Rangers Earn an A, May Lose Their C
The Rangers returned to indoor hockey this weekend, beating the Islanders at MSG on Friday to finish off a successful week that also saw them sweep a doubleheader at Yankee Stadium. It was another strong performance from the Rangers, as they blitzed the Islanders early and then rode three third-period goals and near-perfect goaltending from Henrik Lundqvist to a 4-1 victory.
The win was the Rangers’ third straight and ninth in their last 12. That has moved them into sole possession of second place in the Metro, and while they won’t be catching the Penguins for the top spot, they’ve at least built a four-point gap over the non-playoff teams. That’s far from a comfortable lead, but as a team that’s been on the outside of the race looking in for most of the season, they’ll take it.
So given all that, you’d be forgiven for thinking that times are good in Ranger-land. Instead, the big news around the team these days is the status of captain Ryan Callahan. A pending unrestricted free agent, Callahan is reportedly looking for a seven-year deal that will pay him in the $6 million range annually. That might be too rich for even the big-spending Rangers, who could end up having to trade Callahan before next month’s deadline.
In fact, a deal could come even earlier, given the reports that Rangers GM Glen Sather wants to know where he stands with his captain by Friday’s Olympic roster freeze. That doesn’t mean a trade would need to be completed by then, but it’s worth noting that the Rangers have apparently already taken the unusual step of allowing other teams to contact Callahan’s camp directly to discuss a contract.
It’s possible this is all a bluff to drive down Callahan’s asking price (or, more likely, the number of years he’s looking for). But the Rangers have already dealt Michael Del Zotto rather than extend him, and are also rumored to be shopping pending UFA Dan Girardi.
The Rangers entered the season with a roster full of expiring contracts and expectations of Cup contention. The latter half of that equation hasn’t held up for most of the year, though their recent hot streak makes you wonder. At this point, it looks like Sather is willing to blow it all up rather than let valuable assets walk away for nothing. Every Ranger win between now and the deadline will make that call even tougher.
Islanders Prepare to Hit the Vanek Button
The other New York team will also be featured prominently in rumors leading up to the trade deadline, though in the case of the Islanders, it will be for more traditional reasons: They stink.
After a disastrous November and December appeared to have torpedoed their playoff hopes entirely, the Islanders had spent much of the past month quietly scraping their way back into the race. On January 21, they beat the Rangers for their seventh win in nine game and moved within five points of the final wild-card spot. But since then they’ve lost five straight and dropped to 10 points back. They’re done.
So what comes next? One thing we know is that, unlike the Rangers, there won’t be any talk of trading the captain. John Tavares is second in league scoring and should expect to receive some MVP votes. Linemate Kyle Okposo has had a breakthrough year and won’t be going anywhere, either. The rest of the team? Make an offer.
The most obvious target will be Thomas Vanek, the star winger who’ll become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year and has reportedly turned down the Islanders’s offer. Vanek, of course, was acquired by the Islanders in a deal with the Sabres just three months ago, in a move that cost New York both Matt Moulson and a first-round pick. That was supposed to be the deal that cemented the Islanders’ status as a playoff lock, and it hasn’t worked out that way. But that’s hardly been Vanek’s fault, as he’s scored at nearly a point-per-game pace in New York.
Besides Vanek, the Islanders can’t really offer much in the way of traditional rentals. Their only other established veteran on an expiring deal is goalie Evgeni Nabokov. He’s been better lately after an awful start, but would hold little if any value on the trade market. It’s unlikely the Islanders will re-sign him, meaning the team’s top priority for next year will be finding a starting goalie — you wonder why they weren’t in on guys like Ben Scrivens and Devan Dubnyk. Meanwhile, veterans like Cal Clutterbuck and Lubomir Visnovsky should draw some phone calls.
It’s also worth keeping an eye on coach Jack Capuano. His firing was considered such a sure thing in December that discussion had already turned to his eventual replacement, but the team’s brief hot streak earned him a reprieve. At this point he’s probably 50/50 to make it through the season, and his odds of being behind the bench on opening night next year are significantly slimmer.
Losing Becoming a Hab-it
The Montreal Canadiens spent the weekend at home, hosting a pair of afternoon games against the Lightning on Saturday and the Jets on Sunday. They came away 2-1 losers in both.
