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Hockey Notes

On Broadway, only raves for method actors

By Kevin Paul Dupont
October 18, 2009

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Mark Messier is in his first year in the Rangers front office, and by his view (you know that steely glint, able to melt sheets of ice with a single stare), he can’t figure why the preseason prognosticators were so down on the Blueshirts.

“I did an interview the other day, and I may not know much about hockey,’’ mused the Hall of Fame forward, who was front and center in the Oiler dynasty of the 1980s, “but they had us picked to finish 13th in the conference. I think it’s kind of hard to pick us there when we’ve got such a great goaltender [Henrik Lundqvist] and we’ve got a coach [John Tortorella] who has won a Stanley Cup recently [2004 in Tampa]. I’m not sure how that adds up to 13th in the conference.’’

Entering last night’s games, the Rangers in fact were tied for first in the overall standings, sporting a 6-1-0 mark and an impressive plus-14 goal differential (28-14). They are stingy on defense - first and foremost because of Lundqvist’s airtight goaltending - and they are getting more than sufficient offensive pop from the likes of Marian Gaborik and Vinny Prospal (each with 10 points in the first seven games), both of whom came aboard as free agents over the summer.

Tortorella, who replaced Tom Renney behind the bench for the final 21 games of the 2008-09 season, began to implement a new mind-set around the team over the summer, beginning with the development camp that followed the annual entry draft.

The Tortorella method is as basic as it gets: skate, skate, and skate some more. While that can be fairly easy for kids to embrace, sometimes veterans balk. The teamwide buy-in may not have been immediate during training camp, but Tortorella kept up the drumbeat, and thus far the emphasis on speed and conditioning has paid off.

“His training camp was very taxing, both emotionally and physically, no doubt about that,’’ said Messier, the hero of the Rangers’ Cup win in ’94. “But he wants to play that game, with skating such an essential part, and for that to happen, conditioning has to be there for you to sustain it. You add it together, the goaltending and the balanced scoring, and we’ve been able to get off to an excellent start.

Tortorella, who assumed the bench about 10 days prior to the March 4 trade deadline, took a club in peril of missing the playoffs and inched it just over the DNQ line with a 12-7-2 mark down the stretch, good for 95 points. In the playoffs, the Rangers pushed the Capitals to a Game 7 before losing in Round 1.

Over the summer, general manager Glen Sather opened up some salary space ($7.4 million) by shipping Scott Gomez to the Canadiens, which in turn allowed him to hire on the dynamic Gaborik as a free agent from the Wild. Cost: a Zdeno Chara-like five years and $37.5 million.

Gaborik, among the game’s fastest and slickest wingers, has the tools and guile to be a perennial 100-point scorer. However, in part because of chronic groin injuries and in part because of Jacques Lemaire’s ultra-conservative game plan during his days as Wild coach, Gabby never blossomed as an elite force with the St. Paul Trappist Wonks.

But with 6 goals and 4 assists in his first seven games, perhaps he’ll finally have his breakthrough season at age 27 (ninth year in the league).

Unlike Lemaire, who is back coaching across the Hudson with the Devils, Tortorella allows Gaborik much more room to free-lance with the puck. He’ll let him go. He’ll let everyone go, provided his sees a requisite amount of defensive discipline - a lesson he finally made clear to Vinny Lecavalier in their days together in Tampa.

Lemaire had trouble loosening the defensive grip in Minnesota, which ultimately led to Doug Risebrough getting canned as GM and to Lemaire reclaiming comfortable digs behind the New Jersey bench.

Meanwhile, Messier, long rumored one day to become an NHL GM, in mid-August came aboard as Sather’s special assistant. It’s much like the role Cam Neely holds in the Bruins front office.

“It has been a great opportunity for me to come into the organization and see how it runs in a lot of different areas,’’ said Messier. “I’m getting a great overview of all of it - scouting, sales and marketing - and I spend a lot of time with Glen, learning all the different facets of management.

“I never looked at hockey as a job, so even though there are a lot of different things to learn and challenges, it just doesn’t feel like a job.’’

SUMMERTIME BLUES
Fitzgerald takes a swing and a miss
Ex-Bruins forward Tom Fitzgerald (left), last seen behind the Pittsburgh bench when the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in June, is hobbling around on crutches these days after an end-of-summer mishap that turned into an arduous health odyssey.

According to Fitzgerald, veteran of 1,097 NHL games, he was vacationing in Maine over Labor Day weekend and decided to join his kids in one of summer’s joys, diving into a lake from a swing tied to a tree.

“I don’t know exactly what happened,’’ said the 41-year-old Fitzgerald, “but my feet got tangled and I got messed up on the jump, and came down straight on my [right] foot.’’

The landing opened a gash below his inside ankle, leading Fitzgerald to a local hospital for a couple of dozen stitches.

“I’m up on the table and they’ve got my foot hanging in the sink, cleaning it,’’ recalled the former Providence standout. “I’m no doctor, obviously, but when you’ve played hockey long enough, you get an idea what you’ve got to do.

“They stitched me up, and I figured, OK, they’ll send me on my way home with some antibiotics, in case of infection, right? But, no, they cleaned it and said I could go. I asked, ‘No pills?’ And they said, ‘No, we cleaned it out really well, you should be fine.’ ’’

Within 48 hours, said Fitzgerald, he ran a high fever, the result of an infection in one of the foot’s bones. He needed surgery to cut the infection from the bone, then a second surgery for a skin graft.

