by Jim Samuels
Just three weeks and eight games into the young season this latest edition of the Blueshirts has already shown us a little bit of everything. Periods of passionate and energetic fast paced hockey have been followed by stretches of lethargic, turnover filled, chaotic play that defies explanation while throwing caution and defensive responsibility to the wind. Just when it looked as if the Rangers were about to get on a sustained roll and had seemingly put themselves in a position to get off to a fast start, a team-wide refusal to buy into any sort of defensive system has once again reared it’s ugly head. Head coach Ron Low has his work cut out for him as this freelancing group seems content frolicking in their own end, chasing the puck around like an intramural soccer team on most nights.
Yes the results have been better, the Blueshirts have gone a respectable 4-3-1 in their first eight matches so by no means am i suggesting that we glance the panic button’s way. But some familiar trends are starting to develop and these must be reversed if this teams fate is to be any different than that of the previous four editions of the red, white and blue. The Rangers gave up a whopping 290 goals last season, which was the main reason they once again failed to qualify for the postseason. Thus far, despite some outstanding goaltending, the Rangers have already given up an alarming 26 goals in just eight matches, which leaves them only two behind the pace last years defensively challenged bunch found themselves on at this point of their ill-fated season.
The Rangers began the week on a positive note as rookie sensation DAN BLACKBURN recorded his first NHL victory, an impressive 2-1 win over the Canadiens in Montreal. The victory was a rarity of sorts, just the Blueshirts fourth win in their previous 32 visits to the Molson Centre. THEO FLEURY and RADEK DVORAK tallied for the Blueshirts who outshot the Habs 29-23 en route to the victory. Blackburn was outstanding, making several spectacular saves down the stretch, frustrating the previously unbeaten Canadiens. This was undoubtedly the Rangers best defensive effort of the young season as they limited the Canadiens’ second chances and did not allow the Habs fleet-footed forwards to gather speed through the neutral zone. The Rangers power play continued to struggle going 0 for 6, while the penalty killing unit had a good night killing 6 of 7 Montreal opportunities. Rookie BARRETT HEISTEN played another strong game, the free agent signee seems to be finding his confidence at the NHL level and has been absolutely tenacious along the wall and on the penalty kill early in the season.
Wednesday night’s Garden match saw the Rangers taking on their cross-river rivals the New Jersey Devils for the first time this season. The Rangers, who once again gave up the first goal, came storming back to take a 3-1 lead after two periods on a goal by BRIAN LEETCH in the first and power play goals by ERIC LINDROS and PETR NEDVED 1:13 apart late in the second. Lindros, who is beginning to gel with linemates Theo Fleury and MIKE YORK, played his finest game as a Ranger, throwing several big checks and creating space for his diminutive linemates. But true to form the Rangers couldn’t protect a third period lead, surrendering a pair of markers to Brian Rafalski mid-way through the third to send the game to overtime. In the extra session, the Rangers struck quickly as Fleury scored a power play goal 1:21 into OT to give the Blueshirts their first win over the Devils since January 12th 1997. The stretch of futility against New Jersey covered 11 games in which the Rangers went 0-7-4. MIKE RICHTER was outstanding making 46 saves en route to recording his second win of the season.
Following their rousing win against the Devils, the Rangers hit the road and paid a visit to the Atlanta Thrashers on Friday. After spotting the Thrashers a one goal lead, Captain MARK MESSIER scored a crafty goal, banking the puck in off of Thrasher netminder Damian Rhodes’ right skate to knot the game at 1. Goaltender Dan Blackburn was outstanding once again, making numerous key saves early while the Rangers found their legs. After falling behind 2-1 on a goal by Ray Ferraro, Eric Lindros tied the game once again on a beautiful deflection off a point shot by DAVE KARPA. Nedved broke the tie early in the third with a wicked wrist shot that beat Rhodes just inside the right post. Mike York iced the game for the Rangers scoring his second of the year to give the Rangers a 4-2 lead. Blackburn made 32 saves to pick up his second win of the season. The win over Atlanta brought to the forefront the balance that the Rangers possess up front. They received goals from each of their top three lines which is imperative if this team is to challenge for a playoff spot.
The Rangers wound up their week with a lethargic effort in Tampa against the Lightning. The Blueshirts seemed a step behind the Lightning early in the first period and it cost them dearly as they fell into a 3-0 hole mid-way through the first stanza. Ben Clymer, Fredrik Modin and Dave Andreychuk tallied early for Tampa as the Rangers left goaltender Mike Richter to fend for himself much of the night. A disallowed goal late in the first seemed to take a lot out of the Rangers and they were never really in this one. The Blueshirts defensive play was atrocious throughout, unforced giveaways and non-existent defensive zone coverage was once again the Rangers undoing. ZDENO CIGER and Brian Leetch tallied for the Blueshirts who had their modest four game unbeaten streak snapped.
So the Rangers finished out their busy week with a 3-1 record which leaves them tied for second place with the Philadelphia Flyers in the Atlantic and currently tied for 5th overall in the east. This coming week marks the return of Adam Graves to the Garden on Monday in what should be quite an emotional night. Following Monday’s Garden match the Rangers hit the road again for games against the tough St Louis Blues on Thursday and then the Blueshirts visit Beantown for game with the Bruins on Saturday. Also last week the Rangers welcomed the return of defensemen TOMAS KLOUCEK to the lineup on Wednesday against the Devils. Kloucek was solid in his first appearance of the season laying a big hit Turner Stevenson, knocking the Devs forward out of the game with a knee injury that could keep him out for an extended period of time. Winger Michal Grosek was once again put on waivers, the enigmatic hulking forward simply refused to play like one and was shown the door by GM Glen Sather. After an impressive training camp in which he used his size and toughness to his advantage, Grosek once again reverted back to his seemingly disinterested, timid ways, losing loose puck battles to smaller players on regular basis. We’ve probably seen the last of Grosek in a Rangers uniform.
Coming next week is the first Rangers 10 game segment report card. See you next week.