MacArthur sets up Rangers/Senators, Johansson sets up Pens/Caps

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Derick Brassard will face his former team when the Senators take on the Rangers in an interesting second round match-up. AP Photo via Getty Images

The first round is finally over. It ended in record fashion. With the Maple Leafs pushing the top seeded Capitals to a record 18th overtime in Round One. For the fifth game in six, Toronto and Washington needed sudden death to decide a winner.

Like Game 4 when Mr. Game 7 Justin Williams turned the series around with an overtime winner, the Caps prevailed thanks to Marcus Johansson, who scored on a Williams rebound past heroic Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen at 6:51 of OT. Johansson had also tied the game with 7:09 remaining when his seeing eye shot went off Andersen and over the goal line. A big response following Auston Matthews’ fourth straight game with a goal on a great bounce off a Morgan Rielly dump in which he went top shelf on Braden Holtby.

There was no doubt the Caps were winning. They dominated the extra session and finally broke the Leafs’ will. Toronto put up a great fight. But ultimately, Washington’s relentless pressure finally got to them. Between the top line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie and the second unit of Williams, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Johansson, it was just a matter of time before they finally put the Leafs away.

Regardless, they have a very bright future. You better believe Toronto will be a viable threat soon. By that, I mean they could be the first Canadian team to win the Stanley Cup since the ’93 Canadiens. Unless the Oilers or Senators figure out a way.

So, the NHL gets the desired Pens/Caps rematch. Crosby vs Ovechkin for a second straight Spring in the second round. It’s disappointing that they have to play in the Conference Semifinals instead of the Conference Final. But that’s the current divisional playoff format they agreed to. So, it’s Holtby vs Marc-Andre Fleury until Matt Murray is healthy. Fleury did well in the Pens’ five-game first round series win over the Blue Jackets. Maybe he has it together in what might be his last time as a member of the Pens.

Pittsburgh has no Kris Letang for this run and still no Carl Hagelin. They have other players hurt on the back end. But somehow, they look like the favorites again. Crosby is playing lights out and Evgeni Malkin came back with a vengeance leading all scorers with 11 points in the first round. Plus Phil Kessel. They have help from speedy and gritty young forwards Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary. Plus Patric Hornqvist and future star Jake Guentzel. The forwards are very strong featuring versatile two-way veterans Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen. Plus gritty Tom Kuhnackl and Scott Wilson.

The Caps are four lines deep as well. They got three goals from ornery Tom Wilson in their win over Toronto. Lars Eller and Andre Burakovsky support it. The fourth line isn’t utilized as much with checking center Jay Beagle, veteran Daniel Winnik and 12th forward Brett Connolly. Even with the Caps possessing that lethal top line featuring Ovechkin, Backstrom and Oshie along with Williams, Kuznetsov and Johansson, it’s advantage Pens.

It’ll be up to the Washington blue line featuring righties Matt Niskanen, John Carlson and rental Kevin Shattenkirk to expose the Pens. The problem is Brooks Orpik and Shattenkirk had some issues with the Leafs’ speed. So did Carlson. Dmitry Orlov and Niskanen are their most reliable pair who can handle the big minutes and tough assignments.

The Pens rely on Justin Schultz to lead the offense while veteran Trevor Daley eats minutes along with Ian Cole and a now healthy Olli Maatta. But Maatta isn’t strong defensively. They also count on Brian Dumoulin and vet Ron Hainsey.

It may very well come down to the goalie match-up which should favor Holtby. He came on strong after struggling early against the Leafs. He has a Vezina and is up for it again against favorite Sergei Bobrovsky and surprising finalist Carey Price, who in my view wasn’t better than Cam Talbot. Holtby has all the pressure. Especially if it’s Fleury, who posted a .933 save percentage against Columbus while facing a lot of pressure.

Pens vs Caps is a scintillating match-up due to the stars. Sid vs Ovi. Geno and Backstrom. Is this the year Ovechkin gets out of the second round? I’m not sold. They have to prove themselves.

For the Rangers, they’ll start on the road against the Senators, who prevailed over a gritty Bruins despite being down players. Clarke MacArthur was the overtime hero converting in front from Bobby Ryan and Derick Brassard for a power play goal to lift the Sens over the Bruins 3-2 in Game 6 in Beantown to eliminate Boston. They won all three road games at TD Garden. Four of the six games were decided in sudden death with Ottawa winning the two in Boston while losing a pair at home.

They won with star defenseman Erik Karlsson logging the usual big minutes despite revealing that he played with two hairline fractures in his foot. That might explain why he was struggling in double overtime of Game 5. Astonishingly, the Sens captain is so good, he still played over 29 minutes and recorded his sixth point (all assists) of the series. He’s amazing. The Rangers will be facing the best defenseman in hockey in the Atlantic Division Final. It will not be easy.

There’s also the storyline of Brassard facing his former teammates. He was brilliant in Round One putting up eight points (2-6-8) to lead the Sens. Ryan, a Cherry Hill native- erupted for four goals and three assists after having a forgettable regular season. Brassard struggled during the season too. But as we know, Big Game Brass always rises to the occasion.

So, it’s Brassard’s experience versus his ex-team against Mika Zibanejad’s youth as he continues to learn what it takes to win in the NHL playoffs. Zibanejad came on strong the final three games- all Ranger wins. His clutch overtime winner in Game 5 along with two assists including one in Game 6 helped lead the Rangers with four points in a meat and potatoes ferocious six-game series victory over the Canadiens. The physicality and pace was frenetic. The hate was palpable. It was the best series of the first round. With great goaltending from Henrik Lundqvist, who outdueled Price to get a satisfying win.

Now, he’ll face another veteran in Craig Anderson. A likable player whose wife has been fighting cancer. Somehow, Anderson hasn’t let it affect his play. He was brilliant in the first round to best Tuukka Rask by posting a 1.94 goals-against-average with a .921 save percentage and a shutout. The Rangers should be familiar with him. It was in a hard fought first round back in 2012 that they needed to rally from a 3-2 series deficit to beat the Sens. Of course, there were many different players on both sides. But the goalies remain the same with Anderson vs Lundqvist a good match-up.

Karlsson remains too for the Sens as one of the game’s best players. The Rangers still have more core pieces left with Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, Ryan McDonagh, Derek Stepan and Chris Kreider.

Had Mats Zuccarello been healthy for that postseason under former coach John Tortorella, maybe they get past the Devils and face the Kings two years earlier before Alain Vigneault took over behind the bench. Zuccarello blocked a shot in a regular season game and was lost for that run. Ever since, Zucc has been amazing. His three goals led the Blueshirts against the Habs with the game-tying and series clinching in the second period on Saturday.

Veteran journalist Rick Carpiniello had this tweet response. A valid point too:

It makes you wonder. Kreider was big part of that run to the Conference Final. As a player who hadn’t played an NHL regular season game, he jumped right in from winning a national championship at Boston College and scored five goals and two assists in 18 games. You never know.

Interestingly enough, Ottawa actually has just as many players left over. Anderson. Karlsson. Turris. Neil. Smith. Mike Hoffman was a 21-year old rookie who didn’t play. Neither did hard hitting blue liner Mark Borowiecki. Neil probably won’t play this time due to the Sens’ depth. Borowiecki is hurt. So, his status is questionable. Hoffman is one of their most dangerous skaters. He and Mark Stone are two players to keep an eye on.

