David Quinn wanted to see more tenacity and grit from his team. He sure got it from the Rangers, who last night posted a good 3-2 win in the shootout over the Avalanche at The Garden before 17,251. Attendance is down due to James Dolan not lowering prices. While they didn’t go up, beer now costs at least thirteen bucks just for a can. That’s absurd. I won’t be donating to that cause at the few games I’m at.
With expectations down, only the true fans still show up. Luckily, that includes one of our favorites Anthony Cinque from Long Island. A longtime season ticket holder who’s been attending games since the early 90’s including when the team won the Stanley Cup, he still gets out to some games when he’s not busy driving his son to play in tournaments with Tom Poti’s kid. It’s funny too considering how fans treated Poti. Apparently, there is no better guy who gives back to the hockey community. Anthony’s son is only eight, but you can feel the excitement over how his kid is doing. When he’s not busy cracking jokes about our two four million dollar forwards that are signed for two years, he’s always telling stories. It makes the games more fun. Especially when our team hits a lull.
Tuesday was not one of those games. Quinn all but begged his team for more simplicity and stronger play around the net. What he got was 18 skaters who were fully committed to what he wanted. They played their best period of the season in a rousing first that saw them fire 19 shots on Colorado starter Semyon Varlamov, including several more attempts. On a night they totaled 43 shots, they also had 76 attempts. That included every skater. Even Cody McLeod, who played an inspired game in nine active shifts. He even pick pocketed Nathan MacKinnon at the Rangers blueline and broke in before having a shot blocked. That’s the kind of yeoman effort Quinn rewards.
Without Pavel Buchnevich, the Rangers played a more aggressive offensive game, attacking the Avalanche net every chance they got. That’s how they have to play to be competitive. Chris Kreider broke the ice with his first power play goal of the season by parking himself in front and redirecting a Kevin Shattenkirk point shot for a 1-0 lead. Shattenkirk had a better night, picking up two assists and scoring the shootout winner. A great response from the veteran who found himself scratched a couple of games ago.
Mats Zuccarello also was his old self. Reunited with Kevin Hayes on the second line with rookie Filip Chytil, the popular Ranger gave a superb effort throughout along with his cohesive linemates. The trio were the best line at even strength. Zuccarello assisted on both Ranger goals including a beautiful cross ice feed for a wicked Hayes one-timer that was wired top shelf inside the crossbar for a 2-1 lead in the second.
For a second consecutive game, Quinn opted to have the top line of Kreider, Mika Zibanejad and Jesper Fast go head to head against a tough opponent’s top scoring line. The trio did a great job neutralizing the very dangerous MacKinnon line that includes Gabriel Landeskog and Mikka Rantanen. Even though they did wind up with both Colorado goals, neither came against the Zibanejad unit. They were aggressive throughout with Fast just missing on two point blank opportunities. On one, the puck bounced on him. The other, it looked like his attempt was blocked by a player. He could’ve had two goals. Kreider was more active during shifts driving the net. Exactly where he needs to be. Zibanejad attempted several shots, but didn’t beat a sharp Varlamov.
Meanwhile, Brett Howden centered Vladislav Namestnikov and Jimmy Vesey. It was a good defensive play by a hustling Howden that allowed Vesey to get a clean breakaway. He blocked a shot and then had the presence to recover and pass the puck to an open Vesey, who got behind the Colorado defense. He made a good move, but was denied by Varlamov on a deke. Vesey would get another big chance in the third thanks to a nice centering pass from Zibanejad, but he fanned on it to blow a goal. It seems that he gets chances every game, but only has two goals to show for it. At some point, Vesey needs to bury some of these, or he’ll never be more than a 16-17 goalscorer. The effort is there, which is why he stays in the lineup.
The Avalanche picked it up in the second. They got the benefit of a questionable call on Hayes for a late tripping minor. Taking full advantage of it, Landeskog redirected a Tyson Jost shot from Tyson Barrie to tie the contest. However, the Rangers responded quickly. Only 2:40 later, Shattenkirk moved the puck across to Zuccarello, who found enough space in the middle to make a sweet dish for an open Hayes, who notched his first with a great one-timer that Varlamov stood no chance on. He indicated to Al Trautwig between periods that it was about time. His game was very good all night.
Henrik Lundqvist was again sensational, finishing with 31 saves along with two of three stopped in the shootout to pick up his second win. In all five starts, he’s allowed two goals, posting a 1.99 goals-against-average and .939 save percentage. He made two spectacular saves that led to the trademark, “Hen-rik, Hen-rik,” chants from an appreciative crowd. It’s easy to recognize how much work he’s put in. The 36-year old emotional leader looks more comfortable staying back in his net. The patience is paying off.
Unfortunately, following a ridiculous save on a Avalanche rebound for highway robbery, the Rangers iced the puck. It led directly to a Colorado face off win in which MacKinnon was able to deflect home a Landeskog shot from Rantanen at 19:47. Showing frustration, Lundqvist sticked the puck out of the net. Who could blame him? He made such a great save only to give one up that sent the team to the locker room tied.
In a good game that also saw the return of rookie defenseman Neal Pionk, who replaced vet Adam McQuaid, he paired with Brady Skjei on the top pair. But it was the experienced tandem of Marc Staal and Brendan Smith that drew the tough assignment on the MacKinnon line. They did a good job. Staal keeps it simple while Smith’s improved skating even allowed him to take a power play shift in overtime. Something nobody would’ve predicted.
Shattenkirk worked with Fredrik Claesson for the first half before Quinn went down to five. Claesson has been fine in his three games. He is solid in his end, and even dropped the gloves against the always pesky Matt Calvert, who won the fight with a few rights and a knock down. Claesson only played 10:50.
The third was interesting. Nobody scored despite some opportunities. There were two iffy calls back-to-back. First on Chytil for a phantom hook. Then on Rantanen for holding Staal. Both were tacky. You had your share of big saves by each goalie. Neither team backed off. That’s what made it a compelling game. It was hard fought.
In the three-on-three which Anthony referred to as, “Bettman hockey,” Skjei got behind the Avalanche for a break in to draw a penalty. However, the video replay clearly showed that MacKinnon made a good defensive play getting his stick on Skjei’s stick to block his shot.
It was just as well. The four-on-three power play was so predictable and stale that it looked like it was in slow motion. They’re not instinctive enough. The shots were easy ones for Varlamov to save. That included Zibanejad with two unscreened shots. I would’ve liked to have seen Chytil get a look over Ryan Spooner. God Almighty. Four million dollars.
We didn’t stay for the shootout. I hate them. But I was able to catch the tail end passing a bar on Eighth Avenue walking back to the car. I saw Rantanen score to beat Lundqvist. But Shattenkirk was able to walk in and go short side on Varlamov. What I didn’t know was that old reliable Zuccarello scored in the opening act. Lundqvist poke checked MacKinnon and stacked the pads on Landeskog to clinch the victory.
It was a nice win. They deserved it. Now, the question is does Buchnevich return tonight in D.C. to face the defending champion Capitals. I don’t know. The effort was so good, I wonder what Quinn will decide. I didn’t think Namestnikov was too good. Maybe he comes out. Spooner spends too much time on the perimeter.
One thing I’m certain of is Lundqvist will get the start in back-to-back. They don’t play again til Sunday at home versus Calgary. While they’ll be big underdogs tonight, the game against the Flames is winnable. They’re 2-4-0 so far. Every game has been competitive. We’ll see what tonight brings.