It’s late December and, right on cue, winter has blown in off Long Island Sound, smacking southern Westchester County. Gray clouds gather for the first snow, and although the fountain outside Rye’s ancient Playland Ice Casino continues spouting water, crusty ice has formed on its perimeter. There’s ice inside the art-deco Casino, too—the ice that goes down each September when the Rangers begin train ing camp.
Under bright ceiling lights and an aquamarine paint job, dark-sweatered players windmill their arms and sticks. Pucks rip the air, booming against the end boards, clinking the Plexiglas, thudding into goalie pads, pinging off goalposts or sharply bulging the twine.
At the outer edges of the center ice face-off circle, half a dozen Rangers gather as assistant coach Craig MacTavish runs a skating drill. Each explodes off the line in turn, two-wheeled dragsters pushing to reach full speed in one stride.
Surveying all, white-haired head coach John Muckler seems pleased as he slowly glides off the ice. He has taken advantage of a break in the schedule to run a three-day minicamp, trying to refocus his team after ugly losses to the Devils and Toronto. On Day One, the team worked sans pucks, a skating-only session to both improve conditioning and demonstrate that Muckler was not in a holiday mood. Over the next two days, he concentrated on other problems—notably defensive zone coverage, once a Ranger strength, suddenly a liability.
“I guess we’ve run the gamut,” he says a few minutes later, sweatjacket removed, relaxing in his office. A youthful smile and brightness in his eyes belie his 64 years. “We’ve gone through every fundamentals drill we have. We’ve also had a series of meetings. We’ve talked a lot about what we have to do and brought it out onto the ice. Winning isn’t easy. It’s a lot of corrections. It’s a lot of reminders. It’s a lot of positive thinking and reinforcement.”
The Garden is where the Rangers play, but this is where they work. It is the part of the game the fans don’t see—the day-in, day-out practices on a narrower-than-regulation ice surface, the physical and mental conditioning in the training complex adjacent to the ice. The Casino is on the Sound shoreline, in the antique Play land amusement park about 35 miles from Midtown. Equipped with a full gym, a medical room, a giant-screen video lounge, and other modern accoutrements, it is where the Rangers take shape. Their shape this season too closely resembles the white wooden track of Playland’s old-fashioned roller coaster and Muckler has concluded they need to work harder.
The Rangers’ season-opening four-game losing streak gave way to a six-game undefeated streak, followed by only two wins and four ties over the next 11 games. Then, shortly after the highly skilled Petr Nedved arrived (enabling Muckler to better balance his offensive units and forcing opponents to make the hard choice of which line—Nedved’s or Wayne Gretzky’s—would get the better defensive attention) they banged out five straight wins, scoring 21 times. Heading into their final game before Christmas, they’d lost four of five.
Having coached professionally since 1959, in leagues and for teams long extinct in hockey’s anthropology, Muckler speaks from supreme experience when he says of the slump du jour, “I think we lost our way. We’ve forgotten that teamwork and hard work is what has made us successful. We’re a team that must have a high work ethic and a high energy level. When we started scoring goals, it seems we forgot how to do the things that helped us win. We forgot what type of team we are.” So he tinkers with his forward lines to ensure their chemistry fits the team’s identity.
The Rangers can’t regularly win with out playing their game. The Devils can play sloppy hockey and come from behind with third-period goals; Detroit, when they are interested, can beat you in any type of game you want to throw at them—defensive, wide-open, rugged, whatever. Not the Rangers.
Even with Nedved’s addition, the improved defensive depth provided by Peter Popovic and Mathieu Schneider, the return to top form of Mike Richter and Adam Graves, the unexpected output of Kevin Stevens and John MacLean, the grit of Todd Harvey and Mike Knuble, the frequent excellence of Gretzky and Brian Leetch—even with all that, this is a limited team with an anemic offense. They surrender the game’s first goal twice as often as scoring it, and it’s tough to win with an anemic offense when you have to play catch-up. The Rangers still lack a game-breaker, a speedy guy who cannot be contained by to day’s sophisticated defenses, who will consistently deliver big goals that turn games in their favor. So they play the “cycling” game offensively, and must limit scoring chances defensively.
“Cycling the puck” is the term given to a style of offensive hockey in which a team controls the puck along the boards and in the corners, away from the prime scoring areas, in the hope that, by shuttling it from one team mate to the next, the defensive cover age will break down, an assignment will be missed, and someone can spring loose to streak unguarded to ward the net for a pass and a scoring chance. This unglamorous, industrious, demanding hockey has supplanted the spectacular, wide-open skating—the thrilling rushing style—that once made the NHL unmatched among spectator sports and which Gretzky and his Edmonton Oilers, with Muckler as an assistant coach, raised to an art form in the ’80s.
“We have a sufficient number of guys who excel at the cycling game,” says Muckler, noting that Gretzky’s play with the puck behind the net is one of the great cycling weapons of all time. “Where we really have a problem is we’re not a great rush team, because we don’t have the greatest speed. So we have to get better cycling. We have to be patient, and we have to try to shut the opposition down.”
The minicamp prepped them for a critical five game stretch, including a four-game road trip, which ends Saturday in St. Louis. “If we can split those four, I’d be very happy,” Muckler says. It would leave them close to .500 with a favorable January stretch ahead—seven of nine games at home—and something to build upon.
But last Wednesday, in the final home game before Christmas break and the road trip, Carolina blanked them 1-0. The Rangers played better defensively but, with lines reconfigured and Harvey out with an injury, generated little offensively. Afterward, Muckler is downcast. Asked if he will again re vise his forward lines for the return match in North Carolina, he says, “I’m just going to go home and have a merry Christmas and think about it after that.”
Three nights later, Muckler goes back to the combinations that won five straight—seldom-used Sean Pronger in Harvey’s spot—and the Rangers score six second-period goals, erasing a 1-0 deficit, confidently controlling the same team they could do nothing against at the Garden. Pronger gets two key assists.
And the roller coaster that has been the Rangers’ season lurches toward the new year.