It was as dizzying, as turbulent, as emotional a time as Eric Staal could remember or imagine. A dozen wonderful years in one place, but now headed someplace else – a place like no other. One brother to emotionally depart, another brother to happily join. A family to uproot, a comfort zone upended. Teammates, systems, nuances, new lessons to learn.
Ryan McDonagh said it best: “You can try to understand everything he’s been through these (first two) days, but none of us really has any idea how that must’ve been for Eric.”
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock referred to the turmoil of the annual trade deadline season as “debris” that coaches and players need to navigate. Eric Staal experienced a landfill’s worth of debris in moving from Carolina to a couch in Marc’s suburban home. And all that newness, that whirlwind week, was captured on the second shift of his first game as a Ranger.
Within seconds of hitting the ice, Staal broke his stick. Like all players, he turned to the bench for a replacement…and kept going, cruising past the equipment man at one end, past his teammates, all the way to the far end, all without a stick. The snapshot provided a welcome moment of levity, as witnessed by the smile on Staal’s face.
“There’s definitely a lot going through my head, not just personally,” Eric Staal said after that first game. “It’s just been a lot of emotion obviously from the moment the trade happened.”
Said brother and thankful teammate Marc: “It’s a lot nicer than playing against him…I was nervous for some reason, I don’t know why. Ever since we got him, the stomach has been churning a bit and you can’t really shut your brain off. It’s different. It’s a change.”
In just his first week, Eric Staal enrolled in a crash course in Broadway Blue. His first Garden ovation. His first road trip. His first dip into that deep reservoir of Ranger resilience in DC. His first taste of Rangers-Islanders, which included a taste of Matt Martin’s skill set and a subsequent set of stitches. His first goal.
So far, it’s all been first-rate.
When the Rangers acquired Staal from the Canes, GM Jeff Gorton twice referenced the word “energized” when detailing his short term wish list. With Staal having captained a non-playoff team for six years and counting, the hope and belief was that springtime hockey in the big city would provide an adrenalin jolt to Staal’s game and therefore, his production.
Staal arrived in New York having scored just two goals since New Year’s Eve, just one goal in his final 19 games in Carolina. His first Ranger goal came in his fourth game. And if you wonder about that increased energy, just watch Staal’s reaction after he beat Jaroslav Halak from close range in what was a disjointed, dizzying and delirious first period.
Beyond production, the natural by-product of Staal’s presence should allow the Rangers, when fully healthy at the most important time, to present three dynamic, potentially potent lines and a more promising, stout fourth line. And without sacrificing anyone from their current lineup, the trade made absolute sense.
Just consider the possibilities when Rick Nash returns at long last, which could be this weekend. A full complement of forwards will give Alain Vigneault pause for pondering and food for thought. And those questions will doubtless establish the intrigue for the season’s final month.
Does J.T. Miller, who will absolutely recover from Sunday’s benching, stay with Derick Brassard on the top line? Does Mats Zuccarello? Is it even the top line with this group? Will Chris Kreider remain a Top-6 option? Might a Staal-Nash tandem wreak size-and-skill havoc on opposing defensemen? Is Kevin Hayes better suited for wing, perhaps with that duo? Or is power-skatingViktor Stalberg a more intriguing third-line playoff option? And if so, how good would the Rangers look with a fourth line featuring Hayes, Oscar Lindberg and Jesper Fast, with Tanner Glass and Dominic Moore as step-in options?
It’s all a Staal Effect. And if what we saw from him against the Islanders this weekend is any indication, that change of scenery could produce something to see this spring.
NEW YORK “RAGER”
So much was made last week about Henrik Lundqvist‘s actions in Pittsburgh, when he took matters into his own gloved hands, took out his frustration on his own net and took a delay of game penalty. It was talk-radio fodder, made for an amusing, viral video moment and sparked debate and discussion within the goaltender fraternity.
But ultimately, it was much ado about not much at all.
Anyone who has seen even one minute of Rangers hockey the past decade would know that emotion and intensity are as much Lundqvist’s calling cards as sprawling saves or GQ looks. And having been at ice level for the moment in question, and knowing the subject in that context, it should be unsurprising that emotion was the order of the moment.
