May 2008

While the New York Rangers season is over, there is still a reason to cheer today because May 15 is the team’s birthday. On May 15, 1926 the NHL granted a franchise to the owners of Madison Square Garden. However, the Rangers were not the first New York hockey team, nor were they the Garden’s first tenants.

Famous (or infamous) New York bootlegger Big Bill Dwyer bought the striking Hamilton franchise and transplanted them in the Garden. Tex Rickard, the 1920s version of Charles and James Dolan, was in charge at MSG. He promised Dwyer that Garden management were content with being the New York American landlords and that MSG would not seek their own franchise. That promise lasted all of one year.

While Dwyer’s team was not a hit on the ice, they were a hit at the box office – a fact that was not lost on Rickard. Not only did Rickard go back on his promise to Dwyer, he also instituted a plan that later Ranger GMs would try – they went about spending money to build the best team possible. John Halligan and John Kreiser relate the following story in their book “Game of My Life: New York Rangers”.

“Rickard and his associate at the Garden, Col. John S. Hammond, were determined to be much more than a mere expansion team (not that anyone would know what the term meant in 1926). And that’s just what they did. Recalled [Conn] Smythe, ‘I knew every hockey player in the world right then. Putting that whole team together, many of whom had never played pro hockey before, cost the Rangers about $32,000.’”

Smythe never lasted long enough to see his Rangers hit the ice because he was fired after a dispute with Hammond and Rickard over Babe Dye. Hammond wanted the Rangers to sign Dye while Smythe was opposed.

“In Deceptions and Doublecross: How the NHL conquered Hockey”, Morey Holzman and Joseph Nieforth listed a couple of reasons for the souring of the Hammond/Smythe hockey relationship.

One story had Smythe being disenchanted with Dye’s reputation as a player organizer (i.e. a union type of player). Another story they tell relates how the Chicago Blackhawks owner, Major Frederic McLaughlin, bragged how he one-upped Col. Hammond when the Major’s Blackhawks acquired Dye. Smythe told Hammond that Dye was past his prime.

Interestingly enough, McLaughlin and Smythe were both right. Dye scored 25 goals in 41 games for Chicago in 1926-27, but only produced one goal in his final 58 games as he never recovered from a broken leg at the start of training camp in 1927-28.

With Smythe out of the picture, Rickard turned to Lester Patrick who, along with his brother Frank, formed the Pacific Coast Hockey Association (later the Western Hockey League) – and the rest is Ranger history.

As for the deposed Smythe, he used his Ranger severance to purchase the NHL’s Toronto St. Patricks which Smythe renamed the Toronto Maple Leafs – and the rest his Leafs history.

By the way, the aforementioned Dye finished his injury-shortened NHL career by playing his last six games with Smythe’s Maple Leafs during the 1930-31 season.

It does give one a moment to pause to consider how Ranger history would have changed had Smythe given in to Hammond.

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Before we address the officiating and its role in the postmortem for Game 5, there are some things we need to address about the Rangers-Penguins series – things which even extended into the Devils series.

First and foremost, the history of this series was written in the 14 seconds it took for the Rangers to implode as a three-goal lead evolved into a precarious 3-2 lead in the second period of the first game. This turning point was not lost on Jaromir Jagr.

“I think we lost the series in the first two games, especially the first game,” the Rangers captain told Larry Brooks of the NY Post. “If we had won the first game it would be totally different, but that didn’t happen.”

There is no telling how the series would have played out if the Rangers would have handed Pittsburgh its first home loss since February 24.

Of course, the Rangers could very easily have pulled out Game 1 – or any of their losses in the playoffs – had their power play not devolved into a way of killing two minutes off the clock. The stark contrast between the Rangers power play and the Penguins power play spoke volumes of how the series developed.

Whereas the Rangers were content to play a stagnant perimeter game, Pittsburgh featured a power play of movement – both of players and the puck. As a result, where Ranger passes and shots found Penguin sticks, skates and bodies, Pittsburgh shots and passes found net.

Following Game 4, Butch Goring made the following prediction for Sunday’s game.

“If the Rangers win the special team battle, they will win the game.” Obviously, the Rangers did not win that battle and it was no mere coincidence that the only time the Rangers did win the special team penalty was in the only game they won in the series.

