As Rangers fans, we probably shouldn’t get too excited about tonight’s 3 – 1 win over Carolina. After all, the Hurricanes entered tonight with the fewest points (by far) in the NHL with 24 in 35 games. They have scored the second fewest goals (tied with Boston and ahead of Tampa Bay) in the Eastern Conference (88) while giving up the most (128).
Yes, the Hurricanes were predicted by many to qualify for the playoffs this year but have severely underperformed to date. However, they still have a lot of good, veteran players including; Cam Ward, Eric Staal, Tim Gleason and Tuomo Ruutu that have the capability to make things difficult on any team. This is another game that a Rangers’ team hoping to get back into the thick of the playoff race needed to win and win it they did.
This was the third win in a row for the Blue Shirts and now puts them at 1 game over .500 (17 – 16 – 3) for the season. This win was a little bit better for the Rangers though. In their victories over the Islanders and the Flyers, the Rangers were clearly outplayed for a vast majority of the games; especially in the third periods of both contests. In the win over the Hurricanes, the Blue Shirts played a much better 3rd period, relying less on Lundqvist and a little more on some of its own sustained offensive pressure. No, it was not a dominant period by the Rangers but if you were scoring it like a boxing match then a case could be made that it would have been a slight win for the Rangers.
I hate to keep talking up Marian Gaborik but every time I see him I come away more impressed. Not only is he clearly one of the most talented offensive players in the game but his defensive play is much better than I expected. Maybe I should have known better considering he literally grew up in noted defensive coach Jacques Lemaire’s system. I may have been swayed somewhat by comments made by Coach John Tortorella upon the Gaborik signing. Torts was adamant that Gaborik would get as much ice time as he earned. He clarified that statement by saying Gaborik was going to have to pay attention to his play in all 3 zones; not just the offensive one. Gaborik has been very good in both the neutral and the defensive zones this season.
He has shown willingness and an aptitude for back-checking and hasn’t made as many mistakes either positionally or with the puck as I expected. If two forwards get in deep on the forecheck, Gaborik stays high to guard against potential odd man rushes against. He is one of Coach Tortorella’s regular penalty-killers, not just because of the short-handed threat he presents but because he has played well without the puck and deserves the ice time.
The more I see him play, the more I think he is almost a relative bargain at $7.5 million annually; especially realizing that players like Vinny Lecavalier, Eric Staal and Brad Richards make more than Gabby. I wonder what he would be able to do if the Rangers had another reliable scorer or two to take some of the pressure off. Game in and game out, Gabby faces the opposition’s best defensive pair and top defensive forwards. To think he still leads the NHL with 25 goals while the next best Ranger has just 9 is phenomenal.
Some other players that have stepped up their game recently are Michal Rozsival, Ryan Callahan and the recently returned Brandon Dubinsky. Rozsival has put more points up on the board since assuming a regular spot on the PP point when Matt Gilroy was demoted (he has since been brought back up and played tonight against the ‘Canes) but it’s been his play in the defensive zone that has stood out. Rozsival is more decisive and strong dogging the puck. He has made good decisions as evidenced by his defusing of a few quality scoring chances tonight. He is playing like a guy who has committed to play a strong defensive game while allowing his offensive talents to manifest when given the opportunity.
Callahan has been on a mini tear offensively with 5 goals and 9 points in his last 9 contests; including tonight’s. His effort has been there all season but the offensive results expected following his breakout season last year were slow to follow suit. This season, Cally is 3rd in the entire league with 121 hits and is ranked 7th among forwards with 34 blocked shots. While he’s continued to do the little things all year, Callahan’s offense is finally picking up as well.
Dubinsky now has 1 goal and 3 points in the 5 points he has appeared in since returning from injury. Even more than his statistical contributions have demonstrated, Dubinsky has been a force on the fore check and has been relentless dogging the puck carrier thus creating chances for his linemates.
Need I mention that goalie Henrik Lundqvist has been outstanding over the last couple of weeks, even in defeat? When this team has needed him to play well, the King has stood up and delivered some great performances of late. His play in the third period with the game on the line has been extraordinary in the Rangers past few games.
The Rangers now look forward to another winnable game on Wednesday as they host the Florida Panthers at MSG. Following that, the Blue Shirts will see the Islanders and Flyers at MSG before a home-and-home against these same Hurricanes to close out December and welcome 2010. The Rangers could, and perhaps should, earn 8 out of a possible 10 points over the next 5 games. If they do that, then many of the Rangers’ fans (including me) that have lost some faith may again feel like this squad has a chance to make some noise come playoff time.