In Reality It's Crosby vs. Stamkos

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Written on 12/31/2010 by Jim Cerny

During the first half of the season the National Hockey League has offered up non-stop promotion for its reality series on HBO centered around Washington's Alex Ovechkin and Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby---one that will culminate in tomorrow's much hyped and aniticipated Winter Classic at Heinz Field.

In the second half of the season no other special programming is planned, though I suggest that focus shift from the Sid the Kid vs. Ovie to Sid vs. The New Kid in Town, Tampa's Steven Stamkos.

Crosby and Stamkos do not have the history that Sid and Ovechkin share, and Stamkos has yet to be raised by the league's marketing gurus to their lofty status just yet. But is there a better one-on-one battle being waged in the league right now than the one between Crosby and Stamkos for the Hart Trophy (not to mention Art Ross Trophy and Rocket Richard Trophy)?

Like Sid and Ovie, these two are former first overall picks carrying great expectations on their shoulders---and succeeding in masterful fashion. Their games are a bit different---Stamkos more the sniper, Crosby more the overall package offensively---but since tying for the NHL's goal-scoring lead a year ago, the games of Stamkos and Crosby have been more intertwined really than those of Sid and Ovie.

Stamkos scored another pair of goals last night, including a you-can't-believe-this spin-o-rama penalty shot goal vs. Montreal's helpless Carey Price. He now has 9 points (5-4-9) in his last 4 games. And perhaps most impressive is the fact that despite Crosby reeling off an incredible 25-game point-scoring streak, Stamkos is still right there breathing down Sid's neck in both the points race and the goal-scoring race.

The kid chasing The Kid.

Check out the numbers of the two: Crosby, 23, leads the league with 32 goals and 65 points in 39 games. Stamkos, 3 years younger at 20, is second in both categories with 31 goals and 56 points in 38 games. Stamkos leads the NHL with 13 power play goals, and Crosby is second with 10. Stamkos is connecting on 22% of his shots, Sid right behind at 20.8%. Crosby is second in the league with a +20 plus/minus mark, Stamkos is a solid +12 for a much looser defensive team.

And most importantly, Crosby's team and Stamkos' team are both winning. Currently the Penguins sit atop the Atlantic Division---and the Eastern Conference---with 53 points. The Lightning lead the Southeast Division with 49 points while holding down the second seed in the East.

Should all of this success continue---and really, barring injury to either player, why wouldn't it?---there is going to be one heckuva' run for the Hart Trophy as the league's Most Valuable Player.

Right now my pick would be....oh wait, can't give away any secrets here. My "Halfway Home Awards" are coming next week here on Rink Rap, as I choose the league's award winners through the first half of the season.

But let's just say this is a two-man race. And Alex Ovehckin isn't in this picture.

The kid versus The Kid.

###

Tonight closes out a very action-packed calendar year 2010. Thank you for the support you have shown me this past year---and thanks for the debates, suggestions, and laughs along the way.

Enjoy ringing in the new year this evening, but please be smart and be safe so that we can share more great memories together in 2011!

Follow Me On Twitter: @jimcerny

Sutter Resigns, Devilish Problems, and Wiz Trade Shows Isles Colors

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Written on 12/29/2010 by Jim Cerny

With much news in hockey land of late, here is a smorgasbord of the most important doings the past few days, and my quick take on each.

Daryl Sutter Resigns as GM of the Flames

This was not a shock, and probably could have/should have happened this past summer. The Flames are a midling team at present---one stuck with 11 no-trade/no-movement contracts---with a weak farm system after one poor draft after another.

That falls on the general manager. And as such, with the Flames sitting in 14th place in the Western Conference, it was no suprise that team president Ken King asked for--and received---Sutter's resignation.

But all that said, I don't understand the level of vitriol that has been sent Sutter's way, in general, by the hockey media, not to mention the glee with which Sutter's resignation has been reported.

Sutter is no bouyant personality, never looking to be quick with a joke or to banter with media folk. I get that. But I also understand that he made a series of bold moves earlier in the decade to turn Calgary back into a relevant franchise again, one that was within a controversial call of winning the Stanley Cup.

Under his stewardship---both as general manager and head coach---the Flames became a profitable organization once again, not to mention a contender on a regular basis. That needs to be recognized as part of Daryl Sutter's record as much as his recent head-scratching moves and lack of on-ice success the past couple of years.

As for the bottom line, the Flames are in good hands with interim GM Jay Feaster, a solid hockey man, in charge for now. But it will take time to clean up this mess, what with untradeable veterans and less-than high-end prospects in the organization.

Devil of  a Time in New Jersey

John Maclean finally got the boot as coach of the Devils, with Lou Lamoriello dropping the axe right before Christmas on one of the organization's most popular and devoted all-time individuals. The move was as justified---the Devils are shockingly last overall in the 30-team National Hockey League---as it was disrespectfully timed.

That Jacques Lemaire was brought back in by Lamoriello to coach this mess of a team, mere months after an exhausted Lemaire retired as bench boss in Jersey following a first-round playoff pasting at the hands of the Flyers, is either a desperate move, a convenient move, or a move of a man who could think of no other move.

Nonetheless Lamoriello now has to figure out how to purge salary from his Cap-stressed roster and begin to look towards how to fix things in time for next season. He is all but begging some other team to claim Brian Rolston on re-entry waivers by noon tomorrow---a move that would save the Devils half of Rolston's $5 million salary this year and next.

That is the only beginning, though. Lamoriello has a helluva' lot more work to do than that. And while purging salary, he needs to find a way to be creative and get Zach Parise---the injured, yet soon-to-be-star-free-agent---signed this summer, and then attempt to rebuild his awful defense corps while getting Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk, Travis Zajac and the like to score like they used to.

I spoke with a Devils staffer today at the Prudential Center and he wore the blank look of someone shellshocked by what has happened this season. As that Devils employee and I said to one another, seasons like this always have seemed to happen to other teams---pretty much every other team in the NHL, actually---just not to the Devils.

Now that it has happened to the Devils, Lamoriello and the organization do not seem to know how to slow down the snowball that has swiftly descended the negative slope.

And thus they are buried in an avalanche of a mess.

Islanders Trade Wisniewski to Canadiens

On the surface the Islanders trade of defenseman James Wisniewski to the Montreal Canadiens for two draft picks, including a second rounder, seems like a win-win for both clubs.

The Islanders are not in playoff contention and they turned the servicable Wisniewski into a pair of draft picks.

The Canadiens are in eighth place in the Eastern Conference, battling for their playoff lives with a string of other teams, and could use veteran help on the blueline, especially now that the club has seemed to decide that rookie PK Subban is not quite ready for a regular role among the top six defensemen.

But what irks me about this trade is that I get a nagging feeling that the Islanders just wanted to drop more salary from their payroll. That Charles Wang is in Garth Snow's ear telling him to drop even closer to the Cap floor, though I don't know how much further down they can go before falling through that floor.

I spoke with a respected veteran NHL person "in the know" today and he said exactly what I was thinking, "At some point you have to stop selling this notion of the future, the future, and start showing something in the present. This guy (Wisniewski) is no star, but he was vital to that team. In my opinion this was all about shedding more salary and continuing to sell the idea that stockpiling draft picks and prospects is the way to go."

Couldn't agree more. It's almost like a street-card game of Three Card Monty. Keep shuffling in a fast deceiving way, keep offering hope, but never deliver the goods.

And so it goes on The Island...

Follow Me On Twitter: @jimcerny

Hockey Recollections on a Snowy Day

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Written on 12/27/2010 by Jim Cerny

Sitting here at Madison Square Garden after a 2.5 hour snow-shoveling marathon and an ensuing uneventful drive into Manhattan---well, other than having to back up the length of 26th Street between 10th and 11th Avenues through the snow due to a stalled truck near tenth---I realized that I have yet to wish you all a Happy Holiday!

My bad....but, hey...Happy Holidays!

If you are on the east coast, hopefully you survived the wild snowstorm with at least you sense of humor still intact.

As for me, snowstorm or not, I did what I had planned all along to do last night...kick back and watch Team USA on The NHL Network play it's first game at the World Junior Championships up in Buffalo.

Sitting there watching hockey as the snow pounded greater New York outside my window I thought back to a pair of snow-related hockey travel stories from my past. One was after the Islanders team plane landed at a small Long Island airport following a wicked storm and all of us in our suits and dress shoes trudging through the deep snow to find our cars just absolutely buried underneath the white stuff.

Now, I'm not a complainer at all, but it's enough of a pain in the butt to clean ten inches of snow off the car when you do it in the middle of the day, but it really sucks when you do it at 2:00 in the morning following a full work day, game, and travel!

All the players were helping clean each other's cars when John Vanbiesbrouck came over to me and, without asking if I needed any help, quickly and efficently helped clean off my car and dig it out of the snowdrift it was parked in. It was a reminder that I didn't need to be a teammate to still be part of the "family", and it's part of the reason why I have so enjoyed my time working for both the Rangers and Islanders during my career.

