BY: Bruce Berlet
Talk about a turnaround.
A year ago, Ryan McDonagh was trying to find himself as a pro after the defenseman and center Derek Stepan left the University of Wisconsin early after losing to New York Rangers top prospect Chris Kreider and Boston College in the NCAA championship game.
While Stepan was the surprise of Rangers camp and stuck with the big club, McDonagh was sent to Hartford and struggled much of the first 15-20 games with the then Wolf Pack. But with the help of assistant coach J.J. Daigneault, who works with the defense, and veteran defenseman Wade Redden, McDonagh righted his ship and was called up Jan. 3, switching places with Michael Del Zotto, who was having his issues in his second pro season after being a member of the NHL All-Rookie team.
While Del Zotto’s season was cut short by a broken finger sustained in a game against Springfield on March 3, McDonagh flourished on Broadway and eventually became part of the Rangers’ pairing with former Wolf Pack defenseman Michael Sauer, who had pulled “a Stepan” and surprisingly earned a spot with the Blueshirts in training camp.
Fast forward to last weekend, when McDonagh was on the Rangers’ No. 1 pairing with former Wolf Pack defenseman Dan Girardi as a replacement for All-Star Marc Staal, placed on injured reserve to start the season because of recurring headaches from post-concussion syndrome that is the residual effect of being hit by his brother, All-Star center Eric Staal, in a game against the Carolina Hurricanes on Feb. 22.
The 22-year-old McDonagh was especially strong Saturday during a 2-1 shootout to the Anaheim Ducks with his physical play and disciplined positioning that helped frustrate one of the NHL’s top lines of Bobby Ryan, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, the league’s only 50-goal scorer last season. The trio did not register a point until Ryan scored the only goal in the shootout, and McDonagh set up newcomer Brad Richards for the Rangers’ only goal with 2:15 left in regulation, slipping a sharp pass from the left point to the $60 Million Man at the end line.
McDonagh logged more than 26 minutes for the second consecutive night, and his 53:40 of ice time after two games is second on the team only to Girardi’s 61:43.
“With Ryan McDonagh, the experience in him getting these minutes, playing against some pretty good people, I thought he played very well tonight,” Rangers coach John Tortorella told reporters after the game in Stockholm, Sweden.
With Staal potentially out long-term and the Rangers’ defense in flux, Tortorella needs McDonagh to help Girardi form at least one consistent pairing. And McDonagh wasn’t perfect, as his takedown of Willie Mitchell in overtime, which Tortorella “needless,” led to a Kings power play and the deciding goal by defenseman Jack Johnson.
But that makes McDonagh’s response against the Ducks, after blaming himself for the opening loss, even more encouraging and a sign of maturity.
“How he handled himself through that situation within 24 hours is a great stepping stone for him,” Tortorella said. “That’s the way you have to look at our situation on our back end, is (that) guys are getting experience, we’re hopeful we’ll get healthy, and guys will be slotted. This again, this isn’t a perfect world – but still you’ve got to find some sort of lining that’s going to help the player, and that’s the experience that they’re getting.
“I think they had more scoring chances, and it was just a game where everybody was in one another’s way. It wasn’t a smooth game at all. But as far as that part of it I thought we stood in there, and stayed with it, as at times, as ugly as we were, we still found a way to battle and get a big goal at the end.”
Tortorella then summed up the overall sentiments of the travel-weary Rangers party when asked how he felt about getting two points in Europe.
“Just want to leave,” Tortorella said quickly.
Yes, the Rangers had quite an opening three weeks with seven preseason games in seven different cities in five countries, followed by the first two regular-season games in Stockholm. Tortorella stressed how much he was looking forward to reestablishing a routine at home after playing six games in Europe in 10 days.
“We’ve met some great people, we’ve played in some great buildings. The crowds have been fantastic,” Tortorella said. “Has it been ideal for training camp? I don’t know. And you can see with our club right now, as we played (Saturday) night, we want to get the hell out of here, and get back and practice in that facility.”
Tortorella wasn’t alone in speaking to the Rangers’ extensive travels, which are likely to be reduced in the future after covering approximately 10,500 miles between leaving New York on Sept. 26 and returning home early Sunday morning. It was especially trying when the Rangers lost to the Ducks when Ryan’s fanned shot trickled through the legs of the Homecoming King.
