By Dubi Silverstein
One of the qualities of good teams is that they can win the games in which they don't play particularly well. But that assumes that good teams only play bad games occasionally.
The Rangers, not playing nearly as well as they had previously, won two, maybe even three games in a row last week that could have easily gone the other way if not for Henrik Lundqvist's superb goaltending.
Not that sweeping a series of games that may have otherwise constituted a mini-slump is cause for panic, but with two of those last wins over the league-worst Toronto Maple Leafs, coach John Tortorella certainly had cause for concern.
"We’ve lost our concentration as far as our battles and turning our back on the puck," Tortorella told reporters after a 4-1 win in Toronto extended their streak to seven. "We talked about it between the second and third periods.
We’re teetering on going the wrong way here. I don't want to punch holes into the team, it did win another hockey game, but we have to be aware how we play at all times no matter if we win or lose. I just see us teetering a little bit here, and it's up to us to try to get on the right track and more consistent."
Of all the talk about his conditioning program, little attention has been paid to the mental aspects of it—keeping your mind as sharp as your stamina. That's where coaching comes into play, and it's encouraging to hear Tortorella think ahead to the potential consequences of the Rangers' sloppy play rather than sweep it under the rug just because they pulled out a win over a patsy.
It should help the tema's mindset when the opposition provides a level of competition they can play up to, like the incoming San Jose Sharks, rather than a level to play down to, like the winless Leafs.
Then, there is the goaltending gap to consider. The way Lundqvist is playing, there will be a gap in the Rangers' favor regardless of who is in net down the other end of the rink.
Still, the Rangers have had an easy go of it so far. Three of the goalies they faced in their seven wins are among the 10 worst in the league so far statistically. Three were backup goalies, and of the four starters, one was the injured Vesa Toskala and another the mediocre Jose Theodore (even Martin Brodeur has struggled to start the season).
Of course, the Ranger offense contributed to all of these keepers' woes, and it sure is refreshing to see them take advantage of novice netminders rather than (as in past seasons) making them look like Vezina candidates.
Still no reason to panic. This is just a, not even a red flag, maybe a yellow flag. And one that could easily be mitigated (as it already has been) by the Rangers' potent attack—the first line continued to roll last week, generating 11 of the 18 goals scored in four games.
Marian Gaborik extended his point streak to seven games with two goals and four assists and Vinny Prospal made it seven straight games with at least a point, registering two goals and five assists.
Furthermore, the second line hasn't even contributed an iota yet—it remains lying in wait for the inevitable evening when the first line is shut down. But its scoring woes caused Tortorella to do some serious line juggling for the first time this season in Toronto, with the still scoreless Christopher Higgins dropped to the third line in favor of Sean Avery.
Chris Drury is still there though, doing next to nothing, his ice time down 15 percent over past seasons, with little power play time coming his way this season.
The young defensemen continue to shine. Mike Del Zotto had a big night in his home town debut, playing before a large contingent of friends and family. He scored the Rangers' lone power play goal of the night to take the lead among all defensemen in the league in scoring and extending his scoring lead among rookies.
He also played excellent defense and registered five hits. Marc Staal scored the game winner (the seventh separate Ranger to net a game winner in seven wins) and continued to play tough defense along with defense partner Dan Girardi (who added three goals and assist during the week).
Lundqvist was a target in net all week, getting hit hard repeatedly in Garden games against the Leafs and Kings. The Rangers did a better job of removing players from his crease in Toronto, but that still did not deter the Leafs from crashing.
Tortorella told the press after the last game that he spoke to the referees about it, threatening to take matters into his own hands if they don't protect the goalie. He's already waited too long for the inept NHL officials to do anything resembling the right thing.
Just what the heck was Donald Brashear brought in for anyway, his prolific point production? All he did that night was avoid fights.
But all these nagging issues aside, things were still as rosy as anyone could have imagined. The Rangers were tied with the Penguins for the best record in the league, were tied for the best offense with an average of exactly four goals per game, and were second in goals against.
The power play had climbed into the top ten, going 10-for-29 since starting the season 0-for-9, and the penalty killing was fourth overall.
An indication of their dominance, through eight games, there have 218 more offensive zone face-offs at even strength than defensive zone draws. The team has won seven straight games in regulation time for the first time since November 1993.