The Blueshirts were done in by their own shaky hands in the defensive zone. Far too many times there were unforced turnovers, which was matched by the too numerous times they were unable to clear the zone. Pittsburgh capitalized on this exact problem prior to scoring their first goal on Sunday. The Ranger forwards looked to break out of the zone rather than stay back and make sure the puck was cleared.

While the Rangers struggled to get offense, they did have opportunities that never came to fruition because they passed up shots (Marc Staal in overtime), missed the net (Fedor Tyutin with five minutes left in regulation), fanned on shots (Martin Straka on a few occasions), or they were just unable to get a handle on the puck (Nigel Dawes at the end of the first period).

Another disturbing trend was the Rangers inability to find a consistent sense of urgency in the series in the playoffs. It is a sad statement that the Rangers waited 40 minutes before they realized they need to play as if their season was on the line – because it was. The Blueshirts inability to get anything going in overtime (save for Staal’s inexplicable decision to pass rather than shoot) can be attributed to trying to regain their wits after killing off the nearly three minutes of carry over penalty killing.

Now we can address the officiating. First off, the referees made the right call in assessing a four-minute high sticking minor to Chris Drury. It is the right call no matter what point of the game it is. With that said, there is positively no excuse for two non-entities like Marc Joanette and Brad Watson to miss the obvious high sticking on Drury in the second period. How ironic was it that the Penguin involved in both cases was Ryan Malone.

“That was ironic idiocy,” Stan Fischler said of the call on Drury and non-call on Malone.

With four officials on the ice, there is no excuse for Malone not being hit with a four-minute minor of his own – especially when you factor in that the penalty happened in front of the Rangers not. If it had happened behind the play, there might be a slim excuse for missing it. Of course, the non-call was further magnified when Jagr was called for a borderline penalty against Malone. The result was a six minute swing in power play that helped the Penguins dominate the second period.

I will not delve too deeply into the game-winning goal being offside because those things do happen – even though one of the NBC color analysts did mention they thought the play was offside – an opinion echoed by Tom Renney in the post-game remarks. Actually, Renney said a lot about the officiating without saying much.

The following paragraph is from Dubi Silverstein and his Blueshirt Bulletin blog.

“‘Yes’,” said Renney when asked if he thought the winning play was offside. No more, no less. Later, when asked about the high stick Drury took that was not penalized, he said, ‘There’s been on thing consistent. Night after night, different coaches, different teams are wondering about calls or non-calls. Maybe it’s a backhanded testimony to the speed of the game and the talent of the people playing it.’ Maybe that’s a backhanded way of saying that the officials are too visible influencing the outcomes of games.”

In the end, it is easy to blame the officials when your team doesn’t win – and yes the officials do deserve their shame of blame. However, there is also another group that deserves “blame” – the Pittsburgh Penguins.

You must give credit to Michel Therrien and his Penguins. Therrien taught a young Pens team that there is more to hockey than just scoring goals. They maintained their focus and concentrated on tightening up the defense when they had to and putting the puck in the net when they got the chances. The Penguins seem to be able to find their way to the majority of loose pucks. As I mentioned a couple of paragraphs earlier, the Pens did a superb job of getting their sticks on Ranger shots and passes.

Everything the Rangers did right against the Devils they did wrong against the Penguins. Pittsburgh capitalized on almost every big Ranger mistake. In other words, just as the Rangers out-deviled the Devils, the Penguins are out-rangered the Rangers.

In the end, the Rangers did not get big games out of their big players – save for Henrik Lundqvist. In truth, save is the perfect word for the King. Outside of a poor third game, Lundqvist did all he could to keep the Rangers in the series. Had his teammates matched Lundqvist’s desire and focus, the series would have played far differently.

While Sidney Crosby did not score any goals in the series, his presence was enough to open the ice for the likes of Marian Hossa to shine. While lucky to not draw more ire from the NHL for his Game 4 slew-foots, Evgeni Malkin proved that he might be the best player the Penguins have.

Conversely, the Rangers did not get a big effort from the likes of Jagr, Drury, Scott Gomez, Michael Rozsival and Brendan Shanahan in the final game. While it is great to see kids like Dawes and Lauri Korpikoski step up in the big game, it is more of an indictment of your veterans than it is a praise of your youngsters.

Shanahan’s post-game comments, following what could be the last game of a Hall of Fame career, pretty much summed up the feelings of Ranger Nation.

