The day that all Rangers fans have been anxiously awaiting for since the disappointing end to our playoff run last season is finally upon us. Tonight is game 1 of 82 in the 2009-2010 NHL regular season. Not only do we have the excitement of the puck dropping on the new season but what better way to start than for the Rangers to open on the road against the defending Stanley Cup Champs on the night that the Penguins third championship banner will be raised to the rafters at Mellon Arena?
In an interesting twist, Coach Tortorella has said that the Rangers players will observe the ceremony from the visitor’s bench. I’m not sure how common it is for the visiting team in this scenario to do this but Tortorella is adamant that the team will show their respect for the Penguins, the NHL and the sport of hockey with this act.
As is typically the case with Torts, he also has an ulterior motive with this move. He feels that it will be good for the team’s younger players to experience the ceremony to reinforce to them what the goal of the Rangers is; to win the Stanley Cup for themselves. Considering only Chris Drury has had his name etched on a Cup, it wouldn’t hurt for the team’s veteran players to pay attention tonight too.
So, what are the keys for tonight’s contest between the Rangers and the Penguins?
1. Weather the opening storm. It is likely that the Penguins will be flying on a tidal wave of emotion after witnessing their championship banner raised to the rafters. The crowd will certainly be into it. The Rangers need to stay in the game early until some of that opening emotion tapers some. If they go down a goal or two early then that wave may never dissipate and it could be a long night for the Blueshirts.
2. The play of the defense. The Rangers will introduce two rookie defensemen to the fire in Michael Del Zotto and Matt Gilroy. Additionally, Michal Rozsival, Wade Redden and Dan Girardi didn’t perform up to expectations last season. For the Rangers to be competitive both tonight and all season it will be critical for this group to make quick, smart decisions with the puck. Pittsburgh will be attacking in waves and if the Rangers get stuck in their own zone too often tonight then the Penguins will have a field day.
It is also imperative for this group to quickly secure and then move the puck up ice to start the offensive attack. Torts will also expect this group to be active in jumping into the play offensively. Torts’ strategy already lends itself to creating odd-man against opportunities and poor decision making by the defense will only serve to exasperate this situation.
3. The King will need to be the King. Let’s face it; if Lundqvist plays like anything other than one of the best in the world then the Rangers are in big trouble. He’s already starting off at a disadvantage given the influx of youth on “D” and the aggressive style employed by Tortorella. Henrik is going to see some very good chances against as a result and a substandard effort from Lundqvist will sink the club tonight and any night.
4. The new look offense must generate quality scoring chances. Glen Sather invested heavily in forwards Marian Gaborik and Ales Kotalik (8 years and a total of $46.5 million combined) and they along with Chris Higgins and Enver Lisin, both of whom were acquired via trade, must all do their parts to improve on last season’s moribund offensive performance. The judgment of whether it was wise or not to invest in Gaborik will begin tonight. A solid performance from him and the other newcomers is necessary for the Rangers to have a chance.
5. The power play must become an advantage rather than a disadvantage for the team. There were times last season where it was more palatable to be a man short than it was to have a man advantage. Not only did the Rangers power play click at a paltry 13.9% clip but they gave up the 2nd most short-handed goals last year (14). Kotalik was brought over in part for his booming shot and its potential on the PP point. Del Zotto at 19, made the team and will likely be entrusted to man a point on one of the PP units primarily due to his offensive skills.
We’ve all already overanalyzed the Rangers off-season; their additions, subtractions and the things we thought they should have done. Predictions were made, some of which were ridiculed. Now its time to finally see whether this team is a Glen Sather masterpiece; or just another flop in a long line of flops. The puck finally drops tonight.