Make it two in a row. The winning has returned for the Rangers as the All-Star break approaches. In defeating the Blackhawks 4-3 at home, they made sure Henrik Lundqvist made some history. He tied hockey legend Terry Sawchuk for sixth all-time on the NHL wins list with number 445. Lundqvist’s 24 saves were enough to pick up his 14th victory of the season to tie Sawchuk.
Even if he allowed a bad goal with under two seconds left to Dominik Kahun for my correct score prediction to my brother Justin, he did more than enough to earn the win along with the game puck. He may not have faced a ton of shots, but when called upon, Lundqvist was there like he’s been often for this franchise since his rookie season in ’05-06. That feels like another lifetime ago. His best save was a late reflex glove stop on a Brent Seabrook shot that he admitted he didn’t pick up right away.
There were several good saves throughout in his second straight win. His last two game win streak came 12/29-31 when he stoned Nashville and St. Louis. After a tough three-game losing streak that saw him pulled twice, he’s stopped 58 of 63 shots. Maybe Alexandar Georgiev giving him some time off helped even if it took a Columbus humiliation for the team to play better.
They got off to a slow start tonight. The Blackhawks were sharper from the outset by using their speed and skating to generate early chances on Lundqvist. Following a missed high-sticking call on Erik Gustafsson that clipped countryman Jesper Fast, Cody McLeod got nailed for a high-sticking minor penalty. The Rangers entered better on the penalty kill having been successful in three straight games (15-for-15). But Brandon Saad scored on a rebound of a Seabrook shot that Artem Anisimov deflected off the post with eight seconds remaining for a power play goal at 5:41.
Maybe Saad’s 14th woke up the Rangers from the doldrums. They got back in the game as the first period rolled along. It was a breathtaking individual effort from emerging 19-year old rookie Filip Chytil that tied the game when he blew past a Chicago defender to score his eighth unassisted. A terrific play where he used his wheels and then skill to complete the beautiful rush by finishing with a great shot top shelf by Chicago netminder Collin Delia at 13:20.
The more you watch him, the more you start to realize how talented he is. The 2017 first round pick taken by GM Jeff Gorton 21st overall, isn’t one dimensional. He gets back defensively and competes every shift in all three zones. It’s not only flash and dash with Chytil. He has a chance to be special. A rare thing when it comes to Rangers draft picks, especially in the first round.
What if Lias Andersson works out too? It’s easy to forget he’s basically the same age. Don’t be so quick to write him off. That trade is turning around thanks to coach David Quinn’s patience and discipline with emerging defenseman Tony DeAngelo. He nearly had a great primary assist on a Mika Zibanejad goal that got wiped out by a Chicago offside challenge that was hard to tell. DeAngelo is showing more confidence since returning to the lineup with Neal Pionk out. Maybe the former Tampa first round pick will finally stick. Stay tuned.
Mats Zuccarello continued his turnaround when he was in the right place for his eighth on a good play by Chris Kreider that put the Rangers ahead 2-1 at 17:38. Marc Staal added a secondary assist. He also did a outstanding job neutralizing dangerous Blackhawks leading scorer Patrick Kane. Staal teamed with Adam McQuaid to keep both Kane and Jonathan Toews off the score sheet at even strength. The tandem finished plus-five while the Toews unit all were minus-two.
Even better, the Zibanejad line with Kreider and Zuccarello had a great night. They dominated the match-up with all three players lighting the lamp. Both Zibanejad and Zuccarello finished plus-three. In the second, Kreider got the only goal unassisted for his team-leading 22nd at 13:09. Zuccarello made the whole play happen by driving hard to the net to force a save by Delia. Chicago defenseman Duncan Keith fumbled the rebound that allowed Kreider to strip the puck and send a quick backhand past Delia for a 3-1 lead.
The third saw Jesper Fast get into penalty trouble. Having already taken a bad penalty in the offensive zone, he tripped up a Hawk only 19 seconds into the period to hand them a third power play. Alex DeBrincat capitalized in timely order at 1:40 when he buried a one-timer off a good Gustafsson feed from Kane for his 24th. He’s a good player already in his second year who should only improve. A scary thing if the Hawks ever can become competitive again. Especially with Kane still in his prime, and Toews remaining a good two-way player.
The Rangers did a good job protecting a one-goal lead by only allowing five more Chicago shots. Lundqvist made the timely stops when he had to. Zibanejad salted it away with a well deserved unassisted empty netter for his third goal and fifth point in two games with under 18 seconds remaining.
In some crazy aspect, it may have been a costly win. The Blackhawks remain behind us in the standings with only 41 points. They’re tied with the Senators for the fewest points in the league. It’s hard to believe how far they’ve fallen since winning three Stanley Cups this decade. That’s the cost of winning in the salary cap era. Don’t forget they lost one of the game’s best players in Marian Hossa to retirement. With both Keith and Seabrook showing their age while locked into long-term deals, and another concussion threatening Corey Crawford’s career, things have changed.
Imagine if they wind up with Jack Hughes or Kaapo Kakko. Colorado has Ottawa’s pick due to the Matt Duchene blockbuster trade last year that also netted the Senators Brady Tkachuk. He will be a very good power forward over the next decade. But they really sacrificed the opportunity of a lifetime. They better hope Duchene re-signs.
With 47 points in 47 games with one more game in Boston on Saturday before the bye week and break, the Rangers are nine points out of the playoffs. It’s crazy to think it’s now the Penguins who are the second wildcard with 56 points due to the surprising Islanders, who keep winning. As a rational fan of this team, I know the playoffs aren’t happening here. Gorton will do right by the team by trading both Zuccarello and Kevin Hayes, who sat out an eighth consecutive game. He will not return until Jan. 29 after the All-Star Game. The team wisely being cautious with the very valuable Hayes, who hits the open market this summer.
By winning the last two, the Blueshirts are 22nd out of 31. Six total points separates them from both 30th ranked Ottawa and 31st overall Chicago. Standing in between are three Blues and Coyotes (45), Devils and Red Wings (43), Panthers, Flyers and Kings (42). Just ahead are the Canucks (48), Ducks, Oilers, Wild and Hurricanes (49), who made a move to improve by acquiring Nino Niederreiter from Minnesota for Victor Rask.
There’s so much mediocrity that it’s not a good product. Sure. Scoring is way up and there are some elite teams like the Lightning, Maple Leafs, the surprising Flames, Jets, Predators, Sharks and Capitals. But when half the league doesn’t know if they’re buying or selling at nearly the 50-game mark, it’s bad, mad and sad all at the same time.
Truly the land of confusion. A favorite Genesis song with Phil Collins. Nobody can accurately predict what will happen. I know one thing. The Rangers won’t be tanking. I wouldn’t want them to anyway. If they lose games over the remainder, it’ll be due to the opposition being better.