Former Blueshirt Viktor Stalberg also will go up against the Rangers. The Sens have Dion Phaneuf paired with Karlsson. The same Phaneuf who ended Mike Sauer’s career with a clean but mean hit during that ’11-12 season. He’s been effective for them. Cody Ceci and Marc Methot do the grunt work. Ottawa’s third pair could be exploited. They were forced to play Chris Wideman in five games in the first round. Unproven Ben Harpur and Fredrik Claesson played tonight.

There’s also the annoying Alex Burrows from Vigneault’s past with the Canucks. He was very good after the Sens acquired him. But only had one assist in Round One. You know he’ll raise his game and be a royal pain in this series. Btw…that guy has three career overtime winners. Three more than Messier. Just saying. Burrows and Smith will finish checks and be physical factors.

The Sens play a tough defensive system under smart tactician Guy Boucher. They can fluster you with their discipline and patience. The Rangers had to contest with this against Claude Julien and Montreal. It might not be as physical. But they’ll have to manage the puck well through the neutral zone and get behind Ottawa’s D and recover pucks to feed their cycle game.

They need better series from Stepan and Kreider. Both of who weren’t factors against the Habs. That can’t happen again. Stepan was miserable in the face-off circle winning just 37.2 percent. He better not be that bad against the Sens, who have old buddy Brassard and Turris. Smith is pretty good in the dot too and Jean-Gabriel Pageau is a pesky player who must be watched shorthanded along with Smith.

As for Kreider, he better step up. He only had one assist and took two ill advised penalties on the forecheck. He can’t be persona non grata. Maybe staying with Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich will wake him up. He showed a pulse in Game 5. Game 6 he was just out there. Buchnevich should score a goal or two in this series. He’s good.

Kevin Hayes showed up the last two games. Zuccarello rubs off on teammates. Hayes’ pass to Zuccarello on the series clincher was remarkable. Hayes can do that when he’s right as well as protect the puck and control possession. He can be even better. J.T. Miller also must come alive. One assist won’t get it done. Neither will those silly back passes or selfish penalties. In other words, the Rangers’ best must become their best to advance.

The fourth line of Michael Grabner, Oscar Lindberg and Mr. Charlie Hustle, Jesper Fast is very reliable. They are good in all three zones. They forecheck and win puck battles. They back check. They can win draws thanks to Lindberg. They defend well. They do what it takes. Grabner gives them that dangerous countering speed. Lindberg came close to scoring against Montreal. Maybe he pops one.

McDonagh and Girardi were magnificent in Round One. That must continue. Brendan Smith was a warrior in the Jeff Beukeboom mold. Beuke must really appreciate the rugged style Smith’s added to the back end. It’s rubbed off on polished first-year defenseman Brady Skjei, whose two goals and tenacious D along with skating make him a future stud. Marc Staal battled hard. He will face some tough match-ups speed wise with vulnerable partner Nick Holden. Vigneault must manage well in this area.

Obviously, Lundqvist was awesome against Price. The huge saves he made on Shea Weber and Tomas Plekanec got them through. He allowed 11 goals on 206 shots for a .947 save percentage, 1.70 GAA and a shutout. He’ll face even more pressure because the Sens possess more high end skill. It should be interesting watching him face Brassard.

If there’s one difference maker, it could be Rick Nash. He really was in beast mode. Even though he only wound up with two goals and a helper, he was taking the puck to the net and getting the jersey dirty. He crashed into Price which wiped out a goal for goalie interference. If he continues to play the same way, then he really could do some damage. Ditto for gritty rookie Jimmy Vesey, who had two assists and his first playoff scrap against an angry Max Pacioretty, who was shutdown.

This should be a very good series. It’s all about strategy and tactics. The Rangers can’t play into Boucher’s neutral zone trap which will include standing up at the blue line and taking away transition and the stretch pass. They can still counter it with their speed and intelligence by chipping and charging like they did the final two periods against the Habs.

Both match-ups have the potential to go seven. We’ll see. Predictions for Round 2 tomorrow including the Western match-ups of Preds vs Blues and Oilers vs Ducks.

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Rangers fans owe Dan Girardi an apology

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Old Reliable Danny G: Dan Girardi was his nasty self in a big first round series win over the Canadiens. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy NYRangers.

For a decade, Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi has given his heart and soul along with a few body parts to the cause. Outside of elder statesman Henrik Lundqvist, who was splendid in turning aside the Canadiens in a gratifying six-game first round win, the 32-year old Girardi is the oldest remaining skater.

Somehow, the proud veteran who originally was signed as an undrafted free agent by former architect Glen Sather has survived. He went from partnering with Fedor Tyutin to Marc Staal and eventually current team captain Ryan McDonagh. Make no mistake about it. He’s been through the playoff wars. Number 5 has been a common denominator in three Rangers’ deep runs that included its first trip to the Stanley Cup Final since 1994. His leadership and intangibles have never been questioned.

Girardi always leaves it out there. These days, it’s more about the health of a core player who most believe could be playing his final games with the only team he’s known. It would seem with three years remaining on a contract that averages a hefty $5.5 million cap hit thru 2020, he could be a likely buyout candidate this summer. If not, then perhaps it will be the other veteran Staal, who’s signed thru 2021 with a $5.7 million cap hit.

No wonder both elevated their game in the series victory over the Canadiens. Sure. Staal got victimized pretty badly by Habs rookie Artturi Lehkonen on a wrap around goal in Game 5. But he did get steadier and edgier as the series went on. It doesn’t help that he’s partnered with Nick Holden, who is mistake prone. But the 30-year old was a key contributor following a poor start.

As for Girardi, maybe the best thing that happened was an ankle injury that kept him out a month. It allowed him to recover and get healthy. There were still questions surrounding how effective the gritty right defenseman could be. He played in seven games prior to the first round. Coach Alain Vigneault rotated him with Kevin Klein to figure out what was the best way to go. It was obvious that Girardi was healthier than Klein, whose back remains an issue for the future. He might already have played his final game.

When Vigneault decided to go back to Girardi with McDonagh on the top pair, there was criticism by some who had doubts. Sure. It wasn’t a given that he would play well. How much more did he have to give? He was a convenient scapegoat for the Stanley Cup loss to the Kings. A series he struggled in. But far from the only defenseman.

Sometimes, when you lose players get blamed. In Montreal, there are ignorant fools pinning it on Carey Price. A franchise goalie much like Lundqvist who performed well. It was a tight checking and low scoring series. Max Pacioretty has received most of the blame for failing to score a goal. A fair criticism. At the end of the day, you win and lose as a team. Ultimately, the Rangers were better top to bottom.

Girardi was a big part of why they prevailed. The old Danny G returned. Playing with an edge like the past, he delivered some vicious hits including a big one that injured key Hab pest Andrew Shaw which kept him out of Game 6. That hurt them. Shaw has always been a key performer in such big moments. Just ask the Blackhawks, who are golfing after being unceremoniously swept by Nashville after finishing with the most points in the West. There also was this message delivered to Montreal’s Brendan Gallagher at the end of the second period:

It wasn’t just the hitting. With Girardi, you always get a hard nosed player who will do whatever it takes to help the team win. Take for example, this diving block of a Lehkonen shot that led directly to Derek Stepan’s series sealing empty netter with 17.8 seconds remaining.

