Sunday, December 16, 2007

Wayne Gretzky's Phoenix Coyotes arrive in New York City to face Rangers

This is a game I've personally been looking forward to all season. Unfortunately due to a bad cold I've been battling for at least five days now, I've had to cancel plans to see in person the Phoenix Coyotes here in the metropolitan area for the first time in five years.

That's how long it has been since the Desert Dogs have been in town. With the current unbalanced game schedule format that will end at the conclusion of this season, fans will see this exciting and young hockey team more often in the years to come.

The Coyotes arrived on the East Coast on Wednesday to continue their six-game road trip and have taken two of the first three so far. In their tour through the metropolitan area, they lost 3-2 on Long Island as Bill Guerin scored twice for the New York Islanders. Simply not a pretty game for Phoenix.

Yesterday afternoon was a great 4-1 bounce back victory in New Jersey as the scoring line of Fredrik Sjostrom, Martin Hanzal and Radim Vrbata have really been clicking of late. Hanzal had big day with 1 goal and 3 assists to his credit. Hanzal put the game out of reach with a sweet breakaway shorthanded goal past future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur. Vrbata had 1 goal and 2 assists while Sjostrom scored the other two Phoenix goals. The Coyotes simply took advantage of the Devils poor discipline as they were called for 10 penalties (one being a fighting major), but were only able to capitalize once on nine power plays. Mikael Tellqvist got a rare start in net and stopped 30 of 31 shots for the win.

Now the Phoenix Coyotes head to Madison Square Garden to face the New York Rangers in another afternoon contest, their first visit since October 28, 2002. To me, that's far too long! Plenty has been written by the hockey media in both New York City and Phoenix, primarily because Wayne Gretzky will be making his first appearance at the "World's Most Famous Arena" as an NHL coach and since he retired as a player on April 18, 1999. Phoenix Coyotes official web site writer Heath Price-Khan put together a nice feature story three days ago called "My First Game at MSG" to provide a nice perspective of Gretzky's anticipated return to a place where he spent his final three seasons in a Rangers uniform. Even more good coverage was posted at the team web site with a Coyotes TV feature called "Coyotes visit the Garden", where Gretzky was interviewed and more importantly many of the Coyotes players who will be playing at the Garden for the very first time. And yes, they're very excited, too.

Making me chuckle a bit is what Gretzky said to New York Daily News Rangers beat writer John Dellapina yesterday. It is in reference to how current Rangers captain Jaromir Jagr spoiled his final game by scoring the game-winning overtime goal for a 2-1 Pittsburgh Penguins victory that day.

"Maybe it was fitting that the best young player in the game scored the goal in overtime," Gretzky said of Jagr. "Everyone always talks about passing torches and all that stuff. He caught it. That's what I told him after the game. I said, 'You caught it.' I'm happy for Jaromir."

Okay, maybe that wasn't the part that made me laugh. It was when Gretzky said with a big grin, "Yeah, Jagr's still there" in his off-ice press conference at the Nassau Coliseum on Thursday as noted in Steve Zipay's article in Long Island Newsday. You have to see the video clip for that (it's about halfway through it).

To my pleasant surprise, there were additional articles among the local newspapers in the New York City metropolitan area that not only talked about Gretzky, but acknowledged the ray of hope for the Phoenix Coyotes as a franchise. This would be where their future finally appears bright with some hungry and talented young players they want to build around captain Shane Doan. Sam Weinman of The Journal News (located in White Plains, New York) wrote yesterday that Gretzky is trying to find a winning forumla as the Coyotes head coach. Weinman even put a nice angle on his story about whether #99 ever thought he'd be an NHL coach after he retired as a player.

"I could guarantee you I'd have laughed at you," Gretzky told Weinman in an interview. "But you know what? You never know in life. I love the game, and the next best thing to playing is coaching, and I've got a good young group of players here so it's been a lot of fun."

New York Times writer Lew Serviss even made a trip out to Phoenix earlier in the week before the Coyotes traveled here and put together his own feature story on Gretzky's plans to make his team a high competitive one in the years to come. Gretzky's passion and determination to get through this tough period in the Coyotes franchise by taking his lumps now and seeing things through will pay off.

"Hey listen, when I started, I told my players the very first day three years ago, I don’t know any other way," Gretzky said to Serviss. "To be successful in anything you do, you got to have passion and you got to have emotion. And, yes, when I was a player I was an emotional player, and now as a coach I'm an emotional coach. But through the two years plus that I’ve coached now, I've changed in a lot of ways, and one of those is that my emotions are more in check in a sense that I got a young team now."

In addition to Gretzky, other current members of the Coyotes organization with Rangers connections that will be at the game include general manager Don Maloney (former Rangers assistant GM), associate coach Ulf Samuelsson (former Rangers defenseman) and forward Mike York who began his career with the Rangers. I expect Gretzky to get a standing ovation in the event he is introduced to the Madison Square Garden crowd later today. Maloney offered his thoughts to Arizona Republic writer Jim Gintonio on today's game.

"The Garden is unique. They show up if you're winning or losing. I always thought Ranger fans enjoyed booing as much as cheering, but the fans have been great to that team since the lockout. They're knowledgeable; they know if you're giving an effort and when you're not."

With the opening faceoff approaching, Rangers head coach Tom Renney has had three days off to prepare for the Coyotes, who are 9-8 on the road this season. Coming off a bitter 5-4 overtime loss in Washington on Wednesday night, he talked about what he accomplished with his team while Phoenix played against the other two metropolitan area teams.

"We've worked on some important concepts, and we've worked hard, there's no doubt about that," Renney told Jim Cerny of "We've done a couple real important things on ice that I think will help us moving forward."

At the same time, Rangers starting goaltender Henrik Lundqvist and forward Marcel Hossa have been suffering from the flu the past few days while Jagr has nursing a bad back. While Jagr is expected to play, Hossa and Lundqvist will be reevaluated before the start of the game to determine if they'll play. It is possible that Steve Valiquette may start if Lundqvist is unable to go. There is no word on whether or not the Rangers will call up goaltender Al Montoya from the Hartford Wolf Pack of the American Hockey League to back up Valiquette should that scenario unfold. But Renney stated it is likely Lundqvist will still dress even if he doesn't play.

Over the course of this week, I realized that hockey fans in Phoenix will not able to see today's game locally as the Coyotes won't be televising it. They didn't yesterday either with Phoenix's win against the Devils. I find all this outrageous to say the least. One would think that instead of showing daytime infomercials, FSN Arizona would have put at the very least the Rangers game on their television schedule. While it is too late for fans to lobby the team or the networks in Phoenix to put the game on local television, hopefully that will change next season when intriguing matchups such as today's matchup don't get overlooked. For fans here in the New York City metropolitan area, they will get to watch the game on WWOR-TV. It is the second of two Rangers games to appear on the local broadcast station, the first time this is happening since 1989. The good news is if the blackout restrictions are lifted in Phoenix, those with NHL Center Ice subscriptions can access the Rangers TV feed at their local bar, their friend's house or maybe where another member of their family lives. Just say, "hey, it's the Christmas season!" and perhaps they'll have a heart to let you watch.

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