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Blog: Slap Shots
Let’s get this out of the way right up top.
If the Rangers are as careless with the puck and then in getting back on defense after they turn it over as they were through last night’s 4-1 defeat to the Sabres at Madison Square Garden, it won’t matter one whit where they finish in the standings or who they meet in the first round, because that kind of hockey is guaranteed to result in early playoff elimination.
At the same time, let us also acknowledge that while last night may have marked an extreme departure from the baseline the Rangers established through the guts of the year, the team has been treading water for more than a month in winning only eight of the last 17 games (8-7-2), beginning with the 2-0 defeat to the Penguins in Pittsburgh on Feb. 21 that has become the season’s fulcrum for both clubs.
A combination of goaltending and guts has formed the foundation of the Rangers’ success and while there are still plenty of both to go around, they enter tonight’s match in Toronto in a state of disarray up front after scoring 10 goals in the last five games and their line combinations a mystery.
It will fall to John Tortorella over the final eight games to identify his top six forwards and then divide them into productive units. The coach took the first step in the third period by constructing lines of Derek Stepan-Brad Richards-Marian Gaborik and Brandon Dubinsky-Artem Anisimov-Ryan Callahan while dropping Carl Hagelin out of the rotation.
Except for the odd shift, this marked the first time since the seventh game of the season, Oct. 24 in Winnipeg, that Stepan moved out of his natural pivot position onto the wing.
The final period of the final game of this seven-game homestand also marked the first time since that final game of the season-opening road trip that Tortorella reunited the Dubinsky-Anisimov-Callahan unit that was a 2010-11 staple.
The Rangers enjoyed their greatest success this season when Stepan centered Gaborik and Anisimov through nearly all of November and December while Richards played with myriad combinations, but almost always with Callahan on his right.
“I’m not sure what I’m going to do with the lines,” Tortorella said. “We’re just not getting a big offensive play right now.”
The Rangers got a plethora of big plays from the Richards-Gaborik-Hagelin line early in the homestand; the three forwards recording all six of the team’s goals in consecutive games against the Hurricanes and Penguins.
But they failed to produce a goal the next four games before Tortorella shuffled things after the 40-minute mark, and also after Mats Zuccarello sustained a fractured left wrist blocking a shot midway through the first period.
“I don’t think all three of us have been going at the same time,” Richards said. “I think it’s been a one on, two off kind of thing where we were playing more as individuals.
“I think there were some shifts where we did have good jump and create chances but we got away a little bit from the fundamentals that are necessary to succeed. I think we need to recognize as a team that we can’t get away from our structure.”
The third period’s top six forwards are almost certain to remain in place for the foreseeable future. The question is in what order.
“I don’t know what to expect,” said Richards. “It’s all about results.”
Rangers, John Tortorella, Tortorella, Derek Stepan-Brad Richards-Marian Gaborik, Larry BrooksFollow Larry, Madison Square Garden, Brandon Dubinsky-Artem Anisimov-Ryan Callahan, Mats Zuccarello