Saturday, December 24, 2011

Rangers fly past Philly in Round 2

I haven't been to many games this year. Unlike past seasons, I've hardly seen Ranger games in their entirety due to my work schedule. However, they have a pretty impressive record when I barely watch. :P Even the last second win at Phoenix proved the theory that sometimes, getting updates via Twitter is pretty fun when you can't watch. However, this week before Christmas, I got a little holiday treat with back-to-back home games against blood rivals. The end result was a bit sweeter than my birthday present thanks to Dom Moore and the Bolts.

First up were the Islanders, who always play us tough. Toss the records out whenever they meet. Especially at MSG. Quite honestly, the Rangers got away with a 'C' effort and held on for a two-goal win thanks to an odd goalie pull by Jack Capuano. Unless Evgeni Nabokov simply screwed up, it made no sense that he went to the bench when the team barely had the puck. Goalies shouldn't leave for the extra attacker until it's in the other end and you have possession. The reaction of favorite Isle tweep Reina De La Isla summed it up. Not much makes sense on the Island these days. We'll just leave it at that.

Still, it was our second consecutive win following two sub-par showings versus Dallas and at St. Louis that in particular, drew John Tortorella's ire during the first intermission on the second episode of HBO's 24/7. What I admire about the mild mannered coach is he doesn't mince words. "If you don't play hard, you're not playing," wasn't quite the unique mind of Ilya Bryzgalov, who compared his shepherd to a hot blonde girl that left teammates speechless. I still love the part where Jaromir Jagr moves to a different table to eat due to teammates razzing the Russian netminder about his views on the universe. Then, Jagr says he can't eat alone. So, Bryz joins him.

Speaking of Bryzgalov, he opposed Henrik Lundqvist in one of the biggest regular season games I can remember tonight. Tortorella wisely rested Lundqvist Thursday with Marty Biron stopping 24 and garnering 2nd Star honors for his seventh win. It also happened to be Brandon Dubinsky's best outing with a highlight reel end-to-end goal in which the Isles turned into pylons. Pretty disgraceful. I mentioned in a preview before the Devil game that he usually turns it up against the black and red. Ironically, he was strong and what do you know? He scored and set up John Mitchell's empty netter yet somehow didn't receive a star with instead the much improved Mike Del Zotto (GWG) earning top star while Artem Anisimov got third star. At least his teammates rewarded him with the Broadway Hat. Good stuff.

Dubinsky continued his upswing with another outstanding effort while Lundqvist (28 saves including some big ones early), shooting star Marian Gaborik (NHL-leading 21st on a breakaway), Derek Stepan and folk hero Stu Bickel (2 assists-4 Pts and 2 scraps already) contributed to a convincing 4-2 win over the Flyers- pulling into first place. It also marked Jagr's return with some undeserved boos No.68's way. But what can you expect? He's a Flyer and sometimes, fans have short memories. At least this one doesn't. I don't boo.

For a guy that's been away for three years in the KHL, it's safe to say Jagr's still got it. He was the most dangerous Flyer while teaming with recovered teammate Claude Giroux and Scott Hartnell, who form the league's best line. Stellar work was turned in by Dan Girardi (Superman), Ryan McDonagh and Del Zotto, who's been our best defenseman lately. His defense in particular has improved leaps and bounds. Plus he's showing more and more confidence offensively. No shock that he's on the score sheet with regularity. Full marks to our third-year blueliner, who undoubtedly has worked very hard. Without his turnaround, no way are the Rangers only behind the Bruins in the East, who only dismantled Florida 8-zip. Can anyone beat them?

If not for Lundqvist during the first half of the opening period, who knows what the outcome is? I noticed in warmups how sharp he looked with a rare seat at center ice, which also had quite the atmosphere. This was easily the most buzz in the building in quite some time. Even before the action, you could feel it. Flyer fans showed up in Lindros, Roenick and Hartnell jerseys ready to support their heroes. However, it wasn't their night. Despite a strong start in which Philadelphia controlled the tempo, they couldn't sneak one by Lundqvist, whose rebound control was as good as I've seen. He made a couple of sprawling stops on chances created by Jagr, who was everywhere. Just his size and reach gave the D fits. But as usual, they bent but never broke.

Perhaps a bit lagged from the previous night, the Blueshirts didn't get their sea legs until an anticipated rematch between Brandon Prust and Flyer freshman Zac Rinaldo got everyone up. For the second straight time, Prust got the better of the pup with the refs doing a good job stepping in. Physicality picked up highlighted by a clean hip check from Anton Stralman (uh really) that the crowd oohed and ahhed at during a replay. Tortorella specifically singled out Stralman for his steadiness despite not the best reputation. He also made a great outlet that sprung Gaborik for his breakaway goal early in the third that put us up three. Since Mike Sauer, Steve Eminger and Jeff Woywitka went down, the club has gotten inspired performances out of Stralman, Bickel and rookie Tim Erixon. Credit the organization down in Connecticut for teaching them the system.

For a while, nothing separated each team. Brian Boyle even had a hug fest with Tim Sestito. By that time, the Rangers were ahead two thanks to great deflection goals by Stepan (8th) and obscure pick Ruslan Fedotenko (first point in 10 games). Sometimes, you just have a hunch. Before opening faceoff, I tweeted that Feds would score a big goal. Pretty eerie how that works. A bit different than saying if Gaborik scores in the third versus the Devils, we'll win. Fedotenko hadn't done anything in a while and I just went with gut instinct. His goal went to video review because it went in and out quickly with play continuing. But we could tell it was in. I still am mesmerized by Stepan's tip of a Bickel shot that Bryzgalov had no chance on. He really couldn't be faulted on the first three with two great plays and Gaborik beating him on a break.

The Flyers finally made it interesting following Gaborik's 21st when they converted a power play thanks to a pellet from Andrej Meszaros (5th) set up by Matt Carle and Hartnell. It cut it to 3-1 with under 10 minutes left. With Philly pressing for another, the tide turned thanks to No.1 Star Ryan Callahan, who notched a power play goal that finished Philly. If ever a shift demonstrated why he's our captain, it was the one in response with Matt Read unwilling to take a hit from the bigger man, allowing Captain Cally to win the battle and his line to swing momentum. Moments later with Max Talbot off, there was our fearless leader doing the dirty work to put home a Girardi rebound for his 13th. Del Zotto added his 15th helper. That's what makes Callahan special. He'll never be the most talented but he never takes a shift off and simply outworks the opponent. The epitome of this team.

Sure. A video review confirmed that Jersey native James van Riemsdyk notched his ninth late after misguided "First Place" chants. But that was as close as they got. The Rangers improved to 2-0 versus the Winter Classic host with the next meeting on January 2, which everyone will be watching. It should be a doozy.

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Stu Bickel, NYR (2 assists, 6 hits, +2 in 9:04)
2nd Star-Henrik Lundqvist, NYR (28 saves)
1st Star-Ryan Callahan, NYR (PPG-13th of season, tremendous leadership)

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