Two of the more perplexing questions confronting any hockey coach are: 1. When does he start his backup goalie in a tense rivalry game? 2. At what point in such a game does he yank a supposedly slumping netminder?
These two challenges were presented to John Tortorella on the night of Dec. 2, 2010 during which Martin Biron was yanked and eventually replaced by Henrik Lundqvist at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Until then, the former Islander-puckstopper-turned Ranger had won his last five starts in Uniondale.
Mind you, there was a lot more at stake in this continuation of what then was the 38th year of one of the National Hockey League's most intense rivalries. Among other issues these included:
* CHANGE OF COACHES: Did general manager Garth Snow do the right thing by firing Scott Gordon so early in the season?
* THE REPLACEMENT: A veritable unknown, Jack Capuano was the replacement and his credentials were yet to be fully presented -- nor tested.
* ISLES -- FOR REAL OR NOT: Opening the season with a commendable 4-2-1 record, the Isles still were confounding NHL analysts. Were the first seven games reflective of the team's worth as a playoff contender? This game with the Rangers would provide a good litmus test.
* RANGERS UNDER TORTORELLA: The firing of Tom Renney was not unanimously approved in Rangerville where the genial coach was admired for his personality as much as his hockey savvy. The explosive Tortorella still had these same fans wondering whether his Tough Love style of coaching -- reminiscent of Mike Keenan -- would work, long-term.
Capuano's ascent to the head coaching job did not bring immediate success. The Isles were 0-2-2 over his first quartet of games before a victory over the struggling Devils produced his first W. Six days later, the Rangers would invade Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum and Big Jack would get his first feel of one of sport's most intense rivalries. As always the Blueshirts would lure plenty of fans to the Uniondale barn.
"It's one of those 'road' games where you don't have to create your own atmosphere or energy," said Rangers defenseman Michael Del Zotto, "because our fans help us with that."
If nothing else, the good news on the Blueshirts’ bulletin board was that Torts’ team was keeping its head above the .500 mark. A run of 9-7-0 in November placed the club at 14-11-1 so far on the season; hardly stupendous, but enough to promise better for the future. The puzzling part was that home ice was no advantage whatsoever; the Rangers won only five of their first 13 on Seventh Avenue. What had saved them from the Conference cellar to that point was their road game. They were 9-4 on the road with one of those losses coming in Uniondale.
(THE MAVEN'S THOUGHTS: When I was working for SportsChannel in the late 1970s and early 1980s, my assignment was solely to broadcast Islanders games. Hence my association with the four-Cup-winners was very, very tight. And when I was doing a home game for the Islanders side -- as in this particular broadcast -- I still was thinking Islanders telecast, first and foremost. With that in mind, I always wondered just how the fan percentage would lean at the Coliseum. During games when the Islanders are down -- as they were at this point in the standings -- the Band of Blueshirts was very vocal, but that also changed with every Islanders goal in a close game. If nothing else, the keen fan rivalry never has abated over the 40 years during which the teams have faced each other to this day.)
On the Rangers’ side, a major subject of conversation involved Marian Gaborik, who had been expected to headline the franchise's offense as he had a season earlier. The Slick Slovak put up 42 goals and 86 points during his first season in Blue and a repeat was what the brass hoped for but certainly was not getting up until this point in the season. It wasn't as if Mister Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons had to be put on the case to find the real Gabby but with only five goals in 13 games -- three of them against the porous Oilers’ defense -- Marian was not living up to his preseason notices.
The trick -- on this night at least -- was to follow Tortorella's strategy of generating more offense off puck possession and offensive zone pressure. His words were loud and clear. "No matter what the Islanders are trying to do, we have to do our thing and establish our game. We need to have the puck more, so we are certainly going to try and establish that right away in our game."
With that general game plan in mind -- and Gaborik in particular -- the coach placed forward Erik Christensen and Sean Avery on Gabby's line. This was a fascinating combination for a lot of reasons. During Torts’ sabbatical after being canned in Tampa Bay, he took a broadcasting job in Canada and at one point was very critical of Avery's behavior. As for Christensen, his talent was all there, but his desire was occasionally questioned.
(THE MAVEN'S THOUGHTS: Christensen was one of my favorites despite his less than critical acclaim. Erik has talent coming out of his ears, but no coach has fully exploited it although Torts tried his best. In 2010-2011, Christensen had as good a chance as any to gain a regular starting spot on the roster as well as in the coach's heart. But, in the end, the verdict would be "Close but no cigar!")
