Not long ago, Henrik Lundqvist wasn’t getting enough starts. His in season struggles forced Alain Vigneault to go to backup Antti Raanta more than he liked to. When Raanta went down, the coach had to go with Lundqvist exclusively. The results have been mixed. He had a nice stretch before the All-Star break winning three of four while permitting only six goals.
Then came a five day layoff. He wasn’t sharp against Columbus in an ugly 6-4 home loss that saw Raanta replace him and also rudely greeted. He even took the loss due to the Rangers scoring the last four goals. Following another tough home defeat, Lundqvist has bounced back with consecutive wins at Buffalo and over Calgary. So, he has played better in winning five of his last seven which also coincides with the team that sits in the first wildcard with 67 points in 52 games. Eight clear of the Flyers, who have played two more games.
The Rangers are nine ahead of the Bruins, who predictably fired coach Claude Julien on the same day the Patriots were celebrating their miraculous Super Bowl LII comeback from 28-3 down to stun the Falcons 31-28 in the first ever Super Bowl that went to overtime. Unless you really hate football (some hockey fans do) or just don’t care for sports, that’s the all-time greatest comeback I’ve ever seen in sports. I am talking for one game for all the marbles. Not the Red Sox stunning the Yankees from 3-0 down or the Flyers stunning the Bruins from the same deficit.
Considering the situation, it’s pretty remarkable. It certainly resonated with Kevin Hayes, who is from Massachusetts and was seen wearing a Tom Brady jersey in the Rangers locker room at practice on Monday. He returns to the lineup tonight after missing the last five games with a lower body injury. He and fellow Boston College alum Chris Kreider had to be ecstatic over that comeback. Jimmy Vesey is also from the area. My final thought is as great a comeback as it was, it was a total collapse by Atlanta. They really screwed up. I feel bad for my Georgia friend who took it in stride concluding “This is who the Falcons are.”
If that happened to any of our teams, we’d be beside ourselves. Just maybe we need to take a step back after what that Super Bowl. I do. Plenty of Ranger fans do. Even if you disagree with Alain Vigneault on his personnel decisions, do we really have it that bad? I don’t think so. Think of all the Atlanta fans who have seen one Braves World Title and now have to endure a long off-season following that choke job. Or talk to a Buffalo sports fan. Or someone who roots for the Indians or Browns.
I guess it puts things in perspective. It’s sport. Anything can happen. But really. Could anyone else have pulled that off besides Brady and Bill Belichick? You know the answer. I still can’t believe the audacity of the Boston Bruins organization firing Julien today. Everyone knew he was getting fired. It was the worst kept secret. Cam Neely was a heck of a player but is a terrible executive. Do you think Hasan or any Devils fan would take Julien back over John Hynes? There will be a few hot suitors for him including the Las Vegas expansion.
As for tonight, the Rangers host a very good Ducks team. Anaheim has 66 points and enters play second in a much improved Pacific where three total points separate first place San Jose from both the Ducks and Oilers. Anahim sits second by virtue of one fewer game played and one more ROW. After that, the chase is on for the wildcard out West where you have six teams battling for two spots.
Anaheim is a funny team. In a year where Corey Perry only has nine goals but still ranks third in team scoring with 36 points, they’re led by Richard Rakell (21 goals) and Ryan Kesler (18-24-42). Team captain Ryan Getzlaf still is second in points behind Kesler with 39 including a team-leading 31 assists. Whatever the reason, he doesn’t finish anymore. But remains a great set up man on a heck of a line with Perry and Rakell.
But it’s Kesler who has done the heavy lifting. He and Jakob Silfverberg (15-18-33) have had big years. Andrew Cogliano and Antoine Vermette play supporting roles. Nick Ritchie 11 goals) finishes every check pacing the club with 177 hits.
On the blue line, Cam Fowler’s had one of his best years with 11 goals and 16 assists including five power play goals, a shorthanded goal and three game-winners. With Dylan McIlrath now back in the AHL for the Florida affiliate, it’s always going to be what if. That said, I still don’t think McIlrath ever got a fair shake. He wasn’t worse than Dan Girardi last year. With respect to Girardi, who played hurt, I will never fully grasp Vigneault. He’s doing similar to Adam Clendening. Not that he’s the answer. But there are nights where Girardi or Kevin Klein should sit. It makes you wonder what they’ll have left by April.
In fairness, Vigneault has managed their ice-time better. Nick Holden has allowed for that. He micromanages Klein and rookie Brady Skjei especially. They aren’t used as consistently five-on-five. Girardi sometimes fluctuates depending on the match-up. Ryan McDonagh remains the backbone. Holden follows. Marc Staal being healthy again helps immensely.
As for the lineup, it looks like Matt Puempel comes out for Hayes. That means Oscar Lindberg remains in to center the fourth line over Brandon Pirri, who has fallen out of favor. If he’s not scoring on the power play, the more offensive minded Pirri isn’t a good fit at even strength. So, it makes sense. Especially with Hayes back where he can play power play if necessary. So can penalty kill partner J.T. Miller, who has continued his strong play.
The goalie match-up pits the youth of American John Gibson against the experience of Lundqvist. The 23-year old former American World Junior Championship hero is coming into his own. He brings 20 wins with a 2.27 goals-against-average, .921 save percentage and three shutouts in 41 games into tonight’s match. With Anaheim not the most explosive team, Gibson’s play has been crucial. Ex-Leaf Jonathan Bernier backs up.
Lundqvist remains below his career numbers with a 2.74 GAA, .907 save percentage and two shutouts. He’s still allowing a few goals short side. But is trending in the right direction. It should be a good match-up.
The Ducks will be without Sami Vatanen, who will miss a second consecutive game due to a lower body injury. Rookie Brandon Montour will fill in for him on the top pair with Fowler. Here are projected lines via the Ducks website: