The birthday boy Lundqvist gives himself a present


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Excited teammates mob Henrik Lundqvist after his 32 saves preserved a 2-1 win at Boston to give himself a nice birthday present on his 35th birthday. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy NYRangers.

For over a decade, Henrik Lundqvist has treated New York hockey fans great. He has spoiled us with his consistency. The former 2000 seventh round pick on the suggestion of former chief European scout Christian Rockstrom turned 35 today on March 2, 2017. All he wanted was a win is what he told MSG’s John Giannone following a virtuoso 32 save performance in a 2-1 Rangers victory at Boston.

It hasn’t always been easy this season for the franchise netminder who increased his team record in wins to 403. The same last year in what amounted to a disappointing conclusion. One thing about the proud man from Sweden who once won a championship with Frolunda and then the country’s greatest honor, an Olympic gold medal. He wants it badly. Always has. It was nice to see him put forth the kind of effort that reminded of the old days against a familiar opponent he’s owned.

The birthday boy was extra special. He had to be. The Rangers were flat in a lopsided first period that saw them get only three shots on Tuukka Rask. On the other hand, the Bruins peppered Lundqvist throughout forcing him into some difficult saves. He stopped all nine in the first to allow his team to settle down.

In his Rangers debut, defenseman Brendan Smith was solid while paired with former Badger teammate Ryan McDonagh. The captain had a throwback game of his own making tremendous reads and reactions in an outstanding game high 27:16. He worked well with Smith, who showed that edge that’s been lacking on the Ranger back end forever. After a shaky first shift, the former Red Wing adjusted and played well in 28 shifts logging 20:51. He did take a bad penalty off a face-off when he hooked down a Bruin in the first. But the Rangers killed it off. They went two for two on the penalty kill.

The second was much more evenly played. Both netminders were outstanding combining for 19 saves. Lundqvist stopping 11 more while Rask saved eight. The Rangers earned a power play early in the period when Pavel Buchnevich was taken down in front. In his return following a two goal and assist game in a win at Hartford Wednesday, the ’emergency recall’ had an impact throughout. He would later score a beautiful goal and draw another penalty. Like I said, he doesn’t belong in the AHL and should stay in the lineup when Michael Grabner returns.

My favorite part of the game came when Smith took a cheap shot from Bruins forward David PastrnakΒ at center ice. Of course, it went undetected. So, Smith gave a cross check to Pastrnak taking him down. There was no call on the play. The refs let it go. A refreshing change from the usual crap.

For the most part, the Rangers were okay defensively. However, the second pair of Nick Holden and Marc Staal continued to struggle throughout. They were beaten repeatedly by the faster skating Bruins causing dangerous shots and quality chances which Lundqvist bailed them out on. This game was all about the goalie who exhibits class every time he wears the jersey. He stole it. He didn’t look his age. Instead, looking about 10 years younger when he always had these duels with former Bruin Tim Thomas.

The Rangers were able to kill off the remainder of a Staal tripping penalty at the start of the third. With the game still scoreless, Buchnevich finally ended an 11-game goal drought when he made a perfect fake and used Zdeno Chara as a screen before firing a rocket past Rask top shelf for the game’s first goal at 5:10 from Holden and Rick Nash. The goal was eerily similar to one scored by another young Russian during a memorable game 23 years ago. His name was Alexei Kovalev:

Buchnevich reminds me of him. Similar skill set. Very good skater. Shifty. Has a deadly release. He also is a good passer. If they let the 21-year old play the last 18 like they did tonight, good things can happen. I’ll just leave it at that. Here is how his goal looked by comparison:

A few minutes later, another young Blueshirt found the back of the net. Oscar Lindberg has been playing his best hockey. It took a while for him to earn the fourth center spot. But he’s an active player who is noticeable during shifts. Someone who can win draws and get in on the forecheck while being defensively reliable, the second-year player scored a beauty to put them up two.

On a good defensive play by a hustling Brady Skjei, Matt Puempel handed for Lindberg, who gained the zone and went around Bruins rookie Brandon Carlo before going to the forehand and beating Rask far side for his fifth that made it 2-0 at 9:35. A terrific individual effort from a more confident Lindberg, who showed off some nice skating and finishing ability. Not bad for a checking center who doesn’t get a ton of ice-time. But he made his 15 shifts count getting the winner while going plus-one in 8:52.

In their first game back together, it didn’t quite happen for Derek Stepan, Chris Kreider and Mats Zuccarello. The trio combined for five shots with the active Zuccarello getting four of them. The same feisty Zuccarello who went right back at a Bruin in front of the bench. He doesn’t take anything from anyone. That is the kind of mentality this team needs the rest of the way. It was nice to see Smith add that element to the blue line. Especially against a Bruins team known for their antics.