On Saturday, they dropped an overtime decision on Nate Thompson’s sudden-death winner in the final minute. That was technically Thompson’s second goal of the game, though the first was actually tipped in by Montreal defenseman P.K. Subban. The game also featured a teachable moment in the second period, as Habs forward Brandon Prust learned that if you poke a 6-foot-7 goalie in the groin with your stick, he may decide to punch you in the face.
On Sunday, it was Winnipeg’s Michael Frolik’s turn to net the winner, this one coming early in the third after Andrew Ladd stole the puck from Montreal goaltender Carey Price. Jets goalie Al Montoya made 30 saves for the win before getting involved in a scuffle of his own as time expired.
The losses left Montreal with just six wins in its last 17 games. The Canadiens’ play has been steadily deteriorating all season — this rolling Fenwick chart is downright ugly — and they’re currently holding one of the East’s wild-card spots. At this point they’re far from a playoff lock, a scenario that would have seemed almost unthinkable during the first half, when they appeared set to challenge the Bruins and Lightning for first place in the Atlantic. It has left coach Michel Therrien struggling to find answers, and has led to some speculation about his job security.
Meanwhile, the team made a minor trade this afternoon, sending defenseman Raphael Diaz to the Vancouver Canucks for forward Dale Weise. The early reviews on the deal are, uh, not great.
If there’s good news, it’s that Price seems to have found his game again. His blunder on Sunday’s game winner notwithstanding, he played well in both games, and earned a shutout against the Hurricanes earlier in the week. Combined with a strong game from backup Peter Budaj against the Bruins, and Montreal has allowed just five goals in its past four games. That’s a welcome turnaround from its previous six, when it had given up at least four goals each game and been outscored 27-11 while managing just one win.
So it seems clear that Price is the key to Montreal’s hopes, and the Canadiens will need him to be at the top of his game for the rest of the season if they’re going to get back to looking like a legitimate playoff threat. Here’s hoping he can relax a little over the Olympic break. He won’t be stuck doing anything too stressful, will he?
• The Capitals and Red Wings abandoned their goaltenders in a wild 6-5 overtime Washington win. Alexander Ovechkin scored the winner, capping off a week that saw him come under fire for his two-way game after going minus-5 against the Blue Jackets.
• That loser point against the Caps moved the struggling Red Wings back into the final wild-card spot. They remain without the services of Pavel Datsyuk, who hasn’t played since the Winter Classic on January 1. Given his inability to suit up for his NHL employer, there’s some controversy growing over Datsyuk’s participation in the Olympics, where he’ll serve as captain for Team Russia.
• The Sharks beat the Hawks 2-1 in a shootout that featured this highlight-reel goal from Joe Thornton.
• Saturday’s most entertaining game was the Maple Leafs’ 6-3 win over the Senators. The game featured two unusual goals: one by Joffrey Lupul that came courtesy of a missed boarding call on Nazem Kadri, and one by Chris Neil that nobody on the ice even noticed until it was spotted by the Toronto war room during a commercial break. There was no such controversy on any of Phil Kessel’s three goals, and after a four-point night the Leafs winger has now moved up to fourth in the NHL scoring race.
• Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but the Kings can’t score. A 2-0 defeat to the Flyers on Saturday was their third shutout loss in five, and left them with just three goals scored in their last six. They’ve won just one of their last nine.
• Odd stat: While a ridiculous 25 teams are “over .500” thanks to the loser point, only 11 have positive goal differentials. All 11 are sitting in top-three spots in their respective divisions. The only top-three team without a positive differential: the Leafs, at minus-6.
• On Saturday, the Avalanche put a 7-1 beating on Buffalo that was so bad that the Sabres Twitter account doesn’t want to talk about it. That win made it three straight for the Avs, who have won eight of their last 10 and are staying within striking distance of the Blues and Blackhawks in the Central.
• The hottest team in the league right now may be the Calgary Flames, who just finished off a 5-0 home stand with a 4-3 win over the Wild. In case you’re wondering, those were the team’s first home games since this happened. Season turning point? Probably not, since it’s not like the Flames’ season could be saved, but it seems to be something to build on.
• As for the other half of that incident, the Canucks have only one regulation win since and have lost three straight. They’re now just one point up on the Coyotes for the final playoff spot, and Phoenix has a game in hand. Coach John Tortorella returns from suspension tonight.