In a tight checking series where goals were at a premium, Girardi excelled. He averaged 22:13 a game while renewing old chemistry with McDonagh, who stepped it up big time the last three games. All wins. When the Habs came after the captain, he got mean and went back after them becoming even more effective. A trend started by key acquisition Brendan Smith, who was nasty in his battles with the Canadiens. Rookie Brady Skjei, who scored twice in the series, was hitting everyone.

For the series, Girardi led the Blueshirts with 21 blocked shots and delivered 17 hits. He also was credited with a team high 18 giveaways. But sometimes, stats can be misleading. He played the tough minutes with McDonagh against Montreal’s top scorers. That meant more defending in his zone. It didn’t take into account the physicality and tenacity he played with. The edge was back.

He and McDonagh each finished plus-two and were only one for one goal against at even strength. The Alexei Emelin first period goal on Saturday in which Alex Radulov outhustled Stepan behind the net to set it up. So, it wasn’t either’s fault.

We even saw an active Girardi making several key pinches to keep pucks alive in the offensive zone. He had some looks in the series registering eight shots. His play was strong in the neutral zone. Overall, it was a real good start for a player that has become an easy target for a spoiled fan base.

He remains the best option to play with McDonagh. Something the Adam Clendening proponents can’t seem to get out of their heads. Sometimes, having that experience helps. In the Rangers’ case, they certainly got what they needed from Girardi, who’ll continue to be a key moving forward. Whether it’s Ottawa or Boston in the second round, he must keep it up.

The Blueshirts will need better performances from Stepan and Chris Kreider. Neither of who were factors against Montreal. They’ll probably need to score more goals. And of course, the King in net.

Girardi proved he still has something left. Corsi be damned. Now, they wait for the next opponent. It only gets more fun from here.

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Lundqvist outplays Price in big first round win

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In a epic battle of great goalies, Henrik Lundqvist prevailed over Carey Price to lead the Rangers to a very satisfying six-game series win over the Canadiens. He stopped 195 of 206 shots to win the battle head to head. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy NYRangers.

Entering the playoffs, the lingering questions still were being asked. Could Henrik Lundqvist put behind the worst season of a brilliant career? The proud 35-year old Swedish King answered it loudly. In resounding fashion, he outplayed Carey Price in the Rangers’ big first round series win over the Canadiens.

When the chips were down, the veteran netminder was there to make the key stops against an offensively challenged opponent. In the end, the Rangers’ superior depth won out. Both up front and on the blue line, they were the better team. Even playing a more physical style unfamiliar of an Alain Vigneault coached team, they hit back just as hard. Indeed, they turned back the clock to the days of the John Tortorella Black and Blueshirts sacrificing their bodies at every turn.

On a night they came out flat falling behind early, the Rangers showed the playoff mettle and resilience of an experienced group that had been there before. The best aspect is they did it in front of the Garden Faithful to prevail 3-1 in a hard fought Game 6 eliminating the Canadiens to advance to the second round. They’ll either play the Senators or Bruins in the Atlantic Division Final.

They won because Lundqvist was the better goalie. He got the better of the 29-year old all world Price, who honestly deserved better too. His team didn’t score enough. Following their Game 2 and 3 victories in which they totaled seven goals, they were held to four in the last three. In the Rangers four wins, they outscored the Canadiens 10-4. Lundqvist stopped 114 of 118 shots in Games 1, 4, 5 and 6.

For the series, he allowed only 11 goals on 206 shots. How good is that? Try a 1.70 goals-against-average with a .947 save percentage and a shutout. Comparatively, Price  gave up 12 goals on 179 shots. That translated to a 1.86 GAA with a .933 save percentage. He didn’t get enough support. If anyone in Montreal is pinning the blame on the former Vezina winner, they should look at a roster that featured captain Max Pacioretty, who was held without a goal in the series.

The Habs’ best skaters were Alex Radulov, Brendan Gallagher, Artturi Lehkonen, Tomas Plekanec and Shea Weber. Radulov was dangerous throughout setting up defenseman Alexei Emelin’s goal in the first for a Montreal 1-0 lead. He led all scorers with seven points including the overtime winner in Game 2 after getting the primary helper on Plekanec’ tying goal with 17.3 seconds left. Gallagher was a royal pain in the neck taking the puck to the net while battling hard. He finished with a goal and two assists. Plus a few bruises. Lehkonen had a fine series tallying two goals and two helpers. Plekanec wound up 1-2-3 while dominating on face-offs going 56.2 percent.

The Rangers prevailed despite only getting an empty net goal from Derek Stepan with 18 seconds left that clinched the series. He had a goal and assist and admitted to struggling afterwards. Mats Zuccarello came alive with two goals including the game-tying and series clinching. The pesky Norwegian wound up with three goals including two game-winners while being the Blueshirts’ more skilled version of Gallagher. He took his lumps and dished out some punishment. Some of it illegal in a nasty series where they let them play.

Mika Zibanejad turned his series around with the overtime winner in Game 5 along with a primary helper on gritty teammate Jesper Fast’s shorthanded goal. He really played better between Pavel Buchnevich and Chris Kreider. The trio had chemistry just like they did at season’s start. Buchnevich added a lot of speed and skill but also wasn’t afraid to get the jersey dirty. He made Kreider more effective. Kreider was more noticeable. He set up Zibanejad in Game 5 by using his speed and firing a shot that worked as a perfect pass off Emelin for the OT winner.

Coach Alain Vigneault gets a ton of credit for realizing he needed to make changes to the lineup following a dismal performance in Game 3. He subbed Buchnevich for Tanner Glass and mixed up his lines. All four were more effective afterwards. This isn’t a knock on Glass, who did a fine job in his role on the fourth line even getting the winner in a 2-0 Game 1 win. They just needed better offensive balance. Buchnevich allowed for that.

Vigneault moved Jimmy Vesey up with Stepan and Rick Nash. A combo that was very effective as well as responsible. Vesey only finished with two assists but his all around effort was noticeable. He finished checks and was around the puck a lot. His play to draw two Montreal defenders and pass for Nash, whose rebound went right to rookie Brady Skjei for the momentum shifting goal that tied Game 5. There he was taking a pounding from a frustrated Pacioretty, who crosschecked him twice. Eventually, Vesey went back at him with both earning matching fighting majors and two extra for seven penalty minutes.

The combination Vigneault was waiting on finally came up big. For two games, Kevin Hayes, J.T. Miller and Zuccarello were out of sync. Particularly Miller, who played two miserable games. It looked it would be much of the same from him following an awful first in which he made some back passes to nobody fueling Montreal’s transition. But Vigneault stuck with them. In this instance, he was right. I thought maybe it was time to try Fast on the line and put Miller with Oscar Lindberg and Michael Grabner. Luckily, the coach didn’t.

Hayes had come off a effective Game 5. He had been winning face-offs but still hadn’t registered a point. Both he and Miller were without one entering Saturday night. But in the second, the Rangers were a different team. The trio of Hayes, Miller and Zuccarello led the way with great puck possession and a relentless forecheck that got the crowd into it. Zuccarello converted a power play goal off a great touch pass from Zibanejad in which he handled the puck and in one motion fired it past Price with little room. The one power play goal they needed in the series.

