October 2011

New York – New seating bowl. Wider concourses. Same old Rangers.

Yes, hockey is back in the five boros and the Rangers, after a lengthy road trip that took them from Stockholm to Winnipeg, finally get to come to the place they call home.

And with a fresh modern look to boot.

Yet, be it in Sweden, Manitoba or Manhattan, the same Blueshirt team is here and the work in progress, well…didn’t progress tonight.

After a really nice first period, which coach John Tortorella called “the best all season” the Rangers reverted to their old lethargic ways, giving up three third period goals and dropping a 4-2 decision to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

“I thought we had a pretty good first and some sustained pressure,” said Rangers captain Ryan Callahan. “We created some opportunities, as well as got some bodies to the net in the first.

“In the second and third we just weren’t doing that. It was definitely disappointing, especially with all the anticipation. We wanted to start with a win in the new building.”

Maybe it was the two disallowed goals, both of which had Callahan bumping Toronto goalie Jonas Gustavsson, which would have put the Rangers ahead 3-0 after one, but ultimately made the Blueshirts settle of a 1-0 score on Dan Girardi’s first light of the lamp this season. at 6:23 into the game.

“We did a lot of good things,” said Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson. “We did, fortunately, survive the first period.”

And after surviving, the Leaf’s took the wind out of the Rangers sails just 1:20 into the second when Matthew Lombardi put his second of the year behind Henrik Lundqvist to tie the game.

With that came the end of any energy the Rangers gained from the first period and it was all Leafs for the next 38 or so minutes. NHL Betting Lines couldn’t have predicted that.

Lundqvist was able to survive a 16 shot Toronto second with the score tied, but then the wheels fell off in the third.

“I think we were lethargic and mentally we were lethargic,” Tortorella said. “You get juiced from coming back home and playing in front of your crowd, But from then on after they score their goal we struggled with our energy and making passes. We did it as a team.”

And that was too much for Lundqvist, who stopped 32 shots this evening, but let three third period goals in before Michael Del Zotto got one back with less than five minutes left in the game.

“i have to look over the game tomorrow and see what I have to adjust,” Lundqvist said. “I felt pretty good and I was surprised by a couple of goals. I wasn’t as sharp as I have to be mentally.

“Obviously, we’re very disappointed to start like this at home.”

More play like this and they may have trouble making the playoffs.

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Yes, the New York Rangers are back in town after a seven game road trip that spanned two continents, games in six different countries, and according to Andrew Gross of The Record, about 16,000 frequent flyer miles earned. And after one home game, it appears that the Rangers inability to make Madison Square Garden a home-ice advantage has returned to town as well.

Including last night’s game, the Blueshirts are 38-35-10 at home. Conversely, during the last two years plus their first five home games this season (3-2-0), the New York Islanders are 43-34-10 at home.

Referring to his .500 squad the coach said, “I think we’re a work in progress and we’re going to get better. There are certain parts of our game that I like, other parts that we need to focus on and improve. Every team goes through that and we’re no different than anybody else.”

You have to admit that statement pretty much sums up the state of the Rangers as they stand 3-3-2 after their first eight games. The interesting point is that statement was not uttered by John Tortorella, nor is the team in question the New York Rangers.

That quote is from Vancouver Canucks coach Alain Vigneault and was made to Brad Ziemer of the Vancouver Sun on October 16 after the Western Conference champions had played their first five games.

My reason for using that quote is simple – the Rangers are going through the same rough patch that every team goes through. My concern is not with the results, but rather with the how the Rangers are getting there.

Larry Brooks of the NY Post summed up the problem with the Rangers in the lead of his Maple Leafs-Rangers game story, “The Rangers have done nothing yet to identify themselves as heirs to the 2010-11 Black-and-Blueshirts.”

If John Davidson were still broadcasting games for the MSG Network, he would remind fans of how teams struggle in the first game back from a long road trip – and they don’t get much longer than 16,000+ miles.

Personally I always felt that ”adage” was just an excuse for a team not getting the job done, but this year might be a different case because the seven-game road trip was not your standard long road trip. Even the “first-game-back-from-a-long-road-trip” blues was not standard.

After struggling to generate shots, never mind goals, the Rangers were flying in the first period and could have been up 3-0 if not for the two disallowed goals. Given how the Blueshirts lit up Jonas Gustavsson the last time he played at the Garden, the game could have had a far different outcome.

When you combine the disallowed goals with an inconsistent second and third period from Henrik Lundqvist, you have the recipe for an Opening Night loss.

