Following their 4-2 win in Game 2 that evened the first round series against the Penguins, the Rangers host the Pens at MSG for Game 3 later tonight. After getting strong performances throughout the lineup including rookies Brady Skjei and Dylan McIlrath, coach Alain Vigneault is playing a guessing game with the media.
Injured captain Ryan McDonagh skated Monday. When asked if he could be available after practicing yesterday, Vigneault said, “I would say it’s doubtful, but stranger things have happened before.”
Since blocking a Brandon Dubinsky shot on April 4 at Columbus, McDonagh has been out with a broken right hand. After missing the first two games against Pittsburgh, he practiced in a regular jersey at the Rangers’ optional skate this morning. Also on were McIlrath, Hartford recall Raphael Diaz and injured Dan Girardi.
If McDonagh were to play tonight, it would be for McIlrath, who Vigneault limited to 17 shifts and less than 10 minutes on Saturday. He showed more confidence in Skjei, who logged over 19 minutes in 28 shifts and was impressive even taking some shifts on the right side. Could the 22-year old rookie shift over to the right so McDonagh can play his natural left position? At this point, no one knows for sure if the Ranger captain is returning.
Updating the story, McDonagh will meet with team doctors before the Rangers make a final decision. Assuming he can’t go, it would make sense for Vigneault to stick with the same lineup that had success in Game 2. They were a much more together lineup that made the Pens pay the price. The Rangers finished every check registering 57 hits to the Pens’ 25 in a throwback performance to when current Pens’ coach Mike Sullivan was an assistant under John Tortorella. It’s that kind of ugly style they must play to win this series. It must be won in the trenches.
There was much more of a willingness to take the body. When even Derick Brassard is registering seven hits and Mats Zuccarello has six, you know what time it is. Not coincidentally, both were much better with Brassard notching a goal and assist while Zuccarello tallied the game-winner. Tanner Glass recorded seven hits and continues to be a effective player on the fourth line, fitting in with the pesky Viktor Stalberg and steady Dominic Moore.
While Vigneault plays games with which defenseman will dress tonight, Sullivan plays his own with which goalie will start. Jeff Zatkoff went the first two doing alright in gaining a split. But he’s the third stringer who the Rangers finally got to scoring three times within a 4:14 span late in the second period. After an impressive 35-save performance winning Game 1, Zatkoff stopped 24 of 28 shots in the Game 2 loss. He was the first goalie off at the Pens team practice.
That doesn’t mean he’ll start. Rookie Matt Murray returned to practice. Sullivan hinted that “he is an option for tonight.” If he’s ready, it would make sense given Pittsburgh’s situation. Murray went 9-2-1 in 13 starts posting a 2.00 goals-against-average, .930 save percentage with one shutout. The 21-year old goalie has never faced the Rangers. His last start came on Apr. 9 at the Flyers in which he departed early due to a head injury.
As for Marc-Andre Fleury, he still hasn’t been medically cleared. The Pens’ number one goalie certainly is missed. He performed well against the Rangers winning his final three starts against them, allowing six goals on 82 shots (2.00 GAA, 927 save percentage). He started all four games against them going 3-1-0 permitting only eight goals on 103 shots (2.00, .922).
The cat and mouse game between Vigneault and Sullivan is normal this time of year. Sullivan one upped Vigneault in Game 1 by making it look like Fleury was starting. The Rangers prepared for Fleury but got Zatkoff and lost. It is a bit frustrating because it makes the media’s job harder and also keeps bloggers guessing. Almost like gamesmanship in tennis. Any little edge you can get on your opponent.
What will definitely happen is Game 3 at The Garden. Face off is after 7 PM. John Amirante won’t be singing the anthem. I’m holding out hope he will for Thursday night when we go.