The tandem of Skjei and Adam Clendening were again good throughout. Even if Clendening was kept to 14:27 in 19 shifts, he got one shot on net and attempted three while making sure to close out his man in front following a tough save from Lundqvist. Skjei got 18:34 while recording another even strength assist (24). He finds ways to impact the game due to his skating.

Of course, Lundqvist couldn’t get a shutout because we can’t have nice things. He deserved one on his birthday. But a horrible miscue from Holden and Staal allowed Pastrnak to split them and then get the puck through a sliding Staal which allowed pesky Brad Marchand to stuff one home for his 29th at 12:56. He would score. Marchand’s the kind of player that always will annoy you. But if he’s on your side, you love him. He’s one of the best players in the league.

The Bruins came hard in search of the equalizer. But a focused Lundqvist wasn’t having it. Not tonight. Not on his 35th birthday in Beantown. He wouldn’t allow the shaky Staal-Holden tandem ruin his night. He stopped 12 of 13 shots in the third with a few more late preserving his 29th win of the season. One more and he reaches 30 for the 11th time in 12 years.

Lundqvist was aggressive throughout challenging shooters. When he plays like that, he’s tough to beat. Due to that style, he drew a ticky tacky David Backes goalie interference with 2:22 left. Backes tried to avoid contact but Lundqvist was on the edge of his crease and got the call by going down. The Ranger power play spent a good majority down low in the Boston end but couldn’t put it away. That gave them one last chance.

When there was one more Bruins offensive draw with 2.4 seconds left, Lundqvist had to sweat it out. Patrice Bergeron won it back to Torey Krug but he fanned on his shot as the buzzer sounded at TD Garden.

As McDonagh congratulated Lundqvist, he smiled and sighed in relief. You can tell how much he wanted this one. His 403rd victory tied him for 10th all-time in wins. The numbers will say that it hasn’t been his best year. But that doesn’t matter. When number 30 plays like tonight, the Rangers are a much more dangerous team.

Adding Smith was a good move that should solidify the defense. How long Alain Vigneault stays with Staal and Holden remains to be seen. I know he doesn’t want to mess with the chemistry of Skjei and Clendening. But he might need to shift Staal to the third pair with Clendening and move Skjei up with Holden. We’ll see what happens.

This was a feel good win. One that reminded of the old days when Lundqvist was in his mid-20’s stealing two points. He did it again. Happy Birthday Henrik! πŸ™‚

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Pavel Buchnevich, Rangers (goal-7th of season snapping an 11-game drought in return, drew 2 penalties, +1 in 22 shifts-15:13 including 11:41 ES and 3:32 PP)

2nd Star-Ryan McDonagh, Rangers (4 shots in 7 attempts, 4 hits, 3 blocked shots, even in 32 big shifts-27:16)

1st Star-Henrik Lundqvist, Rangers (32 saves including 11/11 in 2nd and 12/13 in 3rd for his 29th win of season-403rd career on 35th birthday)

Notes: Shots were in favor of the Bruins 33-21. They out-attempted the Rangers 63-44. The Rangers improved 25-5-0 when they’re out-shot by opponents. They’re only 15-16-2 when they out-shoot opponents and 1-0 when shots are even. So much for corsi mattering. … Hits were 27-24 Blueshirts with Holden and Jimmy Vesey pacing them with five apiece. Backes led all skaters with seven for the B’s. … Blocked shots were 14-11 Rangers led by McDonagh and Miller, who each had three. Smith had two in his debut. Backes and Krug each had two for Boston. … Face-offs went in favor of the home team 35-28 led by Bergeron (14-and-10). Mika Zibanejad led the Blueshirts going 8-and-7. …

Rangers swept the season series winning all three games in regulation including both in Boston. They upped their record to 41-21-2 with 84 points tying idle Pittsburgh. With Columbus shutting out Minnesota 1-0, they moved ahead of the Pens into second place with 86 points. Their 38 ROW are two more than Pittsburgh. Both teams have 20 games left while the Rangers have 18 to go. The Rangers also have 38 ROW. Their next game is Saturday against the suddenly resurgent Canadiens, who won for the first time in regulation in a month on Paul Byron’s game-winner with 8.3 seconds left spoiling P.K. Subban’s emotional return. Montreal did a great job with a classy video tribute followed by loud chants of “PK! PK!” from the Bell Centre crowd which moved him to tears. The Habs are now up to 80 points- six ahead of the Senators. Ottawa still has three games at hand.

Brendan Smith assesses his first game as a Ranger:

The birthday boy Lundqvist talks about the big win:

A happy Vigneault talks to Giannone on the win:

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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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