In the first ten games of 2008, the Rangers allowed their opponents five or more power plays all but twice. Not surprisingly, they were 2-6-2 in those games, compounding their penalty problems with tons of turnovers. After that tenth game, a 3-1 home loss to Boston in which the Rangers dominated but lost due to a series of errors, Brendan Shanahan lamented the ways the Rangers were constantly beating themselves, penalties and turnovers high on his list. Last night in Carolina, the Rangers allowed their opponent more than four power plays for only the third time in the sixteen games since Shanahan's speech. Not surprisingly, the Rangers are 11-3-2 during that time, and also not a surprise is that a newcomer committed four of the six penalties that led to power plays.
That would be Christian Backman, acquired from St. Louis at the trade deadline for a fourth round pick, a return that Blues fans were thrilled to get since it amounted to more than the bag of pucks they were willing to accept for him. With a fresh start in New York playing in front of his friend and former Swedish teammate Henrik Lundqvist, Backman got a clean bill with a new fan base, but has them on his back after just one game. In addition to his penalties, Backman committed one awful turnover in front of his own net in order to avoid taking a hit (his first penalty was also committed to avoid taking a hit). And was doing nothing (especially not taking the body) during a third period scramble in front of the net that would have once again brought the Canes to within one had Eric Staal not fired wide of an open from twelve feet away.
Coach Tom Reneny was, as expected, diplomatic after the game in telling the public that he and his staff were happy with what they saw from Backman despite his penalties. But knowing how much of a peeve of his it is, and how well the Rangers have cut down on penalties during their current streak, Renney will no doubt be giving Backman a video session today on what he expects of him on that and other fronts. He has the luxury of doing so with a 4-2 win in his pocket, built on a 25 minutes of domination by the Rangers from the start of the game. But Renney will no doubt make sure Backman understands his role in Carolina turning the game around in their favor from there on out -- the first power play he gave them gave them the momentum they needed to score less than half a minute after its expiration, the second pair of power plays he gave them gave them the goal that closed the game to 3-2 (even though Marc Staal was tagged with the double-minor), and the Rangers had to scramble to kill off the other two minors assessed to Backman (although he was not on the ice when one was committed).
The game came close to a repeat of the Montreal meltdown, especially when Eric Cole's second goal of the game squirted through Lundqvist after Blair Betts had apparently deflected the puck off his stick -- though Cole did get wood on it afterwards to nudge it through Lundqvist's pads, that's one the Ranger netminder has to lock down. But Lundqvist was stellar in locking down everything else the high-scoring Canes threw at him, with the lone exception of another Cole goal that deflected in off a Ranger skate. But this time, after a key penalty kill (just like they got early in the third period in Montreal), the Rangers struck back and scored, Shanahan roofing a shot off a gorgeous pass by Nigel Dawes on the first of only two Ranger shots in the period. That's the difference between another notch in a series of nice runs -- 6-0-2, 8-2-2, 11-3-2 -- and another mindless meltdown. The Rangers will have to quickly get Backman moving forward if they want to avoid having other games get away from them, as they so often did before they corrected so many of their mistakes.
While Shanahan focused on penalties and turnovers that day, the Rangers were also plagued by a lack of scoring. What was so perplexing was that the goal drought was not for lack of shots, the Rangers being among the league leaders in that category all season. But after losing their last game in Carolina right after the All-Star break, Renney ran the Rangers through a grueling practice session devoted to going to the net. Since then, they have scored three or more goals in nine of their 13 games, four or more seven times, including five of their last six. The last six games are the ones in which the current lines have been together -- something else Shanahan spoke about that day, the lack of chemistry among the line combinations. The top line of Jaromir Jagr, Brandon Dubinsky, and Sean Avery added two more goals in the game, making it 11 goals and 13 assists between them in the six games. Shanahan and Chris Drury have registered points in all six games, and Scott Gomez in five of the six. With a goal and assist, Nigel Dawes has four points in his last three games and nine in his last eleven.
NHL officiating just keeps getting worse and worse. To have fingered the wrong person two different times on penalty calls is just emblematic of how carelessly this game was called. To have not called Tuomo Ruutu for his charge on Michal Rozsival, even though Ruutu committed three different infractions on the hit, defies any explanation. To have allowed Ryan Callahan to be hit from behind into the boards well after releasing the puck was dangerous enough to lead directly to a fight. To not call any of the instigation attempts against Avery that Avery wisely backed off of, and still cost Avery ten minutes from just trying to back off -- forget about suspending these guys, just fire them. Although they did get one call right -- Gomez's apparent first period goal was between Cam Ward's pads when the whistle blew, it was not a quick whistle.
Game reports, with lots of levity in the Rangers' postgame dressing room -- Daily News, Newsday, Post, Raleigh News & Observer, AP, and NYR.com, with more from Blueshirts Blog on Jagr's new sticks and Yahoo! Sports with team notes. NHL.com looks at the three young Rangers on D. The Post previews the upcoming home and home series with the Islanders. Stan Fischler at MSG.com believes the Rangers can win the conference. Also at MSG.com, Kenny Albert looks at the Rangers' trade deadline acquisitions. Bruce Berlet at the Courant writes about Ranger management's faith in the future that has graduated from Hartford and still lies there. Howlings previews the Pack's upcoming three-game weekend. Tommy Pyatt scored in his first game in Charlotte and Chris Holt pitched a shutout as the Checkers won big. The Pack reassigned Bruce Graham to the Checkers. Prospect Park has the lowdown on some of the prospects lower down the food chain.