Saturday, March 19, 2011

Prust sets tone in statement over Habs

#InPrustWeTrust. That's become a familiar rallying cry over on Twitter between Ranger tweeps. It sticks for good reason. Gritty Blueshirt Brandon Prust has been a constant from Day One of the season. When it came to choosing who deserved the Extra Effort Award, there were only two choices for myself between Prusty and running mate Brian Boyle. I voted for Boyle, who carries more responsibilities anchoring our grind line that's back intact with Ruslan Fedotenko finally healthy. It's no secret that this trio has been the club's most valuable due to the relentless forecheck and battles they win, injecting energy.

In a game versus another team we hadn't beaten in God knows how long, John Tortorella started their line against the Canadiens last night. Prior to the final regular season meeting which included a strong contingent of roughly 5,000 screaming Montreal fans (never seen anything like it), the Rangers had dropped the previous three all by a goal. Bad starts were the theme before in each, our team rallied only to fall short. Ironically, that had been an Achilles heel on home ice till blowout wins over the Flyers and Islanders. At the most critical time of year, suddenly our guys are coming out flying. In winning convincingly over the Habs 6-3, the start once again reigned supreme. Not shockingly, Prust got the Original Six contest that was like a playoff atmosphere by challenging Travis Moen off the opening draw. They talked right away with a buzz and then each danced for what felt like forever with Prust landing a couple of better shots before a takedown- setting the tone for the evening.

You had to know Tortorella was in their ear about the other three games. When you see our warrior start off by beating their similar rugged vet, it sends a message. It didn't take long for Prust's teammates to follow suit in what amounted to the best period of the season. The Rangers responded by putting a five spot, chasing Carey Price, who really was blameless in the second of a back-to-back. Our guys came ready and won every single battle. The five-goal explosion happened methodically with the fireworks in the second half, highlighted by an odd Ryan Callahan tally that took several minutes up in Toronto before touching off a three-goal barrage in 67 seconds.

Artem Anisimov has made improvement during this critical stretch. In his second season, the lanky Russian has probably blown almost as many chances as Marian Gaborik. After he missed from 12 feet out, I overheard Anthony and his buddy discussing how Arty could have 30 goals. The talent's there and was on display when minutes later, he broke in on Price and went backhand deke, steering the Rangers ahead. The unassisted tally was his 17th.

But before we could breathe, the Canadiens came right back when loathed rookie defenseman P.K. Subban wisely waited before firing a laser thru a double screen to tie it 1:43 later. The controversial talented blueliner then ran Prust from behind, leading to a scrum post-whistle. They nabbed Prust for a questionable interference taking both players off after Subban refused to fight. Playing four-on-four, the Habs' Roman Hamrlik was taken off for a cross check, handing us an unconventional four-on-three power play. On it, our guys got looks but couldn't beat Price. However, after Prust and Subban returned, they kept the puck alive. After it expired, a mad scramble ensued with Price kicking out an Erik Christensen shot right to Dan Girardi, who made no mistake burying it upstairs as our section was screaming for another penalty for a hit from behind in the corner. No one cared anymore with Christensen and Mats Zuccarello setting it up for 2-1.

Leading by one, the Rangers asked Henrik Lundqvist to make a few important stops, which he obliged. The eerie period got even wilder when Brandon Dubinsky outmuscled Scott Gomez and tried a stuff in which caromed out to Ryan Callahan, who seemed to score through a maze of players only to have the refs blow it dead. They couldn't tell if the puck was in, going upstairs for a lengthy review. From our vantage point, it had to cross the line because the puck bounced and Price was inside his net. As it took longer and longer to determine, I wondered if we'd get the shaft due to no conclusive replay. Instead, they managed to get it right, giving Callahan his career tying 22nd from Anisimov and Dubinsky at 17:09.

That's when the real fun began. With fans mocking "Go Habs Go," Gaborik scored for a second straight off a broken play, taking a Christensen pass and roofing it past Price 32 seconds later. Vinny Prospal also assisted, extending his point streak to eight (2-8-10). Before the Habs could breathe, an odd-man rush led by Prust and Marc Staal allowed Boyle to join the party for his 21st 35 ticks later. Prior to the game, he mentioned to Larry Brooks that he had gotten away from what had worked when he was scoring regularly. It was nice to see one of our hardest working players get rewarded. Price's night was over, allowing five on just 12 shots. He really was hung out to dry as his team fell apart following the Callahan review.