“I don’t know whether we want to talk about it or shouldn’t talk about it, but this was not ideal,” Richards told Larry Brooks of the New York Post. “We’ve had what, two practices? We’re not in panic mode, but we need to have a great week of practice and get to work on our game and our structure. I know myself, there are still some things I’m trying to figure out about our neutral zone and our power play so that we’re clicking on the same page. We’ll finally get some time to get to work.”
The Rangers were off Sunday before starting steady work on their systems and a power play that started 0-for-8, including 0-for-7 against the Ducks, before resuming their travel log Saturday night at the New York Islanders, whose surprise starting goalie in their opener Saturday night was former Wolf Pack netminder Al Montoya, the Rangers’ first-round pick (sixth overall) in 2004. Montoya got the nod over Rick DiPietro, the first overall pick in 2000 who earns $4.5 million and had a good camp after recovering from a series of injuries.
Montoya made 27 saves, but the Panthers gave former Whalers standout right wing and captain Kevin Dineen the perfect present in his NHL coaching debut, a 2-0 victory. Jose Theodore also made 27 saves, and Stephen Weiss and Jason Garrison (5-on-3 power play) scored in the first period, both assisted by defenseman Brian Campbell, one of a dozen Panthers newcomers, before a sellout Nassau Coliseum crowd that included nine original season-ticket holders from the Isles’ NHL debut in 1972-73 and Hall of Famer Mike Bossy who dropped the ceremonial first puck.
The Panthers dominated early with a 22-9 shot advantage and then let Theodore do the rest.
“I think our speed was the answer,” Dineen said. “Not so much that it was a run-and-gun game back and forth. We thought we could use our speed to get in a little bit on the forecheck and stop them from getting started. They came at us (in the third period) with both barrels loaded and we reacted well to it.”
Montoya was back in goal Monday afternoon and had 21 saves in a 2-1 victory over the Minnesota Wild despite the Islanders getting five shots total in the last two periods. Former Bridgeport Sound Tigers Andrew MacDonald and Frans Nielsen scored in the first period and former Wolf Pack and Rangers wing Pierre Parenteau had an assist on each goal. Former Rangers center Matt Cullen was the only Wild to beat Montoya, who was named the game’s No. 1 star. MacDonald was No. 2 and Parenteau No. 3.
After the Islanders game Saturday, the Rangers depart on a four-game Western swing to Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg before finally getting to play in refurbished and renovated Madison Square Garden on Oct. 27 against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“This was a tough trip for us, all the travel, the games in different rinks against different styles of teams, but I think we came through it pretty well,” Girardi said. “We’ve got another long road trip coming up, but we’re excited to be going back home, to see our families and get back to some sort of normal life.”
Tortorella tried to get back to normalcy about 32 hours after the Rangers landed back in the United States in a practice at the MSG Training Center in Greenburgh, N.Y.
“We have to get back into the nuts and bolts of getting the team ready for the season,” Tortorella told reporters while lamenting a lack of practice time in Europe. “This week is about getting back into the mindset of the team that we are.”
That included invoking the name Allen Iverson. When asked what his team could accomplish that they couldn’t in Europe, Torts retorted, “Practice … practice … practice. Who used to say that?”
“Allen Iverson,” a Rangers public relations person said.
“Allen Iverson,” Tortorella said, smiling.
Everyone laughed, and one writer added, “Yeah, but he didn’t want to.”
Tortorella change to a more upbeat attitude followed changing two of his four lines in practice. Richards remained between Marian Gaborik and Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov between Ruslan Fedotenko and captain Ryan Callahan, but Derek Stepan centered Brandon Prust and Brian Boyle and Erik Christensen was flanked by Mike Rupp and Mats Zuccarello, dropped to the fourth line after two so-so games.
Sauer (shoulder) and left wing Wojtek Wolski (groin) didn’t practice. Wolski sat out Sunday, and with Sauer sidelined, Jeff Woywitka, claimed off waivers from the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday, slid into his spot alongside Del Zotto. Rookie Tim Erixon, recalled from the Whale on Wednesday after being sent down three days earlier, continued alongside Steve Eminger as his evaluation continues. Tortorella has been satisfied with his the Swede so far but wants to see him continue to play, whether it’s in New York or Hartford.
“If, for some reason, we feel he’ll be the odd man out, he will go down to the minors,” Tortorella said.
