Friday, December 17, 2010

These are two things that I think are kind of cool

1. Last night, as you may have noticed because Jason "Is that seriously what you're putting on your mask?" LaBarbera was in net for the Coyotes, Ilya Bryzgalov was ill. That's not interesting yet. But apparently he got sick too close to game time to fly someone out to New York from San Antonio (or from their EHCL team, the greatest hockey team ever, the Las Vegas Wranglers). As you know, an NHL roster generally contains exactly 2 goalies, and Phoenix sure didn't have a third with them on this trip (why would they?). As it turns out, Bryzgalov was too sick to even sit on the bench as a backup. So, they needed a backup. So, they called some guy who hasn't played hockey since he was the goalie for American International College a year and a half ago, and they signed him so he could sit as the backup. That's pretty sweet.

2. As you no doubt know, one of the weird ways in which the NHL is trying to be the NFL is that the division winners now get the top three spots in each conference for the playoffs (unlike the NFL, we don't actually play our division rivals enough more than we play everyone else for that to make sense). It's been true for a number of seasons now, and it's not interesting by itself anymore. But because of this, you can sometimes end up with teams in 4th, or even 5th or lower, that have earned more points on the season than a team in 3rd or 2nd. Combine that with the crazy disparity between, well, our division and the rest of the NHL, and you end up with the Rangers currently being ranked 5th in the Eastern Conference, but 4th in the whole of the NHL. Here's how it works: Flyers - 47, Penguins - 44, Red Wings - 43, Rangers - 41, Canadiens - 40, Capitals - 40. So, in the East, Montréal and the Caps get bumped up above the Pens, leaving the Rangers down in 5th.

Also of note: if the Rangers were to gain 2 more points on the Wings, the top 3 teams in the Atlantic would be the top 3 in the league, and the bottom 2 in the Atlantic would be the bottom 2 in the league. Not likely, due to the large game disparity we're looking at right now (Detroit has four games-in-hand over us), but it's still kinda neat.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Where things stand

The Atlantic Division, truly, is a division divided. At its top, the Penguins and the Flyers own 44 and 43 points, respectively. That's good enough for the best two spots in the whole league, with the closest runner-up, Detroit, at 41. The Pens, who we have to play here in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, are riding a 12-yes-that-says-twelve-game winning streak. In fact, the last time they lost was the last time we played here in Pittsburgh, a month ago. Sidney Crosby, mistakenly called the greatest hockey player on the planet since he turned 17, actually seems to be the greatest hockey player on the planet right now. In that 12-game stretch, Crosby has scored 14 goals and has 9 assists, for 23 points. He has a +13 rating in that stretch alone, while averaging 21:24 a game. That's just stupidly good.

Did I mention that we have to play them, here in Pittsburgh, on Wednesday?

So that's the top of the division: top two spots in the league, 2 points ahead of the best non-Atlantic Division team. What about the bottom of the division? You guessed it: the bottom two spots in the league. The Devils and the Islanders, with 18 and 15 points, respectively, find themselves ranked 29th and 30th in the NHL, with the Devils' 18 a full 8 points behind the 28th-place Maple Leafs.

I always feel bad talking about the Islanders, because they've been shitty for the entire time I've had a memory. So, I'll keep it brief. But, for you older Ranger fans out there that might still feel good about this, the Islanders started the season 4-2-1. They are currently 5-17-5. Mean Mr. Subtraction says that means they have won one game in their last 20. That dates back to October 23. Oof.

You know who I never feel bad talking about? The Devils! You guessed it; it's time for another edition of Kovalwatch!!!! Checking back in with our fair protagonists, we see that they have lost 5 in a row. The Devils have won one game in regulation time in their last 15 (although they've won one in OT and 2 in shootouts since then as well), putting them at 8-19-2, on track for 51 points at the end of the season. When we last checked in with them, they were finishing with 61. 51 would make them the worst team in hockey since the 1999-2000 Atlanta Thrashers, in their debut season.

