No Gaborik. No Del Zotto. No problem. In what amounted to a pivotal game before the Olympic Break, the Rangers made their Valentine's Day extra sweet by rallying back to defeat the Bolts 5-2 at The Garden this afternoon. A big second period proved to be the difference in their second consecutive win that moved them into 10th with 63 points, tying Tampa Bay who by virtue of one less game played, is ninth a point behind Montreal.
Following up a great character win in which they lost both Gaborik and Del Zotto with a rare victory on home ice was exactly the recipe. With their next game not till March 2 at Ottawa, the Rangers showed more fight in rebounding from a tough first by exploding for four goals in the second en route to their 28th win of the season. Erik Christensen scored twice and set up another to break out of a slump that saw him enter with only three points (all assists) over the past 14 contests. The three points matched a career best that came against Boston on Mar.29, 2007, which coincidentally was his last multi-goal game. Nice to see the versatile waiver bargain get rewarded.
"I think it's been a steady climb since I got here," he said after also just missing his first career hat trick when a shot rang off the right post. "I was unsure of myself when I first got here, trying to keep my head down. I didn't know what to expect. Management had been working with me to become a more confident person, and a more confident player."
Christensen atoned for an undisciplined minor that negated a power play midway through the opening 20, stemming the tide. Both clubs came out playing tight defensive hockey with few shots. Following a Zenon Konopka-Aaron Voros scrap, the Rangers blew consecutive man-advantages with Christensen negating the second with a trip. Eventually, the Lightning capitalized on an abbreviated five-on-four when dangerous finisher Steven Stamkos sent a left point shot that changed direction off a sliding Ryan Callahan, fooling Henrik Lundqvist for the game's first goal. After a brief encounter between Matt Walker and Brandon Prust, Tampa kept it going with sustained pressure that led to Steve Downie deflecting home another Stamkos shot for a 2-0 margin 1:40 apart. Alex Tanguay added a secondary assist.
In a two-goal hole minus two top players, the Blueshirts came out flying during a huge middle stanza that saw them connect four times on 10 shots. It started early thanks to an unlikely player doing an unlikely thing. Sean Avery converted a penalty shot just 100 seconds in injecting life on the bench and the building. The oddity took place when off a Downie turnover inside his blueline, Artem Anisimov slipped a pass for Avery, who was hauled down from behind. Thinking penalty shot, he pointed to center ice and then was properly awarded the opportunity. What came next was more shocking with Avery coming in with the puck and going way wide to the left before snapping one past Smith from a tough angle for his seventh of the season. For a guy who hasn't scored much, it was a revelation. The goal was sweet, eerily reminding us of a No.11 that hangs from the rafters. Ser---iou---sly.
"Avery's shot was a great move and a big goal for us," Lundqvist expressed. "I challenged him a couple of times in practice and told him he would never do that move in a game. It was awesome."
Many instances this season, the Rangers have gotten scored on before a goal was announced, sucking the air out of MSG. It nearly reared its ugly head again. Out of all people, Nate Thompson who scored yesterday in a loss to his former team the Islanders, had a glorious chance to make it 3-1. Instead, a sliding Lundqvist stretched over to rob Thompson's point blank backhand, getting the glove out in the nick of time. Before they drew even, the rating Swedish gold medalist who'll hop on a plane with Team USA duo Callahan and Chris Drury stoned Martin St. Louis during a four-on-four. A Dan Girardi turnover led to a two-on-one with Victor Hedman backhanding one across for St. Louis, who was denied by Lundqvist. He kicked it out. With the crowd serenading the popular netminder with familiar "Hen---rik, Hen---rik," chants, the Blueshirts came the other way three-on-two with Christensen and Marc Staal setting up Vinny Prospal in the slot for the equalizer. It was his fifth goal in five games. With an assist later, he went into the break with eight points over that stretch.
