Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Lundqvist blanks Islanders

The holiday season has been great for the Rangers. Riding a four-game win streak into the Christmas Break, they weren't about to have it snapped by the Islanders yesterday at MSG. The biggest reason why was Henrik Lundqvist, who turned aside all 28 shots en route to a 3-0 shutout for the club's fifth straight win.

It marked their second win in three games over the Isles, who returned to The Garden a few days after a tough 4-2 loss Thursday. What an odd schedule. In any event, the superb play of Lundqvist along with Mike Del Zotto (2 assists, +3) and budding rookie Carl Hagelin (2 goals) were plenty in improving the Rangers to 22-8-4- vaulting them ahead of the idle Bruins for tops in the East. Their 48 points are one better than Boston, trailing only Chicago, whose 4-1 win over Columbus put them at 50. It's real exciting considering the injuries they've dealt with. With Marc Staal finally cleared for contact, it's anyone's guess when he'll return. In the mean time, John Tortorella continues to take a business-like approach, which should bode well with the new calendar year approaching.

By no means was it easy. The Islanders put up plenty of resistance. Tough guy Michael Haley instigated a fight with Stu Bickel, probably stemming from Bickel's dismantling of teammate Tim Wallace last Thursday. I didn't see any of the first due to visiting my Mom for Christmas. Based on a few of the tweets, it sounded like Jack Capuano's club earned some chances despite being outshot 12-7. I even thought we were down one. As I've stated repeatedly, throw out the records. The Islanders always come to play against the Rangers. No surprise they gave a strong showing in the two periods I caught between dinner and dessert with Lundqvist stifling them. His play has been unreal lately. King Henrik is right there with Jimmy Howard, who should comprise the goalies that challenge Vezina incumbent Tim Thomas. Somehow, our goalie isn't popular enough to be in the top five of All-Star voting. Can someone explain James Reimer first?

All-Star Games are the least of Henke's worries. He just goes about his business quietly and makes the saves. Along with Marty Biron (7-1), you can make an argument that it's the Blueshirts who boast the league's best tandem. While there would be some fun debate with Canuck fans and LA disciples, the most important aspect is that even when our team doesn't play great, they win. That's because players step up each night. Lately, it's been Del Zotto, who continued his amazing turnaround with a couple of brilliant plays for Hagelin's pair. The first saw the third-year pro undress Frans Nielsen with a Leetch-esque move and then fire a shot off Evgeni Nabokov, which Ryan Callahan rebounded right to Hags who deposited his fifth.

Before the same trio combined on an even better goal a period later, Lundqvist bailed out his teammates with sparkling work that included an Isles' flurry. He denied Wallace twice and then a third time with a cat-like glove leaving him befuddled. It's that kind of caliber netminding we're seeing from Henrik, who is a big advantage most nights. Great goaltending can cover a lot up. Especially when our forecheck's not ramping it up. Aside from stopping a dozen shots in the second, he also had plenty of help from top penalty killer Brian Boyle, who emulated a human backboard late to prevent Islander shots from getting through. Boyle and surprise Anton Stralman must've repelled a half dozen in the final minute, frustrating our Long Island rivals. It's that kind of effort that makes our team tough to play against. Boyle's unit with John Mitchell and Brandon Dubinsky were also the most effective on the cycle, energizing the crowd. It looks like for now, Dubinsky will stay put on the third line with the speedier Hagelin meshing with Brad Richards and Callahan.

Another tremendous read by Del Zotto led to some insurance from Hagelin. After a relentless forecheck that had the Isles pinned, he came back in the zone and slid a pass to Callahan, who sent the biscuit back to a cutting Del Zotto. With no hesitation, he centered for Hagelin, who buried his second of the night. Just all around great teamwork started by MDZ with our captain instrumental with Hags finishing. That's the kind of play we used to see religiously from Brian Leetch, who'll be suiting up in the Legends Game on New Year's Eve with Eric Lindros opposing them. Nobody would dare compare Del Zotto to Leetch. But his marked improvement has been a breath of fresh air. Without Del Zotto, no way are we sitting atop the conference.

The Isles didn't quit. Still able to attack with leading finisher Matt Moulson certainly doing his part along with John Tavares and P.A. Parenteau, they were denied by Lundqvist, including a big stop off a three-on-two. Milan Jurcina also tested him with his rocket but was silenced. The effort was there from Capuano's club but the lack of finish was evident. Lundqvist was a big reason along with a sturdy D that blocked 19 shots. How dedicated were they? As many as 15 skaters registered a block with no Blueshirt with more than two. Even Mike Rupp had one. Somewhat astonishingly, Dan Girardi didn't along with Dubinsky and Hagelin.

When Marian Gaborik put the finishing touches on the victory, shooting into a vacated net with 2:28 left, all that was left was that zero thing. They weren't about to allow the Islanders to spoil it. With his third shutout of the season, Lundqvist recorded No.38. He trails all-time franchise leader Ed Giacomin (49) by 11. All this before 30. Maybe the next step's coming.

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Carl Hagelin, NYR (2 goals incl. GW, No.'s 5 & 6, 5 SOG, +2 in 13:21)
2nd Star-Mike Del Zotto, NYR (2 assists-17 tied for team lead with Stepan, +3 hikes rating to +25)
1st Star-Henrik Lundqvist, NYR (28 saves for 3rd shutout, career No.38)

Notes: Rangers (22-8-4) embark on a three-game road trip with stops in Washington Wednesday, Florida Friday before visiting Citizens Bank Park for the much anticipated Winter Classic Jan.2. Early forecasts hint at the possibility of rain, which could affect the start. ... Both teams combined for 62 hits with each having 31, including a game high seven from Isles' bruiser Matt Martin. Stralman paced the Rangers with six. ... Faceoffs were even (25-25). Derek Stepan won eight-of-15 while Tavares went 9-2. ... Islanders (11-17-6) return home to host Calgary Thursday and Edmonton on New Year's Eve.

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