By Dubi Silverstein
Glen Sather is a genius. John Tortorella is a great coach—as long as they have a healthy Marian Gaborik in the lineup. Without him, two teams that had been unable to win a game in regulation cruised to relatively easy wins over the Rangers.
Against an Islander team that was giving up three and a half goals a game, the Rangers managed only one goal without Gaborik. Against a Wild team that had scored only 11 even-strength goals in a dozen tilts, the Rangers gave up three.
Minnesota had to be laughing at the Rangers' predicament with the injury-prone Gaborik out with yet another injury. Without Gaborik, a power play that had gone 10-for-42 in its previous 10 games was not only shut out in its five advantages, was not only held without a serious scoring chance, it was even a means for the opposition to mount a counterattack—even opposition as impotent as the Isles and Wild.
In other words, without Gaborik, Tortorella's power play looks an awful lot like Tom Renney's power play, the operative word being "awful." Without Gaborik, Tortorella has brought the Tom Renney Line Generator out of mothballs, trying to find a combination that works. And so Tortorella's hot start has evaporated quicker than Renney's did last season.
Tortorella lamented the unexpected absence of three players last night, foremost among them of course Gaborik, who continues to insist that his leg injury is not serious—he skated yesterday morning and may be ready to play tomorrow afternoon.
Sean Avery was out with a leg injury, but with his agitation under wraps since Tortorella took over and his offense non-existent since Tortorella put him on Chris Drury's line, it's not like he would have made any more difference than Dane Byers, who scored his first NHL goal in his second NHL game—he might have made even less of a difference.
And Christopher Higgins, scratched due to a seriously bruised ego, was not going to make any more of a difference than he made on Long Island the other night, or at any other time this season.
Artem Anisimov finally got more of a chance to play, logging a season-high 16 minutes. But he was still logging minimal minutes in the first period while the Wild were peppering Henrik Lundqvist with good scoring chances, moved up into a prominent role only after the Rangers fell behind. He responded with a key third period assist and went plus two on a night when 10 of his teammates were minus.
Among the minus players: Donald Brashear. There was a genius move by Sather, picking this guy up. Not only has he rarely fought, he has rarely even thrown a body check—even Enver Lisin hits more often than he does.
But he can handle the puck, we were told—as witnessed by his gorgeous turnover that led to the Wild's first goal late in the first after Lundqvist nearly brought the Rangers out of the period with a scoreless tie.
Drury was minus one for the fifth straight game, again caught a step behind the goal scorer, coasting, his signature move since he came to New York.
Coasting a step behind the opposition seems to be how the Rangers are being taught to play defense. After all, it happens on every single goal they give up. Drury, as already noted, was the leader by example on the game winner. Aaron Voros coasted behind Petr Sykora, getting a nice view of his nice goal after the Brashear giveaway.
Brandon Dubinsky was the coaster on the next goal—P.A. Parenteau appeared to be the one beaten, but he came off the bench and hustled to try to catch up, apparently too new to Tortorella's system to know that he should coast in that situation.
Dubinsky is sinking fast under Tortorella's tutelage, a shadow of the player he used to be. Marc Staal, a stalwart defender, has become a turnover machine trying to step up into Tortorella's go system. In short, he is turning into Wade Redden (the 32 year old Redden, not the 22 year old Redden).
Dan Girardi, who was never meant to be a first pair defender but has been pressed into that role because Redden can't take the pressure, is toast trying to cover for Staal's turnover. Ryan Callahan, who was the perfect player for Tortorella's system, can't buy a point playing with Drury as his center. Lundqvist, doing his best to hold opponents at bay, is showing signs of starting to crack.
Many of those holes were plugged by the presence of Gaborik, who scored or set up difference-making goals and made everyone else around him that much better. But the dike has completely collapsed without him.
A week that was supposed to be cake walk, three games against teams that started the week among the five worst in the league and one against a ragtag team that was clearly overachieving, has turned into a disaster, the Rangers losing three of the four and five of their last six, negating the seven-game winning streak that now seems like a fading dream.
The more things change in Rangerland, the more they stay the same. The names may change, but only the innocent are left unprotected.