Obviously, the focus tonight is on Sean Avery-Martin Brodeur despite the more pressing issues for both teams of desperately needing the two points - the Rangers to keep pace in the playoff hunt while the Devils need to reverse their four-game losing streak.
But John Tortorella sees a much more pressing need - better play in the neutral zone. Having seen far too many odd-man rushes and open space in the middle, Tortorella is slowing the game down for his defensemen. No longer are they going to be asked to pinch so much in the neutral zone. Instead, Tortorella has recognized it may be too much too soon in implementing that part of his system, so he's going to back off until training camp next season.
"It's a process and I don't think we have enough time right now," Tortorella said.
As for the defense, rookie Corey Potter will be paired with Paul Mara (natch) while the other two pairings - Marc Staal-Dan Girardi and Wade Redden-Derek Morris remain intact. Also, keep an eye on how much time Mara-Potter actually receive.
More switching on the lines:
Avery-Scott Gomez-Ryan Callahan
Nikolai Zherdev-Chris Drury-Nik Antropov
Fredrik Sjostrom-Brandon Dubinsky-Markus Naslund
Lauri Korpikoski-Blair Betts-Colton Orr
In Zherdev and Naslund, you have two wingers who normally play on the left, though Naslund has played on the right enough times this season.
"I think players should be able to play both sides and some will, whether they like it or not," Tortorella said.
Check below for updates. Also, please remember this Ranger blog is in a must-win situation against Tom Guletti's Fire and Ice. We've been out-commented in the previous five this season and this is our last chance to earn two points.
PRE-GAME UPDATE: In the category of this could mean something, or might not, just saw NHL Deputy Commissioner walking to his seat. Probably just taking in a game after a day at the office. Or is he?
OPENING FACEOFF UPDATE: Gomez's line starting for Rangers, meaning Avery's on the ice. Let's see what happens.
UPDATE, 1:00 First period: Avery's first shift: Mike Mottau knocks him down at the Devils blue line with a clean shoulder check. Avery then drives Mottau into the boards with a clean body check. Nothing in the crease.
UPDATE 4:35 First period: Avery's second shift: He tries a wraparound at Brodeur's left post and Mottau slides down to body him away, then flops on top of him.
UPDATE, 8:42 First period: Forget what I wrote above about Antropov playing the left. Other way around, Antropov on right with Zherdev playing the left.
UPDATE, 13:38 First period: Needless to say, but this is much better for the Rangers both offensively and defensively than in Pittsburgh, more so defensively. Rangers have kept the play in the Devils end for the most part and are outshooting NJ, 13-6. Wade Redden just pinched up nicely for a good chance around the crease and there was support behind, even though Brodeur gloved the shot.
UPDATE, 17:52 First period: The bulk of Avery's battles tonight have come against Mottau, not Brodeur.
AFTER FIRST PERIOD: Excellent first period for the Rangers, all that was missing was a goal. Their 20 shots (the Devils took 10) represent a season-high, the third time they've reached 20 in a period this season, including in the second period of their 5-2 win at New Jersey on Nov. 12.
UPDATE, 4;15 Second period: Henrik Lundqvist makes his two best saves on a bang-bang play. Stopping Brian Rolston from the left wing on a break, then turning aside Bobby Holik.
UPDATE, 4:35 Second period: The Mar-tee, Mar-tee chants begin as Brandon Dubinsky, with Brodeur prone and trying to throw up his glove, shoots high into the net for a 1-0 lead. Dan Girardi with a point shot from the right that doesn't get through, though Fredrik Sjostrom, in the slot, touches the puck to Dubinsky. A very timely goal because momentum was definitely going New Jersey's way in the early going.
UPDATE, 6:39 Second period: Nik Antropov makes a slick play, keeping the puck alive off Brodeur's stick and tapping it back to Dan Girardi, who scores his fourth goal of the game with a one-timer from the slot.
UPDATE, 11:46 Second period: The two goals, of course, make a difference but this has been a very entertaining period of hockey. A little bit of everything (except, you know, for a goal for the Devils). Physical, fast-skating, up-and-down the ice.
UPDATE, 15:06 Second period: Sean Avery just made his best play of the game, blocking Paul Martin's clearing attempt from the Devils' blue line and turning it back up ice to Scott Gomez, who fed Ryan Callahan in the slot for a 3-0 lead. This is why we write that Avery's hockey skills are sometimes underestimated.
AFTER SECOND PERIOD: The Rangers managed three goals on 12 shots after going scoreless on 20. The Devils obviously have struggled of late - staring at their season-high fifth straight loss - but it's not like they've played awfully this game. The Rangers are just - finally - putting a fairly complete game together, so far. And, having learned my lesson about jinxing the team in Atlanta, I will write no further on that. I will say that the Rangers defensemen are having a particularly strong game, obviously chipping in offensively but being really strong around Henrik Lundqvist and getting the puck up ice quickly. I've liked Corey Potter, I've really liked Staal and Girardi.
UPDATE, 3:06 Third period: Credit to Colton Orr for not being whistled there, putting the Rangers on the power play as Mike Rupp gets called for roughing.
UPDATE, 10:12 Third period: C'mon now, let's admit it. Sean Avery must be a b%ch to play against. He just drove David Clarkson insane by refusing to fight, getting Clarkson kicked out of the game as he repeatedly threw Avery down. Clarkson gets a double-minor for roughing and a 10-minute misconduct. Avery gets a roughing call for being thrown around like a rag doll, then retreats to the penalty box and shakes the glass he slams it so hard.
FINAL: RANGERS 3, DEVILS 0: The Rangers earn a well-deserved day off after what I'd consider their most complete game since John Tortorella took over. And I think a huge part of it was Tortorella and Jim Schoenfeld recognizing the defensemen couldn't produce what the coaching staff wanted to see in terms of pinching up constantly in the neutral zone. So Torts, to his credit, backed off, something he admits he made a mistake with last season in Tampa Bay, where he pushed his young team too hard in the expectations of what they could handle. Next season, when he's got them through training camp, he can do more of what he wants. Now, his best move was to adapt his coaching style to his players capabilities.
It's sort of a shame but so much attention gets paid to Sean Avery-Marty Brodeur (and yes, I'm blaming us media types here) that I think the overall team effort by the Rangers gets lost in the mix. And it shouldn't because, to me, the overall team effort was the story.
The Rangers, by the way, reached 40 victories for the fourth straight season. That's a first for the time since 1970-74.
The trick now, of course, is to translate this effort into Thursday night at Carolina, and Saturday afternoon at Boston, and next Tuesday at the Garden against the Canadiens, and Thursday at MSG against the Flyers and the following Sunday at Philadelphia to close the season. It can't be one game on, one game off.
"It's just a matter of concentration," Tortorella said. "With a little bit of pressure taken off of having so many reads when we are pinching in the neutral zone, it's going to help our club. It's going to make a simpler game for us. Tonight, we just wanted to play a simple game against the Devils."
Funny scene in the hallway after the game. Former teammates and close, close friends Scott Gomez (wearing nothing but a towel) and Bobby Holik were laughing it up over their second-period scrap, which earned them both roughing penalties. Holik was tugging on Gomez pretty good behind the net with Gomez down on the ice and the big Czech on top of him. My Record compatriot Tom Guletti, though, tells me Holik said he had no clue he was wrestling with Gomez. Instead, he thought he had Avery in his grip. Like I said, the two of them shared a pretty good laugh over it.