Gene Collier: Rangers usually at best, except on power play
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Nothing in the comprehensive hockey profile of the New York Rangers suggests that they are destined for anything short of a decorous spring, so anything the Penguins did to portray themselves as capable of matching Gotham's team stride for powerful stride was certainly worth the effort.
Thus there's very little that can minimize what happened Tuesday night Uptown, where the Penguins not only whacked the best team this side of the NHL's conference divide, but perhaps exposed the one strand of Rangers DNA that doesn't hold up to scrutiny as well as the balance of their game.
That power play.
What is going on with the Rangers' power play, which floats aimlessly outside of the hockey club's otherwise superb statistical workup like one of those goofy blimp advertisements that hover between periods?
(My favorite this year is the giant red inflatable Toyota Camry, with the onboard signage reminding us that Camry is the Official Car of the Penguins. Really, how many Penguins, do you suppose, are driving Camry's? I'm leaning toward less than half.)
How a team that's every bit as good on the road as it is at home, that has New York atop the divisional standings this late in the season for the first time since 1996, can look so clueless with the man-advantage just doesn't compute, except that the computer age demands that you compute something, anything, so that's how the top team in the Eastern Conference has a power play that ranks 27th in a 30-team league.
"The [Rangers'] power play, that's a strange number," said Penguins coach Dan Bylsma after his penalty-killers made it all the more curious. "When you look at [Marian] Gaborik on the one side and [Brad] Richards on the other, it's not a comfortable feeling. They moved the puck well and we blocked some shots. We did a good job making [sure] that their opportunities came from outside, and we had people in the passing lanes."
True enough, but still, that was Gaborik, Ryan Callahan, Richards, Derek Stepan and Michael Del Zotto out there with plenty of space not doing much of anything, or exactly what they did again and again and again over the 60 minutes the Penguins used to beat them, 2-0.
Marc Andre Fleury was playing the kind of clinical precise goaltending that would have made a lot of teams look bad, you might point out, but that was only what was minimally necessary for the Penguins to have a chance against the mask at the ice's opposite end.
Henrik Lundqvist came onto the surface Tuesday night 8-1 in his past nine appearances, with a 1.20 goals-against average, a .955 save percentage, and three shutouts.
Lundqvist turned away 11 shots in the first period, 11 shots in the third period, but somehow allowed the Penguins to shoot 2 for 9 in the middle frame. The first puck in any net was Evgeni Malkin's swooping backhander at 1:05 of the second and the final puck in any net was Steve Sullivan's 30-footer that put 2-0 on the board with almost half a hockey game left.
"Malkin is just lights out right now," said New York's Brian Boyle, perhaps the world largest center iceman at 6 feet 7 and 244 pounds. "You want to get on him and stay there because when he has the puck, he's dangerous."
Boyle's solution for the Malkin issue was to try and knock Geno into the Penguins bench soon after his 33rd goal of the season, but that was after the Rangers' power playalready had failed twice.
The first came late in the first when not even an apparent marriage proposal on Kiss Cam could inspire the Rangers to capitalize. Fleury stopped Brandon Dubinsky with the only thing resembling difficulty on a power play so bad it included an icing call on New York. The second looked much more ominous from Fleury's perspective when Matt Niskanen went off for cross-checking just two-and-a-half minutes after Malkin scored.
Artem Anisimov suddenly appeared on Flower's left doorstop, puck on stick, wrist cocked, but the puck went straight into Fleury's glove at 5:26, a clear indicator that the winning goal already might have been scored.
Malkin's goal had many facets of significance, none more so than it meant the Rangers had not scored the first goal of the game, in which circumstance they are 28-1-2. That a third New York power play came around in the third seemed almost immaterial, as the Penguins seemed to shrug it with the kind of confidence that comes with having the league's best home penalty-kill.
"[Tuesday night] I thought we actually moved the puck pretty well on it," Boyle said. "I'm not on the power play, but those guys are really working hard on it and we have a lot of faith in them.
"You have to remember Pittsburgh's a pretty good team, too."
Right. That shouldn't be too hard to remember.
First Published February 22, 2012 12:00 am