Archive for May, 2013

Kreider Keeps Rangers Alive

May 24, 2013

It has certainly been a star-crossed season for Chris Kreider in many ways, but any disappointments he may have had, or the parent New York Rangers may have had in him, were at least temporarily washed away Thursday, when Kreider’s first career pro overtime goal gave the Rangers a 4-3 win in a do-or-die Game Four against the Boston Bruins.

After his strong playoff for New York last year coming off of a national title with Boston College, much was expected of Kreider this season.  Those expectations seemed to weigh heavily on him, and much of his NHL lockout tenure with the Whale was a struggle.  By the time the lockout was settled, Kreider’s AHL numbers showed five goals and seven assists for 12 points, along with 55 penalty minutes and a -6, in 33 games.  Hardly eye-popping stats, and he appeared to be battling a significant lack of confidence.

Kreider Action Shot

Chris Kreider in action with the Whale

When the lockout ended and Kreider got a look in New York, his impact was negligible, and a Ranger club pressured by the lack of wiggle room in the shortened season could not give him much latitude to figure out his game.  At times, it looked like this was going to be a lost year for the 2009 Ranger first-round pick and two-time NCAA champ.

Kreider started to get things going during his last stint with the Whale, though, scoring seven goals and adding four assists for 11 points in his last 14 AHL games, good for second on the club in goals over that span.  He was called up for good two games before the end of the Whale’s season and played in the Rangers’ last six regular-season contests, and has now dressed for six straight playoff games, after sitting out Games Two through Five of the Washington series.

Kreider got a big break, too, on Thursday, in that, after having been on the fourth line with Brad Richards and Arron Asham, he was moved on to a line with Rick Nash and Derick Brassard when both Richards and Asham were scratched.  With the promotion, Kreider played 13:50 in Game Four, a playoff high for him in ice time.

The OT winner Thursday was the kind of play on which, if Kreider makes it on a consistent basis, he will, I think, fill the net with goals.  After dishing the puck to Nash on the right side, Kreider busted through the neutral zone and, upon entering the Boston end, headed straight and hard towards the net.  He got solid position on a big, long-reach defenseman in Dougie Hamilton, and perfectly deflected Nash’s pass from off the boards in behind Bruin goaltender Tuukka Rask.

With Kreider being 6-3 and almost 230 pounds, and with the way he skates, there is almost no defense for that.

When asked about the play by the media after the game, Kreider, who, despite his first-rounder/top prospect pedigree, was resolutely humble in everything he said this year, gave all the credit for the winning goal to his veteran linemate.

“He (Nash) just laid it on my (stick) tape,” Kreider said. “I could probably close my eyes and he probably would have found my tape and somehow managed to put it in the back of the net.”

Kreider’s had this to say about the feeling of scoring a goal that kept his team’s season alive, “It is so surreal. It’s not something that can really be explained. It’s something that just has to be felt, but it was awesome and I’m just excited to give these guys an opportunity to play another game.”

That will be Saturday, when the series shifts back to Boston for a 5:30 PM faceoff in Game Five.

Connecticut fans also got to see Kris Newbury back on the ice for the Rangers in Game Four, and the other forward inserted into the big club’s lineup was fellow callup Micheal Haley, who made his NHL playoff debut.  Newbury, who played 8:03 in the game, had a key blocked shot, and he and Haley (7:56) both got out for a shift in overtime with Derek Dorsett.  That threesome constituted the Rangers’ new fourth line, and figures to again in Game Five.

Meanwhile, the Conference Finals are set to get underway in the AHL, with the Western Conference Final between Oklahoma City and Grand Rapids starting tonight in Grand Rapids.  The Eastern Conference final starts Saturday night, and that matches Syracuse against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, after the Penguins became only the third team in AHL history to win a series after losing the first three games, taking the final four of their series with the regular-season league champion Providence Bruins.  That feat was last accomplished by the 1989 Adirondack Red Wings, who lost the first three games of that year’s Eastern Conference Finals to John Paddock and the Hershey Bears before storming back to win four straight. 

Your faithful correspondent, who just finished his 25th year as an AHL broadcaster, was a rookie behind the mike for the eventual Calder Cup-champion Red Wings that season.

 

 

Three Potential Future Wolf Pack Skaters Ready for Memorial Cup

May 16, 2013

Not only does the parent New York Rangers’ Original Six series against the Boston Bruins start tonight, but the Memorial Cup, the championship of Canadian Major Junior hockey, gets underway Friday in Saskatoon Saskatchewan.