Vigneault’s best chess move was countering with the Hayes unit when Claude Julien sent out his fourth line and third D pair for a defensive draw. It made no sense. The Montreal fourth line was effective in the offensive zone crashing and banging bodies. But they were no match for the shift Hayes, Miller and Zuccarello put together. Hayes didn’t give up on the play recovering a loose puck on a back check. Then Miller eventually got the puck to Hayes in the slot where he didn’t shoot. Instead passing across for Zuccarello, who got loose to put a shot off Price and in with 6:29 left in the second.

But in a series that was about the goalies, Lundqvist had to come up with two fantastic saves. The first coming on Weber during a Montreal power play. With Miller off for high-sticking, here came a lethal Weber one-timer from the left circle ticketed for the top of the net. The velocity was top shelf but Lundqvist reached back and got enough of the puck with the thumb of his glove keeping it out. He then shook his head as if to say, ‘No.’ A remarkable stop that will be replayed for a few days.

The second save came with under two minutes left in regulation. On a goal mouth set up in which he was a little out of position due to going for a poke, he recovered just in the nick of time to rob a wide open Plekanec pointblank by shutting the five-hole and kicking out the puck with his left pad. Here’s how it looked:

That save was the one that finished the Habs. Along with 27 blocked shots including a diving one from who else but Dan Girardi, it led to Stepan flipping a perfect lob clear all the way down into the empty net to seal the victory.

In the end, their best players stepped up including captain Ryan McDonagh, who picked up an assist on Zuccarello’s power play goal. He only finished with two assists but was instrumental in turning around the series. He and partner Girardi were outstanding throughout in stifling Pacioretty and Montreal top center Phillip Danault. Neither scored a goal only totaling five assists between them.

As a team, the Rangers proved to be better. They can thank Lundqvist for a clutch performance. Who said he was done? He ain’t finished yet.

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The Lundqvist Save on Weber

Sometimes, words don’t need to be expressed over a great player. Henrik Lundqvist has and still is great. Don’t believe me? Ask Shea Weber after this absolute rocket of a one-timer that Lundqvist got with his outstretched glove to rob the scary Canadiens defenseman with the hardest shot.

Look how hard and accurate it was. And it didn’t just sit in Lundqvist’s glove. It went into the thumb and juggled indicating the velocity Weber got on it. Think Fulton Reed in The Mighty Ducks.

At this point with a period to go, Lundqvist has been the best player in the series against the Canadiens. If the Rangers win, it’s due to the King, who has outplayed Carey Price.

It’s not over yet. It all depends on the mindset of the Blueshirts. But make no mistake about it. They can thank Lundqvist for leading 2-1 with the third period about to start.

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Blues advance over Wild in OT, Vezina candidates named

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The Blues celebrate their overtime win that eliminated the Wild in a very close five game series. They’ll face the Predators next. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy St. Louis Blues.

Before puck drop for a huge Game 6 between the Canadiens and Rangers at MSG, here are a couple of notes to pass along.

The Blues eliminated the Wild by defeating them 4-3 in overtime at Excel Energy Center in St. Paul. Magnus Paajarvi’s OT winner from Vladimir Sobotka and Jori Lehtera at 9:42 was the difference, allowing St. Louis to advance to a second round match-up against the Predators.

Minnesota showed a lot of heart rallying from a two-goal deficit in the third after having a goal wiped out for interference. Without Eric Staal, who left the game with an upper body injury that sent him to the hospital, the Wild rallied back on goals from Mikko Koivu and Jason Zucker to tie the game. It was a tremendous effort.

In sudden death, the Wild had the better chances. But couldn’t beat unflappable Blues goalie Jake Allen one more time. Instead, late Spring addition Sobotka made a great move towards the net following a Devan Dubnyk turnover. He drew players towards him and kicked for an open Paajarvi, who didn’t miss from in front. The Wild coverage was late with Zach Parise blowing the assignment.

So, the Blues are now playing the Preds in the Central Division Final. The third place and fourth place teams for the right to make the Western Conference Final. It’s not surprising. I did take St. Louis over Minnesota in six. I just felt they were playing better entering. Particularly Allen, who’s been much better since legend Martin Brodeur worked with him. Brodeur fixing a goalie. Shocking. I bet the Devils wish they still had Marty in the organization.

The most shocking development was Pekka Rinne only allowing three goals against the Blackhawks in Nashville’s four-game sweep. I thought the Preds stood a chance but didn’t take them due to Rinne. He had been up and down all season. Nobody could’ve predicted that. Funny too because I blindly took Chicago to the Conference Finals. But knew they were flawed. They are so top heavy that it’s no longer the same group. So, they were always beatable. Jonathan Toews had another bad performance and Patrick Kane only scored one goal.

These NHL playoffs are funny. You just never know. I think Nashville can give St. Louis a series. But I think you have to give the Blues the edge due to Allen. But it should be a good series. One final thought on the Wild. They were in every game. To quote John Tortorella following his team’s tough five-game defeat to the Pens, “It wasn’t a five-game series.”

Some series are like that. When the Rangers lost to the Kings in 2014, it was a whole lot closer than five games. The Wild’s loss to the Blues reminded me of when our ’97 Rangers got past a very good Devils team in five to make the Conference Final. In that one, Mike Richter outplayed Brodeur and they benefited from that dumb crease rule which saw the Devils have a couple of goals wiped out. A asinine rule they kept around too long. Brett Hull anyone? That still hurts in Buffalo.

Speaking of which, what the heck are the Sabres doing? So, Jack Eichel already has that much pull after two years. He got both Dan Bylsma and Tim Murray fired. Boy oh boy. I agree with axing Bylsma, who wasn’t the right fit. But I felt Murray did a solid job. But he didn’t want to get rid of Disco Dan. So, Terry Pegula did it for him and Murray lost his job. You wonder why every time a new owner emerges for the Sabres, it turns into a disaster. We’re not there yet. But they better get it right.

So, the Vezina candidates were revealed by the NHL on Twitter and on NHL Network. And there was one surprise. Carey Price is up for the award along with co-favorites Sergei Bobrovsky and Braden Holtby. Nothing against Price, who most agree is the world’s best currently. But he didn’t turn it around until Claude Julien took over for Montreal.

In this blogger’s opinion, Cam Talbot was better and more consistent in Edmonton. He’s continuing to play well in his first postseason as a starter with two shutouts. He has the Oilers one win away from the second round. Talbot tied for the league lead in wins with 42 while posting a 2.39 GAA, .917 save percentage and seven shutouts in a league-leading 73 appearances. He got shafted.

Price wound up with 37 wins, a 2.23 GAA, .923 save percentage and three shutouts. Respectable numbers. I didn’t feel he was a top three goalie this year. You could argue Tuukka Rask did more with a Bruins team by pitching eight shutouts with identical wins and GAA but a .915 save percentage. They weren’t as good defensively. He is the reason they haven’t been eliminated yet by Ottawa.

At least the three Norris finalists are as expected. Brent Burns, Victor Hedman and my choice Erik Karlsson. The Selke candidates are Patrice Bergeron, Ryan Kesler and Mikko Koivu. As expected, Patrik Laine, Auston Matthews and Zach Werenski are the three up for the Calder in a very strong rookie class that included William Nylander, Mitch Marner, Brady Skjei, Matt Murray and Matthew Tkachuk.

Alright. It’s game time. The face off should start some time before 8:20. I hate NBC.

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Game 6 Rangers look to advance versus Canadiens

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The Rangers prepare for Game 6 on home ice with a chance to close out the Canadiens tonight. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy NYRangers.