Carrying momentum, the Rangers didn't let up. Using a relentless forecheck, they tilted the ice spending extended time in the Bolts' end. One sequence eventually led to Christensen's first of the day. Off some strong defensive work, they worked the puck to an open Michal Rozsival, whose point blast went just wide. But they recovered it and cycled back to Rozsival, who dished to Prospal. Feeling like a power play, he quickly moved it to an isolated Christensen who came out of the right corner and fired thru Smith's five-hole for the lead at 12:06. He wasn't done. On the next shift, an excellent read led to a breakaway. After stealing the puck from Martin St. Louis, he broke away and netted his fourth as a Ranger 1:46 later. Evolving into a three-on-one, the quick skating Christensen felt backcheck pressure and fired upstairs from the right circle for an unassisted tally, suddenly making it 4-2.
Despite being outshot 13-10, the Rangers had superior skill and goaltending. They also played sound two-way hockey, paying attention to every little detail transitioning for offense. As Dave Malonely noted, a page out of the Tom Renney book. Not a bad thing against an offensive-minded Tampa team that was victimized in its end.
A couple of days after standing up to the whiny Crosby Pens, the Rangers didn't back off at any point against a Lightning club that also has quite a few grinders. We already referenced the two fights with Konopka and Walker dropping the gloves against Voros and Prust. Their roster also features Colton Orr victim Todd Fedoruk, who exchanged pleasantries with Avery between benches. Thompson is no stranger to fighting and even slumping Ryan Malone (assist) can scrap. With our lineup more bulked up featuring newest Ranger Jody Shelley (8 shifts-2:51), who debuted donning his trademark No.45, the rough stuff shouldn't be an issue anymore. Not surprisingly, Shelley and Konopka had words following a shift but nothing materialized. A frustrated Downie tried to stir it up at the end of the second with he and Avery each getting matching roughs.
Perhaps that rubbed off on our D with Rozsival finishing every check and pushing guys away from the net while partner Staal had a strong game finishing plus-three. Even Wade Redden played with more edge. Emergency recall Corey Potter (21 shifts-15:37, 2 hits) was fine and Matt Gilroy sufficient.
Echoing Prospal's words about the well earned triumph Thursday, the Rangers finished the job with a workman like third. Out of Tampa's nine offerings, only a couple were dangerous with Lundqvist making a couple of tricky saves off redirects, including one from Downie. Other than two weird goals, he was superb turning aside the last 22 to shut the door. Exactly what they needed and must continue when the season resumes with 20 games left. The guys in blue, red and white also were disciplined, handing the Bolts only three power plays. In the win over Pitt, they permitted two.
Avery came close to scoring his second with Smith just getting a piece of a right circle shot against the grain. It didn't matter. When Drury sealed it with an empty netter for his 10th, it was the vet's 250th goal and 600th career point, getting congrats from an excited bench. Fitting for a guy who's played better with more important games coming for our country in Vancouver. Hopefully, he can help Team USA surprise many and continue the upswing down the stretch.
Notes: Enver Lisin was a healthy scratch again. ... Prospal-Christensen-Callahan were a combined plus-nine. ... Smith permitted four goals on 22 shots. ... Vincent Lecavalier was held off the scoresheet with just one shot and a minus-two rating. ...Only five Rangers didn't register hits (Callahan-5). Callahan also had four takeaways. ... Rangers blocked 15 shots to Tampa's eight with five players all getting in the path of two, including Anisimov, who made a key block during Bolts' power play in third.
... Having played 62 games, the Rangers are 28-27-7 with 63 points sitting in 10th a point behind the Habs. They visit Ottawa 3/2 and return home to host Pittsburgh 3/4 during a tough four in six day stretch that includes a visit to Washington and a second of back-to-back versus Buffalo at MSG.
BONY 3 Stars:
3rd Star-Sean Avery, NYR (PS goal-7th of season, 4 SOG, 3 hits in 17 shifts-13:38)
2nd Star-Henrik Lundqvist, NYR (27 saves incl. final 22 for 25th win of season-3rd in 4)
1st Star-Erik Christensen, NYR (2 goals incl. GW, assist, 2 takeaways, hit, +3 in 20:42)