Sunday, February 24, 2008

Rangers' epic collapse in Montreal sums up their season so far

The headline to this blog entry may come with a little bit of bias and that's a scarcely rare instance when I'm writing on here about the National Hockey League, not solely about any one team.

While this doesn't happen with regularity, Tuesday night's game between the New York Rangers and Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre can sum up a lot of things.

One is very easy to conclude. Never stop playing until the final horn sounds. And I mean NEVER.

Two would be to never be overconfident. The cruel dose of reality will cause you great pain. See the New England Patriots.

And three, you will never be a championship-calibre team (how about even just a playoff team) if you suffer the kind of epic collapse the New York Rangers did in Montreal on this night, a possible season backbreaking 6-5 shootout loss.

Entering Tuesday, the Rangers were coming off two impressive home wins by defeating a surging Buffalo Sabres team whom they faced again last night and against at the time the NHL's best road team in the San Jose Sharks. It seemed that they were poised to bring that mometum north of the border and continue a climb up the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference standings. They were set to play a team that they had been very successful against by winning the first three meetings.

But the Canadiens seemed to have more to play for from their own perspective. On top of looking to avenge a 5-3 defeat on February 3rd in which the Rangers rallied from 3-0 down to win on that Super Bowl Sunday afternoon, Montreal wanted to fend off New York in inching closer to within four points of their fourth place seeding in the conference standings. The top four seeds get home ice advantage in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs and despite the postseason not set to begin until April 9th, the Canadiens are looking at the big picture.

Montreal coach Guy Carbonneau decided to start their prized 20-year-old future regular starting goaltender Carey Price, someone that had won his last three decisions including two of them against the slumping Philadelphia Flyers. Price had earned last week's NHL Third Star of the week honors for his brillant play by also posting one shutout among the three wins, a .963 save percentage and 1.32 goals-against-average in that span.

But New York jumped on Montreal early and often as Brandon Dubinsky and Sean Avery each scored a goal and netted an assist just 14 seconds apart for an early 2-0 lead. With ex-Ranger Alexei Kovalev in the penalty box for the second time just just over three minutes, Brendan Shanahan scored the first of his two power play goals on the night and that led to Carbonneau taking Price out of the game in favor of Cristobal Huet just 13:56 into the game. The Rangers were then ahead 3-0 as they chased Price out by scoring three times on just 11 shots. Late in the period, Montreal's own version to Avery as a pest in Long Island native Mike Komisarek had roughed up Dubinsky along the backboards of the Rangers' offensive zone and the two squared off in a fight.

Knowing what happened 16 days earlier in which Komisarek was excessively physical with Jaromir Jagr, Dubinsky was quoted in Tuesday's New York Daily News in which he said that he'd personally stand up to Komisarek if he tried to do it again.

"I'm definitely going to be physical on him. I'm not going to let him off the hook ever," Dubinsky said of Komisarek. "I can't say if anything's going to happen. But he's definitely going to be hearing it from me if he's taking any liberties or cheap shots. That's for sure."

It did happen and while Komisarek clearly had the upper hand in the fight, many can conclude that Dubinsky has guts, especially in not backing down against anybody that includes those that have a size advantage. It shows the kind of character any coach would want of a player like Dubinsky to be on their team.

The Rangers' chances of completing a season sweep over the Canadiens seemingly was all but completely locked up as Shanahan and Chris Drury each scored their 20th goal of the season during a key four-minute power play to make it 5-0 with 14:57 remaining in the second period. Shanahan's second goal marked the 19th straight season he has scored 20. New York was able to take full advantage of a double minor assessed to another native Long Islander in Christopher Higgins, penalized for inflicting a cut with a high stick to the nose of Rangers defenseman Michal Rozsival.

Little did anyone watching this game know what was going to happen next.

Michael Ryder would score twice in 3:34 to not only get Montreal on the scoreboard, but back within striking distance to make it a 5-2 hockey game heading into the second intermission. Rangers head coach Tom Renney had called a timeout to try getting his team to regroup, but it didn't seem to work.

But before the second period ended, the over-aggressive Komisarek was called for two more penalties, a roughing penalty with exactly five minutes to go and then 2:24 later received a high sticking call for shoving Paul Mara in the head with his stick after he legally checked him into the sideboards.

After that call was made, already agitated Canadiens fans began to litter the ice with food garbage, water bottles and promotion posters. Many including myself would find their actions to be a disgraceful act on their part, another on the history list of instances where fans in Montreal overstepped the bounds of reasonable behavior. Remember when Montrealers loudly booed the American national anthem a few years ago? The Canadiens as an organization were so embarrassed by that, they issued an apology for their fans' actions. Even though the archrival Islanders were the Canadiens' opponent that night, the Rangers were no strangers to being the guest at a game in which poor fan behavior occurred. During the Quebec Nordiques' final home game ever played in Quebec City in which the Rangers ultimately prevailed in their 1995 opening playoff series, food garbage was also thrown onto the ice at Colisee Pepsi. Viewers got a nice look at the evidence as one of the FOX Sports cameras zoomed in on a spilt cup of soda on the ice.

