With a crunching 4-1 loss to the Washington Capitals, New York Rangers coach John Tortorella commented on his defense, “I wouldn’t say it was defensive. I’d say it’s some brain-dead plays at our blue line, as far as turnovers.” The Rangers winning stretch snapped confronted by their coach with an open call for improvement. The good news is that the team is listening and there is evidence to back it.
The New York Rangers are the talk of the town having held top billing in the Eastern Conference. Days before the Winter Classic, the Blueshirts dropped one point behind Boston in the Eastern Conference race. The Rangers maintain a high level of offensive thwarts, but look to the brawn of the blue line for the breakout benefits New York has brought more often than not.
Armed with the talented GAS line (Marian Gaborik, Artem Anisimov, Derek Stepan), the Blueshirts approach the Winter Classic with scoring moves. Gaborik is the best offensive player on the team second in the NHL with 22 goals. The Rangers second line, is a cornucopia of talent. Combine the speed from Carl Hagelin, experience and veteran scoring by Brad Richards, and Ryan Callahan’s leadership and hustle has created scoring depth that New York desperately needed to gain ground in the standings.
While injuries to defenseman Marc Staal and Mike Sauer have diminished the crew, Brandon Dubinsky, Brian Boyle, and John Mitchell have stepped in as hard-hitting two-way players that back up and create the stopgap the Rangers need to stall the opposition’s momentum. The fourth line of Ruslan Fedotenko, Michael Rupp, and Brandon Prust can fight and terrorize wearing down any who dare enter their zone.
The blue line’s gap has been uplifted with the breakout of Michael Del Zotto, who ranks second in the league with a plus-25 rating, and is first on the team in assists. He has five points in the last three games. Del Zotto has elevated his play from a poor season last year and has points in all but three games in December. He’s also logged more minutes in his increased role for the team.
Staal has been cleared for practice, but has yet to return to full impact as the Winter Classic approaches. Staal’s defensive minutes have been covered by rookie Ryan McDonagh, who has done well filling the void despite a few miscues. McDonagh has been skating an average of 25:15 per game, up from 18:44 last season.
Tim Erixon was sent back to The Connecticut Whale as defensman Jeff Woywitka returns to the lineup after missing the previous four games with a foot injury. The team has been dissipated yet the revolving door spits out some talented alternatives keeping the Rangers in the hunt. Another blow to the blue line keeps Steve Eminger out 8-10 weeks.
Dan Girardi’s average time on ice per game is 27:29, which is nearly three minutes more per game on average than he played last season (24:34). He leads the Rangers in average shorthanded ice time (3:46) and is playing more on the power play this season than last matched his power-play point production from last season with seven points.
The toughness of the Rangers has not disappeared. Stu Bickel sports a shiner that is a reminder of the brawling and bantering known to MSG occupants. Brandon Prust and Michael Rupp have been the tough guys on the playing field notifying opponents the Rangers are not only securing the blue line but the consequences could be devastating. Prust leads the team in penalty minute at 71. The snarly bad boys of Broadway are evident and fans like it.
While fighting has become a controversial call on the future of the NHL, the art of defense is not always wearing bruises as badges. New York’s favorite agitator Sean Avery has been ousted again placed on waivers as his stock plummets, but his artful use of intimidation and oddities raised his stock in the past. Performance is peak for every smooth operating machine. Yapping on ice can do just as much damage to the psyche of oncoming skaters, but smart play can generate moves leaving opponents flabbergasted.
The New York Rangers have revived the tough and tenacious boisterous banter through actions on the ice that keep competitors at bay. With every broken cog, new strength returns. For the Rangers, Coach Tortorellla could see the smarter reactions on the blue line sooner rather than later.