RED BULLS SEEK REDEMPTION VS. TORONTO FC

Despite suffering a confidence-killing 1-1 draw against the Revolution last Saturday, there’s some good news for the Red Bulls: They won’t have to play in Foxboro for the rest of the season.

New York’s personal house of horrors found a new way to deny the Bulls three points. After Joel Lindpere gave the Red Bulls the lead late into injury time, the Revs’ Darrius Barnes equalized the score in the 95th minute with a thumping header past a dejected Bill Gaudette.

“It’s a scramble,” the goalie said to MSG’s Tina Cervasio after the game. “Anytime you’re up at the end of the game like that, [New England] is throwing tons of numbers forward, we were a little disorganized. They whip in a ball and we didn’t do a great job as a defense to make a play at the end when we really just needed one more play, and we would have walked out of here with three points.”

What made the result so deflating was the fact that New York had seemingly overcome the odds and was so close to recording a win in New England for the first time in more than a  decade. Connor Lade had been sent off in the 74th minute, leaving the Red Bulls down to 10 men. Against all odds, they managed to take the lead shorthanded and were on the verge of a landmark victory. But, in the end, it just wasn’t meant to be.

The Bulls are still in good position to make the postseason – they currently have a five-point cushion over the Columbus Crew, the team on the outside looking in – but the draw could be costly for the team’s chances at winning the Eastern Conference.  Had New York held on, it would be three points behind East-leading Sporting Kansas City with a match upcoming at Red Bull Arena against the leaders on Saturday, Oct. 20 (6:30 p.m., MSG2).

It’s too late to dwell on missed opportunities now. The Red Bulls host Toronto FC Saturday (6:30 p.m. on MSG) and anything but a win would be a disappointment. TFC is at the bottom of the MLS standings with only 22 points and has won just two matches away from BMO Field. The Canadian outfit has allowed the most goals in the league (55) and is second to last in terms of goal difference (-21). With Thierry Henry to return from suspension for this one, all signs point to a New York victory.

However, if the result goes the other way, things might get a little more tense in the Red Bulls’ locker room.

Brandon’s Back

With Lade suspended for the match Saturday, Brandon Barklage is expected to be reinstalled as the starting right back against Toronto.

Barklage came on as a sub Saturday, but hadn’t played significant minutes since leaving with a hamstring injury in the Red Bulls’ 2-0 win over the Union back on July 21.

Before getting hurt, Barklage established himself as one of Hans Backe’s most trusted lieutenants and made the right back position his own.

“I felt like I was on a decent run in the 15, 16 games I played,” Barklage told mlssoccer.com’s Franco Panizo Wednesday at practice. “I think my goal from now on is to solidify a spot somewhere and show people more of what I can offer to the team.”

The suspension of Lade means yet another reshuffle for the Red Bulls’ ever-changing back four. The smart money would be to expect Barklage to slide in at left back, Markus Holgersson and Heath Pearce at center back and Wilman Conde to remain at left back.

The question is: What will Backe do when Lade returns from suspension? There’s something to be said about the way Barklage and Lade have performed at full back this season. While Conde has been serviceable at left back in the past few matches, it’s apparent that the Colombian is much more comfortable in the center of defense.

Backe will have to make a quick decision after Saturday’s match.

Rafa Back on the Sidelines

It almost seems like Rafa Marquez’ time as a Red Bull has been cursed ever since he put pen to paper in New York.

The former Mexican national team captain hurt his hamstring in the match against the Revs last Saturday and will be on the sidelines for two weeks.

Marquez, who had been utilized in a central midfield role, may be replaced by Dax McCarty, who shifted out wide right to accommodate the former Barcelona player.

While losing a player of Marquez’ ability will hurt, it may be a blessing in disguise. It’s no secret that McCarty has excelled in center midfield this season and brings an energy and vigor that the languid Marquez lacks. McCarty has yet to strike up an effective partnership with Tim Cahill in the center of the pitch, but that can only come with time and experience. Once again, Backe will have to make yet another tough decision when everyone is fully fit.

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Hockey In The Holy Land

 

@StanFischler

How bizarre is this — I travelled 6,000 miles to see my first hockey game of the season. And, of all places, it was in The Holy Land.

Not that I was in Israel just to see a bunch of puck-chasers but — hard as it may be to imagine — I did see hockey played — although on a level considerably below the NHL.

While visiting my younger son, Simon, who lives in The Golan Heights with his family, he tipped me off that an ice arena was a mere 40-minute drive from his Kibbutz (village) El Rom, which is near the Syrian border.

Sure enough, I discovered the Olympic-sized rink which just happens to be a mere slapshot away from the Lebanese border in the town of Metula, famed for both its steakhouse and stickhandlers.

