Going into Friday night’s tilt at The Garden with last-place Montreal, it was evident that this would be the last “easy” game the Rangers would have on their 2011-12 schedule. At least on paper.
And while games aren’t played on paper, nor on some sort of computerized hockey simulator, this game certainly lived up to expectations as the Rangers easily handled the Canadiens 4-1.
Simply put, this was a game that the Rangers needed to win, and win in convincing fashion, and they did just that. The Rangers put forth one of their most solid 60-minute efforts of the season (though at this point they’ve had so many efforts such as this that it’s starting to become redundant), and they could have won at least 6-1 if it weren’t for at least a handful of sparkling saves by Montreal goalie Carey Price – seemingly one of only a few players still playing hard down the stretch for the lottery-bound Habs.
But with a magic number of three points for the division and conference and four challenging games coming up against Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and a desperate Washington team, this was one that the Rangers needed to win, and they got it. But then again, how could they not? Especially with BOTH Steven McDonald and Liam Traynor in the building. Onto the pluses and minuses (the latter of which will be very brief):
PLUS – Ryan Callahan – In a surprise to absolutely nobody, the Rangers’ captain took home the Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award for the third time in his career prior to the game. Granted, this year’s award could have gone to one of at least five different players, but Callahan’s play all season long in his first year as captain of the Rangers has shown that he’s more than deserving. He didn’t register a point tonight, but he played his usual brand of hockey, including a sweeping blocked shot on a Montreal rush early in the first period. Plays such as that, along with his words between periods about how much the award means to him, show that he clearly earned the award once again, and that the guy gets what it means to have the role he does with this team.
PLUS – Michael Del Zotto – What’s that sound? It’s the collective silencing of Del Zotto’s critics. Does his defensive play still need some help? Sure. But after notching two goals – to give him 10 on the year – and an assist in one of his stronger games of the season, there’s no doubt how much the Rangers will value the play of their leading scorer among defensemen in the playoffs.
PLUS – Henrik Lundqvist – In a game where a valiant effort was not needed, Lundqvist brought one nonetheless in turning aside 19 of 20 Montreal shots. The only blemish came on a goal by Rene Bourque with 2:29 left in regulation to end his shutout attempt, but Lundqvist’s play all game long was solid as he clearly appeared to be in playoff form. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him get every start from here on out for the remainder of the season, and if that’s the case, he appears ready for the task.
PLUS – The Power Play! – That isn’t a misprint. In addition to going 2 for 4 on goals from Brad Richards (thanks to a solid screen in front by Callahan) and Del Zotto (amazingly, his first power play tally of the year), the Rangers showed cohesiveness on all four man-advantages, even despite failing to score on the other two chances. With solid passing and constant pressure on Price and the Montreal penalty kill, the Rangers offered a glimpse of the kind of talent their power play can, and hopefully will, produce in the playoffs.
MINUS – The Officiating – Well, we had to find SOMETHING to criticize. Another early whistle for an opposing goalie, followed a few minutes later by several whacks by Bourque on Lundqvist before the whistle was blown and some blatantly missed calls early on, but nothing out of the usual, and certainly not the fault of the Rangers. It will be lost due to the end result, but this marks yet another game in which the Rangers received absolutely no help whatsoever from the referees.
Overall, an extremely solid effort, and a reason for the Rangers to enjoy their Friday night. Because now the real test begins. And with games against three of the top four teams in the East points-wise, as well as a finale against a team that will likely be playing for their postseason lives, it’s not a stretch to argue that the playoffs unofficially begin Sunday night against Boston.