This was about as pleasant a surprise as could be. In a must win regulation game against the eighth seeded Lightning, the Rangers took Tampa Bay to school, slicing the deficit to five. In every aspect, they dominated. It didn't take long to figure out that this wasn't the same team which entered winless in their last four. When enforcer Colton Orr flipped a backhand past Johan Holmqvist for his first career NHL goal, you knew immediately that this was a different team. How often is it that your goon scores? It was nice to see. And it came off the hard work of Blair Betts and Ryan Hollweg, who btw had his own big game. More on that in a bit.
This game was why the club went out and got Sean Avery. Instead of using the same old combinations, Tom Renney finally did what I have wanted for two months. He broke up the one-dimensional Jagr unit to balance out his lines. Here's what an energized MSG saw instead:
The changes saw instant results as every line had the kind of chemistry needed to get the all important victory. Fyi...the third line never should've been broken up in the first place. Able to roll four lines, Renney called on everyone in this one and finally saw the kind of offensive balance his club has severely lacked most of this disappointing campaign.
When the underrated Hossa took a pass in stride from Michal Rozsival, he ripped a shot underneath the crossbar for his fourth. Very deserving for the 26 year-old Slovak who never has dogged it despite the criticism from fans. He has always worked. The goal made it 2-0 after one period.
For much of the past two months, no lead has been safe for this club. So, when they broke up several Lightning chances in the second and got some key stops from a sharp Henrik Lundqvist who made his 20th consecutive start, it was huge. One goal the other way and maybe this one swings. Instead, they took advantage of a poor Tampa change. And here came the "Did You See" Moment as captain Jaromir Jagr flipped a backhand feed across to Hollweg, who buried it for his first of the season as well. It also was his first point. At this point, with Orr and Hollweg tallying plus Hossa getting one, you had to feel pretty good. But also had to think you were seeing things. But this is how it was on one night when everything worked.
After Marc Denis replaced Holmqvist, Tampa enforcer Andre Roy challenged Orr during a shift but the ex-Bruin decided that with his team up three, he would wait. Their time would come later. The icing on the cake came when the newly acquired Avery was setup in the high slot and took a routine wrister which went upstairs with traffic in front. There it was! The much discussed ex-Kings' first Ranger tally. The crowd which already had given out huge cheers for Orr and Hollweg stood up and went nuts again. It was Avery's second point in two games. Already, the gritty agitator is making a difference. To all the cynics who despise this guy for his antics. He's a pretty damn good player. Most of his shifts thus far have been very active. The underrated aspect of his game which never is discussed is his skating. Top notch.
Up four, that's when Orr obliged and then got the better of Roy in an entertaining scrap which had everyone's attention. Roy might've gotten the takedown but Orr won this one and got a standing ovation.
It was early in the third when Jagr capped the scoring when his wrister off the right wing went thru Denis and just over the goal line before the Tampa netminder covered it up. It went to video review but it confirmed the obvious. That No.68 had tallied for the second straight game. That in itself is good news for the team. If they are to make a run at this thing, they'll need Jagr to finish more.
The only question was whether Lundqvist would get the shutout. So many times in his two-year career the team has let him down and he's fallen short. But even after Hollweg's five-minute kneeing major, the club confidently killed off the remaining time to give the popular Swede his second blanking this season. He stopped all 29.
Regarding the Hollweg major, it was hard to tell if it was the right call. I won't get to see a replay. But from my vantage point up in 411, I could see when he started skating towards the Tampa player that it had disaster written all over it. The player had the puck and then tried to get out of the way and their knees collided, making the call an easy one for the two officials. That's how Ryan plays. He is very aggressive and won't mail in a shift. Unfortunately, he'll be forced to sit out tomorrow's contest in D.C. due to being tossed out.
Look for Pascal Dupuis to take his place on that fourth line with Betts and Orr. Dupuis should fit in well considering his skating ability. Expect a rematch between Orr and Brashear. If you recall the last meeting at MSG, it was a Ranger domination in late December which featured tons of goonage.
I think in a game where Orr and Hollweg stepped up their game, they should've been the 2nd and 1st Star. Lundqvist was good but he didn't have to make that many tough saves. It was just nice to see the energizers getting their due after such an inspired effort. And they seemed to eat it up. Why not? It's been a while since this team showed that kind of form at MSG.
So, is this a mirage what happened tonight? Until we see them repeat it, that's what we'll believe. They need to back it up with another solid effort at Washington tomorrow. Btw...they're no pushovers. They have 54-55 points. And you know Ovechkin and Semin will be ready as will Glen Hanlon's overachieving bunch. That isn't an easy place to play.
The Rangers so far are 5-4 in the second game of back-to-backs. They'll need to make it 6-4 if they want to really make believers out of their supporters.
Aside from that, rookie Daniel Girardi continues to establish himself on the blueline. He teamed with Fedor Tyutin to form a solid pair. Girardi isn't flashy but wow, it looks like the Rangers have found someone. Just 22, he is really smart in his end and doesn't make too many glaring mistakes with the puck. Amazing. Marek Malik also returned to the lineup and played a sound game, re-pairing with Rozsival to anchor the blueline. The only pair that scared me was Karel Rachunek with Aaron Ward. Anytime you put Rachunek with anyone, you worry. But Ward played one of his better games and broke up a couple of plays. And Rachunek didn't do anything stupid for a change.
The Rangers (26-24-5, 57 pts) have 27 games remaining. They must jump over three teams in order to qualify for their second postseason in a row. It's not going to be easy. Still five back, they have their work cut out. The next four games are all ones they must come with a purpose with:
Feb. 10 Rangers at Washington, 7 p.m.
Feb. 15 Rangers at Carolina, 7 p.m.
Feb. 17 Rangers vs. Philadelphia, 1 p.m.
Feb. 18 Rangers vs. Chicago, 3:30 p.m.
In this league as you already know, there are no nights off. Just ask the Devils and Pens about those lottery bound Flyers. They had to work hard just to come away with victories. The team needs as many points as they can get. All four are winnable. The goal should be to get 7 of 8 points here. If they can manage that, it should help the cause.
As I told host Joe McDonald during this past Wednesday's show, we'll know what direction this club is headed in the next 10 days.