The arena is called the Canada Centre because were it not for big-time contributions from wealthy puck-nuts in Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto and Montreal there wouldn’t be any ice hockey in Israel; just the roller variety.

As it happens, the late Rangers coach Roger Neilson is responsible for the Israeli hockey boom.

“Roger used to come here every Summer and hold a hockey camp,” one of the Israeli coaches told me. “He inspired us all both because of his love for the game and his great teaching abilities.”

The coach showed me the Centre’s wall full of photos with Neilson’s picture right plumb in the middle. An accompanying caption lauded him as the father of hockey in Israel as well as his total dedication under harsh, wartime conditions.

“There were times when we were bombarded with rockets from Lebanon,” the coach went on, “and Roger would take the players down to a bunker until the bombardment was over. When the bombs stopped falling, it was right back to the hockey practices.”

Canada Centre took an awful beating during the last Lebanon War but, like Metula and its well-bombarded sister-town, Kirya Shmona, it was completely rebuilt.

“We’ve got hockey at all levels,” explained Lionel Gaffen, an Israeli journalist originally from Montreal who grew up with Scotty Bowman‘s four-straight champion Canadiens. “Hockey in Metula is a lot like it is in Canada. We’ve got several levels, starting with little kids, up to Juniors; even an Olympic team and a touring squad that’s in America now. The only difference is that Canada has hundreds of rinks and we have only one.”

Neilson’s old pal, former Rangers Stanley Cup-winning coach Mike Keenan, and ex-Blueshirts defenseman Matt Schneider will be checking out Israeli hockey next year. They’ll be rival coaches in the Maccabiah (Israel Olympics) Games. Keenan will coach Team Canada while Manhattan-born Matty will be behind Uncle Sam’s bench.

Although Keenan is not Jewish, he moved closer to the religion through marriage and soon became more acquainted with its traditions and history.

“My mother-in-law escaped Auschwitz (death camp) and I went there in 1972 and had conversations with her after that,” Mike explained. “My involvement is deeper than hockey and that’s why I wanted to get involved in the Maccabiah Games.”

Keenan, who interviewed for the then-vacant Washington Capitals coaching job that eventually was won by Adam Oates, is hoping that his Maccabiah stint will be a stepping stone back to an NHL gig.

Schneider, now a high official in the NHL Players’ Association, was raised in suburban New Jersey by his Jewish father, Sam, who taught both Matt and kid brother, Jean-Alian, hockey’s rudiments.

“My father was my main hockey coach until I was 15,” Matty recalled, “and was the one person who helped me big-time hockey-wise. He had everything to do with the person I became and the pride I take in being a Jew.”

Both Keenan and Schneider will feel right at home in the 2,000-seat Canada Centre because it so closely resembles North American rinks right down to the Zamboni ice-cleaning machine. What Israel doesn’t have — at least at the moment — is another hockey rink. Which means that ice time in Metula is at a premium although two new rinks are in the works — one in Tel Aviv and the other in Eilat at the very Southern tip of Israel.

Nevertheless, the Canada Centre has enough room for The Maven’s two grandchildren, Ariel, 6, and Odel, 8, to get a couple of practice sessions in every week. I attended a few and was impressed with the dedication of both coaches and youngsters alike.

Granted, there may not be any future NHLers among the group of kids but I felt the same kind of pervasive hockey emotion as I would at the Rangers’ training base in Greenburgh, New York.  Especially when my grandchild, Ariel, slid the puck into the twine and raised his little, wooden stick while yelling “GOAL!”

Hey, a goal is still a goal both in Hebrew and English!

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Disagreeing With The Hockey Bible

 

@StanFischler

Being the unofficial “Bible” of its sport, The Hockey News is to be taken seriously; which I do, believe me, I do.

But that doesn’t mean that The Maven and The Hockey Bible have to agree all the time; especially when the time is now.

To be specific, I will now take issue with THN’s listing of the National Hockey League’s best players just released in its annual Yearbook.

For starters, The Hockey Bible places Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin atop the ladder and there’s no doubting his excellence; except that he’s not number one in my book. Moody, often out-to-lunch while on the ice, Malkin’s skill is all there but I question his focus and dependability. The Man was even minus-1 in the Penguins’ speedy playoff exit. Not good!

MAVEN’S TOP PICK: STEVEN STAMKOS

Here’s a maturing superstar essentially surrounded by mediocrity and fading aces such as Marty St. Louis and Vince Lecavalier. Nonetheless, Stamkos scored 60 goals, plus 37 assists virtually carrying the Lightning all season. His work ethic, adaptability and shot all surpass those of Malkin. Steve’s shooting versatility extends from all parts of the ice.