Tonight is one of those nights where the fans will be into it before face-off. The Rangers look to advance versus the Canadiens in Game 6 at what should be a loud MSG at 8 PM. This is the game they have to have. At home with a chance to move on to the second round. They don’t want to go back to Montreal for Game 7.

The Rangers are in this position thanks to consecutive wins in Games 4 and 5. Following a complete effort in a 2-1 home win on Rick Nash’s game-winner, they fought back valiantly from two one-goal deficits to force overtime in Game 5 at Bell Centre. The turning point was Nash taking the puck hard to the net and forcing Carey Price to give up a rebound which poised rookie defenseman Brady Skjei deposited with 1:32 left in the second period.

Afterwards, it was the Blueshirts who got their game together. They still needed a huge save from Henrik Lundqvist robbing Max Pacioretty on a breakaway with 7:11 remaining in regulation. Without it, we’re probably not talking about a potential close out game tonight. He made 34 saves and has stopped 20 more shots than Price in the series. Both netminders have allowed 10 goals but it’s Lundqvist who’s faced more pressure and been the better goalie. Now, he and his teammates get the chance to finish off a desperate Canadiens team on home ice. They better take it.

They’re here despite only one point from Derek Stepan and Mats Zuccarello. None from Kevin Hayes and J.T. Miller. There was a Chris Kreider sighting in Game 5. It came at the right time. After fanning on a great set up from Mika Zibanejad, he used his speed to gain the Montreal zone and take a shot that deflected off nemesis Alexei Emelin right to Zibanejad for the uplifting overtime winner. His first of the series coming in a big moment in what was the 24-year old center’s best game. He also made the defensive play and pass leading to Jesper Fast’s shorthanded goal.

Ever since Alain Vigneault inserted Pavel Buchnevich to reunite with Zibanejad and Kreider, they have been a dangerous line. Using their speed and skating, they’ve been tough on the forecheck generating chances and good shots. The lineup has better balance with Stepan working with Nash and impressive first-year player Jimmy Vesey, who has had a impact. He has two assists but has come close to scoring. Maybe he gets one later.

The power play has yet to score in 14 chances. It says here that they will need a power play goal in this game. At some point, it needs to come through. If I see Hayes pass up on another shot for another forced pass, I’m gonna lose it. He is a waste if he doesn’t look shot.

The Habs will be desperate. They are still looking for Pacioretty’s first goal. He leads them in shots in the series. So, he’s taking them. They’re not going in. Lundqvist is a big reason why. Claude Julien basically called out his captain indicating that they need key players to show up. You know who.

Montreal will be without pest Andrew Shaw, who took a tough hit from Dan Girardi that sent him into the boards. Brian Flynn comes in. Julien also is making one more change. Michael McCarron will play. Brandon Davidson will also play over Nathan Beaulieu on the back end.

So, the Habs will have a different look. It should be interesting. Can the Rangers close out their hated rival at MSG? We’ll find out.

 

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Zibanejad wins it in overtime!!!!! NYR lead MTL 3-2

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Nick Holden raises his arms and gets ready to celebrate Mika Zibanejad’s clutch overtime winner to give the Rangers a well deserved 3-2 win in Game 5 over the Canadiens. They lead the series 3-2 with Game 6 at MSG Saturday. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy NYRangers.

I still cannot contain my excitement over this game. The Rangers got it done. They dominated overtime in one of the toughest buildings to pull out a huge 3-2 overtime win over the Canadiens at Bell Centre. Mika Zibanejad’s goal at 14:22 of the first OT was the heroic game-winner stunning a packed crowd of over 21,000 in Montreal.

The Blueshirts now lead the emotional and intense best-of-seven first round series 3-2 with Game 6 in their building on Saturday night with a chance to advance. Game time is 8 PM at what should be a very enthusiastic MSG.

They are up because they earned it. Twice, they fought back from one-goal deficits against a very stingy Canadiens team. In what was a wild emotional roller coaster of a first period, the Rangers fell behind twice.

The first time, it was dangerous Habs rookie Artturi Lehkonen who took advantage of a Marc Staal turnover and beat Henrik Lundqvist on a wrap around or his second of the series. One he would’ve liked back for sure. But a good play by Alex Galchenyuk and Nathan Beaulieu and Lehkonen did the rest for his second of the series.

Almost every game has been hard fought with physical battles all over the ice. This was no exception. Before Lehkonen’s goal that opened the scoring, Rangers defenseman Brendan Smith had seen enough of Andrew Shaw. With Steve Ott getting two whacks at Lundqvist during a scrum, Smith took matters into his own hands and fought Shaw. Both went off for five-minute fighting majors. Advantage Montreal.

In one of the craziest series I’ve seen in a long time, the refs and linesmen continue to let everything go. But there have also been some mistakes. Take for example the penalty Max Pacioretty drew on Kevin Hayes. He was two feet offside when Hayes got called for holding the stick. Something MSG’s Joe Micheletti picked up right away. It was a bogus call that went in the Habs’ favor.

What transpired next was insanity. First, the Rangers tied the game thanks to one of their best forwards in the series Jesper Fast. On a real good defensive play by Zibanejad, he was able to create a two-on-one getting leading Fast in on Carey Price. Fast surprised him by going five-hole for a shorthanded goal at 15:56. A well executed play by both forwards with Fast so deserving. He’s getting rewarded for all his hustle.

But as only they can do, the Rangers gave it right back. Only 24 seconds later, the little ball of hate Brendan Gallagher took a Andrei Markov pass and skated into the slot and fired a wrist shot through traffic past Lundqvist with Tomas Plekanec in front. Amazingly, it was Gallagher’s first of the series. He’s been a dominant player for the Habs by creating all kinds of chaos. Legal or illegal, he plays the game hard. On the same power play, he got away with a high-stick to Ryan McDonagh following a clean check. That’s how it’s been called. But that came prior to Fast’s shorty.

Despite being out-shot 14-9, the Rangers trailed by one. They can thank Lundqvist for the second period. Most of it was exclusively Montreal due to consecutive power plays. Both McDonagh (slashing) and Mats Zuccarello (high-sticking) lost their discipline to hand the dangerous Habs man-advantage two golden chances to break the game open. It never happened. Lundqvist (10 second period saves) played a big part as did the penalty killers with superb efforts from McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, Brendan Smith and even Nick Holden.

They wouldn’t have got it done without help from the forwards. Particularly Rick Nash, who had was dominant throughout in what’s been his best series as a Ranger. He was outstanding. Not surprisingly, Nash found a way to set up Brady Skjei’s second of the series coming with 1:32 remaining in the period. Make no mistake about it. They were in that position due to Lundqvist, who really has shined in the big match-up with Price. He’s faced more shots and chances but has come through like the star he’s been on Broadway.

Late in the second, the Rangers were able to somehow tie it. They did it through hard work. On a very good cycle from Jimmy Vesey, he drew two Habs to him up high including Markov to push the puck down low to Nash. Nash came out and got a tough shot on Price that leaked out to an open Skjei, who deposited the momentum shifting goal that tied the score before intermission. It was a terrific play by both Nash and Vesey, who have really worked well together since being moved to the first line with Derek Stepan.