“The organization was filled with hope, and with the things we did in the offseason, our expectations were high,” Shanahan explained to Sam Weinman of the Journal News. “Because of that, it’s a disappointing finish.”

As the Rangers head into an early summer vacation, the Rangers organization faces many decisions in relations to free agents and returning players.

It is a subject that I will save for the coming days because I just don’t have the heart or the energy to delve into the subject. You would think that after some 37 plus years of being a Ranger fan that I would be used to disappointment, but I am not. It is just another year where I am left wondering what might have been as the words of Sam Rosen echo in my mind and heart – and not in a good way.

This one last a lifetime as well.

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I am sitting at my computer and it about four hours until game time. I have this sneaky feeling that Game 5 will go one of two ways. The Rangers are either going to win in overtime (goal in first five minutes or we head to double overtime) or the Penguins will win 5-2. Unfortunately, the Pittsburgh victory scenario does not come so much at the expense of poor Ranger play, but more from an endless Ranger death march to the penalty box with an empty net goal thrown in at the end.

Why do I feel that way? The Rangers have been waiting since Friday for clarification from the NHL in reference to the Evgeni Malkin penalty shot. Guess what – I still haven’t seen hide nor hair of an explanation from the league.

Also, Malkin managed to get away with not one, but two slew-foots on Paul Mara without anything being called. Do you know why? If the referees assessed a penalty to Malkin, it would have been a match penalty and all match penalties instantly go the league for review and possibly disciplinary action. Do you think the NHL w3ants to suspend Malkin? I don’t think so.

For those of you who are shaking your heads in disbelief because referees don’t think way have never seen a college hockey game. As you know, fighting is illegal in college hockey and suspensions are doled for those who receive fighting majors. Many times collegiate officials will dole out double minors instead of fighting majors because they don’t want players to face automatic suspensions.

I just hope that the Rangers do not put themselves in any positions where the referee has to make a decision about a borderline call because the benefit of the doubt will go Pittsburgh’s way. The Rangers need to get out in front early so they can neutralize the crowd at the Igloo and put some doubt into the Penguins collective psyche as early in the game as possible.

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If Thursday proves to be Jaromir Jagr’s last home game as a member of the New York Rangers then he gave Rangers fans quite a show with his two goals and one assist as the Blueshirts staved of elimination. In fact, it was probably poetic justice that Jagr ended the scoring with his empty net goal in the waning seconds.

Jagr was not alone in his heroics. Henrik Lundqvist rebounded from a shaky performance in Game 3 to post his second career shutout – including his second penalty shot save of the playoffs.

The captain and the King had help from an undermanned squad that faces the long haul without the services of Sean Avery and Blair Betts. While the entire team raised their level of play and displayed a confident urgency, one player stands out. Chris Drury shook off the pain from an upper body injury to play a solid two-way game. Amazingly, he won 15 of 24 faceoffs after not being able to take faceoffs during the third period of Game 3.

Stan Fischler summed up the Rangers effort, simply and succinctly.

“It was all about heart – and the Rangers showed heart.”

Despite the team’s accomplishments, the night belonged to Jagr. The veteran showed that there is still gas left in the tank as fans filled the Garden with chants of “Ja-gr, Ja-gr!” and “Comeback Jagr”. Time will tell if he is going to return to the Rangers, but his NHL playoff leading 15 points speak volumes for his ability to step up in the big games. In his career, Jagr has played in 27 elimination game and he has tallied 32 points.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Rangers playoff game without a couple of controversies involving the officials. First and foremost was the penalty shot awarded to Evgeni Malkin. I am still trying to figure out the reasoning behind Kevin Pollock’s call. While Malkin was in the clear on a breakaway, what exactly did Daniel Girardi that was wrong?

Obviously, Girardi did not hook, hold or interfere with Malkin. At best, he gave the Penguins center a slight shove from behind. Interestingly enough, had that occurred anywhere else on the ice, it would not be a penalty.

I doubt Pollock was whistling Girardi for hitting from behind because, as Dubi Silverstein (editor of Blueshirt Bulletin pointed out on the magazine’s blog) pointed out, such a penalty would be a major.

Actually, I expected the Penguins to be awarded a goal because replays appeared to show the puck crossing the line before the net was dislodged. Ira Podell of the AP explained the NHL’s ruling in his game story.