What concerns me the most about last night’s loss was how the team lost focus – a fact that Tortorella and Lundqvist both readily admitted.

“I was a little surprised on a couple goals,” Lundqvist told Steve Zipay of Newsday. “I wasn’t as sharp as I needed to be mentally.”

In his post-game press conference the Coach confessed, “I think physically we were lethargic and mentally we were lethargic.”

Tortorella has gone out of his way to treat the Rangers European vacation as he would any other road trip in an attempt to prevent the team from using it as an excuse for a slow start.

You have to wonder did the Rangers globetrotting did take a lot out of them, is it just one game, or are the problems deeper than some expected?

While the Rangers did win three of their four games on the trip to western Canada, they didn’t exactly play awe-inspiring hockey for most of those games.

Elliotte Friedman of CBC.ca made an interesting point in an October 17 column about giving a team 10 games into a season to sort things out.

A few years ago, Friedman said an anonymous GM told him, “I believe in the 10-game rule. You don’t get a true sense of a team in the first 10 games. I don’t put too much into a hot or cold start.”

Recently, that GM amended his belief given the advent of points being awarded for overtime and shootout losses.

The GM told Friedman, “With the three-point games, teams can’t win the Stanley Cup in the first 10 games of the season,” he said. “But they sure can lose it that quickly.”

Given the Rangers penchant for life-and-death struggles at the end of the season just to make the playoffs, it would be nice to bank some points early in the season to lessen the pressure late in the season


I have tried to steer clear of the Sean Avery Situation because it is quite the polarizing subject – which is amazing given that he is a third/fourth liner player at best.
I find it amusing how some Ranger fans have elevated Avery’s demotion to the point of it being on par with, or an even greater affront to Ranger fandom, than the waiving of Eddie Giacomin 36 years ago this Halloween and the trading of Brad Park and Jean Ratelle to the Boston Bruins about a week later.

It is kind of interesting that the pain that the pro-Avery fans are suffering is only matched by the hatred they have towards Tortorella for banishing Avery to the AHL. This is the same Sean Avery that 29 teams passed on before he was sent to the AHL. This is the same Sean Avery that 29 teams passed on when the Rangers claimed him re-entry waivers.

Does Avery deserve a spot on the Rangers ahead of the likes of Erik Christensen and Kris Newbury? Absolutely, but there are a million reasons why Christensen is here ahead of Avery and about 1.4 million reasons why Newbury is here ahead of Avery. If you substitute dollars for reasons, you have one answer as to why Avery is skating in the AHL.

Of course, the fact that Avery and Tortorella are like motor oil and water plays a big part as well. It is not the first time a coach has banished a player to the AHL for personal reasons and it sure won’t be the last.

Ranger fans should be more upset with Torts over his opinion on Paul Mara than on Avery. Given the uncertain future of Marc Staal, Mara fills the Rangers need better than Avery does and Mara is a much better solution than Jeff Woywitka, Brendan Bell or even Anton Stralman – who may or may not be a Rangers target.

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I know it may seem a bit unusual to write a New York Rangers season preview two games into the 2011/2012 season, but the Rangers are a very unusual team – as any diehard Blueshirts fan will tell you.

The start of the season ends a whirlwind summer that saw Glen Sather’s under-the-radar pursuit of Brad Richards pay off. It also ends an off-season filled with tragedy as the Rangers family lost Derek Boogaard, Alexander Karpovtsev, Karel Rachunek, and Jan Marek.

The Richards’ signing goes beyond finding a center for Marian Gaborik and solving the Rangers power play woes. Richards brings a veteran presence who knows how Coach John Tortorella operates.

“To see how Torts operates, I know it works,” Richards relayed to Chuck Gormley in 2011/2012 Sporting News Hockey Yearbook. “It reminds me of what we did in Tampa. At the end of the day, it’s the right fit for me.”

While Richards knows what to expect from the coach, Tortorella knows what the Conn Smythe Trophy winner brings to the team.

“We’ve got guys on the cusp of learning what they need to do as a pro,” the coach explained to Gormley. “Forget about what the stats are. Mentoring and teaching kids to be a pro – I think that’s going to be very important. He fits the bill there.”

Just when everything seemed to be getting back to normal as the Rangers hit the ice, the Marc Staal Saga came to the forefront. Questions still swirl as to whether or not Staal is suffering from post-concussion syndrome or if there is some other physical ailment that is causing his symptoms.

