There have been games this year where you knew the Rangers left points on the table. Tonight against the red hot Penguins, they didn't allow that to happen. Playing the kind of desperate hockey needed to make the playoffs, they were by far the superior team against a tired Pittsburgh club which played the night before (home shootout win over Ottawa).
That said, the Pens have been a thorn in the side of the Blueshirts all season. They recently broke their backs by coming from two down to pull out a 3-2 overtime win at Mellon Arena. It marked the second time that had happened. It also took place at MSG with the Pens posting a shootout win courtesy of Sidney Crosby.
Tonight though, Tom Renney's club didn't allow the Pens' tying goal from with 5:34 left to get to them. Instead, they stayed rock solid in their end limiting the Pens' chances and remarkably got the winner in the final minute on a break. But maybe they deserved that fortuitous bounce when Michel OuelletJaromir Jagr centered one off Rob Scuderi's skate and just over the goal line despite Jocelyn Thibault's attempt to hide the puck. A video review confirmed that Jagr had indeed finally snapped his goal drought, getting his first in nine games. It was a milestone for Jagr, who reached 25 goals for the 16th consecutive season. But none of his 25 this year were ever bigger. Even if he was trying to get the puck to Michael Nylander, who actually had a very strong game and was pivotal on the deciding goal by beating Sidney Crosby on a neutral zone draw which gave the Rangers puck possession and allowed Jagr to make the play, putting his club ahead with only 33.8 seconds remaining.
The best part though about this win was how well the Rangers defended their end. Something that was very apparent as the Pens with an extra attacker scrambled around behind the net to try to force OT like they have so many times this season. But Marek Malik did the job on Crosby behind the net, pinning him against the boards. And even if the officials called a tacky holding the stick penalty and put 2.2 back on the clock, there was no way the Pens were tying it. And when Blair Betts won one last faceoff, the Rangers had their big two points, improving to 36-28-9 and boosting their postseason aspirations with 81 points- just a point behind sixth Tampa Bay and one better than eighth Carolina.
All three teams have nine games left. The Lightning host the fading Islanders later tonight in a huge match-up. Look for No.1 goalie Rick DiPietro to return from a concussion. That's how desperate the situation is for the Fishsticks, who not too long ago looked like a playoff lock after the Ryan Smyth deadline deal. But now have struggled mightily on the blueline and with backup Mike Dunham the past two losses.
The Islanders do have two games at hand on the teams ahead of them. They're currently in a three-way tie for ninth with Toronto and Montreal with each having 78 points. The Leafs will be hosting the Devils at Air Canada Centre tonight in an anticipated rematch. Don't forget about Cam Janssen's high late hit which concussed Tomas Kaberle. But maybe Darcy Tucker, Wade Belak and Co. won't try to get revenge on the fourth liner. This game is too important for the Leafs. But if they are ahead by a comfortable margin in the third or vice versa, look for something to happen.
A couple of other observations on the Ranger win:
1.They almost reached Islander territory, nearly doubling the Pens in shots (42-22).
2.Pens' backup Jocelyn Thibault was brilliant in defeat. Just as he was in a shutout of the Devils last week, the former Nordique was razor sharp. But unlike that game where he was rarely tested, the netminder really had to work just to keep his team afloat, finishing with 40 saves. It now looks like the Pens' once thought weakness is a strength. Both Marc-Andre Fleury and Thibault are playing well.
3.Betts got the Rangers' first goal 47 seconds into the third when he beat Crosby on a draw and then redirected home a Daniel Girardi point shot. Ryan Hollweg notched an assist for his third point of the season. Betts, Hollweg and enforcer Colton Orr were matched against the Crosby line that period and did a superb job neutralizing them. Betts deserved a star for his effort.
4.Rookie Ryan Callahan again excelled in his fifth game, logging over 15:00 while playing a very active offensive game registering five shots and even seeing PP time on the top unit. The Rochester native looks like a keeper. If Brendan Shanahan returns from a concussion Wednesday night vs the Flyers, Callahan deserves to stay in the lineup and continue to get time.
5.Petr Prucha inexplicably only played 7:29 while 20 year-old rookie Brandon Dubinsky got 6:19.
6.Pens' enforcer Georges Laraque (3:43) was reduced to a nonfactor while Sean Avery played his usual spunky game, working extremely well with Callahan and Matt Cullen on the second line. It becomes apparent that this trio should remain intact as they seem to create chaos for opponents.
7.Martin Straka sat out with a bruised leg.
8.Veteran D Jason Strudwick made his season debut with the club after re-signing and clearing waivers. He replaced rookie David Liffiton in the lineup and logged 12:15 as the sixth defenseman. He held his own and didn't make any glaring mistakes.
9.The Pens' Erik Christensen setup Ouellet's 16th by going around a Ranger and making a brilliant goalmouth pass which Ouellet deflected home. Christensen is kind of overlooked as is Ouellet but both are good players who shouldn't be underestimated this Spring.
10.Henrik Lundqvist (21 saves) was again sharp despite not much action. He improved to 31-21-7, continuing to dwindle his GAA (2.39) and lift his save percentage (.914).