As usual, Rangers are beating themselves

Updated: April 26, 2006, 1:35 PM ET
By E.J. Hradek | ESPN The Magazine

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Rangers coach Tom Renney isn't someone who makes rash decisions. So, you knew when he decided to make a goaltending change, naming Kevin Weekes as the club's Game 2 starter against New Jersey, he had given it a lot of thought.

"I took some time with it," Renney confirmed after the game, a 4-1 Rangers loss that put them down 2-0 in the opening-round series. "I watched the tape [from Game 1] and I talked to both goaltenders at practice on Sunday. I finally made my decision late last night, but I didn't tell Kevin until this morning."

The move, which confounded some Ranger watchers, wasn't really that hard to figure out. Renney was clearly seeking a spark for his struggling club, which was without superstar right winger Jaromir Jagr (shoulder), nasty defender Darius Kasparaitis (groin) and third-line penalty killer Jason Ward (knee) in Game 2.

Renney had watched Henrik Lundqvist struggle in his first two games back from injury, giving up 11 goals. For whatever reason, he hasn't been his rock solid self. Renney and his coaching staff, which includes goalie guru Benoit Allaire, noticed the difference. Renney and Co. also knew Weekes had performed well against the Devils in the past. In 2002, Weekes came off the Hurricanes' bench to stone the Devils, knocking them out of the playoffs in the first round.

With all those factors in mind, Renney rolled the Game 2 dice on Weekes. But, like most everything in Rangerland in the past couple of weeks, the roll came up snake eyes.

"I thought he played pretty well," said Renney, when asked about Weekes' 22-save performance. "He had some tough luck on the third goal, but I thought he played well."

Renney's assessment was accurate. The Rangers didn't lose Game 2 because of poor goaltending. They lost Game 2 for the same reason they've lost their six previous games: The Rangers are beating themselves.

"That's what we're doing right now," Weekes said. "That's what you have to admire about the Devils. They're always the same. They always give themselves a chance to win."

Examples?

In the first period of a scoreless game with Devils tough guy Cam Janssen in the box for an elbowing penalty, the Rangers had a chance to break the ice on the power play. But, instead of taking advantage of the opportunity, they again shot themselves in the skate.

Defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh foolishly pinched down the right wing, trying to keep the puck in the zone. Predictably, Devils left winger Jay Pandolfo got to the puck first and chipped it up to defenseman Brian Rafalski, who took off with center John Madden on a 2-on-1 short-handed break. The two Devils executed the break perfectly, Madden sliding the puck past Weekes, who had no chance on the play.

About six minutes later, minor-league call-up Chad Wiseman (who replaced the injured Ward) took a boarding penalty to give the Devils' red-hot power play another opportunity. New Jersey quickly cashed in their sixth power-play goal in less than four periods. Again, Weekes had no chance on Brian Gionta's picture-perfect deflection of Paul Martin's hard pass from the blue line.

Late in the second period, with the Rangers turning momentum in their favor, they received a huge break. With Grant Marshall in the box serving a double minor, Madden was whistled for hooking. The call gave the Rangers a 5-on-3 advantage for a full two minutes.

Again, the Rangers couldn't capitalize. Without Jagr, they moved the puck around the perimeter without purpose. They failed to get a good scoring chance. On one particular sequence, Rafalski made a bold decision to challenge Rangers winger Petr Prucha behind the net for a loose puck. If Rafalski had lost that battle, Prucha could have set up a quick scoring chance. But Rafalski simply outfought Prucha for the puck, clearing it up the boards.

As Madden's penalty expired, Pandolfo again cleared the puck out of the zone. Madden chased down the loose puck, closed in on Weekes and fired a shot toward the five-hole. The puck trickled through Weekes' pads and came to a stop on the goal line. Trying to help his goaltender, Ozolinsh reached to clear the puck away. But, inadvertently, he knocked the puck into his own net.

The odd goal gave the Devils a 3-0 lead with just 5.4 seconds left in the second period.

Game, set, match.

Afterward, Renney said he saw positive signs. He thought it was a game that his struggling team could "build on."

Renney was non-committal concerning Jagr, but some Ranger insiders think there's a good chance the NHL's second-leading scorer will be ready for Wednesday's must-win game.

Renney also wouldn't commit to his Game 3 starting goalie. Weekes' performance wasn't bad. But, it wasn't the game-stealing effort Renney was hoping for. I would expect Renney to go back to Lundqvist at the Garden, where the Swedish stopper is a huge fan favorite. And, let's face it, he has been their go-to goalie all season long.

Jagr or no Jagr. Lundqvist or Weekes. We'll see what happens on Wednesday. But if the Rangers don't tighten up their act in all three zones, their coach's decisions won't mean a heck of a lot.

EJ Hradek covers hockey for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at ej.hradek@espnmag.com. Also, click here to send EJ a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

E.J. Hradek

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
E.J. Hradek is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, joining the staff prior to its launch in 1998. He began covering hockey as a writer/editor for Hockey Illustrated in 1989.

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