiled by Roberto Luongo, who made several big saves, stopping Ortmeyer twice in succession, and stopping Rucinsky’s tricky backhander on the play that he was hurt on the vicious slash by Jay Bouwmeester. And despite surrendering a season-high 42 shots, they never really withered in their own zone; the forwards stayed in hot pursuit and the D combined for ten blocked shots. Malik rebounded with a superb effort, and Jason Strudwick acquitted himself well in place of Kasparaitis. The ‘H’MO line, with Marcel Hossa replacing Hollweg, provided some good energy. And what can you say about Jagr, who was inches away from ending the game in OT when he made his patented “try-and-stop-me” swoop around Bouwmeester, and his usual move around the goalie, only to be stopped by either the post or perhaps Luongo’s stick.

It was a point on the road, and after all, with the backup goalie in the nets against a hot, hungry club, you have to take that, IF, that is, the Blueshirts, with Lundqvist back in the nets, get two of them in Tampa tonight. Weekes played well in the first and third periods, and made big stops at the end of regulation and overtime to get to the shootout. But while we can perhaps give him a pass on the tricky shot by Nathan Horton that beat him for the first goal, the second was a decidedly soft one, and in the shootout, there was enough space between Weekes’ legs for Horton and Jokinen to have shot Karl Rove through. We’ll look for some better results tonight.

- Sykora is becoming a sure thing on the shootout with the lightning quick top shelf backhand shot. I don’t know if goalies could stop that even if they know that it’s coming.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Rangers Lacking HMO Coverage

- Ryan Hollweg's reckless and dangerous (not to mention dumb) hit from behind on RJ Umberger, coming at a time when the Rangers had regained the lead on Jagr's second goal and with #68 looking as if he was ready to put up Kobe-type numbers for the night, was the obvious turning point of the Blueshirts’ 6-3 loss to the Flyers. However, it also cast a shadowy spotlight on Tom Renney's roster decisions for the game.

When NHL play resumed after the Olympic break with the Rangers visiting the Orange Crud, Renney went with a finesse lineup despite the fact that Darius Kasparaitis would be an obvious target after injuring Simon Gagne in Turin. The Blueshirts made Donald Brashear and company look foolish that night in a 6-1 win. However, last night, with Kaspar out of the lineup and the Flyers needing the game urgently and sure to try and avoid having to face a revived Rangers power play, Renney dressed Colton Orr instead of Jed Ortmeyer.

In his post-game news conference, Renney said that his penalty-killers, who surrendered two goals on the Hollweg major and three overall, seemed out of synch. Perhaps the coach needs to look in the mirror here; Ortmeyer has been the team’s most consistent player on the PK all year and his shot-blocking presence was sorely missed. And while you can't definitively state that the Flyers wouldn’t have scored as many goals as they did if Ortmeyer was on the ice, it’s fairly certain that he would have served the team better than the useless 4:03 of ice time that Orr had.

The game also highlighted the importance of the HMO line – the REAL HMO line – to the team’s success. Trailing by a goal in the third thanks to Ozolinsh’s ridiculous gift to Simon Gagne for Philly’s 4th goal, with the Flyers clogging the middle, the home team refusing to adjust, and the crowd strangely sluggish throughout the night, the absence of the energy line was all too apparent despite Jason Ward’s seemingly single-handed efforts to get things going. Perhaps they could have provided the spark that the team needed and didn’t even come close to getting.

- Let’s hope that not too many teams noticed the way the Flyers solved Lundqvist by placing big bodies in front of the net. He’s going to need some more help from his D there. Based on this game, who do you think is the team’s MVP?

- Even with Jagr going crazy, the team needs production from that second line which looked so good against Boston. Rucchin-Straka-Sykora were a combined minus 7, with five shots on goal total. Marek Malik had a shaky night on D. Strudwick did what he could with three blocked shots, but Kaspar’s hitting, which has been mostly absent since the Olympic break, is sorely missed. And am I the only person who actually missed Marcel Hossa?

I’m willing to put this one into the “not the end of the world” category. It’s been a strange season series between the two clubs, with each failing to win at home in three tries; and the Rangers retain the game in hand and actually still lead the division on the tiebreaker. But the Blueshirts now face a treacherous five games in seven nights stretch, with four of those on the road including the last one in Ottawa, yikes. And on Friday, they visit the red-hot Florida Panthers, back in the playoff race after winning seven of eight, including a win over Ottawa and a home-and-home sweep of Carolina. Look for Kevin Weekes to get the start there.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Blueshirts a Puzzle to Opponents

- A bit of a spotty effort by the Rangers against the Bruins last night, but an easy 5-2 win shows just how far the club has come. It was a bit of a strange game; of course, the presence of Brian Leetch in an opposing uniform – and #22 no less – was weird in itself. But the crowd was rather subdued at times, as the game was sometimes played in slow motion.

