3/2/2015: RANGERS 4, PREDATORS 1
Maybe it was relief after the panicked energy of Trade Day. Maybe it was knowing that Mats Zuccarello was, if not locked in, at least seat-belted for four more years. Maybe it was Keith Yandle, who skated into his first game in his second NHL home as if he’d been around since October, and maybe led to Dan Boyle and Ryan McDonagh looking (and playing) as if they didn’t want to fling themselves off bridges, for a change. Whatever it was, that first Monday night in March, the Rangers treated themselves and their fans to a shiny happy win against the first place Predators, and we all breathed a sigh of relief.
When the Rangers are on, no one can beat them. Unfortunately, it is very easy to turn them off. They’re Ferris Bueller until something goes wrong; next thing you know, you’re watching Cameron float face down in the deep end. It’s indescribably frustrating. “Rangers gonna Ranger,” someone – sometimes me – tweets sadly. The most tragic example might be Game 5 of last year’s Cup Final, when they were ahead 2-1 until an egregiously awful tripping call on Zucc, whom the replay clearly showed had been tripped himself, by Jake Muzzin. LA scored on the power play, tying the game and sending the Blueshirts to the Bad Place. We all know how THAT ended. The Rangers have spent entire games in the Bad Place – those losses to the Islanders, for instance. (It’s hard to express your frustration with your team and your contempt for the infuriatingly smug – and dare I say prematurely overconfident? – Fishsticks fan sitting next to you at the same time.)
Against the Preds, however, the Bad Place seemed distant and mythical, like Atlantis, or Vegas. At no point was this more evident than when Zucc outmaneuvered Shea Weber to send a blistering pass to Chris Kreider, who flew off the bench and rushed the net, this time earning a game-winning goal instead of a contract on his head from the Habs. But everyone including Kreider knew who had done the real work; he pointed at the Hobbit as if to say, “ Here’s looking at four more years of you, kid.” (Or that’s what I like to imagine, anyway.) Even Rick Nash, who seems to have lost a little of his Nashiness since sleeping funny on his neck (um, really?) a few weeks ago, scored an empty netter, keeping him in second place in the league, 5 goals behind Alex Ovechkin. We sailed into Detroit on Wednesday feeling just dandy, thanks.
3-4-15: RANGERS 1, RED WINGS 2
If you’re the sort of sports fan who would rather watch your team go down swinging against a great opponent than steamroll a lesser one, Rangers vs. Red Wings was the game for you. If you’re the type who wishes it hadn’t come down to a penalty kill for an iffy call – and that’s all of us, isn’t it? – you – and by you I mean me – probably pulled out some hair, hopefully your own. If you didn’t care about either team and just wanted to watch some great hockey, you were happy as a clam; in the first period, hockey twitter was peppered with posts hoping this matchup would result in a playoff series. It was that good. By the time Zidlicky punched the puck past Talbot (and Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi) in overtime, the fans felt as drained as the players – or at least that’s what we told ourselves. Hell, it was LATE.
It was also one of the most tense and relentless games I’ve ever seen, primarily because the Rangers and the Wings did a great job of getting and staying in each others’ way, fighting for every inch of space. Everything happened in front of the net; no one could get a lane from outside. Zucc was everywhere, diving to keep the puck in Detroit’s end for the Rangers’ sole goal. The goaltending on both sides approached the unearthly; the more time he spends in the net, the less Cam Talbot looks like anybody’s backup anything. Chris Kreider briefly stopped circling like a puck-eating hawk to pounce on Justin Abdelkader with a perfect backcheck. And, even on his ass, Kevin Hayes displayed an M.C. Escher-esque ability to move the puck in utterly improbable ways, even if none of that movement ended in a goal.
As great as it was, someone wasn’t going to like the way it ended, and unfortunately those someones were the Rangers. The goal that won in OT was nowhere near as deft or epic as the game itself; however, when it comes to sudden death, a goal is a goal, and at this stage of the season, a point is a point. The Rangers came away with one of each and headed to Chicago.
3-8-15: RANGERS 1, BLACKHAWKS 0
Another fast game, another OT, but this time the Rangers got the two points, and the GWG wasn’t a bad bounce, but an almost dainty slapshot from Derick Brassard (who, in his own words, hadn’t scored “in decades”) after a patient, perfect setup from Zucc. It was a tough night for Corey Crawford: when Dan Boyle wound up way back in the first period, he looked downright frightened. Then Chris Kreider decided to change up his “goalie killer” M.O., hurling Hawks defenseman Duncan Keith at Crawford, instead of himself. Still, for three periods Crow and Cam cleaned up their teams’ respective messes, keeping it close even when it maybe shouldn’t have been.