At least THN put Stamkos in second place, but it then followed with Sidney Crosby who once belonged at the very top but now is a questionable commodity because of his spate of concussion problems.

Like teammate Malkin, Crosby’s first-round playoff sayonara was significant. As far as I’m concerned when it comes to Sid The Kid, THN is living in the past.

MAVEN’S SECOND PICK: CLAUDE GIROUX

Talk about a kid coming out of nowhere, Giroux is emerging as one of the most multi-talented forwards since Pavel Bure. One could say that the French-Canadian authors the best passes sinceWayne Gretzky and certainly thinks on the ice in The Great One’s manner. What’s more this Flyer is getting better by the year, extending his multi-dimension abilities to goal-scoring as well.

THN put Giroux in fourth place, deciding that Number Five on its list belonged to the Stanley Cup-winning goalie, Jonathan Quick. No question, there’s plenty of arithmetic to endorse the Kings’ rubber-stopper as the NHL’s best goalie. But there’s more to mere numbers and a Cup when it comes to goalie-rating and that explains my disagreement.

MAVEN’S THIRD PICK: HENRIK LUNDQVIST

Hey, he wasn’t voted The Vezina Trophy because the experts were blindfolded. Unlike Quick, The King has survived the test of time. No one-season wonder, he! But I’ll go a stop farther and point out that there’s no showboating with Henny who happens to rank among the very best at stopping Shootouts ever since that extra-added attraction was added to the NHL marquee. We’ll know more about Quick once he plays as much as Lundqvist has.

To my astonishment, The Hockey Bible inserted Quick’s teammate Drew Doughty right behind the goalie in its sixth place. This is a selection that I really don’t get when you consider that Doughty didn’t awake from his regular season slumber until the playoff alarm went off. What’s more — and worse — is that Drew drew a minus-2 over the season. Ugh!

MAVEN’S FOURTH PICK: ZDENO CHARA

Let’s start with the fact that we have a defender who was plus-33 over 79 regular season game. That elevates the Slovakian ace a full 35 ahead of Doughty in plus-minus.

Add to that Chara’s versatility and the asset of intimidating not merely with his ferocity but with size alone. There never in NHL history has been a player who uses his total size (6-foot-9, 255 pounds) to such advantage at all points on the rink.

In disagreeing with THN’s selection of Zach Parise as the NHL’s seventh-best player, I base my call on having seen the ex-Devil-now-Wild right from his very first move as a rookie in New Jersey. I love watching Zach’s dipsy-doodle game and his never-give-up attitude on the ice. But when a player on a high-grade club like the Devils is minus-5 in the regular season and minus-8 over a run through the Stanley Cup Final, well, something is wrong, wrong, wrong.

Defensively at least; and that counts, too.

MAVEN’S FIFTH PICK: JONATHAN TOEWS

Like the Rangers’ Ryan Callahan, Toews is my idea of a “Captains’ Captain.” I’ll take the Blackhawks’ leader’s I.Q. — and that includes intelligence as well as intensity quotient —  over Parise’s any day or night. Jonathan may not be the world’s greatest scorer but, then again, he doesn’t have to be; not when he finishes plus-17 over the regular semester and plus-four in the playoffs. Given a choice between Parise and Toews for my team, I go with the latter although — as the expense of being redundant — Parise always is a pleasure to watch; except of course when the opposition is scoring!

I rest my case. Whose picks do you like — The Bible’s or The Maven’s?

Lemme know!

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SLOW START COSTS RED BULLS VS. SPORTING KC

On a night with plenty of hope and expectation, the Red Bulls simply came out flat.

With a chance to take the Eastern-Conference lead, New York came out lethargic in the open minutes Wednesday against Sporting Kansas City and paid for their state of malaise. The Bulls went on to suffer a 2-0 loss to Sporting, the first of the season at Red Bull Arena and the first shutout of the Red Bulls since July 9, 2011.

“For everyone, it’s very frustrating, going down that early” coach Hans Backe said to MSG’s Tina Cervasio after the game.  “This time, you have two set plays where it’s poor marking. You can’t lose these 1 v 1 to concede goals … we just feel that it’s a little bit too sloppy.”

Now five points behind Kansas City for the top spot in the Eastern Conference, the Red Bulls must figure out a way to rebound from the loss Saturday in New England, a place which has never been a happy hunting ground for the Red Bulls. The Red Bulls’ last win in Foxboro was June 29, 2002 and the team has suffered through an 18-game winless streak.

Henry, Marquez Missing?

To make matters worse, New York will probably be without the services of Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez. With Gillette Stadium being an artificially-surfaced field and with the advanced age of both designated players, Backe will probably take no chances and keep his two stars in reserve for this one.

With five games left and a four-point cushion in the playoff race, the Red Bulls are in no imminent danger of missing the playoffs. Still, in a league that features a knockout tournament to decide its champion, New York must begin to build momentum for the playoffs. A win in the Red Bulls’ traditional house of horrors would be a start on the road to recovery.

The good news for Backe’s team is that the Red Bulls have strength in depth and survive the dual loss of their two most experienced players. If Marquez is unable to play, that could be a return to a starting central midfield role for Dax McCarty, who has started as a right-sided midfielder in the last two matches. While McCarty scored against Columbus last Saturday, his play in the center of the park merits him a starting role as a center midfielder. McCarty may not have Marquez’ long-distance passing ability, but the US International display is no slouch in possession and can press the opposition effectively when New York doesn’t have the ball.

If Henry is unavailable for selection, Backe will have to make a very important decision. Kenny Cooper will more than likely be used up front as a starter, but the question will be who the Swede will use to partner the Red Bulls’ second-leading scorer. Sebastien Le Toux has been somewhat disappointing in his short stint in New York while using Tim Cahill in a second striker role didn’t work on Wednesday.

Lies and Statistics

There’s an old adage in soccer: it doesn’t matter how much possession of the ball you have, it only matters what you with it.

Despite having a lion’s share of possession Wednesday — 61.7 percent — and out-passing Kansas City by over 200 passes, the Red Bulls didn’t create enough threatening chances.

It’s all about supply. Sure, we know Henry and Cooper can be clinical in front of goal, but they have to be given the ball in good areas. On Wednesday, New York failed to carve out many clear-cut chances and Henry was left somewhat isolated up front.

That can’t happen in games going forward.  The Red Bulls will usually dominate possession in most games; the key is to turn that possession into opportunities in the opposing half. With upcoming games against teams in the lower half of the Eastern Conference, New York will have to put that theory to good use.

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OH HENRY!

Want to know why the Red Bulls’ front office splashed the cash on Thierry Henry just over two years ago?

All you have to do is watch the highlights from last Saturday’s Red Bulls 3-1 win over the Columbus Crew. That’s all you’ll ever need to confirm that the French superstar has been worth every single penny since his arrival in 2010.

Even at the age of 35, the Red Bulls’ captain continues to display moments of sheer brilliance, above and beyond what you’d expect from your standard Major League Soccer match. His 93rd-minute Olimpico goal – a goal scored directly from a corner kick – was simply out of this world. While the technique to execute the goal was immaculate, the intelligence, foresight and sheer audacity to even attempt such a feat is something only the true geniuses of the game have.

“I saw the keeper over-commit his position,” Henry said to MSG’s Joe Tolleson after the game. “He went too close to the [near post]. I took it really quickly … I tried it and it went in.”

Call it an intangible, an “X” factor that gives the very best players that extra edge in the heat of battle. It is what separates good players from being legends of the game. Thankfully for the Red Bulls, their best player has it.

This Red Bulls team has had outstanding performers throughout this season, from Connor Lade to Kenny Cooper to even second-choice goalkeeper Bill Gaudette. But the bottom line is this group will only go as far as Thierry Henry can carry them.

Marquez in Midfield

With a fit Rafa Marquez available for selection, coach Hans Backe decided to start the former Barcelona star in midfield against the Crew.

While certainly not 100 percent match fit, Marquez made an impression early on. His inch-perfect long pass to Henry in the ninth minute provided the Red Bulls the spark the team needed after falling behind early.

For Henry, having Marquez in midfield gives him an extra dimension to his game.

“I keep talking about Rafa, he’s the only guy in the world who can give you a ball like that,” he said. “Trust me, he made it look easy, but it’s not that easy. I know when he’s on the field, I can go behind the defense. It’s another weapon for me.”

Marquez can be a playmaker in midfield and his ability to hit pinpoint passes from the center of the park will stretch defenses like it did against Columbus Saturday. Think of Marquez as a NFL quarterback, spreading the ball around to wide receivers and finding the holes in zones to exploit.

No matter where Marquez plays, the question remains if the former Mexican national team captain can hold up physically. His season has been interrupted constantly due to nagging injuries. A healthy Marquez can only boost New York’s chances of winning the Eastern Conference.

Lineup Changes?

With three games in such a short of period of time, you can expect a few alterations to the starting lineup for the Red Bulls’ top-of-the-table clash against the Wizards Wednesday (6:30 p.m. on MSG+).

It might be a lot to ask of Marquez to play two matches in three days, which could mean a return for Dax McCarty to central midfield. While McCarty played well as a right-sided midfielder — he scored the game-winning goal off a Henry corner — his play in central midfield this season has made him one of MLS’s underrated players.

