The other day I wrote that the Rangers in general, and especially in this stretch without Gaborik, Prospal and Drury to add offense, need to get back to playing basic fundamental hockey. To me basic fundamental hockey includes sound defensive zone coverage, 5 man team hockey in both zones, blocking shots, killing penalties, not taking bad penalties, consistent hard effort, fore-checking the offensive zone, opportunism in transition/counter and a goalie coming up with a few critical saves each game. Based on that definition I have to give the Rangers outing last night in Toronto an A.
The defensive effort was by the best of the year in terms of not only the way all six d-men played, but also in how the forwards came back and helped deep in the zone along with the way all five guys threw themselves at any and every shot they could. The Rangers managed to block a ridiculous 30 shots in the game with seven coming from Michael Del Zotto, six from Dan Girardi and five from Michal Rozsival. I would say that last night was the best defensive zone performance of MDZ’s career to this point and he played the body well, blocked shots and had phenomenal positioning at even strength and on the penalty kill.
As I said the other day the penalty kill has been a staple of the consistency and success for the Rangers really since the lockout, but especially the last three years. Coming into the game the Rangers had only killed 13 of a possibly 19 power plays against which ranked 29th in the league. Last night they killed off all 5 shorthanded situations, many of which were the result of questionable calls. The talk the other day by me was how we had enough forwards that even without Chris Drury we were more than capable up front and that group showed it tonight lead by Ryan Callahan and Brandon Dubinsky. Those two were on the ice for approximately 4 ½ minutes of the penalty kills playing passing lanes, clearing pucks and diving in front of shots.
On the back end I had more concerns because we didn’t seem to have a fourth D we trusted to be out there in those situations but last night MDZ got a chance and he played it well. The Rangers leaned heavily on Staal and Girardi playing them 5:45 and 5:30 respectively on the kills, but to see Rozi and MDZ get 3 ½ minutes and be successful was a great sign moving forward. The old saying goes that to be a great penalty kill the best penalty killer on the ice has to be the goaltender and Martin Biron was certainly up to the task stopping all 8 shots he faced with the man advantage.
The effort in this game was the most consistent it has been from a Ranger team certainly this season and maybe further back. They played like the season was on the line from the drop of the opening puck and while there were certainly moments where Toronto took control it was not from a lack of effort by the Rangers, which we have not always been able to say prior to tonight.
On the offensive side of the puck we had a good night on the fore-check as the Dubinsky-Anisimov-Callahan line continued to roll and create havoc in the opposition end. This line played like a top line tonight individually and collectively and deserved more than the one goal they got. The Avery-Stepan-Fedetenko line was reunited and rewarded Tortorella for doing so with solid play from the wings and Stepan skated with an extra burst in his stride and showed his hockey sense on the goal seeing there was no room if he drove the net so he pulled wide toward the corner, sent the puck at the crease and Fedetenko battled to put it home. Even the 3rd line with Frolov and Christensen who have for large periods of time so far this year been invisible created a series of chances with Frolov not converting from the doorstep a few times. The work these forwards did on the fore-check, the cycle, and being opportunistic in when to push the play was very effective and if not for an excellent performance by Gustavsson would have been reward with more goals.
All of this is not to say there were not breakdowns along the way or to sugarcoat them as is the tendency after a win, but the breakdowns were much fewer in number tonight and there was much better team support when there was one. There will be a few moments in a game whether it be because of a breakdown somewhere or just great play by the opponent that the goaltender will have to make crucial saves to win games and on this occasion Martin Biron did that for them, none bigger than his save on Versteeg’s breakaway in a 2-1 game. Basic fundamental hockey will not eliminate the possibility of mistakes but what it will do is limit them and help to adjust before the damage becomes catastrophic to the chances of winning. This was an example of the Rangers playing sound fundamental hockey and it resulting in beating a team off to a very good start in their own building. IF the Rangers continue to have this kind of effort they will survive this time without Gaborik, Prospal, and Drury and be better for it down the line.