Friday, May 05, 2006

Rangers in a Strange Land

It was a Cinderella season for New York’s hockey team, almost down to the end. But in a sorry turn on the Grimm tale, the coach that had brought the Blueshirts to the ball turned into a pumpkin. The silver skates on which they had once sped so dazzlingly no longer fit. Prince Charming, a.k.a. Lord Stanley, ceased to smile upon them as midnight drew near; turning his gaze to the other side of the river, he resumed his search for a suitable recipient of his prized cup.

The Rangers’ fall from grace had been truly shocking. Requiring only a single point from a sixty-minute tie to secure first place in their division and home-ice advantage, they lost their last five games of the regular season and then were swept from Stanley Cup play in four depressing losses in which they were outscored 18-4. Providing further sting was that the skaters who had overtaken them in the final days and then manhandled them in the playoffs were New Jersey’s Devils, hated rivals whose last win over the Rangers was their fifteenth straight.

What kind of justice was this, in which the evil stepdaughters got to stay at the ball while the long suffering Cinderella was thrown back into ignominy? Well, justice of a sort. After seven years of subjugation in which they had failed to earn a playoff spot, and an eighth in which the whole league was put on ice, the Rangers had rebuilt their squad around a single superstar, Jaromir Jagr. They added a gaggle of Czech mates whose passing and skating skills in previous years had been blanketed by the National Hockey League’s tolerance of hooking, holding, interference, and generalized mayhem. For the 2005-06 campaign however — coming after an entire year lost to labor-management hara-kiri — the league had instituted many new rules that benefited the smaller “skill players” and minimized the advantages that had accrued to the sport’s behemoths.

As the season wore on, the Rangers’ mighty mites wore down. The attributes that had carried them to victory in the regular campaign — nifty cross-ice passing, intricate power-play patterns, acrobatic net minding — were not the ones most valued in the playoffs, when defense and discipline were paramount. To advance in Stanley Cup play, the historical requisites for success have been responsible positional play at center ice; vigorous checking at both ends; muscle and resolve in front of the net; good special-teams play; and reliable goaltending. Repeated spectacular saves were not as important as avoiding the bad goal and, so important, the first goal. Until their season-ending loss, in which Jed Ortmeyer scored to put the Rangers up 1-0, the Rangers had not led in a game for two weeks.

The boys in blue fell short not for lack of pluck or luck or character, but simply because they weren’t built for hockey’s “second season,” the one in which a champion is crowned. Still, it is important to recognize that while their Cinderella story did not end in triumph, nor did it thrust the Rangers back to their former status as household char girls. Because of their long exclusion from the NHL’s glory road, the Rangers of 2005-06 fielded few players who had ever played in a Stanley Cup contest before, and experience counts. Now the younger Rangers have it, but not all of them showed enough to be assured a spot on next year’s club ... and this is the best news about the Rangers’ future. They now have enough talent backed up in Hartford and in junior hockey that the over-30 contingent will not have to dominate the team’s first two lines and power-play unit.

Jagr is a great player, and to these eyes the league’s regular-season MVP, even though he was overtaken for the lead in goals and scoring in the disastrous final days. No team in recent memory was so dependent upon one man who was not a goalie. Jagr’s great skill and amazing energy bedeviled opponents and blessed his linemates. Michael Nylander had a wonderful season playing alongside him, and Czech journeymen Martin Straka, Martin Rucinsky, Petr Sykora, and rookie Petr Prucha also played well when they were paired with him, and less well when they were not. Not all of these men will be back next year. Jason Ward, Ryan Hollweg, Blair Betts, and the aforementioned Ortmeyer played a gritty game and provided the season’s all-too-few hard hits. Colton Orr’s physicality in his 15-game audition makes him an appealing fourth-liner for next season. Still, the Rangers need more balanced scoring and even a goal now and then from their checking lines. Veteran center Steve Rucchin was the team’s top face-off man but the team will look to add strength at his spot. Bright prospects for seasons to come are wingers Dominic Moore (though he must score more), and even the frustrating Marcel Hossa, whose formidable skills are unequaled by energy.

On defense, Darius Kasparaitis, Michael Rozsival and Marek Malik had charmed seasons that they will be hard pressed to replicate. Tom Poti had a fine second half and young Fedor Tyutin displayed great promise that far exceeded his puzzling lapses. Jason Strudwick will probably cede his spot on the back line next year to Thomas Pock, and Sandis Ozolinsh, a veteran star and power-play specialist acquired late, is on the bubble. The Rangers will be scouring the free-agent list for defensemen who play more of a physical game than the current finesse-oriented contingent.

Goaltending was a huge surprise, as Swedish rookie Henrik Lundqvist beat out veteran Kevin Weekes for the top spot early and held on. By year’s end, however, both were disappointments. Lundqvist, who led the Swedish national team to Olympic gold, appears to have a bright future with the Rangers, barring a sophomore jinx that extends from his weak late-season play. The mechanical Weekes is likely to be replaced by a farmhand.

Next year’s free-agent crop will be plentiful, and stars who in previous seasons overcame their repugnance of the Rangers’ losing ways only through laughably lavish inducements may now come to Broadway to build a Stanley Cup winner. The Rangers did not complete their Cinderella story this time around, but they are no longer the laughingstock of the league. And that is a first step toward constructing a tale with a happy ending.

--John Thorn


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