by Mark Owens
The recent run of success starts with the continued sizzling play of Henrik Lundqvist, the NHL’s third-best penalty killing, the return of Sean Avery, the steadily improving play of Scott Gomez, and, finally, timely goals. Also important has been the emergence of Marc Staal, who may be in the process of replacing Marek Malik as one of the Rangers’ top-four defensemen. Improved chemistry among the forward lines has also stabilized the team and provided just enough offensive production during the recent success.
Ranger success starts and ends with Henrik, period. The future of the franchise is in his hands, and in the hands of Glen Sather and Jim Dolan as they negotiate a long-term contract with the King at season’s end. They’ll need an increased salary cap and the removal of higher salaries of players like Martin Straka, Paul Mara and Marek Malik to rightfully place Lundqvist among the game’s highest-paid goaltenders. Since the end of the lockout, Henrik ranks second in goals against average and save percentage, and fifth in wins and shutouts, in the entire NHL.
Blair Betts, Chris Drury, Michal Rozsival – and of course Lundqvist – lead the way when killing penalties. The Rangers’ penalty killing ranks third in the league, which is absolutely crucial given the Rangers’ inability to score goals and knack of playing tight, low-scoring contests. It’s hard to say what their record would be if this unit failed. Conversely, if the power play ranked somewhere higher than 19th in the league, the Rangers would be ahead of the Flyers for first place in the Atlantic Division, competing with Ottawa and Carolina for Eastern Conference supremacy.
The Rangers’ winning record with Sean Avery in the lineup continues to sparkle: 17-6-6 last season and 3-2-2 this season. Like Lundqvist, Avery is absolutely adored by the MSG faithful and is in line for a nice raise this offseason. Despite Sather spitting on him during last summer’s salary arbitration, calling Avery ‘a reasonably effective player as well as a detriment to the team,” it is hard to fathom Avery leaving New York at this point ‘ or for the Rangers to let him walk. Could you imagine Avery bringing his act to Philly, Newark, or Long Island? He’s big city all the way, starting with Detroit, then L.A. and now NYC. The only cities I could see luring him away would be Toronto and his home province of Ontario. Then again, money talks. Would he join forces with his nemesis, the equally despicable Darcy Tucker? No way!
The Rangers have won six of the past seven games by scoring some timely goals, including the game’s first goal in all six wins. Scott Gomez scored the game’s first goal in two of the victories, and scoring-challenged Petr Prucha and Marcel Hossa bagged shootout goals in the two OT/shootout wins. A pair of 2-0 shutout wins by the King highlighted the recent success.
After a painfully slow start, Gomez has recently come to life with two goals and five assists in the past seven games. Better yet, he and Avery seem to be playing well together. Despite not playing on Jagr’s line, Gomez is still the team’s number one center and the Rangers need him to be a point-per-game player (like Nylander was) in order to challenge for a top-four seeding in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
The Rangers and their fans waited a long time for Staal to arrive after selecting him 12th overall in the 2005 entry draft. During that time, we saw his brother Eric win a Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes and brother Jordan score 29 goals as a Penguins rookie last season, while Marc continued to grow in the OHL. The question entering this season was whether Marc would follow them to the NHL or start the season with the AHL’s Hartford Wolf Pack. A steady preseason highlighted by a game-winning goal in a spirited game against the Flyers earned him a spot on the Rangers’ 23-man roster, despite competition from Jason Strudwick, Thomas Pock and fellow-rookie Michael Sauer. He’s been steady all season (even plus-minus) playing mostly with Mara, and seems to be kicking it up a notch since Malik’s injury five games ago paired him with Rozsival. During the current streak, Staal picked up his first NHL point on a slap shot tipped home by Drury for a game-winning goal against the Capitals. He has shown more confidence rushing the puck into the offensive zone and dishing out some punishing checks. His emergence and that of Dan Girardi make it less urgent for Sather to acquire a top-four defenseman, as fans and pundits alike have called for over the past three seasons.
Since Avery’s return, and the winning that followed, the Rangers’ forward lines have demonstrated better chemistry and improved production (goals!) over the past seven games. Jaromir Jagr (2G, 5A) seems energized by Brandon Dubinsky and Hossa, while Avery (2G, 3A in past three games) once again clicks playing with Brendan Shanahan (4G, 1A) on a second line centered by Gomez. The third line of Prucha, Drury (2G, 2A) and Nigel Dawes may be ready to break out, while the fourth line of Ryan Hollweg, Betts and Colton Orr does the dirty work, including an impressive job shutting down the Penguins’ Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby last week (granted, the Penguins were tired from playing back to back like we were against the Islanders earlier in the week). They have no goals or assists this season, but each of them plays a vital role on the team.
The Rangers need continued strong play from each of their key players and hope Prucha, Dawes, Hossa and Dubinsky start finding the back of the net, and not just in shootouts. Claiming at least five or six of the 10 points available during the upcoming five road games will go a long way in helping the Rangers stake a claim as a top four team in the Eastern Conference.