Since a good start, it’s been a tough first year on Broadway for Lee Stempniak. The likable 32-year old West Seneca, New York native has persevered despite being miscast on the fourth line. His first two-goal game of the season rescued the Rangers past the Coyotes 4-3 at MSG.
Stempniak’s second of the night came with 2:14 left in regulation lifting the Rangers into first place in the Metropolitan Division. With 82 points and a division-leading 35 regulation and overtime wins in 60 games, the defending Eastern Conference champs jumped ahead of the idle Islanders, who have their 82 in 62 with 33 ROW. They’re each three up on Pittsburgh and six ahead of Washington.
Facing one of his former teams for a second time in two weeks, Stempniak burned them with two more goals including the winner. In their 5-1 win on Valentine’s Day, he also scored giving him three markers in two games against Arizona. Playing a reduced role on a four line team, he made the most of his 14 shifts matching Chris Kreider with a team best two goals and five shots.
Unlike the first meeting, the Rangers climbed out of a 3-1 first period deficit to win their fourth straight. A sloppy first resulted in three goals allowed on 17 shots for Cam Talbot. In the shutout over Calgary, he only faced 21 shots. They fell behind immediately with Mark Acrobello tallying on the game’s first shift 44 seconds in.
Following a sluggish start, the Rangers replied back by scoring their first power play goal in the last seven games. They entered 0-for-15 in the previous six. A great passing play started by Mats Zuccarello lead directly to rookie Kevin Hayes moving in and making a beautiful cross-ice feed for a sweet Kreider finish for his team-leading sixth power play goal.
Reinserted into the lineup for Matt Hunwick, John Moore defended himself following a tough Kyle Chipchura hit by fighting the tough ‘Yote. He didn’t win but showed character. It wasn’t a bad night for Moore, who later assisted on Stempniak’s first during the comeback.
Penalty trouble put the Blueshirts down two by the end of the first. Following a Martin St. Louis trip of Shane Doan, Kevin Klein took a delay of game penalty leading to a 5-on-3 for the Coyotes. They took full advantage converting on both ends. It was Sam Gagner who finished twice in a 1:26 span. His first one came on a two-man advantage. With Marc Staal taking the pass away, he caught Talbot leaning with a high shot short side. The second tally came off a Michael Stone pass in front with Gagner able to snap one by Talbot at 19:20 making it 3-1.
After missing a game, Rick Nash returned from neck spasms. He nearly set up Derick Brassard at the buzzer. But Mike Smith made a sprawling stop. Had it gone in, it would’ve been reviewed. Smith has struggled this season. For almost two periods, he was sharp making some strong stops. However, he still allowed four goals on 38 shots. It was more due to his defense which isn’t that good despite boasting Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Keith Yandle.
Stempniak drew the Rangers within one when he got a piece of a Moore shot off a Dominic Moore faceoff win. It would’ve been John’s first goal of the season. Instead, he settled for the lone primary assist on Stempniak’s eighth at 5:33. Klein took another ill advised penalty with a hi-sticking double minor on David Moss. However, Arizona didn’t even get a single shot in four minutes.
The turning point came due to some awful officiating. After Stempniak drew a Stone holding minor with 1:06 remaining in the second, Brassard clearly caught a Coyote with a hi-stick drawing blood. It should have been a double minor. Instead, neither ref Greg Kimmerly nor Steve Kozari saw it. It was so obvious. That they didn’t even get together with the linesmen was an utter disgrace.
As if to prove a point, Kreider scored the tying goal with 14.5 seconds left further aggravating the Coyotes bench. Antoine Vermette won an offensive draw but his pass for Connor Murphy eluded him sending Kreider off to the races. He steered home his own rebound past a ticked off Smith, who predictably slammed his goalie stick. That they called Smith for a unsportsmanlike conduct penalty made it even worse. When the buzzer sounded, the refs spent a long time talking to Coyotes coach Dave Tippett. They did the same before the third probably admitting their big mistake.
Undoubtedly, it changed the game. Even if the Coyotes aren’t competing for a playoff spot, it wasn’t right. They entered losers of seven straight. There are way too many games that are poorly called. Refs are missing obvious stick infractions while calling the holds and hooks. The standard has slipped dramatically.
The only goal in the third came from Stempniak. On late with Hayes and Carl Hagelin, he got to a Hayes rebound that caromed off Smith and steered in a backhand for the go-ahead goal at 17:46. Smith broke his stick allowing Stempniak to follow up his own rebound.
Arizona pulled Smith and got one final chance when St. Louis was sent off for a hook with 1:21 left. Even with the extra attacker, they couldn’t beat Talbot who came up with his best saves. His defense did a good job clearing in front. The final desperation shot was deflected wide allowing the Rangers to celebrate the win.
BONY 3 Stars:
3rd Star-Sam Gagner, ARI (2 PPG’s-11, 12, -1 in 16:37)
2nd Star-Chris Kreider, NYR (2 goals-15, 16, 5 SOG in 15:18)
1st Star-Lee Stempniak, NYR (2 goals incl. game-winner at 17:46, 3rd, 5 SOG, +2 in 9:09)
Notes: Coyotes forward Henrik Samuelsson made his NHL debut. The son of Rangers assistant Ulf, he took 16 shifts with 1 shot in 9:33. … Arizona dominated the Rangers on faceoffs winning 43 of 68 with Vermette pacing them going 16 and 10. J.T. Miller went 3-and-3 for the Rangers. … Tanner Glass finished plus-one with four shots and three hits. … Stat Of The Game: Giveaways Coyotes 13 Rangers 16 … Rangers visit Flyers for a special 8 PM Saturday start on NBC in prime time.