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Keefe To The City: Rangers Reeling Through Ides Of March

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By Neil Keefe
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The Rangers have to get out of the first round of the playoffs. Actually they have to get out of the second round too. They have to. John Tortorella can make all the excuses months before the playoffs that he wants by saying this team isn’t ready to win yet, but I think they are. I think the “best” team in either conference has a chance to win it all. Really, I think any playoff team in either conference has a chance to win it all.

The Rangers are the “best” team in the Eastern Conference right now. They have the most points so they are the “best,” but we all know the Penguins are the best team in the East and the best team in the league. It’s not really up for debate either. The Penguins have won 10 in a row, trail the Rangers by four points with a game in hand and have had this good of a season to date without their best player and without the best player in the world. Take the Rangers’ best player (Henrik Lundqvist) off the team for all but eight games this season, and the Rangers wouldn’t be trying to fend off teams from taking their No. 1 seed. They might be fending off the Canadiens and Islanders for the 16th seed in the conference.

The Penguins haven’t lost since Feb. 19. They lost 6-2 to in Buffalo that day and then shut out the Rangers two days later, and have been picking up two points per game since. They have outscored their opponents 40-15 during the streak and seven of the wins over have come against playoff teams, and oh yeah, they are just now getting No. 87 back in the lineup. Do we even play the rest of the season out, or should we just give them the Stanley Cup now? (That’s only half reverse jinx because it’s also half true.)

Am I scared of the Rangers’ current status? Was Bobby Abreu scared of the right-field wall at Yankee Stadium? The injuries and illnesses on the Rangers are starting to pile up, the offense (aside from the first line) has disappeared and the defense has been off and on for about a month. You can either say this is happening at the worst time (down the stretch with the top seed on the line), or that’s it happening at an OK time (prior to the playoffs). Either way it’s happening and it needs to be fixed.

The Rangers don’t need the No. 1 seed. The No. 1 seed means nothing. Home-ice advantages no longer truly exist in the NHL with cookie-cutter rinks and suites and boxes filling arenas, and fans being priced out around the league as if Yankee Stadium has become the home for every good (or Canadian) NHL team. It’s always nice to have the extra home game in a best-of-7 series, but this isn’t the NBA where it’s a necessity. It’s only a luxury in the NHL.

If the Rangers are the No. 1 seed or the No. 4 seed (let’s keep giving away top seeds to division winners!), they’re going to have a tough first-round opponent. If you want to play Washington, winners of four straight, in the first round then maybe we can get together and I will show you some first-round footage from 2010-11 and 2008-09. And if you want to play Philadelphia, well it’s not something anyone should “want” whether or not the law of averages suggests the Rangers shouldn’t play the Flyers in the playoffs. Every team in the Eastern Conference Playoff Picture will be a tough test for the Rangers, and there’s no point of hoping to play one team over another since it usually doesn’t work out the way you want it to, and even if it does, it will likely backfire.

Thursday night was a disaster. The matchup did lose some of its luster knowing that Marty Biron would be playing instead of Henrik Lundqvist, but even so, the Rangers have now lost their last three meetings with the Penguins by a combined score of 11-3 and two of those games were when Lundqvist played. The Penguins are the class of the league right now, and the seemingly inevitable conference finals meeting between the Rangers and Bruins can be put on hold.

Here are a few thoughts on the Rangers following Thursday night’s loss to the Penguins.

Henrik Lundqvist
Prior to getting sick and missing the last two games, Henrik Lundqvist had been in a funk. It wasn’t a Mike Dunham-like funk or whatever-is-going-on-with-the-Boston-goalies-right-now funk, but when you’re the best goalie in the league with a 1.88 GAA any kind of letdown is noticeable.

When I first heard that the Rangers were calling up Chad Johnson from the AHL, I hoped that Lundqvist wasn’t hurt or injured (yes, there’s a difference between the two). And while you never want someone to have the flu, I’m just glad it wasn’t anything serious because if Lundqvist is out for any extended period of time or (knock on wood) the playoffs, you might as well pack up the locker room and we’ll you in 2012-13. Lundqvist is the best player on the team and has been now since Jaromir Jagr left, and he might have been even when Jagr was still here. The team is built around him, and without him in net, the game against the Penguins on Thursday night lost its luster and the result is easier to accept knowing that the King wasn’t in the net.

