The Rangers saw blue in Columbus. The Blue Jackets ended their three-game winning streak by getting a big shorthanded goal from Matt Calvert in a 4-2 win over the Blueshirts at Nationwide Arena.
The loss also halted the Rangers’ consecutive streak of scoring three goals or more at nine. It was the first game they failed to reach the magic three since an Oct. 28 3-2 road defeat at Carolina exactly three weeks ago. All good stretches come to an end. The Rangers have been scoring at such a ridiculous clip that eventually they were bound to slip up.
To be honest, I wasn’t surprised they lost this game at Columbus, who have been flying under the radar in a great division. They entered play on a six-game home win streak. Coach John Tortorella’s team has quietly been going about their business playing good hockey. Following a strong start on unassisted tallies from William Karlsson and surprising top finisher veteran Sam Gagner (7th), they recovered from blowing a two-goal lead, improving to 9-4-2 in only 15 games. That gives them 20 points to pull within six of first place.
Having played the fewest games in the league, the Jackets have only lost four times in regulation. It’s easy to forget they dropped their first two both on home ice. Since, they’re 9-2-2 having won seven in a row in Columbus. The reason for the improved play is former Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky. Unlike last year where he couldn’t stop anything, he’s been on fire. In improving to 9-4-1, his goals-against-average is down to 2.20 with a save percentage of .932.
The Jackets have also gotten a huge contribution from rookie Zachary Werenski. The 19-year old defenseman who Columbus took in the first round in the ’98 NHL Draft is tied for third in rookie scoring with 13 points (5-8-13). There’s no question he’s legit. Tortorella plays him in every situation. He went plus-two in 32 shifts leading all skaters with 24:46 including 20:02 at even strength.
Interestingly, they haven’t gotten much out of ex-Blueshirt Brandon Dubinsky or Boone Jenner. Brandon Saad hasn’t finished much either. They’re getting contributions throughout the lineup with young players like Karlsson and Alexander Wennberg coming through. Plus captain Nick Foligno is having a bounce back year. Cam Atkinson is also doing his part.
Most impressive is they’re having success without top defenseman Seth Jones. Since he went down, Werenski has carried the blue line with help from partner David Savard (plus-three), Jack Johnson and Ryan Murray. The top four all played over 21 minutes. Bobrovsky made 25 saves including a tough Chris Kreider deflection with 15 seconds remaining to preserve the win. Kreider finally returned from neck spasms and was effective in 24 shifts logging 19:11 with four shots, seven attempts while helping create the Rangers’ second goal off some strong work down low.
Hopefully, Kreider won’t miss anymore time. He has missed six games all due to neck spasms. He got to play with Mika Zibanejad, who was able to score the game-tying goal in the third period off a brilliant feed from budding rookie defenseman Brady Skjei. Skjei continues to excel in an increased role recording his 11th assist. Zibanejad quietly has gone 2-3-5 over the last five. So, it’s not all negative. It’s imperative for the former Senator to become more consistent. He’s headed in the right direction.
The issue for the Rangers in this one was sloppy play. A couple of irresponsible turnovers and shoddy goaltending from the normally reliable Henrik Lundqvist let them down. The first such mistake came when J.T. Miller threw a pass up the middle right to Karlsson, who then beat Lundqvist from distance for the game’s first goal with 3:26 left in the first period. Miller didn’t have his best outing, also partly responsible for Calvert’s shorthanded game-winner.
With Columbus up one, they again took full advantage of another dreadful error. Like Miller, Jesper Fast is normally responsible in his end. However, that wasn’t the case on the Jackets’ second goal. With two Jackets shadowing him, Fast made a very poor choice going up the middle. Unfortunately, the puck found Gagner who let go of a routine wrist shot that went off Lundqvist’s glove and in for a 2-0 Columbus lead at 5:38 of the second.
In both cases, you would expect your goalie to come up with the big save and bail out his teammate. It didn’t happen for Lundqvist on Friday night. He had come in playing very well with his save percentage back up to .920. In this one, he gave up three soft goals on 23 shots. All stoppable. It happens. He just didn’t make the big save we’re so used to seeing.