Joel Lindpere and Sebastien Le Toux could also be reintroduced into the starting lineup after coming on Saturday as substitutes. While having many different options may lead to selection headaches for Backe, it must be the said the Red Bulls have never had the wealth of options at their disposal than they have now.

Kansas City, Here They Come

It’s a case of the irresistible force meeting the immovable object, as Sporting Kansas City puts the best road record in MLS on the line (7-4-2) vs. the best home record in the league (10-0-3). A win Wednesday night at Red Bull Arena would catapult the Red Bulls into the top spot in the Eastern Conference.

Sporting may not have the firepower the Red Bulls have, the former Wizards are a rock-solid unit on defense and have surrendered just 25 goals this season, the fewest in MLS.

Kei Kamara is Sporting KC’s leading goal-scorer with 10 on the season, but the player to watch is Graham Zusi. Impressive in the US’s 1-0 World Cup qualifying win over Jamaica last week, the 26-year-old is the player that pulls the strings for his club side in midfield and will no doubt be the player that Backe will warn his team about.

With such a favorable schedule ahead of them, a draw wouldn’t be the worst result for the Red Bulls. Still, it’s would be safe to say that anything less than three points would be a disappointment. This is New York’s chance to claim the top spot in the East and stay there for the rest of the season.

It will make for interesting watching come Wednesday night.

 

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DOWN THE STRETCH THEY COME

With just seven games left in the Red Bulls’ regular season, the team enters a crucial stretch of matches that will decide whether it will be Eastern Conference champions or fall short of its goals.

New York currently sits in third place in the standings, four points behind conference leaders Sporting KC and three points behind the Chicago Fire. While passing two teams might seem daunting, the Red Bulls have a significant advantage over their rivals: the schedule.

Beginning with their clash Saturday against the Columbus Crew (7 p.m. on MSG), the Bulls have five matches at home, including two against Sporting KC and one against the Fire. With a 9-0-3 record at Red Bull Arena this season, coach Hans Backe likes his team’s chances heading into those big games.

“Everytime you play at home and you play teams two or three points behind, you need to pick up points,” Backe said at practice Thursday. “It’s a big week for us now, we play three games at home, we’ve been unbeaten at home. I hope we can stay like that and perform and pick up points.”

The Red Bulls also have three matches against the three bottom teams in the East — Sept. 22 against New England, Sept. 29 against Toronto and the season-finale Oct. 27 vs. Philadelphia. While no game is an assured three points, it’s certainly better than playing teams battling for a playoff spot.

Sporting Kansas City has the lead, but the hardest schedule of the three teams, with four matches away from home and five matches against teams currently in playoff positions. While Sporting is the best road team in MLS, it’s a daunting task to expect Kansas City to pick up wins on every trip.

Chicago also has a difficult schedule, with matches away to New York and Kansas City in their seven remaining matches.

The opportunity is there for the Red Bulls to win the conference. All the team has to do now is to do it on the field.

“We know every game is going to be crucial and very difficult,” Jan Gunnar Solli said. “It’s about winning the war and everybody has to contribute.”

“I’m excited because it’s all there to play for and it’s in our hands,” added Tim Cahill. “It’s up to us to do the business.”

Defensive Dilemma

According to Soccer By Ives’ Dave Martinez, Rafa Marquez is set to make his return from injury Saturday against the Crew.

“I’m very hungry to come back even though I missed many games this season,” Marquez told reporters at practice Thursday. “And I do not want to miss the final home stretch this season.”

Whatever you think of Marquez’ contribution as a Red Bull, having the Mexican as an option at center back will be something Backe will have to consider heading into this important slate of matches.

Considering New York has kept a clean sheet in just one out of its last six matches, the Red Bulls are desperately in need of some sort of defensive consistency.

But what is the Red Bulls’ best back four when everyone is healthy?

Of the Red Bulls’ center backs, Markus Holgersson has featured in the most games, starting in all 24 games he’s played this season. There’s no doubt Backe feels comfortable with Holgersson along the backline and will undoubtedly choose his fellow Swede if he’s fit.

Marquez, Heath Pearce, Wilman Conde and Tyler Ruthven have all partnered Holgersson, but the ideal fit would be Marquez. Marquez’ skills as a finesse defender is a better fit with Holgersson’s more robust form of defending.

Pearce and Conde can both play left back, but that position should belong to Connor Lade. The youngster has shown remarkable energy this season and gives the Red Bulls a noticeable lift every time he starts. Meanwhile, at right back, Brandon Barklage has just returned from injury and if the former midfielder-turned-defender can recapture his early-season form, Barklage should be inserted back into starting lineup.

