Lundqvist carries Rangers to shootout win over Maple Leafs

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The victorious Rangers congratulate Henrik Lundqvist on a job well done in a well earned 2-1 win in the shootout over the Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy NYRangers.

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.

More Henrik:

Lundqvist denies Matthews:

A victorious Lundqvist on an exciting game:

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Klein out, Clendening in

It looks like Kevin Klein will not play tonight in Toronto. The bottom pair defenseman who has gotten his game together is not out for warm ups. Taking his place is extra defenseman Adam Clendening, who looks to be playing with Brady Skjei on the third pair.

The goalie match-up is Henrik Lundqvist versus Frederik Andersen. Defenseman Alexey Marchenko makes his Leafs debut.

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Pirri back in to help power play, Buchnevich sits

When the Rangers take on the Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre, they’ll do so with Brandon Pirri back in the lineup. He fell out of favor losing the fourth line center job to Oscar Lindberg. Lindberg has been solid in limited action with Jesper Fast and Pavel Buchnevich.

However, Buchnevich will sit this one out. The second time he’s been a healthy scratch. Pirri will be looked to to help spark a struggling power play. They’re 1 for the last 15 over the last seven games and 3 for the last 33 and 4 for the last 35 over a longer stretch. Basically, they’ve gone from a top 10 power play to the middle of the pack clicking at 19.4 percent.

Indecision and turnovers have led to two shorthanded goals over the stretch including a baffling 2-on-5 shorthanded game-winner in a frustrating 4-2 loss against the Islanders. The power play has allowed three shorthanded goals. But if you think about it, they’ve scored four power play goals and allowed two shorthanded goals in the last 35 attempts. That’s pathetic. Here is Pirri talking to MSG reporter Amanda Gorges Borges on what he can bring:

As for Buchnevich, I hate the fact that he isn’t playing. Leave it to the coaching staff to not know what to do with the gifted 21-year old Russian rookie. Before he fell out of the top nine, he was basically a point-per-game player who had solid chemistry with Mika Zibanejad and was effective on the power play. He has cooled down. But it’s hard to produce in limited ice-time. He’s 6-9-15 in 26 games.

If they even think about including him in a trade for Kevin Shattenkirk, I’ll loose it. It would be a huge mistake. Shattenkirk is going to be moved. According to TSN insider Darren Dreger, the Blues don’t want to lose the right defenseman for nothing like they have David Backes and Troy Brouwer last summer. They want to maximize Shattenkirk’s value as a rental. He is attractive due to his skill set. A very good skating right D with terrific puck possession and offensive capabilities. But the idea you have to give up a high level prospect, a first round pick and possibly another asset is ludicrous.

The Rangers better not do it. I would rather them wait for the summer. If he wants to be here so badly, he can sign on the dotted line. Just what we need. Another long-term contract with probably a no-move clause. Sorry. I just had to.

Toronto will be without Mitch Marner. That’s too bad. I enjoy watching him. But Auston Matthews and the rest of a talented Leafs team in playoff position should make it a good game.

 

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The truth about the NHL playoff format

Someone finally had the guts to say the truth about the current NHL playoff format. It came from Edmonton coach Todd McLellan. With the Oilers in position to finally make the postseason for the first time in over a decade, he ripped into the divisional format which doesn’t put an emphasis on total points. But rather rewards mediocrity.

Here is a tweet from old friend Rick Carpiniello quoting McLellan on a format that honestly has already become annoying:

McLellan’s point about reseeding after the first round makes too much sense. That’s why it won’t happen. Instead, the NHL is stuck with the silly divisional format which allows for match-ups that shouldn’t happen. Unless you think the Caps and Pens should face each other in the second round again which isn’t good for business, it makes better sense to have them as the top two seeds.

That would mean altering the format and just seeding 1-8 regardless of division winners. At the present, the top four teams in the Metropolitan Division all have more points than current Atlantic leader Montreal. The Canadiens are at 72 while the Sens are two off the pace with 70 followed by the Leafs (67), Panthers (tied with 66) and Bruins.

If the playoffs started today, the Rangers would remain in the first wildcard and draw the Habs while the Islanders would be locked into the second wildcard and draw Washington due to more ROW than the Panthers and one fewer game played than Boston. The Rangers enter tonight’s match in Toronto fourth in the Metro with 78 points in 59 games with 36 ROW. They trail the Blue Jackets by a point for third. With five points separating first place Washington from second place Pittsbugh, who is so battered on the blue line that they actually sacrificed a second round pick for veteran Ron Hainsey, who would you rather face? A 2/3 potential match-up with the defending champion Pens or a wildcard first round against the Canadiens.