And Ilya himself? 5 goals and 9 assists, for 14 points. On pace with Manny Malhotra ($7.5m/3yr), Mike Green ($21m/4yr), and Tomas Fleischmann ($2.6m/1yr). And incidentally, the same number of points as Sean Avery (1-13-14). More remarkable, those other players all have positive +/- ratings: Malhotra and Fleischmann are each +3, and Green is +7 (Avery, for completion's sake is +4). Kovalchuk's +/- has steadily declined since our last report, bringing him down to a comical -18. You read that right, -18. Kovalchuk, for all his money and his mediocre production, is ranked 743rd in the league in +/-, ahead of only Andy Greene (another Devil) and John Tavares and James Wisniewski (two Islanders).

Wanna play the math game? 18 in 29 games...we've done this math before, when we were calculating the Devils' point trajectory. It puts him on pace to be -51. Slightly worse than when we last calculated it, still the worst in all of's databases, still worse than Rico Fata.

And I guess that brings us to the remaining team in the We're 6 points behind the second-place Flyers. We're 19 points ahead of the 29th-place Devils. We're technically ranked 6th in the league right now, and if the playoffs started today, we'd be in 5th and play the Flyers in the first round. We've won 4 of our last 6, 8 of our last 12, etc. We consistently beat the bad teams and sometimes squeak past the good ones. We're a hot streak from being mentioned in conversations with the Penguins and the Flyers, but we're a losing streak from the only positive thing about us being that we're not the Islanders or the Devils. We're definitely better than we were last season.

Oh, and hey, check this out! Drury's coming back! That's certainly not gonna hurt. Sorry, Todd White or Erik Christensen. It's just that you don't matter very much.

Role reversals

Well, that was a weird weekend of hockey. Mostly, everyone did what everyone else was supposed to do.

On Saturday night, we played the Blue Jackets in Columbus. The game went back and forth pretty well, resulting in a 1-1 tie on traded power play goals after 2. That was when the Rangers skaters and King Henrik switched roles. It was the skaters who stepped up their game in the third and kept the Rangers in it. Granted, they didn't so much score any goals, but the majority of play was in the Jackets' zone, and I was actually pretty optimistic about the outcome, despite the 1-1 tie lasting late.

And it was Lundqvist, who usually spends these tied third periods standing on his head to bail out a squad that does nothing to earn it (either offensively or defensively), who himself made the awful play that gave the Blue Jackets the tiebreaker and eventual game-winner with 5 minutes left.

Now, I'd love to give Rick Nash (who scored this goal and the not-quite-empty-netter at the end, after assisting on Columbus's first goal) all the credit in the world for breaking this tie late in the third - it's the kind of thing he does, and he's the kind of guy I love giving credit to. But this was about as soft a goal as I've seen (excepting this one). "Bad-angle shot" doesn't really depict just how bad an angle it was: Nash basically shoveled it toward the left post, from the goal line at the boards, with absolutely no one else anywhere near either him or the crease.

After the game, Lundqvist unsurprisingly took full responsibility for the loss, and really, what else is there to say? Things like this happen sometimes, he's still one of the best goalies in the league, and if Hank could be our biggest liability in every game, I think we'd be doing just fine, thank you very much. For the first time I can remember, Hank making a mistake doesn't make me go back to Brooks's quote, "neither blameless nor to blame." This time, he actually was to blame. Which, all things considered, may be more a reflection of the skaters around him getting better than of anything else. Or maybe I'm a little too optimistic.

Anyway, continuing with weeeeeird hockey, last night, the Caps came to the Garden. And in another role reversal, it was the Rangers whose powerhouse offense came through for 7 goals from 6 different players (8 different Rangers had assists), while the Caps were shut out and dumbfounded. The game was almost scoreless through one until Prust opened the floodgates with 3 minutes left in the first, and then the flood itself followed in the second. The offense never stopped, and the Capitals never got started.

It was awesome!!

I don't really know what else to say about this game. Lundqvist earned himself a league lead-tying 5th shutout, mostly on hard work in the third, after the Rangers had already given him plenty of room to work with. Dubinsky had a Gordie Howe hat trick (I love that we keep earning these), fighting Ovechkin a few minutes after scoring, then assisting on Cally's first in the third. Yes, Dubinsky fought Ovechkin. It was awesome. After the game, it's worth noting Dubinsky's comments went something like "it was totally respectful, he's great at hockey, etc." cf. Crosby.