Replacing Price was one-time backup Alex Auld, who played strong finishing with 18 saves including a stone job early in the second that would've made it a laugher. Instead, a sharper Habs team warmed to the task courtesy of former Islander James Wisniewski's right point blast eluding Lundqvist, cutting it to three with plenty of time left for a comeback. Having reminded a few buddies along with a very nice couple from Sudbury, Ontario where Marc Staal starred about the ridiculous five-goal comeback a couple of years back, I didn't like what I was seeing. Montreal was quicker to the puck and forcing Lundqvist to come up big. You knew the Canadiens wouldn't quit because they're a good team. In a period they played better even getting a couple of power plays, they were only able to get one with our goalie and the PK doing the job.

Of course, Subban ran into Lundqvist for an obvious goalie interference, drawing a crowd that included Mike Sauer, who immediately challenged him. In typical punk fashion, Subban skated away hiding behind the refs who didn't want any part of it. Considering that the Pens and another talented douche Kris Letang are next, it felt appropriate. Sauer is the kind of defenseman we haven't had since Jeff Beukeboom. No. I'm not comparing the two as there's only one Beuke and Sauer has a long way to go. But in a year it wasn't even a given he'd become a regular, he's our toughest blueliner, never putting up with any shenanigans. This kid is the most overlooked rookie in the league. Thank God Slats at least held onto him. The last link to the unpopular Brian Leetch deal looks like he'll stick around a while.

In the second, the Rangers didn't play smart with both Christensen and even Callahan taking offensive zone penalties with the latter roughing up a Hab with under a minute left. As predicted, the Canadiens finally made it 5-3 thanks to a nifty tip-in by American captain Brian Gionta off a Wisniewski shot. The little engine that could got position in front and I knew it was coming. He's always killed us since the Devil days. It was his 26th of the season from Wiz and Hamrlik that made it 5-3 with still 19:06 left.

A once potential rout became a hockey game with each team taking turns attacking. Our cycle came back with some effective shifts, stemming the tide. However, Lundqvist flat out robbed a Hab on the doorstep with a sliding glove stop that had everyone chanting, "Hen-rik, Hen-rik, Hen-rik." The biggest save of the night allowed his teammates to breathe easier. When Prospal converted at the doorstep on a late power play for 6-3, the Rangers had their biggest win to date, allowing them to move four points up on both Buffalo and Carolina, who rallied past the Islanders 3-2 to stay in the race.

The reason for the power play was Benoit Pouliot running over Lundqvist, who was shaken up and stayed down for a while before getting up to cheers. For a goalie that is extremely popular and has the GQ look ladies can't get enough of, the King is also tougher than he looks. He stayed in for his record-setting sixth straight season of 30 victories or more to start a career. Even if shootout induced, it's still impressive and speaks to the competitiveness of a guy who was stolen in the seventh round, becoming our franchise netminder. Sometimes, you luck out. Hopefully, he'll be alright.

Lundqvist is usually a regular after each win or loss but suffered from a stiff neck and didn't partake afterwards. Tortorella wouldn't rip the Canadiens for going hard to net, terming it a "hockey play." He's not wrong here. Every team does it. Lundqvist is questionable for tomorrow versus the Pens. If he can't go, former Pittsburgh draft pick Chad Johnson will get the call. A pretty interesting development with 10 games remaining. If it comes to that, it would be nice to see Ocho Cinco stun his former club. We'll just have to wait and see.

PLAYOFF PICTURE: With the Caps shutting out the Devils 3-zip for a crushing defeat Friday, the Devs now need a miraculous 10-1 stretch to reach 90 points. Here's how the race looks.
              
              GP  Pts   GR
*1.Flyers  70   94   12
*2.Caps    73  94    9
*3.Bruins   70  88   12
4.Pens      71  90  11
5.Bolts     71  88   12
6.Habs     72  85   10
7.Rangers 72  80   10
8.Sabres   70  76   12
9.Canes    72  76   10
10.Atlanta 71  72   11
11.Leafs    72  72   10
12.Devils   71  70   11
13.Florida  71  67   11
14.Isles      72  66   10
15.Sens      71  61   11

*Division leaders

Saturday: CBJ 4 Min 3 3rd 
               NYI @ Fla 7 ET
               Atl @ Buf 7 ET
               Bos @ Tor 7 ET
               TB @ Ott 7 ET
               Det @ Nsh 8 ET
               Phi @ Dal 8 ET
               Col @ Edm 10 ET
               Ana @ LA 10:30 ET
               Stl @ SJ 10:30 ET

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