COMMENTARY : Except for Goalie, Ranger Collapse Is Total
In what was the NHL’s equivalent of child abuse, the New York Rangers sent out a kid to do a man’s job. Check that. Considering the fragile condition of the team, it was a job for Superman.
Corey Hirsch didn’t do any worse than the incumbent goaltenders, Mike Richter and John Vanbiesbrouck, had in their previous must-win situations. Alas, he didn’t do any better, either. At a time when the Rangers needed an extraordinary performance from the youngster to overcome their many lapses, he proved to be just one of the boys.
The Rangers characteristically surrendered a two-goal lead at Meadowlands Arena Wednesday night in a 5-2 loss to the New Jersey Devils. All that separated it from a recent string of similar giveaways was the timing and the identity of the goalie. The collapse occurred in the second period, instead of the third, and it came at the expense of Hirsch, a 20-year-old who had established a reputation as a wunderkind at Binghamton in his first year of professional hockey.
“I thought he looked cool,” said Ron Smith, who had been the netminder’s coach in the American Hockey League before he was tapped to succeed the fired Roger Neilson three months ago. “He was very organized and poised, like he always is. We would have liked him to be miraculous but ...”
Truth is, it would have taken nothing less than an out-of-body experience for Hirsch to hold off the Devils in the second period, considering his teammates’ lack of intensity, especially in the defensive end. The Devils strafed him for three goals in the span of four minutes, 25 seconds, added another score before the end of the period and clinched the game with an empty-net goal by Stephane Richer in the final two minutes. Hirsch conceded that the Rangers suffered a letdown but he included himself in the critique.
“I learned a big lesson tonight,” he said. “You have to play 60 minutes to win at this level. I think we all came out a little flat in the second period.”
At his last stop, he could get away with a five-minute nap in most games. He was 35-4-5 at Binghamton, where the team was setting a blistering pace (56-10-9) in outdistancing the field. “We’ve been down 4-2 with two minutes left in a game and wound up winning,” Hirsch said with wonder in his voice. “We’ve got a great hockey team.”
He was referring to the B-Rangers, not the “A” team for which he labored Wednesday night. When the varsity fell behind, 4-2, it was time to assess just how remote was the possibility of qualifying for the fourth and final playoff spot in the Patrick Division. Smith decided the team was a lock if it won its last five games, no mean feat considering the next two will be against the Penguins, who tied an NHL record for most consecutive victories (15) Wednesday night.
Hirsch didn’t know what the immediate future held for him after the disappointment Wednesday night. “I really don’t onow what to expect,” he said. “I just want to help this team any way I can. I’d like to get another chance but I just didn’t do my job tonight.”
Smith certainly wasn’t about to place the blame on his goaltender and he had no intention of shipping him right back to Binghamton. “Bingo isn’t in jeopardy of missing the playoffs,” the coach said. “They can afford to be without him for a while.”
The AHL playoffs don’t begin until the weekend after next, which is when the Rangers’ season is likely to end with a Friday night road game against the Capitals. A victory Wednesday night would have pushed them within a point of the Devils, with a game in hand. Instead, they are five points behind the Devils and three behind the Islanders, who have an additional game to play.
Even Rangers officials conceded that the recall of Hirsch, who had posted a tie and victory in his first two NHL starts at midseason, was the last resort. They thought he might not only shore up the leaky goaltending but provide the team with a youthful spark. Unfortunately, the effect wore off after 20 minutes of determined hockey.
“We had a real good first period,” said the youngster, whose flaming red hair frames a schoolboy’s face. “Then we had a lapse and the Devils just seemed to jump on it. Five minutes of hockey, and the game was over basically.
“I thought I stopped the first goal (by Alexander Semak). I got a big piece of it. It hit me on the inside of my (right) arm and just bounced in. The second goal (by Valeri Zelepukin) was a great goal. Then I thought I stopped the third one (by Richer). It hit my toe. I have to be quicker, quicker coming across the net on a goalmouth pass.”
In giving Hirsch the start, Smith floated the name of Ken Dryden, who arrived in Montreal late in the 1971 season and carried the Canadiens on his back to a Stanley Cup. But that was the Canadiens. And Dryden proved to be an immortal.
Hirsch laughed nervously when Dryden’s name was mentioned. “I’m not coming in here to try to be a savior or anything,” he said. “I’m just trying to win a hockey game.”
Still, he said the pressure was greater than he ever had faced before, far greater than that he experienced in the Memorial Cup for juniors a year ago.
“But to get through it and learn from it,” he said, “is going to be a great experience for me. I went into the game with an open mind. I wanted to prove to the Rangers I belonged in the NHL. I thought I tried as hard as a I could.
“Still, I didn’t do my job. I’m getting paid to try to get a shutout every night. That’s what you have to try to do in the National Hockey League.”
For the Rangers of 1992-93, whose trials are almost over, a shutout has become a virtual necessity. That’s not fair to any goaltender, no less a 20-year-old.