Thursday, October 12, 2006

Wake Up Call Comes Early For Rangers

Four games. That's all it took to see that there's something seriously lacking with this year's Rangers. The same team which came off their first postseason in nine years and was even picked by some experts to win the Stanley Cup. Hold that thought.

In their second straight home defeat- a crushing 6-5 loss to the Pens in which 19 year-old wunderkid Sidney Crosby banked in the winner off Ranger defenseman Aaron Ward's skate with 3.3 seconds left as Ranger captain Jaromir Jagr helplessly watched from the penalty box- time and time again, the 2006-07 Blueshirts paid for their lack of discipline.

Every mistake wound up in the back of the net. Paging Henrik Lundqvist. You are allowed to make a big save once in a while. Yes. The same Swedish netminder who was deemed King of Manhattan in an outstanding rookie season but has somehow allowed 10 goals in the last two losses. Oh. And if you discount the stellar 13 save effort in their shootout win at Philadelphia Saturday, he's given up 14 goals on the last 85 shots his way. For those doing the math, that's an .835 save percentage.

Not that it's all his fault. There's plenty of blame to go around of a team that's made so many glaring mistakes early on, that it's looked eerily similar to their colossal nine-game losing streak which ended last season on such a sour note.

Aside from Lundqvist's early struggles in the dreaded sophomore season which has given plenty of netminders recurring nightmares, the lack of cohesiveness has to be a sore point for Rangers coach Tom Renney. Too many instances last night and especially the previous two, his team didn't seem on the same page. Particularly alarming is the lack of backchecks which have led to odd-man rushes resulting in goals such as the one Pittsburgh's Ryan Whitney connected on just 53 seconds after Michael Nylander's power play tally tied it to give the Pens a 5-4 lead with 12:58 remaining in a seesaw contest.

"We held the majority of the play," a disappointed Brendan Shanahan expressed to the AP after tallying his team-leading fourth goal via the man-advantage to knot the game up again at 11:12 before Crosby's cruel ending resulted in the Blueshirts getting no points. "We've got some work to do as a five-man unit and we've got some work to do on the special teams."

Ah. Special teams. If ever there was an area Renney's troops need to spend time on, it's on a penalty kill which allowed chance after chance to the opportunistic Pens, who cashed in on four of nine. Imagine that the Rangers outshot their opponent 42-22 but wound up on the losing side due to an abysmal effort which allowed the star of the night Crosby to also rack up three assists along with his crushing winner which sent fans to the exits cursing under their breath.

Since going a perfect eight-for-eight against Washington in their season opener triumph, they've now given up seven PPG in the last three games. Translation. Darius Kasparaitis and Jed Ortmeyer can't get back healthy soon enough. Summing up how little confidence the current PK unit has, Adam Hall's failure to attack Mark Recchi at the right point with five seconds to go proved costly when Recchi fed Crosby, who one-timed a pass for Michel Ouellet which went off Ward and in.

"I could have picked a better position to not line up and block the pass in front of the goalie," Ward later said. "I should have stepped out to the side. As a defenseman, you don't want to be the catalyst to their goal."

While the 3-time Cup winner took responsibility for the gutwrenching loss, had Hall been more aggressive, the puck never gets to Crosby and the Rangers come out with at worst a point on an otherwise poorly executed night which saw them shoot themselves in the foot literally.

Outside of that play, Hall, who was acquired for current Pen Dominic Moore in a three-team deal with Nashville has been one of the few Rangers who's played well. It was the ex-Predator who one-timed a Martin Straka pass to help his struggling team finally break a power play drought in the second period. So it wasn't all bad for the 26 year-old Kalamazoo Michigan native who tallied 10 of his 14 goals on the PP last season.

Before that PPG, the lack of execution on the Rangers' power play was disturbing. With predictable collective groans coming from an MSG crowd at the ridiculous amount of passes made before even a shot was attempted, their worst fears were realized when 18 year-old Pens' second overall pick Jordan Staal forced Michal Rozsival into a turnover on an illtimed Jagr pass and took full advantage by beating Lundqvist for his first NHL goal shorthanded. One could only wonder if the younger brother of 2005 Rangers' first rounder Marc would've been able to make the same play and convert on a breakaway if that Staal was on the ice. We'll have to wait another year at the very least before that happens.

The good news for New York was that after Hall's PPG, they did score twice more in the nine chances they got. So maybe they can get hot in time for what promises to be a difficult road game at Buffalo Saturday night before returning home to host the rival Devils, who finished off a three-goal comeback in another wild game Thursday to pull out a 7-6 shootout win over Toronto in their home opener.

So it won't get any easier for a team that's clearly not clicking on all cylinders and has turned over the puck at an alarming rate. Not a great recipe against two of the East's quicker transition teams.

Aside from all their issues, the team's best player Jagr is clearly not close to 100 percent. Though the Rangers' leader converted his second on a patented wrister in transition, he has been hesitant to shoot the puck due to the recovering shoulder he injured against the Devils last Spring. Especially on the man-advantage where he set a franchise record last season with 24. It's not like Nylander or Straka are going to pull the trigger. Outside of Shanahan, Hall and Petr Prucha (12:18 TOI), nobody is really going to finish plays. Until Renney adjusts and puts acquisition Matt Cullen on the right point where he can get his top heavy shot through, teams will continue to overplay Jagr and not pay much attention to the point.

Everyone knows they don't have a PP quarterback. And no. A 38 year-old Brian Leetch is not the answer unless they're willing to play him as an extra defenseman. He doesn't have the mobility anymore and is far too much of an injury risk. No. 2 belongs up in the Garden rafters next to Mark Messier's 11.

The good news. Renney's staff still have plenty of time to get this and other things fixed before it gets late early. That would include playing his second leading goalscorer Prucha (30 last year) more than he saw last night. It also should include getting fourth liners Jason Ward (6:59) and Ryan Hollweg (4:48) out more even if his team takes the ridiculous amount of penalties it did. Both provided energy and finished on the plus-side of the ledger helping setup a Cullen goal and almost another tally on their next shift.

Last season, Renney tried to establish all four lines. He needs to get back to that. It also wouldn't hurt to give backup goalie Kevin Weekes the start at HSBC Arena. Maybe the likeable vet will make a save or two which provide a spark which has been missing.

Either way, we're going to find out something about Renney's club the next few days. With expectations way up, the pressure is on.


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