By Stu Hackel
On cold winter nights like Thursday's, when bundled-up Manhattan pedestrians must navigate mounds of ugly gray snow, the local hockey team has provided little solace during the past few seasons. For some Rangers fans, there was little reason to think last night would be any different.
The Canucks were, after all, the hottest team in the NHL, without a regulation defeat in five weeks. The Rangers' forward ranks, meanwhile, have been thinned by injuries of late, with Eric Christensen, Alexander Frolov and sparkplug Ryan Callahan joining Vinny Prospal and Derek Boogaard in street clothes. And the Rangers had trouble finishing their chances against the Canadiens while losing 2-1 on Tuesday, most notably when their new trade acquisition, Wojtek Wolski, hit the post behind Alex Auld with three minutes left in the game:
The Canucks ranked third in average goals-scored per game (3.33), the Rangers were 15th (2.78). "We're going to need some goals tonight," New York coach John Tortorella said before the game. "We're not going to win a hockey game 1-0 tonight."
"The Amazing Kreskin he is not," commented The Vancouver Sun's Brad Ziemer after the Rangers' 1-0 victory in a game filled with hard hits, great goaltending and postseason intensity.
Okay, so their coach is not clairvoyant when it comes to final scores. But Tortorella's game plan effectively shut down the high-octane Canucks and handed them their first loss since Dec. 5. The plan was hardly mystical: Keep their forwards to the outside, force them to shoot from a distance; move the puck out of your zone quickly; make good reads in the neutral zone, get the puck deep, win races and if nothing presents itself, be sure that Vancouver has to come back 200 feet to get to your goal. In the offensive zone, get pucks and bodies to the net any and every way possible.
And it worked.
It worked because this edition of the Rangers is markedly different from New York's perennial image of an aging, overpaid and often uninspired club. These Blueshirts work as hard as any team in the league and they believe in themselves, having won eight games after they surrendered the first goal (tied for the third-best mark in the league), and five in which they trailed after two periods (tied for first). They make up in effort what they may lack in talent.
The Rangers do have talent, however, especially the young variety. They've given up on youngsters too easily in the past and one of them, Manny Malhotra, skated against them last night. Had they not traded him eight years ago and developed his defensive game instead of miscasting him as a scoring power forward, he could have grown into a mainstay for New York as a Kris Draper-type shutdown guy and faceoff specialist, which he became elsewhere.
This current group or Rangers is particularly young on defense. They banished Wade Redden to the AHL prior to the season and recently sent Michal Roszival to the Coyotes for Wolski, a move that brought in a needed forward who is eight years younger than Roszival, and $1.2 million in salary cap space.
GM Glen Sather acknowledged after the trade on Monday that going with a relatively inexperienced blueline corps was "a little risky," but he likes his top six: Marc Staal and Dan Girardi, Steve Eminger and Mike Sauer, and Matt Gilroy with recent call-up Ryan McDonagh. And Sather also has fan favorite 20-year-old Michael Del Zotto --dynamic offensively but prone to turnovers and soft in his own zone -- in reserve.
Those tandems did the job against Vancouver and got great help from the forwards, especially the line of Brandon Prust, Dan Boyle and Ruslan Fedotenko who, along with Staal and Girardi, were matched against the Canucks' top line of the Daniel and Henrik Sedin with Alex Burrows. That trio threatened Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist far less than anticipated.
More effective for the Canucks was the Mason Raymond-Ryan Kesler-Jannik Hansson threesome, whose buzzing around the net caused the home fans some anxious moments. Mikael Samuelsson, who some speculate won't be retained when Sami Salo comes off long-term injured reserve, also had good chances throughout the game, playing with Malhotra and Raffi Torres.
The Rangers won the game in the second period when they controlled the action, thanks in part to their own industry and Canucks penalties. One call was a hooking minor on Malhotra, and his absence in the faceoff circle played a role in the game's only tally. Henrik Sedin took the draw against Dubinsky and while he pulled it in the direction of teammate Kevin Bieska, Marian Gaborik jumped in to intercept the puck as Henrik skated toward the blue line, anticipating Bieksa would get it and ram it up the boards...
...and consequently, Dubinsky was unchecked. Gaborik backhanded the puck to him in the slot. Dubi's shot was deflected by Alex Edler and kicked at by Canucks goalie Corey Schneider, but it came right back to Gaborik who shot it off the post. The puck bounced out though the crease where Wolski skated in and slammed it back the other way behind Schneider. It all took less than five seconds.
The Rangers kept the pressure up, coming at the Canucks in waves -- which is how Vancouver usually plays. At one point in the frame, they were outshooting the Canucks 14-4 and only the excellent play of Schneider kept them his team in this one.
With around five minutes left in the second, the Canucks got their big chance. First, Staal was called for a trip (a retaliatory hack at Burrows, who had harpooned Staal between the legs...
...as the two battled in front of Lundqvist). Then, killing the penalty, Chris Drury was called for delay of game after reaching out with his stick to bat away a pass and the puck flew into the stands. The Rangers argued Drury didn’t actually shoot the puck in the stands, but he did play the puck and that is how referees are supposed to call it.
A 43-second 5-on-3 ensued, but the Rangers survived it all by aggressively confronting whoever had the puck. Boyle blocked two shots in 10 seconds — New York blocked 24 on the evening, twice as many as the Canucks — and Dubinsky, the Rangers most consistent skater all season, even ventured a shorthanded chance on Schneider. Had he scored it would have given New York 10 shorthanded goals on the season, tops in the NHL.
The period ended with Rangers fans chanting "USA! USA!," which probably amused the three Canucks (Kesler, Scheider and Keith Ballard) who are Americans. The fans also tried mounting a chant of "1994" -- the year the Rangers beat Vancouver to win the Stanley Cup -- but that one went nowhere.
The rest of the way, the Rangers relied on disciplined play in their own zone, denying second chances, and not chasing the puck or getting out of position. When shots got through, Lundqvist was there to knock them away. It was his sixth shutout of the season, tying him with the Bruins’ Tim Thomas for the NHL lead.
At the final buzzer, after surviving the pressure of a minute-long six-on-five, the Rangers celebrated around Lundqvist as if they had won a playoff game. They may not yet be an elite team, but they had just defeated one. It was, of course, only Game 649 on the regular season schedule. But for a club that continues to get by with trying harder than the other guys, it might have been the biggest win of the season.