We all---players, coaches, trainers, equipment men, staff (like me)---spend so much time together, traveling and living together on the road throughout the long season. And hockey players are so down to earth...though they are clearly the stars of the operation, and the most important people within the family...they see and understand and respect the other members, people like me. The Beezer snow story is just one of many examples I could give to prove this point.

The other story I thought back to last night also occurred when I was with the Islanders, serving as the team's radio play-by-play broadcaster. We were bussing from Calgary to Edmonton and the heating system in the bus did not work! So here we are, just absolutely freezing in the middle of an Alberta winter, million-dollar athletes and much-lesser paid "family" members alike. And though no one enjoyed the predicament at all, the laughs we had on that bus ride were priceless memories. I will never forget how everyone huddled inside their own long winter coats and shot one-liners back and forth the entire bus ride.

Welcome to the National Hockey League one and all! Indeed....

Good times and good memories were stirred during last night's storm.

As for Team USA's debut at the World Juniors....well, they did find a way to earn a 3-2 win over Finland on Nick Bjugstad's overtime goal, but they are going to have to be much better moving forward. Finland was the better team much of this game and was able to dictate the style of play.

But it was only the first game---butterflies and all that---so I'll give the US squad a pass and we'll see how they look moving forward in the tourny. But, again, the bottom line is that they won the game even when not at their best. And it's never a bad thing in a short tournament like this when your goalie---in this case Jack Campbell, the number one pick of the Dallas Stars this past summer---is your best player. And he was.

Next up for Team USA: Slovakia tomorrow night...and they may have to play without winger Jeremy Morin who suffered a fairly serious shoulder injury in last night's win. The loss would be significant as Morin is a veteran on the US squad, and I thought that he was one of the better and more effective players for United States last night.

Stay tuned....and in the meantime take something for that sore back you have from all that shoveling today...

Follow Me On Twitter: @jimcerny

Please Add to the Coyotes Roster, Number 35 Goaltender Tom Fenton

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Written on 12/17/2010 by Jim Cerny

Word started to spread around 5:30 last night at Madison Square Garden that Ilya Bryzgalov was stricken with the flu and would not be able to start in goal for Phoenix against the Rangers. With veteran Jason LaBarbera on hand to fill in, it seemed like a fairly minor story---though, of course, Bryz, the 'Yotes workhorse, not starting a game was indeed a worthy news item.

The real intruguing news story trickled out moments later when it was announced that Bryzgalov was too sick to even sit on the bench and serve as LaBarbera's back-up. With such late notice---coupled with the fact that the Coyotes' top farm team is based in Texas---Phoenix was in a bind as to whom would serve as LaBarbera's caddy for the night.

Rumors started to fly that popular former NHL goalie Sean Burke---currently the 'Yotes goaltending coach---would dress as the back-up. But that notion was scratched rather quickly when it was mentioned that a pro, or former pro, would have to pass through 24 hour waivers first.

24 hours? The Coyotes had closer to 2 hours to figure all this out!

Enter Tom Fenton. Who? Tom Fenton. Who?

Tom Fenton, 26 year-old former Division III goalie from American International College, currently the head of community relations and hockey operations for the Manhattanville College hockey team in New York.

Fenton fit the bill for the night. Played the position before. Had skated recently. Has his own goalie equipment. Lives locally, so could make it to The Garden fairly quickly. Bring him in!

And so that's what the Coyotes did. Relying on Frank Effinger, the team's Director of Pro Scouting---who has local New York ties, Phoenix got the name of Tom Fenton.

So Effinger called Fenton. And so did a string of other Coyotes' officials. One problem. No answer on his cell.

"I was getting a haircut," Fenton explained to me after the game while standing in the visitors dressing room at MSG. "And who wants to be answering the phone when getting a haircut?"

Pretty good thinking there Tom, but it almost cost you the chance of a lifetime.

Fenton eventually listened to the first message from Effinger. "Get down to MSG. We need you to back up in goal. Blah, blah, blah."

So I asked Tom if he felt like he was being Punk'd.

"Yeah, a little," he laughed (you can watch my entire interview with him by clicking here). "I figured my buddies were up to something. But then I saw a lot of different calls coming from an area code I didn't know. Then it got serious."

Go to Manhattanville and grab his equipment. Get in the car and drive from Westchester down to New York City. Call family, girlfriend ("she's a big Rangers fan"), and friends along the way. And, oh yeah, get to The Garden by 5:00 or else you are not eligible to play.

Oh, and did anyone tell you what entrance to get into MSG? Not exactly by the ticket rotunda off Seventh Avenue, my friend. That's for the paying customers. You are here to work tonight.

After a Spinal Tap-like search, Fenton finally did find the proper entrance, did take his physcial, did sign his paperwork, and then found himself getting needled before warmups by Shane Doan and his brethren.

"I think I did fairly well during warmups, stopped most of them," remembered Fenton. "Of course I didn't face too many. But still, to have Shane Doan and Ed Jovanovski shooting at you. Man..."

Man, indeed!

Fortunately for the Coyotes---and probably for Fenton, too---LaBarbera was able to backstop the entire game---one that ended 4-3 in favor of the Rangers after a shootout.  At one point in the third period LaBarbera was slow to get up after a collision in his crease, and then he began flexing his left leg.

"That's when I really started to sweat heavily," recalled Fenton, who did not win a whole heckuva' lot when he played for the AIC (ahem) powerhouse for four years.

Fenton took much ribbing from his teammates-for-the-day on the bench during the game, especially before the shootout when several players insisted he go in cold to stop the Rangers.

After the game, as he conducted a string of interviews, the soft-spoken and mostly-calm Fenton shook hands with Coyotes staffers and players as they thanked him for helping out in a pinch.

As the Coyotes headed to their team bus for a trip to their next destination on Long Island, Fenton stood alone in the visitors room and tried to soak in what had just taken place over the previous 7 or 8 hours.

His momentos from the day were in his locker and equipment bag. A signed amateur tryout contract. A No. 35 Coyotes jersey with his name on the back. A Coyotes dry-fit shirt. A game puck handed to him by one of the linesmen. And the official game scoresheet.

And more memories than most of us could ever imagine cramming into such a small window.

"It's something I will never forget."

Something Good Brewing on Broadway

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Written on 12/15/2010 by Jim Cerny

This is my fourth season covering the New York Rangers as a beat reporter. I have seen many ups and downs for the team as well as for individual players. Needless to say I have seen a lot of the team's star goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, a nightly fixture year-in year-out whether the team is going well or playing poorly.

I have seen Henrik during some very low moments---struggles, slumps, being eliminated by the Penguins and Caps in the playoffs, being eliminated from even making the playoffs on the final day of the 2009-10 season---yet I am not sure I have ever seen him as upset with himself as he was following Saturday's 3-1 loss in Columbus.

Lundqvist surrendered the game-winning goal to Rick Nash on a shot that came from near the right corner and well behind the goal line. Rangers coach John Tortorella said of the goal, "It can't happen. Ever." But it did.

And Lundqvist was devestated that he let in such a bad goal, especially since it cost his team a game in which they played well and were good enough to win. I could see it in his eyes when speaking with him after the game. I could see it in his body language---usually very upright and full of confidence no matter the circumstance. And I could hear it in his words, spoken in a near whisper.

A regular season game, number 31 out of 82 that will be played. And Henrik just seemed crushed.

The next night, after he bounced back with a 31-save shutout---his league-leading fifth of the season---backstopping the Rangers to a 7-0 victory over the Capitals, I asked Lundqvist when he was able to let go of that bad goal and disappointing loss.

"Not until during the day today," Lundqvist responded. "It really bothered me and I was really frustrated and disappointed. I was so glad (Tortorella) put me in (Sunday) so that I could just get it out of my system. Sometimes when I am upset with myself I use it as energy. This was the answer I was looking for."

Why was this particular mistake and defeat so hard to swallow for Lundqvist? I reason that it's because this is the tightest-knit group the Rangers have had in a long time. This team has worked incredibly hard for the succes it has achieved so far this season, a better-than-expected 18-13-1 record and solid sixth place standing in the Eastern Conference. And as such the players, in general---and Lundqvist, in particular---find it incredibly distasteful to let one another down.

And to show the character of this group, Rangers players were passionately defending in the late stages of their game with the Caps on Sunday, even while holding a seven goal lead. Sure, pride in a 60-minute effort was part of the reason, and shutouts are always nice. But the real reason why the Rangers laid it on the line in the waning moments on Sunday is that they knew---they saw---how painful it was for Lundqvist to let them down 24 hours earlier. Now they wanted to reward the goalie they respect, admire, and trust to the max by helping him secure an important shutout to fully erase the pain he felt in Columbus.

"Hank is our rock back there and we want him to have success," said Brandon Dubinsky. "I think the big thing for us was the way he responded. He was amazing. We wanted to lock it down and get (the shutout) for him because of the way he showed up (Sunday) night and the way he responded."

When Tortorella talks about what "a great room" the Rangers have, this is clearly a prime example. Lundqvist is a huge part of that room, passionately caring about letting his brothers in arms down. Dubinsky---and many others---speaking about how the players recognized the importance of giving something important to Henrik, to help lift him, after the anguish that goal in Columbus had put him through.

