Since their match against the Flyers on Saturday, plenty has been said in the aftermath of Wayne Simmonds’ sucker punch that KO’d Ranger captain Ryan McDonagh. To their credit, the Rangers dug deep rallying back for an emotional 3-2 shootout win over the Flyers in the City of Brotherly Love. It was a critical two points earned thanks to Keith Yandle’s tying goal with 12.9 seconds left in regulation and then Mats Zuccarello and Derek Stepan each beating Steve Mason in the shootout.
As they enter another crucial match against a classic division rival in the overachieving Devils, the Rangers must turn the page. It won’t be easy minus McDonagh, who suffered a concussion from Simmonds’ short left hook with his glove on which led to his dismissal. At the time, I felt it wasn’t worth a match penalty. But in hindsight, the appropriate call was made. Given the nature of McDonagh’s injury, Simmonds got the rest of the day off- leaving both benches without a key player. With the Flyers opting to go full prevent mode, the Rangers took advantage despite four of their five defensemen logging over 24 minutes including 27:33 from game hero Yandle. He’ll now play a larger role until McDonagh recovers.
While the team turns its focus to tonight’s game against Hudson rival New Jersey, coach Alain Vigneault erupted at the league following the morning skate. Still hot over Simmonds not facing any discipline with the Flyers’ power forward in the lineup for Sunday’s loss to Washington, he went after the NHL Department of Player Safety. He even went full John Tortorella referencing if McDonagh was Sidney Crosby, would the league have ignored it entirely.
“What I didn’t expect was the reaction from the league,” Vigneault told reporters following team practice courtesy The Journal News’ Rick Carpinello. “An All-Star player gets sucker-punched, goes down. I wonder if that’s (Sidney) Crosby, what happens? What are the consequences? And, on top of that, a player breaks his stick, throws it at the referees. In the rulebook, that’s automatic. It’s three games. Nothing happens.”
He’s referring to Simmonds’ overreaction to getting tossed from the game. He lost his cool breaking a stick and tossing it in the direction of the officials. A no no. Per a tweet from the always outspoken New York Post’s Larry Brooks, he cites Rule 40.4 which states that any player who physically threatens an official by either throwing a piece of equipment or stick at them is subject to an automatic three-game suspension. Somewhat curiously, Rule 39.5 contradicts Rule 40.4 because it’s not viewed the same.
Perhaps the league felt the match and game misconduct were enough in this case. Whatever the reason, they decided not to further discipline Simmonds for his actions. It’s easy to forget that he reacted to McDonagh’s crosscheck to the head. Something first-year Flyer coach Dave Hakstol didn’t take kindly to. As Simmonds went for a check, McDonagh got his stick up and then gave him a whack in the helmet, earning two for hi-sticking and two for crosschecking. He reacted angrily with a gloved punch McDonagh never saw coming.
Sadly, some Flyers’ pundits accused him of “acting.” Well, he stayed down and is now hurt. The same fans and media are now using Crosby taking a Marc Staal two-handed to the back of the neck in the playoffs as their defense. Kind of ironic considering how much hate there is for Crosby and the interstate rival Pens. By the same token, Vigneault uses Crosby as a crutch when Staal wasn’t disciplined for that crosscheck in a series the Rangers came back and won.
The whole thing is nonsensical. The usual arguments on social media are silly. It’s time to stop complaining. What’s done is done. Whether the league got it right is another story. However, there isn’t anymore time to spend on McDonagh and Simmonds. The Rangers do face the Flyers once more at The Garden this Sunday. That could be interesting.
As for what’s important, it’s the remaining 30 games starting with the Devils tonight. A team they haven’t beaten losing twice in two tries including a deflating 3-2 loss on Feb. 2 in which they blew a one-goal third period lead. The other loss came way back on Oct. 18 with Ranger killer Lee Stempniak winning it in overtime. That was the first Devil victory under rookie coach John Hynes. Since, they’ve been a factor entering play tied in points (60) with the Pens but out of the second wildcard due to one less regulation/overtime win and two more games played. Both New Jersey and Pittsburgh are a point behind the Islanders for third in the Metro and trail the Rangers by four.
The Blueshirts must concern themselves with life without McDonagh. If the second period Saturday was any indication, it’ll be challenging. Right now, they have four right defensemen and two left. That means Vigneault must rotate one right D. For now, that includes rookie Dylan McIlrath, who he still won’t commit to which is puzzling. The Rangers will be recalling a defenseman from Hartford with either Raphael Diaz or Brady Skjei the likely candidates.
Yandle and Staal will receive big minutes as the two naturals lefts. Dan Girardi and Dan Boyle will be leaned on heavily. In his return after missing one game with a fractured thumb, Kevin Klein struggled in 19-plus minutes. He’s clearly not 100 percent. But then again, neither is Girardi who continues to play with a battered kneecap. The defense will be tested this week by the Devils, Pens on Wednesday and Kings Friday. Then the rematch with the Flyers is on Valentine’s Day.
They’re also still minus Rick Nash, whose bone bruise still isn’t fully recovered. He hasn’t played since Jan. 22 against Carolina. Astonishingly, his 33 points rank third in team scoring behind Derick Brassard (39) and Mats Zuccarello (38). J.T. Miller has picked up the slack with eight goals and an assist in the last nine games. Chris Kreider scored for a second straight game and is up to 11 goals and 25 points. He is on a line with Zuccarello and Derek Stepan. They’ll need to continue to contribute.
Jesper Fast has been a key contributor during this stretch. He had the key primary assist setting up Yandle’s tying goal. The second-year Swede quietly is playing well with four helpers over the last four with a plus-seven rating. He hasn’t scored a goal since Jan. 11 but does other things including getting in on the forecheck and penalty killing which is still a work in progress on a struggling unit. However, Vigneault trusts him enough to keep him on the right wing with Brassard and Miller.
The lines remain intact. Kevin Hayes will continue to be between Oscar Lindberg and Viktor Stalberg. Hayes remains a disappointment with seven goals and hasn’t recorded one since Jan. 9. Lindberg has no goals in the last nine. However, his fight with Matt Read sparked the Ranger revival in Philly. He still isn’t fully trusted by the coaching staff. Stalberg kills penalties and has been a tireless worker. The fourth line will continue to be Tanner Glass, Dominic Moore and Daniel Paille. They must become more of a factor at 5-on-5. But it’ll take a total team effort with a tough schedule.
That means Henrik Lundqvist must be at his best. He’s facing Vezina candidate Cory Schneider later. He was outperformed by Schneider in the last meeting. If he can deliver a win, he’ll tie Martin Brodeur for the most wins in the first 11 seasons. He’s won 364 thus far with 33 coming against the Devils in 55 starts. For his career, he’s 33-15-7 with a 1.88 goals-against-average, .931 save percentage and eight shutouts versus New Jersey in the regular season. It would be fitting if he tied Brodeur tonight. Especially with the Devils set to honor the all-time winningest netminder tomorrow in Newark.