“Thankfully, I’m on the back nine with this in terms of recovery,’’ he said. “In retrospect, with all the great hospitals we have here [in Boston], I just should have jumped in the car and come right home.’’

Fitzgerald, previously in player development with the Penguins, moved to bench duty as an assistant coach last season when Dan Bylsma replaced Michel Therrien as head coach. Over the summer, he returned to front office duty in a new role as assistant to GM Ray Shero.

ETC.
More power to Sacco’s Avalanche
If the Rangers are a surprise to some, how ’bout Colorado? As of yesterday morning, rookie coach Joe Sacco’s Avalanche were atop the West with a 5-1-1 record and a 24-15 goal differential. “Yeah, we’re probably surprising a lot of people,’’ said Sacco (above), reached Friday night in Detroit, where his plucky group last night took on the Cup finalist Red Wings. “We felt from Day 1 of training camp we could make a move this year. We injected some young guys with enthusiasm and speed and we’re getting some great goaltending. Look, we know it’s early, but we like the way we’ve come out.’’ Next time you watch the Avalanche, notice how they attack on the power play, consistently grouping all three forwards around the net, reminiscent of the Nordiques teams when the Stastny brothers were in high gear. Maybe there’s a connection, with Paul Stastny (Peter’s son) helping to lead the charge. “There you go,’’ said Sacco, adding a laugh, who puts out a first unit with Milan Hejduk, Wojtek Wolski, and Matt Duchene. “I’d say both of our units are very skilled with the puck in tight areas. They’re very good at working it along the goal line and at the side of the net.’’ Journeyman Craig Anderson, in net for an eighth straight start last night, has been sensational (5-1-1, 1.99 GAA, .940 save percentage). “I’m not going to tell you I projected him as our No. 1 going into camp,’’ said Sacco. “But he’s playing like a legit No. 1, giving us a chance to win every game we’ve played so far, and you can tell he’s got the belief of the guys in the room right now. That’s huge.’’ Anderson signed on as a free agent over the summer, coming aboard for a two-year deal with a $1.812 million cap hit.

Spread it around
The Hurricanes stood a sluggish 2-3-1 going into their match last night in New Jersey. However, they put a 7-2 smackdown on Florida last Friday night, with seven players collecting the goals. According to Bob Waterman at the Elias Sports Bureau, it was one goal shy of the franchise record, when eight different Whalers beat up the North Stars, 8-1, on March 26, 1988 (everyone join me now in a rousing chorus of “Brass Bonanza’’). The NHL record for greatest number of goal scorers, one game, is 10. The Bruins are one of four teams to do it, and yes, Bobby Orr made the list. The date: Nov. 3, 1974, in a 10-1 thumping of the North Stars. The other scorers: Gregg Sheppard, Andre Savard, Don Marcotte, Phil Esposito, Wayne Cashman, Darryl Edestrand, Dave Forbes, Terry O’Reilly, and Ken Hodge. Of those 10, Marcotte, Cashman, and O’Reilly spent their entire careers wearing the Spoked-B. Including playoffs, they totaled 3,171 games. We may see a list of 10 different goal scorers again. Not sure we’ll see three of them turn out to be lifers.

Time for action is now
No NHL games on the docket today, a true rarity. Off the ice, though, players have a chance to make a significant impact on the state of their game, and their union, in a players-only conference call that is intended to get to the bottom of the ongoing strife in and around NHL Players Association headquarters in Toronto. A growing chorus of players, displeased with how executive director Paul Kelly was bum-rushed off the job Aug. 31, want a thorough and independent review of how that happened, and in particular want to learn what part, if any, Ian Penny (general counsel and interim executive director), Buzz Hargrove (ombudsman), Ron Pink (adviser), and Eric Lindros (former ombudsman) played. Note to players: The easiest, laziest thing to do now is to shrug shoulders and figure someone else will make the boo-boo go away. Uh-uh, it’s on you. And if you let this opportunity for both review and remedy slip away, don’t complain when you are dumped out of the Zamboni with the rest of the night’s ice shavings.

If you build it . . .
More teasing this past week that Quebec City wants back in the game, a follow-up to Mayor Regis Labeaume (an Alan Eagleson look-alike, by the way) chatting recently with commissioner Gary Bettman about a Nordiques Redux. On Friday, the mayor said he would like to see a $400 million arena built, hoping that would provide the requisite NHL enticement. As for Le Colisee, home to the Nords until they left for Denver in ’95, the mayor dubbed it a “relic from another era.’’ Speaking as a relic, Mr. Mayor, but isn’t that the essence of your belle ville?

Loose pucks
Ugly start for the Leafs, a dead-last 0-5-1 before hosting the red-hot Rangers last night. They desperately need a No. 1 goaltender, and think they might have one in rookie Jonas Gustavsson (sidelined with a groin injury). Without a patch there, it’s a certainty that the Bruins will end up with a top-five pick, if not the No. 1, in the June draft as part of the Phil Kessel swap last month. Meanwhile, Kessel, recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, underwent his first full Leafs practice Friday. Look for him to return Nov. 14 or 17, slightly ahead of schedule . . . With Kessel gone, Boston’s only first-round pick in the lineup today is Mark Stuart (No. 21 in 2003). Going back to ’95, only two other Boston first-rounders are in the league: Anaheim’s Nick Boynton (21 in ’99) and San Jose’s Joe Thornton (1 in ’97).

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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