The New York Rangers' 2011 playoff hopes hung in the balance until the last day of the season, with the team forced to sit and await the outcome of a Carolina Hurricanes-Tampa Bay Lightning game. As everyone idled, coach John Tortorella grew testy when asked whether making the playoffs would affect how he considered the success of the team's season.
"I am not going to listen to any bullshit as far as what type of year this was if we don't get in for some reason," Tortorella said. "Because it's bullshit because too many good things have happened with this club and we are on the right road and we are doing it the right way. So don't even bother asking me. Write what you want, but don't ask me about that."
As it turned out, Carolina lost and the Rangers got in. (They fell to the Caps in the first round.) But Tortorella's comments at the time were telling: This had become an organization more focused on process than pressure, unlike some of the Rangers' teams of the past. New York had grown infamous for much of the early and mid-'00s for its borderline-random moneyed grabs at all the aging free agents du jour, but the newest iteration of the franchise was more focused on building a contender the long-term way — through smart drafting and focused development. Players such as Marc Staal, Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, and Derek Stepan were all acquired in the first two rounds of the draft, while Ryan Callahan, now the team's hard-nosed, workhorse captain, was picked in the fourth. (Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist was selected in the seventh round in 2000.)
Of course, this didn't mean the team was going to forgo free agents entirely — far from it. With Marc Staal still out with a troubling concussion, the team's best defenseman has been 2006 undrafted free agent Dan Girardi, who now leads all NHLers in time on ice per game.1 In 2009 they picked up sniper Marian Gaborik, and this offseason they went all-out for the biggest name, signing center Brad Richards. But with a young core of players who have been together for years now, including on lines in the minor leagues, the acquisitions seemed a bit more deliberate. With Lundqvist in net last season recording a league-high 11 shutouts, it wasn't like the Rangers had to be particularly high-scoring to win games. But they still had trouble consistently getting enough goals to win outright, instead going to so many overtime games and shootouts that it almost cost them their playoff spot. The hope was — and remains — that Richard could take some of the scoring pressure off guys like Gaborik and give the team some extra oomph.
In Tuesday's game against the Islanders, that's exactly what he did, breaking a 2-2 tie with less than five minutes to play to give the Rangers the win, their seventh straight. (If they can beat Montreal on Saturday, it'll be the team's longest win streak since the '70s. Thanks, Olivia Munn!) The recent success isn't worth getting too fired up about — the wins haven't exactly come against the league's toughest competition — but as Torts would say, the team is on the right road.
There were other satisfying moments throughout the game, one being Sean Avery, recently recalled from a stint in the minors, scoring his second goal in two games,2 and the second being Ryan Callahan's earning a goal and an assist. Yeah, yeah, the goal was an empty netter, but it was assisted by young defenseman Ryan McDonagh, which was in many ways symbolic. The Rangers acquired McDonagh, one of Montreal's top prospects, in a 2009 trade that off-loaded one-time star player Scott Gomez — and his star-player-sized salary — to the Canadiens. Gomez has done basically nothing since then, and is now one of the biggest thorns in Montreal's side. For once, New York is on the other side of that deal.
Lighting the Lamp: The Week's Sickest Snipes
The two best goals of the week — and arguably, so far, of the season — came in the same game: Tuesday night's contest between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Colorado Avalanche.
The Avalanche's Matt Duchene, vodka enthusiast, went through an early-season mini-slump a few weeks ago. "I try to skip to step 10 before I start step one," he explained to the Denver Post. "I've always been someone who has wanted to run before I could walk." He's been on a sprint lately, though, amassing seven goals — many of them highlight-reel-worthy — and seven assists this season.
His prettiest score yet came on Tuesday, when the lefty cradled the puck through his legs and onto his backhand before sending it past Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. I say "cradled" pretty literally: It was one of the downiest moves you'll ever see. Duchene could rock a baby to sleep on that stick. (He'd also dominate one of Gordon Bombay's egg practices.)
Duchene's goal put the Avs up 2-0, and they'd go into the first intermission with a 3-1 lead. But the Penguins responded with five unanswered goals, including four in the third period, to leapfrog to a 6-3 win. Evgeni Malkin earned the game winner with an unreal effort that began well before the goal was scored. After forcing a Colorado turnover behind the net, Malkin received the puck from teammate James Neal and beat Colorado's Gabriel Landeskog through the legs, deked out goalie Semyon Varlamov, and netted the puck with a diving shot. The whole sequence was utterly Malkin: half beauty, half beast.3
True confession, though: As many times as I've watched and rewatched Geno's play on this video, the most captivating part might be right at the end. What sweet nothings do you think Dan Bylsma must have been whispering into Neal's ear to make the dude smile so maniacally like that? I mean, other than reminding him of his stats so far this season?
