Game Day: An 8-Step Plan For Beating The Rangers
The circus rolls into town this evening.
The Rangers are off to a disappointing 1-2-1 start. They are surrendering an average of 4 goals and 35 shots per game. They are craving victory the way Rick Rypien now craves two Advils and a warm bed.
The Leafs, meanwhile, have picked up 9 of a possible 10 points in their first five games. But their 4-game winning streak ended Monday. And they have scored zero even-strength goals over their last 4 periods of regulation play. (A bit troubling.)
Tonight's game unfolds six days after the Leafs spoiled the Rangers' home opener with a 4-3 overtime win. The two teams meet again October 30.
So what must the Leafs do to win tonight? Here now, an 8-Step Plan:
STEP 1: Start The Monster
Ron Wilson has said J.S. Giguere and Jonas Gustavsson will split the next two games. Hopefully, this means The Monster plays tonight and Jiggy suits up against the Flyers on Saturday.
Here's why: Gustavsson hasn't played at home yet. He needs to get some mask time in front of the ACC crowd before Halloween. More important, Giguere looked wobbly and a tad myopic last week in New York, despite getting the win. He should have stopped the Rangers' second goal and possibly even the third.
So by starting The Monster, Wilson can remove any residual psychological advantage for the Rangers. He can make it harder for them to prepare.
Gustavsson's idol, the workhorse Henrik Lundqvist, will undoubtedly may or may not be at the other end of the ice. In the Leafs' only win against New York last season, this was the goaltending match-up.
STEP 2: Crank Up The Transition Game
The Rangers have a number of big forwards who aren't going to win many skill competitions in the speed skating category. And their defencemen can be pushed into panic.
The Leafs need to get the puck out of their end quickly and then turn on the afterburners. Last week against the Rangers, the Leafs put on a "How To Control The Play" clinic in the second period. They did so by repeatedly head-manning the puck and then relying upon tic-tac-toe passes and team speed to disorient the Blueshirts.
STEP 3: Exterminate The Pest
As the most hated man in the NHL, Sean Avery has a knack for aggravating his opponents. He yaps like a skittish poodle. He takes cheap shots. He wears a perpetual smirk that just cries out for a backhanded slap across the face.
But once you get past all of this, playing against Avery is actually pretty simple.
First: Hit him. For a guy who invites such contempt, Avery leaves himself open to big hits every game. Don't run him or go out of your way to line him up. But when there's a chance – and there will be – hit him hard and hit him cleanly. This throws Avery off his game and his default reaction is to take a boneheaded penalty.
Fashion, music, film, night life – Avery's interests extend well beyond the rink. But Sean Avery's biggest interest is Sean Avery. The best way to exterminate this pest is to spray him with a big can of ignore.
STEP 4: Force Lundqvist To Play With Traffic
The guy is acrobatic. The guy plays a butterfly style. The guy stops most of the pucks he sees.
Translation: The Leafs need to stall some vehicles in front of his net.
STEP 5: Do Not Fight The Boogie Man
To many Ranger fans, the biggest statistical shock at this point may be the "0" that follows "Derek Boogaard" under penalty minutes. When the winger the size of a Cessna signed his 4-year, $6.5 million contract this summer, there were many whispers that hinged on one question: Is an enforcer worth that kind of cap hit?
Now that he's not enforcing, well, the second-guessing has started.
Boogaard is not going to score four goals tonight. He is not going to make any end-to-end rushes that bring comparisons to this guy. If he wants to give his team a boost, there is only one thing he can do: Drop his gloves and find a skull to crack.
But for the Leafs – specifically, Colton Orr – there is no upside in fighting Boogaard.
Not tonight, anyway.
Let another guy on another team have the dubious honour of being the first to tangle with The Boogie Man in 2010. Let another guy on another team soak up Boogaard's pent-up fist rage.
It all boils down to a simple formula: A) The Rangers are desperate for inspiration. B) Boogaard is desperate to show he's worth the money. So if the Leafs are smart and, C) want to win, they won't do anything to let B) influence A).
STEP 6: Let Ryan Callahan Shoot As Much As He Wants
His 15 shots lead the Rangers. His 0 goals do not.
STEP 7: Defend Targeted Teammates
After this hit on Marian Gaborik last week, which has sidelined the Ranger 2-4 weeks with a separated shoulder, the visitors may be looking to exact some revenge on Colby Armstrong.
The official word is, no, winning is the only priority. But if the Leafs go up by a couple, Armstrong may very well find himself on the receiving end of seething rage and dirty tactics.
He's a gritty guy. He can handle himself.
But he shouldn't have to.
Good teams scrum when they must. Great teams rally around each other, defend each other and are hyper-sensitive to any pre-meditated aggression. Team toughness starts and ends with a refusal to be intimidated, especially at home.
STEP 8: Get The Crowd Into It Early
Thanks to Toronto's strong start, the ACC has been more boisterous than usual. Still, it can be a maddening place to watch hockey.
Too many seat holders, especially the ones holding the good seats, arrive at the gates without their own reasons to cheer. They need the Leafs to provide those reasons and, hopefully, every three minutes.
The Leafs won their first two home games this season. In both, they scored the first goal, delivered some glass-shaking hits and didn't let the opposition get in a groove.
The Rangers are a more fragile team right now than they'd care to admit. Blitzing them for the first 10 minutes could trigger a three-period implosion. It would also ratchet up the decibel-level on Bay Street.
UPDATE (11:40 a.m.): Word is Martin Biron will get the start in net for New York. If that's the case, I guess this becomes a 7-Step Plan. Even easier!
PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER PASATIERI/NEWSDAY