Saturday, March 26, 2011

King Henrik makes case for Vezina

King Henrik isn't done shutting out opponents. Neither is his run towards a first Vezina, which could finally be in the cards. His 26 saves against a potential first round opponent, the Bruins boosted the Rangers to their eighth win in 10. Lundqvist pitched his career and league leading best 11th shutout, allowing rookie Derek Stepan's 20th goal to stand up in Beantown.

Until a late second period surge that included Patrice Bergeron bumping into Lundqvist shorthanded, his day had been routine thanks to outstanding defensive efforts from everyone. Both the D and forwards were in synch, keeping the Bruins on the perimeter while the Blueshirts forechecked vigorously.

Sean Avery was back in for Mats Zuccarello and had a solid afternoon, playing mostly with Erik Christensen and Wojtek Wolski on the fourth line. When John Tortorella sent the trio out, they did a solid job along the boards, generating a couple of chances including a Marc Staal shot that Tuukka Rask shutdown. Filling in for Tim Thomas, the second-year Finn was outstanding finishing with 22 saves. The only blemish a nifty Stepan redirect of a Mike Sauer shot due to a controversial faceoff. I didn't catch it but apparently the refs screwed up. Guess we'll hear more about this later.

The Rangers misfired on three power plays, including one Marian Gaborik had all day to shoot but remarkably chose a low percentage pass to a covered teammate. That kind of play was particularly frustrating for our star, who after the nice stretch of five goals in five games has cooled off. It would also be his silly boarding penalty that awakened the Bruins from their mid-day nap. Though they didn't capitalize thanks to strong penalty killing with Brian Boyle returning after being hobbled by Ruslan Fedotenko accidentally bumping into him. Boyle and sidekick Brandon Prust didn't miss a beat nor did the rest of a PK that got the job done. In particular, Dan Girardi who was big all game with some outstanding work alongside partner Marc Staal while improving rookie tandem Ryan McDonagh and Mike Sauer stifled the B's.

A Girardi clean freight train on Lucic frustrated the big power forward, who eventually got duped by Brandon Dubinsky into a phantom slash. By then, Boston was finally playing better, ratcheting up their trademark physicality. One reason why I don't want to see them early assuming we make it. With nothing happening on the power play, Staal misjudged a puck, allowing the Bruins to come two-on-one. Brad Marchand got the puck to a streaking Bergeron, who had a step on Staal and crashed into Lundqvist after he denied the centerman's shorthanded bid. In truth, there was nothing Bergeron could've done as his momentum carried him into Henrik, who stayed down for a good minute before looking punch drunk when trainer Jim Ramsay came out. Amazingly, the guy I said is tougher than he looks stayed in and saved his best for last.

While Justin and I searched for birthday cards for a girl's party tonight, Lundqvist was doing his best to stifle an all out Boston assault. At least it wasn't criminal. :P When we got back to the car for the final eight minutes, the Bruins were like bees getting in Lundqvist's path. But he stood up to every challenge, denying the dozen shots sent his way. When he wasn't robbing someone, his hustling Ranger teammates were sacrificing their bodies in full playoff mode, blocking some 16 shots in one period. That's got to be some sort of record for a regular season game.

The last four and a half minutes was all Bruins. They fired from everywhere with a couple of times, it sounding like Kenny Albert was ready to say, "They score." But that moment never came as me and Justin looked at each other. In between all the huge saves Lundqvist made were crucial blocks by Boyle, Girardi, Sauer, Callahan and countless others. That's what's defined this team from Day One. Not the flat account they gave the other night versus Ottawa. It's that kinda resiliency which makes this the most rootable Ranger team I can remember in over a decade. Their work ethic wins you over along with the desire to get it done, which has always been Tortorella's mantra.

The last three games, our offense has cooled considerably, scoring only once in each yet we've come away with five of six points- thanks in large part to Lundqvist who has half his four shutouts over the three since Martin Biron went down. The 28 year-old Swede has started 20 straight and notched four of his league high 11 blankings. The way he has stepped up is what you expect from your best player. Make no mistake about it. It's Lundqvist who's defined this run with some of his finest work during his sixth season. One which started shaky with Biron even giving him a few nights off. There have been peaks and valleys but when the chips are down, Lundqvist's stepped up like a real King.

To win his first Vezina, he'll have to beat out a strong cast that features Tim Thomas, Carey Price and Pekka Rinne. All worthy candidates who have had great seasons. Only Price has been the most valuable, which is why I'd throw him and Marc-Andre Fleury in for the Hart if that's still permitted. In a down year offensively aside from The Sedins, where would the Habs or Pens be without their goalies? Enough of this Corey Perry MVP talk when his team may not even make it. Steven Stamkos still is in the convo as well.

What about Lundqvist, who on a team minus a 60-point scorer, more often than not becomes the story when his team looks in trouble. How about the shots he's taken, which scared the beejesus out of Garden Faithful. I thought he looked woozy after the Bergeron incident. Of course, he stayed in. The same man who responded to his coach's challenge earlier this week following another collision with Benoit Pouliot. The man has so much pride and must do it under the spotlight. Sure. The other candidates are good. But if it really is coming down to goaltending and pressure without much of a security blanket, then it should come down to Lundqvist versus Price. You can make a pretty good case for Price, who's also suffered some pepperings from us and recently these same B's who couldn't solve our goalie.

Counting today's yeoman effort, The King is up to 33 victories, 11 shutouts, 2.24 GAA and what would be a new career best in save percentage (.924). It's all but impossible to ignore how he's performed during this run. Over the last 10 games, Lundqvist's 8-1-1 with a 1.67 GAA, .936 save percentage plus three shutouts. This is the kinda superior goaltending our team's needed just to reach this point. Last year, they fell one point shy with the skill competition doing us in. Today's win matches the points (87) they had last year with six remaining. Now, the Rangers get three days off to rest their franchise netminder, who hopefully will be fresh for a crucial test in Buffalo Wednesday before paying a visit to Long Island the following day.

Ryan Callahan is the heart of this team. Brandon Prust the warrior. Brian Boyle the soul. Brandon Dubinsky the axe. Henrik Lundqvist is the backbone. It's time for him to win the Vezina.

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Derek Stepan, NYR (20th goal of season for GW-5 20-goal scorers for NYR-06-07)
2nd Star-Dan Girardi, NYR (outstanding defense, four hits, four blocked shots in 26:24)
1st Star-Henrik Lundqvist, NYR (26 saves-league leading 11th SHO, career No.35)

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