Clearly, Lundqvist was jolted when he collided with McDonagh during a second period scramble for a loose puck. Clearly, Lundqvist was asking for play to be halted, given that he was bent over in the crease, stick in the corner, speaking to an official, trying to recalibrate his goaltender GPS.
After the game, Vigneault volunteered that perhaps there was a communication breakdown between player and official at that moment as the Rangers mounted a counterattack. Ulf Samuelsson told me it reflected Lundqvist’s “warrior mentality” to not stay down after the hit which would have drawn the automatic whistle.
For his part, Lundqvist came to the bench during the next TV timeout and was simply complaining that he wanted a stoppage in play and couldn’t understand why it wasn’t granted. And in the emotion of the moment, in that moment, that was all that mattered. So the net became the sacrificial object of his emotion (not to mention a water bottle that bore the brunt of the weight of a crashing net, and was bent into a V-shaped plastic mess).
Sure, it’s easily to take Lundqvist to task for what he did. Of course he knew his actions would be penalized. Yes, a simple Braden Holtby-style flip of the mask might’ve produced the stoppage without the penalty. But hockey is an emotional game. Emotion is an uber-important part of Lundqvist’s game, and his greatness. You wouldn’t want him to eliminate that. And ultimately, the Rangers killed the penalty.
And a final postscript: in the days after the incident, Pens goalie Marc Andre Fleury was quoted as calling Lundqvist’s actions “baby stuff.” But it should be noted that while twice cruising past the Rangers bench during that post-incident TV timeout, Fleury was smiling and seemed to be trying to joke with Lundqvist.
He didn’t appear to be taking it too seriously. Maybe we should follow his lead.
LET THERE BE LIGHT
An odd concern overcame Lundqvist during the game two weeks ago in St. Louis. During the second period of what was ultimately a King-like performance in a Rangers win, Lundqvist was appealing to the officials while pointing toward the ceiling and the corners.
Turns out the complaint centered on lighting issues at one end of the Blues’ home arena. Lundqvist said he was having problems spotting and focusing on the puck on dump-ins or hard wrap-arounds that rode up the boards. “It was like playing in an outdoor game,” Lundqvist said afterward. “There were times that I couldn’t see it at all. It definitely seemed darker.”
Of course, Lundqvist’s eyesight was spot-on. Our erstwhile MSG Network director Larry Roth trained his game cameras on the sections in question and found that, indeed, that end of the ice was 10 percent darker than the rest of the rink.
Oh. And the three goals that were scored in the 2-1 Rangers win were all scored at that darker end of the ice. Coincidence? Cause and effect? That’s for the Blues to find out.
SCENE AND HEARD
Hysterical moment during the recent Rangers-Blue Jackets at MSG. Defenseman Dylan McIlrath was an emergency forward that night and during the second period, he dropped the gloves with tough guy Jared Boll. When McIlrath finished serving his five minutes, he skated across the ice to his bench, where stick-tapping teammates waited.
As he approached the bench, McIlrath instinctively glided toward the red-line end where the defensemen were sitting, which is closest to my spot between the benches. However, since it was the second period, the forwards were at the other end. Dan Girardi and Marc Staal held up their gloves and pointed to their left to where McIlrath should be seated on this night.
McIlrath thought they were offering high fives for a pugilistic job well done. The awkwardness that ensued was classic…
Speaking of classic, it was quite the exchange between Matt Martin and Tanner Glass on Sunday after Martin put Eric Staal into the glass and cut Staal’s left eye. As Martin – who was not penalized on the hit – got to the bench, the bench jockeying began.
“You’re gonna have to go, you know that,” Glass shouted. “(If) you’re going to play that game and hit someone from behind, you have to fight.” Martin answered that it wasn’t from behind and that it was an unpenalized hit (the replay seems to support that point) so why would fighting be necessary?
Glass: “You don’t want to fight me. You’ve never beaten me. You’re 0-for-3, look it up.” Martin: “What the (heck) are you talking about? The only three I know is your three career goals.”
That was especially amusing given the fact that Glass scored his third goal THIS SEASON earlier in the game.
Now, in the interest of journalistic accuracy (if that can actually apply here), Glass probably was quoting the fan votes tallied for each of his bouts with Martin on hockeyfights.com. According to the website, the two indeed have fought three times. And indeed, Glass has “won” twice while one was declared a draw.
So now you know.