There are clearly more talented teams in the National Hockey League than the Rangers. But they have the chance to far exceed expectations because of their collective make-up and hard-working mentality.

As forward Brandon Prust says, "When guys are this tight and so close to one another, there is a higher level of accountability towards one another. You don't want to let the guy next to you down."

Added Tortorella, "I have said this many times before, that is a great group of guysd in that room. And the way we play? It is an extremely rewarding and satisfying way to win when you play as hard as we do."

No better example of that than what happened with their most important player this past weekend. First the deflation on Saturday, then the response on Sunday.

Good stuff taking place on Broadway.

Follow Me On Twitter: @jimcerny and @thenyrangers

Can Filatov Break the Zherdev Mold?

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Written on 12/11/2010 by Jim Cerny

Here in Columbus to cover Rangers and Blue Jackets and much of the talk at the morning skate over at Nationwide Arena was about a talented winger with questionable work ethic and desire from Eastern Europe that is frustrating Columbus coaches and management to no end.

And perhaps the worst part for the Blues Jackets is that there is a major sense of deja vu taking place with this particular situation.

The player in question now is 20 year-old Russian Nikita Filatov, who was just sent to Springfield in the AHL yesterday after the 2008 6th overall pick had recorded just seven assists---and no goals---in 23 games.

The player in question five or so years ago was Nikolay Zherdev, the 4th overall pick in 2003 by Columbus, who drove Ken Hitchcock and company so batty that he was traded away after just four seasons wearing the red, white, and blue of the Blue Jackets.

It's still too early to say that Filatov will also be dealt unceremoniously out of Columbus, but it is not too early to say that there are definite similarites between the two uber-skilled former first-rounders. At their core no one questions either's talent, but nearly all question their passion and desire.

To be fair to Zherdev he still scored 34 points in 57 games as a 19 year-old rookie in 2003-04, and also had seasons of 27 and 26 goals in Columbus. It was his seeming indifference to the game, and the fact that many close observers felt he could have been a 35+ goal scorer if he worked harder with the Blue Jackets, that got him shipped out of town rather quickly.

Filatov spent most of his rookie pro year in the minors back in 2008-09, but he caught everyone's eye by scoring four goals in 8 NHL games as an 18 year-old, too. Last year, though, Filatov scored just twice in 13 games, and then refused a minor league demotion---instead having agent Don Meehan broker a deal where Filatov would finish the season playing in Russia. By not showing a willingness to continue to hone his craft within the organization at the minor league level, where his every move could be studied and coached, Filatov raised red flags about his true desire and passion to succeed in North America.

That Meehan felt compelled to publicly state Filatov was "willing" to accept a trip down to the minors yesterday says more bad than good about the kid, and his reputation.

Scott Arniel, the Blue Jackets rookie coach, had much to say on the topic this morning.

"It's about doing the extra work before practice, after practice...we've talked about it," Arniel said of Filatov's work ethic. "He needs to continue to work at his trade and make sure he gets better every day. As for not scoring goals, he needs to bear down more, fight for rebounds. He's got some work to do."

Several times when speaking on the Filatov topic, Arniel spoke about how some players are "just not ready" for the NHL life at such a young age, and that you "can't force-feed" these players into feeling comfortable until they really are.

Though he was speaking in general terms, it seemed as though Arniel was talking specifically about the maturity level of Filatov, which has been questioned from the outside on a fairly regular basis.

"I tried to put him into as many opportunities where he could have success---on the power play, on the top lines---but there was some inconsistency with his play," explained Arniel. "We just wanted him to go out and do what he does best. But as it went along and he didn't, then you could see it really started to weigh on him. And now he was starting to press, and now he wasn't playing on the inside and his compete, at times, was not where it needed to be."

Arniel and team GM Scott Howson felt they only had one good option. And fortunately this time Filatov accepted his assignment to Springfield.

"Again, he's a young player, and he just needs to go and get confidence," said Arniel. "He has to go feel good about himself. It may take two weeks, may take two months, I don't know what it's going to be. But the first step is going there and understanding why. Some guys get it instantly, and for some it takes a little longer. We're not giving up here. It's part of the process."

Filatov was chosen sixth in the 2008 NHL Draft. Here are the five players selected before him: Steven Stamkos, Drew Doughty, Zach Bogosian, Alex Pietrangelo, and Luke Schenn. Quite a bit of early NHL success to be found in that group, which makes Filatov's struggles stand out that much more. Among those selected after him: Tyler Myers (12th), Michael Del Zotto (20th), Jordan Eberle (22nd), Colin Wilson (7th), and Tyler Ennis (26th).

Filatov is playing catch-up with his draft class, no question about it, but this next segment in his career---how he handles being back in the AHL and how hard he works at his craft and how much desire he shows in returning to The Show---will help determine what his future may hold.

Will Filatov be taking the Rick Nash course in Columbus. Or will he take the Nikolay Zherdev path.

Time will tell.

Follow Me On Twitter: @jimcerny

Here to Praise Sid the Kid

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Written on 12/09/2010 by Jim Cerny

Am up here in Ottawa to cover Rangers and Senators tonight, but found myself watching TSN as the Penguins won their 11th straight last night, 5-2 over the Maple Leafs.

And I found myself glued to every shift Sidney Crosby played. All 23 of them. Every second of the 20 minutes and 47 seconds he spent on the ice.

Because when an elite superstar athlete is on top of his game like Crosby currently is, I am compelled to watch, and watch closely.

Funny, a little more than a week ago I penned a column on why Crosby is so hated by fans and opponents throughout the NHL, and entered into the debate as to whether or not Sid the Kid is a dirty player. I certainly mentioned his greatness and his accomlishments, but the story's main focus was elsewhere.

Today's entry is different. I come to praise what I have been seeing from Crosby during his current 17-game point-scoring streak---and I have seen some of these games in person and quite a few more via the television.

What stands out most to me is Crosby's focus. Look at his eyes. Look closely. There is a fire there. Game in, game out. Shift in, shift out. When you take the incredible skill Crosby owns and then add the fire and passion and focus he is currently playing with, you have a near unstoppable combination. And right now, Crosby is just about unstoppable.

Sid the Kid has eight goals in his last four games---with two more last night. And he has potted 20 in this 17-game streak. 20, as in 20 goals NOT just points, in 17 games. As for points, he has 35 of those during the streak. That's two per game in a six-week stretch. In the current NHL, where scoring is at a premium, those are Gretzky-like numbers. Or for you Pens fans, how about Lemieux-like numbers?

But again, away from the numbers, it's Sid's focus, his will, his determination, his ability to take over pretty much every game the past month and a half. And doing that with little-to-no help from Evgeni Malkin---who is now sidelined after an already un-Malkin-like start to the season---and not one game's worth of help from the injured Jordan Staal.

He is playing with an edge, battling every shift, playing with a certain fury. Legal--and, yes, illegal---hits. Trips to the penalty box---three last night, including a cross check and a roughing minor that set off mini on-ice riots. But also a passion to dominate offensively with a skill and vision few can even imagine.

I thought Bob McKenzie did a great job last night on TSN in discussing Crosby's underrated skating burst and subsequent speed, not to mention his anticipation of when to take off on a potential rush or scoring play.

McKenzie summed it up uniquely and quite perfectly, saying, "Crosby is like the Road Runner. Beep! Beep! And he's gone!"

Loved that!

McKenzie also raised a great question last night: when exactly does Crosby hit his prime? He is 23 now, with 2 Cup Finals, 1 Cup Ring, 1 MVP, 1 Art Ross Trophy, 1 Rocket Richard Trophy, an Olympic Gold Medal, 3rd youngest player ever to reach 500 NHL points, and so much more already on his resume.

But is his prime still years away? Is he in his prime now already? If so, how long will that prime last?

By the looks of it, Crosby is getting better and better. 51 goals last year showed that. His even better play this year proves that again.

I know you may hate him, or be jealous of him, but as a true fan of the sport, you must also be somewhat in awe right now.

That's how good Sidney Crosby is at the moment.

Dead on the Island

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Written on 12/06/2010 by Jim Cerny

When I served as the play-by-play voice of the Islanders during the predictably unpredictable dark days of multiple bad ownerships, Mike Milbury's reign of error as General Manager, the revolving door of head coaches, and one last place finish after another there was always one positive thing that could be counted on.

Whenever the Islanders hosted the Rangers at Nassau Coliseum, the old barn on Hempstead Turnpike would be sold out and rocking.

Though attendance at the Coliseum  was always fairly lousy in those days, and season ticket holders were few and far between, the joint would be jumping and tickets were impossible to find when the arch rival Rangers paid a visit.

Sadly, not even appearances by the Rangers can fill the old building in Nassau any more. The Rangers have visited the Nassau Coliseum twice already this season, and the arena has not been close to sold out either time.