What might end up happening is Backe will pick defender based on opponent. For teams that offer a physical threat, the Red Bulls’ coach will pick a center-back pairing of Holgersson and Conde. For matches that New York will dominate possession, Backe may opt for a more progressive, attack-minded backline. It’s a welcomed headache for Backe to have a wealth of options at his disposal.

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Rating The ‘Delicious Dozen’ Met-Area Players

 

@StanFischler

One of my personal all-time favorite books — among the 100 or so that I’ve written since 1967 — happens to be titled HOCKEY’S 100; otherwise known as the best hundred players ever.

That was written before anyone else in our scribbling business got around to such a listing and, with that in mind, The Maven figures it’s time to do an abridged, contemporary, listing of the BEST DOZEN among our local sextets.

No doubt there will be disagreements — after all, the Rangers, Devils and Islanders are involved — but since this is a democracy, your views are as welcome as mine. So, here goes:

1. HENRIK LUNDQVIST: Since no less an authority than 60-goal scorer Steve Stamkos calls the Rangers’ King the best goalie in the world; give or take Jonathan Quick, I have to go with the Stamkos rating. (Steve gives Henny the edge on experience and longevity.) Granted, Lundqvist hasn’t done it all but, then again, how many contemporary goalies are wearing Stanley Cup rings?) P.S. He didn’t win the Vezina for nothing. Now in his prime, The King’s next crown would be a Stanley Cup.

2. ILYA KOVALCHUK: When captaining the Thrashers, Kovy was the reigning monarch of Atlanta hockey and, therefore, had it in his mind that he had to do everything for his club … short of being stickboy. His readjustment to the team game, so firmly entrenched in New Jersey hockey, was slow until last season. During 2011-12, The Rapid Russian displayed a delightful blend of guts, goals and glamour. BIG GOALS became his middle name. He could be the next New Jersey captain.

3. JOHN TAVARES: In terms of super-stardom, the sky’s the limit for this ever-improving Islander. Not only has the Torontonian become a scoring force, but his leadership abilities are nonpareil. Although Tavares is not wearing the captain’s “C” — now ably affixed to Mark Streit’s jersey — John certainly is the Isles’ captain-of-the-future. As a centre, Tavares, as much as any NHL pivot, makes his linemates better. Exhibit A: Ever-30-goal-man, Matt Moulson. He figures to be a First All-Star this season.

4. RYAN MCDONAGH: Unobtrusively and with little fuss or fanfare, this gift from the Scott Gomez trade, has skyrocketed into a position where he’s going to be a Norris Trophy candidate in 2012-13, and this with a defense-loaded Blueshirts squad. Not only does McD expertly play behind the blue line, but his offensive skills are going up and up and … UP. Among Ryan’s most unsung assets is his ability to rebound from a rare error and return to excel again. And to think that Glen Sather got him for a virtual song.

5. BRYCE SALVADOR: Among the most arresting comebacks of the decade, this burly, never-quit, hitting backliner had been given up for lost after missing the entire 2010-11 campaign. Salvador not only returned in mint condition — a team-leading plus-18 over the regular season — but became a scoring-defending marvel in the Devils playoff run to the Final. How about four goals, 10 assists, 14 points and plus-nine over 24 playoff games! That’s a tough parlay to beat.

6. TRAVIS HAMONIC: When a 22-year-old defenseman boasts a team-leading plus-six and weathers a serious injury to still manage 24 points over 73 games, you have the Nassaumen with a backline version of Tavares. Hamonic’s intelligence combined with his unquenchable quest for victory suggest that he’ll only improve along the McDonagh-type curve. The Hamonic-Andrew MacDonald unit is regarded as a shutdown pair whose gears mesh as smoothly as any in the East.

7. RYAN CALLAHAN: A set of high-powered, high-tech robots could not have crafted a more ideal captain for coach John Tortorella’s persona nor for his Rangers. As indefatigable and he is indomitable, Cally relentlessly has been adding an offensive dimension to his two-way game. Just one-goal shy of the 30-red-light-level last season, the Rochester, NY product should top that coveted milestone in 2012-13. Just feisty enough. Ryan will “go” with any foe, size notwithstanding.

8. ADAM HENRIQUE: He didn’t win the Calder Trophy as rookie-of-the-year, but that’s the voters’ problem and certainly not that of the freshman who, as much as anyone, not only spearheaded New Jersey’s playoff drive, but their four-round playoff run as well. The Devils’ fourth-leading scorer, Henrique was the only one of the Devils’ quartet (Kovalchuk, Patrik Elias, Zach Parise) to get on the good side of plus-minus (plus-8) in the regular season and the playoffs (plus-12).