One of the fossilized local news personalities we see here in NYC is the venerable sportscaster Sal Marciano. Unlike other relics like weathermen Mr. G and Storm Field, and anchors like Chuck Scarborough and Ernie Anastos, on whom the layers of makeup in the effort to make you think it’s still 1975 are all too apparent, Marciano, who briefly did play-by-play for the team on Channel 9 in the 70’s, looks more naturally preserved than the others, and has barely changed after all these years. He's the Dick Clark of NYC local news.

Last night, Marciano noted that the Rangers had won three in a row after their “puzzling” six game losing streak. That skid seems long ago now, even though the three wins have come against middling (at best) opponents, and included perhaps their worst effort of the season, against the Caps. But really, in an 82 game season, there’s little puzzling about a streak in which, for the most part, the only real failure on the team’s part was to put the puck in the net. Those things happen in the NHL, and the fact that there was little in the way of defensive breakdowns, shows the remarkable consistency we’ve seen all year.

During the streak, I saw some people lament the fact that team has lost ten games in OT/SO, as well as 11 others by one goal, worrying that this somehow makes the team unsuited for the playoffs. But would you prefer for them to have been blown out instead? They’ve played 68 games, and in only 8 cases have they lost by more than one goal; and two of those were two goal defeats with empty net goals! That means that the Rangers have only been out of six games all year! That is unbelievable!! Do you really think that makes them a question mark for playoff hockey? And consider that coming into the season, we would have been happy just to see them be competitive. This team has almost not had a slump at all. It may be more appropriate to call the losing streak a ‘fluke’ rather than ‘puzzling;’ a stretch in which they ran into some hot goalies and in which Rucinsky himself blew enough golden opportunities, including his weak shootout attempt in Atlanta, for them to have won at least half of those games!

- Boston tried using defenseman Brad Stuart as a shadow on Jagr, and #68 seemed to have some fun with it in the third period. In one remarkable stretch, he seemed to say “shadow this, motherf-----,’ as he shrugged off the 6-2, 220 lb Bruin and controlled the puck for a good 30 seconds, finally taking it behind the net and leaving for Prucha, who made his nifty move to get free and set up Nylander for the easy goal.

- Lundqvist was great as usual, and came up with a huge save in the second, after the Bruins had cut the lead to 3-1 after a timeout. Boston broke in 2 on 1 after killing of a penalty, and King Henryk stoned Glen Murray on the pass-across shot; the biggest save of the game.

- With Jagr certain to draw more shadows as we move into the playoffs, the second line will be crucial, and the Rucchin-Sykora-Straka line looked sharp, giving Renney a decision to make when Rucinsky returns. Great work on the third goal, with Rucchin and Sykora passing the puck back and forth under pressure behind the Boston goal, and Rucchin getting his second nice assist of the night as he fed the puck out to Straka, who did a great job directing the puck to the tape with his skate and putting it home. Sykora failed to convert on two all-alone opportunities in the game – one on a gorgeous spin-o-rama pass by the offensively impressive Ozolinsh, and the other on a turnover created by Rozsival, who picked up a +2 to increase his season total to a very un-Ranger like +33. He also is showing more confidence on offense, moving into the slot to take Rucchin’s perfect pass for an important first goal after a sluggish Blueshirt start.

- Seven hits for Ryan Hollweg; and three for Kasparaitus, who leveled Dan LaCouture with a perfect hip check in the third.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Seems Like Old Times (Not TOO old)

- Seems like things are getting back to the way they used to be. Saturday night’s effort against the woeful Leafs saw the team getting back to the basics that has gotten it where it is. The original HMO line was back together (not the faux HMO’s with Hossa or Orr replacing Hollweg or Ortmeyer); the dynamic duo of Ward and Betts were reunited, the defense pairings settled down after being realigned, Jagr dominated the offense, and Lundqvist shut the door. I don’t really know what game the Toronto players and writers who claimed that they outplayed the home team were watching.

