The Ice Sheet: Rangers Steal Show in Europe

Every Monday morning The Ice Sheet will take a close look at everything that's happened in the NHL since Friday night at 5:00 p.m. To read them all, click here.

On Saturday morning when I passed along the news that Petr Prucha was actually going to get into the lineup for Saturday's Rangers-Lightning tilt in Prague, I also made a point of linking to a rather angry Larry Brooks column where the Slap Shot columnist let loose with every little complaint he had about the way the Rangers were handling their pre-season. After giving it a read, you could be forgiven for thinking the team was in a bit of disarray:

It's all about Renney coaching a team without Jagr and Shanahan to lean on, and it's all about this group filling the huge voids created with the decision to dispose of the team's post-lockout identity as if it were toxic.

It's all about one of the most vanilla Rangers teams in memory bonding in order to form a unit greater than the sum of its underwhelming parts.

Well, here we are a little less than 48 hours later, and all is forgotten in the wake of a pair of 2-1 victories over the revamped Lightning. Rangers newcomers Markus Naslund and Wade Redden combined for two goals and two assists over the weekend, as the New Yorkers pretty easily dominated the run of play as the Lightning played against type. While new owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie spent most of the Summer stacking the team with loads of new offensive weapons, it was their goalies, Mike Smith and Olie Kolzig, who kept things close, stopping 76 of 80 shots over the course of two games.

Meanwhile, the offensive fireworks that the new owners and new head coach Barry Melrose were undoubtedly hoping would come to the fore were noticeably absent, as Tampa Bay only managed 40 shots over the whole weekend against that 'vanilla' Rangers team. Afterwards, Melrose wasn't sparing anybody's feelings:

"Mike Lundin came in and was great. Vladimir Mihalik played another strong game," Melrose said.

"Jamie Heward, the first cut in camp. We bring him back and he's playing 20 minutes and he's better than some guys that are making millions of dollars because he competes and he keeps it simple. We just have to get our great players playing as hard as our lesser players and we'll be fine."

"I went in between periods and said my biggest problem is I can't play Gratton's line every shift," Melrose said. "They're probably the lowest-paid line we got on the ice, but by far our best line on the ice the last two nights ... by far."

That Jamie Heward was the first cut in camp and he's now back in the lineup should tell you all you need about the depth on Tampa Bay's blue line -- between slim and none. Face it, you've probably seen more depth in a public wading pool, as folks begin to realize that all the forward talent in the world can't save you if you can't break out of your own zone.

The fallout is already hitting in Tampa, with Shane O'Brien enduring a benching after only one game, also having to put up with a trade rumor already, while others are asking questions about Vinny Lecavalier's surgically repaired shoulder. And another thing: Steve Stamkos won't be winning the Calder if he doesn't get better than the 8:25 in ice time he saw on Saturday. The honeymoon is definitely over.

Meanwhile Back in Stockholm
... It looks like the Swedes got better value for their hockey kroner. On Saturday, Tyler Kennedy was the unexpected hero, getting Pittsburgh's first goal of the season and the game winner in OT in a 4-3 Pittsburgh win. On Sunday Dany Heatley grabbed some glory with two more goals to go in a 3-1 Ottawa win to along with the one he potted on Saturday. Hometown hero Daniel Alfredsson had two assists.

The funniest moment of the weekend came in the postgame presser, when the media throng asked Pittsburgh hero Kennedy a few perfunctory questions before abandoning him to get to Sidney Crosby. Kennedy looked a little disappointed and who could blame him? And another thing -- as Sean Leahy wrote during his Saturday live blog, does Kennedy look an awful like Chief Wiggum on the Simpsons?

And before I forget, Martin Gerber got benched in favor of Alex Auld on Sunday. Somehow, I don't think that's going to work long-term. Then again, there are probably no regrets as the last I heard, Ray Emery had a sub-.900 save percentage in Russia.

For those of you who might be wondering about the Pittsburgh power play with Sergei Gonchar on the shelf, we got a lot of Crosby and Malkin working the points as they went 0-for-7 on Saturday by 2-for-4 on Sunday, with Alex Goligoski getting his first NHL goal as time wound down in Game Two. As for the The Pens Blog, they've already decided that Goligoski looks better back at the point than Daryl Sydor.

So after two years of kicking off the season in Europe, what does it all mean for the NHL? If you're Senators owner Eugene Melnyk, it means expansion, sooner rather than later:

"It's happening, it's going to happen," Eugene Melnyk told a small group of reporters before Sunday's Senators-Penguins game at Globe Arena. "A question of time, a question of how we can set up a schedule, but you can see here in Sweden, fan response been absolutely ... almost as crazy as us Canadians.

"In Gothenburg, crazier than anywhere. In Sweden, it's absolutely wild. They consider it one of national sports. There are other countries where the product can be marketed. We can take a run at it.

... My vote's in for European expansion."

NHLPA Executive Director Paul Kelly hopped on board later, only to have NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman throw cold water on the idea, taking pains to point out that Melnyk was "not voicing an official league position." And while it can be hard to take Bettman's side in any argument most of the time, he's probably right. Between finding enough cities where the economics could work to figuring out how in the world to make trans-Atlantic travel affordable, there are just too many near term obstacles. If I was betting, I think there will be a KHL division in Western Europe well before the NHL ever gets a sniff of the continent on a fulltime basis.

And speaking of Russia, while there are no definite plans to return to the continent next season, there is a pretty obvious choice -- how about the Caps, Red Wings, Leafs and Hawks in Moscow and St. Petersburg in October 2009? Put the Wings in St. Petersburg and the Caps in Moscow. Have the Hawks and Leafs switch cities for the second game.

Tweaking Lennie: Over the Summer, new Tampa Bay Lightning owner Barrie made some headlines when he predicted that the revamped Bolts would win the Southeast Division. Washington Caps head coach Bruce Boudreau decided to have a little fun at Barrie's expense when he uncorked this winner:

"We just hope to be in second place because Tampa says they're going win the division," Boudreau said. "So if we play good enough to get to second place, we'll be happy."

Well, after Washington's 5-4 shootout loss to Boston in their pre-season finale at home on Sunday, Boudreau was at it again, as he couldn't help tweak Tampa Bay one more time after they dropped their first two games. If you're looking for a link, you won't find it, as we picked it up off of the quote sheet the team sends to the press after each game. When he was asked whether or not the Capitals had a successful training camp ...

"I'd have to call it a successful training camp, but what we've accomplished is really nothing. We're still tied with Tampa and so we'll see....the proof will be in the pudding."

Ouch! You've gotta love Coach B's sense of humor, though I'm not sure Barrie feels like laughing around now.

Podcast for Hockey Bloggers
: I know this might sound a little too meta even for this audience, but if you've ever blogged about hockey you ought to make some time every week for The Rink, a new podcast produced by our own Tom Luongo along with James Gralian, better known online as Tapeleg at Jerseys and Hockey Love. In episode one, James and Tom talk about why they started blogging, Tom provides a great "two minutes of hate" and they wrap it all up with an extended interview with our old buddy Greg Wyshynski at Puck Daddy.

Hockey Fight of the Weekend: With so few games getting on television in the pre-season, the pickings are mighty slim when it comes to compelling fisticuffs these days. Still, this clip shot from the seats of a tussle between Jordin Tootoo and Boris Valabik tells you all you need to know about why fighting is part of the heart and soul of the game:

As always, thanks to David Singer at for doing the dirty work that we all love him for.

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