The New York Rangers did not get the start to the 2011-12 season that they wanted when facing the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks over in Europe last weekend, but a week later now, that is all behind them. The trip was a great experience for all of the players, but the bottom line is that it was too lengthy for their liking. By the time the first two games of the regular season were upon them, the team's collective focus was not where it needed to be. Tonight's tilt against the rival New York Islanders, which is their first game in North America this season, should be looked at as an opportunity for a fresh start.
The 0-0-2 record from last week will not be erased from the standings, but in the minds of the players, it should be. It happened, it's over with and there is no turning back the clock. The focus should now be on the task at hand, which includes the Islanders tonight followed by a trip out to western Canada right after. It is time to make up for what was lost over in Europe, and also get the squad on the right track moving forward in the month of October.
The main problem in the first two games of the season was the Rangers' starts. Typically, a John Tortorella coached hockey team comes out fast-paced and gets in the faces of the opponents quickly. We didn't see anything near that in the first, sometimes first two periods of the two games played last weekend, and that could've been a result of fatigue, but whatever the case was, it was unacceptable and certainly won't fly today.
The Islanders are coming off an encouraging 5-1 win against the Tampa Bay Lightning Thursday night that you would think they will still be all smiles about entering tonight's contest as well. They, too, will come out of the gate playing a high-tempo game, and the Rangers, at the very least, must match that effort. The Isles may not be the team the Rangers are, but they work hard and they have speed - the Rangers will do nothing but screw themselves if they underestimate their opponent in any way.
This especially applies to the defense, which was a nightmare in Europe. Beyond the first pairing of Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh, the Blueshirt blue-line was a positional disaster. Players were constantly being left open in the slot, the crease wasn't getting cleared, the outlet passes were being turned over - put simply it was a total mess. Having had a week to practice, hopefully the coaching worked with the defense on cleaning up their game and tightening things up in their own zone.
Nothing learned or worked on in practice will make up for the absence of Marc Staal (post-concussion headaches) and Michael Sauer (shoulder), both of which are out of the lineup tonight, however. Girardi and McDonagh cannot do everything, so we need to see serious improvement from Michael Del Zotto and Steve Eminger. You can't expect much out of Tim Erixon being that he is a rookie, but again, if he wants to stay with the team, he needs to catch the coach's eye in some way or another.
Jeff Woywitka will be making his Ranger debut tonight, as he is suiting up in place of Mike Sauer. I anticipate Tortorella to use Woywitka in different scenarios tonight to see what he is capable and not capable of handling. Let's hope that doesn't hurt the team more than help it.
Offensively we have the line changes that have been the talk of Rangerland all this week. Derek Stepan has moved up to the first line with Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik, while Brandon Dubinsky re-joined his mates Artem Anisimov and captain Ryan Callahan on the second line.
Those are two skilled and effective lines, but in two different ways. The first trio will provide speed and puck movement while the second threesome will make more of a difference with their body and on the forecheck. I think they compliment each other nicely, but I won't judge until I see them on the ice.
The key tonight for the Rangers is to play their game. They haven't played hockey the way they did last season, and I think that's been their biggest mistake to this point. The Islanders' basic strategy does not differ much from that of the Rangers, so if both teams play to their ability, it should be a pound-four-pound contest.
I think the goaltending match-up of Henrik Lundqvist and Evgeny Nabakov will have a lot to do with that.
Also, tonight on the blog I will be introducing a new feature being added to the site's gameday coverage called "In-Game". Basically what this will be is a live updated stream of tweets from myself and the Rangers appearing in a post on the main page of the blog during the game. This makes it easier for readers to follow live game updates and also, if you so wish, discuss the game with others in the comments section of the "In-Game" post. And the best part is that you do not have to refresh the page - the updates automatically appear in real-time! In-Game posts will be up 15 minutes prior to puck-drop (so 6:45 tonight).