Yes, some of the negatives that have plagued the team all year were on display too – too many penalties, and no response to the liberties taken with Petr Prucha; the target on his back now seems far bigger than the player himself. But the team overcame those, as usual, in part thanks to the seemingly revived power play; and yes, Sanders Ozolinsh can look pretty good there.

It will also be like old times tonight when Brian Leetch comes a-calling. He’ll get his standing ovation, along with a video collage that will certainly get even the most steely and drunken fans at the Garden a bit teary.

OK, perhaps the following will seem sacreligious, so fire away at me if you wish, but I for one don’t get overly sentimental at these occasions. Do the little ceremony, drop the puck and play, and look forward to the night they retire the #2. I am NOT one of the Ranger fans who rooted for Detroit the night that Eddie Giacomin came back. Players come and go, and I’m old enough to have seen a lot of them do so. Yes, Brian Leetch was one of the greatest players ever to wear a Ranger uniform; I love him dearly, have the picture on my wall of him accepting the Conn Smyth (even if Zubov was the team’s best defenseman) and I’m certainly looking forward to paying the proper tribute to him.

But I will not be chanting “Bring Him Back.” After seven non-playoff years during which he was the leading ice-time getter and power play QB, it was time for him to move on, and anyone who saw his ragged performances in the playoffs for the Leafs and in the World Cup that preceded last year’s non-season knows that Glen Sather did the right thing, even if he didn’t do it the right way. Leetch, in my opinion, was never the same player after the wrist injury he suffered in the semis against the Flyers in 1997. This year, he has 5 goals, 25 assists, is a minus 8, and has once again failed to elevate a lousy team beyond its capabilities. So let’s welcome him back. And then kick his team’s butt.

Friday, March 17, 2006

A Win, Though Not Quite Seventh Heaven

- Tensions were definitely heightened yesterday, both before and during the Rangers’ gut-wrenching, streak-snapping 5-4 win against the Caps. I spent the afternoon nervously watching the clock in anticipation, and it’s been awhile since I had that feeling. During the final TV timeout of the game, with just under five minutes to play, someone turned to me and said “This is going to be the longest five minutes of my life!” Oh man! How will this guy deal with a one goal lead with five minutes left in a Game 6?

However, the final 4:55 wasn’t quite as long as he expected. That was thanks in part to the one of several new combinations for the game, the line of Blair Betts – Marcel Hossa – Jed Ortmeyer. Betts (11-5 on draws) nudged the puck deep off the faceoff, and Hossa, who has seemingly been given more of an opportunity with this club than Doug Weight and Dave Gagner did combined, went to work behind the Caps net, battling successfully for the puck. The trio kept the puck in the zone with hard work for a full 45 seconds, even generating a scoring opportunity for Ortmeyer, who was dynamic all night, leading the team with five solid hits, before the Caps were forced to ice the puck. That was a glimpse of what some of us have referred to this year as “Ranger hockey,” and it came as a relief after 55 minutes of sloppy, scattershot play. It set the tone for the remainder of the period, which generated no major scares; even the defense duo of Tyutin and Ozolinsh, who were minus 2 and committed more giveaways than the Pentagon has to Halliburton, staunchly defended their goal, using their bodies to not allow the Caps to establish position in front of Lundqvist, who came up big despite the four goals against.

The Rangers played those last few minutes with intensity and purpose, as they sought to make Jaromir Jagr’s incredible winning goal stand up. This certainly can’t be the same player that we were told would brood and sulk when things didn’t go his way. He has played through injury since the break and throughout the streak, demonstrating leadership qualities that we didn’t anticipate. A commenter on Blueshirt Bulletin recently suggested that he now be given the ‘C,’ and that would be well-earned and probably a benefit to the team. John Dellapina, who to me is the best of the beat reporters by a wide margin, reported that Renney had to calm Jagr down when he lashed out at the bench during the second period. The man is playing with a grim purpose, and seems determined to carry this team, at least the offense, on his back. Anything less than that, and it will be a short spring.

- Kasparaitis was credited with three hits, but they lacked any of the oomph that we are used to; he is clearly hurting with his broken toe.

