In last night’s 5-2 victory over the Panthers, Henrik Lundqvist passed Grant Fuhr for 10th all-time in wins with number 404. The 35-year old affable Swede did it in style making 43 saves to lead the Rangers to another road win. Their second in succession following a brilliant performance from Antti Raanta in a 1-0 overtime triumph at Tampa Bay.
The win also gave Lundqvist 30 for the 11th time in 12 seasons. Even in what’s been at times a challenging season in which he’s gone through slumps, Lundqvist remains the backbone of this franchise. When on, he can still steal games. He’s going to have to in the upcoming playoffs. A certainty with the team up to 88 points with 15 games left. They’re tied with the Penguins in points for third in the Metro but Pittsburgh has three games at hand including one tonight at Winnipeg. The Blue Jackets’ 2-0 shutout of the Devils completed a sweep putting them into second with 90.
After getting a night off following three losses in his last four in which he permitted four or more in each defeat, Lundqvist was much sharper. He made some big stops to turn away the Panthers. Especially during the final two periods. Florida out-shot the Rangers 38-17 but were only able to beat him twice. Both coming on point blank chances. One with Thomas Vanek retrieving a loose puck in front and firing home his first as a Panther. The other from Aaron Ekblad on a power play late in regulation when he shot through Brendan Smith for his 10th cutting it to 4-2 with 3:26 remaining.
Pavel Buchnevich would seal it with an empty netter for his eighth off a good defensive play from Rick Nash with 1:45 left. When it was over and Lundqvist made one last stop before retrieving the puck, his teammates came over to congratulate him. A prideful Lundqvist talked about being proud to reporters afterwards:
Lundqvist was out challenging shooters. He also got a bit lucky sticking out the left pad at the last split second to deny Aleksander Barkov on the doorstep. A terrific save from a terrific goalie who’s been a classy Ranger. He’s probably one of the classiest New York athletes in recent memory. Think Derek Jeter and Eli Manning. David Wright too. He’s there win or lose and is accountable.
There’s no doubting his leadership. It’s why he’s so immensely popular with teammates, coaches and fans. There’s just not enough positives you can say for how Lundqvist goes about his business. A determined athlete who gets it. He wants to win. He came close once in 2014 with the Rangers falling to the Kings in gut wrenching fashion. Getting back has proven much harder. The third period of Game 7 at MSG against the Lightning the following year still a fresh wound for Blueshirt faithful.
What will it take for Lundqvist to climb the top of the mountain? He’s not getting any younger. The team is again good. But questions remain as to whether they’re playoff tough enough to go through either an unforgiving Metro with potential opponents Pittsburgh/Columbus and Washington or the Atlantic with Montreal winning all three match-ups and humiliating this past Saturday.
That was enough for the organization to recall Tanner Glass. Having been exiled to Hartford where he played in the AHL, the proud vet who’s played for Alain Vigneault in Vancouver and now New York has returned with a point to prove.
In the win at Tampa, he got into an early scrum battling for a rebound and then had a lengthy bout with Luke Witkowski which was one of the best fights of the season. Last night was his best game as a Ranger. He scored his first goal since 3/21/16 also against the Panthers by parking himself in front and rebounding home a Oscar Lindberg shot. He was all smiles as excited teammates mobbed him. It was definitely a feel good moment.
Glass was a catalyst in the victory. After missing an assignment on Vanek’s goal, he atoned for it by getting in on the forecheck and helping set up Nick Holden’s huge goal less than two minutes later. The goal wouldn’t have been possible without Glass perfectly setting a screen on Florida goalie James Reimer just as Holden shot. Reimer never saw it. Florida challenged but to no avail. Glass never made contact with Reimer. It was just a great job of getting in front which allowed Holden to notch his 10th to restore a three-goal lead. He finished with a goal and assist earning the Broadway Hat.
There isn’t a more deserving guy. Glass will never be the most talented player. A fringe player who at best is a 13th forward who can inject energy and physicality when he plays, he’s a popular teammate. They appreciate his effort, hustle and heart.
It’s not worth discussing the opposition from the Corsi community who only view hockey through statistical charts. I’m not advocating keeping Glass in the lineup once Michael Grabner and Jesper Fast return. Obviously with Grabner the leading goalscorer, he’ll go back in. I’d bench Brandon Pirri. He brings nothing and the power play is in such a bad funk, there’s no point playing him. Until Fast is ready to go from a separated shoulder, Glass stays in over Matt Puempel, who you can plug depending on the match-up.
The challenge for Vigneault is what to do once both Fast and Grabner are healthy. Jimmy Vesey is currently on the third line with Kevin Hayes and Miller. With Buchnevich regaining his spot in the top six with Mika Zibanejad and Nash, does Vesey move down to the fourth line for Grabner to reunite with Hayes and Miller? Undoubtedly. A fourth line of Vesey, Oscar Lindberg and Fast should be good enough to play consistently. But Vesey isn’t a fourth liner. Hopefully, he’ll fit in.
