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By Sean Hartnett
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The Rangers were expected to be ready-made contenders straight out of the gates. Rick Nash was acquired to be the cherry on top of a team that finished with the best overall record in the Eastern Conference at the end of the 2011-12 regular season.
Injuries, a lack of spirit and poor special teams play have exposed New York. Ryan Callahan and Dan Girardi might be the two biggest “band-aid players” in the league. By band-aid, I mean their consistent and fully committed play covers up vulnerabilities beneath them on the Rangers’ depth chart.
You know what you’re getting every single night from Callahan and Girardi — big minutes and a high battle-level from two players who wear their hearts on their sleeve and give everything for the cause. Both sat helplessly from the press box while the Rangers floundered at the Prudential Center.
One thing you can never accuse of Girardi or Callahan? Playing scared.
That’s exactly how John Tortorella labeled his lethargic Rangers following their 3-1 loss to the Devils on Tuesday night.
“We have some guys that are really playing hard and we have guys that looked scared to me and tentative,” Tortorella said. “We’ll see where we go with the lineup. But I’ll tell you right now, I’m not waiting, we have some guys that are very tentative, very careful and we don’t play careful hockey.”
Compare the confidence, cohesiveness and competitiveness of the Devils to the Rangers — it’s a night and day difference.
The Devils simply look like a team that knows who they are and understand how to execute their game-plan. In the past, I have described both as dogged and determined, teams that play above the talent level of their roster.
I can’t say that about this year’s edition of the Rangers, who have failed to respond to adversity. The Devils, meanwhile, look like an improved unit compared to the one that visited 2012 the Stanley Cup finals. Considering they lost former captain Zach Parise, that says a lot about their depth as a group.
New Jersey has a knack of replacing key players internally that the Blueshirts simply can’t figure out. The Rangers received a stroke of luck when it was determined that Callahan’s shoulder injury would cost him weeks rather than months. Had the injury cost the Rangers months, their playoff hopes probably would have went up in flames.
The Devils keep it simple. Their players drive to the net and create traffic the kind of traffic that generates garbage goals and deflection goals. Outside of Callahan, it’s hard to pick out a Ranger who regularly does that.
All the Rangers need to do is study how the Devils’ fearless second line — Patrik Elias, Adam Henrique and David Clarkson — generates traffic to see what’s wrong with their team. Clarkson made Henrik Lundqvist’s night particularly difficult by parking himself in front of the net and jamming at loose rebounds. The Devils’ agitating winger finished the night with two goals, but could have easily earned a hat-trick.
“As you can see tonight, Clarky had two goals within five… ten feet in front of the net,” Stephen Gionta said. “It’s the way we want to play and get those type of dirty goals. He seems to find the puck around the crease and always nice to see him chip in there.”
Clarkson already has seven goals, four of which have come on the power play. He alone has more power play goals than the entire Rangers team. The Blueshirts were a dreadful 0-for-5 on the power play on Tuesday night and are now 3-for-35 this season.
“As a team, it’s something we try to do. We’ve got to have the middle lane drive, somebody getting to the net off rushes,” Henrique explained. “On the power play, we hit somebody out front. It doesn’t matter who it is. We saw Clarky last year park himself up front and he scored a lot of big goals for us. He had a great year and so far, it’s carrying over this year.”
Elias has the kind of vision that compliments the hard way Clarkson and Henrique drive to the net. I asked Clarkson whether he’s ever checked if Elias’ driver’s license to prove that he’s indeed 36 and not 26. It drew a chuckle from Clarkson as he explained: “It’s impressive, Patty is the type of player who makes plays nobody else sees. That’s why he’s had the career he’s had and done the things he’s done.”
“To be able to play with him is an honor, hopefully they continue to keep us together and we keep having success,” Clarkson said.
Simple execution and the ability to wear teams down. The Devils clearly have it and the Rangers are lacking these attribute entirely.
“The group of guys we have in here, everybody buys into the system,” Henrique stated. “Everybody buys into what Pete says as a coach and management says. That’s what we need to do to have success. Everybody buys in, plays together and plays as one. I think that’s a big reason why we made a run last year.”
Have things changed that much from last year’s Eastern Conference finals? It was there that the Devils stymied the Rangers’ lackluster power play and won key individual battles. The calendar has changed to 2013, but the Devils are continuing to beat the Rangers by sticking to the same principles that allowed them to reach the Stanley Cup finals a year ago.
How worrying is the Rangers’ lack of intensity and power play woes? Do they need to take a page from the Devils’ book? Share your thoughts below and send your tweets to @HartnettWFAN.