Let’s give John Tortorella a lot of credit. The Rangers were coming off a two game losing streak which included an underwhelming performance against the Maple Leafs and a blown lead against the Lightning. They were under the media spotlight for Anisimov’s antics. And they were on the road with their backup goaltender in. Yet the team was focused and played a complete game. Nothing from previous games carried over. They stuck to the game plan and played to their strengths. When Alexander Ovechkin is kept on the bench by Bruce Boudreau it becomes a battle between player and coach. When Marian Gaborik gets benched he responds by being the best forward on the ice in the third period. Some people will delude themselves into thinking this is despite Tortorella. I refuse to do anything but give him the fullest of credit. It’s obvious that the entire team has bought into John Tortorella’s plan and respects him. Let’s review what we saw.
Martin Biron: Vanek’s goal was stoppable but was not a weak goal. Besides that, Martin Biron was pretty much flawless tonight. The Buffalo Sabres forced Biron to save the puck 32 times and many of those shots came on transitions where Buffalo had numbers. Biron is similar to Lundqvist in that he is calm in the net and, while not flashy, makes important saves. And this allows the Rangers to play their game just as they would with Henrik in net. Biron came into Buffalo tonight with a 1.94 GAA and .930 Save % and managed to improve both numbers. Surely Marty is satisfied with his return to where his career started.
Michael Del Zotto: Michael was no lock to even make the team out of training camp, and here he is being one of the most important players on the team in December. Staal and Sauer’s absence could be devastating, but Del Zotto has stepped up to a level that I don’t think even his biggest apologists expected. He’s really made being a physical defensemen part of his identity and he is much more responsible with the puck in his own zone. Against Tampa Bay it was his pinch and pass to Anisimov that set up one of the best goals of the season, and tonight he added two more assists, including a brilliant home run pass to Carl Hagelin. He played almost 21 minutes, blocked three shots, put two pucks on net, and was not on the ice for a Buffalo’s lone goal. I don’t think Del Zotto will become a first pairing defensemen (though we all said the same about Girardi), but I think Michael Del Zotto is well on his way to becoming on of the best second pairing defensemen in the NHL.
Carl Hagelin: There’s something about Buffalo that makes our rookies want to score. Derek Stepan had his infamous hat-trick in his first NHL game last season. Tonight Carl Hagelin had the second and third goals of his NHL career. Both goals were great shots from the wing and both opportunities came from his ability to accelerate quickly and get into open space. Hagelin’s shot is not particularly great, but if he can use his speed to transition and get good shots on net then some are inevitably going to find their way into the net. What’s going to be lost in the celebrating of his goals is that he was excellent defensively and on the backcheck, and his shorthanded goal came because Tortorella trusted him on the penalty kill in the first place. After a few nondescript games, Hagelin had his best game since being called up.
Marian Gaborik: I gave Tortorella credit for pushing the right buttons with Gaborik, but lets also give kudos to Gaborik for stepping up after being called out. He could have been self-pitying. He could have complained about it being unfair give how he’s played this season. But Gaborik came out in the third period and was clearly motivated to make up for two bad periods. The snipe on the powerplay at the end of the game was the cherry on top.
Ryan McDonagh: He was miserable in the team’s last two games but he rebounded tonight. Pretty much perfect defensive play in all 28 minutes he was required to play. He was a force in the neutral zone, cutting off so many potential counter attacks by the Sabres. He blocked two shots, and threw two hits. He had two takeaways and had no bad turnovers, which burned him specifically against the Lightning. Bad games happen for all defensemen and especially for young and inexperienced ones like McDonagh. The important thing is that he doesn’t get rattled. Good effort by McDonagh tonight.
Steve Eminger: Let’s give Eminger some credit as well. He’s been criticized heavily the whole season and a lot of it is justified. The Sauer injury meant that somebody had to step into the second pairing role. Eminger played 18 minutes tonight and did not look out of place at all. He also contributed on the scoreboard, assisting on the Hagelin and Gaborik goals. The Rangers do miss Sauer and Eminger has no business playing 18 minutes per game, but all things considered he has done a solid job.
The win was number 2,500 in franchise history. So hooray for that. The Rangers go back to Madison Square Garden tomorrow at 7:30PM EST and face the Florida Panthers, who beat them in their first matchup of the season. Make sure to check out Sabre Noise for thoughts from the Buffalo perspective.