Just as the Rangers quickly struck in the first period with a pair of goals to start the game, the Canadiens would answer in the third period in even more impressive action. In believing as an observer that even a 5-2 third period lead was still comfortable in today's NHL, one would think that with a 20-2 record this season when leading after two periods. You would think that record would be an indicator the Rangers were favored to pull this victory out. Obviously not on this night.

"We stopped playing," Shanahan told John Dellapina of the New York Daily News. "We're guilty of that. And we learned a valuable lesson that really we haven't dealt with too often this year. We've been a very good third-period team and a very good team with the lead."

Kovalev opened the third period scoring and before you can blink, right off the center ice faceoff, Ryder surprised Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist with a screaming shot from high between the faceoff circles for what was thought to be a natural hat trick nine seconds later, but the puck hit Mark Streit among bodies in the low slot off his right leg and into the net. New York was only up 5-4 with 13:08 left in regulation play. The passionate sellout crowd of 21,273 inside Bell Centre was really loud by this point. How could it not?

One can debate this until they're blue in the face, but Lundqvist's game was definitely thrown off as Montreal made their storied comeback.

"I just tried to battle, after the fourth one," Lundqvist said to Steve Zipay of Long Island Newsday. "There were just players and pucks everywhere."

The crowd wasn't just fired up by the penalties late in the second period, they were energized. The Rangers played right into their hands as Marek Malik took a pivotal holding penalty with 5:38 left and the Canadiens clearly outplaying them with especially their superior speed. They sensed this comeback thanks to Ryder's heroics and when Kovalev burned his old team once again with the game-tying power play goal with 4:22 to go off a one-timing pass from Andrei Kostitsyn. The crowd was deafening by this point.

"When I was laying down, I could see that there was nobody sitting," Kovalev said to Pat Hickey of the Montreal Gazette after the game. "It's unbelievable. The fans have always been great to me. It definitely makes you give more back and I'm trying to play as hard as I can for them. A game like this, we just had to keep playing and you never know what will happen."

New York had their five-goal lead completely wiped out and without that timeout already used, they had no choice but to at least get the game to overtime, earn at least one point and try to get the win. But it wasn't meant to be.

Huet would not allow the Rangers to score from this point forward as the biggest among his 20 saves in the game would come in a very intense overtime period. After Lundqvist made a big stop on Andrei Markov 30 seconds in, Huet stacked his pads to rob Martin Straka on a chance to win the game three minutes later. Additionally, Huet survived a scare with Scott Gomez nearly redirecting home a lead pass from Shanahan that was even closer to a winning goal from point blank range. Instead, the puck sailed just wide of the right post and two teams survived to send this memorable game to a shootout.

With Huet even more clutch here as he denied Shanahan and Drury in their shootout attempts, it was Montreal captain Saku Koivu who scored the eventual winning goal by beating Lundqvist on a nice deke and tucked the puck between the left post and Lundqvist's right skate. The Bell Centre crowd was then sent into a frenzy after Huet denied Jagr on the Rangers' final shot and the amazing comeback was complete for the Canadiens in their 6-5 victory.

The moment the outcome was decided, you cannot begin to fathom the complete opposite feelings each team and the fans had on this game. But it was even polar opposites as team records were set for each side. As it turned out, with the franchise celebrating its centennial next season, never before had the Montreal Canadiens (33-28) rallied from a five goals behind to win a regular season game. Remember, in the 99 years of their existence even dating back to their pre-NHL days, that was true. It made it genuinely historic for long-time Canadiens fans and had the country of Canada buzzing over this successful comeback. It derailed New York's attempt at their first season sweep over Montreal in six years.

Can you imagine that if you took away their 1994 Stanley Cup championship, the Rangers would be one of the most snakebitten franchises in professional sports with a 67-year drought and counting. The 1940 chants inside rival rinks would be louder today. But as that one fan sign read at Madison Square Garden on that memorable June 14, 1994 night, "I can die in peace".

For the first 28:27 of the game, the Rangers played a complete game on both ends of the ice. But over the last 31:32 of regulation play, it was the Canadiens that overwhelmed them at every facet of the game, especially their speed. Certainly as Rangers television color analyst Joe Micheletti described it during the postgame show on FSN New York, he said it was like a tale of two different games.

"In what's surprising is that the Rangers came into this game as the third-best defensive team in the National Hockey League," Micheletti told play-by-play announcer Sam Rosen. "They've been so good defensively and it got away."

Being responsible for scoring the winning goal, Koivu said afterwards that he was impressed how the fans at the Bell Centre stayed behind their team even after falling behind 5-0.

"I haven't been part of a game like this," Koivu said. "It was a pretty incredible atmosphere in the last 10, 15 minutes. It just shows how quickly things can turn around. They came back last game and tonight it was our turn."

On one hand, you have what to some outside observers may see in the Canadian media and the fans celebrating Montreal's win as if it's some playoff win for their country. Just listen to the tone of voice in sportscasters providing overviews of the game such as on TSN and Rogers Sportsnet. Yes, undoubtedly it was a remarkable comeback. But on the other hand, Rangers fans in New York City and across the United States were completely heartbroken to downright angry.