For the Blueshirts, the answer remains sketchy. They’ve already lost twice to Montreal. Once at the House of Horrors getting trounced and then the other night in an evenly played game where the Habs prevailed in the shootout. They’ve split the first two with Ottawa.

As far as McLellan’s suggestion, it would be smarter to reseed and have the best teams draw the lower seeds. But that’s not how it currently works. No matter how many points the Caps rack up, they know that after the first round against the second wildcard, they’ll likely have to go through the Pens in a second round rematch. That would match up the two best teams in the conference.

Is it fair? On the level, it doesn’t seem so. Another suggestion could be to go the NBA route. Meaning if a division winner has fewer wins, they don’t get the home court for the first round. Of course, the NBA has six divisions which in itself is too many. But they do reseed.

What if the NHL still rewarded division winners? Then you would have the Caps 1 and the Habs 2 followed by the Pens, Jackets, Rangers, Sens, Leafs and Islanders. It would essentially be the old format with the Caps drawing the Isles while the Habs would face arch rival Toronto in an enticing first round. That would leave the Pens drawing the Sens and the Jackets and Rangers in another interesting storyline featuring John Tortorella and Alain Vigneault. Plus former Jacket Rick Nash and ex-Ranger Brandon Dubinsky.

Let’s be honest. A Blue Jackets vs Rangers first round match-up would be electrifying. Far more interesting than facing the Penguins again. At what point do the same predictable match-ups become boring? Like a broken record, we’re headed in that direction.

It’s time for the NHL to wake up. Bring the NHLPA back to the negotiating table. The players wanted this new format. Make a change or an adjustment that will satisfy both parties along with the fans. I have no interest in another Rangers/Pens rematch. I don’t know why they should cross over and face Montreal. But the wildcard has created this concept. Last year, the Islanders basically avoided the Caps by losing the final game and opting for Atlantic winner Florida. It worked out for them as they advanced to the second round for the first time since 1993.

Who’s to say the same thing doesn’t happen on the final weekend? By keeping the current format, you’re allowing teams to determine the opponent. The Rangers played it straight up and drew the Pens, who easily dispatched them in five.

For now, there’s a week until the March 1 trade deadline. A hot topic that is heating up. That should be more fun than the boring playoff format.

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Price’s big save on Miller gives Canadiens shootout win against Rangers

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Winning netminder Carey Price is all smiles following his heroics to rob J.T. Miller at the end of overtime in Montreal’s 3-2 shootout win over the Rangers. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy Montreal Canadiens.

Goaltending is so important when it comes to hockey. If you have it, you can be successful. If you don’t, then you’re in for a long year. Both Original Sixes Montreal and the Rangers have it in spades. Former Vezina winners Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist squared off in a showdown at The Garden.

The difference was a remarkable Price last second save on J.T. Miller before an electrifying three-on-three overtime concluded. Following Tomas Plekanec’s bullet off the far post, out came Kevin Hayes and Miller two-on-one with under 10 seconds left. Hayes patiently waited before passing across to a wide open Miller, who let go of a quick shot that was headed for the Montreal net. But at the last split second, a diving Price sprawled out to make the huge stop to gasps from the crowd as the buzzer sounded.

That forced a hard fought 2-2 tie into the shootout. A place where great hockey games come to die. The hockey portion was over after 65 minutes. A game which saw the Rangers battle back from one-goal deficits twice now was into a meaningless skill competition. This is how so many three-point games get decided during the 82-game schedule. It seems more and more, five minutes of three-on-three isn’t enough to decide these games. And so, another shootout which isn’t used thankfully to decide any postseason resulted in a Habs 3-2 win with Paul Byron getting the winner in the bottom of the fifth to give Claude Julien his first victory in his second stint with Montreal.

A game which I basically missed due to work and other fun stuff that included a nice drive to my favorite Mexican spot on the North Shore near the Ferry, was back and forth between classic rivals from yesteryear in a time when there only were six teams. Now, you have 30 with team number 31 entering via expansion in Las Vegas. Is there any place they won’t put hockey? God forbid Quebec gets another team.

As I listened to the game on ESPN radio entertained by the great tandem of Kenny Albert and Dave Maloney, I didn’t miss anything. Four goals were scored. Two by each side in the first pair of periods. In the first, Andrew Shaw was able to get to a loose puck and beat Lundqvist on a wrap around just 3:55 in. Less than seven minutes later, Oscar Lindberg drew the Rangers even when he was left unchecked for a sweet finish off a Jesper Fast pass in transition started by the ever improving Brady Skjei. Skjei ranks fourth among all NHL defenseman in even strength assists.