Staal was not at practice as he continues to receive treatment for his headaches and would not be in Greenburgh this week. Tortorella last received an update on Staal on Saturday, that Staal was “feeling good” but the Rangers want him to continue to be with his doctors.
The Rangers have a charity golf tournament Tuesday and then will practice Wednesday and Friday, with an off-day in between. … The Canadiens claimed former Rangers and Wolf Pack center Blair Betts off waivers from the Philadelphia Flyers. … Center Petr Sykora rejoined the New Jersey Devils, signing a one-year, free-agent contract. Sykora was drafted by the Devils in 1995 and helped them win the Stanley Cup in 2000. The Devils also announced wing Zach Parise had been named team captain, with Ilya Kovalchuk and Patrik Elias serving as alternates. “I was surprised because I didn’t know it was coming,” said Parise, who signed a one-year deal with the Devils in the offseason as a restricted free agent. “I’m excited for it and it’s a big honor. I have to just keep doing the same thing, keep leading by example.” Parise, 27, missed all but 13 games last season because of a knee injury. The Devils opened with a 3-0 loss to the Flyers on Saturday night, but Parise scored the first and last goals Monday in a 4-2 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes. Kovalchuk had a goal and two assists, and Elias and Sykora assisted on Parise’s first goal to back Johan Hedberg’s 26-save performance. … Semyon Varlamov made 30 saves, including 12 in the third period, and Milan Hejduk scored the Colorado Avalanche’s first goal of the season at 7:57 of the third in a 1-0 victory over the Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins on Monday afternoon. Tuukka Rask, another former first-round pick, had 35 saves in his first game that counted since April 10, the Bruins’ regular-season finale in New Jersey. The win denied Bruins coach Claude Julien his 300th career victory.
ANNIVERSARY OPENING FOR CHAMPION SENATORS
The AHL began its 76th season Friday night exactly four month after the Binghamton Senators scored an inspirational win over the Houston Aeros to win their first Calder Cup. The Senators, led by league MVP and former Wolf Pack center Corey Locke, clinched the title in Game 6 as assistant coach Steve Stirling was in a Binghamton hospital recovering from a heart attack he suffered two days earlier. Stirling, former coach of the Sound Tigers and Islanders, was on the bench as the Senators had a banner-raising home opener against the Hershey Bears on Friday night, though it didn’t end well with a 3-2 loss.
The AHL’s new regular-season schedule was reduced from 80 to 76 games and extended by one week, helping reduce the number of weekday games and eliminating four games in five nights. Those steps were intended to provide a safer environment for players through increased rest and recovery time and to provide fans with an even higher caliber of play as a result of reduced player fatigue.
There’s also a new look to the league’s standings page, where the 30 teams are now divided into six divisions of five teams, three in each conference. Eight teams from each conference qualify for the 2012 Calder Cup players, with the three division winners earning the top seeds and the next five best teams in order of regular-season points seeded fourth through eighth.
The AHL’s newest team, the St. John’s IceCaps, the top affiliate of the new Winnipeg Jets, opened with 4-1 and 1-0 victories over Providence and Manchester before returning to One Mile Centre on Friday night when the Hamilton Bulldogs visit Newfoundland. The IceCaps’ partnership with the Jets is one of five affiliation changes this season. After a three-year separation, the Rochester Americans are again the feeder team for the Buffalo Sabres, their parent club from 1979-2008. The San Antonio Rampage have teamed up with the Panthers, the Portland Pirates have hooked up with the Phoenix Coyotes and the Chicago Wolves with the Stanley Cup runner-up Vancouver Canucks.
Thirteen AHL teams have new head coaches, including Portland’s Ray Edwards and San Antonio’s Chuck Weber following their parent teams to new affiliates. Former Wolf Pack defenseman Brent Thompson (Bridgeport) was one of eight coaches to make their AHL debuts after leading the Alaska Aces to the ECHL’s Turner Cup title. The others were Troy Ward (Abbotsford), Craig MacTavish (Chicago), Kirk Muller (Milwaukee), Ron Rolston (Rochester), Ted Dent (Rockford), Keith McCambridge (St. John’s) and Jeff Pyle (Texas). Three other head coaches – Clement Jodoin (Hamilton), John Torchetti (Houston) and Bruce Cassidy (Providence) – are back after previous stints in both the AHL and NHL. Nine coaches who were AHL head coaches on Opening Night 2011 are started the new season in the NHL.
