Young winger James Neal (18) has kept the Crosby-less, Malkin-less Penguins afloat with his six goals.(Dean Beattie/ZUMAPRESS..com)
By Stu Hackel
My Tuesday nights don't vary much. Our group assembles at an old prep school barn of a rink and airs it out as best we can. We've got an exceptional early evening time slot, which most recreational skaters know is a real luxury. So for one night, watching NHL action gets relegated to Priority Two. Not that we don't talk about the NHL while we're dressing for the skate.
Detroit Gary and Jay converse reverently about the Red Wings. The Rangers fans, like Crack, Lacey, Dr. Dave, Cohen, Toddzilla, Eric and Matty long ago stopped trying to convince everyone -- and each other -- that their team could be real a Stanley Cup contender. Berube gets ragged on because every time he buys a Flyers jersey, the player whose name is on the back gets traded (Eric jokingly brought in an old Jaromir Jagr Rangers jersey for Berube to wear this week, knowing full well that Berube would never put on a Rangers sweater). And the Bruins fans like Frankie, McFall, Lee, Brian and James (not to mention Phil, whenever he's back from Abu Dhabi) still can't quite believe that their team actually won the Stanley Cup last season.
After the skate comes the inevitable question. "You goin' down?" by which the guy who is asking wants to know from the guy being asked if he's driving to the local grille for a late dinner and to watch what he can of the NHL -- often the third period of an Eastern time zone game featuring one of the New York teams, or whatever game Versus is showing. It's either that or beer in the parking lot.
I always end up at the Grille and I'm always the last guy there, so the later the TV game starts, the more I can catch. Some nights, I have to be content with only seeing highlights before heading home and watching a game I've recorded or something on Game Center Live. But last night, with an early Versus game and a Rangers game in Vancouver, in addition to lots of highlights, there was plenty to chew over with my turkey sandwich, sweet potato fries and club soda.
As I pulled in, the Penguins were wrapping up their 4-2 victory over the Wild and I was surprised by the result, if only because the guys in the Pittsburgh jerseys are largely the Scranton-Wilkes Barre AHL team. They've got no Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Brooks Orpik or Tyler Kennedy. Kris Letang was sitting out the first game of his two-game suspension. That's enough right there to wave the white flag -- and, I came to find out, the guy they called up to replace Letang, Brian Strait, got hurt during the game.
Somehow, the Penguins managed to win. "Did James Neal score?" I asked the guys who beat me to the grille. He had. This guy has six goals now, tied with Phil Kessel for the NHL lead. Of course, Kessel got his in only four games. Neal has played in eight. Still, that's pretty good, and when Crosby comes back, Neal could really explode. He's only 24 and still under many people's radar, partly because he didn't put up big numbers after the Pens got him from Dallas last February, but sometimes a player needs to settle into his new surroundings and Neal has done that. He's a legit power forward who has scored at least 20 goals in each of his three NHL seasons without anyone like Crosby setting him up.
Then it was time for highlights and we saw the play everyone is talking about as an early candidate for Goal of the Year. The Stars' Jamie Benn -- another young up-and-comer whose development probably made Neal expendable -- somehow escaped being surrounded by Blue Jackets to put his team up 2-0. Here it is...
Now that is a hell of a goal -- except, just what are the Jackets doing while Benn has the puck? Watch it again.
Jackets defenseman Kris Russel gives Benn a little bump, but doesn't fight for the puck along the boards and lets him go outside along the boards. Alexandre Giroux has skated by and to the bench for a change with the puck going into his zone. Rick Nash, who had a chance to rub Benn out along the boards, just glides along with him. As Benn cuts in, Nash merely leans in his direction and points toward him with his stick, mistakenly believing he's holding a magic wand that will summon the puck away. Strangely, that doesn't work either. Derrick Brassard skates backwards in front of Benn when he could have easily taken a step forward and cut him off. Instead, he creates the lane for Benn to cut to the net. Brassard, too, just waves his stick at the puck, and may even have shoved it into the lane he created for Benn to pick it up. Benn then meets Aaron Johnson in the slot, and Johnson also just swipes at the puck and misses -- that's how I play.
From there, it's just Benn and goaltender Steve Mason, who tried the poke check but can't reach the puck and falls. Benn has the whole upper part of the net for a target.
That's six guys committing the cardinal sin of sloth. Benn's very good, but the Jackets made him look even better.
It's not really a mystery why the Jackets have been struggling: They're missing their two big offseason acquisitions defenseman James Wisniewski (suspension) and now center Jeff Carter (foot fracture), too. Then coach Scott Arniel felt compelled to put them through a punishment skate on their off day last weekend. Can't say it did much good.
When I was writing about the Lightning yesterday, I came across an interview with their coach, Guy Boucher, who was asked something about one of his skill players. He answered that, sure the guy can make plays, but making plays is a small part of the game. I thought about that and it's true. Most of the game, you don't have the puck and what you do in those situations really goes a long way toward playing well and winning games. The Blue Jackets certainly played poorly without the puck here.
There were other highlights too, including the Hurricanes-Bruins brawl game, won by Carolina 2-1 (video): Zdeno Chara ragdolling Jay Harrison, Nathan Horton roughing up Tim Gleason (who refused to fight), Andrew Ference and Skinner wrestling, and Brad Marchand punching Skinner unprovoked in the same manner he repeatedly punched Daniel Sedin during the Cup final but this time getting a misconduct (which he should have gotten in June), and Dennis Seidenberg perhaps getting Brendan Shanahan's attention with a bad hit on Skinner. Funny how all these big bad Bruins got engaged with the (reportedly) 5-foot-11, 193-pound Skinner who amassed a whopping 46 penalty minutes last season.