Three Ranger prospects will be playing in the Memorial Cup, and all three would be eligible to join the Wolf Pack next season.

Forwards Shane McColgan and Josh Nicholls will be helping to lead the host Saskatoon Blades of the Western Hockey League up against defenseman Tommy HughesLondon Knights (Ontario Hockey League).  The other two teams that have qualified for the tournament are the WHL-champion Portland Winterhawks and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s playoff champs, the Halifax Mooseheads.

Shane McColgan

Shane McColgan

Wolf Pack fans got a peek at McColgan last spring, when the 2011 fifth-round Ranger draftee played in five games with the Whale after the conclusion of his WHL season.  He is the only one of the three Ranger prospects at the Memorial Cup to have been drafted by the team, but is also the only one without a contract.  Both Nicholls and Hughes were inked to NHL free-agent contracts by the Rangers this spring.  This tournament represents somewhat of a last chance for McColgan to get a deal from the Rangers, too, as if he does not sign with New York before the end of this month, the Rangers will lose his rights and he will go back into the draft.

The Saskatoon Star-Phoenix quoted McColgan as saying, “It’s important for me individually to do my best and give my all in these games at the Memorial Cup.  A lot of guys don’t get this second opportunity.”

Nor do many guys get to compete for the Memorial Cup twice in their careers, as McColgan is doing.  He was also a member of a 2008-09 Kelowna Rockets team that got all the way to the Memorial Cup final before losing to the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires.

“When I was with Kelowna and we went to the Memorial Cup, around 12 or 13 guys signed contracts,” McColgan told the Star-Phoenix.  “It definitely helps.  Team success transfers over to individual (success) as well.”

The Blades will need to shake off some rust when the tourney starts.  Saskatoon has been out of action for seven weeks since being swept by the Medicine Hat Tigers in a first-round upset in the WHL playoffs.  The Blades were guaranteed a spot in the Memorial Cup by virtue of being the host team.

McColgan had his fourth straight 60-point year in the WHL this season, with 19 goals and 47 assists for 66 points in 69 games.

For McColgan’s teammate Nicholls, whose signing was announced by the Rangers March 5, this season was his overage year, meaning that he is out of Junior eligibility.  Unlike McColgan, for whom this year was his first in Saskatoon, Nicholls has spent his whole Junior career with the Blades and with 332 career games-played, is only five short of the all-time team record.  He also stands fifth all-time in Blades history in goals (138) and points (313).

“Obviously, I’ve accomplished a lot both team-wise and individually since I’ve been here ­— everything but winning some sort of championship,” Nicholls said to the Star-Phoenix.  “To be able to have this opportunity to host the Mem Cup is huge for myself and for the organization.  I’m really excited to get things going and hopefully have a successful tournament.”

Nicholls has good size, at 6-2 and 196 pounds, and finished third in the WHL in goals this year with 47, only two off the league lead.

In contrast to McColgan and Nicholls, who have been trying to find ways to stay sharp during a long layoff, Hughes is coming off of an intense, seven-game OHL championship series, which his Knights captured in dramatic fashion.  After going down 3-1 in the series to the Barrie Colts, London won three straight, and took Game Seven Monday night on a goal with one second left in regulation.  Wow!

Hughes, who is a London native and thus got a chance to play for his hometown OHL team, is another big guy, at 6-2 and 215 pounds.  He does not have much for offensive numbers, but is +47 in 123 games over the last two years and was +30 in 56 games two seasons ago.  The Knights, who are coached by former NHL mainstay Dale Hunter, have a fine record of producing pro players.  Ex-Knights currently in the NHL include Ranger defenseman Dan Girardi and Ottawa blueliner Marc Methot, and Hunter compared Hughes to those two accomplished defenders, in an April conversation with John Matisz of metronews.ca.

“He blocks shots, he’s fearless out there,” Hunter said of Hughes, who also was an overager this year. “He just kept getting better and better every year.

“He’s a very good skater. He’s fast. He stays in a crouch, which he should anyways, and he’s strong.”

Sounds like exactly the profile of defenseman that fits the Ranger mold, and if Hughes can be anything like Girardi, who was one of the great scouting finds in recent pro hockey history, then the Blueshirts will have uncovered another real hidden gem.