When Avery and Christensen were at the tops of their games, it had to rub off on Gaborik and that's why the Rangers scored the first goal. Gabby started the play by wheeling out of the near corner to Islanders goalie Rick DiPietro's left. Cycling the puck behind the net, Gabby left it for Avery who put on his invisible radar gun and detected Christensen in a lovely place. Christensen saw that DiPietro was cheating off the near post. One of Erik's offensive virtues was finding "air" offered by a goalie. As soon as Christensen obtained the Avery pass, he delivered a sharp, angled snapshot over DP's short-side shoulder and it was one-zip, Rangers.
What followed was a perfect example of Ryan Callahan emerging as a fan favorite and leader. With just under three minutes left in the period, Rangers rookie Derek Stepan intercepted Radek Martinek's poor clearing attempt. As Martinek hauled down Stepan, the Ranger pushed the puck ahead to Brandon Dubinsky, creating a two-on-one. Somehow Duby pushed the puck through Mark Eaton to the driving Callahan who beat DiPietro for his eighth of the season. The Isles got on the score sheet with just under a minute remaining in the period when enforcer Zenon Konopka fought off checks from Dan Girardi and Marc Staal in front to poke the loose puck past Biron.
(THE MAVEN'S THOUGHTS: When the Islanders signed Konopka, I got a phone call from my buddy Howard Dolgon, a Long Islander who owns the AHL Syracuse Crunch. "You're gonna love Konopka," said Howard. "Watch; within a month he'll become one of the most popular Islanders. He can fight and he can play." So, what could I do but watch and I found out soon enough what Pal Howard meant. Konopka not only was as advertised, but a terrific face-off man and penalty-killer as well. I was very disappointed when he wasn't re-signed and wound up with Ottawa.)
All of a sudden, the Isles looked like the team that had come out of the gate like Gangbusters. Goals by Matt Moulson, ex-Ranger PA Parenteau and Robbie Schremp put the Isles ahead 3-2 and spelled finis for Biron who exited Stage Left while Henrik Lundqvist came on from Stage Right. There was a method to Torts’ move; Biron was just bad on all three goals.
"Marty didn't look dead-on even on a couple of saves he made," Tortorella explained. "Our team looked lethargic and I just wanted to switch. It was more a case of just wanting to change momentum."
Call it luck; call it coincidence or put the label “COACHING GENIUS” on it, but the move sure did move the Rangers to bigger and better things. In less than a minute, pesty Brandon Prust had his second goal of the year, setting the stage for The Gaborik Show, starring Marian. Gabby's first goal of the night -- as dirty a power-play goal as any the deft sharpshooter could score -- put the Rangers ahead. Trying to feed Callahan at the back post, Gabby watched his pass conveniently pinball off Konopka's stick and beyond DiPietro's reach.
En route to his hat trick, Gabby earned Goal Two of the night when Avery showed what a multi-talent he could be by sliding a pass to the goal mouth where Gabby graciously accepted the gift, flipping the rubber past Ricky for a 5-3 Rangers lead. But the Isles’ Waiver Wire Whiz, Michael Grabner, brought the home club to within one at 12:29 after which Blake Comeau tied the count at five.
(THE MAVEN'S THOUGHTS: Blake Comeau was one of those enigmatic talents (see Viktor Kozlov) who occasionally had Gordie Howe overtones (see the tying goal) but too often disappeared into a fourth-line mist. As often happens with me, I get attached to a player who’s just a plain nice guy; good to talk to and a team sort of player. Like the Islanders’ general staff, I waited impatiently for Blake to turn into the player we wanted him to be but never was. Having said that, I have to tell you how disappointed I was when Comeau was finally traded away; still not showing any signs of being a star.)
Chemistry is chemistry and on this night, the Avery-Gaborik-Christenen line had it all the way. The winning goal was a product of substance over style. Robbie Schremp always had the style, but not much substance in the defensive end. Sean knew this and removed Robbie from the puck. Avery then deposited it with Erik at the top of the right circle. With both Matt Martin and Andrew MacDonald converging on him, Christensen flicked a hump-back liner toward the front of the net. DiPietro went down to the butterfly to control it but the puck never reached him.
Gaborik jumped acros the front of the net and received the soft shot in stride while fighting off Jim Wisniewski. Gabby continued across and slid the puck under the now lunging DP and the Rangers were ahead once again, 6-5, but this time for the night. Final Score, 6-5, Blueshirts. Not that the Isles weren't valiant in defeat. Grabner nearly tied the game off the next face-off, splitting the Staal-Girardi defense tandem but his wrister was batted away by The King for the save that preserved the victory. On the other side, Ricky gave up six goals on only 26 shots.
