Game #50 Lundqvist ends shutout drought, Zibanejad power play goal the difference in sweep of Red Wings

Henrik Lundqvist gets congrats from Brady Skjei after stopping all 33 Red Wings shots for his first shutout in over two years. AP Photo credit New York Rangers via Getty Images

In a game I didn’t see due to dinner plans with my Mom out on the nicer North Shore of Staten Island, the Rangers defeated the Red Wings 1-0 last night at Little Caesars Arena. Believe it or not, they listed 19,515 for the Original Six rematch at Detroit. I find that hard to believe given how bad the Wings are.

There are two big stories coming out of this game which the Rangers had to have to give themselves any minor chance at chasing down the wildcard. Henrik Lundqvist made his first start in 20 days. Only his third since Igor Shestyorkin came up to make it a three goalie rotation with wins leader Alex Georgiev. His previous two starts weren’t good. There was some pressure yesterday.

Lundqvist did something he hadn’t done in over two years. He posted a shutout. In stopping all 33 Detroit shots, it marked the first time he recorded a shutout in 27 months. His last one came on Nov. 19, 2017. That was a 20 save shutout against Ottawa. It had to feel great for him to finally get one. At one time, he was in his prime racking up a lot of them. But those days have passed. It was career shutout number 64.

Out of curiosity, I put on the end of the game on my Tablet just wondering what the score was. When I saw 1-0 Rangers with over a minute left, I chuckled. Would it really happen? As putrid as the Red Wings are, I figured they’d get a couple of cracks at tying the game with Jonathan Bernier on the bench.

Sure enough, they did. Lundqvist made a pair of big saves including one pointblank with over 20 seconds remaining. The rebound was sitting right there to be had. Fortunately, no Red Wing got to it or we could be talking about another frustrating miss by Hank. Maybe even a 2-1 overtime or shootout loss. You never know. Especially given the history between these teams, who have played something like 14 out of the last 17 games decided by one lousy goal.

Usually, it’s with Jimmy Howard in net versus Lundqvist. This time, he got the night off following Friday when he played very well despite allowing four goals at The Garden.

There was only one goal in the classic home-and-home series rematch. It was scored by the scorching hot Mika Zibanejad on the power play with 7:47 left in the opening period. He was able to squeeze in a rebound past Bernier for number 20 from Chris Kreider and Ryan Strome at 12:13. It marks the third straight season he’s reached 20 goals. A number he’s hit in five of the last six years doing it twice as an Ottawa Senator and now three times as a New York Ranger. Last season, he had a career high 30 in all 82 games.

At 26, Zibanejad is in his prime. He’s performing at a high level. The fact is he got to 20 goals in his 37th game. He missed some time due to the mysterious upper body injury that probably was a concussion. He has been on a roll lately with six points in three games. In January, he wound up going 3-8-11 despite not registering a point in four of the 10 games. After missing most of November, Mika is over a point-per-game since with 29 points (14-15-29) over 25 games. Half of his 14 goals have come on the power play. Overall, he has nine PPG, eight even strength and three shorthanded. He leads the team in both power play goals and shorthanded goals.

In case you’re wondering, Kreider ranks second with seven on the power play while Artemi Panarin is third with six. He does most of his damage at even strength with 21 of his team-leading 27 there. An impressive number for a dynamic star player who’s been worth every penny. Ironically, this was only the second game the Rangers won when Panarin is held without a point. They improved to 2-9-1.

It’s hard to comment too much on how this wound up a 1-0 game. My guess is both teams were a bit tired from the travel due to it being a back-to-back. Maybe that’s why the goalies were so good. They both were fresh due to having not started for a bit. Though Bernier just returned from the injured reserve after missing seven games. He wound up making 30 saves.

Remember when he was the hyped goalie prospect for the Kings while Jonathan Quick was just hitting his stride as the starter in LA? That worked out a lot differently. Bernier never became a starter, but he’s an okay backup. Though he’s basically the starter in goalie starved Detroit. Bernier is 10-13-2 in 29 games with a 2.92 GAA and. 907 save percentage.

That’s much better than Howard, who’s a depressing 2-20-2 with a 4.12 GAA and .884 save percentage in 24 games. I’ve always had a soft spot for Howard, who at one time was pretty good on some better Detroit teams. He wears number 35 for childhood idol Mike Richter. Even plays similarly. For his Red Wings career, Howard is 246-193-70 with a 2.61 GAA, .913 save percentage and 24 shutouts in 540 games. His 246 victories rank third all-time in franchise history, trailing Stanley Cup champion Chris Osgood (317) and Hockey Hall of Famer Terry Sawchuk (350). Not bad company.

Sadly, this could be it for Howard, who’s 35 in the last year of a contract that pays him $4 million. Sometimes, it ends badly for good players. Even great ones. I’m of course referring to what’s going on with Henrik Lundqvist, who has one more year left on his contract that is a cap hit of $8.5 million. So, his teammates were awfully excited following one last clear and the final buzzer to congratulate him on the rare shutout. He had a huge grin through the mask. Why not.

You wonder what will happen the rest of this month. Well, the next three weeks preceding the 2/24 trade deadline. You have to think Lundqvist will be right back in net for tomorrow’s match against the Stars. A much better team who should be a tougher challenge. If David Quinn goes that route, look for Georgiev on Wednesday versus the Maple Leafs. An opponent he’s fared well against. He’s one up and down in the prior two meetings this season. The numbers aren’t good. That’s partially due to how Toronto plays. The Rangers aren’t a great defensive club either. That’s why it was only Georgiev who had all their shutouts the last two years until Saturday night.

Since I didn’t watch this game, I’m going to keep this short. In sweeping the Red Wings, they took all three regular season meetings versus the league’s worst team. They banked four points to move up to 54 with 32 games left. That still trails both the Blue Jackets and Flyers by nine for the wildcard.

One other note before I close out. Kreider was accidentally hit in the head by Zibanejad, who tried to skate by. He left the game in the second period. Obviously, anytime a player takes a shot to the head, you have to be worried. Kreider obviously went through concussion protocol and didn’t return to the match. Before we panic, there was no point in having him play further. It’s the Red Wings.

Considering what Kreider means, it’s not worth the risk. Quinn indicated that despite thinking it looked bad, it wasn’t as bad as anticipated. I hope that’s the truth. Kreider is up to 22 points in his last 22 games. He’s the top rental player available. That’s assuming the Rangers go that route for a proven power forward, who has become a locker room leader. Hopefully, he’s not going to miss time.

We’ll see what happens this week. I could see a scenario where they hold him out tomorrow for some more recovery for whatever the injury is. If he’s okay later in the week, I would expect him to return. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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