By show of hands, how many felt confident that the Rangers would go into the Shark Tank and come away with two points the other night? Alright. We're guessing five to 10 percent. Considering how dreadful they looked against Anaheim and with how well San Jose's been going since the break, it looked like doom and gloom. Instead, thanks to a clutch performance by Henrik Lundqvist, the Blueshirts escaped with a 3-2 shootout win, putting them at 76 points with a dozen left.
When his team needed him most in a must win, Lundqvist delivered his best work- making 31 saves including many in a lopsided third when his team hung on. Even better, the King of the shootout sans Martin Brodeur was at his best, turning aside five of six San Jose shooters including the last four. None were bigger than his denial of Ryane Clowe who could've clinched it in Round Three following Dan Boyle's awesome super backhand deke. It allowed Wojtek Wolski a chance to level it and he was money with a quick wrister beating Antti Niemi for sudden death. After Lundqvist stoned Dany Heatley, it was Brandon Dubinsky who channeled Mark Messier with a sneaky wrister five-hole that gave the Blueshirts the all important win.
However, it wouldn't have been possible without the stellar play of the league shutout leader who knows the pressure's on with teams from behind making pushes. Had he allowed one goal late, the Devils would've been six out with the Leafs and Thrashers- miraculous winners in Philly thanks to a dreadful Kris Versteeg error- four behind and slumping Carolina two out.
“We battled the whole night. It was so important for us to get two points tonight, and at least split the road trip," King Henrik said after getting plenty of help from shot blocking domino Dan Girardi, who delivered a season high nine blocks. The Rangers as a team had 27 altogether, sacrificing like they have all season. That's why the stinker in Anaheim was so disappointing because they didn't compete. In particular, Marc Staal and Danny G who both had forgettable nights along with two-way center Brian Boyle. All bounced back with vigor that has defined this meat and potatoes team.
On a night the Draft Line (Anisimov-Dubinsky-Callahan) weren't a factor, John Tortorella guessed right, reinserting Erik Christensen for Sean Avery on the Marian Gaborik line with Vinny Prospal. When they needed a goal already down one thanks to Clowe, some superb work down low by the trio led to Prospal extending to a six-game point streak with a quick dish in front for Christensen, who did the rest for his 10th.
Overlooked rookie D Mike Sauer continued his splendid play with his second goal set up by Brandon Prust and Ruslan Fedotenko. He also continued to deliver big minutes along with fellow freshman Ryan McDonagh with the second pair duo going plus-four Saturday with five blocks. Big time stuff from two players who didn't even start the year on Broadway. It speaks to how well the organization has developed each while remaining patient with Sauer, who's the last link from the unpopular Brian Leetch deal to Toronto pre-lockout. If only Slats would've held onto Lauri Korpikoski (17 goals) instead of shipping him to Rangers West for Enver Lisin. A deal we'll never fully grasp. At least Sauer's still around, proving to be a reliable two-way blueliner who doesn't take crap from anyone. Exactly the kind of defenseman this club's lacked forever.
For the Rangers, who've won three of four, they'll need to keep it going tomorrow night when the archrival Islanders pay a visit to 33rd and Seventh. The Islanders have been playing good hockey, giving the Devils all they could handle twice with each contest going extras before the Devs prevailed. It won't be easy with Calder candidate Michael Grabner, Matt Moulson, John Tavares and Blake Comeau leading a better offense. There's also the subplot of former No.1 pick Al Montoya likely going opposite Lundqvist, who blocked his path. You know Montoya would love nothing better than to outperform our franchise netminder, damaging Ranger playoff hopes. He wasn't that good in the loss to the Devs, giving up a pair of softies including David Clarkson's rebound that allowed New Jersey to keep their dream alive. Montoya's performed well for the Isles. So, it should be interesting.
Tomorrow's a big day with the Devils facing the Thrashers in a rematch at The Rock while the Sabres- 6-4 winners over Ottawa on an emotional day that saw popular French Connection member Rick Martin pass away in a car accident- take on the Canes at the bottom of the hour. There are huge implications for all four clubs, who also will keep a close eye on tonight's Tampa Bay-Toronto match. A Leaf win would move them into a tie with Carolina for ninth with 72 points. Four off the pace. The Devils and Thrashers basically are fighting to stay in tomorrow. If one wins in regulation, it could be a crusher for the loser. Atlanta sits tied for 10th with the Leafs at 70 while the Devils are 12th with 68 and one fewer game played.
So much is riding on the line for everybody. Do the Devils have more magic in their sticks after unclaimed waiver defender Anssi Salmela beat Montoya in overtime? Or can the Thrashers build on an unlikely comeback win against the top seed after a nifty Evander Kane dish for equally unlikely hero Ron Hainsey? Can Tyler Ennis keep it going against the desperate Canes who suffered a bitter defeat 3-2 to Columbus? Or is this the day Eric Staal and Cam Ward deliver? Can Montoya upstage Lundqvist or will the King reign supreme at a place he and teammates haven't performed well in? Stay tuned.
Crack open a Killians and enjoy the puck on St. Pat's.