- The win puts the Blueshirts in first by two points, but the losing streak was not without its serious implications. It allowed Buffalo and Ottawa to pull away in the standings, which makes a 4th seed highly unlikely unless one of those teams collapses. That means that failing to beat out the Flyers would land the Rangers in the 5th seed (at best!), on the short end of a 4-5 matchup against one of those two squads. So keep your eye on the Orange Crud, who play in Tampa tonight.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

It's A Category Six

- Bill Parcells always talks about his players having to “make a play,” an exhortation for one player to take matters into his own hands, and make the big play needed to get his team over the hump. If the Rangers had made just one play, out of the many chances they had, perhaps they wouldn’t have been blown away by the Hurricanes for their sixth straight without a win. It could have been a power play goal five minutes in after the team came out strong against a Canes team that looked ready for the taking; man, they needed a goal there to affirm their strong start and assert control. Or perhaps a spectacular (or even just a great) save by Kevin Weekes. I’ve pretty much deferred to the decisions of Tom Renney this season, but it seems that he really screwed up on his goalie selection for the last two games. When you play a team that’s lost just five times at home all year, you likely need the kind of amazing goaltending that only Lundqvist is able to provide; and a 5-3 loss in a game in which they outshot the Canes 44-29 is tough to swallow.

But the two most glaring and obvious opportunities took place in the second period. Marcel Hossa, of whom Renney inexplicably told the Post that he inserted in the lineup "to add more scoring" outraced two Canes for a shorthanded breakaway. Trailing 2-1 at the time, you just gotta make that play! But Hossa didn’t even get a shot on goal, and shortly thereafter it was 3-1; that was clearly the turning point of the game. When Martin Straka had his chance to cut the lead on his penalty shot he overdeked and didn’t get a shot off either. You gotta make that play!

- Blair Betts made a horrible, inexcusable gaffe early in the second, when, with a clear chance to move the puck out of the zone, he attempted a blind pass at his own blue line, allowing the Canes to keep the puck in and eventually score a floater for a 2-1 lead that negated any momentum from Nylander’s first goal that tied the game late in the first. Betts finished at –2 on the night

- Sanders Ozolinsh has yet to add much to the power play, though he’s obviously someone that teams have to keep an eye on, which will hopefully loosen things up a bit for Jagr and his mates down low. Ozolinsh gave the puck away with a minute to go and the net empty (perhaps a bit too early), leading to an empty netter that denied the Blueshirts a shot at any last minute heroics.

- Hossa seems to bring additional energy when he’s put back into the lineup after being scratched; perhaps Renney was recalling his two goal performance against the Blue Jackets after missing several games. In thoroughbred parlance, he goes well off a layoff, and he had six shots on goal; but he's a mid-level claimer at best. And that breakaway, man… just gotta bury that.

- I’m getting more and more concerned about the team’s ability to stay in one piece, as they once again took a physical pounding. Petr Prucha seems to be getting even smaller as the games get tougher; and seems an easy target. He left the ice hunched over at one point after getting slammed. Roszival was blasted into the boards twice. With Hollweg out of the lineup, and Kasparaitis not having registered a single hit in the past two games (?), there was little to offer in response. Perhaps Kaspar's toe is bothering him? He did have five hits in Montreal on Saturday.

- As they did with Montreal, the Blueshirts finished the season series with a 1-3 record against the Canes…..two possible playoff opponents that would have a lot of confidence against us going in.

- Still, the boys didn’t quit, and another inch on the puck that rolled on the goal line, and perhaps they could have gotten a point. Despite the sometimes sloppy defensive play, you could really boil the game down to their being outgoaltended. A 4-0 homestand would make us forget all of this, and all four games, against Washington, Toronto, Boston, and Philly, are eminently winnable. Ironically, the only team they’ll be seeing that they haven’t played well against is the Caps, whom they lead in the standings by 31 points. I’d like to see Hollweg-Moore-Ortmeyer out there tomorrow night to get things off to a rousing start.

- The Rangers are 4-4-2 in their last ten games. Now, that doesn’t seem too bad, does it?

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.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

A Vacation Tinged With Blue

- Spent the last week in Antigua, and what a wonderful week it was. It’s a gorgeous island, the weather was spectacular, and I was able to totally relax. Well, mostly almost nearly. Blue was the color of the sky, the water, the drink of the day on Tuesday, and my only thoughts of home. Because while I was able to forget about work, kids, and the everyday tribulations of life, didn’t think about port deals or nuclear proliferation, nor much care about the Oscars, the Sopranos, or even the Kentucky Derby preps, there was one thing constantly weighing on my mind and they were wearing Blue. You’d think that I could miss three lousy games at a time when the team was riding high in first place in the division, 21 games over .500, and with seemingly no real worries especially after the 6-1 win over the Flyers to resume the season, right? Just forget about it, I thought. What's the worst that could happen? (Besides devastating injuries) I’ll just check the scores when I get home.

