It will be a rare Saturday night NHL game in Manhattan at the renovated Madison Square Garden — Saturday is usually NBA night — featuring an Original Six rival and the return of Sean Avery to the home team. Should be mildly interesting.
Rangers and Canadiens both have had uneven starts to the season, although Montreal has now won four straight. The Rangers have won two in a row, a very strong performance in their 5-2 win on Monday against San Jose and a weird 2-1 shootout win over Anaheim, and they lead the Habs by one point.
New York opened the season in Europe with two regulation ties that didn’t yield the bonus point, then returned to the Metropolitan Area to play the Islanders, and then — rather than keep them in the east — the NHL schedule maker sent them out west to continue a season-opening voyage while the Garden renovations continued. Their first home game was Oct. 27 and the grueling travel has not helped them in the early going.
More was expected of the Broadway Blueshirts, who signed the biggest free agent in the offseason, Brad Richards. The former Conn Smythe Trophy has twice topped the 90 point plateau, most recently with Dallas two seasons ago. The thought was that Richards’ great playmaking would mesh with Marian Gaborik great sniping ability and create a dynamic duo. It hasn’t worked that way.
Gaborik has gotten off to a fine start — five goals in the first 11 games — but there is some concern about Richards, who has not registered a point in four of the past six games. He’s still got nine points on the season, but there’s a feeling he’s behind the pace of play and he hasn’t skated on a line with the very speedy Gaborik much lately.
Coach John Tortorella explains that the chemistry doesn’t seem to be there, that both want the puck. So he’s changed his lines around. He changes them regularly between and during games anyway.
The Rangers have only 27 goals on the season — four fewer than the Habs — tied for the second lowest total in the Eastern Conference. They are getting decent production from new captain Ryan Callahan, who also has five goals, but after he and Gaborik, only two players have more than one tally. They are Richards with three and another player with three — defenceman Ryan McDonagh.
The former Habs draft choice (pictured) who came to New York in the Scott Gomez deal, McDonagh has been the best Rangers blueliner this season, taking over for Marc Staal, who is out with a concussion that has lingered since last season. Staal has yet to play this season, and status is unknown. No one believes he’ll be back in the near term. So McDonagh has moved into Staal’s role on the top tandem with Dan Girardi (their top shot blocker) and his fine all-around play has made Staal’s absence a bit more tolerable.
Against Anaheim on Thursday in overtime, he led a rush into the zone that was thwarted, then was the first guy back to break up the counterattack. Habs fans may be fuming about this deal for years to come.
If the Rangers offense has been sputtering, the defence as a whole still suffers from inconsistency as well. They are a young group with size and mobility that has their good moments, but are in need of a stabilizing force, perhaps a veteran, when things get dicey.
Glen Sather was one of many NHL GMs in the last few weeks hunting for some veteran experience to augment his back line. He had already snared Jeff Woywitka from the Habs off the waiver wire prior to the season (and Woywitka got his first goal of the season Thursday against the Ducks). He reportedly signed free agent Anton Stralman, the former Maple Leaf and Blue Jacket who didn’t stick in a training camp tryout with the Devils in September and the Rangers sent rookie Tim Erixon to the AHL to presumably make room for Stralman, but the Rangers have not officially announced the signing or added him to the roster. So that one is a mystery.
Henrik Lundqvist remains one of the NHL’s top goalies, and probably the Rangers’ MVP, considering the lack of scoring and young D-men in front of him. He’s got a 2.18 GAA and .932 save pct., better than you’d think for a goalie whose record is only 3-3-3. Marty Biron is the back-up.
The Rangers power play, which went scoreless in their first four games to begin the questions about Richards, is now 6-for-44. Michael Del Zotto, one of their PP QBs, is nursing a hip injury and didn’t practice on Friday. But with only six defencemen on the roster, he’ll be dressed.
The penalty kill, on the other hand, has been quite good. They have killed off 44 of 50 attempts, 88 percent, seventh in the league.
Now, to Avery, the sport’s best-known non-star who will make his season debut on Saturday. He was demoted to AHL Connecticut after training camp, angering a segment of the fans. Never a favorite of Tortorella’s, he actually played poorly in preseason and, essentially, didn’t make the team. But when Mike Rupp, the former Devil and Penguin, came up lame earlier this week, that created an opening. After getting into shape, Avery had played well in his Hartford stint and was the guy Sather called.
The MSG fans chanted his name on opening night, but he’s not the unanimous People’s Choice in New York. Of course, a few good performances can change everything, as can a few bad ones. You never know what you’ll get from him. He’s still an excellent skater with good hands and an abundance of sandpaper. He’s also not an ideal teammate.
“I love this team,” he said when he rejoined them on Wednesday. “I want to win. I want to play as hard as I possibly can and just try and contribute whenever I’m asked to. That’s what it comes down to.” We’ll see. Wojtek Wolski has a groin injury and Avery will take his spot in the lineup.
The renovated Garden will have at least one bonus for the Habs. The old visiting team dressing room, which had been perhaps the worst in the NHL, is gone and the Canadiens will be one of the first NHL clubs to use the new, improved facility.
Here’e how the Rangers practiced on Friday. If they start the game with these lines, don’t expect it to last for long. Tortorella’s impatience with his combinations is legendary.
Brandon Dubinsky-Brad Richards-Ryan Callahan
Ruslan Fedotenko-Derek Stepan-Marian Gaborik
Artem Anisimov-Brian Boyle-Brandon Prust
Sean Avery-Erik Christensen-Andre Deveaux
Ryan McDonagh-Dan Girardi
Michael Del Zotto-Michael Sauer
Jeff Woywitka-Steve Eminger