One thing about this ’16-17 Blueshirts version. They’re never out of a game. Extremely dangerous offensively, they can strike at any moment. Michael Grabner continued his amazing start by getting the Rangers on the board with his team-leading 11th on a clean breakaway. Forcing Murray at the left point into a turnover, Grabner broke away and came in and went forehand deke to beat Bobrovsky, cutting the deficit to 2-1 with 8:56 left in the period.
Still trailing by one in the third, Zibanejad drew them even. Following a big penalty kill of an Oscar Lindberg cross-checking minor, a relentless forecheck led to Nick Holden feeding a pinching Skjei, who skated down drawing Columbus defenders while threading the needle to Zibanejad for his fourth. The goal tied the game with 11:28 remaining.
Listening to it on ESPN Radio, I felt good about their chances. This team has given fans no reason to feel otherwise. When a penalty was drawn on Savard with 9:25 left, I figured they’d either score or it would go to overtime. A win win situation. But as I returned from the bank, I was dead wrong. There you had Don LaGreca and Dave Maloney discussing Calvert’s huge game-turning shorthanded goal. A crusher.
In itself, it was a great story. It was during the middle of the second that the gritty Calvert found himself on the opposite end of an errant Holden shot that cut his face. From the discussion on Twitter, fans were very concerned. I wish this sentiment could be echoed for the state of our country. Fortunately, it wasn’t that serious. He’s a hockey player. So, he got stitched up and returned for the final period. Afterwards, Calvert revealed that he needed over 30 stitches including a bandage he wore to cover his forehead.
”I think when something like this happens emotions just kind of take over,” Calvert said after playing his 200th career game. ”You’re riding on adrenaline. I made a shot and it was great to see it hit the back of the net.”
As fate would have it, a poor Miller back pass resulted in a Blue Jackets odd-man rush. Murray worked the puck to Karlsson, who got it to Calvert. He let go of another shot that Lundqvist normally stops. I don’t know if maybe a sliding Ryan McDonagh fooled him. Regardless, it went through him at 11:35 to give the Jackets a 3-2 lead. A great moment for Calvert. But one the Rangers and particularly Lundqvist would rather forget. Ditto Miller, who missed some shifts due to his off night. He still got nearly 16 minutes but went minus-two.
”You can’t script it any better that he comes back and scores the winner for us,” Gagner pointed out. ”That’s just an unbelievable teammate and it gives every guy on the bench a huge shot when he comes back.”
To their credit, the Rangers didn’t fold. They continued to push the attack. But in a third where they got 11 shots through on Bobrovsky including Zibanejad’s game-tying goal earlier, they were unable to beat the Russian netminder again. A stingy D and one last tough stop with Kreider doing some work in front were enough to give the Jackets a well earned victory.
On a last second face-off, Jenner sent the puck into an open net at the buzzer. It counted for the final margin of 4-2. Window dressing for Columbus, who are proving they could be for real this year. If they are, the Metropolitan Division becomes that much tougher.
BONY 3 Stars:
3rd Star-Sam Gagner, CBJ (unassisted goal-7th, +1 in 17 shifts-13:02)
2nd Star-William Karlsson, CBJ (goal-3rd, assist, 3 shots, 5 attempts, +1 in 20 shifts-14:34)
1st Star-Matt Calvert, CBJ (game-winning shorthanded goal for successful return, +3 in 17 shifts-12:39)
Notes: After having only one goal in his first 13, Zibanejad has scored twice in his last five. … It’s an odd night when neither Miller nor Kevin Hayes are a factor. Miller going minus-two with two mistakes that led to goals against. Hayes with no points in 18 shifts-16:33. … Mats Zuccarello was held off the score sheet with a minus-two rating. … Grabner scored his team best 11th finishing plus-one in 17 shifts-10:31. … Lindberg barely played logging only 7:25 in 12 shifts. What is the point of playing him if the coach doesn’t like him? … Faceoffs went in favor of Columbus 34-24 with Dubinsky 11-and-7. Derek Stepan was the Rangers’ best going 10-and-11 but losing a big draw late. … A booing target all night, Rick Nash was held without a goal for a fourth straight game. He has one assist over that stretch. Eleven points from Nash and Stepan isn’t enough. They both can be better. … Rangers (13-5-0) remain two points up on the Caps and Pens, who both won. They host the Panthers Sunday night. Dylan McIlrath could play. He went minus-two in a blowout loss the other night.