9. MATT MOULSON: This chap’s story could be titled “From A Nobody To A Somebody Overnight.” No one-shot wonder for this Tavares Sidekick. Every year he ka-chings at least 30 goals — 36 last semester for Jack Capuano — for the past three years. Clean, yet efficient, Moulson’s six penalty minutes in 2011-12 established him as a perennial Lady Byng Trophy candidate. Matty is the Damon to Tavares’ Pythias — buddies helping buddies, giving the Nassaumen one of the best offensive duets.

10. DAN GIRARDI: If ever there was an Old-School-New Era Rangers defender, it’s Dangerous Dan, The Shot-Blocking Man. Funny thing — except to enemy goalies — is that he can shoot the puck too. Girardi’s offense (5-24-29) last year included two game-winners. Better yet, the un-drafted ace added three more red playoff lights and nine assists in 20 postseason games. Consistently a plus-performer — plus-13 during the regular season and plus-6 in the playoffs — Dan, 28, has reached a qualitative peak that should last a good while.

11. MARTIN BRODEUR: Defying all reasonable odds, Mister Goalie transformed himself last season from a wilting 39-year-old to an evergreen 40. In the process, he steered New Jersey to a series of unreal upsets. One-by-one in the playoffs, he beat younger Jose Theodore, Ilya Bryzgalov and Vezina Trophy-winner Henrik Lundqvist before exiting in the Final with head held high and, eventually, a new contract. Marty’s goals against average and save percentage got better once the post-season began. How do you top that for a senior?

12. MARK STREIT: No question, the past campaign was a total anomaly for the Islanders’ captain. His minus-27 was a product of hyper-trying after coming off an entire missed 2010-11 due to major shoulder surgery. The offence remains solid as attested by his seven goals 40 assists and 47 points. As a dedicated captain, Streit felt obliged to carry the team too often while working with less-than-stellar defense partners. Expect a stellar year from a most productive team guy.

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New Jerseys Link to Past and Challenge Present

And you thought the Knicks‘ roster was old.

On Thursday, the team unveiled its long-awaited new uniforms and the look can be best described in one word: Classic. In fact, this welcomed return to the traditional style — a throwback to the one from the beloved championship era from four decades ago — actually predates even the oldest player on the team.

Kurt Thomas, now 40 and in his second stint with the Knicks, initially arrived in 1999, in the early years of the angular, black-paneled uniform that was a good look for the time (so were Luke Perry sideburns and hypercolor t-shirts, but we don’t rock those anymore). This season, Thomas, fellow ‘99er Marcus Camby and their teammates will wear a much cleaner, traditional version, rid of the side panels, stripes and heavy black banding.

Coincidentally, the black was replaced by a thin grey stripe; fitting for a team with an average age well north of 30.

Overall it is a subtle change, with NEW YORK still prominent across the chest for both home and away, and orange & blue as the main colors. A rounded-neck style has returned to replace the v-neck that was introduced in 1997. Yes, these are subtle changes when you consider what replaced the championship-era style when someone in the marketing department came up with the bizarre maroon-and-navy look in 1979.

This is a jersey loaded with subtractions, but the lone notable addition might be the most significant difference. On the collar of the game jerseys (and authentics that can be purchased by laymen like you and me) is a motto the franchise has adopted over the last few years:

Yes, of course, for some, the first thing that comes to mind is, “…unless you’re Jeremy Lin.”

Or…

“That Jerome James contract literally NEVER ends.”

The jokes are endless. When you haven’t won a playoff series in over a decade, jokes are inevitable. And that won’t end until the current core of stars take on the challenge of changing that perception. It’s something that Willis Reed had to do. It’s something Patrick Ewing had to do. It’s somethingAmar’e Stoudemire said he’d do that day he pulled on the cap and announced, “The Knicks are back.”

They’re not there yet.

One of the most understated contributions Donnie Walsh made during his tenure was to reconnect the franchise to its past. Of course, the Knicks don’t have the championship legacy as in Boston or Los Angeles, but this is still one of the NBA’s original franchises. The Knicks, Celtics and Warriors were charter members of the Basketball Association of America, which was formed in 1946 as a precursor to what is now known as the NBA. The Knicks played in, and won, the first-ever game in BAA history, which is also considered the first NBA game. So, yes, there is a “storied” tradition. It just doesn’t have as many, you know, really good chapters.

But the motto isn’t intended as an attempt to revise history, but instead to continue an effort to embrace it in a way it wasn’t for far too many years. This isn’t a marketing tool. And, this might offend some of you, it’s not really for fans. This is for those who will wear the jersey. For those who wore the jersey.

