For most of the season, Matt Cullen has struggled to score goals. In today's 4-3 Ranger win over the Canadiens at Bell Centre, the former Hurricane was splendid in notching two even strength goals including the winner with 6:05 left to spark the revitalized Blueshirts to their fourth win in a row.
In a game which included five power play goals, those two goals at five-on-five proved to be the difference in a weirdly played entertaining rare Saturday matinee up north. With the flu-riddled Habs without their emotional leader Saku Koivu, the Blueshirts got out to a quick start thanks to Cullen, who took a nice Fedor Tyutin pass at the Montreal blueline and split the D before beating David Aebischer top shelf at 10:20. A splendid play in which he utilized his speed to finish it off.
The good news for the Rangers was that they killed off back-to-back Habs' power plays quite easily. The bad was that in a period they outshot their tired opponents 11-3, they only led by one. However, thanks to some hard work from ex-Canadien Marcel Hossa on a great shift in the second, he drew a hooking penalty on defenseman Janne Niinimaa. The red hot Martin Straka took advantage by one-timing a Michael Nylander feed at the point past Aebischer for a 2-0 lead at 6:36.
But with things going well, they ran into penalty trouble and soon the dangerous Habs power play came to life connecting twice within a 3:49 span to tie it. On what was a strong penalty kill, all it took was one Aaron Ward attempted clear which was intercepted at the blueline. When Craig Rivet passed across to Mark Streit for a quick one-time blast which beat Henrik Lundqvist, the Canadiens were back in the game. A little later, Tyutin high sticked Alexei Kovalev and went to the box. The Rangers again paid the price when Tomas Plekanec rebounded home his own shot from a sharp angle to knot it suddenly with 5:46 to go in the second.
Just like that, a brand new game. With the momentum, the Canadiens nearly went ahead less than a minute later but Michael Ryder hit the right post. With less than 2:00 left, Hamilton call-up Mikhail Grabovski made a nifty move to beat Michal Rozsival and get a great chance but was denied by Lundqvist. With it still tied, the Ranger top line minus ailing captain Jaromir Jagr drew an Andrei Markov hooking penalty with 1:12 left. Though they didn't connect before the end of the period, ultimately they would cash it in with time to spare when Rozsival buried his fifth through a Brendan Shanahan screen 38 seconds into the third.
But in a topsy turvy game, you knew that goal wouldn't stand up. And when Jed Ortmeyer went to the box for slashing, the opportunistic Canadiens made it three in a row on the man-advantage thanks to mad bomber Sheldon Souray. After testing Lundqvist from every angle for the majority of it which included a flat out denial of a point blank Sergei Samsonov shot ticketed for the inside of the crossbar, a Souray blocked shot came right back to him and he ripped it off the post and in for his 11th PP goal of the season (14th) to tie it once again with 11:20 remaining.
But in this contest, if New York had one advantage, it was at even strength. When they stayed out of the box, they were the better club. To Coach Tom Renney's credit, he sent out the effective fourth line of Hossa, Ortmeyer and Jason Ward. All game, they had done a solid job attacking the Habs D with a tenacious forecheck. In particular, Hossa was a one-man wrecking crew in this one. For all the criticism the much maligned 25 year-old forward gets because he's scored only once while winning two shootouts, he sure played a spunky game today. He was the team's hardest working forward and even got rewarded by Renney when he finished the contest on the top line in place of Jagr, who left during the second after tweaking a groin.
With momentum reestablished, that's when Cullen would come through but not without some help from Shanahan and Marek Malik. During a breakout in his end, Malik angled a long pass down the ice with Shanahan breaking. It would've been icing but Shanahan got to it and then drew a Canadien to him setting up a three-on-two. He quickly fed a cutting Cullen, who then beat Aebischer in a similar fashion to how he scored his eighth in the first. Using that speed, the on-rushing pivot cut to the middle and then blasted the puck by Aebischer's glove inside the crossbar for the deciding marker.
They never really were threatened in the final minutes. And thanks to a Kovalev hooking penalty with seven seconds to go, the faceoff came outside allowing the Rangers to run out the clock.
It proved to be a huge win for the Rangers. Though they remained four points behind first place New Jersey, thanks to a Devil 3-2 win at Ottawa oddly enough at the same time (why), the Rangers pulled into fifth in the East by themselves two ahead of the Senators and Hurricanes. The Canes play now against the Islanders. The other plus is that suddenly the Rangers find themselves just three behind fourth after dealing Montreal its second consecutive defeat.
At 22-17-4 with 48 points, the Rangers will look to keep it going Tuesday night when they return home to host the Islanders. The Islanders have been a thorn in their side so far taking the first three games. So this is one they should have circled.
Game Notes: Jagr injured his groin in the second and didn't take another shift. He played just 10 shifts (9:49). ... Rookie defenseman Thomas Pock replaced Karel Rachunek in the lineup due to an injury. Though he still was unsteady in his end paired with Darius Kasparaitis, there was a noticeable improvement offensively. In 18:40 of action, he had four shots on goal including a couple of good ones on a power play and finished plus-one. ... During a delayed call, the Canadiens appeared to score when Grabovski backhanded a loose puck into the net. But the officials prematurely blew the whistle thinking Lundqvist had it in his glove. Justice was served anyway when the Habs connected on the PP to cut it to 2-1. ... Rookie Guillaume Latendresse also sat out with the flu. ... Making his sixth consecutive start, Lundqvist finished with 21 saves. ... Other plus for the Rangers was that once again, Renney rolled four lines. Every forward except the injured Jagr and Ortmeyer (7:41) played at least 10 minutes.
Betts Given Extension: While we're on topic with the Rangers, they re-signed checking center Blair Betts to a two-year extension the other day before the Flyer win. The 26 year-old Alberta native who was acquired along with current Hartford prospect Greg Moore in exchange for Chris Simon a couple of years ago has been one of the most diligent working players on this club. The underrated No.19 won't score much but does the little things well such as blocking shots (first among NHL forwards) and penalty killing and forechecking. In his second year as a Blueshirt, he had five goals and one assist in 43 games thus far along with a shorthanded goal. Last season, in 66, Betts scored eight times and added two assists for 10 points with a SHG. He was making $550,000 this season. He'll receive $615,000 over the next two years. A solid move rewarding a team oriented guy.