The Lines
Remember the conversations about how “deep” the Rangers are? Was that this year? If we’re going to talk about depth, let’s keep it to defensive depth.

Brad Richards came to the Rangers to feed Marian Gaborik the puck. That’s why he got a nine-year deal worth $60 million. After a rocky start to the season and a lack of chemistry, John Tortorella split them up, and that was that. Why give them any time to learn to play together? Now after five months on separate lines, Tortorella has decided to put his best goal scorer and best playmaker on the same line. What a concept!

I have a love/hate relationship with Tortorella. I’m not into his press conference and media personality the way that some people. But these same people love Sean Avery’s so-called “effectiveness” on the ice. (And isn’t it ironic that these two guys don’t like each other?) Tortorella has this sense of entitlement around him that you get with winning the Stanley Cup even if he can thank Richards for his ring. Winning in the major sports has evolved into the same result as winning an election as a campaign manager. You will always have that one win to fall back on and you can always get a job because of it. In Tortorella’s case, I guess winning the Cup once lets you act however you want (just ask Tim Thomas), but Tortorella isn’t Scotty Bowman. I’m not sure he’s even Terry Crisp. I don’t expect him to change his ways now or ever, and I’m sure the beat writers and reporters who are in love with his personality would be upset with me for even suggesting it.

The first line has now scored six consecutive goals for the Rangers. The good news is that the Rangers finally have a line that other teams fear and a line that makes opposing fans say, “Oh eff!” when they’re on the ice. The bad news is the first line has scored the last six goals for the Rangers, and the depth of scoring starts and ends with them right now.

I know that Ryan Callahan will certainly help the offense on the second line and that will bump someone out of the lineup from one of the bottom two lines, but it shouldn’t be…

Mats Zuccarello
Let’s get this out of the way, so everyone knows where I stand: I love Mats Zuccarello. I love his style of play and what he brings offensively to the team. (Sorry, Monzo.) I know John Tortorella doesn’t like him since he stuck him in Hartford all season to play with the Whale, and he isn’t one of Tortorella’s “favorites.” But now all of a sudden the team needs “offensive creativity” so they call up the 5-foot-7 wing that they cast off to the AHL after three games with the team back in October.

Zuccarello has now played in six games for the Rangers this season, or the same amount of games as John Scott. No one will fight Scott (or at least he won’t get anyone to go consistently he claims) because of his size, and he has complained openly about this. He isn’t someone who can play and he isn’t on the ice fighting or changing the momentum or giving the team a spark when he was playing, so why was he ever playing in the first place? The idea that “he’s a big body that takes up space” isn’t cutting it for a first-place team in the best league in the world. I have to wonder if Marian Gaborik sees John Scott in practice and wonders if he’s even in the NHL anymore, and I would set the money line that John Scott has even scored one goal in a practice shooting drill on Henrik Lundqvist at +730.

Zuccarello deserved to be on this team for more of the season than he has been whether or not they did fine without him, and now he deserves to play more than he is playing. I know that nothing will change because he isn’t one of Tortorella’s “boys” but the idea that some of the other names that have rolled through this roster were given a chance before him is disgusting. He doesn’t belong buried on the bench barely getting 7:37 of ice time like he did on Thursday. He’s here to help jumpstart an offense that goes into hiding, so let him do that.

No. 87
The game is better when Crosby plays. It’s so much better that I feel like it might be necessary for the Penguins to sign Dave Semenko and Marty McSorley to make sure Crosby isn’t sidelined for a year again.

No. 87 is the textbook example of why fighting is needed in the NHL. Everyone knows about his concussion-related problems and there isn’t a team in the league that doesn’t have plans to try and put Crosby on the shelf again as bad as it sounds. (I know other fans are looking for it from conversations and Twitter and Facebook.) Without players being allowed to police themselves, there’s no doubt that players would take shots at Crosby and that someone would try to run him. Even though he’s the poster boy for scoring, he might also be it for fighting.

Follow Neil on Twitter @NeilKeefe