In the second, Shea Weber put the Canadiens back ahead with his 11th power play goal on a one-time blast. Eleven of his 14 goals have come on the man-advantage. Once again, the Blueshirts responded by scoring at even strength. Rick Nash tied it up when he was able to take a Ryan McDonagh feed and get behind the Montreal defense and beat Price for his 17th at 9:26. Jimmy Vesey continued his good run netting a secondary assist.

The game remained tied until overtime. In it, the Rangers missed the net early on. The Habs were more dangerous getting the first two shots on goal. Both of which Lundqvist stopped including a big stop on Max Pacioretty. The Rangers got the final four shots including Miller’s point blank chance which a desperate Price robbed with a second to spare. An unreal save by a great goalie.

Mats Zuccarello was first up in the shootout and went five-hole on Price for a 1-0 lead. Lundqvist then stayed patient and denied Brian Flynn’s forehand deke to keep them up. Mika Zibanejad tried a forehand deke against the grain which Price stuck with to deny him. Alex Radulov then made a great move going to the backhand top shelf on Lundqvist to even it after the second.

Derek Stepan came out and nearly put the Rangers back ahead in the top of the third. But his wrist shot grazed off the crossbar. With a chance to end it, Pacioretty tested Lundqvist high glove but he was waiting for it and made the big save. After Vesey was denied by Price, Alex Galchenyuk almost ended it but had his shot ring off the goalpost. In Round 5, Miller tried to go five-hole but Price easily denied him.

That set the stage for Byron. He went with a similar move as Zuccarello cutting to the middle before opening up Lundqvist and going five-hole to give the Habs a big win that kept them ahead of the Senators for first in the Atlantic. Ottawa won at New Jersey 2-1 to stay within two of Montreal. The Habs have 72 points with 22 games remaining while the Sens have 70 with 24 left.

As for the Rangers, they earned a point to reach 78 in their 59th game. They remained fourth in the crowded Metropolitan a point in back of idle Columbus. Four behind Pittsburgh, who won 3-1 in Carolina. Seven out of first behind idle Washington. They are 12 ahead of the Islanders, who prevailed 3-1 at Detroit in the first of a nine-game road trip. They remain out of the second wildcard due to Florida having one extra game left. Both are tied with 66 points.

Notes: Price finished with 28 saves to earn the game’s third star. The win was his 258th tying him with Ken Dryden for third on the all-time Canadiens list. … Lundqvist had 26 saves suffering a tough luck shootout defeat. … Montreal went 1-for-3 on the power play while the Rangers fired blanks in four attempts. That has become a sore spot again. It’s like the groundhog seeing its collective shadow. It always strikes around this time. … Shot attempts were air tight with the Rangers holding a 55-54 edge. … McDonagh had a game high 26:11 with an assist, four attempts and plus-one in 31 shifts. Weber led the Habs with 25:38 finishing with a PPG and assist with six attempts in 31 shifts. … Face-offs went in favor of Montreal 31-28 led by Phillip Danault (10-and-9). Stepan had a superb night going 13-and-6 for the Blueshirts. … The Rangers next game is Thursday in Toronto followed by a visit to Newark on Saturday. They return home for the final two games of February against Columbus on Sunday in a back-to-back and then Washington next Tuesday.

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Shea Weber, Canadiens (power play goal-14th of season, assist in 31 shifts-25:38)

2nd Star-Henrik Lundqvist, Rangers (26 saves including 9/10 in 1st and big stop on Pacioretty in OT)

1st Star-Carey Price, Canadiens (28 saves including 12/13 in 2nd and the huge stop to rob Miller with a second left in OT)

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Devils give away season in Brooklyn

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Before this weekend I thought if the Devils lost both games in this home-and-home to the Brooklyn Isles their season would effectively be over, but after last night’s OOT results (including road wins for the Sabres at St. Louis and the Panthers at LA, sweeping their California trip) I changed my mind – they really needed to sweep the home-and-home this weekend to stay alive for all intents and purposes.  Instead of treating the game like a must-win and putting Cory Schneider back into the lineup after an outstanding 42-save performance last night, he was rested for backup goalie Keith Kinkaid.  And instead of putting Mike Cammalleri back into the lineup after he’d already been shamed with a one-game benching , coach John Hynes kept the same lineup including non-entities like Beau Bennett.  As much as I detest Cammalleri turning into later-career Brian Rolston or Jamie Langenbrunner, you might as well have given him a shot tonight to see if his benching got a message through.

