Monday, November 15, 2010

Do My Eyes Lie Or Could The Rangers Have Three Scoring Lines?

For the past while Rangers fans have had to deal with each season basically having to rely on one line to do most of the heavy lifting in the goal scoring department.  Each season or should I say offseason the hopes are built up that this year will be different in that regard and that the new pieces will help to balance the scoring and that was the case again this year.  The talk this summer once Alexander Frolov was signed was that the Rangers had a legit second scoring option to go with Marian Gaborik and his exploits of last season.  Once the signing happened the debate began about whether or not it was best to keep them together or split them up because of the history the club has had with one line doing all the lifting.  The decision was made by the staff to keep them together and through the first 16 games of the season the results for Frolov and the line had not been what was expected in the offseason.  To be fair to the line as a whole Gaborik’s injury really killed a legitimate chance to judge their effectiveness.

With the injury to Gaborik in the team’s third game of the year the panic right after for the fans was questioning if they would even have one line to score.  In that absence the line of Brandon Dubinsky – Artem Anisimov – Ryan Callahan stepped their game up and produced beautifully.  The problem though was the Rangers were plagued by the same problem as prior seasons where they could get one line to produce but very few players and certainly no other lines were doing it consistently.  Other than the Dubinsky-Anisimov-Callahan line the only player who was not slumping was Brian Boyle who had already topped his career high in goals.

With the return of Gaborik on Thursday the hope was that he could get Frolov and Erik Christensen or Derek Stepan going depending on which center was put with Marian.  I personally questioned whether it was fair to stick that burden on Gaborik and if maybe to start he should play with someone like Boyle who was already playing with a high degree of confidence in his game.  My other question was whether the Dubinsky-Anisimov-Callahan line would be content to fade into the background and defer to Gaborik now that he was back.

It has only been two games, but what has been evident in those two games is very positive to the Rangers hopes not only this season but for the future of the organization.  In the first game back the team played a very similar game to how they were playing without Gaborik and did not automatically defer to him nor did they wait for him to bail them out.  In the game a new combination was tried by coach John Tortorella as he added Ruslan Fedotenko to the Brian Boyle, Brandon Prust combination.  That line for my money was the best line the Rangers had over the course of the game and it resulted in a goal for Fedotenko off the hard work of the entire line.  In addition to the work of that line the de-facto top line in Gaborik’s absence continued to play their game and both together and individually continued to produce chances and two goals from Artem Anisimov.  All in all in the Gaborik return the Rangers played the game as they had without him and got a win without needing him to produce.

In the second game back for Gaborik his skills were on display not only individually, but also in how playing with him creates space and confidence for the other players.  Erik Christensen and Alexander Frolov both played their best games of the year and the level of confidence the two of them were playing with by the time the game was over should frighten upcoming opposition.  Now seeing as how Christensen has always been sort of an enigma because he can put on tremendously skilled performances like he did against Edmonton but then disappear it will be key to see if he can keep up a high level of play.  With Frolov the capability to sustain the level is not the issue, but more if having the renewed confidence in his game and getting results today will let him relax and show his skills off more and more.  For the first time this season the Rangers had what was presumed to be their number 1 line in camp playing and producing to their capabilities. 

With the Gaborik line producing it leaves fans to wonder if the good play of the other lines is over because the Rangers only seem to have one function at peak performance at a time.  In this game the Dubinsky-Anisimov-Callahan line did not have big point totals and only Anisimov would score, but the play of the trio was as good as it has been previously as they continued their fore-check/cycle play, but did not net the results.  I believe their level is going to stay high and they will continue to produce offensively even if not at the level they did the last few weeks.  This alone would make the fans and coaching staff happy as the hope with the return of Gaborik was to have two lines going for a change. 

The real question for me now is whether my eyes are deceiving and the Rangers might actually have three lines that can all produce consistently.  The Fedotenko-Boyle-Prust line certainly is not nearly as talented as the other two I have discussed, but they play a similar game to the Anisimov line in that they fore-check/cycle very well and they score tough goals to make up for any skill deficiencies.  In the 8-2 shellacking they continued their strong play from the previous game and ended up contributing two goals; one from Boyle and one from Fedotenko.  If their energy, effort and toughness can result in consistent results on the scoreboard the Rangers can become a very dangerous team this season and for once not have to rely on just one line at a time, but have three credible lines that can chip in.

As someone who has just looked for the Rangers to develop two consistent scoring lines over the last couple of years it is beyond my ability to fully believe yet that they could not only have two but even three consistent threats to have play their parts in the daily scoring.  The even scarier part of that thought is if they can do that, they will still be doing it without two of their better players with Chris Drury and Vinny Prospal still being out with injury.  It is a small sample size without doubt but for at least a few games the Rangers are showing the depth up front that everyone hoped they had and that in that depth they can help to balance not only the scoring totals, but also the scoring burden.