It's about time the New York Rangers won a game like this.
On a night when they didn't play their best, when they were outshot by a sizeable margin, and when they were at less than full strength, the Rangers survived and beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-3. For once, the Rangers were the opportunists, capitalizing on–and finishing off–their opponents mistakes, and for the first time in far too long, Henrik Lundqvist was the difference, turning aside 37 shots.
The Blueshirts came out firing on all cylinders, looking to take advantage of a Lightning team playing their second game in as many nights. Rick Nash got the monkey off his back early in the first, when he scored on a tap-in courtesy of Derek Stepan. Stepan showcased some nifty stick work on the play, batting a puck out of mid-air at the offensive blue line, driving wide, and finding Nash all alone on the doorstep.
For Nash, the goal snapped a 7 game drought.
After the initial flurry, Tampa seemed to find their legs, and the game became a back-and-forth affair. The Lightning tallied the next two–the second, a long rebound put home by Ondrej Palat–representing the one miscue in an otherwise stellar night of work by Henrik Lundqvist, to seize the lead.
But, fear not Blueshirts' fans, that sinking "here it comes" feeling wouldn't last long on this night. The Rangers responded by rattling off 3 unanswered power play goals–a deflection off a defenseman's skate by Mats Zuccarello, a strong power move to the net by Chris Kreider, and a tic-tac-toe tap-in by the continually resurgent Benoit Pouliot. This all coming against what's become the Rangers kryptonite: a backup goalie. But this time, the Rangers got the better of 6' 6" stone-statue Anders Lindback.
However, it was far from a perfect effort. After going up 4-2 midway through the second, the Rangers seemed to shut down, and Tampa gradually seized control of the game. On several occasions, the Blueshirts–playing without two of their top four D–were caught scrambling in their own end and needed Lundqvist to bail them out. He was up to the task. Said Mats Zuccarello:
"Our 3rd period wasn’t really good. We were getting a little nervous and didn’t play to our standard, but Hank was our best player."
In that third period, the Rangers were outshot 16-6, and spent the majority of its' first half in their own zone. When Valtteri Filppula found himself all alone in the slot for a pretty defection goal at 8:14 of the final stanza, it seemed as if the the tying marker wouldn't be far behind. But, the Blueshirts were able to re-establish their forecheck late, and limit Tampa's quality chances down the stretch.
Youngster Conor Allen, making his NHL debut, logged 15:47 of ice time, and showed enough for Alain Vigneault to lean on him in the third, while veterans such as Michael Del Zotto and Justin Falk saw their ice time cut. Vigneault explained that:
"He was one of our better D. He outplayed some of the other guys, he deserved to be out there. He was poised with the puck."
Allen had one "welcome to the bigs, rook" moment late in the third–when Martin St. Louis danced around him, nearly leading to a scoring chance–but otherwise showcased solid skating ability, moved the puck, and looked like he belonged.
Speaking of belonging, Mats Zuccarello resumed his role as spark plug of the Rangers' offense with a three point outing, after an off-game in Washington. Derek Stepan–playing in front of a Team USA scout–had a nose for the puck, and played the type of game the Blueshirts sorely need him to have with more regularity. His assist on Nash's goal gives him just 5 points in 13 December contests.
With the win, the Rangers get back to .500, improving to 19-19-2, with one to go until the midpoint of the season. One thing's for sure–if the Rangers are to go on a run, they'll need more performances like this out of their two big stars–Rick Nash and Henrik Lundqvist–who fans and management alike can only hope have awoken from their respective slumbers.
-It's only one game, but if Conor Allen shows he can play–and it wouldn't be a shock if when Anton Stralman comes back, it's Falk or Del Zotto, not Allen, who heads to the press box–it would make it a lot easier for the Rangers to part with a defenseman in a trade somewhere down the line.
-Benoit Pouliot's goal gives him points in 7 straight games.
-Make it 28 points in 32 games for Mats Zuccarello, since he was a healthy scratch after being held pointless in his first 7.
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