Clearly the coaching staff wasn’t treating tonight’s game at Brooklyn as a must-win.  These are things you do in December when you still have time left, not in mid-February with the trade deadline looming and the Devils behind four other teams for the last playoff spot, when you’re playing one of your main competitors and can deal them an emotional blow with three straight losses to in-state rivals.  Predictably the change in goalie and non-change in the lineup – particularly the former – both backfired in a 6-4 loss where Kinkaid had the worst game by any goalie this year and that’s saying something with some of the beauties Cory put up earlier this season.  After a decent first period, Keith gave a complete non-effort in the last forty minutes, starting with a horrid wraparound goal allowed five-hole early in the second period that started the roof caving in.  That bad goal was followed by another, and another in a spectactular goalie meltdown I haven’t seen since Marty wanted no part of the Stadium Series game a few years ago.

You would think at some point the staff would have shown some urgency and gave a clearly ineffective Keith the hook to try to salvage a crucial four-point game.  I would have pulled him at 3-1, not only was it obvious he didn’t have it at that point but going down 4-1 would have basically ended the game with our popgun offense.  At least I would have put it at a 2% chance we even scored the three goals we did to tie the game, but even with that coming back would have required actual good goaltending to hold it at 4-1, which Keith came up woefully short in tonight.  Honestly the only reason the Devils had a chance is because the Isles’ no-name backup goalie didn’t play all that great either, in particular his last goal allowed to Taylor Hall which looked like a Cory special circa last week against the Sabres.  You could have even argued once the Devils came back to make a 4-1 game 4-3 at the end of the second period Keith should have been pulled at that point.  It’s a logical argument but I won’t go there cause coaches don’t usually pull goalies once the game appears stabilized.

Too bad the game only remained stabilized until Baby Tavares scored another softy like fifteen seconds into the third period, and another quick Isle goal after that basically ended the game again.  And memo to the Isles’ GREAT player, if you’re going to be a d*ck and cheapshot guys and dive like Sidney Crosby has, at least win a Stanley Cup or two like Crosby first.  A guy who’s won exactly one round in the playoffs doesn’t deserve the star treatment he gets from refs in this league.  Of course last night and some of those brilliant calls Tavares sold couldn’t be helped since Chris Rooney – Mr. I can’t wait to screw the Devils anyway possible – was going to do his best to screw up that game from soup to nuts.  Not as if the Devils even played well in last night’s 3-2 win, certainly the last forty minutes was one-way traffic but at least they had good goaltending that game.

Maybe another day I’ll complain about the coaches’ obsession with the horrible John Moore and how he’s teflon but I’ve pretty much given up thinking the staff is going to come around on that one.  It’s amazing considering how much this team’s supposedly studying analytics now how they keep continuing to run out anti-analytic players like Moore, or Sergey Kalinin before Ray Shero finally took that toy away from Hynes this weekend, but whatever – the tankers have their wish and now this season’s all about what we can sell our junk for next week at the trade deadline.  Any fan that’s excited about March 1 is just being stupid though.  What are the Devils really going to sell at the deadline?  P.A.Parenteau and Kyle Quincey who signed cheap contracts just before the season (and Parenteau couldn’t even get traded last year at the deadline)?  At best you’ll get mid-rounders for them in a weak draft, whoopdie darn doo.  Shero’s going to be selling out of the Sanford and Son junkyard next week, you’re not getting anything that’s going to appreciably help the team.

Of course there is the Cammalleri situation which got a little more interesting with being scratched for the second straight game but I’m not holding my breath there…he’s signed for two more years after this one, with a no-trade clause.  Good luck finding a market for him in the midst of a career-worst drought.  Are we really in a rush to get a second-rounder for him in a weak draft when it’s not like people are beating down the door to take his spot in the lineup anyway?  I mean, Beau Bennett?  A spirited but flawed Miles Wood?  Or getting him to waive his no-trade unless he has some assurance he won’t be left unprotected in the expansion draft by whoever takes him.  If he gets moved at all in the near future it’ll be after the expansion draft this offseason when you can also quietly broach that subject.

Once again this team’s season ended just after Valentine’s Day although last year it didn’t so much end as it was just the start of the downfall.  This was pretty much the last stand for this season although it doesn’t seem that this staff either knew or cared that it was.  The former would worry me, the latter would annoy me to no end.  If you want to lose fine, at least start giving kids like John Quenneville, Nick Lappin, etc a legit look in the top nine.  If we’re going to lose I’d rather it not be with ineffective plugs like Bennett, Devante Smith-Pelly, whoever.  It seems the only playoff run we care about this year is the Albany playoff run.

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Zuccarello and Lundqvist lead Rangers past Capitals

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Ryan McDonagh is pumped after scoring his third of the season in a bounce back game that saw the Rangers post a big 2-1 home win over the NHL best Capitals on Hockey Day In America. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy NYRangers.

