Friday, February 18, 2011

MZA shootout theatrics topple Kings

Just call him the Magician. I've run out of adjectives to describe Rangers' shootout ace Mats Zuccarello, whose latest theatrics helped the Blueshirts topple a hot Kings team 4-3 at an energized Garden last night. In a very entertaining game full of twists and turns, the Rangers had their ace in a hole who ensured a vital second consecutive win with another fantastic move in the shootout- putting some distance between the seventh seeded club on Broadway and the chase for eighth that now includes their next sizzling opponent tonight in Newark, the Devils.

The Rangers came back from a goal down to take the lead twice but a pesky LA club led by USA Olympian Dustin Brown wouldn't go away with the Kings' captain forcing overtime on the craziest of bounces with under three minutes left. While I've seen other bloggers unfairly blame Henrik Lundqvist for Brown's odd equalizer off a carom and LA defenseman Matt Greene's first which Sean Avery screened his own goalie on, give it a rest. Sure, the King faced nine fewer shots than promising rookie Jonathan Bernier. However, on a night he won his 200th career NHL game by once again stymieing stiff competition to preserve the 'W,' it was his stellar play in the first that gave the Rangers a chance.

After a decent start that saw them earn a power play following a strong kill led by Lundqvist, the Rangers fell into a lull- allowing a tough LA club to take control. Despite missing a couple of opportunities on the man-advantage, Lundqvist still had to deal with a two-on-one shorthanded bid with Anze Kopitar working a give-and-go before being perfectly set up for what seemed like a gimme, only to see King Henrik slide across and make an acrobatic stop doing the splits. They were already trailing by one thanks to Brown's first of two on the power play with Brandon Dubinsky in the box. Our PK had a mix up in coverage allowing Jack Johnson and Justin Williams to easily find a wide open Brown in the slot for his 19th.
In a period largely controlled by LA's forecheck, only Lundqvist kept them from extending the lead.

Not surprisingly, the Rangers heard a smattering of boos. Maybe it inspired them because they were a different team in the second. As usual, future captain Ryan Callahan was involved. Having almost pulled off a great individual effort for a near tally, the glue of our gritty team came through thanks to a one-handed attempt by bright rookie Derek Stepan. Off an Artem Anisimov faceoff win, Stepan took the puck hard to the net and got off a tough shot which Bernier kicked out right to Callahan, who deposited his 15th to loud cheers. If not for an injury that kept him out most of last month, he'd have 20 goals and be on target for his first 30-goal campaign. Not bad for the '04 fourth round steal from Rochester. Is it a tad ironic that he hails from the same area as current Montreal captain and ex-Devil Cup winner Brian Gionta? I think not.

Following Callahan's 15th, the Rangers really carried the play using a strong forecheck to pin the Kings deep. They generated several scoring chances including a couple of close calls which Bernier was able to snuff out. Though he's the understudy to Vezina candidate Jon Quick, you can see why he was a first round selection back in '06. Only 22, Bernier definitely has a bright future in Hollywood- giving Los Angeles arguably the strongest goalie tandem in the league with our duo of Lundqvist and vet Martin Biron right behind.

With the game tied at one after 40 minutes, it felt like the next goal would win. Something I remarked to Bob in my section. On this night, I couldn't have been more wrong as it got wild and wacky the rest of the way. It started when Marian Gaborik ended his scoring drought by taking a Mike Sauer outlet and using Drew Doughty as a screen for a knuckler reminiscent of The Mighty Ducks II. Gabby's Knuckle Puck floated past Bernier putting us ahead at 6:10. Before we could get settled and believe me, plenty of Garden Faithful were pumped- the Kings came right back 1:40 later when Greene of all people tied it thanks to some solid work from Kopitar and Brad Richardson. A Ranger turnover at the LA blueline didn't allow our team to change. The Kings wisely got the puck in and Kopitar and Richardson set up Greene, whose routine slapper hopped off one of our players past Lundqvist. It didn't help that Avery dove in front which probably obstructed Lundqvist's view. Naturally, it was Greene's first. A Ranger specialty. :P

Both teams played to win, forcing the goalies to make big saves. It seemed destined for overtime until Dubinsky got a step on LA's D and snuck a wraparound which must've gone off Anisimov because they later changed what would've been Dubi's 20th to Artie's 13th. Callahan also assisted giving him a two-point night. In 39 games this season, he is 15-15-30. With an assist, Dubinsky's 19-24-43 over 54. Those have been our best players. Two home grown kids who continue to evolve.

It looked like the Rangers would hold on until an odd Rob Scuderi wide shot caromed off the back boards right to Brown, who banked the puck off Lundqvist's head for his 20th. The bizarre play also had Anisimov fall down behind the net which allowed Brown to get free.

So after all that, the game went to OT where our team blew a golden opportunity to win it after LA waste Alexei Ponikarovsky took a double minor for hi-sticking at the end of regulation. In typical fashion, our guys couldn't get anything done with the Kings aided by Gaborik's reluctancy to shoot when he was wide open in the slot. When Dubinsky was whistled for a phantom hi-stick, it brought the most dull three-on-three in existence. People who think this is the answer might want to re-think it because it's two D and a forward. Shockingly, it was very conservative forcing the skill comp.

In it, Erik Christensen pulled off his Forsberg imitation steering us in front. After Lundqvist denied Michal Handzus, Zuccarello moved in slowly driving me nuts only to then fake Bernier out completely for an easy goal. But it wasn't over when LA shootout ace Jarrett Stoll picked high glove on Lundqvist making him seven for eight this year. After Wojtek Wolski was pokechecked by an aggressive Bernier, it came down to Kopitar and Lundqvist. Exactly the kind of theatre you'd want. Kopitar tried for high glove but Henrik got a piece to push it over the top, sealing a large win.

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