When you play golf as badly as I do, the question frequently arises, Why the heck do you insist on torturing yourself this way? The answer, as many a hacker will tell you, is that sweet shot amid all the other misfires that makes it all so worthwhile, and the hope that some day those sweet shots will become the rule rather than the exception. And so it seemed with the Rangers' uber-frustrating power play last night. The power play nearly cost the Rangers the game on four separate occasions, but then it came through to tie the game and earn the Rangers a point, and then it blew another golden opportunity to win the game -- and almost lost the game again -- before the Rangers fell in a shootout to the Panthers in Florida.
The power play had three consecutive chances to extend a 1-0 lead in the second period and put a stranglehold on a game they had no business being in after a awful first period. On one occasion, Florida goalie Tomas Vokoun was all that kept the power play from converting, but on another, a completely ineffective two minutes probably turned the game against the Rangers -- not even half a minute later, the Panthers tied the game, and with newfound momentum, they eventually earned a power play of their own on which they took the lead.
A late five on three as the Rangers scrambled to come back appeared to be just what the power play needed to redeem itself -- and that they did. But not before Steve Valiquette forestalled the ultimate embarrassment in stopping Josef Stumpel on shorthanded breakaway while two men down. The Rangers' five best forwards had managed to get no attack at all for nearly thirty seconds of their two-man advantage by that point, but they then came back and set up and converted on one pretty passing play down low to salvage a point.
But then the scenario repeated itself in overtime -- on a power play that negated what would have been the game winner for the Panthers, a four on three that is nearly as golden an opportunity as a five on three, the four Ranger forwards allowed another shorthanded Stumpel breakaway that beat Valiquette but hit the goal post. This time, though, the unit couldn't respond after that near-disaster, sending the game to a shootout which was won after five rounds by the home team after the Rangers failed to score on any of its chances.
Valiquette, playing his third straight 2-2 shootout (dating back to last spring), was once again outstanding in spelling Henrik Lundqvist for the second time this season. He withstood a 19-shot first period with some great saves as the Rangers stumbled out of the gate in a post-Thanksgiving stupor. And though he allowed two goals on the remaining sixteen shots he saw, as the Rangers regrouped after Chris Drury's goal in the waning seconds of the first, Valiquette kept the Rangers in the game with his breakaway saves on Stumpel. The Rangers started the season figuring they would pretty much concede many of the points that were on the line when Lundqvist rested, but with two excellent outings, Valiquette has earned three out of four points for his team.
Drury broke his goal scoring slump by netting both Ranger goals. Three of his five goals and five of his fifteen points have come in two games vs. the Panthers -- he is +4 in those two games, -5 in his other 21 games. But Jaromir Jagr's streak of futility continued -- he is without a point in his last five games, with only five shots on goals, and the way he has been passing up shots betrays a profound lack of confidence in his offensive game. Not even the return of his compatible opposite winger Martin Straka helped, although the truth is that Jagr's pointless streak should have ended -- and the Rangers should have won in regulation -- late in the third period when he set up Sean Avery with the net completely open only for Avery to hit the goal post (Avery was with Jagr because Straka left the game due to a hamstring pull).
But even though the power play cost the team one point and nearly cost them two (before salvaging the one point), and even though Jagr continues to struggle offensively (along with most of the other forwards -- Scott Gomez was once again dreadful with the puck and Brendan Shanahan was once again invisible), the Rangers continue to rack up points. This can go one of two ways -- the defense and goaltending can ultimately crack under the relentless pressure of playing one 1-0 or 2-1 game after another, or the formidable offensive weapons that have thus far been predominantly dormant can get it together and vault the Rangers to the top of the league. This will be a huge test for coach Tom Renney and the team's leaders. And as is the case for any offense, the power play goes a long way toward defining success vs. failure.
Game reports -- Daily News, Newsday, Post, and NYR.com, with notes from USA Today and the Florida papers here, here, and here (the Sun-Sentinel also has a feature on Czech and Slovak players on the Panthers and Rangers). Blueshirts Blog spoke with Bobby Orr, Marc Staal's agent, about Brian Leetch. A couple of quarter-pole reviews at CBS Sports and Yahoo Sports have Lundqvist as an obvious MVP candidate, but only one mentions Staal among the rookie crop. Hartford won 5-3, with Nigel Dawes scoring two goals and two assists -- see reports in the Courant, Howlings, and WP.com. Howlings reports that Mike Sauer is out with concussion-like symptoms. Prospect Park has a review of game action from last night.