Thursday, December 23, 2010

Video: Mats Zuccarello Slow Plays His Hand On Beautiful Shootout Goal in Debut

If playing on the top line in your first NHL game was not enough to put on Mats Zuccarello's plate the Rangers added being the third shooter in the shootout to the list. When Zuke's turn came the Rangers were down 2-1 and a miss would have meant a loss, but the Norwegian Hobbit would not let it get to him as he went into his bag of tricks and pulled out a beauty. Zuccarello would slow play Dan Ellis looking like he was going to even stop at one point and then show off his combination of creativity and skill by making a deke to the backhand and quickly pulling it back forehand leaving Ellis helpless. There have been some highly discussed shootout goals of late and I would this right up there.

Stepan, Zuccarello Show Future Is Here, But Rangers Fall 4-3 in SO

The Rangers would attempt another late comeback and they would succeed at least in getting it to extra time when Derek Stepan would take a beautiful feed from Brandon Dubinsky and make an even prettier play in patiently deking around a sprawling Dan Ellis and tucking the puck in the net at 11:18 of the third period.  The team would get it to OT and eventually the shootout and other than beautiful moves by both Erik Christensen and Mats Zuccarello they would go scoreless the other 9 rounds in an 11 round marathon that was eventually ended by Ryan Malone.  

The team controlled play in this game and if not for the defensive breakdowns that led to all three goals for Tampa they easily win this game.  Part of the problem was once again the Rangers utter failure to consistently hit the net, and at times ever hit it.  If anyone doubts the young skill that is going to take over this team just watch the games Anisimov, Stepan and Zuccarello had and the fact that to start the OT Tortorella felt comfortable enough to have Stepan and Zuccarello as his two forwards.

The first period saw the Rangers control the play, but two bad turnovers would see the score tied 2-2 at the end of one.  The first bad turnover came in the first two minutes as Michal Rozsival pulled an Eli Manning staring down his receiver and Martin St. Louis stepped in front to intercept and he drove into the Rangers zone and beat Lundqvist with a beautiful shot 2:00 into the game.  

The Rangers would play solid down a goal with Zuccarello being arguably their best forward, especially when around the 8 minute mark he made a beautiful backhand pass to Brandon Dubinsky, but Dubinsky would hit the pipe.  

The Rangers would finally get on the board at 11:16 when Brian Boyle would deliver a hit in the corner and the puck would work to Ruslan Fedotenko who would break his stick but somehow get the puck through Dan Ellis on a shot Ellis has got to stop.  Just 12 seconds later the Rangers would take the lead.  Victor Hedman would turn the puck over in the neutral zone, it would be played to Chris Drury along the boards at center ice who quickly fed it to Anisimov who drove hard and shot leading to a goal mouth scramble that Alex Frolov would finish making it 2-1 Rangers 11:28 into the game.

The Rangers would have decent control of the action for most of the rest of the period until the defense would come up with another awful turnover.  Girardi in attempting to work the puck out of his own zone while taking pressure from Stamkos would pass the puck right to Martin St. Louis.  St. Louis would take the puck and on the two-on-one make a beautiful between the legs backhand feed to Stamkos who roofed it for a 2-2 game with just 1:06 left in the period.  

The second period was more of the same with the Rangers controlling the play, even more than the first, but not having the scoreboard indicate the game flow.  Finally at 14:42 of the second a goal would come but it would be Tampa as it was a complete defensive breakdown leading to the goal.  Marc Staal had Pavel Kubina along the wall but instead of looking to play the body he went down to play the pass but never got it.  Dan Girardi instead of playing LeCavalier in front also went over to block the pass and Zuccarello failed to take the puck side in front all leading to a tap in for Vinny to make it 3-2 Tampa.
  •  Dubinsky was a man amongst boys the last half of the third period and showed a different level of engagement tonight.  Have to ask if it was a coincidence that Gaborik was not in the lineup?
  • Anisimov played a very involved and physical game and for much of the game was the team's most consistent player. 
  • Stepan's goal showed the poise of a 10 year veteran
  • Zuccarello was also excellent showing a belief that he belonged at this level and bringing some brash attitude to go with it.  Made some beautiful passes, showed off a very good shot and what can you say about his shootout goal.
  • Frolov played a very engaged game
  • Avery was impactful in his limited time
  • Christensen was once again invisible other than a shootout specialist.
  • Defensively other than the huge blunders thought the team played well on the back end

