The year started without hockey and with the expectation that whenever the Rangers resumed play, they would be as abyssmal as ever. The year ends with hockey back in action and the Rangers one of the more pleasant surprises in the league. But on the last day of the year, the Rangers just plain stunk. And the way things went in December, you have to wonder what the new year will bring for them.
The Rangers weren't the only ones who stunk. Playing against a team more than half filled with AHLers and over the hill veterans that has stunk all season long, Sidney Crosby notwithstanding, the Rangers were helped along by perhaps the most noisome officiating we have yet seen -- and that's saying something, because we've seen some bad officiating.
Specifically, referee Craig Spada -- if I was in charge, this would have been his last game as an NHL referee. These were fireable offenses. This was a referee having a very bad day and then compounding his many errors by putting himself above the game. This was a referee who gave each team a five on three power play on the most minor of calls while allowing vicious muggings to go uncalled -- in Jed Ortmeyer's case, he was sent off for making a good defensive play. Each team scored on their two-man advantages.
But the capper was an unsportsmanlike conduct call on Marek Malik at the end of regulation, giving the Penguins a four on three power play to start overtime. Malik was upset at an unpenalized trip on Michal Rozsival with three minutes left -- that shortly after Maxim Kondratiev was called for a penalty on a John Leclair dive that allowed the Pens to take the lead on the five on three they got on a legitimate call against Rozsival, and (to be fair) Tomas Surovy was called for a phantom trip on Jason Strudwick that gave the Rangers the power play on which they tied the game. Spada was the referee who failed to make the call, and Malik let him have it right then and there. Apparently Malik wouldn't let it go and went after Spada again after the final buzzer.
Sure, you can say Malik should have controlled himself and held his tongue. On the other hand, players chirp at the refs all game long -- what could Malik have said at that moment that Spada hadn't heard before, that would cause him to alter the course of the game because of something that happened outside the course of the game? If it was that upsetting, call a misconduct -- in fact, according to the rule book, a misconduct would be the appropriate call, penalizing the player but not the team.
That the Rangers allowed this game to even reach that point was as criminal as Spada's officiating. You could see things were off kilter from the opening shift -- although the Jagr line controlled the puck deep in the Penguin end for the first minute and a half, they were moving in slow motion, relying on their superior skill against an overmatched team of AHL call-ups instead of working hard. Sure enough, the Penguins popped the puck loose, Fedor Tyutin was turned around like a turnstile by Sidney Crosby, Martin Rucinksy coasted instead of backchecking, and the Rangers were down 1-0 on the two on one goal.
Reprieved by the five on three goal handed to them by Spada, the Rangers came out in the second period -- and couldn't get a shot on goal. When they finally got their first shot on goal in the thirteenth minute, it went into the net to tie the game at 2-2. They finished the period with three in total, and had only three in the third period, evening the score at 3-3 with the third shot of the third period for their third power play goal of the contest. Against a team as bad as the Penguins (1-4-2 in their last seven), there was no excuse for failing to get the puck to the net.
There was one Ranger who didn't stink in this game. Henrik Lundqvist was once again amazing, especially late in the third period with the Pens up 3-2 and still on the power play looking to extend their lead. He made a couple of highlight reel saves to keep his team within striking distance of at least tying the game up and registering a wholly unearned point in the standings.
On the flip side, the coach has shown too much patience with Marcel Hossa, has given him too many chances. After each futile performance, it becomes clearer and clearer that Hossa simply does not have the fiber to play in the NHL. He may have size, he may have skill, but he certainly lacks smarts, refuses to skate when he doesn't have the puck, and will not be caught dead in the middle portion of the ice -- not ever, not once. Sergei's younger brother Fedor was dispatched quickly when he showed the same unfortunate combination of traits -- time to dispatch Marian's younger brother too.
The bottom line on this last game of the year, though, is that the Rangers thought this game was going to be a breeze, and they took it so lightly that they got blown away. That the referees fanned the flames so blatantly makes it all the more galling.