It took 11 rounds to decide. Unfortunately for the Rangers, they couldn't send the home crowd totally happy for the holidays. Despite a highlight reel game tying goal by impressive rookie Derek Stepan, who somehow managed to tuck a puck past Dan Ellis with little wiggle room, the MSG hosts couldn't get that one big shot or save needed to win the shootout- falling 4-3 to the Bolts.
Their second consecutive loss (0-1-1) against a top eight seed though disappointing, wasn't that bad. Not when you consider that the Blueshirts dictated most of the match with a consistent forecheck, outshooting the Lightning 37-24. Credit Ellis, who outplayed Henrik Lundqvist to the tune of 34 saves and one more stop in the skill competition for giving Tampa Bay their second straight win over Gotham in the season series. Not that it's a rip at our goalie who for the most part, was solid despite just 21 saves, including a few money stops in sudden death on Steven Stamkos, Vinny Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis. Remarkably, it was Victor Hedman, former Ranger Adam Hall and shootout hero Ryan Malone who solved King Henrik in only his second shootout. The club's third this season. A sharp contrast from recent years where they relied too much on it.
The game also marked the debut of 23 year-old Norwegian Mats Zuccarello-Aasen. John Tortorella didn't shy away from playing MZA, starting him on the top line with Stepan and Brandon Dubinsky, who was instrumental in setting up the big goal that earned our club a point. Dubi played a strong game, around the puck on both sides making solid defensive reads against Bolt duo Stamkos and St. Louis late in regulation. As for Zuccarello who got nearly 18 minutes, he drew high marks from a pleased Tort who had a good chuckle when the gifted Olympian pulled off a triple deke to keep the shootout alive. MZA used his superb skating and skill to generate chances, including a shot from the left circle late which Ellis gloved. Despite his St. Louis-esque frame, the mighty mite didn't back down, even having a classic staredown with Hedman, who looked like a giant next to him. That kinda fight will benefit Zucc, who goes back down to Hartford to play the day after Christmas. It isn't known when he'll return due to the roster which largely depends on Marian Gaborik.
The club which has proven they can win without him played well enough to win. But a couple of mistakes wound up in their net from Stamkos and St. Louis. The Blueshirts fought back, scoring their two goals in 12 seconds off the sticks of Ruslan Fedotenko and resurgent Alex Frolov who finally seems to be getting it. With the game still tied late in the second, Lecavalier steered Tampa in front when he escaped a check to put home Pavel Kubina's feed. With Ellis standing tall, it looked like the Lightning would hold on. But Dubinsky and Stepan had other ideas, combining on the tying goal. A Matt Gilroy dump was turned over by a Bolt, allowing Dubi to free the puck and pass across to an open Stepan, who managed to tuck it in using the net and sliding it across the right post just passed the red line. A very poised play by the emerging Calder candidate. Our team doesn't score many great goals but that one should make NHL Network's Plays Of The Week just for the dynamic skill alone. Plus it came at a crucial moment.
Neither team could get another past either netminder with Lundqvist making two strong denials on Teddy Purcell late, forcing overtime. The four-on-four was exciting but both goalies showcased their skills forcing extras. Hedman (hi glove) and Erik Christensen (ridiculous Jussi Jokinen backhand deke tuck assisted by laughing Martin Biron) split a pair early. Then Hall beat Lundqvist stick side. A Stepan miss forced Henrik to keep the Lightning from making it three-for-three, setting the stage for Zuccarello. MZA didn't disappoint coming in fast before deking forehand, backhand, forehand putting it home with little real estate. A tremendous move which had Tort showing a rare grin. The goalies then took over with too many players going for moves instead of shots. Especially our guys who maybe got caught up in what our more skilled shooters did. Even Michal Rozsival tried a backhand deke. Gilroy also did but was rejected. Marc Staal's try was worse. Finally, Malone went conventional taking advantage of Lundqvist hanging in his crease- firing a perfect laser off the crossbar and in, allowing excited teammates to pour off the bench and mob him.
It was a well played game with only two minors. The Rangers see the Lightning again on New Year's Day following the Winter Classic. They'll hope the third time's a charm against the more skilled team they're battling for playoff position.
BONY 3 Stars:
3rd Star-Artem Anisimov, Rangers (assisted on Frolov goal and played most spirited game)
2nd Star-Derek Stepan, Rangers (tying goal-10th of season forcing extras)
1st Star-Dan Ellis, Bolts (34 saves, 9/11 in shootout)