It didn’t matter what the circumstances were. Even with the NHL’s leading team having to play the second game of a back-to-back following a shootout loss to Detroit, the Rangers still played the way they needed to. They responded following a tough 4-2 loss to the Islanders by defeating the Capitals 2-1 in a good litmus test at MSG on Hockey Day In America.

Hockey Day In America is definitely a good thing for hockey fans. Ever since it was introduced, it’s been one of NBC’s best promotions. Hockey all day. Even if I hate the early start of 12:30 PM for today’s game, it doesn’t get much better. Following the Rangers’ seventh win in eight, the Red Wings are currently leading the Penguins 1-0 in the second game also on NBC. I used to joke that it stood for Nothing But Crosby. But at this point, considering how astonishing he is just going over 1,000 points in style with three points including an overtime winner from Evgeni Malkin, you can’t discredit him.

While the games go on including some other interesting match-ups including the sizzling Sabres hosting the Blackhawks and the Devils going for a sweep in Brooklyn which would further complicate the playoff picture, the Rangers had probably the best win of the season. Any time you beat the Caps, it’s positive. Even if they went with solid German backup Phillip Grubauer, who was under siege in a lopsided first in which the ice was tilted. The overlooked backup stopped 18 of 19 shots to give his team a chance.

Ryan McDonagh scored the only goal. His third of the season was a beauty. After taking a pass from Rick Nash, he dangled out of traffic and went forehand top shelf for a 1-0 lead at 7:49. It was the Ranger captain’s first goal since Dec. 23. More importantly, he bounced back in a big way from an awful game. It was his costly turnover along with the other four skaters who puck watched as John Tavares set up Nikolay Kulemin’s shorthanded winner on a two-on-five. A play which left coach Alain Vigneault at a loss for words.

McDonagh knew he had to be better with Alexander Ovechkin, who along with Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie are one of the toughest lines to defend. He and partner Dan Girardi were up to the challenge. In 27 shifts, McDonagh logged a team high 23:33 with a goal, four shots, six attempts and five blocked shots. Girardi took 28 shifts blocking four shots in 20:48. Both defenseman finished plus-one on for McDonagh’s third goal. They also were out plenty in crunch time not giving the Ovechkin line much time or space.

Following a flat first in which they were out-shot 19-6, the Caps turned the tables with a better second. They had the better of the play with an 11-4 edge in shots and the period’s only goal. Of course, it came off the stick of Ovechkin, whose power play goal from his spot on the left side took a favorable hop off Nick Holden past Henrik Lundqvist tying the score with 2:36 left.

Earlier in the contest, Mika Zibanejad had a power play goal wiped out by a successful challenge from Washington coach Barry Trotz for offside. A quick review determined that the play was offside. But the replays NBC showed weren’t the issue which befuddled everyone. It turned out that McDonagh was offside initially about 15 seconds prior to Zibanejad scoring. So, they got it right. But it was too bad for Zibanejad because he thought he had his first goal in 13 games. He did play a key role later in the victory.

With a tight game still knotted at one, the third was the kind you’d expect from these close rivals. Lundqvist held off a strong Caps push by making key saves. His teammates let him see the shots which were mostly from the perimeter. Even on an extended shift where the Caps dangerous top line buzzed, they were unable to get inside, resulting in an easy glove save by Lundqvist to stop play. One of his best saves came on John Carlson when he easily gloved his shot.

The difference came when Mats Zuccarello was able to get free in the slot and score the game-winner with 11:23 remaining. The winning play was due to a clean face-off win by Zibanejad, who got the puck to Chris Kreider. Kreider drew defenders down low and made a good pass to an open Zuccarello, who managed to play it perfectly off his skate and in one motion fired his 12th past Grubauer to chants of, “Zuuuuuccccc!” from the crowd.

Washington pulled Grubauer with 1:21 left with the puck deep in the Rangers zone. For the most part, the defense did a good job. They didn’t allow Ovechkin to get any set ups from the point. However, it would come down to a Backstrom pass down low for an open Marcus Johansson. He got two tries but was turned away by a stellar Lundqvist, who made the second stop to get a whistle with less than a minute to play.

With the crowd cheering loudly, the Rangers killed off the final 55 seconds without a problem to earn the win. One that demonstrated how good this team can be when it wants to be.

