‘Hart Off The Ice’
By Sean Hartnett
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It’s been a long journey home for the New York Rangers. More than six months have passed since the Blueshirts have played in front of their home fans at Madison Square Garden.
The date was April 20, 2011 and the Rangers were coming off an inspired late victory over the Washington Capitals in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. Spirits were high going into Game 4 and the Rangers fed off the atmosphere provided by their boisterous fans to gain a 3-0 advantage heading into the second intermission.
A misplaced pass along the boards led to a turnover and ‘capital opportunity’ for Alexander Semin. The Russian marksman plowed toward the net and jammed in the goal that led to the Blueshirts’ inexplicable third period downfall. Two unanswered Washington scores forced overtime and Jason Chimera’s eventual double-OT winner. The Capitals returned home to the Verizon Center for Game 5 and the rest, as you know, was history…
During the summer, both MSG and the Rangers’ roster underwent massive renovations. The Rangers began reconstructing their ranks as notable free agents Alexander Frolov, Matt Gilory and Vaclav Prospal departed. Tim Erixon, a promising two-way defenseman and son of career Blueshirt Jan Erixon, was acquired via trade from the Calgary Flames.
The contract of previous captain Chris Drury was bought out after a degenerative knee condition would have likely ended his career. Eventually, the 12-year NHL veteran retired. As the free agent frenzy got underway on July 1, the Rangers quickly secured grinder Michael Rupp — but their biggest summer coup would come a day later.
Glen Sather then landed All-Star playmaker Brad Richards, who penned a nine-year deal.
Meanwhile, the entire Rangers’ organization spent the off-season mourning the death of popular enforcer Derek Boogaard. Ryan Callahan spoke to Newsday, “It’s a big hole. To lose a teammate, there’s not really a feeling like it. Throughout the summer, we’ve talked with each other quite a bit. We’re always going to remember him, he’s not forgotten at all.”
Callahan had long been the heart and soul of the Blueshirts. With every passing year, his voice became more defined inside the Rangers’ locker room. Callahan’s on-ice leadership was apparent since his 2006 debut and on September 12, 2011, he was officially named the 26th captain in franchise history.
With their newly-appointed leader and star off-season additions in place, the Blueshirts began their preseason preparations away from the comforts of MSG. Their regular season commenced in Stockholm as the Rangers only managed two points after consecutive overtime defeats. A week later, they returned to action stateside in the more familiar setting of the Nassau Coliseum. John Tavares and his Islander teammates out-gunned their rivals 4-2 before the Rangers embarked upon a four-game swing across Western Canada.
The Blueshirts inflicted punishment upon the defending Western Conference champion Canucks in a 4-0 rout behind the superb net-keeping of Henrik Lundqvist. Sophomore sensation Ryan McDonagh proved why experts were touting him as a breakthrough candidate in 2011-12 against Vancouver. For an encore, he scored a last-second overtime winner to douse the Flames.
In Edmonton, the youthful Oilers excelled in all areas as they embarrassed the Rangers in a 2-0 shutout. John Tortorella spent a brief 16 seconds ripping his team in front of the gathered media before walking out. He lashed out post-game, “This is going to be quick. I’m not taking any questions. We sucked from head to toe. And we need to move by it. So I’m not going to dissect it with you guys. I know you guys have to do your job, but I’m not answering any questions. Okay?”
The message delivered by their head coach clearly worked as the Blueshirts played a controlled game Monday in Winnipeg. New York only allowed the Jets one power-play chance and finally began clicking on special teams. The Rangers went into the night 1-for-23 on the power-play but converted both of their opportunities with the man-advantage. Martin Biron made his first regular season start since February 7th and looked sharp making 27 saves.
After their seven-game season opening road trip concluded, the Rangers came away with 5 points out of 7 and only lost two games in regulation. Eager to take the ice at the remodeled MSG, the Blueshirts will begin a six-game home-stand on Thursday against the Maple Leafs. The Garden crowd will be rocking after an arduous wait to welcome Richards and fellow off-season additions to their new home.
There’s a positive feel about the fresh-look Rangers with Richards supplying assists for a healthy Marian Gaborik and their surplus of talented youngsters on defense. Their blue-line could soon be aided by the forthcoming return of Michael Sauer and eventual recovery of assistant captain Marc Staal from post concussion syndrome.
Tortorella’s motivations and criticisms seem to have hit home with his roster that are ready to bury any lingering effects of last season and prepared to entertain fans at the Garden.
Rangers fans – what are you feelings as the MSG opener nears? Share your opinions below and send your tweets to @HartyLFC.