The game's final 5 minutes devolved into brawl time (in which penalties were assigned to basically everyone, except Brian Fahey, who got away with no minutes based on the NHL's "it's cool, you did it to Avery" clause), which was also fun to watch. Basically, this game was candy for my life, and everything is great.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Two Mediocre Teams Split Home-and-Home

...and no one was surprised. With this season's disappointment in Frolov, and the total lack of Drury and Prospal, it's no surprise that this team is just okay. The Rangers are looking at a king's ransom of second- and third- liners: Christensen, Avery, Dubinsky, Callahan, Anisimov, Boyle, Prust, and Fedotenko. If we call Gaborik a definite first-liner and Boogaard a definite fourth-liner, that leaves us with Frolov, Stepan, and Todd Freakin' White to fill in the gaps. This is not the world's most elite collection of parts. So, no one should be surprised that we're a middle-of-the-pack team.

Last night was once again the kind of win which people call "sloppy," "unlikely," "grinding," and "far from perfect." No surprises. We responded very quickly each time Ottawa took the lead (1:46 the first time, 1:09 the second time) until entering the third period down 3-2 and scoring 3 goals in the final period to win 5-3. The Rangers once again battled back and grinded out a win. This is all starting to sound familiar.

Which is not really a reason to despair. We have these parts, and we're using them to pretty good effect. Make no mistake: this season's middle-of-the-pack squad is a lot more fun to watch and a lot easier to have faith in than last season's. I don't know why, but I feel like, when we lose, it's not usually because we should have won and got lazy. So, things are looking up? Plus, at least we're not the Devils or the Islanders.

With that said, I am having some trouble wrapping my head around Coach Tortorella's "Lines? Lines?!? We don't need no stinkin' lines!!" policy. I'm all for a policy of line rotation, but having a bunch of second- and third-liners is no excuse to just assemble them differently every 3 days. There's a balance to be struck between giving everyone a shot to perform and giving lines a chance to gel and find some chemistry. I sometimes wonder if Torts believes in the latter at all.

A few nights ago, when preparing to play the Ottawa Senators, Erik Christensen and Sean Avery were the best forwards available to sit on the top line with superstar Marian Gaborik. Meanwhile, Artem Anisimov was punished onto the fourth line with a slumping Alex Frolov, and Derek Stepan took his place keying Dubi and Cally, leaving Ruslan Fedotenko to play with Boyle and Prust.

Last night, zero injuries or forward substitutions later, when preparing to play the Ottawa Senators, Erik Christensen and Sean Avery were the bottom-ranked forwards available, placed on the 4th line with big punchin'-guy Derek Boogaard. Meanwhile, Stepan and Fedotenko were the best forwards available to sit on the top line with superstar Marian Gaborik, which left room for Anisimov to come back from his punishment and key Dubi and Cally, leaving a slumping Frolov to play with Boyle and Prust.

That, to me, is not a little bit of rotation to shake things up. That, to me, is some epic shifting. Though this be madness, I've been trying to find some method in't. One theory I've come up with is that because Torts has absolutely no idea what he is supposed to do with this Boogaard fellow (whose shoulder, not his broken nose, kept him out after last night's fight with blood-flicker Matt Carkner), so he tends to use Boogaard's fourth-line wing spot as a place to double-shift Gaborik. Did you notice that the left-handed Boogaard, who played left wing his entire pre-Ranger career, is now suddenly a right wing? Yeah, well this would explain that. It would also explain why the same pair of linemates that belonged on the first line against the Senators Sunday belong on the fourth line against the Senators Thursday. I seriously think this explains some things, strange/sad as it is.

That said, it doesn't explain everything. There's still a crazy amount of line-shifting going on, including (by the stopped-clock principle) the line I've been begging to see for a while now, Avery-Boyle-Prust at practice on Tuesday morning. I just wonder if, now that it's December, it might make sense to just stick some lines together and let them gel for a bit? It seems like Torts would rather just keep developing individuals and not line units, and I wonder if that's not gonna hurt us in the long run.

