Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Henrik stands tall to steal Game Three

The King stands tall as Ryan McDonagh digs in against Zenon Konopka during Game 3.
The Rangers needed something. After how they lost Game Two with a more determined Senator club earning the 3-2 overtime win at a stunned Garden (well not our section), the top seed had to respond. Given that Ottawa is just not a great match up due to their superior speed and attack, I thought that our goalie was going to have to steal last night's game. That's exactly what we got with Henrik Lundqvist delivering a virtuoso performance by stopping the Sens in their tracks, making 39 saves in a 1-0 shutout to steal Game Three and recapture home ice in the best-of-seven first round series.

Without rookie Carl Hagelin, who was serving the first of a three-game suspension for his high elbow on Swedish idol Daniel Alfredsson who didn't play last night, John Tortorella played a cat and mouse game before inserting 20-year old Boston College product Chris Kreider. Astonishingly, twitter was in chaos due to conflicting reports on enforcer John Scott dressing in Kreider's place with the players trading places like Eddie Murphy and Dan Akroyd in one of my favorite 80's movies. Eventually, Tortorella settled on Kreider, who not only made his NHL debut but took the place of Hagelin on the top line with Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik. Quite a pressure packed situation, throwing him into the fire. 

While the Kreider storyline made for one headline, the Rangers had a game to win. They can thank Lundqvist, who was brilliant in one of his best ever starts. Considering how well the Senators played in outshooting us 39-23, you could argue that this was the best game for Henrik outside of backstopping his country to a gold medal, stoning Olli Jokinen the way he flat out robbed Kyle Turris with under a minute left to earn his fourth career playoff shutout. There have been other moments but none quite like this due to heavy scrutiny our 30-year old franchise netminder is under. They're not an underdog this time. So, for him to be a human brick wall when the Sens were the aggressors throughout, that was a statement.

If not for Brian Boyle, the Blueshirts are probably in huge trouble. The underdog story continued with the big man responding the right way after getting pummeled by Matt Carkner and Chris Neil. For a third consecutive game, Boyle scored a goal and was the team's best forward. Sure. He's been our most impressive player considering his role. You can't leave out the performances of Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh, who again were outstanding. There's a reason they've become a shutdown tandem and it was on display with Ottawa pressing for the equalizer. No matter how many rebounds Lundqvist kicked out, Danny G and McD were there to clean the garbage along with our forwards, who were better defensively despite the Sens' constant buzzing. As a team, the Rangers blocked 21 shots including a combined eight from our two best defensemen.

Without that effort, there's no way they win. Of course, the same goes for Lundqvist who did what his other Vezina counterparts did a day prior. Stand on his head. The Sens are good because they're faster than us and always pinch led by Game Two standout Erik Karlsson, who wasn't as dangerous. Karlsson is a handful. After leading his team with 10 shots and over 20 attempts in their win, he was limited to five with three misses and a handful that never made it. Just a dynamic player who must have space taken away. Overall, the Rangers still gave the Sens too much respect, allowing them to gain access and recover intentional wide shots behind the net to sustain their attack. But they tidied up enough the final five minutes to hold on with Lundqvist only required to make one game saving stop on Turris one-on-one.

Sometimes, a hot goalie and one timely goal is all it takes. Luckily, we had the better goalie even if Craig Anderson was superb, making 22 saves with a few sparklers like the great glove save to deny Ryan Callahan on a breakaway set up by who else. Boyle. In Game Two, the veteran didn't have to make too many big ones despite 29 stops. The Rangers improved as the game went on following a dismal first period. Forget the 12-8 margin for Ottawa. They dominated. Our guys panicked just as they did Saturday. They settled down, especially in a nerve racking second that saw each side have glorious opportunities. It was the best period of the series with Lundqvist and Anderson trading big saves. There were close calls like a Boyle feed to Brandon Prust, who a sprawling Anderson denied twice with video review confirming no goal following five minutes of wide open action. In between Lundqvist robbed a Sen on a deflection and Stu Bickel saved one. Jaw dropping stuff.

If you love hockey, this was it. No fuss. Zero cheapshots following Saturday's ugliness or Sunday's disgrace that will result in more suspensions. Credit must be given to refs Brad Watson and Mike Leggo for establishing how it was called even if a couple of penalties on both sides were tacky. The players adjusted and it made for entertaining puck. While I don't mind the occasional scrap, I could do without some of the nastiness we've seen this first round. It's not good for the game. I'm glad our team and the Senators decided to play a clean, hard checking game. When the Rangers were shorthanded, the penalty killing unit came through with some outstanding work from Callahan and McDonagh. It was a team effort.

There was also four-on-four after Nick Foligno took a selfish penalty to even up a Girardi interference in the middle stanza. All I can say is wow. Those two minutes were crazy. Especially when Jason Spezza wisely out waited McDonagh, who went down before passing up a chance to shoot for Milan Michalek, who was back checked. Spezza is one of the most dangerous players. I'll never know why he didn't take the shot. Same thing for Ruslan Fedotenko, who had a great chance on a two-on-one and tried a foolish pass when he was 10 feet away. At least he's not expected to score. Spezza also took three penalties and has only one assist in the series.

The line centered by Turris with Foligno was the Sens' best. Whether it was Zach Smith or Bobby Butler, they were dominant every shift. Just as effective was unsung Game Two hero Zenon Konopka, who won six of eight draws on a night our team couldn't win one to save their life. Ottawa's 29-15 edge in the faceoff circle gave them puck possession. There can't be a repeat. For us, Boyle's unit stood out and the reformed Callahan, Artem Anisimov and Brandon Dubinsky line factored in on the lone goal. On a counter, Dubinsky got it started by taking a huge hit to get the puck deep. Callahan then stole the puck from Sergei Gonchar and worked it back to Girardi, who intentionally fired it wide for a favorable carom right to Boyle who cashed his third with 12:25 left. A smart play by Girardi, who leads our team with three assists.

That's all it took. Lundqvist never allowed a desperate Sens' team to find the equalizer. They came hard but time and time again, were sent away in disbelief. Exactly what you want to see from your bread and butter. The kind of goaltending Henrik's given us all season long. I can't say enough about him. He deserves every accolade. The key is playing better in Game Four to take a strangle hold.

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Craig Anderson, Ott (22 saves including a few big ones)
2nd Star-Brian Boyle, NYR (scored 3rd of series at 7:35 for GW, team best 5 SOG, 3 hits, 2 blocks in 18:55)
1st Star-Henrik Lundqvist, NYR (stopped all 39 shots-4th career playoff shutout)

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