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The Garden crowd, what there was of it, started booing in the game's second minute, after Tampa Bay scored on its first shot. The Rangers bounced back, went ahead, then blew the second of three third-period leads they held last week, settling for a tie Wednesday night against a thinly talented Lightning squad.
Despite periodic cheers, the atmosphere was that of a deathwatch, the patient on life support, his pulse weakening. Since the Rangers are one of six teams gasping for the final two Eastern Conference playoff spots, doctors sweated to pump some life into the proceedings, blaring the requisite techno beats over the p.a. system so that "Larry," a follicly challenged clown in the blue seats, could exhort the crowd with his lame dance moves. Bob Dylan's croaky "Desolation Row" (which begins, "They're selling postcards of the hanging") would have been more appropriate.
That morning, the Timesprominently dropped a Dave Anderson column on the front of the sports page, accusing the Garden of defrauding its fans. "At the trade deadline," Anderson wrote, "the Rangers did what they have been doing all season: nothing," and he warned a third straight empty spring should result in Neil Smith's trip to the gallows.
Obviously, Anderson hasn't been reading his own paper's hockey coverage, for no NHL general manager worked harder this year to transform his team than Neil Smith. But why let the facts get in the way of a good story?
Unfortunately for Smith, his work resulted in a complicated mix of success and failure to which everyonemanagement, scouts, coaches, and playershas contributed.
One point, however, is unassailable: The Rangers are a better team today than they were a year ago. Why? They have a futureyoung players with skill and speed who are exciting and have made an impact. Blasted last season for mortgaging the team's future to reap immediate success, Smith added Mike York, Jan Hlavac (the NHL's top two rookie goal scorers), Radek Dvorak, Kim Johnsson, and Alexandre Daigle to the lineup and refused to part with themor even with the rarely used Manny Malholtrawhen other teams came calling.
Smith faltered, however, with some high-profile free-agent veterans. But how much of this is Smith's fault and how much is the fault of the players?
If Theo Fleury were a Broadway show, he would have closed after a few performances. Once a dynamic, tiny ball of energy whose immense desire fueled an escape from his impoverished Manitoba roots, Fleury found New York riches and lost his touch. For $8 million, he has produced 15 goals.
A normal Fleury season would have put the Rangers in the playoffs. He was penciled in for 40 goals with good reason: He scored 40 last year and three other times, including 51 for Calgary in 1990-91. But Fleury came to town and coasted early on, drawing criticism from coach John Muckler. He then complained that trapping Eastern Conference defenses confounded him, yet when presented with more time and space, he needed 62 games to score his only power-play goal of the season (after scoring 108 of them over his previous 11 campaigns). He's scored no game-winning goals this year, his career total frozen at 55. He probably leads the NHL in petulant stick breaking, and an obscene gesture to jeering MSG fans last month should eliminate him from the year-end Most Popular Ranger Award. "He's played harder lately, and he's gotten lots of assists. But he's being paid to score goals, and he just hasn't done that," confided one Garden insider recently.
Three other high-priced bustsfragile Valeri Kamensky, Stephane Quintal, and Kevin Hatcheradded neither the regular scoring, defending, nor toughness New York needed. Hatcher and Quintal, especially, did little to replace departed bangers Jeff Beukeboom and Ulf Samuelsson.
In fact, Smith's next project should be improving on his collection of soft, immobile defensemen who are regularly beaten to loose pucks around the net and unable to pin forwards along the boards. Of course, Muckler's system is based on rapid puck movement and not containment, so big, rugged types don't often fit in. Consequently, opponents get second, third, and fourth chances against beleaguered goalie Mike Richter. No wonder the Rangers rank next-to-last in shots against.
But not all of Smith's free agents faltered. Gritty center Tim Taylor and reliable defenseman Sylvain Lefebvre have exceeded expectations. Smith's in-season pickupsDaigle, Dvorak, Rich Pilon, and recently, Rob DiMaiocost very little and provided upgrades. Dvorak may be Smith's biggest steal in 11 years.
Still, with the shining exception of the Petr Nedved-Dvorak-Hlavac line and a few others, this group has not coalesced into a real team capable of steady performance. Muckler could have been talking about the whole season when he said after the Tampa Bay game, "We fell behind early, we pushed hard to go ahead, we allowed them to come back, pushed hard again to get even and tried to win, but didn't. It's that inconsistency that is so puzzling."
Will Smith continue assembling the Rangers' puzzle? He has pointed the Rangers in the right direction. His biggest drawback is the astronomical (for hockey) $61 million payroll. Cablevision brass must weigh this and decide if missing the playoffs again was worth the cost. They could ask Smith to continue. But if they don't, it won't be because he's done nothing.