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Mats Zuccarello, NYR (game-winner with 11:23 left for his 12th of season from Kreider and Zibanejad)

2nd Star-Phillip Grubauer, WSH (28 saves including 18/19 in 1st)

1st Star-Henrik Lundqvist, NYR (31 saves including 11/11 in 3rd with the two clutch stops on Johansson to preserve the win)

Notes: Kevin Klein returned to the lineup along with Pavel Buchnevich. Klein was back in for Adam Clendening while Buchnevich replaced Matt Puempel. In 19 shifts, Klein went plus-one with two hits and a shot in 14:15 all at even strength. Buchnevich took 16 shifts receiving 10:46 including 1:33 on the power play finishing with three shots while rejoining Oscar Lindberg and Jesper Fast on the fourth line. … Jimmy Vesey had another strong game with three shots in five attempts over 13:59 (16 shifts). He’s been the most dangerous player on a line with Derek Stepan and Rick Nash. Both of who haven’t scored much over the past month. Stepan picked up an assist on McDonagh’s tally. Stepan has three assists in the last four games but is without a goal over the last 13 since potting two on 1/17 versus Dallas. Ironically, the same game Zibanejad last scored. … With a power play goal, Ovechkin is up to 27 for the season. He has 552 goals for his career in 897 games.

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Surging Sabres in the hunt in crazy playoff race

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A Sabres’ resurgence has them right in the mix for the playoffs. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy Buffalo Sabres.

In case you haven’t been paying attention, here come the Buffalo Sabres. Ahead of schedule, they’re only two points out of a playoff spot. In winning their fourth game over the last five- a 3-2 home win over the Blues– the Sabres find themselves in the hunt of a wild and crazy race.

With 62 points and 23 games left, the key for Buffalo is to keep winning. They got their latest victory thanks to goal number 20 from sizzling Evander Kane and a Ryan O’Reilly power play tally late in the second period that held up as the winner. Late recall Nick Baptiste also scored from Jack Eichel and Kane as the Sabres used 37 saves from Robin Lehner to close within two of third place in the Atlantic and the second wildcard.

Right now, anything’s possible. With the red hot Panthers continuing to win by posting a 3-2 road win at Los Angeles for their seventh win in eight and fourth straight overall, Florida has reminded us that they are going to be a factor. Combined with the Islanders losing the first of a home-and-home series at the Devils 3-2, it’s the Panthers who are now sitting third in the Atlantic with 64 points. They have gotten healthy with the return of Jonathan Huberdeau. Ageless wonder Jaromir Jagr scored a highlight reel goal the other night in a win at Anaheim. Aleksander Barkov got the winner against the Kings.

There are so many teams bunched up that eight total points separates second wildcard Boston- also with 64 points- from the Red Wings and Hurricanes. You have the Islanders still on the outside looking in with 62. They have yet to be in the wildcard yet. There’s also the Maple Leafs, who were doubled up by the Senators 6-3. Toronto has been inconsistent lately but remain at 63 points with 25 games left.

In what amounted to a huge win, the Devils are only four off the pace with 60 points and 24 games remaining. Thanks to 40 saves from Cory Schneider and goals from Devante Smith-Pelly, Travis Zajac (shorthanded) and improving rookie Pavel Zacha (8th), they held on for a one-goal home win over the Islanders. If they can sweep the series in Brooklyn later, they’re right there.

As for the Sabres, it was hard to take them seriously. At least for a while, it seemed that they wouldn’t make a push. But with the teams in front of them not playing consistent hockey, Buffalo suddenly finds itself very much alive. Dating back to a 4-0 shutout over Ottawa on Feb. 4, they have won six of nine and made up ground.

Kane deserves a lot of credit for turning his season around. Ever since Eichel returned, he’s been a different player. He didn’t score his first goal until Dec. 3. Since that point, he’s scored all 20 of his goals over the last 35 games. During that span, he has tallied 27 points (20-7-27). In nine games this month, Kane has six goals and a helper. He’s 13-8-21 in wins and just 5-3-8 in losses.

Eichel has also been on a serious roll. With an assist yesterday, he now has 17 points over the last 17 games. Most impressively, it hasn’t been about his goal scoring. But rather his playmaking. He’s scored just five times while assisting on 12 goals. In fact, his last six points are all helpers including three in a win at Toronto. He only has one goal in the last 12 games. What happens when the super sophomore with the wicked shot snaps out of it? He’s due.

The Sabres wrap up a tough three games over four days stretch by hosting the Blackhawks. That shouldn’t be easy. But they’ll probably draw Chicago backup Scott Darling due to Corey Crawford starting in their loss to Edmonton. With no games until Feb. 25, does coach Dan Bylsma ride the hot hand in net with Lehner? He’s won his last three starts allowing four goals on 103 shots. It has to be a strong consideration. He has started the last six games.

Anders Nilsson hasn’t played since making 36 saves in a 5-4 come from behind overtime win over the Sharks on Feb. 7. That comeback started the turnaround. Trailing 4-1 to a very good San Jose team that made the Stanley Cup Final last year, the Sabres scored four unanswered including three in succession over a 3:28 span in the third period to force overtime. In it, Kane got the winner 65 seconds in from Eichel with a rocket.