Back on Columbus Day---keep in mind a Monday day game on a holiday not everyone gets off from work for---the announced crowd was a bit over 11,000, some five thousand short of capacity. And to be honest, it really looked that afternoon that perhaps there were fewer than 10,000 actual bodies in the Coliseum as huge swaths of sections were empty.

Then last Thursday night the Rangers skated on Long Island again and there was good news/bad news for the Islanders. The Good News: the team had its largest single-game attendance of the season. The Bad News: less than 14,000 showed up for the New York-New York "rivalry", still 3,000 short of a sell out.

And I guess I'm piling on here, but only 7,773 were announced in attendance for yesterday afternoon's Sunday matinee with another long-standing rival, the Philadelphia Flyers.

Larry Brooks, the excellent hockey writer for The New York Post, wrote yesterday that the league should intervene and save the Islanders from an owner who has done everything within his power the past several years to gut this franchise of any sense that it belongs in the major leagues. Everything about the Islanders now reaks of minor league---from front office to sales & marketing to public relations to the building to the on-ice product. Owner Charles Wang is spending the minimum amount possible to keep this team alive until its lease expires at the Nassau Coliseum in four years and, presumably, he can move it somewhere else.

While I agree, in part, with Brooks that the league should step in, I would argue that enough is enough and perhaps Gary Bettman et al could help broker an early termination of the lease and end the misery sooner rather than later. Let Wang take his team elsewhere, or sell it to someone who wishes to do the same. Because I do not believe there is anyone in their right mind who would buy the Islanders now and keep them on Long Island. Wang has killed the market, and four more years of this painful slow death is just so cruel to the Islanders Faithful.

Wang's Lighthouse Project for a time made him the people's champion as he tried to get a new arena and bustling entertainment and shopping area built. But without any political support to speak of, the project is dead in the water, and with that, Wang has pulled back on dumping his resources into the team---certainly his business perogative---and the fans have responded to that---as well as the rich ticket prices---by simply not attending Islanders games any more.

I thought I had seen and lived through the worst of it for the Isles back in the '90's and the early part of this decade.

I was wrong. This is worse. Much worse. And it feels like it should finally be the end.

The Sidney Debates

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Written on 11/30/2010 by Jim Cerny

The debates began in the stands, locker rooms, and press box at Madison Square Garden last night and have raged ever since on the internet, in Twitter-verse, and in the hockey blogosphere.

These debates are ones that have been hotly contested before, and will be for years to come.

Is Sidney Crosby a dirty hockey player? Does Sid do dirty things as a way to protect himself from non-stop abuse from opponents? Does the league and its officials protect Crosby more-so than other star players? Why is it that Crosby evokes so much emotion from fans and players around the league? Quite simply, why is he hated more than fellow superstars Alex Ovehckin and Steven Stamkos, just to name two?

These debates sprung up for a couple of reasons yesterday. First, at his team's morning skate Rangers head coach John Tortorella said he had spoken with league officials about how games against the Penguins were called by the referees. Torts did not single out Crosby by name, but it was clearly inferred when he spoke about Penguins transgressions which were not penalized by the league's referees when the Rangers and Penguins met two weeks ago in Pittsburgh---a game which saw the Penguins receive six power plays and the Rangers zero.

Then last night the Rangers claimed that Crosby delivered a slew foot to Ryan Callahan and another to Sean Avery over the course of Pittsburgh's 3-1 victory over the Blueshirts. New York's Brandon Dubinsky, who has long been vocal regarding his disgust with Crosby, said of Sid's alleged slew foot on Callahan, "Yeah, that's a dirty play. That's the kind of player he is." Callahan added that it was "absolutely" a slew foot---a dirty play where one player kicks out the skates from underneath an opposing player, usually from behind...often believed to be one of the more gutless and dangerous plays in hockey.

When Crosby fired back---"How many penalty minutes do I have this year if I am that dirty? Please. Show me all of those dirty plays. It's a battle and he falls. I think Dubi has done his fair share of things out there that are questionable. I guess he's talking again, but I am not surprised. I'm not a dirty hockey player, c'mon. I think Dubi is smarter than that, c'mon"---the debates took on even more legs.

Is Crosby a dirty hockey player? No, I would not call him a dirty hockey player. I would call him a hockey player prone to doing some dirty and sneaky things out on the ice. He seems very cold and calculated about what he does, not posessing the obvious Ovechkin intensity, but rather an icy assasin's insides. It is part of what makes him a great player. If you are a Penguins fan you say he is just doing whatever it takes to win, and that's why he is a great captain and is already a proven Stanley Cup winner. Plus he is such a target from the opposition, he needs to protect himself out there on the ice. If you are not a Pens or Crosby fan, you'll say that Sid is a dirty little snot who gets away with everything because the league and its officials protect his rear end and he deserves whatever opponents can inflict on him. I say both sides are right to an extent.

Does the league and its officials protect Sid more than other star players? I would say that most star players get away with more illegal things than your average mucker-and-grinder does, no question about it. And I would have to also say, without watching every game by every team every night, that Crosby does seem to get away with a bit more than other elite players. But is that because he is just more sneaky or because it is overlooked? Great question. Not sure of that answer, though I will say that Sid is one sneaky son of a gun. Two weeks ago in Pittsburgh as play headed back the other way Crosby whipped through Henrik Lundqvist's crease as Sid turned to head up ice. As he did, Crosby's skate clipped Lundqvist's sending the Rangers goalie to the ice. Refs skating the other way never saw it. Accident? Or just another case for Sneaky Sid? Hmmm. Also because Sid plays a different game from Ovechkin it is more likely that Ovie will receive more penalty minutes. And Ovie has received suspensions  for some of his actions. But the Gordie Howes and Mark Messiers and Ovechkins who play more physically and stand up more for themselves in an aggressive manner are clearly more respected than a Crosby, who does not initiate that aggressiveness, but instead is prone to the subtle paybacks out on the ice.

Why is Crosby hated so much? Jealousy tops the reasons why Sid the Kid is hated so much by opposing fans and players. No question about it. Ever since he was drafted first overall Crosby has had a certain smugness and arrogance about him, which he has backed up with superstar-level play, four 100+ point seasons, two Cup Finals, one Stanley Cup ring, and an Olympic gold medal, all by the age of 23. If you have him on your team, you love him. If you don't have him, well, you don't love him. Quite simple. But beyond his play Crosby has a well-earned reputation for complaining to the officials about every little thing. Pens fans would say that is great leadership and gamesmanship. Everyone else says he is a spoiled whining man-child who gets everything he wants. A bit of both is correct. Fans are more prone to throw their arms around a Steven Stamkos because he is a respectful, good-natured kid, with no outward signs of arrogance with a Lady Byng style on the ice, or an Ovechkin who wears his heart on his sleeve, can play reckless, out of control, and blatently dirty, but is not viewed as being sneaky or a whiner. Crosby comes off as obnoxious and that hurts his image. Fans are OK if the true superstars---and I mean the true elite, like Crosby is now--- are dirty---see Howe and Messier---or not---see Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, and Bobby Orr. They are not as keen when a player of that elite level is viewed as sneaky and obnoxious, as Crosby is.

It's an image thing really. Crosby is not a dirty hockey player, but he does do dirty things. But it's his overall persona that gets underneath the skin of opposing players---like Dubinsky---and fans so much.

It is what causes him to be at the root of these particular debates.

It will also be what keeps him from being universally loved---a la Gretzky and Lemieux and Yzerman---unless something fundamnetally changes in his personality over the course of his career.

Then again, why should Sidney Crosby change anything? Seems to be working out quite nicely for him, I'd say.


Follow Me on Twitter: @jimcerny

Through Hard Work, Team-First Rangers Find Their Way

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Written on 11/27/2010 by Jim Cerny

Rangers head coach John Tortorella repeated something last night that he has been subtlely saying more and more often recently: "we are a tired team".

Nine games in 14 days in seven different cities will do that to a team. As will playing a hard-skating in-your-face style, which is the Rangers calling card this season.

Listen, I can see how tired they are. And I can understand it better than most. I mean, shoot, I keep the same travel, practice, and game schedules as the Rangers do, but with one big difference: they play...I report on it. And I am tired, and a bit beat up from this recent grind. So I can only imagine how the players feel.

But yet, even as Tortorella says this about his club, they stick together and battle. And they are a resilient team, much more so than last year. Bad loss in Tampa on Wednesday? No problem, bounce back with a 40-save Henrik Lundqvist shutout last night against the Panthers. Lousy loss in Denver two Fridays ago? Not an issue because they come back with an impressive victory in Minnesota the very next night. Lose two games in a row on a couple different occasions this season? Not going to panic because they are staying away from lengthy losing streaks this year, never losing more than two in a row, so far.

If you are a Rangers fan, this is the type of team you can really throw your arms around and embrace. It is a likable team, both in on-ice and off-ice personality.

"What I really like about this team is how together they are," Tortorella said the other day.

"This team has come together early in the season...we really like each other and get along well and have really gelled together quickly," added forward Brandon Prust, who is not one of the team's stars, but is a vital part of the fabric in the locker room and on the ice.

When Prust scored his first goal of the season last night, the bench erupted with  just a dose more excitement than usual. Yes, it was a big goal---the one to ice a 3-0 victory---but it was "Pruster" who scored it, and that meant something to his teammates.

"If you see our bench when he scores, that's the important thing, the cameraderie they feel about him, and each other," explained Tortorella. "Guys pull for him. It's good for him, but for me as a coach, it's good for the team. Crap, he's done a lot of good things for us, and I am happy for him."

Every good and successful team in the National Hockey League has a Brandon Prust on its roster. Trust me on that one. Yes, you need your star players---in the Rangers case Lundqvist and Marian Gaborik---playing their best, but you need other intangibles, as well, in order to achieve success. Prust provides that. Brian Boyle is providing that. Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Callahan, Marc Staal,  and Dan Girardi are stepping up their level of play nad providing more. Derek Stepan is as good a rookie as there is in the NHL this year.

You can see it's coming together for the Rangers. There are going to be some bumps along the way, but it's coming together. You get the feel the team is on the right track. And you get the feel that the Tortorella has established an excellent foundation, and that the players are playing hard for their coach---just as they do for one another.

"Character" is an important word when you speak about a team. And the Rangers are proving they have it. Heck, just check out how they have weathered injuries to four key veterans---Gaborik, Chris Drury, Vinny Prospal, and Michal Rozsival---without major issue already this season.

It is all part of what makes this Rangers team so appealing.

True, they will be in a dogfight all year to secure a playoff spot in the tight Eastern Conference. No question about that.

But as a Rangers fan, I think you'll at least be able to enjoy this ride more than some other recent ones.

Talkin' Steven Stamkos

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Written on 11/24/2010 by Jim Cerny

Am down here in Tampa to cover the Rangers and Lightning tilt at the St. Pete Times Forum, one that features two good up-and-coming Eastern Conference teams and the subplot of Henrik Lundqvist's return to the starting lineup after watching back-up Marty Biron backstop two straight wins over Minnesota and Calgary.

But really all anyone down here wishes to talk about is Steven Stamkos. And that makes perfect sense actually.

You see, Stamkos, the first overall pick in the 2008 draft and coming off a breakout 51-goal campaign in his second NHL season a year ago, has already scored 20 goals in the first 21 games this season. And even though it's a long way off, people are already talking non-stop about the chance of Stamkos scoring 50-in-50---fifty goals in fifty games, something ever only achieved by two Hall-of-Famers, Mike Bossy and Wayne Gretzky.

I have compiled a host of quotes about Stamkos and will share them with you below, but first just had to say what a pleasure it was this morning to, first, sit in on Tampa Bay head coach Guy Boucher's morning gathering with the media and then to sit and chat with Stamkos in the Lightning dressing room afterwards.

Boucher is as engaging and personable a head coach as there is in the entire National Hockey League. This was my first personal encounter with him, and I came away extremely impressed---and that's not even including his obvious coaching skills. You can see why Steve Yzerman wanted Boucher to be leading this team.

And the 20 year-old Stamkos is such a polite, respectful, thoughtful, intelligent, and mature person. It's almost hard to fathom that he is so young. He speaks so respectfully of his father and his upbringing, you just can tell that his parents raised him the right way. But even behind that silly mustache he has going on right now, you can see that Stamkos is still just a kid having an amazing time playing the game he loves.

Everyone that is around Stamkos on a regular basis says he is a totally down-to-earth joy. I can see what they mean.

Lightning Coach Guy Boucher

On Stamkos' love of the game: "He loves to play the game just to play the game. He does it for the right reasons. It has nothing to do with money, it's about the enjoyment of it all. I think he'll still be a kid, loving the game like a kid, when he's 30."

On the pressure of 50 in 50: "It's so early to talk about this, so much time before we reach 50 games. And do we say that he's no good if he has 49 in 50? And then we miss the joy of the other 49 goals he did score? He's very humble and unselfish and the 50/50 talk creates unnecessary pressure."

Steven Stamkos

On being asked about 50-in-50 already: "It's just something that I've realized at a young age that is part of the game and comes with the territory. When you're not being asked the questions it probably means you're not playing that well. Obviously this year with the start I've had and the team has had I'm getting a lot more requests, but you have to be good to the media because hopefully then they'll be good to you."

On how he handles media scrutiny: "It's just basic respect. You respect what other people do and they'll respect you for what you do. Not only did I learn that from my parents, but my minor hockey coach was big about respecting your opponents, the refs, other players, the media. It's something I learned at a young age and it's pretty simple. My dad didn't have to raise his voice or yell too much. When I was a kid it was tell me once or maybe twice and that was it."

On loving his job: "I am just having fun. I am doing something I've done my whole life, and now it's my job. I love playing hockey, and am just lucky and fortunate enough to have a job like this where you play a game that you have loved so much since you were a kid. I am always going to have a smile on my face coming to the rink every day, working at being better, and trying to win every day. You don't take anything for granted because we are so lucky to be doing what we are doing as our job."

Rangers defenseman Steve Eminger

On Stamkos: "He plays with a lot of energy and he can do things that other players can't at a high speed with the puck. He's full speed when he's coming at you, with the puck or without the puck. He's really talented that way, and he's shifty. He's put himself into a category in this league where he is one of the top."

On containing Stamkos: "We have to play physical on him and that line, not give him time to go from one end to the other at full speed. He can't go untouched. He's got to be slowed up."

Rangers forward Ryan Callahan

On containing Stamkos: (laughing) "...or trying to at least! They key is for us to get the puck in deep and not let them turn us over in the neutral zone and counter back. When you have a guy like St. Louis with his speed and Stamkos, I think they prey on that, the turnovers in the neutral zone. So we have to get it in deep and then not let them build up speed through the neutral zone. And from a D standpoint, it's about taking away time and space. Get in his face and don't give him time to move the puck or shoot the puck."

Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi

On challenge of facing Stamkos: (laughing) "I don't know that I look forward to facing him, but listen he's got 20 goals in 21 games, so you know he's a real deadly player out there and we have to make sure that somebody is always on him in the D zone. We have to be hard on him, make him work for his chances."

On trying to contain Stamkos: "He's one of the elite players in the league. If you can do a good job on him then you can feel good about yourself and the team. Obviously we are focused on shutting him down, but it's going to be hard and we're going to have to do a good job tonight."

Follow Me on Twitter: @jimcerny and @thenyrangers

Gaborik Makes Long-Awaited Return to Minnesota

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Written on 11/20/2010 by Jim Cerny

For eight seasons he was the face of the Minnesota Wild franchise. He was the expansion team's first-ever first-round draft pick, and went on to become its all-time leader in goals, assists, and points.

Now, finally, tonight Marian Gaborik returns to Minnesota for the first time since signing a lucrative free agent deal with the Rangers on July 1, 2009, and after missing last year's clash due to a minor knee injury.

It is easily the most-anticipated game on the Wild schedule this season, and the debates as to whether Gaborik will be cheered for his accomplishments with the Wild or booed for leaving the smaller market club for the big bucks and bright lights of Broadway has been a hotly debated topic out here in Minnesota.

It is easy for me, with nothing emotionally invested in the Wild, to say that Gaborik clearly deserves a long standing ovation and a video tribute on the scoreboard tonight. Unlike many who will show up at Excel Energy Center, I do not feel jilted by the star sniper's exodus to New York, nor do I share the angst of Gaby's many injuries while in Minnesota.

Nonetheless, should be quite the interesting night tonight in frigid St. Paul when Gaborik's Rangers face off with the Wild.

For a more detailed account of Gaborik's return, read my story at NewYorkRangers.com.

For a wide-ranging take on Gaborik and his return this evening, check out these quotes from some of the major players in the story, including Gaby himself.

And special thanks to my buddies Michael Russo from The Star Tribune out here in Minnesota (@RussosTrib on Twitter) and Andrew Gross from The Bergen Record in New Jersey (@AGrossRecord on Twitter) for sharing and swapping quotes with me.

Marian Gaborik:

On his return to Minnesota: “Well it’s definitely going to be the first time. I’ve had a lot of fun over the years there. It’s going to be definitely something special so I just need to get ready for that game. Maybe I’ll be a little nervous or it might be a little emotional but it has to happen at some point. I’m excited to play there and hopefully we’ll have a much game than (Friday's 5-1 loss in Colorado).”


On Missing last year's game vs. the Wild with a knee injury: “Yeah, you’re coming back, you want to play. The circumstances obviously weren’t good but now it’s going to be my first time there and I’m looking forward to that. I don’t know, it’s tough to explain but hopefully we’ll have a good game.”

On what type of reception he expects from the Wild fans: “It’s hard to say. Last year when I wasn’t playing it wasn’t that great when they announced injured guys. I can’t control how they’re going to react. Hopefully it’s going to be pleasant. I think I’ve done a lot of good things there and had good success as an expansion team so hopefully it’s going to be positive.”

On what emotional ties he still has to Wild: “It was a big chapter of my hockey career and my life as well. Definitely I have great memories there but now I’m a Ranger and that’s the way it is. I really enjoy it here. I’m always going to have good memories from Minnesota.”

Rangers forward (and former Wild forward) Derek Boogaard

On Gaborik's return: "I'm not sure what kind of reaction he will get. He put in a lot of good years for that organization and he did a lot of good things there. If anything it should be all positive, I think anyways."

On his own first return to Minnesota tonight: "It'll be a good feeling, but it'll definitely be different, especially being on the other side. I don't know if I am nervous, but it's somewhere along those lines. They'll be 'Booing' either way. That's exactly it!"

Wild forward Cal Clutterbuck

On fans expected reaction to Gaborik: "I mean, I can guarantee you they’re going to boo him. But I don’t know whether that’s out of them not liking him or them just being upset we don’t have him anymore. He took some heat when he was here, but I can tell you firsthand, love him or hate him, they loved him when he was scoring goals. You can’t say no to having a guy like that on your team."

On Boogaard's return: "What's it going to be like to see him? Hilarious. His number alone (97) is going to make me laugh. You miss that guy when he’s not around. He’s one of a kind. Obviously he needed a little change of scenery to get his offensive production boosted!"

Wild forward Andrew Brunette

On Gaborik: "I bet he’ll have his emotions more under control than if it would have happened last year. The first year after you leave a place is always the toughest coming back, so I think he’s more comfortable being in New York and with the team. I still think it’ll be hard. It’s never easy, especially he’s here nine, 10 years and the impact he had here, to come back, it’s never easy."

On the Minnesota fans: "A year ago might been a different story for the fans. Time kind of changes and heals different things. I think the people I've talked to, you come to appreciate him when he’s gone (because they don’t have a game-breaker anymore)."

Wild head coach Todd Richards

On the build-up to tonight's game: "I’ve had lots of requests for tickets from people to come to that game. It seems like people that I know, friends of mine, this is the game they want to come to. You can see the impact [Gaborik] had in this organization, this franchise and this city. It’s the same with Boogey, too. They were both fan favorites. They both helped get the franchise to this point. … I’m looking forward to it. Plus, it’s the New York Rangers anyway. There’s something about playing the Rangers with their colors and their jerseys and their history."

Follow Me on Twitter: @jimcerny and @thenyrangers

Gordon Had No Chance on the Island

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Written on 11/17/2010 by Jim Cerny

Does it seem logical and make sense that a National Hockey League coach is fired after two straight last-place finishes and in the midst of a ten-game losing streak in Year No. 3?

Absolutely. It makes perfect sense. And for that I believe Islanders GM Garth Snow was certainly justified in sacking head coach Scott Gordon on Monday morning.

However Gordon was not the problem on Long Island. Just as interim coach Jack Capuano will not be the problem beginning with this evening's home tilt against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The Islanders' issues start much further up the food chain than the head coach. And higher up than the general manager for that matter, as well.

For all of their good young talent---and make no mistake, the Isles do have a good group of talented youngsters both on their current roster and in the organizational pipeline---the Islanders are headed nowhere under the petty and penny-pinching ownership of Charles Wang.

Once hailed as the savior of the franchise---and rightfully so---at the start of his ownership tenure earlier this decade, Wang has now become a mirror image of some of the disasterous ownerships that preceded him, ones that I was more than well-acquainted with when I served as the club's play-by-play broadcaster.

There was the unfortunate end of the John Pickett regime. There was the embarrassing tenure of the Howard Milstein group, led by clueless hatchet man David Seldin. The "Gang of Four", whose names I can't even remember they were in and out so fast. And of course Gary Bettman's personal black eye, John Spano, a fraud with hardly a dime in his pocket who was personally endorsed by the commisioner of the NHL.

It was embarrassing to be an Islander for all of those years---whether being an Islander meant as a player, a coach, an employee, or more importantly, a fan. The team was mismanaged, a last-place guarantee year after year on the ice, and played to an empty house on a regular basis at the Nassau Coliseum.

Sound familiar?

Sure it does because history is repeating itself these past several years under Wang's stewardship.

Listen, he helped build this franchise back up, and it wasn't too long ago that under his guidance the Islanders were back in the playoffs and the old barn in Hempstead was rocking again. But those days are gone, and I can't envision them coming back.

Wang either wants his Lighthouse real estate project---which includes a new arena, retail, and hotels---to be approved by the Town of Hempstead or he wants out, spending the absolute bare minimum on his team until his lease is up at the Coliseum.

It's his money, so it's his decision. But in the meantime he is holding Islanders fans---what few of them actually still care---captive.

And a good man, and solid coach, like Gordon is given absolutely no chance to win with the roster he is handed. Then he is fired when the team doesn't win. Same will hold true for Capuano for as long as he is here. And the next coach, probably another minor league guy because they are the least expensive to pay, will face the same the situation down the road.

It's going to get worse before it get's better, too. Wang is committed to not spending much more in player salary than what the CBA mandates as the bare minimum. Heck, the Islanders only reach the salary cap floor because they still have Alexei Yashin's buyout on the books.

And what of John Tavares? Remember him? First overall pick in 2009. The player the Islanders craved to build around and center all of their off-ice marketing strategies around?

What of Tavares today? He has a respectable 10 points in 14 games, but his relevance on the National Hockey League landscape has just vanished. This is a guy, similar to a Steven Stamkos, who should be one of the faces of the new NHL. Instead he is adrift on the Island. There can't be a week that goes by that he doesn't speak to his agent or his family about the day that he can finally become a free agent and quickly flee to another organization.

This story could go on and on. But the bottom line point as it regards to Scott Gordon's firing is that yes, the Islanders were justified in letting their head coach go.

But Scott Gordon never had a chance to succeed in the first place.

Follow Me On Twitter: @jimcerny

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Rink Rap Roundup

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Written on 11/12/2010 by Jim Cerny

In a league where fans and media members have been calling for John Maclean's head only ten games or so into his rookie season as head coach of the New Jersey Devils, it is rather amazing that earlier this week Lindy Ruff reached the 1,000 games coached plateau---ironically in a game against Maclean's Devils.

Perhaps even more incredible is that Ruff has coached all 1,000---or 1,001 now after last night's contest with the Rangers---with the same team, the Buffalo Sabres.

He is one of only 18 men to have coached more than 1,000 games in the National Hockey League, one of only three to have been behind the bench for that many for one team, and the only coach in league history to reach the 1,000 games coached milestone having coached for only one NHL organization.

Ruff became head coach of the Sabres back in July of 1997. Since then there have been 155 coaching changes in the league, with every team except the Sabres and Nashville Predators (who entered the league in 1998-99) having made at least one.

Now with the Sabres off to a 5-9-2 start---a record that mainly reveals the early struggles and subsequent injury absence of the team's most important player, goaltender Ryan Miller---some have called for an end to Ruff's time in Buffalo. This after an even-keeled approach that has seen Ruff compile a solid 488-370-142 all-time mark with seven post-season appearances in 12 years for a small-market club that has undergone multiple ownership changes in his tenure and has never been known to ice a team with a large payroll. Not to mention Ruff led the Sabres to another division title last year.

Ludicrous, I say. Ruff has adapted to different personnel and different rules and style of play in the NHL from year-to-year as well, if not better, than any coach I can remember.

There might be issues with the Sabres, but Ruff is not one of them.

Congrats to a good man. And may these rumors soon fall by the side.

St. Louis and Tampa Bay Hit With Big Losses

The St. Louis Blues have been pretty much rolling along to start the season, winning 8 of their first ten games. However they hit some speed bumps this week, getting hammered by the Blue Jackets 8-1 on Wednesday and then finding out that the team's leading scorer T.J. Oshie (1-9-10) is going to miss three months of action with a fractured left ankle---joining four other key Blues, including forward David Perron and defenseman Barret Jackman---on the IR.

The Blues have a tremendous team-first concept and their depth of many interchangable parts is impressive. But now they are really being put to the test, and it will  be quite interesting to see how they navigate this stretch. Since two of their five players out of the lineup have concussion-like symptoms, there is no telling how long coach Davis Payne will have to piece things together, especially now with Oshie gone until mid-February, as well.

There will be an inordinate amount of pressure on Jaroslav Halak to work some magic in goal in order to keep the good ship St. Louis sailing along.

And Tampa Bay is off to a pretty strong start, too, 8-5-2 good for second place in the Southeast and fourth in the Eastern Conference with 18 points. However during last night's 6-3 loss to Washington, the Lightning lost Vincent Lecavalier to a broken bone in his left hand. He will be sidelined 3-4 weeks.

Because Tampa Bay does not have a host of top-flight scorers outside of the league's leading goal scorer Steven Stamkos, high-flying Martin St. Louis, and Lecavalier, this injury could really slow down what has been a strong start to Guy Boucher's rookie season behind the Lightning bench.

Though his numbers are a bit down, Lecavalier has been creating scoring chances on a consistent basis and is still considered a threat when he's on the ice. His absence makes it easier for opposing teams to zero in even more on shutting down Stamkos and St. Louis.

Just as the Blues are faced with a big challenge, so, too, now are the Lightning.

A Real Boogey Night

Rangers coach John Tortorella scratched Derek Boogaard for last night's game against the Sabres. During his pre-game press briefing, Tortorella was asked by a half-joking reporter, "How can you do that? He's on a goal scring streak!"

Torts laughed, and you can't count one goal in 235 games a streak, but indeed the Boogey Man did pot a goal Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden, and it was a real legit goal, too. Long hard slap shot. It's the type of goal no other Ranger has scored this season really. Not red-hot Brandon Dubinsky and his 10 goals, not sniper Marian Gaborik (who only played his fourth game last night due to an early season shoulder injury), not the revived Brian Boyle and his 7 goals.

No one on the Blueshirts has ripped a slapper past the goalie like that all season. Except for the Boogey Man.

If you have not seen it already, check out Boogaard's work here.

And enjoy it. Savor it.

Boogey's goals only come once every four-or-five years.

Follow Me On Twitter: @jimcerny and @thenyrangers

Ex-Rangers Betts and Shelley Loving Life on Broad Street

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Written on 11/09/2010 by Jim Cerny

Blair Betts wore Rangers red, white, and blue for four seasons, establishing himself as one of the top defensive forwards and penalty killers in the entire National Hockey League.

Jody Shelley (photo) is a rugged nine-year NHL veteran who played an important role last season for the Blueshirts when they made a late-season---albeit failed---playoff push, after being acquired in a trade from San Jose in early February.

Both heart-and-soul players made an impact on Broadway, and now both are playing key supporting roles on a Flyers team that is tied with Washington, Los Angeles, and St. Louis for the most points currently in the NHL with 20.

Betts signed with the Flyers last season as a free agent when the Rangers let him walk. Shelley followed the same path this past summer when the Rangers would not commit to a third year and Philly did.

I had a chance to catch up with both late last week when I was down in Philadelphia, and was able to touch on several interesting topics with Betts and Shelley.

On Playing in the Stanley Cup Finals Last Spring

Betts: "It was a great experience, exciting. I can remember watching the Stanley Cup Finals the last few years and just feeling the intensity just watching the games, but to actually be on the ice playing, it's a different experience, a lot different from the day-to-days of the regular season. The intensity just gradually got bigger and bigger. It was crazy. It was disappointing to not end up winning, but maybe we'll learn from it and get there again and win it next time."

On Patrick Kane's Overtime Cup-Winning Goal for Chicago

Betts: "Nobody realized it was a goal. I just remember Kane jumping up and down, but he was kind of by himself. I don't think their team realized it was in. We were just kind of looking at the refs and it was like time stood still for a second. I think when (Michael) Leighton came to the bench and said it was a goal it kind of hit us pretty hard, kind of a weird ending to the year."

Losing in Finals is Motivation for This Year

Betts: "Look at Pittsburgh, maybe that first loss to Detroit helped them win the Cup the next year. There's just so much emotion and intensity, it's just all about controlling your mind. You want to be prepared for the game, but at the same time not get so worked up that you can't play. It's a tough thing to do, but you learn from having done it now."

Shelley: "Things that have gone on, situations they were in over the last year, I betcha' I haven't heard 20 words about them this year. There are some groups where that's all they would be taking about. 'Oh, we did this. Oh, we did that'. In this room there is the sense that they accomplished nothing. I don't know if you put that on the leadership or the whole group or what. But I have been very impressed. You know, I walk in and think Wow, this is a team that's really good, I don't want to walk in there and chink it up or step on anyone's toes. But the mindset is that it's a totally new year, which is great for the new guys coming in."

Peter Laviolette, the Motivator

Shelley: "He's very good day-to-day. He's like (John Tortorella) in that sense. He's a great motivator, understands what we are going through on a day-to-day situation. He knows on a day's situation where we're at, and he's very good where his last words (in meetings) are the most important. And that's the way Torts is, a great motivator. It really gets beyond the X's and O's. It's more words that motivate you before you go out there, and (Laviolette) really keeps us focused that way."

On Rookie Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky

Shelley: "The Bob! That's what everyone calls him here. Bob! He's always smiling, great kid. He and (Brian) Boucher do a great job, and Bouch is the type of guy who helps another guy like that. Bouch is like that, too, one that smiles in all situations, which is good for Bob to see. I don't pay much attention to goalies (laughs), but seriously he's doing a really good job here."

Betts: "He's been great, a really big surprise. Nobody thought he'd push for a spot like he did, but he is so calm, so poised and relaxed. For a young goaltender that's a pretty tough job to jump into. He doesn't speak too much English so he doesn't have too many distractions, you know?! He's very quick side-to-side. It was a revolving door last year (when Philly used 5 different goalies). It seemed like when one goaltender went down, someone else would just be healthy in time to start and then would coming and play well. Even at the end of the playoffs, guys coming back from injuries probably sooner than they would have wanted to."

Follow Me On Twitter: @jimcerny and @thenyrangers

If Not For Bad Luck...

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Written on 11/03/2010 by Jim Cerny

In the cases of Penguins center Jordan Staal, individually, and the New Jersey Devils team, collectively, that old saying rings so true: If not for bad luck, they would not have any luck at all.

Case No. 1: Jordan Staal

Tonight, after missing the first 12 games of the season due to a miserable lingering infection in his foot that had plagued him since last spring, Staal was expected to return to the Pens lineup and center their second line.

Instead, Staal will once again be a spectator, and, no, not because the infection has reared its vicious self again. This time Staal will be sidelined due to a broken hand he suffered in practice the other day.

The latest estimate now pegs Staal's return as mid-December.

Staal has to be thinking "You've got to be kidding me!"

Remember this is a player who had never missed a game due to injury his entire four-year career until P.K. Subban's blade cut through his skate during the last spring's playoffs, causing the gash that cut a tendon in Staal's foot, leading to several operations and the ensuing nasty infection that robbed him of summer workouts and starting the season on time.

His brother Marc, the Rangers' defenseman, told me back in September that Jordan was going through "just a brutal" time dealing with the infection and being so far behind in his training. To miss training camp and the first 12 games had to be hell for a player who personifies the term "gamer".

Then with the reward for all of his patience and hard work right in sight, Staal is struck by a puck in practice, no less, and is set back another 6-8 weeks.

If not for bad luck, indeed.

Case No. 2, the New Jersey Devils

As if the Devils have not been a complete cluster-you-know-what since the whole Ilya Kovalchuk contract mess this past summer right on up through all of their injuries and horrible play under rookie coach John Maclean to start the season, now they find out that star winger Zach Parise will miss three months of action after surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his knee.

And in typical fashion for how their year is progressing, so far, Parise's injured knee was, at first, thought to be minor. Lou Lamoriello let it be known that something was bothering Parise and that exploratory arthroscopic surgery would find out the exact problem, correct it, and get Zach back on the ice in fairly short order.

Torn meniscus and a February return date were not exactly expected by anyone.

But the black cloud that has enveloped the Devils since late last summer knows no limits it seems. It covers everyone and everything in the organization, which is currently stumbling through a disasterous road trip en-route to a 3-9-1 start overall, and an Eastern Conference-worst 7 points.

There was the Kovalchuk contract mess that cost the team a hefty fine and much pain when deemed it first circumvented the league's salary cap. Then there is the case of how Kovy's current contract so ties Lamoriello's hands as far as the Cap goes that New Jersey was forced to play one game this season with only 9 forwards because injured and suspended players could not be replaced by call-ups because the team would have flown over the salary cap.

Then the injuries that have come in waves, picking off Bryce Salvador, Brian Rolston, Anton Volchenkov, and most recently Parise and rookie Jacob Josefson.

How about the sub-par play of nearly the entire roster---headed by Travis Zajac (4 points in 13 games), Jamie Langenbrunner (1 goal in 13 games), Patrick Elias (2 goals in 13 games), and Kovalchuk himself (3 goals in 12 games)?

And, of course, there was the one-game benching of Kovalchuk which sparked the Devils to an ugly 6-1 home-ice loss to the Buffalo Sabres, and only raised more questions about Maclean, the rookie head coach who is under serious fire right now

Finally a seemingly minor injury to Parise---a four-time 30-goal scorer, who netted 45 two years ago---turns into a three-month major problem.

If not for bad luck....

Follow Me On Twitter: @jimcerny and @thenyrangers

Taylor Hall's First Goal and Six Degrees of Separation

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Written on 10/29/2010 by Jim Cerny

For the record Taylor Hall, the first overall pick in the 2010 NHL Draft, recorded his first National Hockey League goal last night. The goal came at 9:57 of the third period and helped Hall's Edmonton Oilers pull even with the host Columbus Blue Jackets 2-2, in a game Edmonton would eventually lose 3-2 in a shootout.

For the record, Steve Mason surrendered the first of what should be many goals for Hall, who had seemingly been carrying the weight of the hockey world on his shoulders after going his first seven games without lighting the lamp.

Hall seemed extremely relieved and happy to finally have scored his first goal when interviewed on Rogers following the game. He laughed when he estimated that he easily had answered the "So Taylor, when are you finally going to score a goal?" question at least a million times already this season.