The third was tight as a drum. It had to be. Neither team wanted to make a mistake. In a period where each killed off a penalty, it was Lundqvist who made the save of the game robbing Pacioretty on a breakaway with over seven minutes left. Pacioretty was able to get free on a Markov bouncing pass behind Smith and came in. He shot low but Lundqvist kicked it out to preserve a 2-2 tie.

Miller took a bad slashing minor with 5:47 remaining. But a determined bunch of Blueshirts never gave a inch. As time wound down, it was apparent to everyone in the building Game 5 was destined for overtime. Much like Game 2 which the Habs came back and won, the nervousness and anxiety kicked in as the buzzer sounded.

In sudden death, it was unlike Game 2. In that one, it was all Habs and they got the win deservedly so. This time, it was a more calm and confident Rangers who came out ready. They used their speed and took away the neutral zone from the Canadiens. Kind of a role reversal.

The OT was so lopsided that if the Rangers didn’t find a way to score, eventually you know the Canadiens would’ve come back the other way and won it. They were outstanding. Strong defensive performances from top tandem McDonagh and Girardi really stood out. Whether it was Girardi throwing a ferocious hit or McDonagh laying out for a huge block, they were terrific. They also had better breakouts and pinched effectively creating issues for the Habs.

Girardi had a open one-timer off a good forecheck forcing Price to make a glove save a few minutes in. Rookie Pavel Buchnevich was dangerous on a couple of shifts. But he couldn’t get one past Price, who made so many big stops in sudden death including a nice pad stop on a tough low shot by Nash, leaving no rebound for Stepan.

Zibanejad created the best opportunity. On a relentless cycle, he came out with the puck and had Chris Kreider wide open in front. He made the pass across but Kreider fanned on the shot. He was too anxious. That’s the kind of series it’s been for him. Minutes later, Vesey came flying into the Habs zone and skated around Markov inside and missed wide on a pointblank chance with Price dead to rights.

Even Holden got a couple of shots through and showed more confidence in his game. But if he hadn’t recovered on a hiccups, we might not be talking about a win. Thankfully, he recovered. He also drove the net and collided with Price drawing boos from the home crowd who wanted goalie interference. The Habs only got three shots on Lundqvist. None dangerous. They were completely bottled up.

As fate had it, Kreider and Zibanejad got another chance. Off an Alexei Emelin turnover in the neutral zone, Kreider gained the zone and threw a pass that deflected off Emelin’s stick right to Zibanejad in front where he finished into an open side for a stunning 3-2 win in sudden death.

Out poured excited teammates to celebrate Zibanejad’s clutch OT winner. It was by far his best game. He wasn’t too bad in Game 4 either. It was nice to see a good guy get the winner. And he did out of hard work. It was also nice to have Kreider back. He set it up. He needed to be a factor and was.

When it comes down to it, this is how the Rangers must play. Vigneault rolled his four balanced lines and reaped the rewards. That included Fast with Oscar Lindberg and Michael Grabner. Lindberg was again a factor on some shifts in the OT. Vigneault gets a ton of credit for making the lineup change by reinserting Buchnevich for Tanner Glass. Glass did nothing wrong. But putting Buchnevich in and redoing the four lines has given his team the right mix of speed and balance.

Lundqvist made 34 saves for a well deserved victory. Price stopped 33 of 36 in defeat. Now, the Rangers try to finish it off at home Saturday. We’ll see if they have the cajones.

Overtime hero Mika Zibanejad wears the Broadway Hat in the winners locker room. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy NYRangers.

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Ryan McDonagh, Rangers (3 shots in 8 attempts, 6 hits, 3 blocks, takeaway, +1, dominant in 45 big shifts-30:41)

2nd Star-Henrik Lundqvist, Rangers (34 saves including his biggest on Pacioretty with the game hanging in the balance)

1st Star-Mika Zibanejad, Rangers (overtime winner at 14:22-1st of series, assisted on Fast’s SHG, 3 shots, 7 attempts, 4 hits, 2 takeaways, 4 blocks, +2 in 31 shifts-17:53)

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Overtime in Game 5

So they’re starting overtime at Bell Centre. It’s tied 2-2. I am anxiety driven and nervous as can be. Next goal wins. And maybe it decides the series. This has been a very tight and intense Game 5 as expected.

The Rangers have never led. But have tied it twice. Here we go. My score pick was 3-2 Blueshirts. Let’s see if they can come through!

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Ducks Quack the Flames

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The Ducks quacked their way to a sweep over the Flames to advance to Round 2. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy Anaheim Ducks.

One team has advanced. The Ducks quacked their way past the Flames by winning 3-1 at the Calgary Saddledome in Game 4 to complete a four-game sweep. So, my Stanley Cup pick is looking Mighty good right now.

The difference in the series was the elite goaltending of John Gibson along with Anaheim’s amazing determination coming back from a three-goal third period deficit to stun Calgary in Game 3 by a score of 5-4. Dominant performances from Ryan Getzlaf (empty net goal for 3rd of series) along with great support from Rickard Rakell along with breakout star Shea Theodore and former Bolt Nate Thompson were too much for the Flames to overcome.

That the Ducks could go to Jonathan Bernier with Gibson pulled in Game 3 and he shut the door allowing for the big comeback with Corey Perry’s OT winner shows just how focused this team is. With the Sharks putting up a touchdown and extra point with Jerry Rice cheering them on in a 7-0 rout of the Oilers in Game 4 to even that series, the Ducks have to feel pretty good about their chances. That one is going at least six if not seven. Anaheim will be well rested for the second round.

The Caps found a way to even their much tougher first round match-up against those young and very skilled Leafs hanging on for a 5-4 win at the Air Canada Centre. They can thank T.J. Oshie, who scored his second of the game after Auston Matthews cut the deficit to 4-3. If Oshie doesn’t beat ex-Duck Frederik Andersen from a bad angle 59 seconds later, who knows what happens. Washington hasn’t exactly been able to hold off the Leafs’ offense. They nearly blew another big lead.

Game 3 hero Tyler Bozak made things interesting by scoring with 27 seconds left in regulation. But the Caps did enough to win preventing another meltdown. Braden Holtby needs to be a lot better moving forward. It’s also interesting to note that the Caps dominated most of the first two periods. Boosted by a four-goal first in which they held a 15-6 edge in shots and huge territorial advantage, they looked like they would cruise. But a James van Riemsdyk power play goal gave Toronto hope. They outshot the Caps 19-3 in the third. If not for Oshie’s huge goal on an awful Andersen, we could be talking about another Leaf comeback and another overtime deciding it.

Game 5 is Friday in D.C. The Caps have all the pressure while the Leafs have none. It’s only their playoff livelihood at stake this Spring.

The Wild used goals from Charlie Coyle and Martin Hanzal and Gretel to stave off elimination with a 2-0 shutout over the Blues in St. Louis. It was Devan Dubnyk’s turn to pitch a shutout stopping all 28 shots including a cool dozen in a pressure packed third. Jake Allen had to cool off eventually after stopping a remarkable 102 of 105 shots the first three games of a very tightly contested series. These teams are evenly matched. Following the always entertaining Bruce Boudreau’s brief post-game following a Game 3 they deserved a better fate in, I figured they would win Game 4 and take it back to St. Paul.

I fully expect the Wild to win at home and force the series back to St. Loo for Game 6. How about this huge clean hit by Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo on Zach Parise at the end of tonight’s game!

