Tonight was a classic trap game for the New York Rangers. Under Tortorella, this team had played its best hockey against the best teams in the league and its worst hockey against the worst. After three emotional and energetic victories against the in Washington and against Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the Rangers were to go the the Hurricanes’ arena to face a team that would be energized by the recent coaching changes. And nightmares turned to reality to start the game, as Jiri Tlusty scored in the first minute.
But give the Rangers credit for doing what they do best, which is stick it out. An imperfect, but clear-cut victory over the Hurricanes. Fourteen different players get a point, including members of all four lines and five defensemen. There is always room for improvement and we have certain players in spots that aren’t ideal for them. But it’s very difficult to find any holes in the lineup, and that’s what separate this team from ones we’ve seen in the past. It’s difficult to create a game plan for stopping a whole array of players, but that’s what the Rangers are forcing other teams to attempt to do. Let’s look at some game notes:
Martin Biron: His play is inferior to Lundqvist’s, but how many starting goaltenders in the NHL can match what he brings? Biron is providing everything we can ask for in a backup goaltender. He’s let in a couple of soft goals in the past few games but he’s also making some big saves in key moments. We are now 4-0-1 in games that Biron has started this season, and that’s as good of an indicator as any that this is a Rangers team that doesn’t depend on Lundqvist to win games for us like he’s needed to in the past. 28 saves on 31 shots is a good outing by Biron.
Ryan Callahan: What used to be great efforts by Callahan have now turned into expected games for him. A pretty typical 1 goal, 3 blocked shots, and 1 hit stat line for him, but I bring him up because of what Callahan is bringing to this team that we’ve been desperate for since Adam Graves left; a crease presence. He screens the goaltender perfectly. He gets his stick on every loose puck and every rebound. He’s getting deflections. He’s shown this in prior seasons but right now he’s made it a consistent and key part of his game. I give him a ton of credit for why our power play has been better. With 10 goals in 22 games, is this the year that Callahan reaches that next level and breaks the 30 goal mark? John Tortorella challenged Callahan to be better when he handed him the “C” and Ryan has responded.
Brad Richards: Callahan deserves some credit for the improving powerplay, but Brad Richards deserves the majority of it. Early in the season he was not making the best decisions with the puck and Tortorella even moved him off the point temporarily. Now, he’s running the powerplay like a true PP QB. He has a good enough shot to be effective, but he’s moving the puck very well. Tonight he put the puck in a perfect position for Callahan to collect the garbage. With 20 points in 22 games, Richards has been a key player; as expected.
The Defense: It’s difficult to single out specific players because everybody is pretty much playing his part. Michael Del Zotto has another PP point tonight and is on pace for 34 total this season. Let’s acknowledge that a lot of his points were due to a lot of good work done by other players and many are secondary assists, but the point is that he’s making smart, even if simple, decisions with the puck. He made a lot of good defensive plays as well tonight. I don’t think Del Zotto will ever develop into a first pairing defenseman, but if he can be capable defensively and a contributor offensively I’ll be satisfied.
Michael Sauer has been quiet but great the whole season. He simply does not make many mistakes in the defensive zone; as reliable of a defenseman as you can realistically as for; especially for a 24 year old in his second season. Two seasons ago he was an afterthought in Tortorella’s doghouse that many assumed would be sent packing, and now he’s logging 20 minutes per game. Good for him to get the goal tonight.
Ryan McDonagh seems to improve every single game. Tonight was a fantastic all-around effort by him. A good shot to tie the game up 2-2. In total, he had three shots, two hits, and three blocked shots, and he was making defensive plays every shift seemingly. Offense from the blue-line is such an important dynamic and a major reason for the success of this Rangers team, and McDonagh drastic improvement in that area has been a pretty big part of that.
Those are three defensemen all under the age of 25 and who have not completed two full NHL seasons. Three defensemen making big contributions.
Marian Gaborik: Not much to say about Gaborik other than he did tonight what he’s done the whole season. A shot that Cam Ward had no chance of stopping and a perfect setup for Avery’s goal. Aside from Lundqvist, Marian Gaborik has been the best player on the team and unlike last season is showing up every single game.
Cam Ward: Prior to tonight Cam Ward had a .932 Save % and a 2.23 GAA in his career against the Rangers. But in the last two games we’ve now put up 10 on him. No longer is he unbeatable. Some of that is him not playing well. Some of that is his team playing horrible in front of him. A lot of it is the persistence of this Rangers offense. This is another sign that the Rangers are the real deal; good goaltenders alone can no longer hold us back from producing. The defense that Jim Rutherford has built for Cam Ward to play behind is just atrocious, and a lot of that is due to its inexperience. I expect that the Hurricanes will be dismantled completely at the trade deadline.
Thank you Hockey Gods for helping preventing Stepan and Mitchell from being significantly injured. We’ve had a lot of bad luck with injuries the past two seasons, but we caught a break twice tonight. With the win the Rangers are now 11-2-1 in their last 14 games and are on pace to finish the season at an absolutely ridiculous 121 points. That probably will not remain, but we’re also far enough into the season that this is not a fluke. We’re beating good teams and bad teams. We’re winning home and on the road. And in contrast to past seasons, our wins are almost always coming without the help of a shootout (or even overtime).
The Rangers travel to Tampa Bay to face the Lightning on Saturday. Prepare yourself for all of the Tortorella and Richards in Tampa Bay references. Please check out Cardiac Cane for thoughts on tonight’s game from the Carolina perspective. She won’t be writing the post-game to the lyrics of the Backstreet Boys tonight, but her thoughts are guaranteed to be bitter and her paragraphs will be full of whining.