Rivalry Night is every Wednesday at 8 EST on NBC Sports Network. Not always conventional due to some of the match-ups they feature, tonight’s match between the Red Wings and Rangers is a perfect example.
If it were the 50’s and 60’s before Expansion, fine. But even then, hockey was dominated by the Winged Wheel featuring the Production Line of Gordie Howe, Sid Abel and Ted Lindsay. Alex Delvecchio replaced Lindsay for Production Line II.
The Rangers had some good teams featuring former Hart winner Andy Bathgate. Those teams also included Camille Henry, Bill Gadsby, Red Sullivan, Andy Hebenton, Dean Prentice, Gump Worsley and one of the franchise’s greatest defensemen, Harry Howell. Sadly, they never won a Stanley Cup with Bathgate as the team wasn’t good enough to handle the Red Wings, Maple Leafs and Canadiens dynasties.
In fact, the franchise only appeared in the Stanley Cup Final once losing in seven games to Detroit in 1950. A series best remembered for the Rangers having no real home ice with the circus at the old Garden, forcing them to play home games at Maple Leaf Gardens. They lost the series in seven in overtime. Eventually, Bathgate was traded to Toronto where he helped the Leafs win a Cup in 1964.
The Rangers didn’t reach another Cup Final until 1972 when they lost to the Bruins in six on home ice. A final that included an injured Jean Ratelle, who returned from injury at less than 100 percent. He had only one assist in six games. Ratelle centered the famed GAG (Goal A Game) Line with Vic Hadfield and Rod Gilbert. The team also featured Brad Park, Walt Tkaczuk, Bruce McGregor, Bill Fairbairn, Rod Seiling, Pete Stemkowski, Ted Irvine along with Ed Giacomin and Gilles Villemure.
What Detroit and the Rangers are old Original Six rivals. Even though they eventually played in separate conferences, the most memorable moment in recent history were the two fights between Bob Probert and Tie Domi. Domi won the heavyweight crown in the first fight but Probert avenged the loss in the rematch. It’s hard to believe it was in 1992. That’s now 24 years ago in what was a very different NHL where real fighters existed. Now, it’s more vanilla with enforcers being phased out. Not as entertaining a product.
As for tonight’s match-up, it brings the Red Wings and Rangers together for the first of three regular season meetings. The other two are at Detroit. The Red Wings are 2-1-0 so far in the post-Datsyuk Era. It’s sad that he’s no longer part of it. But he wanted to finish his career at home in the KHL and spend more time with his family.
The Wings still have Henrik Zetterberg leading a team that might not be able to extend the NHL’s longest playoff streak. Detroit hasn’t missed the playoffs since ’89-90. They added key free agents Thomas Vanek and Frans Nielsen up front. Both are fitting in with Vanek off to a good start with two goals and three assists. Mike Green recorded his first career hat trick in a recent win. Darren Helm has a surprising three goals. It hinges on Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist– both of who disappointed last year. Dylan Larkin is the best young forward. He’s out slowly with an assist and minus-five.
Detroit’s blue line remains a sore spot. Green has never been good in his end. It’s built around Danny Dekeyser and youngster Xavier Ouellet. Without Niklas Kronwall, they’re counting on Alexey Marchenko, who played for Russia in the World Cup. Jonathan Ericsson and Brendan Smith round it out. Petr Mrazek has gotten all three starts so far, allowing nine goals on 104 shots. More about the players in front of him. Jimmy Howard gets the call tonight. He has a history of playing well against the Rangers.
The Rangers will skate a second straight game without Pavel Buchnevich (back spasms). Veteran defenseman Kevin Klein returns for his season debut from the same injury. That means Dylan McIlrath comes out. At this point, the way he’s been mishandled why not free him from jail? No one can tell me Adam Clendening or Nick Holden are more appealing than our former 2010 first round pick who did nothing wrong last year when he was given the chance.
Clearly, Alain Vigneault has a personal vendetta against McIlrath, who outperformed Dan Girardi last year. Vigneault preferred Girardi even though he was not close to 100 percent. It showed. Girardi is currently out with a hip flexor but is feeling better. Don’t tell me this genius coach is gonna rush him back. There’s no reason to with Klein healthy. He can pair with Ryan McDonagh, who’s off to a good start. That would leave Holden to work with Marc Staal, who scored his first goal in a 7-4 win over the Sharks the other night.
At least Brady Skjei continues to show positive signs. He’ll probably be with Clendening on the third pair. When he’s shortened up, Vigneault has trusted Skjei more than Clendening, who’s more offensive minded and not the strongest in his end. Skjei has gotten big shifts down the stretch including with Staal. Vigneault prefers skating D which is why McIlrath is on the outs. Even though he’s solid position wise and strong in front of the net- a Ranger weakness- it looks like he’ll be traded. Hopefully, he’ll get a better chance elsewhere.
There is a rumor circulating that the Rangers are considering trading J.T. Miller for Cam Fowler. I can’t tell you how stupid that would be. To his credit, Fowler is off to a better start with two goals and two assists for the Ducks, who took him after the Rangers grabbed McIlrath. At the time, I wanted Fowler, who impressed in the U-20 World Junior Championships for Team USA. He’s been up and down. A good skater and left D which our team has plenty of, I don’t see how he’s a fit. He can definitely add offense from the back end.
Why trade for Fowler when the D is deeper? Don’t forget Ryan Graves and John Gilmour are in Hartford developing. It really wouldn’t make much sense to trade our most versatile forward for another defenseman who isn’t great defensively. Miller is coming off a career year and plays with the kind of energy Vigneault likes. He’s now killing penalties and remains on the third line. Miller can be moved around. He can also shift to center and take draws. He’s a good fore-checker. It would be a big mistake to trade him.
Rick Nash again will play with Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad while Jimmy Vesey sticks with Derek Stepan and Mats Zuccarello. Kevin Hayes should again play with Miller and Jesper Fast assuming the Rangers don’t make this foolish trade, which I don’t believe. The fourth line has been good. Michael Grabner likes the faster up tempo system as it works perfectly with his speed. Josh Jooris should center the line with Brandon Pirri and Grabner.
Unless Rangers brass is considering recalling Cristoval “Boo” Nieves and feels he can replace Miller, I’m not enthusiastic. What’s the rush? Oscar Lindberg will be back by the end of the month.
It seems like the organization finally has quality depth. So, why mess around? Henrik Lundqvist returns to net for his third start. It would be nice if he gave up less than three. A product of the high risk style Vigneault plays. Defense isn’t his specialty. No wonder McIlrath is in the penalty box.
The game can be seen exclusively on NBCSN with face off around 8:12. It only goes up against the Cubs/Dodgers with Chicago facing a must win Game 4 in the National League Championship Series. Nobody ever said NBC was smart. There will be a lot of channel flipping.