Watch Derek Stepan's Spectacular Tying Goal As He Walks Around Dan Ellis

Derek Stepan might be a rookie, but he certainly does not look like one when he is on the ice and he showed the patience and poise of a veteran and he waited out Dan Ellis and then calmly tucked the puck in the net to tie the game.

Video: Alex Ovechkin Lays Out Evgeni Malkin With Huge Hit

If the build up to the Winter Classic next week needed anything else it may have gotten something in the first minute of tonight's Washington Capitals vs Pittsburgh Penguins game when Alexander Ovechkin took a direct line at Evegeni Malkin and laid the wood on him.  Ovie showing his team that tonight was not just another game and they had something to prove, but it doesnt count on the scoreboard.

Rangers Lineup: Zuccarello to Debut on Top Line

Per Andrew Gross the New York Rangers have announced tonight's lines for their tilt with the Tampa Bay Lightning.  Rookie Mats Zuccarello will get thrown right into the fire starting the game on the top line.  The full lines are as follows:

Brandon Dubinsky-Derek Stepan-Mats Zuccarello
Alex Frolov-Artem Anisimov-Chris Drury
Ruslan Fedotenko-Brian Boyle-Brandon Prust
Sean Avery-Erik Christensen-Todd White

Interesting decision to put Zuke up top, but the skill on that line can be formidable if they click.  Does playing Dubinsky and Stepan with Zuccarello instead of say Drury force the Boyle line into more ice since they might be the only trio that can match up against the Stamkos line?  Will it cause Dubinsky to think more defensively to potentially cover for his two linemates?

The defense is as expected:

Video: Mats Zuccarello Mock Fights Teammate in Practice

Is Michael Del Zotto Being Shackled By Tortorella?

(Jim McIsaac/Getty) When is the last time MDZ rushed the puck?
A lot has been said and even more written about the struggles Michael Del Zotto has had in his second season in the NHL.  In his rookie campaign Del Zotto put up impressive offensive numbers with 9 goals and 28 assists as a mere 19 year old defender and that left expectations for his offensive game coming into this season quite high.  On the defensive side Del Zotto struggled mightily in his rookie year recording a -20 plus/minus rating which is worse than most expected even with the common knowledge of his defensive deficiencies.  The argument for Del Zotto was that what he brought offensively offset his defensive shortcomings and that over time his defense would improve minimizing the downside and the upside of his offense would only continue to grow.  That scenario has not played out especially on the offensive side and so I want to explore coach John Tortorella is shackling his talent and causing him to force things in other ways.

What has happened this season in many respects is the exact opposite of the expectations for despite some horrific plays and games defensive overall he has played to an even rating, but his offense has suffered severely this year having only contributed two goals and seven assists thus far in 34 games.  The biggest place where the struggles on the offensive end have been evident is the power play.  Last season Del Zotto feasted as the quarter back of the power play finishing the season with four goals and eighteen assists with the man advantage.  Frankly it was his ability to run the power play that forced the Rangers to keep him with the club last season instead of sending him back to Juniors where he could have worked on defensive deficiencies for another season.  I do not want to talk about if it was a mistake to keep him here last year though I have said I believe it was, but what it is that is causing his struggles there and throughout his offensive game.