With Sam Reinhart starting to pick it up and Kyle Okposo continuing to be a good fit leading the team in scoring with 39 points (18-21-39), Buffalo is no longer one dimensional. They’ve gotten solid contributions from vets Brian Gionta and Matt Moulson, who each enter today’s game with 12 goals apiece.

Rasmus Ristolainen continues to be a workhorse anchoring the back end. He’s averaging over 27 minutes a night while ranking fourth in team scoring with 35 points including a team-leading 31 assists. He’s getting some help from Jake McCabe, Cody Franson and a now healthy Zach Bogosian.

While it’s true the playoffs are probably unrealistic due to their schedule and having to compete against so many teams who have games at hand, the Sabres are no longer a pushover. They finally must be taken seriously.

Whatever happens the remainder of the season, a young nucleus will get a good experience and learn from it moving forward.

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Devils head for high noon against Islanders

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Just as I feared last week, the bye week break wasn’t kind to the Devils as they came out of their second long layover flat with desultory home losses to the Sharks and Senators sandwiching a sloppy, uninspired win over a pitful Avs team.  Of course it’s entirely possible the Devils would have lost those games anyway, but it is too bad our best run of play since early November ended so abruptly.  As a result, the team’s tenuous grip on staying alive in the playoff hunt – and what happens at the looming trade deadline – may hinge on this weekend’s home-and-home against the local rival Islanders.

Although it’s Toronto with 63 points in 56 games who currently has the second wild card spot, it’s the Isles with 62 points in 56 games that could blow the Devils’ chances completely out of the water this week with a sweep.  Currently the Devils are four points back of the Isles (and five of the Leafs) with one fewer game played, so the playoff lifeboat’s already springing leaks as it is.  However an Isles sweep would end the question once and for all, since it could put the Devils as much as eight points out of a spot with multiple teams to climb over.  Not that the Devils have much to do at the deadline even if they completely fall out of it – other than rentals P.A.Parenteau and Kyle Quincey who could fetch nominal returns at best, there probably won’t be a lot of action from GM Ray Shero at the deadline either way.

I wish I could get more excited about this weekend’s games but right now it just seems like an inevitable death march for a team that still hasn’t quite found the formula that worked early in the season (mostly good goaltending and a hot Taylor Hall, both of which have dissapeared since – though in Hall’s case he really can’t help it if our stonehands forwards can’t convert on some of his great feeds).  Especially considering the Isles have taken it to us for the most part in recent years, although with the way things are going maybe now’s when we beat them when they’re actually hot after their recent coaching change, while we’re awful.  In the past it was the other way around with the Isles frequently playing spoiler to good Devils teams, it’d be nice to return the favor a little at least.

Barring a sudden and dramatic revival, the next time we can get somewhat excited about the Devils is before the expansion draft when Shero may or may not be able to make a move with a couple of the seven picks in the first four rounds of next year’s draft to improve the roster’s current talentbase.  And as a season ticket holder who’s probably going to around ten more games before the end of the season – including two MSG 2.0 games – that annoys me to think about.  Oh sure it’ll be nice to watch some of the kids like Steve Santini and Pavel Zacha continue to improve down the stretch and others likely come up before the end of the season.  Maybe I’ll even get around to listening to some of the last AHL Devils games in Albany on the radio during the Calder Cup playoffs before they move shop to Binghamton next season.  To a degree it’s unfotunate personally given I’ve seen a handful of games there with a friend who used to go of games when they were still the River Rats, though it was probably an inevitable final disollution of the Albany-Devils relationship.

While it may not be the best thing to admit on a hockey blog, right now most of my attention is focused on baseball and the Mets, looking to make their third straight postseason and hopefully go farther than even the last two years.  Even my fantasy hockey team which was in first place comfortably for about half the season has gotten blown by mostly thanks to spotty goaltending, and I’ll probably finish in second place again in my 14-team roto league, for the fifth straight year…take that Buffalo Bills!   Of course I have won that league in the somewhat distant past and fantasy hockey’s still for fun, until it’s not.  I’ve only played one fantasy league for money overall – a fantasy football league last year where I put in $20 for an entry fee, and wound up winning $50 after ripping off two straight playoff wins to get to the finals of that league, but I came up short of the additional $100 grand prize, oh well.

