Mark down Game 51 on Groundhog Day, Feb. 2. This was the kind of hockey the Blueshirts must play the rest of the way. For starters, they played the right way. It kind of reminded me of how they used to play. Playing strong defense and getting great goaltending from a laser focused Henrik Lundqvist while generating quality chances off the D.
Indeed, the Rangers’ well earned 2-1 overtime victory at the Sabres was an eye opener. It was a complete 180 from the incomplete dismal effort the other night in an awfully disappointing 6-4 loss on home ice. All 18 skaters in the old home white, red and blue gave consistent effort shift to shift. The goalie was outstanding.
It was almost letter perfect. Sure. The Sabres found a way to tie it when the Rangers lost track of Cody Franson in the slot with 5:31 left in regulation. But there were plenty of skaters protecting Lundqvist in search of the loose puck. A notable difference from most of the games they’ve played in front of him.
Unlike the previous 50, this was the most enjoyable game I’ve seen from the Rangers. It wasn’t just how they played. But also how the Sabres did. They also played well defensively and got a stellar performance from Robin Lehner, who at times was brilliant in making 42 saves. Between him and elder Swedish statesman Lundqvist, who countered with 36 including his biggest on a Buffalo power play to deny Jack Eichel and Kyle Okposo at the doorstep, it was playoff caliber hockey.
The kind that’s easy to sit back, relax and enjoy on a rare day off from work. You had the Rangers playing a tremendous first by having the better of the puck possession and play to get 14 shots on Lehner. That included some great rushes by Rick Nash, who had a tremendous night even though he didn’t have any puck luck. Michael Grabner was dangerous throughout but also didn’t have any luck hitting a goalpost.
When they took penalties, the team played together killing them off. The Sabres went 0-for-3. The Rangers penalty kill got the job done on the first two by not giving Buffalo’s top players much room. Unlike the last two games- both losses- Eichel didn’t have all sorts of time and space. However, he did get wide open in front on his team’s third power play only to have a razor sharp Lundqvist deny him pointblank with the kind of save he’s spoiled us with the last decade.
The game’s only goal till that point was scored by Mats Zuccarello, who somehow managed to get his stick on a terrific one-timer from captain Ryan McDonagh for a power play goal with 2:10 left in the second.
J.T. Miller set it up because that’s what he can do when he’s used properly by coach Alain Vigneault. Miller doesn’t always get the most ice-time. But when Vigneault uses him in all situations, he makes things happen. There he was again in the middle of something good to set up Chris Kreider perfectly for the overtime winner with 1:04 remaining. That followed a four-on-three power play which never really was in sync.
But Lundqvist made a good play for a change from his net to get the puck to Mika Zibanejad and start a transition for the winner. Zibanejad got the puck to Miller, who drew defenders before making a sweet dish for Kreider’s 20th to make a winner of Lundqvist. A game he deserved. It really should’ve been a shutout. But sometimes, things happen to change that.
The overtime was wonderful. Each team went for it. Buffalo came close to ending it with Evander Kane hitting the far post. Grabner making a bid but unable to come up with the right stuff.
It was likable hockey. You had Zuccarello sticking his nose in and getting dirty during a scrum at a stoppage. Kreider went to bat for him going after Marcus Foligno with each going off for two minutes. Unlike the last game when they were awful on consecutive four-on-four goals from Columbus, there would be no repeat. That’s how much in sync the Rangers were.
If they want to be taken seriously the final 31 games in the regular season and beyond, this is how they must play. With focus, precision and purpose. There won’t be any complaining tomorrow about a lineup that included Oscar Lindberg in for Brandon Pirri and Dan Girardi and Kevin Klein both in with Adam Clendening out as the extra.
A virtuoso performance for a change from the Broadway Blueshirts. One that could be worth remembering if they can do it consistently.