stuhackel
Monday December 13th, 2010

By Stu Hackel

Looking for hockey's good, bad and ugly? You'll find it these days among the three New York-area teams. This past weekend's action was a perfect example.

The good: That Rangers have been good and it's been a while since anyone could honestly say that. And Sunday night's 7-0 demolition of the Capitals was another triumph for New York's young rising stars, and it's also been a while since anyone honestly could say that, too.

The four goals the Rangers scored in the first 10 minutes of the second period put this one out of reach, even for the Caps, who have now lost six straight. The Blueshirts took advantage of breaks (Washington hit posts and got porous goaltending from Semyon Varlamov), but also made some for themselves. They outworked the Caps shift after shift and played with confidence all over the ice. The Caps didn't help themselves, either, like on New York's fourth goal, which was made possible by a brutal line change after Alex Ovechkin, whose slump mirrors his team's, mistakenly gave the puck to the Rangers' Artem Anisimov in the neutral zone. Rather than trying to get it back, a bunch of white sweaters skated to the bench while the Rangers went the other way....

...and as the video shows, Brandon Dubinsky and Ovechkin later fought. Dubi also set up Ryan Callahan's goal for a Gordie Howe hat trick. But the player of the game was yet another young Ranger, Marc Staal, who played strong defensively, staying close to Ovechkin and giving him little room to maneuver, as well as scoring the fifth New York goal on a play that he started by winning a puck battle in his own end and finishing it on a two-on-one (video).

Staal, Dubinsky, Callahan and Anisimov, along with Dan Girardi, Derek Stepan, Brian Boyle, Michael Sauer and Michael Del Zotto are all 20-to-25 years old and have been making major contributions on a nightly basis all season. The Rangers are not yet an elite team in the East, but they are on the rise and bear watching.

The Bad: The Devils, who hosted the Red Wings in Newark on Saturday, had lost four in a row. Detroit was coming off an affirming win against Montreal that snapped a three-game slide, although the Wings were on their heels for the third period of that one, and without Jimmy Howard's heroics in goal, the outcome would have been in doubt.

But Saturday's game was over before the game clock had ticked away two minutes. A rusty Marty Brodeur was beaten twice before many fans (including me) got to their seats, and the boos were audible to everyone in the concourse as well as the fans still riding up the long escalator to the 100 level. As it turned out, Brodeur didn't have much chance on Tomas Holmstrom's deflection (video) at 28 seconds, but he missed getting his glove on Dan Cleary's shot 74 seconds later (video), although Cleary just cruised down the ice unchecked as the Devils seemed to be magnetically drawn to Todd Bertuzzi, who held the puck momentarily in the neutral zone and got everyone moving in his direction, including rookie defenseman Matt Corrente, who should have been somewhere near Cleary but wasn't.

From that point on, the Devils tried hard, but really couldn't penetrate the Wings' defense. The numbers say that New Jersey had a sizable lead in shots at one point in the period -- 10 to four -- but it was illusory. Their chances were mostly from far out and Wings goalie Chris Osgood easily swatted them away. The Wings were strong with and without the puck in the neutral zone, they kept their third man high on the forecheck, and they silenced the crowd. Even David Clarkson's pummeling of Jonathan Ericsson...

....didn't really light a sustained fire among the patrons. I was a civilian at this game, not seated in the press box, but in the stands with the Devils Army. They groused at the home team's chronic and numerous turnovers (the official stats noted 12 giveaways to only four by Detroit) and some yelled impatiently at Jersey's underachieving stars.

The bad feeling hasn't yet coalesced into derisive chants or massive game-long booing, at least not yet. After talking to some Devils fans around me, I could see that they are in shock. They didn't see this mess of a season coming. Few people did. But a combination of key injuries, including Brodeur, who has played far below his best; the need to dress at least a couple of rookies or second-year players on defense almost every game; poor performances by established stars, most notably Ilya Kovalchuk, around whom this team is supposed to now be built, but whose acquisition and signing have been more burdensome than imagined, have all taken their toll. Jason Arnott stated late last week that making the playoffs will be "nearly impossible" without a run of wins that don't seem to be on the horizon.

The Ugly: The Devils may have the most losses in the NHL (19) -- two more than the Islanders -- but the Isles have won only five of 27 and ugly is the only word to describe them. Since their coaching change, they've bagged only four of a possible 20 points, and while they can keep games close, they inevitably play well enough to lose.

The Isles tried to put a positive spin the bizarre scene on Saturday at Nassau Coliseum -- which was invaded by 1,100 fans from Quebec who turned the game into a demonstration of their desire to get an NHL club back in their town. But those fans cheered at pre-determined times unrelated to the game's action: with 15 minutes remaining in each period to mark the Nordiques leaving for Colorado 15 years ago...

...so it only underscored how sad the Islanders' situation has become. Not only do they have enough empty seats to easily accommodate this kind of stunt, their home games can easily be transformed into spectacle by pushing an agenda. Well, the old Nordiques were always good at creating spectacles. In the second video, the unmoved looks on the faces of the Isles fans who were trying to watch the game in front of the screaming Quebecois are telling.

It's terrific that those Quebec fans, who were passionate and loyal to the Nordiques, care so much to have made the journey south. Quebec is a great hockey town and it would certainly benefit the NHL if conditions worked out to get a team back there. Those traveling fans made headlines and attracted attention, but it's unclear how Quebec's invasion of Long Island will help them close the funding gap to finance the proposed arena they've requested from Canada's federal government. Ironically, a new arena is what the Islanders sorely need, but owner Charles Wang's massive Lighthouse Project has been stymied by the Town of Hempstead. Unless something changes dramatically, moving the team when its curent lease expires in 2015 is Wang's stated intention. But whether they'd actually leave the New York metropolitan area remains to be seen.

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