Henrik Lundqvist is still the King of this town. The best current athlete was remarkable against the Maple Leafs in a well deserved 2-1 win by the Rangers via the shootout at Air Canada Centre. It was a goalie clinic by two goalies who know each other. Lundqvist and Toronto’s Frederik Andersen were fantastic. They took turns making big saves. Lundqvist finishing with 32 while Andersen countered with 37.
Lundqvist has continued to play sensational since his funk last month. In nine games this month, he is now 7-1-1 with a 2.35 goals-against-average and a .943 save percentage. The turnaround has allowed the Rangers to continue racking up points. They moved ahead of the idle Blue Jackets into third place in the Metro Division. In 60 games played, they are up to 80 points with 36 ROW. Columbus has two games at hand have 35 ROW. Following a visit to Newark on Saturday, the two teams square off at MSG for the fifth and final time. They have split the first four regular season meetings.
In denying Leo Komarov on a break in by staying with him on a backhand in tight during a wild final minute of three-on-three overtime and then robbing Auston Matthews, Lundqvist set the stage for Andersen to make one final huge save on Rick Nash. Nash was initially caught by Toronto rookie William Nylander but maneuvered around him for a one-on-one with Andersen, who denied him with a quick pad stop with four seconds to spare. Matthews then flew down to center and fired one last shot on Lundqvist which he calmly brushed away.
That’s the kind of exciting hockey it was. Two Original Six teams creating all kind of chances throughout. The Rangers had the better of play in the first period out-shooting the Leafs 14-9. But they couldn’t beat Andersen. He got a little lucky on Mika Zibanejad when he shot one back into him. Ditto for the ever dangerous Michael Grabner, who nearly finished shorthanded. But his one-timer went back into a sliding Andersen, who made the gigantic save.
The lone goal in the first two periods came from Connor Brown. The overlooked Leafs rookie was able to beat Lundqvist thanks to a great redirect pass off Tyler Bozak’s stick in front. Kevin Hayes was too busy skating and watching to pick him up. Jake Gardiner started the play with a shot in front on an extended shift. It went right to Bozak, who had the hockey sense to push the puck across to a wide open Brown for his 15th at 10:56 of the first.
Despite strong play from all four lines which included the returning Brandon Pirri after sitting out nine straight, the Blueshirts couldn’t shoot the puck straight. When they did get shots on goal, Andersen stopped them. There were countless other opportunities created off strong puck possession where they missed wide. It was frustrating to watch. But not as bad as the Knicks at the Cavs. Why I bothered flipping between periods and commercials I have no idea. They stink.
The fourth line of Pirri, Oscar Lindberg and Jesper Fast had a good night. They got a bit of a bump with Lindberg over nine minutes in 13 shifts with three shots and five attempts. In his return, Pirri saw 10:57 in 15 shifts including a key one at the conclusion of a power play which led to J.T. Miller tying the game after it expired in the third. He looked good firing three shots on goal and attempting five. Most importantly, Pirri helped set up Miller’s 19th with Hayes which tied the score at 10:50 of the third. Fast received 21 shifts (13:01) including 2:44 on the penalty kill.
If there is an issue, it’s the fact that neither Zibanejad nor Derek Stepan have scored since Jan. 17. That’s no goals for the Rangers’ top two centers in the last 15 games. That’s impossible. Yet they’re still winning hockey games due to the splendid play of Lundqvist, who won his 28th game of the season- needing two more for 30. Something he’s done in 10 of the first 11 years of a brilliant career.
It’s not that Alain Vigneault’s lines haven’t created chances. They have. But neither Stepan or Zibanejad have been able to finish. At some point, that must change. You can’t be successful without your top two centers contributing. They’re not doing enough. While Jimmy Vesey and Nash continue to get opportunities, Stepan has struggled. It hasn’t affected his overall game. He is still a good two-way player who can be counted on shorthanded. But he is getting too much power play time. Tonight, they actually had both him and Zibanejad on the same unit. It was a near catastrophe with the Leafs coming close shorthanded twice. The power play went 0-for-2 and is now 1 for its last 17. They’re 3 for the last 35.
In game like Thursday at Toronto where the majority is played at even strength, it doesn’t matter. But in bigger ones this Spring, it will. Special teams are essential come playoff time. They were exposed against the Penguins. At least the penalty kill is vastly improved. But the power play needs a total revamp. Putting Stepan and Zibanejad together is desperation. At least Hayes, Pirri and Miller were out for the tying goal with Brady Skjei and Nash. At this point, most of that unit needs to be the top one. They are more shoot oriented.
The question is will Pirri stay in for Pavel Buchnevich at New Jersey on Saturday. Buchnevich shouldn’t be the odd man out. He’s too gifted to sit. Pirri did play well. Does he get another game? I have to think yes. Uh oh.
After Miller tied it, it looked like the Rangers would find a way to win it in regulation. But Andersen wouldn’t allow it. He was that good. Then Lundqvist dodged a bullet when the Leafs had Morgan Rielly perfectly set up but his shot rang off the goalpost after a gorgeous pass across which beat Nick Holden with Stepan late on the coverage.
The Rangers had five of the seven shots in the five-minute three-on-three. They had plenty of chances. Then the Leafs had two with Komarov and Matthews denied by Lundqvist. Both goalies gave each other a tap on the shoulder as they switched sides for the shootout.
In it, the always dangerous Mats Zuccarello patiently out-waited Andersen sliding a backhand five-hole for a 1-0 lead in Round One. That followed a patient Lundqvist staying with countryman William Nylander’s backhand deke attempt. In the top of the second, Matthews absolutely ripped one past Lundqvist’s glove to tie it. He really makes the game look easy. But Zibanejad would finally score when he went to a deke and forehand going glove side on Andersen for a 2-1 lead.
That left it up to Nazem Kadri. He tried to go five-hole but Lundqvist wasn’t having it easily making the stop for the victory.
BONY 3 Stars:
3rd Star-Rick Nash, Rangers (finished with 6 shots, 11 attempts and plus-one in 28 shifts-17:06-he really needs to score more for what he makes)
2nd Star-Henrik Lundqvist, Rangers (32 saves including all 13 in 3rd with clutch stops on Komarov and Matthews)
1st Star-Frederik Andersen, Leafs (37 saves including 25 the first two periods)
Notes: Rangers absolutely owned the Leafs on face-offs going a ridiculous 43-and-21 paced by a dominant Zibanejad (13-and-3) and Lindberg (9-and-2). Bozak had a rare off night losing 12 of 21 while Matthews struggled going 7-and-14. … Speaking to how many shots didn’t hit the net, the Rangers had 27 shots blocked and another 21 miss completely giving them 86 total attempts. The Leafs finished with 56. Alexey Marchenko and Nikita Zaitsev each blocked four shots. Four other Leafs had three blocks. The Rangers only had a dozen blocks with Girardi and Ryan McDonagh combining for seven. … In place of an injured Kevin Klein, Adam Clendening received 18 shifts all at even strength logging 15:09 with seven attempts. That he wasn’t tried on the power play is mystifying. … Hits went in favor of the Rangers 31-21 led by Chris Kreider (5). Otherwise, he wasn’t a factor. It might be time to split up him and Zuccarello to help Stepan and Zibanejad snap out of it.
Lundqvist denies Matthews:
A victorious Lundqvist on an exciting game: