On Monday I sat down with Michael Del Zotto for a little one-on-one at the offices of ESPN The Magazine. With the Blueshirts absolutely dismantling the Washington Capitals on Sunday and the Pittsburgh Penguins looming Wednesday night I figured it was time to fire off some questions as to how the Rangers managed to contain the Caps and can next ascend to that elite tier of teams. Here’s the results of our discussion.
Mike Hume: On Sunday you guys did a great job at taking away the Caps’ best weapon, their transition game, was that a point of emphasis going in?
Michael Del Zotto: Yeah, we know they have a lot of offense and the biggest thing for us was our neutral zone play. We knew if we got on them quick they’d have to dump the puck in every time and they didn’t really have anything off the rush. We got the puck out of our end pretty clean and kept it in their zone most of the game.
MH: Seemed like you managed to contain Alex Ovechkin as well, how did the team approach that matchup?
MDZ: We played a right wing lock, and we tried to take that rush away from him. I think he only had two or three shots off the rush which I think is a pretty low number for him. He’s usually averaging like 10 per game. The biggest thing is having our back checkers through the middle, because you know he’s going to skate right into them and if his head’s down somebody’s going to get a pretty good lick on him and that might affect him going back there another time.
MH: And Brandon Dubinsky dropped the gloves with him Sunday as well, what does that do for the team when a player stands up to a guy that just laid a big hit on a teammate?
MDZ: Well, we’ve seen it all year, everyone’s sticking up for each other. From the first day of training camp it feels like we were a different team; we jelled right away. We’ve grown as a team and developed the identity of a hard-nosed hockey club, whether it’s blocking shots, hitting guys or sticking up for a teammate. After the fight, you saw, the Garden erupted and went crazy and we kept rolling from there.
MH: After the game, John Tortorella noted that the fight was “good stuff,” which is a different sentiment than the one expressed towards Sidney Crosby after the Penguins’ last game a the Garden, does the team have a different view of Ovechkin than they do of Crosby?
MDZ: They’re both unbelievable players. You’ve got to be physical and take away their space. Hit them as many times as you can to get them frustrated. And when they’re off their game, it plays to our advantage.
MH: Do you think there will be any residual feelings about the slew-footings from last game [against the Penguins]?
MDZ: We’ll see what happens. It’s tough to talk about. You know, things happen in the heat of the moment. We want to go about our business and the biggest thing is getting two points. We don’t want to focus too much on what he’s doing physically. We just want to play hard on him [Crosby] and take him away from the puck.
MH: This will be the second straight game against an elite opponent from your conference, what do the Rangers need to do to join that tier of teams?
MDZ: You gotta beat those teams. We’re trying to climb the standings and you’re not going to be able to get up there if you can’t beat those teams. We beat some of the teams at the bottom, but when you play the teams at the top, those are huge games. They’re basically four-point games against Pittsburgh. If we beat them we’re giving ourselves a shot at home ice advantage for the playoffs.
MH: Is there anything you think the team needs to work on right now?
MDZ: Just consistency and I think we’re doing a better job as the season goes on. Like before, we’re growing our identity as a tough team to play against and it’s getting around the league that we’re a hardnosed hockey club. If we can keep that up, we’re going to be at the top of the standings.
MH: And how about your game personally?
MDZ: It’s coming along. I’ve been struggling a bit offensively this season but I’ve taken more responsibility on myself to be better defensively and be more reliable in my own end. Hopefully the offense comes along and I’ll be a better two-way player.
MH: Defensively, where do you think you’ve really grown this season?
MDZ: I’ve blocked a lot more shots this year than last year and that’s just from watching other guys on the team. They put their bodies on the line every night all season long. Besides that, down low, just being hard on the puck every single shift and not taking a shift off. I think that’s the biggest thing, being consistent every game. Sometimes one battle here or there can make the difference in a game.
MH: It looks like Chris Drury will be back on Wednesday. What does he mean to this team?
MDZ: It’s huge. On the ice, off the ice, he’s a great leader. Some moments, you’ll get down on yourselves when the other team scores a big goal, he’s there to help you out. Especially for a young guy like me. I know the whole team’s excited to have him back too.