Rangers continue hot streak behind Grabner's incredible play

After a poor start to the season, the New York Rangers have won 12 of their past 15 games, keeping themselves in contention for the division and a postseason berth. They seem to be playing as if there is very marginal, if any, room for error. They entered this week facing two very favorable opponents, the Florida Panthers and the Carolina Hurricanes.

The Rangers were still without top defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who was close to returning from an abdominal strain that he suffered against the Ottawa Senators on Sunday, Nov. 19. The Rangers were also missing top center Mika Zibanejad, who was a late scratch with what was an upper-body injury at the time. That was not the biggest problem the Rangers faced going into their game against the Panthers on Tuesday, Nov. 28. Their main concern was the game itself, as they started off extremely poorly against a mediocre Panthers that entered the game among the league-worst in goal scoring and special teams. The Panthers did not look like that at all, jumping all over the Rangers’ defense and goaltender Henrik Lundqvist with three first-period goals, courtesy of Aleksander Barkov, Jamie McGinn and Micheal Haley.

It only took the Panthers six shots to break the game open with a 3-0 lead. Lundqvist was immediately pulled after the third goal, which was scored by Haley, a former Ranger. The goaltending duties were handed over to backup Ondrej Pavelec with just over three minutes remaining in the first period. Hoping that this move would light some kind of spark, the Rangers began their comeback attempt. Entering the second period, the Rangers outshot the Panthers 13-6, but turnovers and poor puck management kept the score at 3-0.

Rangers forward J. T. Miller got the Rangers on the board four minutes into the period to give his team some life. But the Panthers responded four and a half minutes after that, thanks to Jonathan Huberdeau, restoring their three-goal lead. The Rangers were not fazed at all, as Pavel Buchnevich scored for the Rangers 50 seconds later off a crisp pass from Chris Kreider at the side of the net.

Just over a minute later, Kreider scored off a beautiful pass from Buchnevich on an odd-man rush. All of a sudden, the score was 4-3 and the Rangers had plenty of momentum. They were outshooting and outplaying the Panthers, but still trailed. They had a potential game-tying goal by Kevin Hayes waved off because of goaltender interference by Rick Nash. The replays showed that there was not much contact and the Rangers were convinced enough to challenge the call. They lost the challenge and therefore, forfeited their timeout. The third period saw both teams tighten up defensively, but Kreider cashed in with six and a half minutes remaining to tie the game at 4-4. David Desharnais, who replaced Zibanejad at the center position on the top line with Kreider and Buchnevich, assisted on all three Buchnevich and Kreider goals. At that point, a point was almost a guarantee.

All the Rangers needed to do was avoid turning the puck over. Apparently, the Rangers did not get the memo and with over a minute remaining in regulation time, defenseman Nick Holden gave the puck away in the Rangers’ defensive zone. The Panthers pounced on the opportunity and forward Denis Malgin scored what would be the game-winning goal. Despite an excellent performance by Pavelec in a backup role, making 19 saves on 21 shots, and the Kreider, Desharnais and Buchnevich line combing for nine points — three goals and six assists — the Rangers could not find a way to emerge victorious. The 5-4 loss was heartbreaking to say the least.

They had to move on, however, and played against the Hurricanes on Friday, Dec. 1. The Rangers once again started off poorly, giving up a goal 56 seconds into the game, courtesy of Justin Williams. The Rangers were down 1-0 through the entire first period, but evened things up 37 seconds into the second period, thanks to Desharnais.

After Hurricanes goaltender Scott Darling could not handle the puck well, the puck slid to the front of the net, where Desharnais scored into a wide-open net. Just under two minutes later, Michael Grabner gave the Rangers the lead off a terrific pass from defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk at the right end-boards in the Hurricanes’ defensive zone. The game stayed that way despite some nervous moments, none more nervous than Hurricanes’ forward Jeff Skinner’s penalty shot. Lundqvist made the biggest save of the game on that shot, keeping the Rangers in front. With over two minutes remaining, the Rangers iced the game with Grabner scoring an empty-net goal. He completed his hat-trick, the fifth of his career, with another empty-netter one minute later.

They were charged with a two-minute minor penalty for delay of game, due to new challenge rules. Unsuccessful offside challenges now result in a two-minute delay of game penalty, no longer in a forfeit of the timeout. Paul Carey increased the score to 5-1 on the ensuing power play, which turned into a 5-1 win — a very important win for the Rangers and Lundqvist personally. He made 32 saves and played strong after his disastrous performance against the Panthers. He continues his fine play, giving the Rangers a chance to win every game. Grabner has overtaken Zibanejad as the team’s scoring leader, with 13 goals. He has six empty-netters this season. No other NHL player has more than two.

The Rangers currently sit at 15-10-2 with 32 points, and sixth in the Metropolitan Division. They are on the outside looking in regarding the playoff picture, one point behind the Washington Capitals for the second wild-card spot and final playoff spot. The Rangers remain among the best in offensive categories, sixth in goals per game, with 3.3, and eighth on the power play at 22.0 percent. They are in the middle of the pack, however, in defensive categories, 15th in goals against per game with 3.0 and 16th on the penalty kill at 81.0 percentThe status on Zibanejad got worse, as he has been diagnosed with a concussion. There is no timetable for his return.banejad is. Despite the injuries, the Rangers must prove that they are a complete team if they are going to win important games.

SportsFelix MalamudComment