Piling on the Pylons: The Week's Worst Performers
This week it's a three-way tie between the Carolina Hurricanes, Anaheim Ducks, and New York Islanders. At 6-10-3, the Hurricanes' situation isn't necessarily dire just yet, but what's been most worrisome is the play of captain Eric Staal. When his former winger Erik Cole went to Montreal as a free agent this summer, many thought it would be Cole suffering from the breakup, but it's been the opposite.4 Staal has a league-worst plus/minus of minus-18 and has scored only four goals this season, two of which came in the second game. Coach Paul Maurice — whose own job is on the line these days — has recently tried moving Staal from center to wing, hoping that will stir something up. Carolina hopes it will, because as Staal goes, so goes the team: When he finally broke a goal-scoring slump on Saturday against Pittsburgh, it was a game winner, and the only game the Canes have won in the past two weeks.
Slumping Anaheim showed promise against the L.A. Kings last night in the first of a home-and-home "Freeway Faceoff" series, tying the game with a few minutes to play in regulation at 1-1 and taking the Kings all the way to a seven-round shootout, but ultimately lost. (They'll get a rematch in Anaheim tonight.) On Sunday night, Bobby Ryan called the team's play "embarrassing," and he was right — the Ducks' best player this season has been Teemu Selanne, and the man's 41 years old.
And the Islanders, oh the Islanders: They outdid even themselves with the introduction of a new alternate jersey so hideous5 that even the Gorton's Fisherman is close to sitting the whole organization down and being like, "Look, there are a bunch of people in this room who love ya like crazy, but we feel like we're losing ya." (Oh yeah, and the team is also 1-6-3 in its past 10.)
Taking It Coast to Coast: A Skate Around the League
- Four new players were inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday night. Mark Howe, whom the New York Times' Jeff Z. Klein called "the proto-Nicklas Lidstrom" in a lovely and multimedia-rich piece, finally made the hall after being eligible since 1998. Howe gracefully called attention to the KHL's Lokomotiv plane crash victims6 and their surviving families in his induction speech, and ended it by donning a no. 9 Red Wings jersey in a salute to his beaming father — and erstwhile linemate — Gordie. Originally a seventh-round draft pick, Doug Gilmour won the 1989 Stanley Cup in Calgary (alongside fellow inductee Joe Nieuwendyk) before being traded to and becoming the darling of Toronto, where he would spend much of his career. His speech was most memorable for his pointed tribute to late coach Pat Burns, who was snubbed by the Hall. "We all miss him," Gilmour said. "The league misses him. More importantly, we believe he'll be here [in the Hall] one day." For his part, Nieuwendyk, now the Dallas Stars GM, gave a charming speech that included shout-outs to his children, best friend Gary Roberts, and Flames teammate Lanny McDonald.7 And then there was Eddie Belfour, who showed up Saturday night for a pre-induction ceremonial puck drop with a leather jacket and a nine o'clock shadow. We would have expected nothing less — or, I should say, nothing more — from the Eagle, God bless him.
- One more thing regarding the Hall of Fame: It's satisfying in a sort of Faceoff Circle of Life kind of way to know that just as young draft picks enter the NHL by being forced to pose for toe-curlingly awkward photo shoots, the league's finest and most celebrated alumni are honored in the exact same ("traditional") way.
- Hey, check out yesterday's mailbag for some additional hockey content (as well as my feelings about the movie Country Strong).
- The league at large is starting to be reminded of something that Philadelphia Flyers fans have known for a while: Claude Giroux is pretttttty pretttttty good. Giroux has 22 points through 17 games, and what's scariest is who he has on his side — literally: Jaromir Jagr. Jagr told CSN Philly's Sarah Baicker "I love to play with him. I think he's the top — I don't want to say he's the best right now in the league, but he's top three for sure. I never thought at the end of my career I was going to play with a guy like that. And that's what's made me happy." That's pretty impressive. As someone still smarting from 2010, I'm officially terrified.
- The Chicago Blackhawks earned revenge on the Vancouver Canucks last night, making up for a 6-2 loss on Nov. 6 with a 5-1 win in Vancouver that, depending on whom you were rooting for, either snowballed or unraveled. Vancouver went up 1-0 just 38 seconds into the second period, but Chicago responded with a pair of beautiful power-play goals from Andrew Brunette (whose four goals have all come with the man advantage) and Patrick Kane. It was in the third period, though, that Chicago really blew everything open, scoring three goals in the span of four minutes, all on slap shots. The final blow came from the suddenly-surging defenseman Steve Montador, who went 30 games without scoring and has now netted four in the past four games. ESPN Insider Craig Custance visited the Chicago dressing room recently and noted that "the room definitely had a vibe much closer to the Stanley Cup-winning team than the one that underachieved last season." For the rest of the league, that's a scary thought.
