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FISCHLER: Why the Rangers missed the playoffs

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I picked the Rangers to make the playoffs this season; let's get that straight right up front. So how come they're out of it? The easy answer is that the gambles didn't pay off -- all four of them. When, last October, I asserted that this would be the Blueshirts' playoff season, I based it on two elements: 1. The Law of Averages, and 2. Eric Lindros, Theo Fleury, Mike Richter and Mark Messier would somehow prevail in reasonable health through the year. I wasn't even worried about Petr Nedved. In my mind, 2001-2002 would be his breakout year on Broadway -- not his breakdown campaign. Granted, the health gamble was a gamble. I figured that the Lindros sabbatical was enough to restore his health in the cranium. I expected an inspired Messier to bulldoze through this season with whatever he had left in his 41-year-old legs. And I liked the chances of Richter returning to mint form. Like many Rangers fans, I was feeling very confident about my prediction. As everyone knows, the Blueshirts stormed through Nassau Coliseum in the autumn as a prelude to an offensive that carried them to the top. Then, slowly and relentlessly, the pieces fell apart. Lindros suffered the first of several debilitating injuries, and the team began to falter. It was soon becoming apparent that the team theme would be, "As Eric goes, so do the Rangers." And too many times -- due to injuries or otherwise -- he wasn't going. One might reasonably argue that Jaromir Jagr would have been a more useful acquisition than Lindros. But, at last look, Washington was about to miss the playoffs, and Jagr had spent most of the season alternately moping and being injured. He was not a meaningful, positive element for the Caps until far too late in the home stretch. Messier did as much as his venerable body could handle. Personally, I expected too much of him. At 41, the fuselage isn't what it was a decade earlier. As for Richter, Mike was fine for me until the Olympics. Many times he carried the team, but we've been used to that in the past. I never liked the idea of NHL players in the Olympics, because it wears them out for what they're really paid for; and that's the NHL. Richter played his heart out for Team USA, and may have played his body out as well. Ditto for Brian Leetch, who returned from Salt Lake City a shade of his former self. Perhaps the Fleury fuss could have been anticipated based on past performance, but I was impressed with his game until his implosion took him out of the lineup. Only someone with super-sensory perception can estimate what effect Fleury's behavior had on the rest of the team and its ultimate plummet out of playoff contention. This much is certain, when Theo was on his game, he was among the top ten forwards in the league. So we have to note that Fleury was as much a part of the demise when all is said and done as the above. But let's get this straight: Injuries should not be an alibi. Just look at what the Montreal Canadiens went through, and, more importantly, how they prevailed. There was more to the Rangers' demise than injuries. Obviously, the defense was far too porous. Bryan Berard's comeback was heroic and thoroughly admirable, but his defensive play was nowhere near pre-injury level. Vlad Malakhov was solid most of the time, but most of the time in this Ranger context was not good enough. The less said about Igor Ulanov, the better. David Karpa was a nice try by Glen Sather, but the bottom line was average -- at best. I expected a terrific year out of Tomas Kloucek. Precisely why he turned out to be less than his potential still boggles my mind. I still consider him a latter-day Ulf Samuelsson. The less said about Manny Malhotra, the better. John Muckler was right about him, and Neil Smith wrong. Sather did well getting Pavel Bure for virtually nothing, but I'm not so sure about the Mike York move, unless -- and this is possible -- Tom Poti becomes the new Leetch. When other Montreal players were injured, others filled the gap. When Ranger forwards were injured, Nedved did nothing. NOTHING. If ever a Ranger deal was a mistake in retrospect, it was the Alexei Kovalev-for-Nedved exchange. But that's old business. When all is said and done, the Rangers lacked a rallying force to shore up the defense and inspire the offense. Ron Low bears responsibility for not rallying the team enough to surmount these obstacles. One could argue that he was not given the resources. One could also argue that there's no way Montreal's lineup should be good enough to surpass the New York lineup. Somehow coach Michel Therrien inspired his Habs through their whole ugly mess. His Rangers counterpart could not do likewise with what he had. The blame must be thoroughly distributed throughout the whole team, and more importantly, the defense rectified. Would I pick them again if I had October 2001 to do all over again? Why, sure. I'd look at the Montreal lineup, and I'd look at the Rangers lineup, and I'd say no way the Habs are a better team. And they weren't -- except on the ice. Known as "The Hockey Maven" in both local and national circles, Stan Fischler is one of the most outspoken authorities on the game of hockey. Fischler can be seen offering NHL analysis on "MSG SportsDesk" and on Fox Sports Net's "Regional Sports Report -- New York Edition." Fischler also provides studio interviews and pre- and post-game features and reports for both the Islanders and Devils on FSN. His columns appear regularly on MSGNetwork.com.
Tagged: Oilers, Canadiens, Devils, Islanders, Rangers, Penguins, Capitals, Panthers, Tom Poti, Petr Nedved, Mike York, Igor Ulanov, Jaromir Jagr

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