Classic playoff hockey intensity. Pietrangelo is a true defenseman. He just doesn’t receive the credit of other brighter stars. Maybe if the Blues make a run, he finally will. Especially with Kevin Shattenkirk gone and playing so little for the Caps with the awful Brooks Orpik.

Game 3: 23 shifts 16:27 -2

Game 4: 18 shifts 12:54 -1 assist

Buyer beware. Though being paired with Orpik isn’t ideal for Shattenkirk, who should still receive plenty of cash this summer. <inserts Rangers> He’s not perfect but is a great skating D who can run a power play with a big shot. Yeah. They’re gonna try to buy him on July 1. But hopefully not at the expense of the bruising and gritty Brendan Smith. He needs to be kept.

So, the Senators are now up 3-1 after sweeping Games 3 and 4 in Boston. Sure. They benefited from a bad call to take Game 3 on what should’ve been matching minors. Ironically, a resurgent Bobby Ryan got the overtime winner on a neat deflection. He again was at it getting the only goal in a 1-0 Game 4 shutout win. Craig Anderson only had to make five of his 22 saves in the third. In fact, he faced just 10 shots the last two periods. Wow.

Of course, #BigGameBrass is back in a big way for the Sens. Now that it’s the playoffs, here comes the real Derick Brassard. You know. The one who led the Blueshirts in scoring during those big runs in 2014 and 2015. Not the first round Brass from a forgettable series against the Pens last year. Brassard has two goals and three assists in four games so far. Of course, he set up Erik Karlsson’s awesome shot pass to Ryan in front for the only goal Wednesday night. Big Game Brass! Gotta love it.

Truth is Boston doesn’t have enough on D right now. So, my sleeper pick to make the Conference Final looks on the way out. No Torey Krug and no Brandon Carlo has really hurt them. But Charlie McAvoy is a future star on the back end. He played over 25 minutes leading the B’s in ice-time while paired with captain Chara. They had a goal wiped out on a Carlo shot that was redirected by Noel Acciari due to a successful coach’s challenge from Boucher for offside. It was indeed offside. I still hate the challenge system because it takes so much flow away from the game. It’s just too long a process.

Here’s a key stat. Bergeron, Marchand and Pastrnak each with only one goal. If Boston wants to extend the series when it shifts to Ottawa, they need their best scorers to do it. Ottawa remains one of those teams you don’t want to face due to their grinding defensive style. Plus they have the skaters who can expose you on turnovers such as Mike Hoffman, Karlsson, Brassard along with eerily quiet Kyle Turris and Mark Stone. Yet they’re in a winning position due to Ryan.

It’s Game 5 in Montreal later tonight at Bell Centre. Rangers and Canadiens in what’s been the most fun series. Between the whistle stuff. Legal. Illegal. Lot of dirty too from those Habs. But it’s definitely not dull. These teams hate each other. Les Canadiens want to win desperately. They face the pressure with the series tied 2-2. Price and Lundqvist giving a great show. It should be a good one! 😀

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Getting Nashty! Nash’s game-winner boosts Rangers in 2-1 Game 4 win over Canadiens, Series tied 2-2

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Nashty: Rick Nash celebrates his backhand game-winner in the second period of a huge Rangers’ 2-1 win to take Game 4 over the Canadiens and send the series back to Montreal tied 2-2. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy NYRangers.

The Rangers answered the bell. Facing the prospect of a 3-1 series deficit, they refused to lose. The home playoff losing streak is over at six. Rick Nash’s goal in the second period broke a 1-1 tie to give them a hard fought 2-1 win over the Canadiens to take Game 4 at a more enthusiastic MSG. The first round series is now tied 2-2 with a pivotal Game 5 on Thursday night at Bell Centre. If it’s anything like tonight, it should be a good one.

Responding to adversity following a disappointing Game 3 in which they were disjointed and booed, the Blueshirts went the extra mile to square the best-of-seven match-up. There were battles all over the ice. Clean, borderline or dirty, the Original Six rivals pushed the envelope. Refs Francis Charron and Steve Kozari let everything go. It was old style playoff hockey. Essentially, kill or be killed.

That’s how the Canadiens played it. At times, they were malicious and vicious with their sticks. The Rangers played through it giving some of it back. This was not for the faint of heart. It was get your dirty jersey night at the oldest NHL building in the league. While there were beefs with how it was called, the officiating was consistent. They let the teams decide it.

Unlike Game 3, the Blueshirts were ready to go from the outset. Vigneault started the game with the newly minted third line of J.T. Miller, Kevin Hayes and Mats Zuccarello. Even though they didn’t score, they set the tone with some good offensive zone time. It was the team in classic blue with red and white that was the aggressor. A different game than the one played on Sunday. It translated to three shots on Carey Price early and 12 overall in a entertaining first period that also saw the Habs come back late.

All four lines Vigneault used were effective including the trio that consisted of rookie Pavel Buchnevich in his first NHL playoff game. Inserted for Tanner Glass, the just turned 22-year old Russian was reunited with Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider on a line the Rangers tried out early in the season. Buchnevich’s skating and skill got Zibanejad going. He was much more involved throughout getting three shots while attempting seven- even throwing a huge hit in the third that drew cheers. It was by far his best game. Kreider still was tentative to shoot the puck winding up with two shots but did have one big hit protecting a one-goal lead.

For his first taste of NHL playoff action, Buchnevich was largely effective on the forecheck creating chances for himself and teammates. He wound up with three shots and two hits in 17 shifts (12:23). That included 1:58 on the power play. There weren’t many. Only two with the first abbreviated due to Nash taking the puck hard to the net and colliding with Price, who drew a goalie interference penalty that wiped out a power play goal.

By that point, the Blueshirts led thanks to another big contribution from the fourth line. This time, it was the always hustling Jesper Fast who got rewarded with his first goal of the series. Closing in on Andrei Markov behind the net off a Brady Skjei dump in, Fast took full advantage of a Markov turnover. He took the puck to the net and stuffed a backhand past Price for an unassisted tally with 8:21 left in the period.

It was important for the Rangers to get a lead. It helped energize the building who knew what this game meant. Realistically, they couldn’t go down 3-1 with two of the next three in Montreal. If they wanted to give themselves a chance, they had to get this game. They did what it took.

Of course, that included some clutch stops from Henrik Lundqvist. He had to deal with two Canadiens breakaways. Prior to Fast’s tally, he stoned Andrew Shaw by just getting enough of his shot with the glove. He made several tough saves from in tight including a couple on pest Brendan Gallagher. Lundqvist also made a timely stop on Artturi Lehkonen on Montreal’s last power play late in the second.

The goaltending in this series has been phenomenal. Both Lundqvist and Price have taken turns coming up big. It’s no surprise. It’s a battle of two of the game’s best. Aside from Game 2 when the Habs rallied for a 4-3 overtime win, goals have been hard to come by. In Games 1, 3 and 4, the teams have combined for nine. Only Game 3 was decidedly one-sided. Game 1 went down to the wire before Michael Grabner scored an empty netter. Game 2 saw Tomas Plekanec tie it with 17.3 seconds left with Alex Radulov getting the OT winner.

Game 4 saw the Rangers protect a one-goal lead with some nervy play and a bit of luck. Mainly the goalpost next to Lundqvist on a Shea Weber bomb with 1:18 left. Nothing comes easy for this team. It didn’t to post their first playoff victory at MSG since Game 1 of the 2015 Eastern Conference Final against Tampa Bay on 5/16/15. Also by a 2-1 margin. How’s that for irony?