- Here's the trailer for Goon, a self-explanatorily-named film that was shown at the Toronto Film Festival in September. Written by Jay Baruchel, the movie stars Seann William Scott as the titular Goon, as well as Liev Schrieber as a minor league mega-brawler. The most exciting name in the credits for me, though, is director Michael Dowse, who also directed the incredible Fubar, a work of genius that brought me hours of delight back in college. (Just keep on given'r.)
- Has Alexander Ovechkin lost his edge? Slava Malamud had a very interesting case to make on Twitter the other night, which I've attempted to compile onto one page that you can see here. Also worth a read is this piece by Stephen Whyno in the Washington Times. (As you're considering both, also keep in mind that Ovi has 14 points in 16 games so far this season, and that the Caps are a Southeast Division-leading 10-5-1.)
- In very exciting news, the league announced last week the formation of an NFL Films-style operation, NHL Original Productions, in conjunction with former HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg. First up? A documentary about the 1972 Summit Series between Canada and the Soviet Union. In an interview with Greg Wyshynski, Greenburg explained: "I like sucking people into a story, watching it mouths agape, and maybe with a tear in their eye."8
- St. Louis Blues forward Chris Stewart was Shanabanned for three games following a boarding penalty on Niklas Kronwall. But for all the attention paid to the NHL's recent efforts to police head shots, there may be no league that has cracked down more mightily than the major junior Ontario Hockey League. In January, the OHL suspended Buffalo Sabres prospect Zack Kassian 20 games for a dangerous hit, and it has continued to bring down the hammer: Last week a 20-game suspension was doled out for a head shot, and this week two more players were given sentences of 15 games and 10 game this month alone. Perhaps the most notable decision rendered yesterday, though, was that involving Ryan Rupert of the London Knights, who tried to halve the Soo Greyhounds' Nick Cousins with his stick after Cousins, a notorious agitator, taunted him after the final buzzer on Friday. Rupert was assessed a five-game suspension, while Cousins himself got a pair, which teaches a valuable lesson: knock a few melons = bad; wield your stick like you're going for a high score in Fruit Ninja = eh, it could be worse.
- This summer, Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon seemed like a sugar-high kid in the Chuck E. Cheese prize room: With the Panthers nearly $30 million below the league-mandated salary floor of $48.3 million, Tallon was essentially holding a fistful of mouse-face-stamped tickets that he had to cash in, even if the selection of prizes comprised overpriced bouncy balls, novelty mugs, and Discmen of questionable provenance. When it was all said and done Tallon had brought in 11 new players, completely reshaping the Panthers roster with money to burn. ( "Every general manager with a bad contract has likely called Dale Tallon in the last few days," wrote Backhand Shelf's Rick Moldovanyi in June.) He even took defenseman Brian Campbell, whose cap hit of more than $7 million was considered one of the league's most untradeable contracts, off the hands of the Chicago Blackhawks, his former team.9 But it's now looking like Tallon had more of a discerning eye than everyone was giving him credit for: The Panthers are a respectable 9-5-3, and as an article in the Miami Herald pointed out, four players on the team are currently among the league's top 32 scorers — last year, in contrast, the team's highest scorer was only 99th overall in the NHL.
Chirping Like a Champ: The Week's Best Mouthing Off
The biggest back-and-forth of the past week began in a game between the Bruins and Sabres over the weekend. Boston's Milan Lucic10 lost control of the puck on a breakaway and then plowed at great speed into Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller, who had come out of the net to challenge for the loose puck. Miller was knocked to his ass, his helmet was knocked from his head — and yet no one on the Sabres so much as attempted to knock Lucic out.
I could go on and on about what has transpired since. It included Miller, now out with a concussion,11 calling Lucic a "gutless piece of shit," Lucic's remarking that his team "wouldn't accept anything like that," Bruins coach Claude Julien's noting that "I know for a fact that if Milan had intended on hitting [Miller], he would have never got up," Brendan Shanahan's declining to issue any suspension for Lucic, Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff's stating that it's now "open season" on goalies, Shanahan's calling that "irresponsible", and so on and so forth.12
But here's where I'll instead stop and tell you to just go read this excellent piece by Steve Dangle, who makes a very compelling (and value-neutral!) case that, whether you like it or not — and whether it should be punished by the league or not — the Boston Bruins "are giving the other 29 teams in the NHL the punk test" and "so far, everybody has failed it."
I may get fired
for referring you to this
Ryan Whitney tweet.
Katie Baker is a staff writer for Grantland.
Previously from Katie Baker:
Manning-ology, Lady Byng, and the Pitfalls of Great Free Tickets
The Best Team in the NHL
Wedded Blitz! The October Marriage Season
The Rise of the Female Distance Runner
The Horrible Habs
Coming to Grips With the Winter Classic
The Endless Battle Over Hockey Fights
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