Grabner steals one for Rangers in best win of season


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Adam Clendening dons the Broadway Hat after his two goals helped rally the Rangers past the Blue Jackets 5-4 in their best win of the season. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy NYRangers.

It’s rare that this team stuns me. Tonight is a prime example. The Rangers showed tremendous heart coming back to shock the Blue Jackets 5-4 in Columbus to enter the mandatory break on a electrifying note.

This is the best win of the season. It probably will be the best of the year unless they can manage to beat the Pens again when the weather warms up over this snow we got. I can’t put into words how great a victory it was. Granted. It came at the expense of Blue Jackets’ backup sieve Curtis McElhinney. Brutal would be an understatement for the goalie John Tortorella hardly uses. Can you blame him?

One wonders what Tortorella said to his very good young team in the locker room following an awful loss. Their second straight after posting a franchise record 16-game win streak which abruptly was halted by the Caps 5-0 in Washington on Thursday. On the other hand, the win had to be very satisfying for Alain Vigneault, who passed Tortorella for fourth most on the Rangers’ all-time coaching list.

Vigneault deserves a lot of credit for tonight’s win. I know I kill him a lot as do many other fans and bloggers who sometimes are puzzled by his in game decisions. But he did a great job adjusting for the deciding third period. With his team fighting an uphill climb after an inauspicious start that saw them fall behind 2-0 in the first five minutes, the fourth-year Rangers coach decided to go with three lines and five defensemen in the third.

The strategy change worked. On a night when the Rangers showed their playoff mettle, they got crucial goals from an unlikely source. Defenseman Adam Clendening scored his first two goals of the season. The 24-year old from Niagara Falls has been an interesting topic for the Ranger blogosphere all year. On his fifth NHL team, he clearly is a better skater than either Dan Girardi or Kevin Klein. Both blood and guts warriors who have struggled mightily. Vigneault hasn’t given Clendening a lot of chances.

But with Marc Staal (upper body) again out, it was the second straight start for the right defenseman who prior to this year had only played in 50 NHL games with Chicago, Vancouver, Pittsburgh and Edmonton. So, Vigneault’s hardly been the only coach who was hesitant to use Clendening. Tonight, he made a big impact scoring a power play goal and game-tying goal in a three-goal third period dominated by the Blueshirts. Without those two shots which beat McElhinney from bad angles, there is no comeback victory. Will Clendening’s third change Vigneault’s mind after the break?

The Rangers were a mess literally at the start. They couldn’t get out of their own way. A ferocious Columbus forecheck led to Clendening turning over the puck on a reverse. Markus Nutivaara benefited when he took a feed from Josh Anderson and beat Henrik Lundqvist at 1:54 through a Matt Calvert screen.

As if that wasn’t messy enough, a very bad cross-checking minor on Ryan McDonagh led directly to the league-leading power play going to work. They used only 10 seconds to make the Ranger penalty kill mince meat. Nick Foligno moved the puck from behind the net to Sam Gagner at the right circle where he quickly fed a wide open Cam Atkinson for his 19th at 4:37. The play was so easy that it looked like they were playing NHL ’17. Atkinson was everywhere. He could’ve had three to four goals if not for Lundqvist.

Lundqvist is the reason they won. He stood tall to a plethora of dangerous scoring chances. It was all of our D too. Not just easy target Girardi, who at times was spun around in circles while on his knees. Klein was brutal again. He didn’t see the ice in the third and was directly responsible for Scott Hartnell’s goal that came in direct response to Oscar Lindberg’s first on a nice snapper high glove. Lindberg had a game finishing with a goal and assist. His line would be the biggest factor late.

The Rangers’ first period was so bad, it bordered on insanity. They got totally out-skated, out-forechecked and out-everything’d. They also took three consecutive penalties mostly due to the faster attacking Jackets. Some of the saves Lundqvist made were unreal. He had to deal with so much pressure. Honestly, he may have given up four goals but the 33 saves he made were gigantic. He was my number one star. The difference in goaltending is the biggest reason they won. McElhinney isn’t no Sergei Bobrovsky.

When Lukas Sedlak made it 4-1 from Hartnell and Jack Johnson three minutes into the second, it looked over. Someone forgot to tell the Blueshirts. Michael Grabner replied back 1:12 later when he took advantage of a Columbus turnover and blew into the offensive zone and ripped a high shot again glove side top shelf. Maybe Vigneault putting him back with Kevin Hayes and J.T. Miller last game sparked the streaky and speedy Grabner. The always entertaining 29-year old Austrian would be the ultimate hero later.