The 1,140 regular-season games include two outdoors, the Adirondack Phantoms against the Hershey Bears on Jan. 6 at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia and Hamilton playing the Toronto Marlies on Jan. 21 at Ivor Wynne Stadium in Hamilton, Ontario, the first outdoor game in Canada. The 2012 AHL All-Star Classic will be Jan. 29-30 at the historic Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, N.Y., featuring the top talent in the Eastern Conference facing the best in the Western Conference in both the skills competition and the All-Star Game.
Many graduates of past All-Star Games are now in the NHL, where 607 former AHL players were on opening-night rosters, making up nearly 83 percent of the NHL’s player pool. The group included two graduates from Portland to Buffalo, center Luke Adam, last year AHL Rookie of the Year, and All-Rookie defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani. Members of the Calder Cup champion Senators now with the Ottawa Senators include Bobby Butler, Erik Condra, Jared Cowen, Colin Greening and Zack Smith.
QUITE THE SHOW BY WHALE’S JOHNSON
Chad Johnson’s 41 saves in a 1-0 shootout victory over Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Sunday tied the second most in a shutout for a Wolf Pack/Whale goalie.
Johnson matched the 41 saves by Johan Holmqvist in a 3-0 victory over Lowell on Dec. 23, 2000 and Cam Talbot in a 3-0 win over Providence last Oct. 17. The franchise record for saves in a shutout is 44 by Milan Hnilicka in a 4-0 victory over Worcester on March 25, 2000.
Johnson is in consideration for the first AHL Player of the Week award, which will be announced Tuesday, when the Whale resume practice. They play a third straight road game Friday night against the Albany Devils before their home opener Saturday at 7 p.m. against the Sound Tigers in the first of 10 GEICO Connecticut Cup games. The first 5,000 fans will receive a free Whale magnetic schedule, sponsored by Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over. Tickets for all games are on sale at the Public Power Ticket Office at the XL Center, on-line at www.ctwhale.com and through TicketMaster Charge-by-phone at 1-800-745-3000. … After failing to get a point in his first three Ontario Hockey League games, right wing Christian Thomas had three goals in three games to earn Oshawa Generals Player of the Week. Thomas, the Rangers’ second-round pick in 2010 who had 97 goals in the last two seasons, scored his first goal of the season on Friday night against the Sarnia Sting on a power play in the third period. He followed with a two-goal effort Saturday night against the Windsor Spitfires, including scoring one shorthanded that was the key to Generals being able to get to a shootout on the road.
ANOTHER WORTHWHILE FUNDRAISER FOR SCHWARTZ
More than $4,000 was raised Sunday in the latest endeavor to remember former Yale women’s hockey player Mandi Schwartz, who died in April after a two-year battle with leukemia.
Former Yale teammates Alyssa Clarke, Bray Ketchum and Jackee Snikeris organized “Run for Mandi” and ran in the 13.1-mile New York Road Runners Staten Island Half-Marathon as a fundraiser for the Mandi Schwartz Memorial Bursary.
“Mandi’s story traveled around the nation and across the globe, touching many people’s lives,” Snikeris said. “She was and still is an inspiration to my team at Yale, the bigger Yale and hockey communities and to many families who are fighting this disease. Her enthusiasm, spirit and love for life continued to shine every day. No matter how much pain she was in, she never showed it. She kept a stationary bike in every one of her hospital rooms and was biking at home two days before she passed. Mandi was a warrior.”
Clarke, Ketchum and Snikeris ran as “Team Mandilion,” named in honor of one of Mandi’s favorite stretching exercises, and Ketchum and Snikeris were joined by their brothers. The Mandi Schwartz Memorial Bursary is a fund at Mandi’s high school, Athol Murray College of Notre Dame in her home town of Wilcox, Sask. It offers financial assistance to future Notre Dame Hounds (75 percent) and The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society of Canada (25 percent.
“Mandi was a leader, scholar and tremendous athlete at Notre Dame and prided herself in the ideals of the school,” Snikeris said. “Their philosophy was to teach the students ‘Achievement with character.’ Mandi carried herself in this manner every day of her life – she was self-less, hard working and determined to make those around her feel special. Mandi was a true friend.”
For more information on the Mandi Schwartz Memorial Bursary, visit http://www.notredame.sk.ca/development/mandiinspiresme.php. For more information on Shcwartz, visit http://www.yalebulldogs.com/mandi