By Dubi Silverstein
It wasn't a perfect start to the season—the Rangers (unfortunately) failed to ruin the Pens' banner raising ceremony on Friday (though they gamely sat it out). But it all went pretty much according to script in winning their next three, completing the first week of the season with an unexpected 3-1 record.
The script is really quite simple: Gaborik and Lundqvist. The Rangers knew going in that their season was going to hinge on Gaborik staying healthy and Lundqvist surviving the expected onslaught of odd-man rushes that result from Head Coach John Tortorella's pressure system. And to the start of the season, the Rangers' resident superstars gave them a chance against the Cup champs in the first game, and were central to their ensuing three wins.
It starts, of course, with Lundqvist. His stats through four games (2.52 GAA, .917 save percentage) do not tell much of a story, especially with a bad goal in Washington making highlight reels all across the continent. But after making more than a few huge saves to keep the Rangers within striking distance of the Pens, Lundqvist was stellar in wins over Ottawa and Washington.
When the Sens outshot the Rangers 13-2 over the first half of a second period that started out scoreless, Lundqvist made all the saves. And despite the bad goal, he was the best penalty killer in stopping eight of nine power plays and turned aside nine Alex Ovechkin shots, holding the league's leader off the score sheet for the first time this season. He had to be no more than workman-like in the Rangers' other win in New Jersey, his defense doing the job that night.
On the other end of the spectrum: Marian Gaborik, who thus far has been everything he was advertised to be—namely, one of the most dynamic offensive forces in the NHL, one who may have been kept somewhat a secret in Minnesota. He scored at least a point in all four games, averaging a goal a game, and was on the ice for nine of the Rangers' thirteen non-empty net goals.
No coincidence there -- even when not scoring himself, he draws so much attention that he frees his linemates to score, as he did on Vinny Prospal's first goal as a Ranger, acting as decoy on an odd-man rush. But his true value was shown in Washington when he scored the equalizer 18 seconds after the Caps took the lead in the third period and scored the game winner less than three minutes later—and that despite not having an altogether good game on that particular night.
The game winner was a power play goal. That made it two straight wins that were made possible by the power play, something that was sorely lacking in Rangerland over the past two or three seasons, when a strong case could be made that the moribund special team was precisely why the Rangers were no better than a middling team. Through the first two games, the power play was excellent but could not finish. In the next two, despite being less effective, it scored the key goals, twice erasing one-goal Devil leads in New Jersey, and netting the difference maker over the Caps.
The stats may still be lacking—the Rangers were in their customary 25th overall spot after one week with a 15 percent conversion rate. But the true effectiveness of a power play is in its ability to score the key goals, and in that sense, it has been successful.
A big reason for its success is the sudden emergence of a pair of rookie defensemen capable of doing what no Ranger blueliner has been able to do since the departure of Brian Leetch—quarterback the power play. It's only been four games and three power play goals, so no one is anointing anyone the next Leetch just yet.
But there was more than a little good news in the play of Mike Del Zotto and Matt Gilroy. Del Zotto, the 19-year-old who gets the first call on the power play, scored his first NHL goal in his second NHL game to start a three-game point streak and was averaging a point per game (two goals, two assists) after one week—he scored or assisted on each of the team's three power play goals. Gilroy scored his first NHL goal in New Jersey and, after a rocky start, quickly started playing good defense in addition to his evident skill with the puck in the offensive zone.
The M&M boys helped take some pressure off Gaborik and Lundqvist in the win in New Jersey. In Washington, another young defenseman helped prop up the Rangers along with the two pillars, earning third star of the game honors behind each team's two-goal scorers—Marc Staal, the 22-year-old third-year player who anchors the Rangers' blue line.
A look at his stat sheet showed little—+1, one shot, one hit, not even a blocked shot in 24 minutes of ice time. But the true evidence of his superb defense was found on another stat line—Ovechkin's no goals, no assists, and -1. Yes, he had nine shots on goal, 14 total attempts, but more than half of that (five shots, eight attempts) came during his astounding 11:27 of power play ice time. Overall, Staal did one heck of an unsung job in bottling up the biggest Cap of them all.
In addition to the obvious heroes, there were encouraging signs elsewhere in the Ranger line-up. Prospal was off to a good start, as was the young center playing between him and Gaborik, Brandon Dubinsky doing his best to justify his pre-season holdout even though he adamantly denied that it was a motivating factor.
Ales Kotalik was as inconsistent as advertised in the first two games, but he added key goals in the next two in addition to providing a consistently good shot from the point on the power play. And newly minted alternate captain Ryan Callahan brought his trademark work ethic to the second line along with opposite winger Chris Higgins, though the unit contributed just one goal (Callahan added a shorthander).
But there are sore spots too. Michal Rozsival, off to a horrendous start after having all but failed to show up to training camp, was benched midway through the Washington match. Wade Redden has reached the point where just showing a pulse as a depth defenseman with no special responsibilities earns him praise.
The third of the five highest paid Rangers other than Gaborik and Lundqvist, Captain Chris Drury, is also earning his big bucks under greatly reduced expectations, and meeting them (at best). Among the three rookies to make the team, Artem Anisimov is the one who got off to a slow start, but he started to show signs with each passing game. And the less said about the fourth line, the better—with season ticket sales lagging, the Rangers may consider renting out some of that wasted space for billboards.
Then there is Tortorella, the master manipulator, who wants to keep a low profile but who just can't help becoming the center of attention. Other than an expletive-laced time-out less than 90 seconds into the Jersey match, one that righted a Ranger ship that had failed to get out of port to start the game, Tortorella has done little other than bask in the glow of the glittering 3-1 start, praising his players, even keeping his units intact for longer, he said, than he ever has.
The odd-man rushes that marred the first two games were cut down in the next two, but the Rangers nevertheless seem to play like a rec team for long stretches. It makes for exciting hockey, but how long can they keep up this pace? We shall see.