That first goal by Grabs was the turning point. Along with splendid stops from the impenetrable Lundqvist, who would not allow the Jackets another goal following Sedlak’s one that once made it 4-1, the Rangers methodically gained steam. If there was another play I’ll point to where you knew they were never out of it, it would have to be when Chris Kreider shoved Hartnell and then took a crosscheck in front of the Rangers bench. He didn’t back down with each going off for matching roughs. Coincidentally, they didn’t take another penalty.

Still trailing by two entering the third, enter Clendening in his cape. A Foligno trip 13 seconds in put the Rangers on the power play. Taking a feed from J.T. Miller at the left circle, Clendening decided to pull the trigger. His unscreened shot beat McElhinney clean at 1:22 to make it a one-goal contest. Once again, it was upstairs. It also was questionable. But Tortorella stayed with his backup.

Suddenly, it was all Blueshirts. Taking the play to the Jackets, they were the aggressor. For as much as Girardi had all sorts of trouble with the tenacious Columbus speed- especially when the dangerous Atkinson was out- he did make a good read sending a pass off the boards which led Kreider on a breakaway. But his forehand deke was beat by McElhinney, who made a superb pad save to kick it out at the last second.

The thing about this team is its character. They rarely give up. The Buffalo game was the low point. Yes. Lower than the two losses to the Pens and the 7-4 home loss to the Wild because those are quality teams capable of doing that to anyone. A determined bunch of scrappy Rangers were able to get it tied thanks to another goal from Clendening.

This one was due to some unreal work from Jesper Fast. He will never be the most talented. But the gritty Swede never gets out-worked. He battled and battled to keep a play alive along with help from Lindberg. Eventually, Lindberg got the puck to Clendening along the right boards. From a very bad angle, he simply fired a shot that somehow beat McElhinney to the glove on the short side. He got caught off his post. It was a smart shot and made it 4-4 with 7:03 left.

Neither side gave any indication they were playing for the point. Both went for it. But it was the Rangers who would find a way to win it. With Columbus pressing for the go-ahead with less than 25 seconds left, a bad Seth Jones turnover at the Ranger blue line resulted in Grabner taking off like a jet. Shot out of a cannon, he flew in on McElhinney and left his jock strap hanging with a wicked backhand tuck for the coup de grace with 16.5 seconds to go.

Just a tremendous win by a determined group who would not be denied. They sure surprised me. And if you’re not surprised, you should be. This was a late great holiday gift for the New Year. Delivered Rangers style. Vigneault starred as did his goalie along with Clendening, who got the Broadway Hat, and Grabner. So did Lindberg and Fast. What a way to enter the week off.

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Henrik Lundqvist, NYR (33 saves with many spectacular)

2nd Star-Adam Clendening, NYR (first 2 goals of season including PPG and game-tying goal in 3rd, 4 shots, 7 attempts, minus-1 in 22 shifts-15:02)

1st Star-Michael Grabner, NYR (2 goals-team-leading 17th and 18th with game-winner at 19:43 of 3rd,  2 goals on 4 shots, assist giving him 2-1-3 in each of last two games, plus-8 in the two wins)

Notes: Rangers went 35-and-28 on faceoffs led by Derek Stepan (15-and-10) followed by Lindberg (9-and-5). Brandon Dubinsky paced the Jackets going 10-and-7. … Columbus was led by Hartnell (goal, assist) and Gagner (2 assists). … Shots on goal were Columbus 37, Rangers 34. Attempts were 63-60 CBJ. … Brady Skjei paired mostly with McDonagh for a second consecutive game finishing plus-one with two blocked shots in 27 even strength shifts-21:06. … McElhinney allowed five goals on 34 shots. … Rangers (28-13-1) are up to 57 points in 42 games trailing the Blue Jackets by one for first. Columbus has four games at hand. They are two up on idle Penguins (38 GP) and Capitals (39 GP). … NYR next play 1/13 at MSG against Auston Matthews and the improved Maple Leafs. They then visit the Canadiens 1/14 for a tough back-to-back.

Photo Gif: Grabner celebrating his game-winner with teammates.

Key Stat:

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About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included two stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil games. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has scored Berkeley Carroll basketball games since 2006 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. From players, coaches to administrators, it's a first class program. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree.
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