The ever-perceptive Lynn Zinser of the Times noted this ominous sign on one of the Garden scoreboards hours before the opening faceoff:
Capitals 5, Rangers 3
Do they know something we don’t? Probably not. But it does serve as a fitting segue into one of my new working theories, that the Rangers are better equipped to play sound, defensive hockey on the road than at home.
The numbers don’t necessarily back my theory up when you consider that two of the team’s worst defensive games were in New Jersey and in Montreal. But that doesn’t change the fact that the Rangers usually—and especially last week out West—are usually content to keep the game simple in opposing buildings. In hockey, they call this playing a “good road game,” which sources tell me, you can only play on the road.
But if the Rangers are going to be a dangerous team over the balance of the season, they need to eliminate some of the disjointed, disconnected play that has crept into their game in lots of buildings, but most noticeably at the Garden.
“It’s not about putting on a show or doing extraordinary things,” Tom Renney said “It is about detail and being sound with and without the puck and managing our game. Our tendency has been we’ve been able to do that better on road. But it doesn’t mean we can’t get it back and place the priorities where they belong.”
Now, a related aside here: a lot of fans and even members of the media will say that the Rangers emphasis on defensive hockey—in which they’re happy to win games 2-1—makes them exceptionally boring. By contrast, those same people will say that 8-5 loss at the Prudential Center a few weeks back was one of the most entertaining games of the year.
I say pick your poison. As much as I’m a believer that the game is at its most exciting when two teams are trading chances at opposite ends of the rink—it actually doesn’t even matter if they score—I’m also of the belief that a team playing meaningful games in late wing and early spring is far more entertaining than one that already is out of the playoff picture.
And that’s the dilemna for the Rangers: if they every really try to open it up, they’re doomed. As this team is currently constructed, it doen’t have the personnel to regularly beat teams 6-5, and as Henrik Lundqvist has shown the past few weeks, even he is vulnerable if left to fend for himself.
There’s a middle ground in there somewhere, and it’s what the Rangers have been shooting for all season—games in which they shut down teams defensively and then create chances in transition. It sounds great in theory. The hard part has been actually making it happen.
Update, end of first period: So much for my theory, because the Rangers have been giving the puck away in every way imaginable and still have a 3-0 lead. It doesn’t hurt that Jose Theodore was apparently asleep for the first 10 minutes of the game, or that Washington is missing most of its other big guns. Either way, the score is at least a little deceptive.