|Henrik Lundqvist is congratulated by Dan Girardi and Marc Staal after making 37 saves in the Rangers' 5-3 win over the Flyers that wrapped up the East's No.1 seed for the first time since '93-94.|
The Flyers made it interesting late. But a four-goal first period onslaught proved too large for Philly to overcome. Ryan McDonagh, Brian Boyle, Artem Anisimov, Ryan Callahan and Marian Gaborik all scored as the Rangers wrapped up the East's top spot with a 5-3 victory- sweeping the Flyers for the first time in regular season history.
For the first time in 18 years, the Rangers will finish first in the conference. With two games left, they're still challenging Vancouver and St. Louis for the league's best record. At the moment, the Blueshirts' record of 51-22-7 for 109 points is two better than the Canucks, who have come back to tie up the Ducks after two periods. Meanwhile, the Blues trail by three. The final two won't be easy with a visit to Pittsburgh Thursday and then a pivotal match Saturday at MSG against potential first round opponent Washington. A lot depends on what happens when the Caps host the Panthers, who with a point tonight in a 5-4 overtime loss to Winnipeg, need only one point to clinch their first Southeast title. Washington also knows the pressure's on thanks to a miraculous come from behind win by Buffalo, who got a little help from the refs in a crazy 6-5 overtime triumph.
While that all gets sorted out, the Rangers can take solace knowing they were the East's best team during the regular season. Whether that translates to the postseason remains to be seen. As they found out tonight, no lead is safe and no game is over until the final buzzer. Even against a bitter rival they've dominated. With the 5-3 win, the Blueshirts won all six meetings against the Flyers, outscoring them 27-11. Still, Philadelphia put up a better fight after unraveling in a sloppy first where our team took full advantage of every Flyer mistake.
“I love this, what a season,” former Conn Smythe winner Brad Richards beamed following a two assist effort giving him nine points (1-8-9) over the past six. “This is a great time of year. Yes, it’s going to be a grind, it always is, but we have a good team here, and we have the right pieces in place. It’s up to us.”
McDonagh got it started with a perfect pinch to finish off a Gaborik feed from behind the net for his first goal in 25 games. The play was made possible due to Carl Hagelin's hustle. After falling down, he wisely pushed the puck behind the net where Richards worked it to an isolated Gaborik, who quickly found an unguarded McDonagh for his seventh. A momentum swing came after ultimate warrior Brandon Prust didn't like Zac Rinaldo's antics against Gaborik. Prusty came off the bench and went with Rinaldo, beating him. I guess the Flyers didn't watch the tape of the line brawl. Our team plays better when opponents take liberties. Soon after, McDonagh set up Brian Boyle for his 10th. His third in five and fourth over the last seven.
Following a silly fight in which Mike Rupp got beat badly by Jody Shelley, the Flyers lost their discipline. First, Jaromir Jagr took an unnecessary hooking penalty in the offensive zone drawn by Anisimov, who ironically scored the third goal of the period in highlight reel fashion. He took a Dan Girardi pass inside the blueline and blew past Flyer defenders before going forehand deke on Ilya Bryzgalov. While making his move, Marc-Andre Bourdon hooked him and after finishing, an errant Pavel Kubina high-stick drew blood, leading to a double minor and five-on-three. Having had success once at Wachovia with three power play goals, the Rangers were on their way to duplicating it when Callahan got to a loose rebound in front and chipped it past Bryzgalov for his career best 29th from Brad Richards and Derek Stepan.
When the period ended, the usually boisterous Philly crowd was stunned. That also included a frustrated Wayne Simmonds, who couldn't believe his luck when Henrik Lundqvist flat out robbed him on the doorstep during a Flyer power play. Even though he allowed three, Lundqvist was outstanding with his stellar netminding ultimately the difference between the two teams. The Flyers never quit, making life difficult the last two periods. Lundqvist stood tall due to eight power plays, including a preposterous call on Callahan after Simmonds punched him. He finished with 37 saves with many off quality chances.
