Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Henrik & Erik Lead Blueshirts to Olympic Break with Electrifying Performances | NYR 5 Tampa 2

Coming off the inspired win in Pittsburgh, it would not have been the least bit surprising to see the Rangers mail in another effort at home.

True love. Unlike the nonsensical phony marriage proposal (see below), the love showered on the Rangers by the fans was genuine as the Rangers won 2 hard-fought contests leading to the Olympic break.

After the first period, filled with 2 Tampa goals on deflections and 2 half-hearted fights, it seemed that the Rangers were headed for another dreary loss especially since they were missing their leading scorer, Marian Gaborik, and young defenseman, Michael Del Zotto, both recuperating from ugly encounters with a skate blade.

In fact, the Valentine's Day matinee match-up at MSG presented a microcosm of everything we have seen so far in the Rangers' play during the past few months -- a flat first period, an energized 2nd period, a spirited comeback inspired by aggressive forechecking and opportunistic scoring (under the auspices of Sean Avery and Erik Christensen) and another spectacular goaltending performance by Swedish Olympian, Henrik Lundqvist.

What was different from so many Ranger games (especially at home) was the Rangers' ability to come back and not look back as they overcame a 2-0 deficit with 4 goals in the 2nd period and held the Lightning scoreless after the first period. Most importantly, the Rangers scored 8 goals during the past 2 games without the presence of Marian Gaborik, as the entire team stepped up to provide the ancillary scoring the team desperately needs to be a threat in the conference.

At the end of the game, Ranger fans could sing a happy farewell tune to their warriors as the Rangers had won 5-2 and stayed within hailing distance of the 7th and 8th playoff spots. The official recap is here.

Henrik's stellar play kept NY in the game in the first
period until the offense awoke to topple the Lightning.
The win was ensured by several nifty saves that fans
have grown accustomed to and protected the precious
lead until the final horn. In their last 2 appearances in NY,
the Lightning have been outscored 13-4.

The first period was indeed dreary. The Rangers permitted the Lightning to dominate the ice which led to two goals, scored by Erik Stamkos and Steve Downie both on deflections that left Henrik frustrated and the fans deflated. Not even the attempts by Brandon Prust and Aaron Voros to fight seemed to pick up the Rangers.

The Lightning had played the previous afternoon in Long Island and were using a tried and true tactic to snatch a win here -- playing hard early, scoring early and then seek to maintain the lead when the fatigue of the back-to-back might settle in against a more rested team.

As of the end of the first period, it seemed like that the Tampa Bay stratagem was being executed to perfection. That the Rangers were only down a couple of goals was thanks to the continued inspired play of their goalie who thwarted several other opportunities that could have given Tampa Bay a legitimate 3 or 4 goal lead.

Starting the second period, the Rangers forechecked hard right from the opening whistle and drove to the net -- and thanks to the efforts of Sean Avery and Erik Christensen who combined to score 3 goals in that period -- they made some nice plays in the offensive end in the final 2 periods. Within the first 90 seconds of the period, Artem Anisimov stole an ill-considered clearing pass at the Tampa blue line and delivered a beautiful lead pass to Avery that sprang him for an umimpeded shot. Kurtis Foster hooked him and the refs immediately awarded a penalty shot that Sean converted to cut the deficit to 2-1.

Game changer. On the penalty shot, Avery skated down the right side,
moved way over to the left, and drew goalie Mike Smith out of position before
shooting top shelf from a tough angle.

Said Lundqvist: "Avery's shot was a great move. I challenged him a couple of
times in practice and told him he would never do that move in a game. It was awesome."

The Rangers became energized and the Lightning sloppy. About 4 minutes later, Christensen used his size to drive to the net. During a 4 on 4, he went behind the Tampa goal and fed the puck to Staal at the left corner of the net. He missed a shot but Vinny Prospal swooped in to score the game tying goal at the 6 minute mark.

With 8 minutes to go, Prospal found Christensen who shot the puck past Smith to give the Rangers the lead at 3-2. Within 2 minutes after that goal, the Lightning swarmed the Rangers' end and mounted serious pressure to try to tie the score. Christensen calmly picked up the loose puck and skated into the Tampa offensive zone and again used his size to zip a shot past Smith on the stick side to give the Rangers a 2 goal cushion. The Rangers were beneficiaries of quality goals made as a result of strong play in the offensive zone. There was nothing cheap about any of the 5 goals, including Drury's empty netter when he anticipated a pass near the blue line and snapped it into the empty goal. That point was Drury's 600th of his career.

When Henrik's view of the action was unimpeded,
he stopped the Lightning time and time again including Martin St. Louis.

But this glove save on Nate Thompson, a mere 15 seconds after Avery's penalty
shot kept the Rangers in the game and avoided a potentially large letdown.
Later, Henrik stoned Ryan Malone by moving lightning quick from the right
post to the left post on a 3 on 1 to maintain the 4-2 cushion with a minute to go in
the 2nd period. Based on the Rangers' season long propensity to give up final
minute goals, that save may have been the one to seal the victory.

Christensen scores his first of 2 goals in
the 2nd period to give the Rangers a 3-2 lead.

The number 1 star of the game was Erik Christensen who scored twice and assisted on a third goal in the second period. He is in his contract year and if you have heard him in interviews, he is one of the more thoughtful players you will hear. He has no illusions that he is the type of player that is guaranteed of playing after this year. He also is genuinely grateful for not only the opportunity the Rangers have given him but also the help he has received from them to develop into a better player.

He certainly shows plenty of glimpses of being a good playmaker and he has nice chemistry with Gaborik -- witness that pass sequence that led to the Rangers' only goal against Anaheim recently. Perhaps this 3 point game will be a breakout game for him. Unfortunately, we will not know for 2 weeks or so.

Flags of the countries which Ranger
players are representing in the Olympics.

The team continued to show a bit more aggressiveness and snarl as evidenced by the feistiness of Brandon Prust and Aaron Voros. The addition of Jody Shelley from San Jose has provided some much needed muscle and competition among the Rangers willing to engage in fisticuffs. Even the defenseman have started to bang some bodies including Wade Redden who has looked steadier on defense over the past few games. A bit more anger is necessary for the upcoming games against teams such as Ottawa and Pittsburgh, who are the Rangers' first 2 opponents after the break.

As of the Olympic break, the Rangers and Tampa are tied for 9th a mere 2 points out of the 7th spot. The Broadway Blues showed determination and resiliency to grab a victory from one of the teams they are combating for a playoff spot. The question becomes -- will the Olympic break serve to break this momentum or will it provide a tonic to refresh the Ranger bodies and spirits? It will certainly help to mend Del Zotto's lacerated chest. It may serve to give some time for other players, Dan Girardi and Marc Staal, in particular some time to rest and sharpen their focus. Unfortunately, depending on how well their respective teams fare, Ranger olympians may not get much of a respite at all. We all remember how tired the team looked (especially Lundqvist and Jagr) after the 2006 break when they were unable to score and lost 9 in a row as they limped home with the division title.

We can only hope that the momentum will not dissipate as some positive things are being shown over the past few games.

---The Graying Mantis

p.s.: Proving that the NHL will stoop to anything to "entertain" the crowd, during a break, there was a video proposal of marriage from Nick to Melissa. How romantic for a Valentine's Day afternoon. The woman turned down the suitor much to his embarrassment and taunting by the crowd. As it turned out, the whole affair was a hoax and the Garden appears to have been a willing participant.

This reminds me of the tasteless NBA in-game proposals a few seasons ago where the man would get on one knee at court side only to be rejected by his potential bride. She would stalk off stage and after soaking in the humbling, he would sheepishly depart. After about a half dozen of these, the shtick wore thin. I guess because it was Valentine's Day MSG management thought it would be amusing. Meh. At least the Rangers were genuinely entertaining.

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