Barely a quarter of the way through the season, the Rangers have become a difficult team to figure out. At 11-8-1 for 23 points, the optimist might suggest fifth place in the conference represents a decent start and the special teams play thus far has been superb.
However, how many optimistic Ranger fans have you run into …this season or ever for that matter?
Upon closer inspection, the recent 4-7-1 malaise might be more representative of this club than the 7-1 start and the current pace they’re on is simply one headed toward yet another mad scramble just to qualify for the post-season. Can’t imaging this is what GM Glen Sather had in mind when he basically overhauled the roster this summer.
While they managed to squeak out a big win on the road in Ottawa on Saturday, the Rangers were generally outplayed and if not for yet another brilliant play by Marion Gaborik on a second period short-handed goal by Vinny Prospal, they appeared headed for another punchless loss.
Coach John Tortorella, so critical of the play of many of his forwards thus far, has had nothing but praise for consistently spectacular Gaborik of late.
“Gabby, he backs teams off,” Tortorella said of Gaborik’s big play in Ottawa. “He’s done that all year long—especially killing penalties. He makes them maybe back off the blue line at times. We’re hoping we score more shorthanded goals like that. That was huge for us and it gained us two points.”
Sounds like a coach who is beginning to realize that Gaborik simply is the Rangers offense right now and with Chris Drury (concussion) and Brandon Dubinsky (broken hand) out for a while longer, Tortorella will take goals any way he can get them.
The one thing he can be certain he won’t get is much physical play up front. The only forward who hits with any consistency is Ryan Callahan. Even the usually feisty Sean Avery has been quiet most nights. Tortorella has been quoted after several games this season as saying his team was easy to play against. That unfortunate tag line seems to be following the club around through the first 20 games. The loss to Atlanta at the Garden last Thursday only served to epitomize the quote.
Moving Enver Lisin to the top line with Gaborik and Prospal was a smart move, as it takes advantage of the decidedly one-dimensional Lisin’s speed and hides the rest of his game’s deficiencies.
Tortorella also continues to be patient with the struggling Chris Higgins (two goals) as the recent move to the center slot seems to be bringing out a bit more in the 26-year-old’s game. With the team so thin at center with Dubinsky and Drury out, Higgins really needs to step it up.
On defense, Henrik Lundqvist plays in more traffic than he sees driving to the games. While the offensive numbers from the Ranger blue line corps remain impressive, the group has to start making life a little more miserable for opposing forwards who visit their crease.
Marc Staal may have had his worst game as a Ranger in Ottawa and his play of late has been sub par for a player the team is counting on so heavily to lead a young defense. Michal Rozsival’s minutes are diminishing and the boo-birds are beginning to focus their attention on the veteran at the Garden.
The bright spots on D continue to be the play of rookies Michael Del Zotto (15 pts) and Matt Gilroy (+7)—you have to wonder where the team would be without the pair.
With the next three games all at home, the Rangers have an opportunity to head the ship in the right direction as the second quarter of the season begins. The time to stop being “easy to play against” needs to begin now.
Prospal’s shorty against Ottawa was the club’s third this season. Ottawa leads the league with four.
Alex Ovechkin is expected back for the game Tuesday night against the Caps. The Washington superstar has been out since Nov. 1 with an upper body injury. The Rangers were unlucky in the game against Atlanta last Thursday as their top player Ilya Kovalchuk returned from a broken bone in his foot that night to score a goal and set up another.
Donald Brashear played in his 1,000th NHL game against Atlanta on Thursday and basically looked like he was taking his first NHL shift. The one-time feared enforcer looked lost in a thick fog and saw very little ice time after one particularly bad shift late in the fist period. He has joined Rozsival as the main targets of Ranger fan frustration at home games.
Three game homestand this week includes games against Florida on Saturday and the surprising Columbus Blue Jackets next Monday.