 

 

Back to the Pack

May 14, 2013

Fairly eventful 12 hours or so for the organ-eye-zation, as the Wolf Pack identity returns here in central Connecticut and the Rangers complete their first-round comeback against Washington, with an exclamation point of a 5-0 win in Game Seven.

Logo - Wolf Pack - 05-13It had been 899 days, by my count, since the November 27, 2010 re-branding of the Hartford Wolf Pack to the Connecticut Whale, and on day number 900, it was officially announced that the name of the team would be returning to the moniker that was used for the first 12 seasons, and 22 games, of the team’s existence.  Those 12-plus years included some great times, most notably the 2000 Calder Cup and a couple of other nice playoff runs, and the Wolf Pack name will always be linked, in my mind, to people such as Ken Gernander, the late E.J. McGuire, Jim Schoenfeld, Mike Busniuk, Derek Armstrong, Brad Smyth, Terry Virtue, John Paddock and the like.  Those are terrific guys and great hockey people, and all gave a lot of blood, sweat and tears to glorifying the Wolf Pack crest.  That was my initial, visceral reaction to the name change, along with wondering what the over-under is on how many times I’ll say Whale by mistake on the air when I mean Wolf Pack.  Hopefully not too old a dog to learn this new/familiar trick.

How about the Rangers breaking out for a five-spot in Game Seven, more than the total they scored in Games One, Two, Five and Six?  And with no points from Brad Richards and one assist from Rick Nash?

It was none other than Chris Kreider who made the play to set up what turned out to be the only goal the Rangers would need.  Skating on the fourth line with Richards and Arron Asham, Kreider made a neat little drop pass just inside the offensive zone to Asham, who scored his second goal of the series with a well-placed shot past Braden Holtby’s catching glove.  Kreider also had five hits in the game, second only to Ryan Callahan’s seven among Ranger forwards.  If Kreider, who is as solidly-built a guy as you are going to see, can take a page out of Callahan’s book and start finishing every available check, he is going to be awfully hard to play against, with the momentum he can generate with his speed.

Rangers Spreading out the Offense

May 9, 2013

Regular-season New York Rangers scoring leader Derek Stepan has game-winning goals in both of New York’s home wins in their now-tied first-round series with the Washington Capitals, but Rick Nash has one assist in the series’ four games, Brad Richards has one goal and Ryan Callahan has been held without a goal.

Other offensive sources have stepped up in a big way in the Rangers’ two home wins, though, allowing the parent club to battle back from a pair of series-opening losses in Washington, in which the offense was virtually non-existent.

Carl Hagelin, who had the only Ranger goal in the two road defeats, figured in three of the Rangers’ four goals in Wednesday’s 4-3 win in Game Four, striking for a goal and two assists, one of them a brilliant one-touch pass to set up Stepan’s winner.  Hagelin’s goal, meanwhile, was helped by a beautiful feed from Derick Brassard.  That was one of two helpers in the game for Brassard, who had never played in an NHL postseason game before this series, and made no impact in the first two games, but now leads the Rangers in playoff points with 1-4-5.

Carl Hagelin in action with the Whale early in 2011-12.

Carl Hagelin in action with the Whale early in 2011-12.

 

A little more quietly, Mats Zuccarello has three assists, including helpouts on both Ranger power-play goals in the series.  One of those was a huge early-third period goal, on which Brassard had the primary assist, by Dan Girardi Wednesday night, after the Blueshirts had coughed up a 2-0 lead in the second period, allowing Troy Brouwer to tie the game with only 17.1 seconds left in the frame.

“The first two games, I was a little bit nervous, but when I’m in my game, I make plays,” Brassard told the media after Game Four. “I just wanna take that game [into] Washington.”

Ranger head coach John Tortorella said of Brassard, “He’s grabbed a hold of it here and makes just a great play on Danny’s goal. He’s stepped in here to try and make a difference and he’s made some big plays for us. I’m not afraid to put him a lot of different positions in a lot of different situations.”

“I’m having fun,” Brassard said. “They showed a lot of confidence in me. I just try to help the team. I know I can bring some offense. We have a lot of talent on this team and that’s why I am really excited. We can do a lot of damage and I want to be part of it.”

The Rangers deserve credit, too, in Game Four for dominating some statistical categories that capture the “little things” in the game.  New York outhit the Capitals 38-20, won 34 faceoffs to Washington’s 19 and had 33 blocked shots (the Caps blocked 20).