Let’s face it: the Rangers got a little bit lucky. There was an 88-shaped hole in the Chicago offense, and I can only imagine the size of the snake that must have bitten Patrick Sharp. Even Jonathan Toews’ tricky little Tazer moves got shut down, again and again, by the Rangers D. It wasn’t all pretty: the Blueshirts failed spectacularly on a embarrassing 4 on 2, and both teams had drop passes go amusingly awry within minutes of each other. (Sharp’s was simply abandoned, like a puppy at the pound, and then Carl Hagelin whiffed magnificently.) So yes, the Rangers pulled it off, but a bigger test was looming. They’d need to be a lot more solid and maybe even brilliant to beat Tavares and the Islanders, a team rivaled only by the LA Kings at sending the Rangers to the Bad Place.
3-10-15: RANGERS 2, ISLANDERS 1
This game merited its own column, some of which is in blank verse. Check it out!
3-11-15: RANGERS 3, CAPITALS 1
OK, I lost my notes for this one. Sue me. My single clear recollection is of Tom Wilson flat on his back near center ice staring bemusedly at the ceiling. If you had asked me before the game which Ranger would lay out Wilson, I would not have picked Dominic Moore, but apparently Moore was simply returning the favor for a mid-ice check early on. I LOVE Dominic Moore. Oh, and Ovi broke Kevin Klein’s arm. Not nice, Ovi. Not nice.
3-14-15: RANGERS 2, SABRES 0
Saturday’s game against the Sabres was unremarkable except that we should have won it by about a billion more goals, and Cam Talbot got the night off in favor of the world’s happiest gingergoalie, Mackenzie Skapski. Skapski is just surrounded by a force field of smiles and cuteness; bunnies and birds probably buckle his pads and drop his jersey over his head. The Sabres scored on him 14 seconds into his NHL debut last month and almost did it again ten seconds into this one, but we got lucky this time. We got lucky a lot, actually, because other than the sunshine from Skapski, the game was about as much of a mess as a win can be.
The Rangers were not in the Bad Place; more like the Seemingly Indifferent, Maybe a Little Tired, Honestly Who Cares Place (so, basically, Buffalo). However, the Sabres are in last place, and we’re in first, and I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t been hoping for a solid shelling and five or six Ranger goals. Instead, I saw a disturbingly close game. Skapski stopped what looked to me like the world’s slowest breakaway – that’s a diss on our D, not on Skapski or Tyler Ennis – with his face. Recent acquisition Keith Yandle scored on a well-screened wrist shot from the point, and Martin St. Louis got an empty netter. However, St. Louis also derailed the Rangers’ most glorious chance of the game by failing to lift the puck over the pad of a sprawled Anders Lindback after a pass from Matt Hunwick. (There’s a lot of muttering on Rangers Twitter about St. Louis’ status, and lost looks like that are why.) Third line Ranger Babies Jesper Fast and Kevin Hayes continue to play like beasts.
At the end of a night that felt much longer than it should have, the baby goalie got his second win, his first shutout, and presumably his first face full of shaving cream from Chris Kreider during his postgame interview. Rangers fans go bananas every time Skapski’s sunny face appears onscreen, and with good reason. The Rangers have the best record in the NHL right now; however, unlike Skapski, Rick Nash, Martin St. Louis, and Ryan McDonagh are not smiling much these days. Here’s hoping AV can figure out why, and what to do about it.
3-15-15: RANGERS 2, PANTHERS 1
Remember when I said that the Sabres game was as much of a mess as a win could be? That was before I saw the Panthers game. It was clear that the Cats wanted a playoff slot; it was not clear why the Rangers, with the remarkable exception of Cam Talbot, looked as if they’d been informed about the game about ten minutes before puck drop. There was a tribute to Dan Boyle for his 1000th NHL game – a nice little ceremony similar to the one for St. Louis a few months back, except this time without an unnervingly intimate kiss to his wife from Steven Stamkos, which I think was a good call.
