For the second time in four years, the Rangers are division champs. They wrapped up the Metro Division with a hard fought 3-2 road win over the Wild in St. Paul Thursday night. Facing one of the league’s hottest teams, they jumped out to a two-goal lead before a frantic Wild rally tied the game up. Ultimately, J.T. Miller scored the winner on the next shift allowing the Rangers to win their second straight on the road.
Henrik Lundqvist made 26 saves for his second consecutive win. Both coming on the road where the Rangers set a new franchise record with their 26th road win. That eclipsed last year’s mark of 25. Both achieved under coach Alain Vigneault. This season, they’re 26-11-2 away from MSG. That success helped them recover from a slow start to win a competitive Metro. At one point, they trailed the Islanders by 12 points. But they came together with Lundqvist out overtaking their arch rival to win only their second division title since ’95-96.
”You’ve got to play the right way, and we try to do that every time we step on the ice, whether we’re in front of our fans or on the road,” Vigneault said in regards to his team’s consistency.
In ’11-12 under John Tortorella, the Rangers won the Atlantic and finished with the East’s best record. With five games remaining, they’re chasing the top seed and are in the hunt for the President’s Trophy. Entering tomorrow’s home match against the Devils, they lead the Canadiens by two points but hold the first tiebreaker with 45 regulation overtime wins to Montreal’s 41. The Habs must win tonight at New Jersey. The Rangers lead the East with 105 points. Two off NHL leading Anaheim. The Ducks enter their home match against Colorado with 107 but will have only three games left. Basically, if the Rangers take care of business they’ll be able to seal home ice for the entire postseason.
While it is nice to have the division wrapped up, there’s still work to be done. Most notably, they have to be encouraged by the play of Lundqvist. Making his third start since returning, he was sharp throughout. Early on, he thwarted Zach Parise. After getting peppered by Boston for four on 30 shots in a lopsided 4-2 loss last Saturday, the all-time franchise leader in wins (336) and shutouts (55) is looking more like himself. Even before the Wild tied it on a Thomas Vanek rebound of a Matthew Dumba wide shot during a furious assault, Lundqvist made several sprawling saves.
”I feel better and better. Making better reads. I feel more comfortable, and it’s fun to be out there and play,” he said after recording his 27th victory of the season.
It showed especially in the third when the Wild came hard. After a disappointing first that saw them fall behind, Minnesota demonstrated why they should be a tough out in the West. Even though the shots were 9-6 in favor of the hosts after one, the scoreboard said otherwise. It was the Rangers who actually got the good start with Dominic Moore redirecting a Carl Hagelin shot past Devan Dubnyk, who made his 35th straight start. Rick Nash scored his team-leading 41st on the power play when he caught Dubnyk off guard firing from a tough angle to increase to 2-0.
But the Wild came out much better in the second. Upping their attack, they got back in it when off a rush started by Dumba, a Mikael Granlund pass deflected off Jason Pominville’s skate at 5:24. They continued to press but a lack of discipline handed the Rangers opportunities to reclaim momentum. Typically, they couldn’t or wouldn’t. How else to describe four consecutive power plays that included an abbreviated 5-on-3 in the final minute of the second that was so bad, it was like watching Benny Hill. How many times can Vigneault send out Keith Yandle only to see him fake shot and overpass? Yandle’s play remains murky. He so rarely shoots the puck that it’s driving me insane. The lack of killer instinct on the power play is a concern entering the playoffs. It’s way too passive.
Not surprisingly, the Wild figured out a way to tie it. With the Rangers in a predictable defensive shell, Minnesota pounced. On one sequence, it was a shooting gallery at Lundqvist, who robbed them twice before Dumba sent in a wide shot that caromed right to Vanek for his 21st tying it at 5:53.
As if summoning a message, it clicked for Chris Kreider. On with Miller, Derek Stepan, McDonagh and Dan Girardi, he took off like a jet flying past the Wild D. With Dumba trying to stay with him, Kreider passed for an open McDonagh who patiently waited before firing a shot pass to Miller for a neat deflection resulting in his 10th to untie the game just 55 seconds later. It was a couple of nights earlier where Miller set up Kreider victimizing Dustin Byfuglien, who nearly decapitated J.T. The chemistry they have formed with Stepan is undeniable.
Even with Martin St. Louis returning yesterday, Vigneault had him on the third line with Kevin Hayes and Hagelin. At this point, I’d keep it intact. For all of his tough love on Miller, it has worked. Credit Vigneault for that. Miller is a much better player. He’s a key component who isn’t afraid to mix it up. His willingness to get dirty resulted in a high-sticking double minor. And also resulted in Byfuglien’s nonsensical thuggery. Crosschecking him in the neck so hard, he could’ve broken it. Byfuglien’s stupidity continued at the end of that game mugging Mats Zuccarello to take a selfish penalty costing Winnipeg. He’s serving a four-game suspension. The Jets are tied with the Kings for the final wildcard in the West. But LA has the tiebreaker. I used to like Byfuglien. But that respect went out the window when after this, he didn’t reach out to Miller. Miller’s very fortunate to still be playing. So are the Rangers.
Had Byfuglien seriously injured Miller, his suspension would’ve been a lot longer. It does recall the whole controversy surrounding former Winnipeg teammate Evander Kane. Not to take Kane off the hook but didn’t anyone find what Byfuglien did a little over the top? Maybe he has a few screws loose that need checking.
As for the Rangers, that’s not their concern. It’s amazing to think where they came from to win the division. They deserve a ton of credit. There have been doubters even from the beginning. When you have ‘experts’ who actually picked this team out of the playoffs, it makes you wonder about their credibility. At times, I wondered where they’d wind up. But as accurately predicted, they are the Metropolitan Division champs. As cheesy as it sounds with Sam Rosen going gaga with his call. MSG really needs to tone it down.
”It’s a huge accomplishment. There’s a lot of tough teams in there,” McDonagh said.
It’s a nice reward for a team that never gives up. Even when Lundqvist went down. Even without Kevin Klein, who might be a lot more crucial than once thought. Hopefully, he is ready when the puck drops in less than two weeks.