One negative for the Rangers Wednesday was the fact that Marc Staal was a late scratch, after finally making his return from an eye injury in Game Three.  There was no indication during the day that Staal might not play, and you just cross your fingers that he has not suffered some sort of a setback, after a long battle to get back into the lineup.  New York clearly got a boost from his presence in Game Three, and although they played well without him Wednesday, I don’t think there’s any doubt that they are a better team with Staal in uniform, even if he isn’t at a hundred percent.

Back in the AHL, the Conference Semifinal round of the Calder Cup playoffs starts tonight, after regular season-champion Providence ended Hershey’s upset bid last night, with a 3-2 home win in Game Five of the last first-round series that had yet to be decided.  The Bears, who just nosed out the Whale for the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference on the last day of the regular season, won the first two games of their matchup with the P-Bruins, but then went 0 for 3 in bids for the clincher.

So the Bruins move on to face Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in one Eastern Semifinal, while Syracuse and Springfield battle in the other.  Those should be two great series’.  There was one mild upset in the Western Conference, with fifth-seeded Oklahoma City ousting fourth-seeded Charlotte in the first round, but form held otherwise.  The Barons face the Texas Stars in one Western Semifinal matchup and it’s Toronto and Grand Rapids in the other.

Rangers Pull out Huge Win in Game Three

May 7, 2013

Home was where the goals were for the parent New York Rangers last night, as a Ranger team that had scored all of one goal in the first two games of its series with Washington broke out for four, in a possibly season-saving 4-3 victory at Madison Square Garden.

It was hardly a dominating performance, as during the parts of the game I had a chance to see the Rangers spent a ton of time in their own zone, and they killed off a late third-period Capital power play by the skin of their teeth as time ran out.  They did get timely scoring, though, outhit Washington 33-22 and were strong in one of their calling-card areas, blocked shots, with 19.

staal_02

Marc Staal during his first pro experience, a 12-game stint with the Wolf Pack in the 2006 playoffs.

It had been widely speculated that Ryane Clowe might make his first playoff appearance with the Rangers in Game Three, and that did not happen, but what did is the return of Marc Staal, who hadn’t played since sustaining a serious eye injury March 5.  Thinking about the game beforehand, you figured that getting Clowe back might have been a big help for the struggling offense, and you’re not expecting Staal, even if he did play, to have a significant impact in that area.  As it turned out, though, the intangible effect of seeing a player like Staal, who is such a major part of the fabric of the club, finally back from such a scary injury seemed to have helped lift the whole team.

“It helps the room. He’s so respected in the room,” is how Ranger head coach John Tortorella explained it to the media after the game.  “This is two major injuries he’s come back from. Even before we step on the ice, I think that really helps your room. He’s just so well-liked.”

The winning goal came off the stick of Ranger regular season points leader Derek Stepan, who had been held off the scoresheet in the first two games.  That tally came at the 13:35 mark of the third period, after Washington had come back from 2-1 and 3-2 deficits to tie, and the play was started by a bit of a riverboat gamble by Stepan’s fellow former University of Wisconsin Badger, Ryan McDonagh.  He had the puck at the left point and instead of throwing it in deep, he dangled away from Alex Ovechkin, before working the puck to Mats Zuccarello in the corner.  Zuccarello then fed it to the opposite side to Rick Nash, who found Stepan in front for the finish.

If Ovechkin pokes the puck away there, he is likely gone the other way, and McDonagh’s boldness with the puck in that dangerous area had me just about screaming at the TV screen, “What are you doing?!”  It turned out to be a great play, though, and what a show of confidence by McDonagh, who was in the penalty box for delay of game when Mike Green scored in overtime to win Game Two for the Caps.  Shows you what I know, and shows you that McDonagh has the kind of moxie that great players have.  Not many guys would have the cojones to make that play, knowing that the coach is going to blow his top on them if it goes wrong, but McDonagh, whose career is still awfully young, did, and it led to the biggest goal so far of the Rangers’ season.

