Perhaps with a week to go in the season and after about 72 games, the Rangers have finally got a handle on playing like a team. Scoring 20 goals over the past 5 games and gathering 9 points out of a possible 10, the Rangers have pulled themselves into playoff contention.
Friday night, in stark contrast to their last game against the Islanders, the Blueshirts came out strong, exploited the terrible Tampa defensive coverage and the wandering goalie Michael Smith and potted 4 goals in the first period on 7 shots.
Lightning get struck twice. Goals 25 seconds apart in the first period
gave the Rangers an early advantage that they built on.
This was a statement game showing that the Rangers recent streak and continued overall success on the road are no illusions. What was especially impressive that the lineup did not put any fear of scoring as Sean Avery and Ryan Callahan were both out again thanks to left leg injuries. Nonetheless, the Rangers got scoring from 5 different players from all positions and lines. The recap is here.
With the Canadiens shutting out the Flyers in Philly, the Rangers pulled closer to the 8th playoff spot. Meanwhile, the Rangers formally ended Tampa Bay's chances of making the playoffs.
When the Rangers last played Tampa Bay, the last game before the Olympic break, the Lightning were 6th in the conference. Since that time, the Lightning have fallen going 5-14-1 to fall out of contention. Much of that downfall can be attributed to Tampa's porous defense that came into the game near the bottom in the NHL. Still, they have elite scorers including Steven Stamkos (46 goals), Martin St. Louis (63 assists) and Vincent LeCavalier.
During the game, the Rangers paired Marc Staal and Dan Girardi to shut them down successfully. The fact that Girardi got the first star demonstrated how effective he was on the ice without being very conspicuous. Meanwhile, his partner, Staal, scored for the 2nd game in a row by scoring 25 seconds after the Rangers scored their first one.
The game started ragged as the Rangers immediately gave up two 3-on-2 rushes for the Lightning before settling down. It became obvious that the Lightning had not tightened up its defense since their last two visits to the Garden that resulted in 8-2 and 5-2 victories.
Southern Comfort. The Rangers entered the game with a winning record on the road. It almost seemed like a home game as the arena was filled with plenty of fans wearing Ranger blue.
Large swaths of ice were open for the Rangers during the first period and they took advantage of controlling the offensive zone and beating a terrible defense and a shaky goalie. (I watched Michael Smith's 3-0 shutout of Pittsburgh at the Igloo on VS earlier this week. How he did it is a mystery to me as he wandered aimlessly to play the puck, he was vulnerable to being stripped of the puck. I know the Pens were missing Gonchar and Malkin, but still to be shut out at home when trying to solidify 2nd place in the conference is a bit surprising. In this game, Smith was nearly victimized by Prospal when he wandered too far from the net.)
Also what became evident is the continued success of the 4th line led by Brandon Prust and Jody Shelly. Aaron Voros skated quite well and even scored the Rangers' final goal. This line was on the ice for 10 minutes during the game. Both Prust & Shelley have thrown their bodies around and have shown an ability to forecheck and keep the puck out of the defensive end. Also, Shelley has settled in to become a presence on the ice and Prust has shown a nice skating ability.
Unfortunately, it took about 60 games for the Rangers to develop a reliable 4th line after letting last year's highly successfully trio to leave for other teams. Who knows how many points the Rangers may have not gotten because of the ill-advised experimentation by GM Sather and coach Tortorella?
During the first period, Shelley leveled Vladimir Mihalik of Tampa Bay to keep the puck in the Tampa end. It worked its way behind the net to Prust and then to Artem Anisimov who dished the puck back to Prust. Meanwhile, Mihalik, feeling a need to chase Shelley instead of covering the front of the goal, gave Prust enough open space to advance unimpeded to the net and forced the puck through Smith for a 1-0 lead with 3:09 gone.
Laugh or Cry? During the past month, Ranger fans have been
riding a rollercoaster of emotion as the Rangers seemed to fall
out of contention, reassembled their forces and now are making
a legitimate run during the final 10 games.
During the very next shift, the Rangers cruised up ice as Marian Gaborik had the equivalent of Montana to skate through the defensive zone. I am still wondering why Tampa Bay had no one covering the Rangers' premier scorer. Gaborik pulled up inside the blue line and patiently waited to find someone skating in and zipped a cross ice pass to a rushing Marc Staal on the left side, who in turn snapped a shot to Smith's left side that he fanned on. Rangers were up, 2-0, with only 3:34 gone. For Tampa Bay, it would only get worse. And it was important that the Rangers padded the lead in the first because it took pressure off the rest of the team and Lundqvist as the lead swelled from 2 to 3 then to 4 by the end of the first period. The next 2 goals, scored by Vinny Prospal and Brandon Dubinsky (both scoring their 19th of the season), came off deflections off Lightning defensemen past Smith, demonstrating that getting the puck to the net can lead to good results and also proving that it does not happen only to Ranger defensemen.
During the second period, Tampa Bay made a run at the Rangers and had a 2 man advantage for 1:20 early in the first 5 minutes. But the Rangers PK unit, which has now stopped 18 out of the last 19 situation continued to excel and Henrik Lundqvist faced only one shot.
During the second half of the period, the Lightning exerted some sustained pressure on the Rangers' defense and Lundqvist kept Tampa Bay off the scoreboard. By the end of the second period, the outcome was a foregone conclusion thanks to the combined efforts of the defense on the PK and Henrik's goalkeeping.
If I don't look, it's not there. Fans of the Flyers, the preseason choice of many to succeed in the Eastern Conference, don't want to face the ugly prospect that the Rangers are within 2 points of kicking them out of the playoffs.
The Rangers have 80 points and have caught the Thrashers, who play today in Pittsburgh. Tonight, the Rangers are in Sunrise FL to play the Panthers. By Monday, after the Flyers a matinee against Detroit, we will have a good idea as to where the Rangers will be set up for the final week.
--- The Graying Mantis
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