I’m getting way off point now, but in a way that’s indiciative of how I feel at games these days.  I am looking forward to tomorrow if only cause I’m seeing a pair of friends who I haven’t seen in a few weeks, and another friend that’s going to the game.  These days usually seeing and hanging with other people are the highlight of the night at these dopey games.  As horrible as the Devils’ home record has been lately I have to admit, things CAN be worse:

Yep at least the Devils aren’t the Brooklyn Nets…yet.

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Zibanejad’s slump hurting Blueshirts

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Mika Zibanejad must get going for the Rangers if they’re to be successful. AP Photo via Getty Images

Even when they won six in a row, the Rangers hadn’t been getting production from everyone. Now that the winning streak is over courtesy of who else but the rival Islanders, who prevailed 4-2 last night in Brooklyn, it’s time to take a closer look at one of the key forwards who has been mostly MIA lately.

Center Mika Zibanejad was brought in from Ottawa last summer in a cap cutting deal that sent popular Blueshirt Derick Brassard to the Senators before his no movement clause kicked in. The 23-year old Zibanejad got off to a good start on Broadway producing at nearly a point-per-game clip the first two months. In his first 19 games as a Ranger, he tallied five goals and 10 assists totaling 15 points before a broken leg sidetracked him two months.

The big right-handed pivot who remains the club’s most dependable in the face-off dot winning 52.1 percent of draws returned on Jan. 17 in a wild and crazy 7-6 home defeat to the Stars. In that game, he scored twice looking like he hadn’t missed a beat. At the time, coach Alain Vigneault reunited him with rookie Pavel Buchnevich and Rick Nash. But after a few games together, he broke it up.

Eventually, inseparable duo Chris Kreider and Mats Zuccarello wound up with Zibanejad. While chemistry has continued between Kreider and Zuccarello, who are near the top of the leader board on the Rangers, the same cannot be echoed for Zibanejad. Without a goal over his last dozen games, he’s only picked up four assists over that stretch. They all came within a five game stretch.

Zibanejad is without a point in the last three. It was okay because other teammates were coming through. Particularly the cohesive third unit of Michael Grabner, Kevin Hayes and J.T. Miller. They are the biggest reason the Rangers have hung tough in the Metro Division. Nash has played with Derek Stepan and rookie Jimmy Vesey, who scored in a second straight with him the team’s best skater.

The issue for the Swede is this. Consistency hasn’t been there since the injury. He’s totaled six points in 13 games. This is a talented player with a top heavy shot that can be a weapon. With the Rangers power play resembling the old Perry Pearn and Mike Sullivan days, it hasn’t helped that Zibanejad hasn’t been able to get off his lethal one-timer from the off side. He hasn’t been hitting the net as frequently.

Want proof? Here are his shot totals in the 12 games since his two-goal game against Dallas:

1/19 @ TOR 2

1/22 @ DET 1

1/23 vs LAK 0

1/25 vs PHI 1

1/31 vs CBJ 2

2/2 @ BUF 1

2/5 vs CGY 1

2/7 vs ANA 1

2/9 vs NSH 1

2/11 vs COL 0

2/13 @ CBJ 1

2/16 @ NYI 2

Total Shots: 13

It’s literally impossible for Zibanejad to only have totaled 13 shots over the last 12. Absurd. Even if he’s looking to set up Kreider and Zuccarello more, he’s not shooting enough. Whether it be some attempts missing completely or getting blocked, he needs to do a better job getting shots on goal.

How can Vigneault keep him with Kreider and Zuccarello? It’s not like Nash has been tearing it up either. He has spurts during shifts but still isn’t finishing enough. Even with missing 12 games, 16 goals in 45 isn’t the kind of production you expect from the team’s highest paid skater. It makes leaving him unprotected for the upcoming Las Vegas expansion draft a certainty. Especially with one year left and owed $8.2 million with a cap hit of $7.8 million.

It’s not a knock on Nash. He plays hard and has turned himself into a complete forward similar to what Marian Hossa is for the Blackhawks. As he enters his mid-30’s, that kind of two-way player still has value. Nash could still be capable of 25-30 goals if he finds the right fit. It’s clearly ending in 2017-18 here.

As for Zibanejad, he’s fully capable of more than seven goals in 32 games and none in the last 12. Even more mystifying, he has yet to score a power play goal. That seems far fetched. He has five power play assists. With a cap hit of $2.625 million and earning $3.25 million in the final year of his contract before turning restricted, he needs to finish strong.

General manager Jeff Gorton could penny pinch Zibanejad. Especially if he doesn’t improve. There’s still plenty of time left for that. With 25 games remaining in the regular season and the playoffs ahead, that’s where the former 2011 sixth overall pick of the Senators can earn his money.

Make no mistake. If the Rangers are to be successful, they need him to come through similar to Big Game Brass. The journey is just ahead.

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