On The Brink: Metro Hockey Update
By Andrei Petrovitch
It has been said that without hope, all is lost. Whoever said that must have been a hockey fan, as there are few things worse than seeing a promising team spiral down the drain. Sports may be nothing more than clever distractions from the cold reality of life, but even the most hardened cynic has to admit that seeing the distraction turn ugly just...well, sucks!
Such is my feeling towards this year's New York Rangers. After a shoddy start, the team managed to rise to the top of the Eastern Conference standings. Eric Lindros was as good as advertised, and Mike Richter gave the finger to all his critics with his strong play in nets. But lately, the team's fortunes have gone south. After starting their late December/early January road trip with a pair of wins (5-3 and 5-4 over San Jose and Los Angeles, respectively), the Rangers were winless in the next four.
Returning to the East Coast didn't reverse the trend, as they proceeded to lose games against Los Angeles and Philadelphia with respective scores of 4-0 and 4-2. Combined with the tie against Columbus on January 14th, the Rangers' record in the last seven games is 0-5-1-1.
But I digress
All is not lost-yet. The Rangers still have an opportunity to climb out of this mess and get back to the top of the standings; however, they must address two serious problems:
1) It's the special teams, stupid!
Currently, the Rangers are ranked 26th on the power play in a 30-team league. This is ridiculous when you consider that the team boasts a roster that includes Brian Leetch (880 total career points at press time), Lindros (1.33 points per game average, fifth all-time in league history), and Theo Fleury (30 goals in 62 games only a year ago). The problem is that this collection of skilled players somehow feels the need to conduct a stickhandling seminar every time it has the man advantage.
Instead of simply firing the puck into the corners and crashing the crease, the Rangers insist on unnecessarily fancy stickhandling and low percentage passing. Leetch in particular, stubbornly refuses to shoot the puck on net while his teammates screen the enemy goalie. Instead, the player twice named the best defenseman in the league often chooses to play hot potato with the puck in a vain attempt to find a better shooting angle.
The same disdain for simplicity occurs on the penalty kill, where the Rangers rank 29th. While taking fewer penalties in the first place would help the problem significantly, the team chooses to stickhandle the puck out of the zone instead of simply firing it out. WHY?!?!?!? So that enemy forwards can exploit the resulting turnovers?
2) The Year is 2002, Not 1982
The Rangers' general manager, Glen Sather, used to be the general manager of the run-n-gun, high scoring Edmonton Oilers teams of the 1980s. Why does this bit of seemingly useless trivia matter? It is because Sather and head coach Ron Low don't seem to understand that what worked two decades ago won't work in this modern age of trap defenses and conservative coaching. Far superior teams like the St. Louis Blues and the Colorado Avalanche concentrate on playing strong team defense and win often as a result. Sure, it certainly is entertaining to see speedsters like Petr Nedved zoom through the neutral zone, but it is far less entertaining to see the resulting giveaway. Besides, the ice at Madison Square Garden is so crappy that it inhibits a finesse-oriented game anyway.
Ultimately, any success the Rangers have this season will depend on their ability to adapt to the times. Otherwise, the golf courses await come playoff time.