For a period at least, we’d seen this script before. Braden Holtby standing on his head at one end. His teammates providing offense with goals from Lars Eller and Alexander Ovechkin past Henrik Lundqvist as the Caps led 2-0 over the Rangers.
But this is a different year. So, the ’16-17 Rangers flipped the script by having a big second period with three goals including two pair from rookie Jimmy Vesey en route to a big 4-2 come from behind win over the Caps- silencing Verizon Center.
The win improved them to 3-2-0. Along with the 7-4 victory over the Sharks, this was right up there. A statement win over a team the Rangers had trouble with last year. Even better, Lundqvist outdueled Holtby making 26 saves to pick up his second victory (376th career). His best coming on Ovechkin at the end of the second to preserve a one-goal lead.
It definitely is the kind of win these Blueshirts can point to if they are to build towards a good season. Written off by many pundits with even this writer wondering what to expect, they have outplayed all five opponents thus far and could easily be 5-0. The speed and possession game Alain Vigneault has emphasized is working better due to the right personnel.
Adding a quality first-year pro in Vesey definitely has helped the cause. The 23-year old former Hobey Baker winner from Harvard hasn’t looked out of place. Continuing to get more comfortable with American linemate Derek Stepan, Vesey picked a good time for his first career two-goal NHL game. Look who he did it against. The rating Vezina winner Holtby, who held his team in before caving in a lopsided second.
To be honest, the Rangers didn’t play a bad first period yet trailed by two. Adam Clendening failed to clear the zone. Brooks Orpik intercepted the puck at the blue line and let go of a deflectable shot Eller got a piece of for the game’s first goal at 1:33. In a first where they out-shot the Caps 13-10 and created plenty of chances only to be stoned by Holtby, the Blueshirts fell behind by two on what was a perfect play and shot by Ovechkin.
Taking a pass from Evgeny Kuznetsov, he used Marc Staal perfectly skating to the other side for a screen before wiring a laser past Lundqvist for a 2-0 Caps’ lead at 14:49. Staal defended it as well as expected. It was just a phenomenal play by an electrifying superstar.
Undeterred, the Rangers kept coming at the Caps. J.T. Miller had a redirect go off the post. He also was stoned by Holtby earlier on the doorstep. Miller has yet to score but it hasn’t been for lack of chances which he’s created with hard work. It’ll come eventually.
The second saw the guys in white take over. After a good defensive play, Miller fed Brandon Pirri for a breakaway. The guy with the lightning quick hands didn’t miss beating Holtby top shelf to cut the deficit to 2-1. The play was made possible by Clendening, who made a good read behind the net. He trapped two Caps with a saucer backhand feed to Miller, who then sent Pirri in for his second.
Mika Zibanejad got his stick up and was nabbed for a high-sticking double minor. Killing four minutes against the Caps power play can be a unenviable task. If this were last year, there’s no way they would’ve survived. However, the upgrades to the penalty kill were evident. In particular, Michael Grabner’s speed and defensive instincts along with an omnipresent Ryan McDonagh, Nick Holden and Derek Stepan did a splendid job. They were standouts along with Marc Staal, Kevin Klein, Jesper Fast, Rick Nash, Miller and Kevin Hayes. Staal and Klein were stalwarts each logging 2:17. Fast, Grabner, Stepan and Nash each went over 90 seconds.
The successful penalty kill was so good that Lundqvist barely had to sweat. It was a game changer. If special teams cost them in a tough one-goal loss to the Red Wings, it was a difference maker tonight. Given a power play on a Matt Niskanen rough, the Rangers got even when Vesey got his first from Nash and Stepan. The play was really set up by Hayes, who skated around the net and reset the power play working the puck to Stepan. Eventually, Stepan fired a shot towards Nash, who had the presence of mind to redirect the puck across for an easy one-time and a bang from Vesey- tying the score at 11:22.
Exactly three minutes later, there was more Vesey magic when he produced a highlight reel goal for the game-winner. Off a rush started by Zibanejad, he took a feed from Mats Zuccarello and skated around the Washington defense putting a deke on Holtby and going to the backhand five-hole for a sweet finish. That made it 3-2. For the period, the Rangers converted on three of five shots on Holtby. Lundqvist then robbed Ovechkin to preserve the lead.
The third was more defensive oriented. No. The Rangers didn’t sit back by any means getting seven more shots on Holtby. But the Caps had 11 and tested Lundqvist, who was equal to the challenge. With Vigneault and new defensive assistant leaning heavily on the top four of McDonagh, Holden, Staal and Klein. They all logged over 21 minutes with the workhorse captain and new Dad McDonagh leading everyone with 25:30 (29 shifts) while going plus-one. He is back. He made some terrific defensive plays in the third to protect the lead.
It was McDonagh who made the final defensive play, sending Nash in for an empty netter (Rangers’ fourth empty net goal) with six seconds left that put an exclamation mark on a character building win. On a night that will be forever remembered in for the Cubs winning the pennant at Wrigley Field for the first time since 1945, the Rangers continued to come together. They’ll return to MSG tomorrow and aim for two in a row against the Coyotes.
BONY 3 Stars:
3rd Star-Rick Nash, NYR (empty net goal-2nd, assist-1st, 4 shots in 24 shifts-16:47 incl. 1:35 shorthanded)
2nd Star-Ryan McDonagh, NYR (assist-4th, +1 in 29 shifts-25:30 incl. 21:54 even strength)
1st Star-Jimmy Vesey, NYR (1st career 2-goal game-2nd, 3rd, 6 shot attempts in 23 shifts-17:19)
Notes: The third pair of Clendening and Brady Skjei didn’t see the ice much down the stretch. However, Clendening had an assist for his first point on Vesey’s first that started the comeback. Skjei saw one shift late and led the Rangers with five hits. Clendening took 18 shifts (11:55) including 9:03 EV, 2:28 PP, 24 seconds shorthanded. Skjei received 16 shifts (10:50) including 10:26 EV and 24 seconds on the PK. … Shots favored the Caps 28-26. Attempts were close with the Caps prevailing 52-48. … Key stat: Giveaways NYR-6 Caps-19. … Blocked shots NYR-15 (Klein 3) Caps-13 (Orpik 3). … Caps were a little better on draws going 26-and-22 led by Jay Beagle (6-and-1) and a very quiet Nicklas Backstrom (8-and-5). The Rangers’ leader was Hayes, who went 5-and-4. … Rangers (3-2-0) host the Coyotes (1-3-0) at MSG Sunday night at 7 PM. For those out of the area, the game can be viewed on NHL Network.