"Every time we seized momentum," DiPietro concluded, "they came back and capitalized. It was an up-and-down game, but a loss is a loss."
(THE MAVEN'S THOUGHTS: I have known DiPietro from the day he was signed and showed up on the Island with his Dad and agent. We've had a very pleasant -- often amusing -- relationship since then. He treats me like a funny uncle and I regard him as a lovable nephew. From the get-go I appreciated his talent, especially his free-flowing moves which reminded me of Glenn Hall who introduced the "butterfly" style that's so prevalent among contemporary netminders. Best of all -- at least from my broadcaster's viewpoint -- was that Ricky never ducked an interview with me whether the result was a win or a loss.)
A night later, Henny again would prove his superiority with a 2-0 win over the Isles at The Garden. From there, the Rangers made like they were the Cyclone in Coney Island; up, then down, then up again before squeezing in to the playoffs on the final night of the season. The Isles’ roller-coaster finish had a bitter-sweet taste to it. Veteran Dwayne Roloson proved reliable between the pipes and newly-signed former Rangers first-round pick, Al Montoya, helped the Nassaumen go 15-12-6 from February on and also convinced GM Garth Snow to remove the "interim" tag from Capuano's job description.
For a time, there were dreams of an Islanders whiz-bang-a-la-kazam finish that might catapult them into the playoffs but, in the end, it wasn't to be and they finished 27th in the league standings. They wound up picking fifth overall in the Draft, which turned out not to be a bad thing. Their selection, Ryan Strome, now has all the earmarks of a top-line player in the John Tavares mold. Meanwhile, the Rangers played Washington in the first postseason round and that hardly was a balm. They were dispatched in five games.
As for the questions raised at the top, here are the answers:
* CHANGE OF COACHES: Once Scott Gordon was replaced it took a couple of months for Jack Capuano to get a feel for the Isles. Gordon's hard-nosed handling of the club might have worked elsewhere, but somewhere along the line his players were not responding well. Whether it was the coach or the players, Snow could not wait any longer for the answer. Hence, Scott got the boot.
* THE REPLACEMENT: The strong homestretch run in the New Year proved that Cappy could be an asset. His problem was that Jack couldn't play neither goal nor defense for his team nor avoid crucial injuries to the likes of Mark Streit and Kyle Okposo. One more season will determine his fate on the Island.
* ISLES FOR REAL OR NOT: There were some mighty promising signs, especially the maturation of John Tavares and the revelation of Matt Moulson as a legitimate scoring ace. At first it appeared as if Montoya not only would be a fan favorite for years but the answer to the goaltending issues. But his early successes proved to be illusory and his departure eventually proved that point.
* RANGERS UNDER TORTORELLA: Mister Tough Love and his battalion just barely made it into the post-season and went through the playoff revolving door faster than you can say "Caps, Again!" As he progressed, Torts was able -- with Glen Sather's wise moves -- to acquire his kind of team. With a Lundqvist save here or a Brad Richards goal there, the Blueshirts could have reached the Final round last Spring and very likely could have disposed of the Kings. But they did not and Torts still has one Stanley Cup ring to his name. Could be two the next time around.
Reader Brian McCormack offers his viewpoint on the Rangers-Islanders meeting.
McCormack: "That Dec. 2 rivalry game had little impact on the fate of either team; except for the fact the Rangers did in the end need the two points to make the playoffs. What the game did demonstrate was that regardless of either team's place in the standings, Rangers-Islanders games are always fierce battles with playoff atmospheres. And no lead is ever safe! Gaborik's continued offensive struggles proved a blessing in disguise. While Gabby recorded three hat tricks during the 2010-2011 season, they were all against non-playoff opponents. His ineffectiveness forced the Rangers to look to other areas for offense and the advent of the Brad Richards Era."
(THE MAVEN'S THOUGHTS: It's easy to become enamored of an amiable goaltender such as Al Montoya. After a win he not only effervescent with his comments, I found him good for laughs. Following each W, I'd head for the dressing room and come up with a new nickname for Big Al. There were some awfully good times and I hoped and prayed that his goaltending would last for a long time. But a concussion injury changed all that. Upon his return, Montoya seemed to have lost the confidence and ability that had preceded the injury. As for DiPietro, we're still waiting for the season that includes his revival of the skills that inspired management to spend so much money -- and years -- on him. Meanwhile, the Rangers -- under the Sather-Tortorella tandem -- solidified their franchise. Sather disposed of players -- Christensen and Avery in particular -- who were not Torts-type performers. By the end of 2011-2012, the Blueshirts were aiming for the Stanley Cup and it was a realistic wish when NHL hockey finally would return.)