When Brandon Dubinsky
scored his first NHL goal back on Nov. 8, it was Nigel Dawes
who fed him the puck for his first NHL assist.
Back then, no one knew just how valuable those two rookies would be to the New York Rangers' drive to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Dubinsky, a hard-nosed 21-year-old from Anchorage, Alaska, has found himself a home on the Rangers' top line with Sean Avery and Jaromir Jagr. Entering Sunday's game against Boston, the 6-foot-1, 210-pound center had four goals and six assists in his previous nine games.
Dawes, a 23-year-old sniper from Winnipeg, is riding shotgun on a second line with center Scott Gomez and right wing Brendan Shanahan. The 5-foot-9, 190-pound left wing headed into Sunday's game with three goals and four assists in his last six games.
As a result, the Rangers rolled into the weekend on an 8-0-3 roll that put the front-running New Jersey Devils and Pittsburgh Penguins on high alert.
Dubinsky has been a surprise among a strong crop of rookies this season. Although his offensive numbers won't garner the attention of Chicago's dynamic duo of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, Dubinsky entered this week ranked eighth among NHL rookies with 33 points (13 goals, 20 assists) and he led all rookies with 153 hits.
"In my opinion, Dubinsky has come miles this year," said Mark Howe, a former All-Star defenseman now scouting the East for the Detroit Red Wings. "In juniors, I was pretty impressed with him. But he's come a long way. He's a hell of a competitor and he's got the skills to go along with it."
Taken by the Rangers in the second round (60th overall) of the 2004 Entry Draft, Dubinsky put up modest numbers for the Hartford Wolf Pack of the AHL last season, netting 21 goals and 22 assists in 71 games. But Dubinsky's north-south, hard-hitting style impressed Rangers coach Tom Renney during training camp and within weeks the quiet rookie had struck up a friendship with 36-year-old captain Jaromir Jagr. The two would hang around after Rangers' practices, Dubinsky the wide-eyed apprentice trying every deft move taught by the aging magician.
Dubinsky started the season on a line with Petr Prucha, but when Renney promoted him to a unit with Jagr and Avery, the goals started coming in bunches.
"I think he's more confident scoring, making plays," Jagr said. "But I said from the first time I played with him that he's going to be good. You guys maybe didn't believe me. But when I play with guys, I know. You can tell right away. And he's got something special."
Dubinsky strutted his stuff at this year's YoungStars game in Atlanta when he scored two goals and added one assist and was named YoungStars Most Valuable Player.
Prucha said what he notices most about Dubinsky is his ability to shield the puck in the offensive zone.
"He can carry a couple of guys on his back when he carries the puck," Prucha said. "He makes it easier for whoever he's playing with to score."
While Dubinsky's size made him attractive to the Rangers in 2004, it was Dawes' lack of size that scared teams away one year earlier. Dawes netted 47 goals and 45 assists for Kootenay of the Western League in his draft year, but he wasn't taken until the fifth round (149th overall) of the 2003 draft.
"Dawes lacks size and he doesn't skate real well," said former Rangers scout Dave Brown, currently scouting for the Philadelphia Flyers. "But he's a real skill guy. He can find the right areas to get into and he's a goal scorer."
Dawes hit the 50-goal mark in his final season with Kootenay and netted 62 goals in two seasons with Hartford.
"Every game I went to he scored a goal," Howe said. "It's hard to keep a guy out of the NHL when he's doing that."
Dawes finally got a crack at the Rangers this season and entered the weekend with 11 goals and 13 assists in 47 games. His three game-winning goals were tied for fourth among rookies.
"Nigel's got good quickness and he's got a great stick," Renney said. "He knows where the net is and the puck certainly follows him around. … We've got a pretty good player there, quite honestly."
Last month, Dubinsky and Dawes surpassed the 10-goal mark, giving the Rangers their first rookie teammates to record double-digit goals since Mike York (26) and Jan Hlavac (19) in 1999-2000.
Dubinsky said the belief that the Rangers can only go as far as Jagr, Gomez and Chris Drury take them has to change if the suddenly dangerous Rangers hope to go deep into the postseason.
"We as a team have to focus on chipping in more," he said. "If we do that, it'll take the pressure off of them and give us a boost as a team. Those guys are going to do their thing naturally."
Around the Atlantic
Islanders -- After opting for the hot hand of backup goaltender Wade Dubielewicz against the Rangers Thursday, Islanders coach Ted Nolan returned to starter Rick DiPietro Saturday against Philadelphia, but dropped a 4-1 decision. DiPietro, whose grandmother passed away last week, missed games Sunday and Tuesday Though DiPietro returned to practice with the team Wednesday, Nolan gave the nod to Dubielewicz Thursday and the Islanders ended up losing, 4-1. Look for Nolan to ride DiPietro the rest of the season. "He's had a little bit more practice time, and now he can run the table," Nolan said. "I'm really excited," DiPietro said. "It's been a tough week, going through what I had to at home with my grandmother passing, but it's good to be back with my teammates, and I'm just focusing on trying to win hockey games."
Flyers -- The Flyers' dog days appear to be behind them. Trapped in a season-altering 10-game slide two weeks ago, the Flyers roll into a home-and-home set with the Toronto Maple Leafs Tuesday and Wednesday with points in seven of their last eight games. The Flyers are 2-0 against the Leafs this season, outscoring them 7-3. The recent 5-1-2 stretch has allowed the Flyers to open a four-point cushion on the eighth and final playoff spot in the East. Center Jeff Carter, who is getting big minutes in the absence of Mike Richards (torn hamstring) has been on fire with seven goals in his last 10 games. Defenseman Kimmo Timonen has also stepped up with 10 assists in his last six games. "We know what's at stake here," Carter said. "Obviously, we weren't happy with that stretch we had." The Flyers were hoping to get winger Joffrey Lupul (ankle sprain) back for one of the Toronto games, but now it appears he'll wait until next weekend when the Flyers back-to-back road games in Boston and Pittsburgh. The same timeline is in place for Richards, who still leads the Flyers with 66 points even though he has missed the last seven games.
Penguins -- The big question in Pittsburgh is: Who will be in goal down the stretch, miracle callup Ty Conklin or recently healed Marc-Andre Fleury? Conklin has taken the high road on the debate. "That's not a decision I make, and it does me no good to ponder it," he said after relieving Fleury on Thursday. Conklin's perseverance and professionalism this season has resulted in his nomination for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, awarded to the NHL player who best exemplifies qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey. Entering Sunday's showdown in Washington, Penguins center Evgeni Malkin had recorded just one point in two games since captain Sidney Crosby returned from a 21-game absence. Malkin averaged 1.71 points without Crosby in the lineup.
Devils -- Devils left wing Zach Parise hit the 30-goal mark for the second-straight season with his game-winner Saturday night. The Devils, Canadiens, Penguins and Senators all have a chance to play hop scotch with the Eastern Conference lead this week. "Yes, we have been watching the teams on top," Devils goalie Martin Brodeur said. "It's going to be a battle." The Devils entered this week with only 12 goals in their last seven games, but won four of them. They swept the Maple Leafs 4-0 in their season series. The Devils have gone nine games without a goal from their blue line.