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April 5, 2011
The Blue Line
Rangers Sunk Without Callahan

by Matthew Coller

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For a minute, you might have been convinced the New York Rangers could make a run toward the Stanley Cup. After all, they had impressive showings in back-to-back, playoff-style games, defeating the Philadelphia Flyers in a shootout and then completing a three-goal comeback against the Boston Bruins. Things were looking pretty bright.

The Blue Shirts were the perfect first-round dark horse pick. They stand at 28-0-0 when leading after two periods. They block shots, hit like mad men and lock down the neutral zone. And on the offensive side, they rank fourth among Eastern Conference playoff teams in power play goals.

But playing hard-nosed hockey has its cost. Against the Bruins, Rangers forward Ryan Callahan got in the way of a Zdeno Chara slapshot. The result: a broken ankle. New York is likely without Callahan for the rest of the season.

"I look at myself as a guy who needs to bring energy," Callahan told Hockey Prospectus editor Timo Seppa after a game against the New York Islanders.

Callahan brought more than that. The Rochester native was selected for the 2010 USA Olympic team because of his shutdown skills. This season, Callahan's play was no different as he ranked 11th in the entire NHL in hits and fifth in the league in blocked shots by forwards. While he is minus-7 on the season, the forward is plus-1 against Eastern Conference teams.

We often hear coaches talk about playing tough—and indeed the cliché grows old— but it seems as no surprise that of the top-20 shot blocking forwards in the NHL, only one won't be playing in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Callahan and teammate Brian Boyle are the only two of the top 20 blockers who also have more than 200 hits.

Neutral zone play, hitting and shot blocking are Callahan's game, but the Rangers will miss him equally in the offensive zone. With 17 fewer games played than in 2009-10, the former fourth-round pick has set career highs in goals (23), assists (24), points (47), shooting percentage (13.1), power play goals (10) and game-winning goals (5).

"Ryan Callahan is the heart and soul of the Rangers," Adam Rotter of SNYRangersBlog.com said. "He is their future captain and sets the tone for how the team is supposed to play. He has grown to be a much more complete player this season."

The tone for the Rangers' forward was tuned differently in the most important games of the season. Callahan averaged nearly a point per game against Eastern Conference teams, scoring 42 points in 46 games. And he dominated the Atlantic Division, scoring 22 points in 18 games, netting goals on 26.5 percent of his shots.

The 26-year-old's absence begs plenty of questions: who will stop Ovechkin or Briere in the first round? Who will pick up the slack on the power play? Who will replace Callahan on the penalty kill?

Immediately, the New York Daily News reports, the team will move Matt Gilroy from defense to forward. But going into the playoffs, they will have to look elsewhere for production. Forwards like Brandon Dubinsky, Marian Gaborik and Derek Stepan spend the most time on the ice this season for the Rangers outside of Callahan, averaging more than 14 minutes per game each. Also count on seeing more of Artem Anisimov on the penalty kill; the sophomore centerman is averaging just over one minute per game on the PK, while Callahan was averaging 2:13 per game.

However, while lower minutes players will have to step up in certain situations, the Rangers have a carbon copy of Callahan who is set to return from injury. Sure, he's a little older. Sure, he hasn't lived up to expectations in the Big Apple. But the New York Rangers now need Chris Drury to return to 2006-07 form if they have any chance of pulling a first-round upset.

Drury, a former tone-setter himself during his Buffalo Sabres days, has been out with a knee injury but is practicing again and could be ready to return for the playoffs. And special teams are where the Rangers' captain could make the most impact in Callahan's absense. In 23 games this season, Drury averaged 1:45 per game on the penalty kill.

The problem is that Drury was only playing nine minutes per game before his injury. He's 34 years old and you'd be crazy not to think those series' against Ottawa back in his Buffalo days didn't shorten his career. He fell from a 56 point forward in 2008-09 to just 32 points in 2009-10 and managed just four points this season. We're talking about a different player than the one who has 88 points and is plus-24 in 130 career playoff games.

Rotter said that despite his lowly play this season, he expects Drury to be a significant contributor. "Drury's goal is to return for the playoffs and if he does, he will provide the Rangers with their captain and a very experienced playoff performer," the SNY writer said. "His role would be in the bottom six and focus on penalty killing, faceoffs and defense, all of which the Rangers could use some help with."

Coach John Tortorella spoke to the media after the news came out about Callahan's injury, noting that the team played well (10-7-2) when the forward missed time earlier this season. However, the nine losses were to Philadelphia twice, Tampa Bay twice, Montreal twice, Florida twice and Carolina. Against Eastern Conference playoff teams in Callahan's mid-season absence, the Rangers went 1-4-2.

The New York Rangers do so many things well—kill penalties, block shots, forecheck—that they would have been an easy choice when picking a first-round upset. A lesser Montreal team took down a better Washington squad in last year's playoffs. But outside of their goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, the Rangers have now lost their most valuable player. While someone else might—and that's a big might—be able to step in to hit and block shots, replacing Callahan's offensive savvy is impossible. With that, the Rangers chances of taking down a No. 1 seed stand at improbable.

Matthew Coller is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Matthew by clicking here or click here to see Matthew's other articles.

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