Tonight's match-up between the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils certainly did not feel like a preseason game that had absolutely no meaning in the standings. Instead, it had the intensity and atmosphere of a contest we would expect to be watching in October or November. What does that say? Well, each team entered the game in tremendous shape and performed as if it was mid-season. It was a routine Rangers - Devils match-up, especially since it took overtime to decide it. But besides all of this, there are a lot of positives to pull out of it for the Blueshirts.
Brian Boyle and Adam Mair set the tempo for the night, dropping the gloves in front of the benches just 4:45 into the first period. From there the speed of the game picked up and each club was getting their chances. The Rangers had plenty of those, going on the powerplay three times in the first alone. The top offensive line for New York took advantage by scoring a pretty goal to gain the lead. Derek Stepan first collected a rebound from behind the net. He then protected the puck while moving into the slot, where he blindly passed it to Alex Frolov. Frolov wasted no time getting it across the crease to Marian Gaborik, who was just waiting to bang it home.
The Devils responded to that, though, when Travis Zajac rifled a drop-pass from Ilya Kovalchuk over the shoulder of Martin Biron. The fast paced period ended in a tie, despite the Rangers outshooting their rivals, 16-9.
The sloppy play in the defensive zone continued for the Devils in the second period. At 5:15, Alexander Frolov capitalized on a turnover in the slot by sending Marty Brodeur on a ride with a whirlwind of dekes that gave his team a 2-1 advantage. Not surprisingly, New Jersey came fighting back just seven minutes later when Kovalchuk finished a breakaway-igniting pass from Parise to tie things at 2. Shortly after, Brian Boyle showed his speed when making a strong move off the boards and snuck one through the legs of Brodeur. That one had to of grabbed the attention of head coach John Tortorella. Towards the end of the period Brandon Prust and Brandon Mills squared off in an entertaining exchange of fists that lasted at least a minute.
Replacing Marty Biron in the third stanza was Chad Johnson. For the most part, the youngster played well, but allowed a lousy goal to Parise with just a 1:30 remaining in regulation time. In typical Rangers-Devils fashion, we headed to overtime where Marian Gaborik's snipe from the top of the slot won the game for the Blueshirts, 4-3. Good call by John Tortorella to throw five forwards out for that powerplay in OT. It paid off nicely.
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Okay so there are obviously a lot of positives to take out of this game for the Rangers. The first player I would like to discuss is Derek Stepan. Stepan, to me, brought life to every offensive line he was placed on tonight. The rookie finished the tilt with one assist, but with the way he was playing easily could have had four or five. His puck movement was amazing and for him to keep up with the pace of Gaborik and Frolov was very impressive. He was reliable on offense and defense and showed his abilities on both sides of the puck. If he continues to play like this there is no doubt in my mind he earns a roster spot out of training camp.
Also impressive on offense was Alex Frolov, who had three points tonight. Alex was more noticeable than I thought he would be, in all honesty, and that is a good thing. He is very strong with the puck and similar to Jaromir Jagr, knows how to protect it and make it hard for a defensemen to steal it from him. Frolov played nicely with Gaborik, but he is a player who I think can make things happen no matter who is skating alongside him.
Mats Zuccarello-Aasen got thrown around a bit, which was expected coming in. However, it did not slow the speedy winger down at all. Although he was dumped every other shift, Zuccarello bounced right back up and found the puck immediately. I have not seen many players that can control the puck AND move as fast as Mats does. Those little legs of his know how to move, and surprisingly, help him avoid being hit by some of the bigger bodies out there. He was all over the place tonight.
Ruslan Fedotenko, well, not so much. I was not impressed at all with what he did out there, which was not much. To be honest I think he is losing steam overall as he gets older, because he was sluggish out there and could not keep up. I doubt Torts will be keeping him around for too long. Also a disappointment to me was Erik Christensen. I expected more out of him, but he was not noticeable all that much.
I did like the "Big Boys" line consisting of Dale Weise, Derk Boogaard and Brian Boyle. Those three skate around like giants, which is very intimidating for the opposition. Not sure what Torts' plans are for the fourth line, but it would not be such a bad idea to keep that trio intact.
Marian Gaborik was his usual self, as was Brandon Dubinsky. Both were flying around the rink, creating chances left and right. Gaborik, especially, made some eye-opening passes to generate scoring opportunities, in addition to his two goals. I'd say he is good for another 42 this season, eh?
On defense, the standout players to me were Marc Staal, Ryan McDonagh,
Michal Rozsival and Mike Sauer. Girardi and Semenov were quiet for most of the night, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. Staal was joining the rush a lot more, which is always good to see. McDonagh is ridiculously strong, as you saw when he dumped a Devil player by shoving him effortlessly with one hand. Mike Sauer was also very physical, using the body every chance he had. And Rozsival, I felt, made some great defensive plays. Remember, he had an atrocious preseason last year, so I am happy to see him come out on top of things this time around.
And last but not least, Martin Biron was spectacular between the pipes. He was not tested much, and the two goals that did get by him he had no chance of stopping, but he made some fabulous saves at key points in the game. Marty was very sharp and if tonight is any hint as to how he will be throughout the season, I am excited to have him on the squad as Henrik's back-up. Good stuff.
The Rangers will be back at it on Saturday night when they faceoff with the Devils again, but this time at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey.
One last thing: BIG thanks to everyone who participated in the game thread tonight. The number of comments in it was phenomenal. You guys are awesome!