The Rangers are at their best when Lundqvist is standing on his head. Ditto for Raanta. They’ve now been out-shot by opponents in 33 games. Their record in those contests is a remarkable 27-6-0. With this team, it’s not about quantity. But quality. In games where they out-shoot the opponent, they’re 15-16-2. On even shots, they’re 1-0-0. When you add it all up, it can be attributed to timely saves from one of the league’s best goalie tandems, leading to offense.
What does it all mean? The Rangers likely will need Lundqvist to steal a series. There’s no guarantee they will make it out of the first round. None of the potential opponents will be easy. All have had success against them. They’re going to need great goaltending. At 35, Lundqvist isn’t washed up. But he’s also not the same goalie he was during his Vezina season in ’11-12. It’s about staying aggressive and challenging shooters. When he does, that bodes well.
The defense remains a puzzle. Brendan Smith played his best game as a Blueshirt finishing plus-three with three blocked shots while taking the front of the net away. He was paired with Holden, who’s looked better since Smith was teamed with him. For a second consecutive game, Ryan McDonagh worked with Marc Staal. The captain shifted to the right side and made it work logging 23:12 with three blocks and a plus-one in 30 shifts. Brady Skjei was sensational getting the primary assist on Hayes’ breakaway goal which ended a 10-game drought. Skjei did well in 19-plus minutes with the more defensive oriented Steven Kampfer, who filled in admirably in 13:30 with his point shot redirected by Chris Kreider for his 25th which started the scoring.
Dan Girardi is closer to returning than Kevin Klein, whose back remains an issue. Once Girardi is ready, he’ll replace Kampfer. As for Klein, I don’t know if we will ever see him again in the lineup. Unless Vigneault realizes Staal can use a breather, Klein might not be in the top six again. Especially with Smith an upgrade who can play either side. As for Adam Clendening, he’s slipped to ninth on the depth chart behind Kampfer. It looks like it’s over for him. Even if he was treated unfairly, he was never the answer.
If the Rangers are to make a run, it’ll be due to Lundqvist with Raanta in reserve just in case. That is a possibility that didn’t exist earlier in his career. Especially if he has a couple of bad games against say Montreal. Then Raanta has to be considered. It’s hard to believe I just typed that for a goalie who now ranks in the top 10 all-time in wins. Hopefully, it doesn’t come to that.
One thing that must change is the offense. Last night was a step in the right direction. They scored four goals or more for the first time since posting four in an overtime win at the Devils on 2/25. They’ve only scored three times or better twice in the last 11. Prior to that stretch, they got four each in wins over Calgary, Anaheim, Nashville and Colorado between 2/5-11 followed up by three in a 3-2 win at Columbus on 2/13.
At least Hayes finally got off the snide when he converted a breakaway goal for his first in 11. Derek Stepan remains stuck on 12 goals. His goal drought up to 22. He’s looked on the verge the previous two games. But if there was a glaring example of how mental it’s become, how about the wild miss off a perfect Mats Zuccarello set up with a gaping net. He’s gotta bury that. The Rangers need Stepan desperately.
For all the accolades Zibanejad’s received for his overtime heroics and shootout theatrics, he doesn’t have a goal in regulation since Jan. 17 when he tallied twice versus Dallas in a 7-6 home loss. Also the last game Stepan scored in getting two. The only center pulling their weight is Lindberg, who’s scored three times over the last 10. He had two assists in Wednesday’s win. He’s gotten better since the New Year scoring all five of his goals with a two-point effort in a 5-4 win over Columbus on Jan. 7 starting his season. Eleven (5-6-11) of his 15 points have come since January. He also is over 50.0 percent on face-offs going 9-and-4 against Florida.
Simply put, the Rangers’ top three pivots must start scoring. They can’t be this inept. Miller has also cooled considerably. While he still leads them in points with 49, he has only one goal and two assists in the last 11. He did pick up a helper last night. Maybe that will get him going. When he and Hayes are scoring, the team becomes a lot better. Both are key penalty killers who have combined for four of their eight shorthanded goals. Their chemistry is undeniable.
It will be interesting to see how they finish the season. It’s pick your poison in the first round. What remains unchanged is Lundqvist’s importance to the team’s success. They’ll need to continue playing with the same edge they have in the last two adding to a league-leading road win total which is now up to 24-8-0.
The organization is lucky to have Lundqvist. A fact no one can deny. He’s blessed us with the playoffs in every year except one since coming over from Sweden as an unknown seventh round pick in 2000. Regardless of how it turns out, he’s a champion.