A week ago, there were lingering questions as to what was wrong with Henrik Lundqvist. After getting chased by the Stars for seven goals on 27 shots in two periods last Tuesday, the popular 34-year old Swede was down to a .902 save percentage. Just when all looked lost, Lundqvist responded with three consecutive strong games to lead a Blueshirts revival.
After stopping all 21 shots in an odd 1-0 overtime shutout at the Red Wings in a Sunday matinee, he was at his best in turning aside 36 of 38 shots in a 3-2 home win over the Kings last night at MSG. That makes it three straight wins all with Lundqvist in net playing more to his high standard. He’s faced 84 shots and stopped 80 during the stretch to post a 1.32 goals-against-average and .952 save percentage.
He didn’t have to be great in consecutive wins at Toronto and Detroit. He only faced 46 shots. However, he still had to make timely stops. Especially in a sleep inducting 1-0 shutout for his 61st career. J.T. Miller got the game-winner on Sunday scoring number 16 off a brilliant set up from leading scorer Mats Zuccarello. In that win, Kevin Hayes left with an injury that will sideline him between two to three weeks.
With Hayes out, a fully recovered Matt Puempel was back in Monday. Playing for the first time since New Year’s Eve at Colorado after sustaining a concussion, the birthday boy continued to show why GM Jeff Gorton picked up the former Senators 2011 first round pick off waivers. He scored in his return to give him six goals and an assist in 14 games with the Rangers. That also included his first career hat trick in a 12/29 win at Arizona.
Playing against a team that’s given them fits since the 2014 Stanley Cup Final, the Rangers didn’t get much offense early. In fact, the Kings held them to two shots early on. They out-shot the Rangers 14-5 in the first period but trailed on the scoreboard thanks to a Brandon Pirri unassisted tally at 11:31. A bad exchange between Jeff Zatkoff and his defenseman allowed Pirri to steal the puck and beat the former Pen with a quick wrister for his eighth.
Even though they still led by a goal midway through, coach Alain Vigneault decided to make some adjustments to his lines. He benched Chris Kreider for a few shifts and replaced him with Puempel. The move worked with Puempel scoring off a beautiful Derek Stepan feed on a two-on-one started by Dan Girardi. Girardi stepped up at his own blue line and made a good outlet for an attacking Stepan which resulted in Puempel’s sweet finish.
Before the second concluded, the Kings were able to beat Lundqvist on a Jordan Nolan tally from Andy Andreoff and Drew Doughty with 1:59 left. But for a team that doesn’t score much, it didn’t matter that Los Angeles dictated play with their heavy forecheck. Despite more than doubling up the Rangers in shots 38-17, they were unable to get a point.
The dreaded two-goal lead is something Blueshirt fans are all too familiar with against the Kings. It brings back flashbacks to that painful five-game series loss in which LA used third period comebacks in all three games at Staples Center before prevailing in sudden death. This time, there wouldn’t be any comeback. Instead, Mats Zuccarello finally broke a 15-game drought when he took a Miller feed and scored his ninth goal- first since an empty netter in a 2-0 shutout at Dallas on 12/15. He hadn’t beaten a goalie since 11/15.
Even though he hasn’t been finishing, Zuccarello is playing superb hockey. He continues to rack up points. The goal extended his point streak to six (1-7-8). He leads the team in assists with 29 and points with 38. Ever since Vigneault put him with Stepan and Kreider, they’ve been unstoppable. Even on a night when Kreider saw some time with other players, there was Zuccarello and Stepan delivering.
Trailing by two, the Kings never gave up. It’s not in their DNA. They kept attacking and creating chances. None better than following a Girardi turnover when snake bit captain Anze Kopitar was stopped by Lundqvist. What ensued was total chaos. With about nine players in front of the net searching for a loose puck, it eventually was freed up and sent to a wide open Kopitar with a gaping net. But a certain goal was robbed by a back checking Rick Nash, who stole the puck and started a rush the opposite way. It was a startling play from start to finish with Nash making a heck of a save and then generating a scoring chance.
The Kings eventually did score but it came with 1.6 seconds remaining. Kyle Clifford was able to finish in front following a top heavy Jake Muzzin shot that hit the crossbar. The problem is there was no time left. So Clifford’s goal became bookkeeping.
The Rangers play one more game before the All-Star break. They’ll host the Flyers at MSG on Wednesday night. Another Rivalry Night between bitter rivals with an 8 PM start on NBCSN. Win that one and it would be four in a row. A great way to end what’s been a crazy period.