Stepan’s marker was one of two hard-battling Ranger scores in the third.  The other was rung up by Arron Asham, who ironically was the player rumored to be the prime candidate to be scratched if Clowe was able to play.  That might have brought up an interesting quandary for the Ranger coaching staff if Clowe was good to go for Game Four tomorrow night…whom would you take out of the lineup after such a big win?  Sounds like that is not going to be an issue, however, as Darroll Powe did not return to last night’s game after coming together with Washington’s Joel Ward in the first period, and the consensus among the media following the Rangers today was that he was likely out for Game Four.

Game Three Virtual Must-win for Rangers

May 6, 2013

The Rangers’ playoff future could hang on the outcome of tonight’s Game Three against Washington at Madison Square Garden.

If New York holds serve and wins, it’s a brand new series, after the Rangers lost a pair of tight ones down in D.C..  If the Caps win again, though, the parent club faces a nearly insurmountable three-games-to-none series deficit.

A definite plus for the Rangers is that they seem to be getting healthier.  Derek Dorsett finally made his Ranger debut in New York’s 1-0 overtime loss in Game Two, and Brian Boyle came back from an eight-game injury absence in that game too.  With those returns, Whale callups Kris Newbury and Chris Kreider were scratched from the Game Two lineup.

Now, media reports out of Gotham indicate that Ryane Clowe, who has been out since getting dinged up in the Rangers’ last regular-season game, might be ready to get back in uniform tonight.  Sounds like there is a chance that Marc Staal might play too, after having missed two months and 29 games recovering from the scary eye injury he sustained March 5 against Philadelphia.

The media’s reading of the tea leaves suggested that Arron Asham would be scratched if Clowe was able to go, but didn’t see any indication of who might possibly come out to make room for Staal.

Chris Kreider

Chris Kreider

Pat Leonard of the New York Daily News conjectured prior to the morning skate that Kreider might get a chance to get back into the lineup, with the Rangers’ offense having been largely stagnant in the first two games of the series and given his success in putting pucks in the net in last year’s playoffs.  That notion was scotched, though, when it turned out that Kreider was not at Madison Square Garden with the main group, but instead was skating with the extras at the Ranger practice facility.

If Clowe can indeed play, that should be a shot in the arm for the attack, and I thought Leonard elicited a significant statement from Derick Brassard that, “We can’t pass on any shots.”  From what I’ve seen of the first two games, it looks to me as though the Rangers haven’t had enough of a shooter’s mentality, especially on the power play.  They’re holding on to that puck an extra tick or two, allowing the Capitals and goaltender Braden Holtby to close whatever window might, or might not, have been there.  Seems like they have to forget about the pretty play and get more pucks at the net.

Awfully easy to say from my couch.

Ranger head coach John Tortorella’s “money quote” to the media today was, “I think we’re close.  I will put it to you that way.  It means squat if you don’t win.”

Rangers Fall to Caps in Game One

May 3, 2013

After a 7-2-0 run to end the regular season, the parent New York Rangers dropped their playoff opener Thursday, losing 3-1 at Washington.

The Blueshirts outshot the Caps 36-30, including 28-16 over the final 40 minutes, and scored first in the game, but could not recover from allowing two goals in a span of 46 seconds in the latter stages of the second period.  It was a strange game for Ranger netminder Henrik Lundqvist, who made several sharp saves on Washington power-play chances but allowed an uncharacteristic softie on the second of the two quick ones, a bad-angle heave off the boards by Jason Chimera.

Henrik Lundqvist in Game One at Washington (Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

Henrik Lundqvist in Game One at Washington (Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

“It was a really bad goal,” Lundqvist said of that critical score.  ““I’m very disappointed; I thought I had my pad there.

“It can’t happen, but it did.”

In the mind of Ranger head coach John Tortorella, penalties made the difference, particularly back-to-back minors to Taylor Pyatt (elbowing) and Arron Asham (illegal check to the head) early in the second period, when the Rangers led 1-0.  Washington’s Alex Ovechkin tied the game with Asham in the box.

“We can’t take that many penalties in the game,” Tortorella told the media after the game. “They did get a good bounce off the boards (on the tying goal). You can’t take two in a row. Hopefully, we’ll discipline ourselves next game.”

Kris Newbury, who skated on the fourth line with Darroll Powe and Asham, played a total of 5:24 in the game.  He got 25 seconds of power-play time in the second period, but then skated only one 15-second shift in the third, with the Rangers trying to work their way back from a two-goal deficit.

Game Two is an afternoon game Saturday at the Verizon Center in Washington, facing off at 12:30.  That tilt will be telecast on NBC.