By Stu Hackel
Their seasons on the line, two Original Six teams found themselves in the eighth and final playoff spots in their respective conferences as the week began. The New York Rangers had only a two-point advantage on hard-charging Carolina in the East and needed a win on Monday night at home against Boston. By now, you probably know the Rangers trailed 3-0 before clawing their way back to victory and jumping into seventh. It was a game that had coach John Tortorella praising his team's desire and fortitude, which he attributed in some measure to its youth and innocence (video).
The defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, on the other hand, are trying to hang on to their one-point advantage over Calgary in the West, and they skate tonight in Montreal. A year ago, the Hawks were a young, fresh club set to embark on the strong run that would culminate in the franchise's first Cup in 49 years. Now, the rigors of salary cap management and significant injuries have shorn them of their innocence, not to mention the depth that served them so well last spring.
Falling behind Boston on Monday night exposed what is still problematic about the Rangers. First, they couldn't establish their forecheck and if they don't forecheck, their chances of winning decrease greatly. They are a young team, especially defensively, and Tortorella's style of play is predicated on pushing the pace and the puck into the other end to insulate his young defense corps. The best defense, for Torts and his crew, is a good offense. But when Boston got going in the first period, the Bruins revealed the flaws in the Rangers' game.
Some of the Rangers' highly touted young defensemen had a rough go early in the evening, including Marc Staal, who was beaten to the puck a few times and stumbled while defending a Boston rush. (Versus ran a good video package on his troubles during the telecast.) Ryan McDonagh, who is usually the most reliable of the group, was burned for a minus-3 by mid-game and spent some time sitting after that. McDonagh was not alone among his teammates who were standing around while the Bruins jumped on loose pucks and scored...
...and he didn't make the bad pinch that led to a 2-on-1 that resulted in Chris Kelly's first goal as a Bruin...
...but someone had to sit after that sloppy defending and it was McDonagh. But the Rangers woke up, established their game in the Bruins' zone and went to work with five consecutive goals...
...that had Madison Square Garden progressively louder with each tally by the home team. The Blueshirt faithful has gotten used to this sort of thing -- the Rangers have won eight games this season in which they trailed heading into the third period, the second best total in the league. Their 84 third-period goals rank fourth-best in the NHL.
"Guys worked so hard," an exhausted Henrik Lundqvist said while shaking his head in amazement after the game (video). "This is kinda the look we have on this team. We never really give up. We work hard. Some teams, you know, they will out-skill us, but hopefully they won't outwork us....Probably the biggest win of the year, I would say."
But now, just as we were posting this, we learned the Rangers will have to go forward without their hardest worker: young heart-and-soul leader Ryan Callahan, who blocked a Zdeno Chara shot late in the game and broke his ankle.
Callahan, who plays on both special teams units as well as at even strength, missed 19 games earlier this season with a broken hand. The Rangers fared well without him, posting an 10-7-2 record, but they'll face stronger competition each night in the playoffs. Since returning on Feb. 1, Callahan had been the Rangers' leading scorer, with 13 goals and 24 points in 27 games.
For Boston, it was uncharacteristically poor defending, as Mike Johnson illustrated on TSN last night (video) and leaky goaltending by Tim Thomas. The Bruins had only allowed 52 third-period goals before Monday night, the lowest mark in the league, and had only lost once in regulation and twice after regulation in the 30 games in which they had led after two periods. You don't want to read too much into a result like this if you're a Bruins fan; it's only one game in what Globe and Mail columnist Roy MacGregor calls hockey's "fake season" in which unusual results on the eve of the playoffs give a false impression of a team's overall play.
Still, as B's coach Claude Julien said (quoted in The Boston Globe), "At this stage of the season, you hope it’s a real good lesson that we learned tonight. If you don’t want to respect the game plan for 60 minutes, those things are going to happen.’’
"Those things" have happened all season in Chicago, where the Hawks' inconsistency has defined their campaign. In many ways, that has not been a surprise, but something that many observers anticipated after last summer's cap-induced roster purge that cost the team so many valuable pieces from its championship roster.
One area where it shows most compared to last season is in secondary scoring. Losing Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien (who played both wing and defense last season) and Kris Versteeg in the purge -- not to mention the injuries to centers Patrick Sharp (knee) and Dave Bolland (concussion) -- has had an impact. Yes, the Blackhawks still have excellent offensive talent in captain Jonathan Toews (a legitimate Hart Trophy candidate), Patrick Kane (15 points in his last 15 games) and Marian Hossa (21 points in his last 20). But Troy Brouwer has no goals in his last 21 games, Bryan Bickell has one in his last 11, Michael Frolik none in his last 12, and Tomas Kopecky has one in his last nine. The third line of Jake Dowell, Fernando Pisani and Ryan Johnson has no points in its last eight games -- and for Dowell, that sorry streak is at 12 while for Pisani, it's at 11.
Last year's Hawks, as most championship teams do, could play lots of different styles and win, but they've missed the physical dimension they had when Byfuglien, Ladd and Ben Eager wore the Indian sweater, not to mention the defensive awareness of John Madden and the depth on the blueline that Brent Sopel provided. As a consequence, Chicago relies more on skating and puck skills this season and on some nights, they're not enough.
Against Tampa Bay on Sunday, for example, the Blackhawks dominated play but couldn't get enough bodies to the net to make life difficult for Lightning goalie Mike Smith. He made all the stops in a 2-0 victory, the second home game in a row in which the Hawks didn't put the puck in the net.
The Hawks are not likely to be overtaken by Calgary. They have four games remaining while the Flames have two. Chicago needs to take only two points in its four games against a trio of old rivals -- the Canadiens, Blues and then a home-and-home with the Red Wings. The Flames have to win both their games against the Oilers and Canucks, and still have to worry about the Stars, who potentially could come up from behind and pass them if they falter. So the Blackhawks control their own destiny.
But destiny has been less kind than it once was. While the same stars are still in the Blackhawks' constellation, pro hockey reality has forced many of the lesser lights to change and this season has been one of lost innocence as much as lost games for Chicago.