“A penalty shot was awarded, but a lengthy video review ensued first to see if the initial play was a goal,” Podell wrote. “It was waved off because Rule 78.5 states when a goalkeeper has been pushed into the net with the puck after making a save the goal will not be allowed.”

As bizarre as the whole penalty shot call was, Malkin’s attempt was even more bizarre. Rather than come in at full speed, as he had on the breakaway, Malkin opted for a leisurely stroll in on Lundqvist and shot the puck into the netminder’s glove. Malkin looked more like a reluctant regular season shootout participant as opposed to a superstar trying to tie a playoff game.

The stop on Malkin was the second time in the second period where Lundqvist stepped and bailed out Girardi. Prior to the penalty shot, Lundqvist stoned Ryan Malone on a breakaway after a Girardi turnover at the Penguins blue line.

One has to wonder what would have happened if Sidney Crosby had been blindsided by Jason Strudwick the way Jagr was blindsides by Brooks Orpik. First off, the Rangers would have been shorthanded for anywhere from two to five minutes and secondly Marek Malik would have been in the lineup replacing the suspended Strudwick.

I know many commentators said it was a clean hit, but then again these are the same people who said that Scott Stevens’ shoulder hits to the heads of opponents was legal as well.

Speaking of suspensions, does anyone doubt that Paul Mara would be suspended if he slew-footed Crosby twice on the same shift the way Malkin did to Mara? Give Mara credit, he didn’t pull any punches following the game.

“It’s a classless act by a superstar and there is no need for that in the game,” Podell wrote. “It’s not like it was just a little slew foot, it’s actually a full kick. We’ll put that in the back of our minds.

Looking back at the third period, the Penguins seemed to have lost their composure as they sense Game 4 slipping away. Both Crosby and Malkin took retaliatory penalties with 6:28 left after Girardi delivered a hard, but legal, check on Marian Hossa in the neutral zone. Toss in the Malkin slew-foots and the scrum following Jagr’s empty net goal and the seemingly unflappable Penguins seemed to have lost their cool.

It will be interesting to see what happens in Game 5 if the Rangers can get ahead early in the game. Will the Rangers have learned their lesson from Game 1 and will the Penguins repeat their Game 4 meltdown?

Looking ahead to Game 5, the Rangers must play with the same heart they did Thursday night. They will need to tighten up on the defensive mistakes – especially in the first period. The Penguins had eight shots in the first twenty minutes and all of them were good scoring opportunities.

Lundqvist must carry over his play from Game 4. The King was much steadier is goal and seemed more willing to step up and play with more aggressive style as he was more willing to challenge shooters rather than stay deep in the crease.

The veteran leadership must find a way to come to the forefront. Jagr and Drury already accomplished that on Thursday night. The Blueshirts need Scott Gomez and Brendan Shanahan to start finding their scoring touches and Martin Straka needs to get a new shipment of sticks because he had a couple of golden opportunities (including one on the first shift of the game where he fanned from the slot) that went for naught.

With all of these things considered, the Rangers must focus on two areas that are absolutely crucial to winning Game 5.

The first thing they must continue with the idea that they are not going to win this series all at once. It is a shift-by-shift, period-by-period, game-by-game struggle from here on out – a point echoed by Tom Renney in his post-game comments.

“What we need to do is understand what we need to do to win,” Renney stated. “The big thing for us is not to look beyond the next game.”

In looking at that next game, the Rangers have to make their special teams priority number one. As Lundqvist said in reference to special team play, “It’s been the difference in every game.”

As far as special teams go, the Rangers must continue to strive to eliminate the careless penalties. There was no need for Scott Gomez to take a high sticking penalty late in the third period. The Blueshirts can’t afford to take penalties other than those that prevent a scoring chance.

As for the power play, they need to continue to get traffic in front Marc-Andre Fleury. If the Penguins are going to be aggressive in checking the Rangers pointmen, then they need to work the puck down low along the goal or behind the net – much like they did on Brandon Dubinsky’s goal and much the same way they did against Martin Brodeur.

Here a couple of Game 5 statistics courtesy of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:

• The Penguins are 2-0 in Game 5s against the Rangers and 10-4 all-time in Game 5s played in Pittsburgh.
• The Penguins have gone two months without losing consecutive games. They were defeated March 1 in Ottawa after falling Feb. 28 in Boston.

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