Right. I held out all the way until Monday morning. There was one lonely little internet terminal than nobody was going within 50 feet of, but the temptation was too great. Under the pretense of having to send a couple of emails that absolutely could have waited, I slinked over to the terminal early in the morning hoping no one would see me. Three bucks for fifteen minutes, I slid in the bills one two three. The connection was slower than Dale Rolfe, and by the time I composed and sent the two lousy emails, I was scrambling for the score of Saturday night’s game. Devils 2, Rangers 1. Tried to access a boxscore or recap but ran out of time and was spared the details of injury and crossbars. I felt they would lose this game, but the news still hit hard, despite it being the first regulation loss in six weeks! Get a grip, what is wrong with me!?

No more internet, I resolved, and besides, I just KNEW they would win against Carolina. I also knew that since the game was between two of the top teams in the league, there was a chance I could see a headline about it in the cursory news and sports summary that was printed out from Yahoo for the guests each morning. So I casually strolled over to the binder that contained the printouts on Tuesday morning, and saw: “Gerber spoils Rangers’ Lundqvist return.” I held out hope until just a few hours ago that perhaps the game had gone overtime. So there I was, lying on a beach in a total paradise, being waited on hand and foot, eggs and bacon every morning, 11 A.M. cocktails, all you can eat, skinny-dipping in the Atlantic Ocean, and I had a knot in my stomach the size of Gilles Marotte over a second straight loss, not even knowing the score nor circumstance, and who knows what I would have done if I’d known about the 17-0 shot advantage in the third.

I refused to go online, but considered calling my friend Ira for some reassurance that everything was OK. Ira once told me that he had considered getting hypnotized into not caring about the Rangers anymore, and suddenly the idea didn’t seem so comical. If I can’t forget about them in this setting, then perhaps a Vulcan mind-meld is called for. “Forget.”

On to another resort, this one with TV’s in the room, so it was straight to the ESPN score crawl on Wednesday night. ....Rangers 2 Atlanta 3 SO....Jagr PP Goal....... I felt the walls of the room closing in on me. The point earned was little satisfaction, but it was a little satisfaction. On Thursday, a morning rain delay in beach activity, so I turned on ESPN Sports Center anticipating some highlights. I don’t watch much Sports Center these days, but I shouldn’t have been surprised at how little they care about hockey considering how little they cared about it when they cared about it. I could have gotten more information about the Maccabiah games on Iranian state TV. Don’t blink, you might miss some hockey; the “highlights” consist of two plays and a cloud of smoke. Maybe I turned away to check my sunburn for a second, but it seemed to me that there were no Rangers highlights except for a Lundqvist save on the Top Ten, and a remark by Steve Levy about the Rangers “losing Jagr in the overtime” that stopped my heart cold before he continued “...with an illegal stick,” WHY WOULD HE DO THAT TO ME? I also caught on the crawl .......for Rangers RW Ville Niemenen..... and was never able to get the details on that or Sanders Ozolinsh.

I actually broke down that night and headed for the internet room. But it was too late, just as well. Didn’t need to learn that they lost Jagr for the shootout as well.

So when I got home Saturday night, the first thing I did was to make sure that the DVR had recorded the game in Montreal, and the next thing I did was check in with Blueshirt Bulletin to bring me up to speed. It pretty much confirmed my impression that the team had lost some tough games, and that there didn’t seem to be anything to really panic about.

Then I watched the game. What a nice gesture by the Blueshirts, really, to bring me right up to speed on what I’d missed. In about an hour and a half of accelerated viewing while skipping through commercials and intermissions, I got a complete primer on the week that was. A slow start, some solid goaltending to keep them in, a sputtering power play, the big line shooting blanks, a frantic third period with a big shot advantage (an absurd combined 55-17 for the last four games), a crossbar, and a whole lot of frustration. It’s tough enough playing in Montreal on a Saturday night; they had to run into a Canadiens team and crowd juiced up by the emotional ceremonies for Bernie Geoffrion and a hot goalie getting his second shutout in a row. You just got the feeling after not too long that they would not score a goal on this night. The crucial five-on-three power play seemed too predictable, and Nylander’s crossbar nearly made my week of (almost) blissful relaxation go completely down the drain. Attending today’s tilt with the Thrashers could very well complete that process. I could be completely pale by 8 PM.

Anyone know a good hypnotist?

