Thursday, January 05, 2006

Renney's Mistake Costing Rangers

Halfway through the '05-06 season, the Rangers have been one of the biggest surprises in the NHL. At one time, a team picked by many experts to finish near the bottom of the league was actually first overall in the Eastern Conference. After a gutwrenching 4-3 overtime loss to the hated rival Flyers on home ice Thursday night, they are down to fifth with 51 points and no longer a lock to break a seven-year playoff drought.

For much of the season, Jaromir Jagr has carried the team on his back, making the league's leading scorer a Hart Trophy candidate. Jagr did his part last night with two assists including a brilliant primary one which setup Martin Straka's second goal of the game to get his club a point.

While the first line trio of Jagr, Straka and Michael Nylander have been brilliant, rookie Petr Prucha has evolved from a training camp surprise to a bonafide scoring threat. With a one-timer from the high slot in the first period, Prucha scored his 19th of the season, which amazingly enough ranks second on the Rangers. It was his 16th goal in the last 20 games. The superb pace of the 23-year-old Czech has provided the club with two scoring lines. Though Steve Rucchin isn't the offensive threat on the line, Prucha and Martin Rucinsky make them a threat.

Nobody can question the direction this team has taken. Under the leadership of Coach Tom Renney along with assistants Mike Pelino, Perry Pearn and goalie coach Benoit Allaire, a team which was once a laughingstock around the league has gained the respect of their peers. It's no longer the country club atmosphere which gave them no chance in the past.

Renney has also established two solid checking lines, which comprise most of the much improved penalty killing unit. Gritty players such as Blair Betts, Dominic Moore, Jed Ortmeyer, Ville Nieminen, Jason Ward and Ryan Hollweg have gotten the job done, providing the Blueshirts with energy on most nights.

So, much has been handled very well by the coaching staff, which is why Marcel Hossa is a healthy scratch these days and why a player of Nylander's calibre can be disciplined as well. But what is unforgiving is Renney's insistence on giving Kevin Weekes every opportunity to claim the number one goaltender position. Throughout the season, 23-year-old rookie Henrik Lundqvist has been brilliant, outplaying the 30-year-old veteran by a severe margin to assume the role.

Try telling that to Renney- who just the other night after a 1-0 OT loss in which the goalie nicknamed Henke back in Sweden was rock solid- basically hinted that Lundqvist would get the nod against the Atlantic-leading Flyers. This after Renney declared that for the remainder of the season, he would go with the hot goalie. Lundqvist in OT losses to Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay was sharp and gave his team a chance to win.

So, what changed Renney's mind two days later? Way back in the season opener three months prior, Weekes was strong in making 24 saves in a come-from-behind 5-3 win at Philadelphia. That was then. Too much so for Renney to justify going with Weekes now. Not over a week after he made the same move against Eastern power Ottawa and watched in horror as the Senators stormed Weekes for four goals on 15 shots, forcing Renney to pull him for Lundqvist.

Anyone who has followed the Rangers this season understands who the more effective netminder has been. Not only have they fared better with Lundqvist in net but they seem to play with more confidence. That's what a bonafide number one goalie can do for a team. It's not like Lundqvist has played poorly. He only ranked third in both goals against average (GAA) and save percentage entering last night.

So why did Renney once again wuss out and play Weekes? The goal at this point of the season should be to make the postseason. Renney has continually hinted at it as has his players. They are no longer pushovers. Especially at even-strength where as much as the big bad Flyers tried to push around the Rangers, they couldn't. The better five-on-five team wore Ranger colors.

Before Simon Gagne's sharp angle shot from in close somehow eluded Weekes seven seconds into OT during four-on-four, it was the Rangers who scored all three of their goals in regulation playing with a goalie and five. Unfortunately, their second-ranked PK unit picked a bad time to give up three which kept the Flyers afloat. Though let's be honest. Some of the calls they received to net those PP goals were questionable at best. Just wondering. But how come when Flyers got away with similar stuff, there was no call? What's that about consistency again? Nevermind.

Despite all this, the bottom line with Thursday's third straight OT loss was that in a game in which New York outshot Philadelphia 34-23 and outchanced them, Renney's choice let in two bad goals which allowed the Flyers to walk out with two more points than they should have.

As if to confirm how poor the decision was, Weekes allowed a routine Frederick Meyer IV slapper from the point to beat him on the Flyers' first shot 2:42 in. Inexcusable. I'll cut Weekes a break on the next two. One was due to Ortmeyer falling down and some bad positoning by Fedor Tyutin and Darius Kasparaitis, which let Kim Johnsson walk in untouched, beating Weekes high. The third was a Brian Savage rebound through traffic which might have deflected off Michal Rozsival. Right away, Ranger fans sent a message to Renney chanting, "We Want Henrik."

With only a couple of minutes left, off a blind pass by Ward which led to a Peter Forsberg breakaway, Weekes made a great glove save which got the Garden crowd on his side. It could have been a turning point for the good natured Toronto native. But after saving his team's bacon, he allowed a brutal goal to Gagne at the beginning of OT before fans could settle into their seats. The kind which for all intensive purposes Lundqvist hasn't given up.

Try telling the coach pronto. His team has won just two of its last nine (2-4-3). They are one point ahead of sixth place Toronto, six in front of seventh place Tampa Bay and nine ahead of both Montreal and Atlanta. Oh btw, the rejuvenated Devils have won two in a row since Patrik Elias returned and trail them by 10. It's tightening up quickly.

The longer Renney waits to name Lundqvist the starter will continue to hurt his team's chances of finally breaking that drought. The clock is ticking.

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