Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Wolski's late heroics give Rangers a boost

They needed something and fast. With another hard fought game slipping away, Wojtek Wolski came to the rescue by scoring late in regulation and notching the shootout decider in Round Three, pushing the Rangers to a big 4-3 win last night over the Hurricanes in Raleigh. The stirring finish allowed the Rangers to go from falling into a seventh place tie with Carolina holding one game in hand to being three points up with 68 points to the Canes' 65.

Good thing too cause the Devils won again cutting Carolina's lead to nine. The Leafs also got a huge win thanks to a late Phil Kessel tally over the Islanders 2-1. This unpredictable playoff race continues to intensify with anything possible. That's why it was imperative for the Rangers to get this game after dropping two straight to the Devs and Flyers. With the win, they improved to 8-7-0 without Marian Gaborik (concussion). They also pulled it out despite losing Marc Staal to an injury after he took a clean hit from brother Eric Staal, who caught his own flesh and blood with a shoulder knocking our best defenseman to the ice. He got up and went to the bench but didn't return for the third, letting doubts creep in to if his own brother concussed him. As it turned out, it was actually a knee that kept him out, which isn't expected to be serious. We'll see Friday when the Rangers play Washington before facing their Kryptonite Tampa Bay Sunday.

While we'll have an eye on Staal, enough can't be said about the character this team demonstrated after what looked like another gut wrenching loss was in the works, thanks to two Jussi Jokinen third period tallies that put Carolina ahead. The Rangers seemed to be in decent shape thanks to a late second period five-on-three power play goal (not a misprint) by Ryan Callahan, who tipped home a Mats Zuccarello point shot for their second lead of the night. After a bevy of missed infractions on the home team, the Blueshirts finally got a break when a phantom hook on Joni Pitkanen gave them the two-man advantage. Instead of working around the perimeter, they got the puck to Zuccarello at the point, who didn't hesitate finding Callahan in front for the PPG.

Lately, our team has had issues closing out games. They've lost a bunch of tight one-goal decisions lately sans a couple of empty netters. The Canes rallied thanks to Jokinen who twice burned the Rangers with his 13th and 14th goals. How a skilled, gritty player doesn't have more is mind boggling. Anyway, on the first he picked up a loose puck following a Ranger penalty kill and rifled one far side on Henrik Lundqvist, tying it. There was nothing our goalie could do as it just bounced right to him and he made no mistake, firing quickly. The second appeared more damaging with Jokinen getting to a Jay Harrison point shot in front and flipping a backhand past an outstretched Lundqvist. Again, not much he could've done as he was expecting Harrison's shot and then Jokinen in one motion took the puck and steered it home. At that exact moment, I was ready to throw my arms up because our guys had played a good game, forcing Cam Ward to stand on his head. Ward is one of the best goalies and made all kinda of acrobatic saves, imitating Mike Richter. The goalie our Devil blogger Hasan compares him to.

It looked like an effort that saw Ward come up with nearly 40 saves before overtime would doom us. Instead, Wolski combined with Ryan McDonagh for a sweet goal tying it with 1:50 to go. All night, he and linemates Zuccarello and Derek Stepan had been our best line, generating chances off the forecheck. They particularly buzzed a prior shift with Stepan coming close. This time, Wolski got the puck from McDonagh, who played an oustanding game along with Mike Sauer- and went around a Hurricane and then centered a pass for a wide open Sauer at the doorstep which banked in off a Carolina player. If the puck had come to Sauer, he probably puts it home anyway unless Ward does the unthinkable. Considering how he played, maybe it's good it never got to that.

The overtime was one of the best you'll see without someone scoring. Both goalies were superb as they had been. Lundqvist finished with 30 stops and Ward 43. When nothing was decided, it went to a shootout. In it, the two netminders controlled things with each equal to the task. Though Ward a bit more impressive stoning shootout ace Erik Christensen on a tough deke and then forcing Zuccarello wide on another forehand attempt. Lundqvist stayed with Canes' ace Jokinen getting a piece of his backhand deke after thwarting rookie Jeff Skinner. The Canes sent our former Calder winner Sergei Samsonov but Henrik shut the door on the crafty Russian's five-hole attempt, setting the stage for Wolski. Before the skill competition, he sought advice from loquacious backup Martin Biron. A man who has a future in broadcasting must've said the right thing because the move Wolski made was sheer genius. Looking as if he was going to go wide like our first two shooters, Wolski surprised Ward with a quick shot high glove, giving an excited Ranger club its third win in five.

"I was happy to be put in that position, and even more excited that we won,” the late hero said.

“Everybody felt we could come back, and it was nice to finally get that bounce in the third period,” Callahan pointed out after netting his 16th goal. “It’s good for our morale and it shows character to stick with the game plan.”

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