To those that have followed the New York Rangers for many years, it is nothing more than absolute frustration to watch a promising team where for some seasons than others just fail to meet expectations based on the makeup of the roster and the coaching staff. New York has two future Hall of Fame players in Jagr and Shanahan, a budding superstar goaltender in Lundqvist, an impact player in Avery, two prized free agent forwards in Drury and Gomez the team signed to big contracts last summer, a rookie who is rapidly becoming a star player in Dubinsky, a very promising future in rookie defenseman Marc Staal, two other young defensemen have played their way into prominent roles on the team in Daniel Girardi and Fedor Tyutin (who each signed contract extensions last weekend, by the way) as has forwards Nigel Dawes and Ryan Callahan. Then I hadn't even mentioned the important roles of Straka and Blair Betts. Yet as this team stands just three days before the trade deadline, the Rangers (30-32) are the most inconsistent team one can find in the NHL today. You honestly never know what you're going to get from them from one game to the next.

Think about this. You're 5-0 against your archrival from New Jersey. You've won seven straight in Philadelphia overall, plus have blanked the Flyers three times this season alone. You had won five straight and 10 of 12 during a stretch in November to recover from a poor start to the season. You had taken out Atlanta in back-to-back January home games plus got that impressive Super Bowl Sunday victory in Montreal. Lundqvist had seven shutouts on the season entering the rematch on Tuesday night. Yet, you can't beat Boston in getting swept in a home-and-home weekend set last month, lose to the worst road team in the league on home ice to Tampa Bay on January 8th, cannot buy a win in Raleigh in all but one of their last seven visits, lose both games in Washington thanks to Mike Green scoring both overtime goals, plus lose to both southern California teams on Madison Square Garden ice two weeks ago. Did I mention that the Los Angeles Kings owned the worst record in hockey entering that February 5th game? The ultimate letdown for the Rangers who had beaten Philadelphia, New Jersey and Montreal all on the road beforehand.

Let the inconsistency label be trademarked for the New York Rangers.

How bad was this defeat for the Rangers? Abysmal, absolutely. But just as Montreal made history on this night, New York did the same. But it was of course on the opposite side of the record book. Never before since the Rangers took to the ice in 1926 had they EVER lost a game when leading by five goals. Yup, you guessed it, the worst such regular season loss in franchise history. Their previously largest blown lead in which the Rangers ended up failing to win was also in Montreal where they were up by four goals before suffering a 6-4 setback on February 9, 1991.

Renney certainly was not at a loss for words in describing how he felt after the game.

"We're gonna have to throw this away, we allowed them back into the hockey game," Renney said. "I'm not going to suggest for a minute that we're okay with this. We're not, we're mad. We needed a little bit more from everybody in terms of composure."

And we know once the Canadiens comeback snowballed into a Rangers defeat, you knew that's exactly what Renney didn't get from his team in the second half of the game.

How did the New York media and other journalists covering the Rangers side of this debacle see it?

"Sixteen days after mounting their most stirring rally of the season, the Rangers committed the greatest collapse in their franchise's eight-decade history on the very same sheet of ice." - John Dellapina of the New York Daily News.

"The Rangers now must confront the ghost of this colossal failure..." - Larry Brooks of the New York Post.

"It was a monumental collapse, salvaged only by the fact that the Rangers came away with a point." - Steve Zipay of Long Island Newsday.

"Right now, this feels like the worst loss ever. But the goofy NHL system of handing out points to teams that lose makes it appear like less of a disaster in the standings." - Dubi Silverstein of Blueshirt Bulletin.

If you ask me, the Rangers didn't deserve that point for just getting to overtime.

Lost in the devastating defeat was Jagr's four assist effort where he was named the game's second star, Dubinsky had a "Gordie Howe hat trick" with a goal, an assist and a fight. Komisarek was able to get under the skin of Dubinsky and the Rangers, but he got what he wanted and didn't seem to mind either as he said to TSN's John Lu after the game.

"That's great. They're coming after me. They're attention is on me, that's awesome," Komisarek said.

If the Rangers meet the Canadiens again in the playoffs as they did in 1996 where New York prevailed in six games, including three big road wins during the Bell Centre's first season of operation, they better not focus much of their attention on Komisarek. At the same time, if they want to erase the lingering nightmare of this gut-wrenching loss, it would likely take another playoff series victory against Montreal.

But for now, the big question that will be answered in the remaining weeks ahead before the regular season comes to a close. Will the Rangers shake it off and answer the bell in making a run at the playoffs and still giving themselves any chance to win the Stanley Cup championship this season? Or will they simply go into a runaway tailspin and their season full of promise just collapse as they did on Tuesday night?

Either way, this is about as much of a gut check as you can get. The true character of any team will emerge in how they respond from a nightmare loss as this one was.

"We had total control of this game," Shanahan concluded in his postgame interview with Dellapina.

Your team sure did Shanny, but when all was said and done, your team lost.

No comments: