Thursday, April 23, 2009

Truly Divine -- #30 Leads the Rangers to a Stirring Victory | NYR 2 Wash 1 [Rangers Lead 3 games to 1]

One does not trifle with the Sports Gods. They are a vengeful bunch. And nothing risks incurring their wrath more than an athlete mocking another team's fans or disrespecting an opponents' logo. Ask Terrell Owens. Hockey Gods perhaps hold the biggest grudges. Ask any Flyer, Bruin and Leaf fan if you doubt me. Lord Stanley has been in exile from those locations since before the Carter administration.

The Hockey Gods were in attendance on Wednesday night at the Garden for Game 3. Originally, they planned to be in Montreal to watch the Bruins complete the 4 game sweep of the traveling carnival of all-star phoneys wearing the Canadiens sweater and their riot-prone obnoxious fans. They apparently changed their travel plans after hearing about the Ovechkin/Backstrom postgame love bump at center ice on the Rangers logo after Game 3 on Monday. Bad enough to disrespect fans and the logo but to do so when your team had been swept at home and your team still trailed in the series -- that's an invitation for some divine scrutiny and intervention.

So the Hockey Gods arrived to wreak vengeance on the Caps and Ovechkin. They could have simply smote them by keeping Ovechkin scoreless for a 4th game in a row. But these are no run-of-the mill deities. No, they are much crueler.

If you only learn one thing from me, let it be this - the Sports Gods do not like this nonsense.

They anointed Henrik Lundqvist as their avenger and he stopped the Caps cold with a continuing playoff performance that may end up in the Rangers' firmament under the names of Richter and Davidson. In a game where the Caps outshot the Rangers 30-10 over the final 2 periods (I'm shocked the Rangers had that many shots), the Rangers' goalie was standing tall in the net and thanks to his bravura performance in front of a loud, appreciative throng of 18,200 believers, the Rangers now have a commanding 3 games to 1 lead.

Sure, the gods let Ovechkin have his 1st goal of the series to make the score 2-1 with more than 17 minutes to go in the game, but then they toyed with him mercilessly. Time after time critical power play efforts were thwarted, rushes were stopped, players named Redden, Morris and Roszival became the second coming of Brian Leetch, Larry Robinson and Paul Coffey; Rangers bodies extended everywhere to clear pucks and dump pucks into center or down the ice; shots miraculously were blocked, snagged, gloved, deflected, covered up or shot out of the zone. You may never see such a series of inspired defensive performances again as were seen in Game 2 and 4.

You can read the official recap here but trust me, I was a Classics student and I know divine intervention (and retribution) when I see it.

The game started out with the Rangers continuing to try to solve the Capitals goalkeeper, Simeon Varmalov, who extended his scoreless streak against the Blueshirts to nearly 130 minutes. But "luck" intervened midway in the first period when the Rangers struck. Dubinsky won a faceoff on the left side to Mara who blasted a slapshot that deflected off defenseman John Erskine's stick to bypass Varmalov for the Rangers' first goal with 8 minutes to go.

Two minutes into the second period, Drury rushed up ice and shot a puck on goal that Varmalov gloved but failed to hold as it landed in front of him. Drury followed up strongly and pounced on the puck and from a nearly impossible angle threaded the proverbial needle by beating Varmalov inside the post to give the Rangers a 2-0 lead with more than 17 minutes left in the 2nd.

The injured Captain puts home the game winner. From either angle, it was an amazing shot and reminded fans why he wears the "C".

With a 2 goal lead, the Rangers thought defense first and tried to capitalize on the few opportunities that presented themselves. This was a bit exasperating as the Caps began to dominate the puck and the ice. Time and again, the Rangers would clear the puck but it would only get over the blue line and the Caps brought the puck right back in for another effort. The second period ended with the fans and Rangers thankful that the 2-0 lead was intact but the tension had become palpable. Whereas the Rangers had played the Caps evenly in the first period and outshot them 11-9, during the second period, the Caps had 19 shots to the Rangers' meager 5. But, most importantly, of those 5 shots, 2 had found the back of the net.

As the final period opened, fans were hoping for a third Rangers goal to provide a cushion. But it was not to be -- the gods were not interested in anyone relaxing this night. Instead, after a faceoff due to a Capitals icing, Ovechkin picked up the puck at the 17:54 mark in the defensive end and within 7 seconds had blasted the puck cleanly past Lundqvist's glove hand to make the score 2-1. Expletives were heard from my neighboring fans as a sense of dread came over the arena. The possibility of the Rangers defense simply collapsing from the onslaught seemed real.

But Game 4 would not see the Rangers yield. They persevered and did not wilt under the Caps' pressure and utter territorial domination. The Blueshirts made few give-ups in open ice, few bad outlet or cross-ice passes. Numerous battles were won in the corners thanks to Dubinski, Callahan and Korpikoski. Panic was not seen in the Rangers defensemen although Staal sometimes played a bit tentatively because he seemed to always be worrying where Ovechkin was.

Most of all, Henrik was in the net and flashed some fabulous leather to snag a screaming shot from Alexander Semin, before he made a split leg save on a scramble to deny Tomas Fleischman that had fans in my section simply staring in disbelief as the whistle sounded to stop play. After a second's delay, fans realized that it was o.k. to stand up to pay tribute. Ovechkin whistled a shot that nailed the post and ricocheted faster around the boards than an Acela train. It was hard to catch your breath as you hoped the clock would tick down faster.
Paul Mara led the Rangers defense
in keeping the slot clear of all attackers.

The signature sequence of this game (and perhaps the series) was the Caps power play midway through the 3rd period after a questionable roughing call on Avery. For 2 solid minutes, the puck never left the Rangers zone. For 2 minutes the Caps' primary unit of Ovechkin and Semin were out there. For 2 minutes, Henrik stood his ground and the defensemen and forwards held their position without the luxury of a line change until Avery was finally released and came in to relieve the pressure. And the fans again stood to honor the Rangers' valiant efforts.

With 3 minutes to go, the Hockey Gods decided to test everyone's mettle one last time as the refs again whistled Avery off to give the Caps one more power play chance. The PK unit and Henrik donned their battle gear once again and again no ground was yielded as the Capitals' power play fizzled.

Finally, with a minute to go in the game, the Caps again had a man advantage (by pulling their goalie) but by that time the inspired Rangers kept them out of the zone for nearly the final minute before one last frantic scramble. The Caps would not receive any Marty Brodeur-last second gift like the Hurricanes received the night before. The goal mouth was closed; the Hockey Gods had picked their favorite. The PK unit -- primarily Sjostrom, Betts, Callahan, Dubinsky and all the defensemen -- had obtained redemption for the 2 PPG goals surrendered in the 4-0 blanking in Game 3.

Now Game 5 looms in D.C. The Rangers have won the 3 games in this series in which they have scored including the 2 games in D.C. They have scored the first goal in those 3 wins. Henrik has been the difference in each of those 3 victories. The formula seems simple. And the Rangers are following the pattern they set in last year's opening round victory over the Devils.

As we all know, the clinching game is often the hardest. Friday night, we'll be tuning in. I'll bet the Hockey Gods will be as well.



  1. Tony, Lundqvist should get two paychecks for last nights performance. The rest of the team took 2 periods off.

    It certainly will be tough to finish this Caps squad off, but with the King in between the pipes gotta like their chances.

    Nice post.

  2. Hang tight, boys. It's going to be a nail-biter and as the only game tonight, all of the hockey world will be watching. Terrific post, Tony -- one comment though. While the hockey Gods are looking after the Rangers this first round, the Bettman Gods are certainly not looking over our resident pest.

    Let's Go Rangers!



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