The struggles for Del Zotto got so bad that he was a taken off the power play and then out of the lineup altogether when he was a healthy scratch for the Rangers game at Ottawa on December 9th.  The goal of scratching Del Zotto for the game was to allow him to watch and see the game from a different perspective and possibly notice things he was missing on the ice while he was out there.  In the immediate aftermath of the scratch Del Zotto had a few good games and even showed some more offensive confidence, but then he had an awful game in the Rangers last game against the Flyers. 

His awful game last Saturday has led to calls for benching him again, possibly trading him or even sending him to the minors.  Personally I do not think any of those are the right move considering he would have to clear waivers to go to the minors, which he would not, and you do not trade 20-year-olds with Del Zotto’s level of talent, particularly for pennies on the dollar.  He will miss tonight's game with the stomach flu but he should be back in there when they play next.

For me what it has made me question more and more is his usage by this coaching staff.  You have a tremendously gifted offensive hockey player, but he has so many voices in his head talking to him about not screwing up defensively he has lost his natural instincts and is overthinking the game in all facets.  If you look at the majority of the defensive mistakes Del Zotto has made this season it has been from trying too hard to make the perfect play instead of making the simple one whether it be on the carry inside his own zone of the massive overuse of the stretch pass.  Interestingly enough neither of those things were the cause of his defensive ineptitude last season when it mainly positioning problems and overuse of the big hit taking himself out of the play.

The Ranger system is predicated on the dump and chase formulation and the stretch pass from defense to forwards as there is very little puck carry in any area of the ice.  There is no one hurt more by that belief system than Del Zotto who at his best is a puck carrying defender who can put pressure on the opposition in both the neutral and Rangers offensive zone causing matchup issues and mistakes in coverage to benefit the overall offense.  So why is it that no one talks about how little Del Zotto is allowed to carry the puck when they discuss the lack of creativity in the Rangers offense?

As an offensive and aggressive defender you have to have confidence that either when you do carry the puck or you pinch in the offensive zone that your partner has the ability to cover for you on the other end of the ice.  Playing Del Zotto with Michael Rozsival and his slower than molasses skating ability is not a way to instill that confidence and instead of being lambasted for being caught pinching MDZ just does not go forward in the same way he did last season.  If you had made a bet before the season about which Rangers defenseman would be the most aggressive in pinching and joining the rush I would guarantee Del Zotto would have won the pool and Marc Staal would not have been close and yet no one discusses the freedom Tortorella gives Staal now to join and pinch while Del Zotto remains a statue.

Del Zotto did not forget how to make a stretch pass in the course of a year from where last season they were tape to tape and this year they are right to the other team.  He did not forget how to run the power play, but now he is afraid to leave his spot on the point and pinch down for the back door plays that got him most of his goals and created angles for his assists on it.  The Rangers have managed to tame the “wild side” so much that he has forgotten what got him to the NHL in the first place. 
What I see is a young player who in the opposite scenario as Marc Staal came up with the offense and has been pushed on the defensive side that is having a similar reaction of being caught in the middle of using his natural instincts and being afraid to screw up and that always leads to screwing up.  In Staal’s case the solution was to let him get back to the basics of his game which is defensive principles and then his offensive would flow out of the confidence he regained. 

So how do they fix it?  Do what they did with Staal which is get off his case about fixing the other side of his game and let him get back to what he knows best.  One way to do that for Michael Del Zotto would be to put him with Michael Sauer and let Sauer be his Beukeboom where he can cover for mistakes made in being aggressive in the wrong situations while granting him the freedom to push the envelope offensively.  If you allow him the freedom to carry the puck in the neutral zone he will stop forcing the play in his own zone and trust the simple pass with Sauer to let the breakout happen naturally.  If you allow him the freedom to join the rush and carry the puck he will not force the stretch pass so much and when he makes it he will make it with more confidence in his game and amazingly it will be more accurate.  Everyone blames Tortorella for Avery’s struggles saying he does not let him play his game, it is time to do the same for Del Zotto.  It is time to take the bit out of his mouth and the reins off his neck and let him go play hockey like he has been doing his entire life before now. 