It’s providing a perspective to a player who instantly becomes part of a club that has been around for almost seven decades. As the MSG Network commercial says, “From Dick McGuire to Stoudemire.”

And no, Once a Knick, Always a Knick, doesn’t mean you’re forever employed by the team. It simply means you are forever remembered.

How you’re remembered, of course, is up to you.

FIRST ON … LAST OFF?

With less than a month to go before training camp begins, almost all of the Knicks’ players have arrived in New York this week to begin pre-camp workouts at MSG Training Center. Steve Novakrevealed to ESPNNewYork.com that the players have committed to regular conditioning and skills workouts as a group starting next week.

“We just want to make sure we hit the ground running,” Novak told the website.

Stoudemire wanted to host a similar minicamp in Florida last fall to get an early start on training camp before the 2011-12 season, but the NBA lockout put those plans on hold. By the time the lockout ended, there wasn’t enough time to organize workouts. Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler both took some time off after the Olympics to rest and vacation with family, but both are back in New York — it’s Fashion Week, of course they are back in New York — and will be at the training center along with Stoudemire.

FREE AGENCY WIRE

The Knicks have 13 players on guaranteed contracts, with two others (Chris Copeland and Chris Smith) on non-guaranteed deals, which opens up the possibility of adding one more guaranteed contract before camp opens. Expect the team to leave one roster spot open to allow for flexibility during the season, but the team is still considering options among the remaining veteran free agents.

The depth chart is full everywhere except power forward, which leaves names such as Kenyon MartinLou Amundson and Shawne Williams as potential targets. Williams, who reclaimed his career with the Knicks in 2010-11, would be the most logical fit because of his ability to not only hit the three-point shot as a “stretch-4,” but also defend the post and play with toughness. Williams had the chance to re-sign with the Knicks, but chose to take more money from the Nets and then endure an injury-riddled season that resulted in a trade to Portland and a subsequent waiver after the season.

Considering Melo’s success and comfort at the power forward position during the Olympics, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him slide to the four when Stoudemire goes to the bench. But it wouldn’t hurt to add some insurance depth at that position.

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The “Why-Because” Hour

 

@StanFischler

WHY…
Will Josh Bailey finally blossom into the star anticipated by the Islanders when he was their high, 2008 Draft pick?

BECAUSE…
His late-season move to the wing from center — remember, he totaled 18 points in his last 20 games last season — means that Josh isn’t joshing anymore.

WHY…
Did Jim Rutherford sign Alexander Semin for his Hurricanes considering The Sad Russian’s history as big-time baggage?

BECAUSE…
Raleigh isn’t Washington and Semin’s large talent will mesh with the Staal Brothers. Also, Alex got too big a bad rap from some of the easily-irritable D.C. media.

WHY…
Are the Kings not favorites to win the 2013 Stanley Cup?

BECAUSE…
No team ever wins two straight Cups anymore; plus another season of Darryl Sutter’s coaching will be one bothersome season too many.

WHY…
Will New Jersey survive the loss of Zach Parise?

BECAUSE…  
Jacob Josefson
 and Mattias Tedenby will turn into the latest version of the Garden State Gold Dust Twins. (P.S. A little backchecking by Tedenby will make him a plus player, while Josefson does everything.)

WHY…
Will the Red Wings remain stratospheric without Nick Lidstrom?

BECAUSE…
The Other Nik — called Kronwall — will smoothly segue into Detroit’s lead role on defense and first round pick Brendan Smith will emerge as the newest Motor City star.

WHY…
Is Jonathan Quick a less-than-delectable choice as the NHL’s poster boy for 2012-13?

BECAUSE…
Unlike foreign players — the Connecticut-born goaltending ace treats media encounters as if he’s being held for 30-minute third-degree.

WHY…
Isn’t Ryan Callahan runaway winner of The Maven’s “Best NHL Captain” award?

BECAUSE…
The Rangers‘ leader is in a five-way tie with Zdeno Chara, Dustin Brown, Jonathan Toews and Sidney Crosby.

WHY…
Is Joe Thornton a latter-day version of 20-year NHLer and Hall of Famer Bill Gadsby?

BECAUSE…
No matter how long Jumbo Joe plays, he’ll never win a Stanley Cup.

WHY…
Is Patrick Sharp the NHL’s most underrated forward?

BECAUSE…
He’s one of the league’s most adroit scorers and crack penalty-killers, yet is constantly overshadowed in Chicago by the Blackhawks flamboyant Patrick Kane and captain Jonathan Toews.

WHY…
Did Sean Avery retire?

BECAUSE…
He likes being a Manhattan social butterfly more than a well-paid NHLer.

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