The last couple of times he went to a shootout, it hadn’t treated Henrik Lundqvist too kindly. The King made certain that didn’t happen again in a scintillating performance to carry the Rangers past the Coyotes 2-1 in Arizona.
On a night he passed Tony Esposito to move into eighth place on the all-time wins list with career victory number 424, Lundqvist made 37 saves and then stopped all three Coyotes shooters including former buddy Derek Stepan to clinch an important second point for his struggling team. Goals have been tough to come by lately. So have complete efforts with the Rangers having one more game against surprising first in the West Vegas Golden Knights later tonight in a back to back before a much needed bye week.
With points number 48 and 49, the Rangers remain in good position in the Metro Division. One behind the Devils, who visit the desperate Islanders at 1 PM Sunday while the Bills visit the Jaguars in the NFL’s second slate of wildcard games. The NHL schedule maker did them no favors. No wonder they’re leaving Brooklyn for Yonkers.
After learning that top left wing Chris Kreider had a procedure done on his arm to repair a blood clot which might finish him for the season, the Rangers didn’t exactly respond the way they should have against the lowly Coyotes. Arizona was the aggressor in a lopsided first period. At one point, they turned Lundqvist’s net into a shooting gallery. He had to deal with multiple breakaways the first couple of minutes. It looked like the Coyotes were on a extended power play.
The one goal they scored was on a actual power play even though it shouldn’t have been. It was another mind numbing call by the blind mice. Just as the refs screwed the pooch on the Blackhawks second goal where Ryan Hartman clearly shoved Marc Staal from behind into the net with the puck which somehow was missed, they ignored Anthony Duclair doing the same to Kevin Shattenkirk. Instead, he got a ridiculous delay of game minor penalty.
As fate would have it, the much rumored former Ranger scored his 10th by following up a Stepan rebound for his second consecutive game with a goal. Doesn’t it always work out that way? Well, you knew Duclair would have a big game. He was all over the Rangers net and could’ve had a hat trick if not for Lundqvist, who bailed out his sleepless teammates.
The thing about it is for as hard as the Coyotes now play under Rick Tocchet, there’s a reason they only have 10 wins and sit 31st overall with 26 points. They aren’t consistent enough to score goals. If they were, they’d win more frequently as they had in a 3-2 upset of last year’s Stanley Cup runner up Nashville a couple of nights ago.
The Rangers didn’t have many skaters going. Alain Vigneault mixed up his lines. After starting J.T. Miller with Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich, he saw enough to start tinkering. His favorite scapegoat Buchnevich went from the top line to the fourth line with Boo Nieves and Paul Carey while Jesper Fast got bumped up from the third line to the first line. Of course, this didn’t sit well with #NYR Twitter. The amount of complaints over Buchnevich has become annoying. Should he be on the fourth line? Of course not. Is he a top six forward with probably the most skill on the roster? Absolutely. But I’m not gonna speculate as to why he always gets the Miller treatment. Remember Vigneault has always done the same to our gritty American forward moving him around. He’s mature enough to handle it. Buchnevich is in Year 2. There are still things he can improve on despite the gripes about why he ranks so low in average even strength ice time.
The most important part is that they win. Even if it wasn’t a Picasso. Vigneault’s exact words following the game. They can’t all be. It’s bad that this team can’t even beat the Coyotes without a fight. They’re not able to string together consistent 60-minute hockey to win in regulation. The defensive flaws are well documented. So are the lack of shots from the Anti-Corsis. Ironically my fantasy team name. They rank near the bottom in the fancy stats. When you don’t shoot the puck enough and turn it over, it leads to chaotic shifts where the opponent is dictating possession and skating circles around our five man unit in the Rangers zone. So they continue to give up over 30 shots and get out-attempted. They never seem to play well in front of Lundqvist. Why is that? I have no idea. It’s probably why I suggested Ondrej Pavelec for the start giving Lundqvist just the much better Golden Knights before the break.
Let’s also give credit to Antti Raanta. Facing his former team for the first time, he was excellent throughout. Sure. He saw less rubber. But he still made some absolute dandies to keep the Rangers to only one goal in 65 minutes.
The one came from suddenly reemerging sophomore Jimmy Vesey. Remember him? The other second-year forward who’s been jerked around much worse than Buchnevich but never is discussed by the charts. Vesey isn’t as talented but gives a honest effort daily. He’s also played a lot more on the third and fourth line. But we never hear much about that. His game is coming at the right time.
With emotional leader Mats Zuccarello out due to illness, rookie Vinni Lettieri got back in the lineup for the first time since scoring in his NHL debut at Detroit. He went from the fourth line to the second with Kevin Hayes and Michael Grabner. Lettieri brings a quality most Blueshirts refuse to do. An aggressive mindset by finding open space and shooting the puck without hesitation. He twice was robbed by a sliding Raanta on good set ups. It wasn’t all roses for Lettieri, who made a bad drop to no one during the three on three causing a Clayton Keller breakaway in overtime, which forced Brady Skjei into a hooking penalty. The Rangers were able to kill it off thanks to a great diving block from who else but Marc Staal. Another target who gets unfair treatment from the blind masses despite having a good bounceback season at the halfway point. He was also stoned twice by Raanta on one shift during regulation and gave a honest assessment of the team’s game and well documented struggles.
The Rangers woke up in the second period. Vesey made a nice solo effort out of the corner to move in and beat Raanta with a sweet finish for his ninth. A play MSG announcer Sam Rosen had high praise for. Sam knows good hockey when he sees it. More than once he and partner Joe Micheletti paid homage to a focused Vesey, who nearly had another on a great individual end to end rush. He came back to make a defensive play and then reset before flying around the Coyotes and in on Raanta but his stick side attempt went wide. A terrific effort from a player whose confidence is high. They’ll need him to continue performing without Kreider.
That was it for the scoring. The student versus the teacher turned into a old fashioned goalie duel. Both Lundqvist and Raanta taking turns making big saves. Lundqvist proving the doubters wrong. At 35 going on 36, he’s having his best year since he won his only Vezina in ‘11-12 under John Tortorella. In a more wide open league where his team isn’t as good defensively, he’s stood on his head most nights and performed extremely well.
He might not have the numbers that Andrei Vasilevskiy does in Tampa or even Sergei Bobrovsky or Tuukka Rask. But has anyone done more than Lundqvist for his team? Maybe Cory Schneider with the Devils. But I can’t say he’s been as consistent. Jonathan Quick is also in the mix. So should Corey Crawford with the Blackhawks not the same. It’s a fun debate for another day.
The overtime was mostly Arizona controlling the puck and keeping it away from the Rangers. It was infuriating if you root for this team. Vesey had the only good chance. So another skill competition was needed.
In it, a patient Zibanejad outwaited Raanta to make a perfect high shot glove side off the goalpost and in for the only goal. Lundqvist did the rest stopping Duclair, Keller and Stepan in succession. With Henrik knowing what he likes to do following a Buchnevich miss, Stepan tried a rare slap shot which Lundqvist calmly kicked away for the win with that bright smile lit up like Broadway.
Such a well deserved win for a great player and better man. Another victory on his march to 500.
BONY 3 Stars ✨
3rd Star ⭐️ Jimmy Vesey, NYR goal-9th of season, easily Rangers best forward
2nd Star ⭐️ Anthony Duclair, ARI goal-10th of season, has played well since returning to lineup
1st Star ⭐️ Henrik Lundqvist, NYR 37 saves including some highlight reel to move into eighth place all-time with his 424th career win