Lundqvist, Zibanejad continue to lead Blueshirts to victories

With the 2018 NHL All-Star Game officially in the books, it is time for the New York Rangers to step up their game, pick up the pace, and fight for a postseason berth. In a highly competitive Metropolitan Division, the margin for error is tantalizingly small, because every point can determine who sneaks into the postseason and who will be on the outside looking in. The Rangers hope that they will be one of 16 teams that get to play for the Stanley Cup, which would be their eighth consecutive trip to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Rangers have had flaws all season, stemming from their defense, injuries and lack of depth. Those problems were exposed this past week, as they closed out the first half of the season on a four-game West Coast road trip. After two consecutive home wins against the Philadelphia Flyers on Jan. 16, with a score of 5-1, and Buffalo Sabres on Jan. 18, with a score of 4-3, the Rangers had every reason to feel confident heading into their road trip. Rick Nash seemed to get his scoring touch back, tallying two goals in each of those two games, which was a great sign.

Henrik Lundqvist continued to play at an all-star level, stopping 59 of 63 shots in those two games. The power play started to get back to form and the penalty kill was getting even stronger, ranking in the top five. Even without speedy scoring forward Chris Kreider, who is still out indefinitely with a blood clot in his right arm, the offense was still very sharp and balanced. It seemed like the Rangers were turning the corner and making a statement.

Then, the Rangers got some very devastating news. Defenseman and prized free-agency acquisition Kevin Shattenkirk suffered a torn meniscus against the Sabres and required surgery, which sidelined him indefinitely. This was a huge loss for the Rangers, as Shattenkirk elevated the team’s power play and offensive tempo. He has been a liability on defense, which is a cause for concern considering that his primary role is a defenseman position. The Rangers called up young defenseman, Anthony DeAngelo, from the team’s American Hockey League affiliate, Hartford Wolf Pack. DeAngelo, along with the seventh overall pick in this past draft, Lias Andersson, were acquired from the Arizona Coyotes this summer in exchange for top center Derek Stepan and reliable backup goaltender Antti Raanta. The Rangers were still missing top center Kevin Hayes and defenseman Marc Staal with lower body injuries.

The Rangers began their West Coast swing on Saturday, Jan. 20 against the suddenly red-hot Colorado Avalanche, who entered the contest on an eight-game winning streak. They were led by MVP candidate Nathan MacKinnon and a solid core that excelled in all three phases. To add insult to injury, the Rangers were also missing their leading goal scorer, Michael Grabner. Without Hayes, Grabner and Shattenkirk, the offense was stagnant. The Avalanche came away with a 3-1 victory, with Pavel Buchnevich scoring the Rangers’ lone goal on the power play. Lundqvist played another terrific game, making 34 saves on 36 shots. MacKinnon continued to make his case as the league’s best player, scoring the game-winning goal and leading the Avalanch to their ninth straight victory.

The Rangers headed to Los Angeles to play the Kings the very next night. They started the game off well, grabbing a quick 2-0 lead in the first period, thanks to a power play goal by David Desharnais and a goal by Jimmy Vesey. But at the end of the period, defenseman Brendan Smith got a fighting major after exchanging blows with Kings rookie Adrian Kempe and also took a minor penalty for roughing. That would prove very costly, as the Kings scored 30 seconds into the second period to cut the lead to 2-1. The Rangers committed two more bad penalties in the period, and it came back to bite them. The Kings converted on all three power-play opportunities in the game and the Rangers lead quickly evaporated. The Kings held on for a 4-2 victory, and the Rangers were left with a bad taste in their mouth, clearly letting the game slip away from their hands. Lundqvist made 26 saves on 29 shots, marking the first time in 17 starts that he did not stop 90 percent of shots faced.

Two nights later the Rangers were in Anaheim to take on the Ducks, a team that was getting healthier and moving up the Western Conference standings. The game did not start off well for the Rangers, as they found themselves down 4-2 at the end of the first period. Nash scored two goals, one on the power play, but Lundqvist gave up three goals on just seven shots, forcing coach Alain Vigneault to pull him from the game and bring in backup Ondrej Pavelec. Pavelec played well for the remainder of the game, stopping 21 of 23 shots. Michael Grabner scored a shorthanded goal in his return to the lineup, his 21st of the season, to cut the deficit to 4-3 in the second period. But the Ducks pulled away with two goals in the third period and goaltender John Gibson made 41 saves to help lead the Ducks past the Rangers 6-3. Top forward J.T. Miller had a few very costly turnovers for the Rangers early in the game and did not play another shift afterwards. The Ducks special teams were the ultimate difference, scoring twice on the power play and once shorthanded. With the Rangers struggling mightily on defense and the injuries taking a toll, the team found themselves with the same problems from earlier this season. Perhaps the Miller benching sent a strong message to the team, one that they need to take with them every game.

The Rangers concluded their road trip and first half of the season on Thursday, Jan. 25 in San Jose against the Sharks. Kevin Hayes and Marc Staal were back in the lineup, which really made a difference. Pavelec was back in net for the Rangers after playing well in backup duty against the Ducks. This was a game that the Rangers needed to salvage, and they certainly played that way. The game was an offensive onslaught, as both teams went back-and-forth with great chances. The game was tied at 2 at the end of the first period, with Kevin Hayes and Jesper Fast scoring for the Rangers. In the second period, Sharks forward Logan Couture gave his team a 3-2 lead with his second goal of the game, but the Rangers were not fazed. In fact, they got big contributions from an unlikely scorer.

Defenseman Ryan McDonagh scored his first two goals of the season in the second period, the latter on the power play, to give the Rangers a 4-3 lead. The Rangers would get another goal in that frame, a shorthanded goal by Brady Skjei, to take a 5-3 lead into the third period. The Sharks were difficult to stave off, as they fought back valiantly.

Defenseman Marc-Édouard Vlasic cut the Rangers lead to 5-4 early on, but with less than two minutes left in the game, the Rangers got a big insurance goal from Miller, who redeemed himself after being benched against Anaheim. The Sharks were not done, however, as forward Tomas Hertl scored with 50 seconds left to cut the lead to 6-5.

The Rangers fended off one last push from the Sharks and escaped with a 6-5 victory to end the first half on a high note. Miller had an excellent bounce-back game with a goal and two assists, while Hayes, McDonagh, Skjei and Mats Zuccarello each had two points. Pavelec did not play particularly well, but made big saves when it mattered most to help the Rangers get a much-needed victory.

The Rangers finished the first half of the season with a 25-20-5 record, good for 55 points. They sit in sixth place in the Metropolitan Division, but just one point behind the Flyers and New Jersey Devils for a wild card spot, and two points behind the Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets for a top-three division spot.

Every game and every point is so crucial and the Rangers have dropped some very winnable games. But there were a lot of positives so far and that has kept the Rangers afloat in this intense playoff race. Lundqvist was the Rangers’ lone All-Star, and that came to no one’s surprise with the way he has carried the team on his back. His stats are outstanding, considering his very poor start. He has a 21-13-4 record, a 2.61 goals-against-average, and a .922 save percentage. Lundqvist also became the first goaltender in NHL history to win 20 games in his first 13 seasons, adding another milestone to his illustrious career. The Rangers open the second half at home on Thursday, Feb. 1 against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

SportsFelix MalamudComment