Rangers offer worst effort of season

PATRICK WILLIAMS -- Special to SLAM! Sports

, Last Updated: 8:05 AM ET

OTTAWA –- A major test came the New York Rangers’ way on Monday night at the Corel Centre, and they flunked the test badly.

An intriguing Boxing Day match-up, a 6-2 pasting courtesy of the Ottawa Senators wound up being one of the Rangers’ worst efforts this season.

For sure, the Rangers have cooled off this month this since a sizzling 20-8-4 start to their 2005-06 season. And the Senators made the visitors look silly, rattling off three goals in a first-period stretch of 3:28 that turned a 2-1 New York lead into a 4-2 hole against the likes of Dominik Hasek and the NHL’s most explosive offence.

The Rangers entered Monday night with the NHL’s second-best penalty kill, but the Senators torched the visitors for three power-play goals.

Discipline also went out the window for the Rangers, who took the game’s first four penalties, a glaring lack of restraint from a group that ranked in the bottom third of the NHL in penalty minutes per game coming into the tilt.

But such outings have been few and far between for this group of young Rangers. The difference between this season and past Rangers seasons, though, is that these sorts of outings are notable for their rarity, the exception rather than the norm, as it were.

With the halfway point of the NHL season fast approaching, Monday night’s Rangers-Senators soiree featured a pair of teams that have climbed to the top of the Eastern Conference using different systems and vastly different personnel.

The Senators, well, most folks expected to see Bryan Murray’s club hovering near the top of the NHL pecking order. And any remnants of the Binghamton Senators’ crash-and-burn operation last May – nine players on the Ottawa roster Monday night skated in last season’s Calder Cup playoffs – have long since scattered to the wind as Ottawa has rolled over their NHL brethren this season.

As for the Rangers, so much for Broadway star power and showmanship being needed to bring crowds back to Madison Square Garden, along with some much-needed dignity to what had been an NHL laughingstock dating back to 1997.

The likes of Jaromir Jagr, Martin Straka and rookie shocker Henrik Lundqvist aside, this cast of Blueshirts has used off-Broadway talent to put on a first-class Broadway show.

Mostly this is a crew with roots in a most unflashy locale – Hartford, where insurance is the local industry, not glitz.

The Rangers’ turnaround has shocked a lot of NHL watchers this season, but its seeds were planted in the AHL.

The country-club atmosphere so prevalent for so long in New York had seeped right down to the Hartford Civic Center, the Wolf Pack completely bottoming out in a short-lived 2003 Calder Cup playoff series with rival Springfield in which the Wolf Pack and a cast of bad seeds rolled over.

Ryan McGill, then a head coach in his first year of pro, was mostly stuck with a crew of sour personalities that season. Given a young, energetic group for the 2003-04 season, McGill oversaw a dramatic turnaround in which the Wolf Pack battled all the way to the seventh game of the Eastern Conference final, where they finally bowed out in overtime to a powerful Wilkes-Barre/Scranton team.

Last season saw another strong effort from the Wolf Pack. McGill, who piled up 127 wins over three seasons, did not survive the fall- out from a first-round exit to the Lowell Lock Monsters, who skated the likes of Eric Staal and Chuck Kobasew and had Cam Ward anchoring the net.

McGill was let go in favour of Jim Schoenfeld and now oversees Calgary’s AHL prospects in Omaha. But the framework that McGill helped put in place – through carrot or stick, as the case would be – live on with the Rangers.

Dominic Moore skates the left side of a quasi-checking line with NHL veteran centreman Steve Rucchin and a Hartford teammate of Moore’s from last season, Jed Ortmeyer.

Left wing Ryan Hollweg is another of that group. Hollweg, 22, sees limited ice time on the Rangers’ fourth line, but his all-out mentality endeared him to Hartford’s coaching staff last season. Hollweg piled up 239 penalty minutes last season, fighting and hitting anyone, anywhere.

Hollweg came to Hartford off his overage year in Medicine Hat and having contended with injury problems in junior.

“(McGill) really gave me a great opportunity and a chance to show the Rangers what I have,” Hollweg said.

“Ryan gave me a great opportunity taking me on the team.”

Add former AHL MVP Jason Ward, plus Russians Fedor Tyutin and Maxim Kondratiev, both of whom spent abbreviated stints in Hartford, and the makings of a team with solid AHL foundations has developed.

Jim Schoenfeld has another group of youngsters developing nicely this season in Hartford.

Tom Renney’s club and its mostly no-name defence play a sound game in their own end. Discipline serves as a key tenet, and when the Rangers do get into penalty trouble, they lean on their excellent penalty kill.

If that all sounds familiar to folks who watched the Wolf Pack on a regular basis over the past two seasons – and to a large extent, this season’s Wolf Pack, despite massive personnel turnover from last season – then it should.

“We're playing the same style of game (as in Hartford),” Hollweg said.

That the AHL was as strong as it had been in at least a generation certainly helped accelerate Hollweg’s progress.

“The league was so good and so skilled last year.”

Hollweg’s style has changed a bit, as he has toned down his a game a bit to fit within the more structured, less rambunctious NHL game.

“It's a definite step up from the American League. But I'm really enjoying my time here, just taking everything in and making sure that I improve every day.”

“The main transition is just the speed of the game, the strength of the players and just making sure that you're mentally prepared every game, because it's so much hockey and you're playing so much. You just have to make sure that you're mentally ready.”

Still, Hollweg said, “The transition (to the NHL) wasn't too hard for my game because I go out and do the same thing every night (regardless of the league). I'm expected to go hard, finish my checks, get on the forecheck and be an energy guy.”


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