This week's edition of the Player of the Week is one big tribute to defense. All the local teams got into the act the past seven days, except for one franchise, which is sticking out like a sore thumb when it comes to that part the game. The New York Knicks have been having all kinds of problems the last month, but their lack of defensive effort and acumen is their biggest downfall. Meanwhile, the New York Rangers are thriving. They're the polar opposite of the Knicks. Defense, chemistry and hard work are their stock in trade. The remaining three teams, the New Jersey Nets, New York Islanders and New Jersey Devils, also put in a solid day's work defending, though it didn't always translate to victories. But they all have a plan and an honest approach to the nitty-gritty side of their respective sport. The Knicks need to heed their neighbors' attitude toward defense. And now on to the Player of the Week, who acts as his team's last stand when it comes to stopping the opponent from scoring.
Henrik Lundqvist: There are times during the season when a team's best player has to actually be its best player and carry the load. And Lundqvist is surely doing that right now. He had a few bumps in the road this year, with a soft goal allowed here and there, but he's now in the midst of a stretch where he truly is The King. The Rangers played three games this week and their franchise goalie only let one measly puck slip by him (discounting the skills competition portion of Thursday's one-point-gained loss to Ottawa). Lundqvist earned his league-leading 10th and 11th shutouts of the year, and Saturday's whitewash (which was in no way of the easy, rocking-chair variety) gave him a career high. He did have a lot of help, though, as the Blueshirts are usually a stalwart in their own end. Steve Eminger filled in admirably for Marc Staal in Tuesday's win over Florida, with 21 minutes of ice time while being bumped up to the top pairing with Dan Girardi. And in Sunday's gritty victory over Boston, the third period turned into a shooting gallery, with a barrage of shots unleashed by the Bruins. Lundqvist made 12 saves, many in spectacular fashion, but his teammates blocked an astounding 18 shots, just in that last period alone. For the game, Brian Boyle had five, Girardi and Ryan McDonagh blocked four and Michael Sauer and Ryan Callahan each got in the way of three. On the down side, the Rangers offense only produced one goal per game, but they picked up five out of a possible six points. And at this time of year, that's all that really matters.
Runners Up & Other Notables
Kris Humphries: The Nets' power forward has been the team's best defensive player this season, not to mention their best all-around one as well. In New Jersey's lone win of the week, Humphries hauled in a career-high 23 rebounds. Granted the game went into overtime and his feat came against the last-place Cleveland Cavaliers, but it was a performance worthy of Karl Malone, Moses Malone or any other rebounding-specialist Malone that may have slipped my mind. The Net would do wonders for the defensively challenged Knicks if he were magically transported across the river. There were a few other highlights this week, including Queens native Sundiata Gaines pouring in a career-high 18 points in the loss to the Pacers (which was the only game that the Nets allowed their opponent to score more than 100 points), and Jordan Farmar dished out a Deron Williams-like 16 assists filling in for the injured star in the defeat to the Magic on Friday. But there was one lowlight that jumped off the page: For the first time in his career, Brook Lopez failed to grab at least a single rebound, which occurred in Saturday's loss to the Hawks.
Al Montoya: The Islanders began the week with a victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday, but with losses in the following pair of games, they were officially eliminated from the playoff race. The Isles' representative this week will be their find of a goalie. Montoya made a yeomanly 36 saves in the win against the Lightning, while only allowing two goals. And he repeated his stellar performance two nights later against the Thrashers, but his teammates could only muster up one goal, which wasn't quite enough. The 26-year-old is now 8-4-4 with a 2.35 GAA and a .923 save percentage. Not bad for somebody who had previously played in a scant five NHL games.
Martin Brodeur: Things finally came to a crashing halt this week for the Devils, as their impossible dream run to the playoffs is, for all intents and purposes, over. Well, it was really their offense that came to a crashing halt. They were never quite the 1980s Edmonton Oilers to begin with, but they only scored one goal in three games, with two consecutive shutouts sealing their fate. Ilya Kovalchuk notched the team's lone goal this week, which means another goalie will get a Player of the Week mention. Brodeur pitched a shutout in the game against Pittsburgh, but he got zero help from the remaining Devils, as they couldn't even score in the shootout. He gave up two goals to the Buffalo Sabres, but they were two too many. He did let in four pucks against the Bruins on Tuesday, but would it have mattered if he did better? One can't expect a shutout in every game, right? Not even the great Brodeur can do that.
Mike Breen/Walt Frazier: And that leaves us with the disaster known as the New York Knicks. Why are the team's announcers this week's pick to click? Well, if we're going with a defensive theme, who is there to choose from? Breen and Frazier are dumbfounded at the Knicks' lack of effort, poor play and total disregard for defense. It's one thing to need time to gel but another to barely register any energy or effort. They can at least be a scrappy team that is hard to play against, can't they? The broadcasting duo has been brutally honest in what they've been witnessing on the court, which goes against everything James Dolan stands for. Are the two playing with fire? The Knicks' owner made the legendary Marv Albert disappear, so Dolan can't be happy with Breen and Clyde calling it as they see it.