The Rangers improved to 3-1-0 in the preseason with tonight's 5-1 victory over the Detroit Red Wings at Madison Square Garden. Even though the Wings did not have some of their big guns in the lineup, this should still be looked at as a very hopeful sign for the Blueshirts. This was their most complete win and they did in a dominant fashion against a very skilled hockey club. More importantly, there were some major individual performances, especially from the players that are unsure if they will survive the final cuts or not.
The Rangers got things kick started early in this game when Marian Gaborik scored on the powerplay exactly one minute into the first period. You have to give Michal Rozsival credit on the play for drawing the Wings' entire defense towards him, opening a lane for Gaborik to take the shot. About three minutes later Sean Avery received a pass from Ruslan Fedotenko, which he threw on net from a sharp angle and happened to score. A big message from head coach John Tortorella this season is to shoot from anywhere and everywhere. Avery did it there and obviously it paid off.
Defenseman Mike Sauer also scored in the period when his wrister from the point banked off the post and in behind Howard, giving the Rangers a 3-0 lead over the Wings heading into the intermission. That was probably the best single period New York has played throughout the entire preseason, not only offensively, but defensively as well.
The second stanza, however, fell in favor of the Wings as their top guys tried to regain control of the tempo. Henrik Lundqvist stood strong, though, only allowing a single goal to Brian Rafalski, which was deflected by the stick of Michal Rozsival in front. The Wings held the lead in shots in that period, 14-9, but were unable to convert due to the outstanding netminding from Hank.
The Blueshirts widened the gap in the third, scoring two more goals and keeping the Wings from gaining on their lead. Derek Stepan had one of those goals, as he slammed a kick-pass from Fedotenko to the back of the net. You could tell Derek was amped up at that point based on his enthused double fist pump. It was the perfect thing for him to finish off an impressive performance.
The prettiest goal of the game, to me anyway, was Michael Del Zotto's. Michael and Alexander Frolov started a give-and-go in the neutral zone, which eventually ended up with Frolov feeding DZ with a cross-ice pass for the one-timer at the top of the circles. Plays like that normally are not easy to pull off, which is why you do not see them too often. But this particular one was executed perfectly and surely brought a smile to coach Tortorella's face.
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There is a whole list of individuals that played well tonight, so I am going to quickly run through the main ones that stood out to me. First up is rookie center Derek Stepan. Stepan was moved around the lineup a bit tonight, but primarily skated with Sean Avery and Fedotenko. Regardless of which line he was on, Derek showed some eye-opening individual efforts throughout the tilt. He is very creative when it comes to cutting from the outside to the slot and maintaining control of the puck. That is a hard skill to master but Stepan, showing confidence, pulled it off several times. In my eyes, he has made the team, and that would hold true if he scored that goal in the third or not.
Ruslan Fedotenko also had a great game. He is a player that was invited to training camp on a tryout basis and does not have a contract at the moment. He is a very smart passer, I have noticed, and his playmaking ability is what jumps out at me when I watch him play. Ruslan and Avery have apparently formed some chemistry with each other, so that could be a potential third line tandem for the season.
Speaking of Avery, he was on tonight. His confidence is booming right now, as you may have noticed based on the dekes he was whipping out. There was a shift in the first period where he juked a Red Wing in the neutral zone, came in and did a behind the back drop pass, and then later in the play put the puck through his legs as a self-pass to himself in the slot. Yes, that was Sean Avery out there, not Gaborik wearing his jersey. If Avery has the skill to pull off those moves I think he has been hiding a lot over the past few years. I think he is going to have a career year, personally.
Sticking with the forwards, I think the first line of Frolov - Christensen - Gaborik got better as the game progressed. At first they were misreading each other and looked sloppy. But by the third period their forecheck was in full swing and they were creating scoring chances left and right. All three skated strong and played some exciting hockey. We shall see if Tortorella elects to keep them together for Friday's game against the Senators.
On defense, the two youngsters ran the show. Mike Sauer and Pavel Valentenko both played very well and are making a case to stay with the team. Tortorella is going to have a very tough decision to make between these two because, in my opinion, there is only room for one of them if either happens to make it. They both play very physical and are crease clearing defenseman. It is hard for me to pick one, but I might have to go with Valentenko.
Oh yeah, I will be a man and admit that Sauer proved me completely wrong in my earlier piece saying there is not room for him on the team. He played much better than I expected tonight. Good for him.
Matt Gilroy had another flashy night. By that I mean he was very noticeable out there on both ends of the rink. I love what this kid brings to the team, and I do not know if I am being biased because he grew up playing at the same hockey rink as me, but I really want him on this team. I do not know what you guys think, but to me he has done everything Torts has asked of him. No doubt in my mind Matt is in the lineup come opening night.
And last but not least, good ol' Henrik Lundqvist. Hank returned to form in this game after hitting a rough patch on Saturday in New Jersey. A 35-save effort from the King helped the Blueshirts to victory, without a doubt, and we expect to see a lot more of that during the regular season. No word yet on if he will be playing Friday. I would think not.
Another round of cuts will be made tomorrow (Thursday) as the coaching staff works their way down to their regular season roster. I am going to predict that Todd White will be sent packing, because he has been invisible. He seems like a nice guy and all, but he has done absolutely nothing while with this team. The rest, really, is all up in the air.