Sunday, March 22, 2009

Rangers/Sabres Wrap, My Steven McDonald Vote, and Around the League. . .

To start, a quick wrap of last night's affair at the Garden.

I felt, and many would agree, it was a must win game for Buffalo. They couldn't afford to fall too far in the standings, especially with how close everything has been. Only the top teams have assurance of making the playoffs. For everyone else, it's another season of claw and grab.

The Rangers didn't let that happen. With their fourth win in a row at MSG, they hit a season high. They came on strong to start, and despite owning a 4-1 lead at one point, made it interesting towards the end. But, good teams, they say, find a way to win in the end.

Since the Rangers started scoring four goals or more (7 out of the last 11 games), their win totals have gone up, not at all surprisingly. It is still, weeks into Tortorella's regime, surprising me to see what a completely different team we have been blessed with.

It's amazing what a system - the right system - can do.

Hank has not been perfect, at times far from it, but in the new system he hasn't had to be. I see the visible relief on his face.

Gomez's game has improved and his gaffs that used to be a constant, are now much more infrequent.

Antropov has done nothing but impress me. I am not sure if it's a release from being in a new city, but this guy has, so far, done everything and more in his short tenure with the Rangers. A big guy that was very much needed. It's amazing. Add one guy that's 6'6" and the rest of the team doesn't look so small anymore.

Or perhaps that's just because they are no longer playing like it.

Drury was finally able to score a goal against his former team, and now leads the Rangers with 9 powerplay goals.

Staal, who impressed me from day one of the season and had less than a handful of off games this year, is looking like a marvel. I got such insane pleasure out of watching him join the rush last night. It made me think that it was possible for the Rangers to have a real honest to goodness two-way defenseman again. A guy who was superb in his own end, but who could contribute offensively. If early indications are correct, he can be that guy.

The team is fun to watch again. No, they are not perfect, and there are still going to be major problems - both financially and on ice - in the months and seasons to come. But it felt great going into this weekend to be so excited for not one, but two, games at the Garden.

Thanks for giving us our team back, for the time being at least.

My Extra Effort Award Winner:

Ryan Callahan.

Not for the two goals last night, on his 24th birthday. Not at all.

But for the fact that he is one of perhaps only three - three - players on this team to have played the game with the same exact attitude and energy - the right attitude and the right energy - since game one this season. If this guy took a night off, I didn't see it. Whether he scored goals - and he now has 19 on the season, up over 10 from his career high - or made plays, he was always in the game. He was the first person to set the tone with a big hit. He'd scrap with someone if necessary.

His linemates may have been switched around constantly, and he may have played on every line this season, but his attitude and work ethic never wavered. He is a great team guy and someone I always noticed and respected on this team.

Why him? Why Extra Effort?

I'm still, and I alluded to this before, holding true to the true meaning of Extra Effort in my mind. The guy that went ABOVE AND BEYOND the call of duty.

To me, the highest paid, or the best players, should be the best players. You expect that from them. That is a given. Granted the two have not been connected very much this year on the Rangers - the best and the highest paid - but let's not go there.

My point is, I don't look at the Extra Effort Award winner as a Team MVP award. I don't think that was the original intention. People are allowed to vote for whomever they want, and they should, but I personally don't see it that way.

I think of it as an award for the guy that does what is NOT expected of him. The guy that steps up and does good for the team in all capacities. Sticking up for teammates. Creating energy and enthusiasm from the fans. And being a good and responsible player.

He doesn't have to be your leading goal scorer. In fact, he probably shouldn't be. He's just the guy taking everything he has and making you take notice.

That's why guys like Adam Graves, Sandy McCarthy, and Jed Ortmeyer won the award. They did more than what was expected from them. They were guys giving extra, and giving it all the time.

Ryan Callahan is very much in that same mold. He's a really solid hockey player and has come up with career totals this year, but no one expected him to be that guy. The goals - those are nice, but those are a bonus. No one is asking Ryan Callahan to score 19 goals.

That happened as a result of his never say no attitude for going to the net, going to the corners, being in the right spot, and playing with his head up.

The Rangers have a few more guys as of late that are playing with energy and enthusiams, joy for a game we all love. But Ryan Callahan did that each and every game, even in the very, very bad ones.

Ryan Callahan for Extra Effort. The guy truly has gone above and beyond.

Around the League:

Forgive me that I'm still not getting around to the Coyotes quotes that I promised earlier in the week. It's been another busy one. They will come eventually.

In other Saturday action, THE game to watch was Montreal/Toronto. Granted, I did not watch because I was at the Garden, but I got the score update and when it was 3-0 Toronto, I took a breath and thought about those in Montreal.

Here's my personal opinion. As a hockey fan and a fan of all that is great in hockey, I would surely have loved to see the Montreal Canadiens make the playoffs, in this, their 100th season. I know all of Montreal wanted the same thing.

But, as was the case when Montreal played Boston in the opening round of last year's playoffs, I was forced to face reality. Whoever the better team is, they should be the team moving forward. It doesn't always work that way - I honestly think Boston was the better team in that series - but most of the time the water levels out.

If Montreal does not make the playoffs this year, it is because they just weren't good enough. It will be a shame for their fans and for the city, but it has to be that way.

I've listen to debates rage on the Team990 and on HNIC for months now, about everything from a lack of passion, the necessity for franchophone coaches, incidents of inpropriety with those with mob connections to the never ending saga of Alex Kovalev. I've listened to it all.

My personal advice. If the Habs make the playoffs, fine. But if they do not, everyone in that organization needs to take a gut check. Granted, the team stands to be a different team anyway next fall because of free agency and contract expirations, but whoever is left has to take that time. That time to see what pieces belong, those that are not needed, and what they want from this team.

Do they want to be a team that has to have a franchophone coach and players from Quebec, even if another coach or another player is better? Do they want a team that has leaders that the players can emulate, as PJ Stock brought up on Friday's show?

They are the Montreal Canadiens. They should want to be the best hockey team in the league. With players who understand that. A key group of leaders, but more importantly, a group of guys who take TRUE pride in the sweater. A group of guys that even if they are not the best, will take every effort night in and night out to be the best, so that even the fans can say, yes, they gave their all.

True, in Montreal, the city where the team is disected by each and every person in the media and on the streets, such things are hard. But all the more reason for the management - whoever that may be going forward - to make sure they have the right group of players in that locker room. The right mix with the right attitude. If ever a player on a team needed a rock solid attitude to do their jobs it is for that team, in that city.

I am not sure what quite changed with Montreal from last year to this. I thought they would be among the best in the east. They don't have too many more games to figure it out.

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