Accidents Will Happen

Fleury Scores a Bunch and the Rangers Look Like Winners

Another stroke of luck has been the penalty crackdown. With referees threatening to whistle more interference infractions, it's easier for teams using a forechecking style to work the puck deep into their opponent's zone. The Rangers have long eschewed playing the less risky neutral-zone trap, and in the past it has burned them, as teams like the Devils would hold up Ranger forwards after shoot-ins and stymie Ranger puck pressure before it started. With the more vigorous enforcement this is less likely now, and the Rangers are spending more time in the other team's end. The NHL is notorious for starting the campaign calling everything, then backing off as the year goes along, so this bears watching.

And there's also been—again somewhat accidentally—the needed infusion of youth. When Vladimir Malakhov injured his knee, Sather promoted young Mike Mottau from the AHL. Winner of last year's Hobey Baker Award as top U.S. collegiate player, Mottau (out of Boston College) is a superb skater and smart positional player with good puck skills who will (when he adjusts to the speed of the NHL game) be a valuable defenseman for years to come.

Similarly, Valeri Kamensky—not far behind Fleury and defenseman Stephane Quintal as last season's Mercenary of the Year—bruised a kidney and went down yet again; but Johan Witehall (who, at 28, qualifies as a kid on this team) came up from Hartford and has looked comfortable skating with Graves and Messier, notching two assists in three games.

The future is now: Theo Fleury refuses to live in the past.
photo: Pete Kuhns
The future is now: Theo Fleury refuses to live in the past.

And Sather wrangled two potentially tough customers, defenseman Brad Brown and forward Michel Grosek from Chicago, when he (wink) waived overrated Quintal—escaping the prohibitive clause in Q's contract calling for a one-year extension at $3 million in the event of a trade—and the Blackhawks picked him up. It made the Rangers younger and tougher and got them two useful bodies for a useless one.

This club is not without problems. They must play better team defense; they still get caught either standing around or running around in their own zone. After Richter, the goaltending is suspect. And, as with all hot streaks, there's no telling how the players will react when things cool down—although that's the value of Messier being back in town.

But for the first time in a while—at least momentarily—kismet has returned. The planets have inexplicably aligned for the Rangers.

In his Upper West Side apartment, a short IRT ride from the Garden, former GM Neil Smith is probably sighing. Hopefully, like Theo, he's not living in the past.

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