Zuccarello Creativity Will Bring New Heights For Grinding Rangers

The 2010-11 version of the New York Rangers has successfully created an identity for itself as a physical grinding team that never quits on a game or each other.  This style has done very well for them as a whole, but has struggled to some extent against the more skilled teams in the league on nights where the were unable to get their forechecking going.  The issue for the club has never been a lack of commitment to the system itself, but the lack of another way when that path was not working on a particular night.  Tonight they will see their first glimpse of a player who can provide other options in Mats Zuccarello-Aasen as he brings something that for the better part of 35 games has been lacking; creativity.

When the Rangers signed the Norwegian Hobbit or as some refer to him the Frodo from Modo many fans were extremely excited to see what he could do based mainly on his point totals in the Swedish Elite League and what he had shown during the 2010 Olympic hockey tournament.  The assumption for many is he could step in from the beginning and be on the NHL roster, but that failed to recognize the transition necessary from the European style game to the North American game with the biggest transition being in the size of the ice surface.

During the preseason the Rangers and their fans saw flashes of what Zuccarello could bring to the table, but it was clear that an adjustment period would be necessary in the AHL.  The adjustment period to the style of game and the size of the rinks would take a little time as in his first 12 games he would only score  two goals and have zero assists, which would get to the point of some internet rumors of him leaving and going back to Europe.  It was as if the rumors motivated or sparked him because right after that things began to click for the talented 23-year-old from Oslo.  Feeling more comfortable with the style of play, size of the ice surface and the team itself Zuccarello would take off scoring 11 goals and adding 11 assists in his last 22 games for the Connecticut Whale. 

The numbers themselves had fans calling for Zuccarello to be up even before an injury to Gaborik, but what is impressive beyond the numbers is the way that he is getting them.  The highlights on Zuccarello show him scoring and setting up his teammates in all sorts of ways: on the rush; give and go’s; bursts of speed to find space; incredible cross ice feeds.  These types of things bring a variance to the Rangers one way style of producing offense this year.  When you have a player who can create situations from where none might otherwise exist the burden on the rest of the team to grind as much as they have is lessened considerably.  It is what many of us expect a player of the skill level of Marian Gaborik or Michael Del Zotto to do for the Rangers, but they have not been able to consistently do this season.  I do not want to put that kind of burden on a player making his National Hockey League debut to be the key to the offense or for the Rangers to change the system.  All I am saying is that in the right situations he provides options the Rangers have not had this season by what his combination of speed, hands, vision, passing can bring, but it is the way he handles the puck that shines brightest.

The shift from the AHL to the NHL will take another period of adjustment, but given the way he has shown himself over the last few months I have no doubt that given the opportunity he will make that step with the only question being the time the Rangers give him to do so.  The things he brings to the table warrant him getting every chance there is, but patience and consistency are not always high on the Rangers agenda.  It will also allow for the coaching staff to give him some level of freedom to play his game outside of the dump and chase type system they love to employ. 

Tonight we will see the debut of yet another talented young player in a Rangers sweater and for that it is no wonder the fans of this organization have hope for the future to a level they have not seen quite some time, but like all the others it will be up to Zuccarello to prove he can be what his skill level says is possible.  When you watch the combination of speed, vision, creativity, hands and defensive awareness that he brings to the ice you understand why the comparisons to Martin St. Louis were made when he came and not just for his size.  Those obviously are lofty comparisons and large shoes to fill and he certainly will not do it all in one night, but tonight will be the start of an NHL journey to establish his own legacy in this league with the man of which the comparisons are made on the other side of the ice.  So for the Frodo from Modo as like with any other Hobbit this is the next step in fulfilling his destiny.

Video: Mats Zuccarello Aasen Highlights

With the Norwegian Hobbit set to make his debut tonight for the Rangers figured some highlights Mats Zuccarello Aasen from his time in the SEL

2011 Winter Classic Promo Video