Sunday, March 15, 2009

He Belongs In Blue. . .

The Home and Home:

I was lucky to attend both games of the home and home between the Flyers and Rangers this weekend. Luckier certainly it would seem to see today's game, as the entire Rangers team actually showed up to this one, but lucky nonetheless.

Without stepping too much into yesterday's game which was, at best, a half effort, where defensive irresponsibility abounded (just what, by the way, was Derek Morris doing on the Richards goal. If you watch the replay, there is a 2 to 2.5 second span of time where Morris stands in front of Hank staring at Richards allowing him to take not one, but two shots uncontested. I'm not saying it stops the goal, but you look foolish not trying to a) poke the puck away or b) go after the damn man), a good start with a nice goal by Antropov was allowed to waste away, and Avery was one of a handful of players that showed up ready to go.

In yesterday's game, the Flyers looked the bigger and the better team, hands down. And Biron had one of those games that make me think he's a legit goalie in this league. (He impressed me a lot in last year's playoffs, but I've more often than not given him more credit than others, even when he played behind Miller in Buffalo).

The highlight of yesterday's game for me came in the stands where the little boy sitting next to my friends and I at one point stopped, looked at my friend, and said in this quiet voice, "you are cheering for the Rangers?" He paused, "They suck." Our immediate reaction was tearful laughter. He just said it so adorably, and frankly, he did have a point. As my friend pointed out the Rangers couldn't seem to string more than one pass together at a time. I, sadly, was forced to tell her this was not a new thing.

Moving onto the bigger and better things of today's game and the point of this post.

Sean Avery is made for Manhattan. Made in the mold of and effective in this uniform. I will not go so far as to say there is a perfect athlete or a perfect player, but if there was ever a player where you said, he can only work there, that is his perfect match, that's Sean Avery and New York.

Granted, half of it might be because he, after having been here and been happy here, had this thought in the back of his mind all along that this is where he belonged and if he wasn't here, he wasn't going to be happy, effective Sean. Which on some level you can't even blame him for. We can all name athletes that just played better in one location over another in their careers.

(Although I'll pause for a moment and say, again, he did nothing on the ice in Dallas that was ineffective or selfish. Unfortunately it just never worked. Perhaps had Marty Turco started the season like he ended the last one, or the rest of the team scored a few more goals, it wouldn't have been a point to talk about at all. As it was...well you know the story. The experiment in Dallas failed, yes. But to say Sean Avery was the only thing that affected that team would be an injustice. I stand by that still).

So Sean comes back to the place he has proven he can play, and play he does. Whatever the connection is between the two, it has been a sight to see. From the first game back on Long Island, to his sixth game in Blue today, Sean has been one of the best players, if not THE best player in each game. He's scored goals in three consequtive games, including two on the powerplay today.

In the Rangers worst game of the stretch on the scoreboard, arguably Monday in Carolina, Sean was still one of the better players. (Blameless Valiquette was certainly the other).

In the Rangers best game of the stretch, arguably today, he did essentially everything right. He got himself in position to score two nice, clean goals. He agitated in a way that got the other team off their game. Minus having Richards skate around trying to rip his head off - no, you didn't miss that when the cameras cut away, as they did when Coburn tried to behead Antropov, ironically - it was reminiscent of the best games played two years ago in the playoffs when Avery so incited the Atlanta team that their best players lost focus of their priorities and made it a Sean Avery show.

That's exactly what happened today. We saw yesterday how good Philadelphia is. I don't see how they are not a better team than the Rangers are, in more than a few ways. And yet, today it was a completely different story and a completely different ending than yesterday.

Why? Because not only was Sean Avery, again, the best player. He made the rest of his team better today too.

It is a precious thing to have a player in any sport that makes the players around him better. And Sean Avery does that.

Goalies can carry teams, but they rarely make the team around them play better. At least not in the way I am implying.

Players, usually of the superstar nature - as we saw day in, day out, with Jaromir Jagr - can make those around them better.

Sean, certainly not a superstar in the way we know them, has that gift too. For two distinct and separate reasons.

For one, he's a legit player. He can skate better than just about anyone on the team. And I don't mean fast, although he is arguably one of the fastest as well. He's powerful. In his strides, in his direction, in his push. He gets to open ice to get to pucks. He puts pucks in great places. He works behind the net better than many I've seen. And he gets himself into great places to score. All these things work in sequence and make his linemates and his teammates around him better.

We've all seen the way Gomez has responded to playing with Avery. And Gomez couldn't play well with anyone, it seemed, for the longest time. As much as Gomez is a playmaker and his teammates can see the benefits from that, Avery is just as much able to make plays for his teammates. He really is. It seems no matter who he has played with, he makes the whole line look better.