Nutting up (with the alternative, shutting up, being undesirable to me), what would I do? Assuming we can't have Drury or Prospal back any time soon, I would probably use last night's lines, with a slight modification, and see what sticks. I'd like to see Dubinsky-Anisimov-Callahan and Avery-Boyle-Prust as the two core lines. Most of the time, I'd like to see them together. I'd also give Stepan a meaningful chance to pivot Gaborik - they've both got talent, but neither has found long-term chemistry with anyone, which at least Gaborik has mentioned. If we keep calling Stepan the team's "most creative playmaking center," which we do, let's let these two guys stay together.

That leaves Fedotenko, Christensen, Frolov, and White dangling (assuming Boogaard belongs on the fourth line). I'd alternate Fedotenko and Frolov as first line/fourth line winger, which gives them each incentive to outplay the other. Fedotenko's been good but not great no matter where we put him, and I'd like to see what he can do consistently with Stepan and Gaborik. That first line left wing spot has been Frolov's to lose, and he's done a good job of losing it so far. This is his opportunity to earn it back, and if he doesn't, he's done here anyway. Maybe Fedo picks up his game a lot. And if neither works out, what a good place for Prospal to return. Christensen clearly deserves a roster spot more than White right now, but maybe let them battle each other a little, too. Again, if neither works out, Drury comes back.

So, there. That's what I would do. But they never ask me. And, to be honest, it's hard to totally argue with what appears to be modest success. Yeah, we haven't played amazing teams lately, and all our wins seem to be chippy and hang by a thread, and we're only two points into the playoffs. But let's be honest: with two of our better forwards out (all season so far, no less) - with the cast of second- and third-liners listed above - we've won 3 of our last 4, 5 of our last 7, 7 of our last 10, and 10 of our last 15, dating back a month. Also that's a really nice pattern of triangular numbers.

So, we may not have a Sidney Crosby scoring 80 bagrillion goals a week, but we're not doing so badly for ourselves, either. And, as I said earlier, at least we're not the Devils or the Islanders. This weekend, we're in Columbus Saturday night, then back home against the Capitals Sunday night. This season, in games played the night after we played another game, we're 7-0. Think that streak can continue against Ovechkin and friends?

Monday, December 6, 2010

Nothing to write home about

I have a whole block of free time at work right now, and there is somehow nothing to say. I haven't gotten back to my big scary spreadsheet, so my big number thing isn't ready yet, and there's nothing I want to say about last night's game. I can't even post another Kovalwatch yet, because my last post was about him! It's so hard to be me.

There's nothing I want to say about last night's game because I don't want to put forward more effort than the Rangers did. Talk about sleeping through half a game. If we're honest, we didn't see a ton more effort than that in the home-and-home against the Islanders, but we won anyway, because it was just the Islanders. It took Prust's shorthanded goal to wake the Rangers up, and we proceeded to play an okay second half of a game, just not good enough to actually score any more goals.

It's technically true that we lost the game in the last 2:30, within which Ottawa finally took the lead and then sealed it with an empty netter, but we truly lost it in the first 30:00, during which we played flat hockey. The Frankenline of Avery, Christensen, and Gaborik just can't produce, due to it not making any sense. Gaborik is a good goal-scorer who can shoot the puck fast and hard, Christensen can make clever stick moves now and then, and Avery can chip the puck in deep, maintain possession, and win one-on-one battles. Individually, those are each useful, but no one on this line seems to ever know what anyone else on it is doing.

Dubinsky and Callahan have definitely taken a step back basically since Gaborik returned. Some of this is possibly mental: the pressure is no longer on them to step up and lead (only, it is, because Gaborik isn't actually going to win games by himself). I also wonder if some of it is due to the center rotation: there was some chemistry with Anisimov (though I don't necessarily disagree with the switch to Stepan). However, I'm sad to say a good deal of it is likely regression to the mean. I love Brandon Dubinsky, but he was never going to stay on the pace of 10 goals in 13 games.

Anyway, it's only one loss right now, and we shouldn't be running to the hills or anything, but it's time we started to see some real top-line production. Drury and Prospal can't come back soon enough. On them, word is that Drury has been skating in full equipment, passing but not yet shooting. There's some hope that he could return in 7-10 days. Prospal is also skating, but not yet in equipment (of course, there is still no timetable for him). It would really be nice to have these guys back, huh?