As we have seen with the problems Sidney Crosby has had recovering from his post-concussion problems, Staal’s return is an open-ended proposition.

Staal’s situation caused a butterfly effect that saw Tim Erixon’s seasoning in the AHL put on hold, the Rangers claiming of defenseman Jeff Woywitka off waivers and, perhaps in the most talked about move in years, the waiving and demotion of Sean Avery to the Connecticut Whale.

The Internet was afire with the talk of Avery’s demotion with half the fans content to be done with Avery’s antics and half being upset that Avery was kicked to the curb in favor of Erik Christensen.

The pro-Avery faction railed against Tortorella’s dislike for all things Avery – which began back during Avery’s “sloppy seconds” days when Torts was a broadcaster. Contrary to the belief of Avery’s fans, Tortorella is not the first coach, nor will he be the last, to “run off” a player because of personality conflicts.

Taking a step back and looking at the move with an objective eye, the decision really wasn’t so much Avery over Christensen. It was Michael Rupp and Wojtek Wolski over Avery. Rupp replaces the physical presence that Avery (and Boogaard) brought while Wolski’s $3.8 million salary means the Rangers could not afford to keep Avery’s nearly $2 million contract as a bench player – while Christensen’s $925,000 salary is much more manageable from the press box.

The Rangers will remain a team in flux until Staal returns to the lineup on a permanent basis and until Tortorella finds a LW for Richards and Gaborik. During their two game trip to Europe, Torts tried everyone but Martin Biron on their wing. He even broke up his two star forwards in an attempt to find some offense.

This search for offense is one that is going to continue throughout the season unless they improve two parts of their game. Obviously, the Rangers moribund power play continued to rear its ugly head in Europe as they went zero for eight.

All the talk of need a QB for the power play or anointing Richards as the savior of the man advantage means nothing until the Rangers start stationing a man in front of the net and raining shots ON goal (not at goal or near the goal).

Without that man parked at the top of the crease (thus tying up one of the penalty killers), the Rangers power play is content to work the perimeter – which would be fine of you had Al MacInnis and Bobby Hull firing howitzers from the point.

Last year the Rangers finished with 233 goals, good for 16th in the NHL. Their power play was ranked 18th in the NHL (16.9%). If the Rangers could have manage even seven more PP goals last year, they would have finished with a Top Ten PP and, in the right situations, could have added a few more points – thus allowing the Rangers some breathing room in terms of making the playoffs.

Another way the Rangers can generate some offense is to pick up their forechecking – a part of their game that was almost as inconsistent as their PP. The Rangers have the type of forwards who excel at a putting pressure on the forecheck when they are focused at pinning their opponents.

The Blueshirts goal (pun intended) should be to add 13 goals to their total of last season. That would boost the team to 246 goals for an average of three goals per game. That might not seem like a lot, but only seven teams score that many goals and Buffalo finished with 245.

We are now entering the Foxwoods Final Five paragraphs ?

The 2010/2011 Rangers were road warriors last season which was very important given that they had the fewest amount of home points for any playoff team, as both Carolina and New Jersey had more than New York’s 44 and Toronto tied them.

With Madison Square Garden’s renovations keeping the Rangers on the road until the 8th game of the season on October 27 – including a four-game/eight-day Western Conference trip – the Blueshirts will have to convert last year’s success to this year. However, a quirk in the schedule will require the Rangers to turn the refurbished Garden into a Garden of Nightmares for opponents.

Both of the Rangers games in Europe were counted as road games while the Anaheim and Buffalo were “charged” with one home games and Los Angeles lost two home games because, as Andrew Gross of The Record reported, the Kings owner AEG owns the arenas in Stockholm and Berlin. Yet another plus that Gross points out is that the Rangers will not have to make a California trip this season.

With expectations high for the Rangers, Sather and Tortorella are not going to be as forgiving to players who are not producing. The one thing the Rangers learned from the Traverse City Prospects Tournament is that the organization has young talent in the AHL that can come up to New York and make an impact.

The team has shown that they are not afraid to bury contracts in the AHL (Avery and Wade Redden) or buy out ineffective players (Chris Drury). With the team searching for a LW for Richards and Gaborik, and the possibility of needing an impact blueliner to take Staal’s place, it is not out of the realm of possibility that Wolski hits the Connecticut shuttle – thus freeing up his salary cap space – while someone like Ryan Bourque or Carl Hagelin gets a chance to be this season’s Derek Stepan.

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