Part of the Flyers' strategy was to play dirty. Not literally. But there were a lot of extracurricular stuff after the whistle and even during play. They went after our captain, who gave it right back. The Simmonds undetected rough on Callahan ticked me off because somehow, the refs called it on our guy, who really did nothing except accentuate it. Perhaps it was an unsportsmanlike conduct. But Simmonds and teammate Max Talbot did everything they could to take our team off their game. Eventually, it worked cause the second period was ugly and third even uglier. That played more to Philly's style. A late hit from Brayden Schenn on Marc Staal during an icing gave us an opportunity to bury them. Instead, a Richards trip swung the momentum.
Soon after a Flyer power play expired, Jakub Voracek's second try was rewarded when his shot went off Staal's skate past Lundqvist, ending the shutout. It was his third goal over two with the ex-Jacket also notching a pair in their win over the Penguins. A Hagelin penalty put the hosts right back on the power play but they couldn't cash due in part to a sprawling Lundqvist, who robbed Claude Giroux. Even though they didn't capitalize, the Flyers came in waves, pinning the Rangers in and forcing Henrik to come up with tough stops. Their momentum stalled when Talbot got into it with Gaborik, getting sent to the sin bin for a high-stick, which really was a rough. Gabby made him pay thanks to a great keep by Staal, who then dished across to Anton Stralman, who also made a great play at the point to keep it alive before finding Gaborik all alone in the slot for his 41st. An absolute cannon that Bryzgalov had no chance on. Gaborik needs one to match his career high and two to pass it with two games to go.
“It feels good to beat them again, and complete the deal,” Gaborik noted following another big night with a goal and an assist, extending his point streak to six. “With the Winter Classic and all, we’ve been kind of linked together with them for a while.”
However, a Girardi hold with 13 seconds left got the Flyers back in it quickly when Simmonds jammed home a Giroux rebound with less than seven seconds remaining, cutting the deficit to 5-2. On the play, he won a faceoff to Kimmo Timonen and then one-timed a shot which a sliding Lundqvist somehow got a piece of, twisting around. But Simmonds got to the loose change for his 28th.
The rest of the game saw our team hand the Flyers chances with uncharacteristic play. As Staal noted after clinching, they sat back too much which isn't how they want to play. Something that Callahan repeated in an interview with John Giannone. Stu Bickel went at Simmonds and picked up an additional two that put Philadelphia on another power play. They were dangerous all night despite technically only scoring once in eight tries. Lundqvist bailed his teammates out time and time again with money saves. This was the kind of game that if you didn't watch, you figured it hurt his Vezina chances against shutout leader Jon Quick. But the Flyers were all over him and he answered the bell every time.
Another bench minor (way too many lately) gave the Flyers more momentum. Sure. They didn't score with our PK getting the job done. But again, all the special teams killed us and allowed them to dictate. Giroux was everywhere. It seemed like he never left the ice. He wound up with three assists including his 64th on an innocent looking Andreas Lilja shot that must've changed direction because it was changed to Scott Hartnell, who now has a ridiculous 37 goals. Not bad for a super pest who is a royal pain to play against. People forget that the ex-Pred was a first round pick. He's been the Flyers' emotional leader as evidenced during the Pens game where he mocked someone during the circus who looked like Hulk Hogan's brother. Pretty comical.
With still 9:14 remaining, the Flyers threw the kitchen sink at Lundqvist but he never buckled. Not even after he came up hobbled on Simmonds' goal when he made that crazy dive. One thing about King Henrik. He's a lot tougher than he looked and absolutely hates giving up goals and losing. If this is going to be our year, he'll have to continue to be the man when it all starts for real.
“There were times where I wanted to say, `I’m outta here.’ But I got through it,” he said after establishing a new career high with his 39th win. “We’ll see how it is in a couple of days, see how it feels. Hopefully, I’ll be ready to go, but it was tough.”
If John Tortorella decides to give his horse tomorrow off against Pittsburgh, nobody would complain. Even if the Canucks shot their way past the Ducks to tie us.
“It’s been a long year for these guys, but they deserve the No. 1 seed,” Tortorella praised. “Now, in a couple of days, things will change. But I know our guys are excited for that.”
BONY 3 Stars:
3rd Star-Claude Giroux, Phi (3 assists-62, 63, 64, 3 SOG, 4 hits, 13-9 on draws in 27:13)
2nd Star-Ryan McDonagh, NYR (7th of season, assist, five hits, two blocked shots in 28:13)
1st Star-Henrik Lundqvist, NYR (37 saves, incl. 13/14 in 3rd-career best 39th win)