- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 21, 2009

NEW YORK

To understand how much Wade Redden struggled in his first season with the New York Rangers, it took one trip to Google.

A search - Wade Redden stinks - produced 2,050 results, mostly pertaining to his initial twirl on the Madison Square Garden ice.

His six-year, $39 million contract was called the worst in NHL history.

His status as a top-six blueliner - built during a decade-plus with the Ottawa Senators - was debated.

And his game was dissected and destroyed like no other Rangers player responsible for the midseason collapse that cost coach Tom Renney his job.

But just when his detractors were ready to pounce, the playoffs arrived and so did Redden’s game. There’s usually one of these stories during every playoff year - the skater who was horrid during the 82-game grind suddenly raises his game to an expected level and perhaps beyond.

Redden has been that story for the Rangers even though his team let the Washington Capitals back into the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series with a 4-0 loss Monday at the Garden.

Young blueliners Marc Staal and Dan Girardi vs. Alex Ovechkin was projected as the matchup to watch during the teams’ Eastern Conference quarterfinal series.

Instead, it has been Redden and Michal Rozsival who have played the biggest roles - along with goalie/brick wall Henrik Lundqvist - in limiting Ovechkin to no goals in the first three games of the series. That and Ovechkin’s insistence to play 1-on-4 hockey.

Game 1: Redden played 25:04 and Rozsival 24:23 to lead the Rangers.

Game 2: Rozsival played 28:15 and Redden 27:35 to lead the Rangers.

Game 3: Rozsival played 22:48 and Redden 21:36 to rank second and third on the Rangers.

“With both of them, one of the key things in their game was they were willing to take a hit to make a play, protected the puck well and we were probably more successful with them getting out of our end zone,” coach John Tortorella said between Games 1 and 2.

It’s not like this is Redden’s first postseason. He made the playoffs 10 times and reached the Stanley Cup Finals in 2007 with Ottawa. But he left that secure position for New York, where big bucks have been paid to countless free agent stars over the years with little in return.

But whether it was the pressure of the contract or the transition to a new system and new locker room, something happened to Redden during the regular season. He was an offensive no-show during the regular season, a huge disappointment considering the money he’s being paid.

Playing in all but one game, he posted a career low in goals (three), and his 26 assists were his fewest in 11 years. Usually counted on by the Senators to score 10 goals and chip in 30 to 40 assists, Redden worsened his plight by carrying an ugly minus-5 into the playoffs.

“It was dealing with different things, the ups and downs of the year,” he said earlier in the series. “We had a new coach, but I had that last year, too, but I’ve dealt with the adversity of getting my game to where I need it to be.”

One reason Tortorella trusts Redden in the playoffs is his experience. The 31-year-old played his 97th career postseason game.

“You turn the page and get on with the playoffs,” Redden said. “This is the best time to be playing. You go out and try to enjoy it.”

When Game 3 started, Ovechkin’s first shift was Redden’s first shift, and it appeared Rangers assistant Jim Schoenfeld, who handles the defensive changes, was trying to match Redden/Rozsival with the newly formed Ovechkin-Sergei Fedorov-Viktor Kozlov line.

Redden was on the ice for the Caps’ first goal when Alexander Semin flubbed an open-net chance only to regroup and put home a beautiful cross-ice pass from Nicklas Backstrom, who was the Caps’ best player in the win. In the last two periods, Staal-Girardi was matched against the Ovechkin line.

In a gotta-have-it game, the Caps played with urgency without showing panic. They created more traffic in front of Lundqvist; Brooks Laich’s goal was a product of crashing the crease. Donald Brashear was a solid addition to the lineup. Michael Nylander was a healthy scratch, further evidence that George McPhee will accept a used puck bag and a stick rack for the veteran this summer. And goalie Simeon Varlamov continues to confirm Bruce Boudreau’s decision to bench Jose Theodore.

If Redden, Staal and Co. can keep Ovechkin in check, the Rangers should still be favored to win this series. But if the Moscow Dynamo breaks through with a goal Wednesday, advantage to the Caps.

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