If there’s one characteristic to admire about this team, it’s their resiliency. Only once have they lost two straight in regulation. Following a dismal performance in an ugly 4-1 home defeat to Buffalo, the Rangers avoided a two-game losing streak by coming into Philadelphia and defeating the Flyers 5-2 on Rivalry Night.
The win pulled them into a tie for points (55) with idle Pittsburgh, who are technically still in second due to three less games played. Despite that, the Rangers have done well going 27-13-1 at the halfway mark. Following Saturday’s visit at first place Columbus, they’ll get a mandatory week break before returning to action. Something Alain Vigneault isn’t a fan of. At the very least, it’ll give them a chance to recover from a hectic schedule.
Facing a bitter rival that brings out the best in them, the Rangers got back to being the team we saw early on. They weren’t reliant on one line. Even without Rick Nash, Mika Zibanejad, Pavel Buchnevich and the concussed Matt Puempel, their early success came due to being a skating team that had four lines going. In the second meeting at Wells Fargo Center over a month after defeating them 3-2 on Black Friday, they got back to that by using their speed and transition to take advantage of Flyer mistakes.
During the recent stretch which had seen their play slip, they were reliant on the cohesive trio of Chris Kreider, Derek Stepan and Mats Zuccarello along with Nick “Norris” Holden. That won’t work from a consistency standpoint. Last night, a couple of familiar faces got back on the score sheet. Kevin Hayes and Michael Grabner each scored twice. Vigneault made a change reuniting them with J.T. Miller. Long overdue, the line combined for seven points (4-3-7).
That wasn’t the only difference. With an “upper body injury” keeping Marc Staal out, Vigneault summoned Adam Clendening from purgatory. Along with struggling righties Dan Girardi and Kevin Klein, he helped the defense have a good night. For once, there were no gripes about Girardi, who from most accounts had a solid game delivering five hits in 37 shifts (23:22). Klein also responded with a team high seven blocked shots in 27 shifts (18:01). Clendening received 25 shifts (13:19) and Brady Skjei played 19:44 recording an assist with a plus-three rating and four hits in 29 shifts.
There really wasn’t much to complain about. A good thing in Rangerland where sometimes, things get over analyzed. They’re not gonna win every game. However, losses like Tuesday are unacceptable. I’m glad Vigneault called his team out. They usually respond to such challenges. That’s why I wasn’t surprised they came away with two points well earned on the road.
Henrik Lundqvist made his second consecutive start and was good making 30 saves. That included stopping 20 shots the first two periods including a dozen in the second. His best sequence coming when he denied Wayne Simmonds and Jakub Voracek on a Philadelphia power play. From the goal out, the Blueshirts were better. They didn’t resemble whatever that was 24 hours earlier at MSG.
Only one goal was scored in the first 40 minutes. It belonged to Hayes, who was able to beat Steve Mason on a break in by looking pass and then whistling a shot upstairs on a two on one. Grabner was the decoy who got the primary assist with Skjei starting the play for the other helper.
The third period saw things open up. Trailing by one, the Flyers took some chances. That allowed the opportunistic Rangers to use their superior speed and cash in. One such instance saw Kreider score his 16th on a splendid backhand saucer pass from old USA buddy Stepan. On a night where USA edged Russia 4-3 in a shootout at the U20 World Junior Championship in Montreal to advance to the gold medal game against host Canada, it was symbolic. It was seven years ago that Stepan and Kreider teamed up to help USA capture gold at the same tournament. Maybe a bunch of new kids can do the same thing tonight in enemy territory.
For most of the recent stretch, Grabner hasn’t scored. He’s been in a scoring slump. However, he snapped out of it when he took a Miller feed in transition and beat Mason for his 15th to give the Rangers a 3-0 lead. In typical Philly fashion, Flyer fans booed Mason, who only made his 22nd start in the last 24 games. In truth, he only gave up one bad goal with Kreider fanning on his shot from in tight. Classic Flyers. Those fans can be merciless. Though seeing spoiled Canadian fans booing kids at the WJC in Montreal is far worse. Here’s hoping they’ll have more to jeer over in 10 hours.
Over a minute after Grabner’s goal had the Rangers comfortably in front by three, a Stepan high-sticking minor led directly to Voracek breaking the shutout when he had the fortune of having his shot bank in off Ryan McDonagh past Lundqvist. Only down a pair, the Flyers suddenly pressed for another goal and nearly got it from Shayne Gostisbehere. But his miss kinda summed up his second year. He hasn’t been able to follow up his big rookie year.
Following that close call, it was Miller and Hayes teaming up on a two on one with Hayes going top shelf for his second of the game to restore order. So it went from possibly 3-2 to 4-1 in the blink of an eye. Voracek would get his second with under three minutes left when off a clean Flyers faceoff win, his knuckler fooled Lundqvist on a Michael Del Zotto feed to cut it to 4-2 with 2:52 to go.
With coach Dave Hakstol pulling Mason for an extra attacker, it backfired when Grabner was able to get to a loose puck following a draw and sent the puck into a vacated net from the red line for his 16th. With the game over, Brayden Schenn decided to challenge Clendening. Because challenging our seventh defenseman is cool. That is so Flyers. Sore losers.
All in all, a great response from a team that usually can be counted on following bad losses. Now, they have one more game before the silly break at Columbus. They’ll learn later tonight if the Blue Jackets will be going for an NHL record 18 straight wins. They visit the resurgent Caps tonight. If they win, they tie the Pens who own the record set back in ’91-92. It should be a good one.
I’ll mostly be locked into USA-Canada at 8 PM. What better theatre could there be for a gold medal at the WJC. It should be a heck of a game. I would suggest anyone watch it on NHL Network if they get it. Even if it means missing some of your team’s game, don’t forget it’s the beginning of January. There’s still plenty of season left. The World Junior Championship is one of hockey’s best tournaments pitting top prospects against each other. And tonight, The Rivalry returns. It’s on.
BONY 3 Stars:
3rd Star-Kevin Hayes, NYR (2 goals-12, 13, +3 in 29 shifts-15:56)
2nd Star-Michael Grabner, NYR (2 goals-15, 16, assist, +4 in 29 shifts-15:40)
1st Star-Alain Vigneault, NYR for criticizing his team and making a smart line change that sparked the victory.
Notes: The Rangers improved to 12-1-1 following losses this season. They’re now a perfect 7-for-7 in the second game of back-to-backs. … The win was Vigneault’s 171st as Rangers coach tying former bench boss John Tortorella for fourth all-time. … The Rangers have won five straight against the Flyers.
Gif of Game: Kevin “Purple” Hayes donning the Broadway Hat