The bottom line, though, is that Hall is an 18 year-old kid playing on a mediocre team. First overall pick or not, this year is going to be an uphill battle for the extremely talented youngster. Think of Steven Stamkos' rookie campiagn two years ago, and then you have a good comparison for Hall.

Last year John Tavares, already 19 by time training camp started, was the first overall pick by the Islanders. Extremely mature so as to be put in on-ice situations that Hall will not see just yet, Tavares scored 24 goals and notched 54 points while playing all 82 games. While I think Hall will steadily improve as the year progresses I don't expect him to match Tavares' numbers as a rookie.

But he's going to be a player, make no bones about it. And along with fellow youngsters Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi, Hall is poised to help turn this organization around. The future is brighter in Edmonton, for sure.

Interesting that on the night Hall nets his first goal, Tyler Seguin---with whom Hall will always be linked, with Seguin selected second overall in the '10 draft---scored his second of the season in Boston's 2-0 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs. And who plays for Toronto? Why Phil Kessel, of course---whose trade from Boston last year included a first-round pick heading to the Bruins that ended up turning into none other than Seguin.

Gotta' love that six degrees of separation in the National Hockey League.

Central Succes and Other NHL Tidbits

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Written on 10/28/2010 by Jim Cerny

So much going on in the world of hockey, so here are a few quick hits and random thoughts:

Central Success

Quick, name the only division in the NHL where currently all of its teams are playing above .500, so far. And I mean not only .500, but legit .500, not the NHL's bogus break-even point where a team can be, say, 4-4-3, and be considered a .500 team.

Stumped? Try the Central Division, where it's no surprise that Detroit and Chicago are winning, but so, too, are St. Louis and Columbus, and where Nashville sits atop the division.

The Preds are the only team in the league not to have a lost a game in regulation (5-0-3), and they are still perfect on the road (3-0-0). Also, perfect on the road are the surprising Columbus Blue Jackets, 5-3-0 overall and 3-0-0 away from the empty Nationwide Arena.

The Blues, behind the terrific play of goalie Jaroslav Halak, are 4-1-2, and a clean 4-0-0 on home ice. And the Red Wings (5-1-1) and Blackhawks (6-4-1) are also legitimately above .500.

Though I don't see Columbus as a playoff team when all is said and done, the Central easily could---and likely will---send four representatives into the Western Conference post-season tourny, which is pretty impressive considering this division usually is thought of as Chicago/Detroit and "the other teams".

More Ranger Injuries

John Tortorella or Glen Sather must have pissed off someone important upstairs because the rash of injuries decimating the Rangers continues to grow by the day. Already without their superstar sniper Marian Gaborik, their captain Chris Drury, and their second leading scorer from last season Vinny Prospal, the Rangers saw two more players felled by injuries during last night's 6-4 defeat at the hands of the Thrashers.

Second-year center Artem Anisimov, off to a stellar start with 6 points in 8 games, blocked a shot with the outside of his right ankle during the second period and did not see the light of day in the third. Limping badly after the game, Anisimov said he will undergo an MRI today. Tortorella expressed much concern over Anisimov's long-term status, though he---like everyone else---must wait on the MRI results.

Then with five minutes to play in the game veteran defenseman Michal Rozsival---playing perhaps his best hockey as a Ranger at both ends of the ice---hyper-extended his knee. He, too, will be further evaluated today.

Already shorthanded, the Rangers could be crippled if they lose two more of their most consistent players in Anisimov and Rozsival.

The talk throughout training camp was how much deeper the Rangers roster is this year, and that is true. However they are not nearly deep enough to lose five of their regulars and continue to be successful.

Evander Kane is the Real Deal

I know I raved about him in Rink Rap last year when he was just an 18 year-old rookie, but watching Evander Kane last night I saw a player that is going to be a star in this league. He is a great skater, with good size, and excellent hands. He creates offensively, and is willing to go to the ugly areas to score goals, too.

Last night he scored his 6th goal in 9 games for Atlanta, and it's not out of the equation that he could break out in his second year in similar fashion to how Steven Stamkos did a year ago with Tampa Bay. Kane is THAT good.

My hunch is a 30-goal campaign this season for Kane, but down the line 40 is a distinct possibility.

And he just turned 19 years old in August.

Atlanta has their player to build around, their new Kovalchuk, if you will. And hopefully with better team results to follow.

Be-Deviled Again

Lou Lamoriello is saying all the right things about rookie head coach John Maclean, but Johnny Mac has got to be sweating somewhat, what with his team off to a horrendous 2-7-1 start and Lamoriello not exactly known for patience with his coaches.

The latest example of the Devils not looking ready to play took place last night when they opened their road trip by surrendering three first period goals to the Sharks en-route to a 5-2 defeat. New Jersey has now allowed an NHL-high 35 goals already this season, a statistic that is so un-Devil like for a team built with a defense-first mindset for the past 15 years or so.

The Ilya Kovalchuk benching three games ago only adds to the uneasy feel around this team, one that had better turn it around soon or else one of the the most revered people in franchise history---Maclean---will be looking elsewhere for employment.

Kovy and Coach Offer No Explanation for Benching

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Written on 10/24/2010 by Jim Cerny

Not that they are obligated to at all, but neither Devils coach John Maclean nor New Jersey's $100 million superstar Ilya Kovalchuk offered up any explanations as to why Kovy was a healthy scratch last night, when each met with the media prior to this evening's contest with the Rangers at Madison Square Garden.

The media, of course, IS obligated to ask why, if for no other reason than to avoid rumor, innuendo, and speculation.

But no answers were forthcoming, both coach and player instead looking to shove this sideshow, well, to the side, or at best, out of sight completely.

Not likely to happen any time soon, even if Kovy goes off on an offensive tear. And certainly it will be an even bigger story if the talented Russian shows any signs of sulking, or displays any anger towards the rookie bench boss.

"It was the coach's decision to give me a little rest, that's all," was Kovalchuk's laughable explanation as to why he was benched in a game the Devils eventually lost in embarrasing 6-1 fashion to the Sabres last night.

When asked if he sat because of an off-ice issue, Kovy answered with a quick and stern, "No Comment!"

The rumor floating around the Devils is that Kovy either missed, or was late to, a team meeting. If that is the case, then it would seem Maclean is more than justified in making his best, and highest-paid, player an example for his underachieving club.

So why not say so? Again, internal team issues are internal team issues, and the Devils are an extremely conservative organization to boot, so I'm not saying their approach is the wrong one here, but it certainly won't make this story go away any time soon, which has to make Lou Lamoriello et al extremely uncomfortable.

"The issue is over, and like I said yesterday it's an internal matter," said Maclean, whose team is 2-5-1 on the season and winless in five home games (0-4-1).

Maclean said that "we talked" earlier today and that "I stand by my decision."

Perhaps most important was the news that Kovalchuk will be back in the lineup this evening. Wouldn't be shocked to see him light the lamp 3 or 4 times, or see him pull an absolute no-show. It will clearly be the most interesting subplot to this game.

"Today is a new game, a new day," said Maclean. "The most important game is always the one you play today."

"That's his decision and it's going to stay between me and him," added Kovy. "I'm just a player and I am going to show up tonight to play."

Claude Julien Unplugged

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Written on 10/23/2010 by Jim Cerny

Though you wouldn't know it from this picture, Bruins head coach Claude Julien is one of the nicest, most personable, and affable coaches in the entire National Hockey League.

It's always a treat to catch up with Julien and hear his often verbose takes on various topics related to his team or the NHL.

Here in Boston where tonight the 4-1-0 Bruins host the 2-2-1 Rangers I was able to get Julien's take on several interesting topics.

Claude Julien Unplugged:

On the Poise of Rookie Tyler Seguin

"I think he had a lot of practice with that before he even got here because of the attention he had received before the draft. At the same tyime, off the ice our veterans have done a real good job of helping him through it, involving him with everything. I think that's been a great asset for him. He's a good kid to start with, and being surrounded by some great vets it makes everything a lot smoother. On ice, he's been good for us (1-2-3 in 5 games). You give him an opportunity and he's a pretty explosive player. He does the best with what you give him. What I like about him, so far, is that he wants to learn, and the fact that every game he plays he just keeps getting better and more comfortable."

On Early-Season Winning Streak, Now at Four Games

"I think you want to make it a habit, simple as that. You start winning games, you get hungry, and hopefully you get in the situation that you hate losing so much that when you lose a game here and there you want to get back to your winning ways. It's one of those things where you have to have the right mental approach. As a coach you can't go in there like they're playoff games and say that every game is the most important game. These guys have to be focused and say, you knw what, this is game day and we need to be ready to do our best and go out there and compete hard. You make that a habit."

On Lightly-Regarded Rangers

"It's always a hard-fought game and it's physcical against the Rangers. They are a team that likes to crash the net, which makes for a physical game around the net area. They are also a team that doesn't get enough credit for how well they play in their D zone. They really front pucks well, and play well in front of their crease area. Plus they have a great goaltender in (Henrik) Lundqvist. So with that great D zone coverage, they are tough to score goals on."