Milan Michalek (9) of the Ottawa Senators is congratulated by his teammates on his game winning goal against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on October 29, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
The sport of hockey, more than any other major sport, features players who are humble and gracious, and don't overdo it in the look-at-me, Jose Valverde/Chad Ochocinco-like theatrics department (maybe places like Canada and the Czech Republic just don't cultivate a showboating citizenship). And the three local teams, the New York Rangers, New York Islanders and New Jersey Devils, all feature rosters filled with good guys to root for. And all three teams had high expectations coming into this season. Which is why the early-season swamp of mediocrity that the trio of teams finds themselves in has been such a disappointment so far for their fans. There are no more whipping-boy, Wade Redden types on any of the teams, no more "we-need-to-get-rid-of-this-guy" guys. These are the teams their fans want. And all three are letting down their loyal supporters.
The Rangers have finally built a team the right way -- with homegrown youth and a couple of likable, genial free agents thrown into the mix. They have every component to root for: A hardworking, lifetime Ranger as captain, an elite goaltender and a group of players on the upswing of their careers (though they do have a prickly coach who is at times tough to get behind). After forging an identity for themselves last season, as a shot-blocking, blue-collar, hustling team, they should be taking the next step this season, with more of the same, but with an extra offensive boost from Brad Richards. But it's been slow going. They've yet to play one, full, solid game, and even managed to turn a certain win into a nightmarish loss on Saturday afternoon. This season's Blueshirts don't resemble last year's team in the least, with just about every aspect of their game slipping in quality -- no puck control, no forecheck, no defensive execution in their own zone, no offense (2.15 goals per game, 24th in the league), no power play (21st in the league, at 13.3 percent), and on and on. If Henrik Lundqvist has a subpar game, as he has in the last two, the team has no chance to win. What happened to the play-the-right-way Rangers of 2010-'11? Sean Avery may be back as early as Thursday -- will he be the energetic difference-maker he's proven to be at times in the past?
Monday Hockey Extravaganza
If you love hockey you are in the right place today. SB Nation New York has all the coverage of the Islanders, Devils and Rangers you could want. Here are links to all of it:
On Long Island, the Islanders have put together a young, exciting team, and after their first few games, they looked like they may have been on their way to being the Detroit Lions of hockey, the surprise Cinderella team that captures the country's imagination. They have a blossoming John Tavares, along with his productive linemates, Matt Moulson and P.A. Parenteau, and a gang of goalies who have performed well in most every game -- it's just everything in between that's been the problem. Like the Rangers, they've had a hard time putting a complete game together. They rank 10th in power-play production (21.2 percent) and ninth in penalty killing (86.1 percent), but 26th in goals per game (1.98). With the exception of their owner, building and a secure future (ok, those are a lot of things), they have everything to root for, with a young, dynamic roster, who should be taking the next step and stripping off the training wheels after last season's promising foreshadowing of successful days ahead.
The local team that is playing the best is the Devils. They're just not getting the result at the end of the game, which we saw on Saturday, when one not-so-lucky bounce went against them resulting in another loss. It's a new world for the Devils nowadays, with not the same old players, not the same old coach, not the same old system and not the same old goalie. Lou Lamoriello went a not-very- Lou-Lamoriello route by signing Ilya Kovalchuk to a monstrous contract and hiring a coach that isn't Jacques Lemaire or Larry Robinson or one that doesn't have any ties to the Devils. New Jersey's biggest problem is scoring, as they are 28th in the league, with only 1.95 goals per game, and 28th on the power play (10.3 percent). Their penalty killing (ranked fifth, 88.6 percent) and goaltending (Johan Hedberg has been just as good as Martin Brodeur was expected to be) have not been the problem. They may not be the old powerhouse Devils of the last 15 years or so, but they were certainly hoping to build on the momentum of last year's second-half almost-miracle, and with a healthy Zach Parise returning, there was no reason to think they wouldn't flourish, but it just hasn't happened yet. Was last year all Lemaire's doing?
We finally like our teams, with homegrown stars and future stars to root for, which is why this year has been doubly disappointing. So far this hockey season is not quite working out as expected. Of course, there are still 70-plus game to play, and plenty of time to turn things around. But with records of 3-3-3 (Rangers), 4-4-1 (Devils) and 3-4-2 (Islanders), the first month of the 2011-'12 season has been a letdown.