“It’s all about finding a way to win these types of games,” Rangers coach John Tortorella said. “We’re not going to be perfect every night… There are going to be nights like this.”
The above quote is from coach John Tortorella after a struggle-filled victory against the New Jersey Devils in late December (SI.com). I believe that these words embody what happened Monday night against the Capitals. Playing on the road against a team as skilled as the Capitals is never an easy task, and missing a significant number of players did not help the situation at all. Chad Kolarik, a 24 year old who has not scored an NHL goal, was the best available player to sub in on the powerplay. and Matt Gilroy and Michael Sauer, the 6th and 7th defensemen at the start of the season, received significant playing time. Martin Biron, not All-Star Henrik Lundqvist, was put in net. With every excuse in the world for losing, with Tortorella being forced to resort to lineup choices that probably make him physically ill, the Rangers found a way to win once again.
The Rangers comfortably outproduced the Capitals in the shot category, but in reality it was the Capitals who had the better scoring chances the whole game. The first two periods essentially were highlighted by great coverage in the defensive zone and Biron making multiple key saves. The Rangers did manage to cycle effectively and totaled a great number of shots, but most attempts were from the perimeter with little traffic in front. The Rangers are not going to score consistently playing like that, even with a goalie as inexperienced and low on the depth chart as Braden Holtby. Relatedly, This was especially obvious and frustrating throughout both powerplay opportunities, which looked irrelevant as usual.
To the Rangers credit, however, they worked hard for a full 60 minutes, as they almost always do under Tortorella, and managed to get an ugly goal. Alexander Ovechkin had a good game and made some creative moves, but he was unable to capitalize against Marc Staal, who is more and more looking like Ovechkin’s kryptonite. Though Gaborik’s goal was hardly skillful (he didn’t even see it go in), it still was a result of him positioning himself in a scoring area. He deserved an ugly goal like that anyway, given how many times he’s been robbed by the post or crossbar in the past few games. With tonight’s victory, the Rangers are now 8-12-3 in games in which they trail after two periods. To put that into perspective, the next best team in the NHL is Nashville with a 4-11-0 record. Tortorella deserves plenty of credit for making this team one of the best conditioned teams in the league, which no doubt is exemplified through that record. Let’s specifically address certain players of interest:
Michael Del Zotto: In his first game back with the team, Del Zotto gave a mixed but hopeful performance. During the first period he looked very uncomfortable holding the puck. However, he seemed to calm down and played with more confidence the rest of the game. True to his word, Del Zotto simplified his game, looking for simple passes to his defense partner or shorter-range outlet passes to his wingers instead of resorting to the constant hail mary tosses that plagued him. I believe that he is going to be returned to Connecticut after the All-Star Break, if not sooner, but Del Zotto did enough to help the Rangers and will hopefully build on that.
Ryan McDonagh and Michael Sauer: Both were key reasons the Rangers were able to win. McDonagh was out on the ice for just over 20 minutes, which included time on the penalty kill and against the Capitals top 2 lines. McDonagh has been making smart simple plays and has committed few fatal mistakes since being called up in Del Zotto’s place, but tonight he truly stepped his game up, blocking 3 shots and playing the man well, especially near the goal. Sauer’s contributions were even more crucial. With Dan Girardi’s first pairing minutes needing to be replaced, Michael Sauer, who started the season as a dark-horse to even make the roster, was nearly flawless in his first game paired with Marc Staal. Sauer was on the ice for almost 24 and half minutes (well beyond his season average of 15), most of which was against the Capitals’ top line (which of course includes Alexander Ovechkin). Sauer has been consistent the whole season, but tonight was, in my mind, far and away his best game in the NHL. If Sauer can play even close to how well he did tonight for the rest of the season then the Rangers are going to be in a very good position.
Brian Boyle: He didn’t get on the scoresheet and he failed in his shootout attempt, but he definitely stepped up his play at a time when the forward talent is depleted. He did decently enough in the faceoff circle (10 out of 22 faceoff wins) and led the team with 5 shots, all of which were legitimate scoring chances. He also did an excellent job forechecking and keeping the puck in the Capitals’ zone, though his line-mates Grachev and Prust also are to thank for that.
Martin Biron: He’s put up a few stinkers, but Biron has far and away been the best backup goaltender the Rangers have had since the lockout. Most teams settle for a backup goaltender who is capable of keeping his team in the game, but on more than one occasion Biron has exceeded that and actually been a big reason for winning. Yesterday was absolutely one of those nights. The lone Washington goal was nowhere near his fault, and he was perfect the rest of the game, making key saves at key times and giving Washington very few scoring chances off of rebounds. Biron is a calming influence in goal and I am certainly more confident with him than with Weekes/Valiquette in previous seasons and especially in comparison to the “Backup Goaltender Carousel of Hell” that we experienced last season.
We can complain about the incompetent powerplay. We can complain about how much superior Washington was at faceoffs. We can complain about making yet another backup goaltender look like a superstar. At the end of the day, though, the Rangers found a way to get two points once again; despite the injuries; despite being on the road; despite playing such a talented team. As Tortorella previously said, sometimes that’s all you can ask for.
I’ll end with links to videos of Gaborik’s 3rd period goal as well as the entire shootout; partially because they were key to the Rangers winning and partially because you can see me in my Rangers Heritage jersey behind the net two rows from the glass jumping up and down after each goal and thus enraging every Capitals fan seated near me.