Friday, March 03, 2006

On A Short Break

For me, anyway. After just one game, I'm off on vacation. Other than during the Olympic break, this was the best week possible, with only one home game to be missed. That game, on Monday night, is against conference leader Carolina, who won tonight (Friday), making a first-place showdown impossible. For now, anyway. I'll miss only three games total, plus the trading deadline, which seems to be extremely quiet this year. I don't really expect the team to be different upon my return; though you never know. I'm coming back Saturday evening, and I set the DVR to record the game that night so I can watch it in its entirety. Coming home from vacation in a tropical paradise can be tough to take, but thinking about what may lay ahead will greatly soften the blow. Oh man, I have SO bought into this! See you in a week.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

The Boys Are Back!

- I can't quite say that the Rangers didn't miss a beat after the break, but it was a a fast beat, and Kevin Weekes, looking more confident than he has at any point this year, kept his team in the game with one big save after another, including a magical shoulder stop early in the game in which the puck seemed to float in mid-air before landing safely underneath him. But even during those perilous opening minutes, you could see the 2006-06 Rangers percolating under, and the performance improved as the penalty kills went on.

But what I liked most about the game was Jagr. Not just the fact that he scored two goals and added an assist, but it was the way he went about it. Backing up his earlier comments about his commitment to the Rangers, Jagr had his game face on, showing little emotion after his scores, and even adding a big backchecking play on a Flyers 3 on 2 in the first. He sent a message that he's back, and that he means business. Taking their cue from Jagr, the Rangers did the same. They showed the Flyers who's boss in the division, and did so with disdain for the Flyers' bush league attempts at intimidation. The Blueshirts are looking more and more like a very serious team.

- Donald Brashear always seems larger than life against the Rangers. Not only the physical stuff, but he actually at times acts like a hockey player. He hits hard and mostly clean within the rules of the NHL, at least when he doesn't lose his mind. However he always hits with what looks like an attempt to injur. I guess the Flyers feel the same way about Kasparaitus. Of course, it was OK for Scott Stevens to do it.

Early in the game, I feared for the team's physical safety against the rampaging giant, and wondered if it was smart to sit out Colton Orr. But Renney was right as usual. The Rangers didn't back down, and tag teamed him. Roszival gave him a facial, earning a minor penalty. Tom Poti nailed him along the boards; Betts and Ward hit him in rapid succession; and finally, Kasparaitus put him over the edge. Is there a penalty in the books for pulling hair?

Of course, any self-respecting coach would have benched him after taking two ridiculous minors long after play had stopped. Instead, Brashear was awarded power play time in the third perod, and his sophomoric attack at the end of the game showed that nothing ever changes down in Philly - their hockey team is still garbage after all these years. That was Mick Vukota material, and Hitchcock earned every penny of his $10,000 fine for fetching his moronic goon on Kasparaitus at that point in the game.

- Blair Betts rocks. Thirteen minutes in his first game back, scored a goal, 10-5 on faceoffs and the usual solid work on the PK. I'm telling you man, this guy is going to score a big playoff goal or two, if we make the playoffs. (Do I still have to say that?)

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Deja Vu All Over Again

- This seems kinda familiar, doesn't it? It's like a second opening day of the season, and once again, the Rangers open in Philly. Assuming that Jagr plays with his groin, Kaspar with his toe, Tyutin with his visa, and Betts with his knee, it will seem even more familiar. Because with Weekes in goal and Prucha sidelined, the Blueshirts will field the same lineup as on opening day #1, with the exception of Petr Sykora in place of Jamie Lundmark. [EDIT: I guess I'm assuming that Hollweg will play rather than Nieminen, but that actually may not be the case.] Jamie Lundmark? That seems sooo long ago! Lundmark actually started the Rangers back from a 3-1 defecit with a second period goal, his final one before being traded.

Just watched the Flyers lose to the Devils in a shootout. You know those Bud Light commercials with the guy who dares to stay at work until 5:05.....on a Friday? They should have one that goes "I'm going to watch the Devils on Fox Sports.....with the sound on!" Man, those guys are unbearable. "Oh, Marty, Marty, Marty," gushed Chico after he shut the door on the Orange Crud. It's a scheduling break for the Rangers to get the Flyers on the second night of back-to-back games right off the break, and I'm looking for a big effort from the Blueshirts. Renney has done everything right, at least in terms of preparation, and I think he'll have his team ready, at least mentally; and I'm looking for a sharp performance by Weekes.

- Lundmark has six goals total for the season, along with 11 assists.