And make no mistake, he is a smarter player than most will give him credit for. He really, really is.

The second reason is one of my personal opinion. Those may agree or disagree, but I think there is, at best, some level of truth to it.

Surely, not everyone on this team loved Sean Avery or wanted him back. They might, and I mean this nicely, not view this stick of dynamite, as welcomed on their nice, little, calm team. They might, perhaps, view him as less of a hockey player because he is not, was not, and will never be, just another quiet kid from Ontario who plays the game typical or stand up.

That's not Sean.

So I suspect, for that reason, and just because he is who he is, that he without even asking them to do so, pushes his teammates to be better BECAUSE they don't want him to be the one that stands out. And I mean stands out in a GOOD way.

The Rangers this year have lacked effort. Lacked cohesiveness. Lacked backbone. Lacked drive and, with the exception of a few, lacked the ability to make us believe they cared when they won and cared when they lost. They were many more times to count, shadows of themselves, skating lifelessly, moving tiredly, and bored in both action and explaination.

Now how would it look if Sean Avery cared more than everyone else (minus the goalies) on this team? How would it look if he tried the hardest? Skated the hardest? Shot the most? Scored the most? How would that look really?

On a team with Jaromir Jagr and Brendan Shanahan, Avery would never be that guy.

On a team without marquee superstars and legendary leaders like those men that command respect, Sean Avery could easily be that guy.

I mean no disrespect towards my favorite team in saying that, but the fact remains that after painful losses this team looked like they'd rather be anywhere else. Hell, often during the painful losses they'd already look that way.

Sean is one of those players that is incapable of looking like he doesn't try and he doesn't care. Even if he or the result is not perfect. That's just not the way he works.

So I'm of the believe that some players - not all, but some - have been and will continue to respond with better efforts on ice. Not just because Sean may directly make them play better, but because they are being pushed by something inside that he tugs at, something that makes them want to play better than they have been. Even if only to save some of their own sense of pride.

Harsh? Perhaps. But regardless of whether I am the only one that feels that way or not, I think more people than not will agree that the Rangers since Sean Avery's arrival have been anything but vanilla, anything but indifferent, and four times out of the six games, a hell of a lot of fun to watch.

The Rangers might not get to the playoffs because of reasons both in and beyond their control.

But they will not miss the playoffs for a lack of effort from Sean Avery.

Avery simply belongs in blue.

Around the League


In the desert on Saturday night, one more than a handful of guys made their home debut. I didn't watch all the game because I was exhausted, but in what I saw, they continued to look in sync. They can't seem to score, unfortunately, and with 18 shots they didn't really go out of their way to test Pekka Rinne. But they are trying. The game was scoreless for just about half. And Nashville, a team fighting for it's playoff life, finally got a goal to break the stalemate. The second one was an empty netter.

In the "Watch Your Gum Tom" moment of the night, Petr Prucha again saw time on the penalty kill. That's right, folks. The man that couldn't even crack the lineup in New York is playing every role imaginably for Gretzky's team in Phoenix. Powerplay time and 2:11 on the PK, where he looked good.

Perhaps it is the weight of tension lifted from his shoulders, but I am seeing a confident and better player emerge, even in this short time. I do not mean to imply that he did not look good in his limited opportunities this year, but it became clear to me last night that Prucha looks much more confident in all aspects of his game. Skating with the puck, passing, positioning. Everything. And I think that's due not only to more ice time, but what is quite obviously a genuine sense of trust. A trust that he is being looked at and taken care of, and being used in situations where he was not previously given a chance. His confidence shows more with each passing game, even if the results are not there yet. And as fans of him, we can all be happy to see him playing that way again.

I know I am.

Lastly, I was expecting the home Phoenix broadcast, but I actually enjoyed what I saw of Nashville's tandem. They weren't biased. And it was, minus a few corny moments, a clean and pleasant broadcast.

Brodeur Watch

Yes, as most of us would have bet on if we were of the betting kind, Marty Brodeur went into Montreal, his hometown, and won the game versus the Habs, tying him with Patrick Roy for all time wins by a goalie.

Not as expected was the standing ovation for the goalie, especially considering the dire state of their own beloved team right now.

That makes it all the more classy.

Where Are They Now. . .?:

I unfortunately don't have time to realy do the Where Are They Now segment in full form right now. Perhaps next year I'll find the most effective way to do modify it. For now, I'll only show the surprising or substantial ones.

The surprise of the last week, one time Ranger Jamie Lundmark, still up from Tri-City, on Thursday night scored not one, but two, goals (3,4)in Calgary's 6-5 shootout win over the Flames.

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