Let’s start with what went right: Cam Talbot. That’s honestly it. Cam was phenomenal in spite of consistently sloppy defensive play and near-complete collapse down low in the second period, when the Rangers were outshot 20-12. (Talbot stopped 38 shots overall.) It’s not easy to picture the Prince pitching a fit in the locker room, but if anyone deserved to have a major hissy at that point, it was Cam. However, unlike his goaltending, his hissies need work, because the Rangers showed up for the third period just as listless and lost as the second, utterly unable to move the puck to their advantage around the big bodies of the Panthers. Speed doesn’t do much good if you can’t keep possession.
The Rangers continue to rely on their third and fourth lines – the fourth was especially effective last night in the absence of enforcer/albatross Tanner Glass. There was a pretty goal for the new kid, James Sheppard, and assists for Dominic Moore and Jesper Fast, who again provided a perfect screen for a shot from the point by Matt Hunwick, in for Kevin Klein. It was the first goal as a Ranger for both players.
The first two lines looked … not great. St. Louis has been either invisible or ineffective when it counts, and Chris Kreider apparently decided that his goal for the night was to make the rest of the league hate him (again) with a late hit from behind on Erik Gudbranson. (Then “accidentally on purpose” veteran Brandon Prust decided to check Ben Bishop, making Kreider’s slide into Carey Price look like dinner and a movie and taking some of the heat off.) Yes, MSL and CK’s flawless “2-on-nobody-because-ZOOM” against the Caps was just five days ago, but that line has accomplished next to nothing in the last two games. St. Louis hurt his leg in a collision behind the net, and we’re still awaiting a diagnosis. But I’m more worried about Rick Nash, who, while working hard and still effective on the backcheck, often seems slow if not in actual pain, with none of the fire and magic he displayed with the puck in the first part of the season. If he’s hurt, he should sit now and play later; if he’s not, hell, I don’t know. Get him some spinach and some sleep, or maybe another baby.
Should I mention the power play, which is now 1 for 21 in eight games? Fine, I won’t. But I will mention the penalty kill, which is 16 for 17. As tense as it gets, I love to watch the Rangers on the kill. They played their best hockey of the night during the 6 on 4 in the final minutes, simply smacking back everything the Panthers threw at them and letting Cam do the rest. As coach Alain Vigneault keeps saying, they found a way to win. Here’s hoping they find a better way – i.e., not “all Cam, all the time” – before they host the Hawks on Wednesday.
3-18-15: RANGERS 0, HAWKS 1
Well, they didn’t. Last night’s game was the Cam Talbot Show all over again, interspersed with the Todd Darling Show – why do all goalies bring their best games to MSG? – and the Shitty Officiating Show. Keep in mind: I think it sucks to blame the refs – unless of course the refs actually suck. Which they did. Regulation should have ended 1-1, regardless of what happened after. But it wasn’t the refs who gave former Ranger Brad Richards enough time to pose for an oil painting as he held the puck just outside the crease, probably singing a little song as he decided where to shoot it. I half-expected — and, ok, kind of wanted — Talbot to skate out and deck him.
Not sure whether this falls into the category of good or bad news, but I have to confess I didn’t even notice that Marty was missing. (I mentioned this to a friend, who replied: “I did. Our forecheck was better.”) Chris Kreider needs to get his act together, because right now he looks like a really big, fast paperweight out there (odd analogy, perhaps, but I’m going to stick with it) – again, speed means nothing if you can’t carry the puck into their zone. Kreids was right next to Derek Stepan, who shot the night’s most heartbreaking optical illusion into the wrong side of the net. And what was with all the wraparounds? Cam denied Jonathan Toews on one and then everyone decided to try it, including Zucc, who otherwise seems to have returned to his role as poster boy for the Rangers’ near-pathological refusal to shoot. I’ll make exceptions for Dan Boyle, whose shot pinged off the crossbar (and quickly devolved into the “play” that lost the game) and Rick Nash, who in the first period showed flashes of his glorious, early-season magic. Back then, he seemed to score whenever he felt like it – which was often. Now would be a really good time for him to feel like it again.
There’s a distinct deja-vuness to watching the power play and the penalty kill right now. I have far more faith in our kill than I do in our so-called “power;” I’d go so far as to say that I feel safer when we’re a man down than I do at full strength. But hockey isn’t about feeling safe. It’s about risk, and it’s about winning. We have the best goaltending in the world right now, but Cam and Hank can only keep us safe. They can’t put us up on the board.