There was also this little tussle between Brett Sutter and Chris Kelly that got the guys in the bar laughing.
Then, the main event: Rangers and Canucks. Hours earlier in our dressing room, I predicted the Canucks would destroy the Rangers. I'm not a Canucks fan, but I don't hate them. Those who gripe about Alex Burrows and Max Lapierre should look around the NHL because there are annoying players all over the league. No team has a monopoly on agitators or angels. In any case, my thinking on Tuesday's game was that Vancouver hadn't been playing well, they would be getting Ryan Kesler back, and they'd be charged up by the ceremony honoring the late Rick Rypien (video). That should be enough motivation to prevail over a winless Rangers team that has been on the road forever. For two period it sure looked that way.
Kesler came out banging, but still seemed a bit rusty. The Rangers had some power plays early, but did nothing. Having Brad Richards play the point has, so far, anyway, not resulted in much. They've scored no goals this season with the extra man and that prompted Frankie the Bruins fan to mockingly imitate Rangers TV announcer Sam Rosen's signature call, "It's a power play goal!"
As the game went on, New York lost what little rhythm it had, and the Canucks engine started humming. But neither team could score. The Rangers took six straight penalties and the Canucks spent long stretches in the Rangers zone, with the Sedin twins especially orchestrating some dominant play. Through two periods, Vancouver outshot New York. The stats said it was 28-9, but it didn't even seem that close. But none of those shots went in. One guy alone kept it that way: Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist.
If he made 28 saves, all of them were terrific. They often came in clumps like this flurry in the first period:
And this one in the second:
Lundqvist was especially sharp when the Rangers were down a man, the perfect illustration of that old dictum, "Your goalie should be your best penalty killer."
Now, I've written that I think the Rangers' defense corps is lacking, that it's too young and inexperienced. They're really in trouble now with both Marc Staal and Mike Sauer having yet to play due to injuries. I've thought New York should pick up a veteran blueliner to stabilize that group. But then the TV showed a shot of Lundqvist during a stoppage giving instructions to d-man Jeff Woywitka on how to play certain situations. I now wonder if Lundqvist might be that stabilizing force. It's worth considering.
By the end of the second period, the sandwich and seltzer were gone and I switched to harder stuff. Crack isn't drinking these days but, Rangers fan that he is, he was still dismayed by the Canucks' domination. I tried to cheer him up by noting that as long as Lundqvist was perfect, his team had a chance. "With Roberto Luongo in goal, you never know," I said of Lundqvist's counterpart.
"He hasn't had much work," Crack agreed. "All it takes is one shot."
The third period began and immediately the Rangers began to create chances. Just over two minutes in, they broke in with Michael Del Zotto trailing the play unchecked. He took a pass and fired a shot. Luongo gave up a big rebound. Mike Rupp was there for that one shot:
The Canucks and their fans were stunned. So was Crack. The entire texture of the game had changed on one play. But the Canucks didn't fold. They stormed Lundqvist again but he wasn't yielding a thing.
Chris the bartender moved around to our side and pulled up a chair to watch the flat screens above us. He's a big baseball fan and after Lundqvist had made those great saves, they showed the Swedish netminder at the Rangers bench during a stoppage. I mentioned to Chris that it was like a pitcher throwing a no-hitter. No one was talking to Lundqvist.
Halfway though the period, the Rangers were pressing again, the puck along the boards. They outworked Vancouver and came away with it. But Burrows flew out of the zone, anticipating the Canucks would get it and hit him with a breakaway pass. That opened up all sorts of room for the Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh. As Brandon Dubinsky carried it deep, McDonagh found the soft spot in coverage. Dubi made a perfect pass, McDonagh one-timed it.
It was 2-0 and Crack was giddy. He's liked McDonagh since his call-up midway though last season and believes he's the Rangers' best defenseman. He's certainly impressive.
A couple of minutes later, the Rangers won a faceoff, raced from their end to the Canucks' end, with Ruslan Fedotenko pulling up along the boards and spotting big Brian Boyle going hard to the net.
It was 3-0, and Crack was glowing. All of New York's goals were by secondary scorers, all finding holes in defensive coverage and getting clear shots on Luongo.
The pressure eased on Lundqvist and the fans in Vancouver began directing mock cheers at Luongo when he made easy stops. They didn't let up after the fourth Rangers goal late in the period: McDonagh taking a pass from Richards, weaving his way beautifully through traffic, then making a great pass to Marian Gaborik for the tap in as two Canuck defenders let him camp at the edge of the crease.
Crack was near delirium. One day, Canadiens fans may end up looking at the trade that sent McDonagh to New York in the package that returned Scott Gomez the same way they look at the trades that gave up Patrick Roy or John LeClair: as disastrous. Crack doesn't care.
That was it for the scoring. From his home, Lacey remembered how I said this game would turn out and sent me an email I read when I got home: "Based on your prediction, make sure I never go to Vegas with you. 4-0."
I answered, "Yep. And if Lundqvist wasn't terrific, it would have been 4-0 the other way."
He replied Wednesday morning, "No truer statement said."
The nomadic homeless Rangers and Lundqvist will stay out west for a while. But it's Luongo who you have to worry about. The Canucks have only five points out of a possible 12 and it's really unclear if he is going to be able to survive in Vancouver, despite what he or anyone in the organization says. He can't win unless his team wins, and if they don't score, they don't win. They've got 14 goals in six games. The Sedins didn't convert on all those power plays on Tuesday, no one did. The defenders gave the Rangers too much room in the third period. Luongo took the heat. He's far from perfect, but it's not all on him. Regardless, he's not getting any love from that wonderful city.