I was watching Anton Stralman up at the podium fielding questions from reporters as the clock inched towards midnight on Wednesday, more than an hour after the Rangers had staved off elimination with a 2-1 Game Four win over the Kings at Madison Square Garden, and I found myself smiling.
"Good for Stralsie!", I thought. For as far as I am concerned it was about time the spotlight landed on one of the most quiet, yet steady and reliable, players on this New York Rangers team.
Stralman has flown under the radar for much of his three seasons on Broadway, yet here he is, an extremely important and vital part of a team playing for the Stanley Cup championship--a second pair defenseman who sees nearly 20 minutes of ice time on average per game. Toss into the mix what an exceedingly good, down-to-earth, humble guy he is, and you can see why Anton Stralman is so easy to root for.
The spotlight found him--and the reporters sought his reaction--Wednesday because he made an extremely alert play which saved a goal in the must-win scenario of Game Four. With a bit more than eight minutes to play in the first period, and the Rangers leading 1-0, the puck slithered under Henrik Lundqvist and squirted towards the goal line. An alert Stralman--who almost always seems to be in the right spot and so very rarely our of position--fought off Marian Gaborik before reaching the puck with his own stick and clearing it out of danger.
In a one-goal game, that's about as good as it gets--though I have to admit Derek Stepan's play in the crease to prevent a Kings goal with 1:11 remaining in regulation ranks right up there, as well.
The spotlight, though, had found Stralman, but as followers on BlueshirstUnited.com know, I was fortunate to have found out what an insightful, intelligent man the 27 year-old Swede is a long time ago; and he's been a regular for one-on-one interviews ever since arriving as a free agent on November 5, 2011. That his game has grown and improved by leaps and bounds since, only adds to who Stralman is and what he means to the Rangers.
When Stralsie arrived in November of 2011 let's just say head coach John Tortorella was none too impressed. Stralman was not in the best of shape--he had not played since failing to reach contract terms with the Devils following a training camp tryout--and the coach did not see a player with the requisite battle level he demanded.
Michael Sauer's concussion opened up a permanent spot on the blue line and Stralman received an opportunity to play, averaging 17 minutes a night over 53 games. However in the playoffs--he had never appeared in a Stanley Cup playoff game in his previous NHL stops with Toronto and Columbus--Stralman really began to win the coach over with clutch goals, gritty play along the walls and in front of his own net, and smart hockey sense under the most intense of times. Those 20 playoff games in the spring of 2012 where the Rangers fell two wins short of reaching the Stanley Cup final cemented Stralman's spot as a key a Ranger.
A two-year contract followed, and Stralman's play improved more and more--from playing 18 minutes a night under Tortorella last year to an average of 19:24 under Alain Vigneault this season. He became stronger--though he often makes fun of his own "guns" when compared to his blue line 'mates--and increasingly more valuable by the game.
Steady, reliable, a teammate you can trust.
"I think he's been so steady ever since he came to New York," Lundqvist said of his fellow Swede on Thursday. "He's such a humble and quiet guy, you don't talk that much about him. But you always know what he's going to bring."
Lundqvist continued, "He sees the game really well. He's a really smart player with and without the puck. So he definitely deserves more credit, I think. He's someone that you can use in a lot of different situations, I think. He can play physical, but he can also, like I said, be extremely smart with the puck. So, you know, obviously yesterday he was in the right place a couple times. But that's just him playing his game. I think he's meant a lot to this team for a long time now."
It hit me how far he had come as a Ranger last spring when you could see just how much he was missed during the Bruin series after he suffered a shoulder injury and was forced out of the lineup. Then this year I made sure to watch his game closely night in and night out, and really enjoy the subtleties of it. Call it my own personal spotlight on Stralsie.
He admitted to me in Montreal about allowing himself to dream about winning the Stanley Cup while the team has made its run here, and that's just another thing I admire about him: his honesty. So many players would fear admitting that, fear stepping out of the one-game-at-a-time box. But Stralsie gave it to me straight from the heart.
I feel my little secret is out now and everyone knows what a great guy and solid NHL defenseman Anton Stralman is. And I guess that's going to have to be OK. I'm happy that the spotlight has found Anton Stralman.