Trailing by one, the Habs didn’t back off. They drew even due to a bad line change from the Rangers. With Skjei battling Alex Radulov by the bench, the skilled Russian veteran caught Nick Holden out of position by sending a nice touch backhand pass to a cutting Shea Weber for a two-on-one. With Holden flat on his back, Weber dished across for an easy Torrey Mitchell one-time and a bang tying the score with 1:23 remaining.

What made it even nuttier is that both teams had six skaters out. Each could’ve been whistled for a bench minor. Instead, the four officials managed to miss it. The end result was a great play started by Radulov, who picked up his series-leading sixth point. It got even worse. The ending to a solid period also saw Ryan McDonagh pick up a slashing minor with five seconds remaining. A frustrating conclusion.

Encouraging is that the Rangers were able to kill off the remaining 1:55 at the start of the second. If the first was back and forth with the teams splitting goals with the Rangers holding a 12-10 edge in shots, that wasn’t the case in the middle stanza. It was largely dominated by the home team. Using their speed and forecheck, they controlled play. The balance of four lines which also included rookie Jimmy Vesey with Derek Stepan and Nash worked in their favor. They still finished checks but were hard on the puck and pinned the Habs in.

A great keep and terrific pass by McDonagh all the way through to Nash in front resulted in Nash beating Price with a beautiful backhand finish for his second of the series at 4:28. The goal came thanks to relentless pressure from the top line. But without McDonagh’s dynamic play at the left point, it never happens. He had been quiet during the first three games. However, the Rangers captain was a force in Game 4. He not only got his first point but played with an edge throwing the weight around. In a heated third, he delivered a couple of big checks while defending well. He led by example with 2 takeaways, 2 blocked shots and four hits with a plus-one rating in 26 big shifts (22:22).

He wasn’t the only one. Brendan Smith had a whale of a game. Banged around by the Habs legally and illegally including a missed Radulov chop to him late in the third, he took his lumps. It was the key acquisition from the Red Wings who led the Blueshirts in ice-time with 22:44 in 29 shifts. He really took a beating. But never missed a shift. He’s tough. Something this team has needed. Vigneault did a good job using him more.

The coach also limited Holden to 14:25 following his awful coverage on the Mitchell goal. Vigneault leaned heavily on the vets with Marc Staal also putting together a solid game logging 19:38 in 29 shifts. He and Dan Girardi were a factor on the penalty kill which went three-for-three. As Girardi told MSG’s John Giannone following the victory, they have to play smarter. Something that he emphasized moving forward.

The third was one of anxiety. Even though they only got six shots on Lundqvist, Montreal threatened early. But after a couple of close calls, the Rangers tightened up. They didn’t just sit back. Instead, continuing to push forward when the opportunity presented itself. Vesey nearly had his first NHL playoff goal on a superb effort. But Price robbed him. He played a very good game attempting four shots in 22 shifts (15:29).

Nash was in beast mode all night. He skated with purpose and went hard to the net making life difficult on the Montreal D and on Price. His game-winning goal was the only one he had but not from lack of chances. He narrowly missed another just wide. He finished with eight attempts and two hits while playing the kind of hockey the Garden Faithful delighted in. Make no mistake. Number 61 is having one of his best series. His two goals are tied with Grabner for the team lead.

With Stepan continuing to struggle taking an undisciplined hooking minor with 2:32 left in the second, Nash has really carried the load. Especially with Kreider continuing to puzzle. Ditto for Miller, who remains without a point despite being active. At some point, one of those two needs a breakout game. Hayes was better in this one. Maybe playing with the ornery Zuccarello rubbed off. He didn’t score but the pint sized Norwegian with the huge heart was his feisty self exchanging barbs with Steve Ott while competing hard.

On the fourth line with Oscar Lindberg and Fast, Grabner had another effective night registering five shots, seven attempts with two blocks in 12:34 (22 shifts). His biggest contribution was staying close enough to Lehkonen on a Habs set up to not allow him to get all of a one-timer which Lundqvist stopped. That attention to detail was what decided the game.

In the third, only some big stops by Price kept the Habs in it. He made 10 altogether to finish with 30 in the game. Lundqvist only had to make 23. A better number for the King. It still came down to a Weber blast which rang off the goalpost. That’s how dangerous Weber is. It was from way out. Lundqvist talked about how they got the lucky bounce this time unlike Game 2 afterwards.

That was the last hurrah for Montreal, who had a couple of shots blocked. They also were unable to get a final shot with captain Max Pacioretty kept behind the net by diligent Rangers checkers as time expired.

This was more like it. Sure. There were plenty of missed stick fouls. There also was a cheap Ott back kick of Zuccarello’s skate which was dangerous. But we know it won’t be reviewed. The Department of Player Safety is a joke. They only review plays where players are injured.

The Rangers have to feel a lot better headed into Game 5. They played the way they needed to. With purpose. They battled for every inch and were better. Something Pacioretty alluded to in the post game. Now, it’s a best-of-three series with the huge fifth game at Bell Centre. Montreal fan will be rabid. It will be a chaotic atmosphere. One in which the Rangers have dealt with before. They are a good experienced road team.

It just got a whole lot more interesting. The fun is just beginning.

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Carey Price, Canadiens (30 saves including 10/10 in busy 3rd to give team a chance)

2nd Star-Alain Vigneault, Rangers (not kidding-he made the necessary lineup changes needed to succeed and managed the bench well)

1st Star-Rick Nash, Rangers (game-winning goal-2nd of series, 8 attempts in 27 dominant shifts-16:31)

Playoff Notes: Shots were 32-24 Rangers and attempts were 60-50. They deserved this one with tremendous effort. … The Blueshirts continue to hit winding up with 43 compared to the Canadiens’ 25. Most impressively, all 18 skaters were credited with one. The pesky Fast paced them with five. A testy Radulov had four along with Brandon Davidson for Les Canadiens. Key Stat: Giveaways MTL 16 (Markov 5) NYR 15 (Smith 4). If there was a notable difference, the Rangers had 13 takeaways compared to only 4 from the Habs. … Face-offs were 37-31 Montreal. Phillip Danault went a dominant 14-and-4. Tomas Plekanec was 13-and-10. Zibanejad was the Rangers’ best going 10-and-7 including one huge draw in which he went forward with the puck for a big clear to start a penalty kill. Lindberg went 5-and-4. … The Rangers didn’t have to block as many shots winding up with 13 (Miller 3) while the Canadiens had 18 (Jeff Petry 4).

… In other playoff action, the Blue Jackets staved off elimination by posting a 5-4 home win over the Penguins. Boone Jenner’s goal turned out to be the game-winner with the red hot Jake Guentzel making things dicey with a shorthanded goal at 19:32. The rookie’s fifth of the series. Pittsburgh will try to clinch the series at home on Thursday. … Meanwhile, it’s a Shark Attack in San Jose. The Sharks have responded in a big way to being shutout the last two games by Cam Talbot. They chased Talbot with a five spot on 24 shots in less than two periods. They then greeted backup Laurent Brossoit with a goal from Joe Pavelski making it 6-0 after two. Logan Couture has a pair for 30 career postseason goals and Pavelski has two. Patrick Marleau lit the lamp with a beauty top shelf that made it 3-0. So, it looks like that series will head back to Edmonton tied 2-2.

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