Rangers 4 - Penguins 3 (SO): Points Per Game
The Rangers erased the bad taste in their mouths following Thursday's loss to Edmonton with an impressive 4-3 shootout win over the Pittsburgh Penguins on the road. The Blueshirts never trailed in the contest, and were led by Benoit Pouliot's two goals, and tallies from Mats Zuccarello and Brad Richards in the shootout.
The Rangers now head into the Olympic break winners of five of their last six games, and in sole possession of second place in the Metropolitan Division.
RANGERS THREE STARS
Benoit Pouliot had a great game in all ends of the ice in Pittsburgh. The first goal was huge because the Rangers were not pleased with their start the night before, so to get on the board first against a team like the Penguins was crucial. Pouliot's second marker in the third was him once again right around the crease, and his shot beat Marc-Andre Fleury high. The pattern here: Pouliot has had success using his large frame around the net, something he wasn't doing often enough earlier in the season. He, Zuccarello and Derick Brassard have developed some kind of chemistry, and are a huge reason for the turnaround over the six weeks. Pouliot finished his night with two goals, four shots and a blocked shot in 16:00.
The second star goes to Henrik Lundqvist, who once again was very good, especially in the overtime period when the Penguins threw everything they had at the Rangers. Lundqvist did allow three goals, but none could really be pinned solely on him, especially the third by James Neal, which sent the game to overtime. While the Brassard line has been huge in the Rangers' turning their season around, the biggest reason has been the play of No. 30, who is back to elite form heading into the Olympics. Lundqvist received some luck in the shootout with one shot hitting the post, but his stop on Sidney Crosby allowed the Rangers to gain the lead on Mats Zuccarello's shootout goal. Lundqvist finished the night with 26 saves.
My third star goes to Dan Girardi, who like Lundqvist, has completely regained his form after a tough start to the year. Girardi is back to being the shutdown defender he's been over the last six years or so. Any time you can keep Crosby and Malkin off the scoresheet at even strength, you've done something right, and Girardi was a big reason for it, as he and Ryan McDonagh were matched at every opportunity against the team's big guns. Girardi has also been chipping in offensively over the past several weeks, and his goal early in the second period on the power play broke a slump for the Blueshirts with the man advantage. He looked strong on the power play last night as he was given more time by Alain Vigneault following a stretch of ineffectiveness by his units.
JIM CERNY: Benoit Pouliot stepped up with a pair of clutch goals Friday, and I found it real surprising as I researched after his second goal that he has never recorded a Hat Trick in his NHL career. Nonetheless the sixth two-goal game of his career--first as a Ranger--came at a very opportune time for the Blueshirts, who desperately needed two points heading into the break following Thursday's disappointment. Pouliot got 16 minutes of ice time, played very physically, and recorded four shots on goal. Not surprisingly both of his goals came from right in front of Marc-Andre Fleury. He has no qualms whatsoever about going to the dirty areas to score his goals and generate scoring chances. I love that about Benoit Pouliot; and it really paid off Friday night.
Dan Girardi played. A goal and an assist--two power play points--were at the top of his resume Friday night, but he was a rock defensively, too. Girardi logged a team-high 27:26, blocked five shots, was credited with four hits, and most importantly did a solid job against the Penguins top guns, helping limit Sidney Crosby, for example, to one assist in the game. An extremely worthy No. 2 Star selection is Dan Girardi.
My Third Star goes to Mats Zuccarello. I loved the fight--literally and figuratively--in his game again on Friday as he battled for the puck and positioning every inch of the ice all night long. His wars with Chris Kunitz were admirable and inspiring, and smart, too, when you consider he got Kunitz to take an extra minor penalty during their second-period scrum. Zuccarello also assisted on Pouliot's game-opening goal, keeping the puck alive by jabbing away at it when it was against Fleury's pads, extending his point streak to a career-high six games. He also scored the first goal of the shootout, putting the Rangers in an advantageous spot after two rounds, before Brad Richards won it in the third and final round. Zucc is now 9-for-18 in career shootouts.
RANGERS UNSUNG HERO
MATT CALAMIA: At first I was going to take Rick Nash, who I felt — despite two minor penalties — was the team's most dangerous forward last night. But ultimately, I'm going with Mats Zuccarello. I've said this before, but I just love watching him play the game last night. Joe Michlletti last night said that Zuccarello isn't only becoming a threat among the Rangers, but the entire NHL. He's so strong on the puck and his quickness led to the Rangers' first goal. His move in the shootout I think took everyone by surprise, as we're used to the slow skate with the quick wrist shot. But nope, Mats fooled us with speed and the deke for the marker. I've written this before as well, but I just love the snarl Zuccarello plays with. He doesn't fear anyone and he's willing to take some punishment after giving it. He didn't like the hack Chris Kunitz gave to Henrik Lundqvist, so he slashed him on the leg, egged Kunitz into throwing some punches and the Rangers wind up with the power play. He's just cooking on all cylinders right now, and his linemates are benefiting from it.
JIM CERNY: My Unsung Hero for the Rangers Friday night was Marc Staal. While Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh deserve much of the credit for their work at even strength against the Penguins top guns, so, too, do Staal and his partner Anton Stralman deserve credit for their stout play at even strength. Yes, Staal was on the ice for James Neal's game-tying goal in the third period, though I think he was far from at fault; and his play over 24:29 of ice time was exemplary at even strength, I thought. Staal also notched an assist, setting in motion the game-opening goal scored by Benoit Pouliot, and finished with four shots on goal as once again he was extremely active in the offensive end--even on a night when he was aware he'd be challenged at the other end by the Penguins high-flying group of forwards. I am extremely impressed with how well Staal has played since returning from his concussion.
MATT CALAMIA: We knew the Rangers were better than their start in October, but the turnaround from then until now is drastic. They look like two different teams. The goaltending is back to where it needs to be, as is the defense. The offense seems to be fully embracing Alain Vigneaults puck possession and speed mindset, and its paying off, as the Rangers are now a plus-9 in goal differentials. After beginning the year 3-7, the Blueshirts are now 32-24-3 and find themselves in second place in the Metropolitan. Since Oct. 28's home loss against Montreal, the Rangers are 29-17-3. Not bad.
While some may suggest the break is coming at the wrong time since the team is playing so well, I don't think any player would turn down the rest. The team — all teams — are playing through injuries and the break will help to get guys back to 100 percent, especially after the chaotic scheduling to make room for the Games. Also, the top players will keep on playing over in Sochi, so there's no issues there either. The final 25 games or so should be a fun sprint.
JIM CERNY: In a perfect world the Rangers would keep rolling without a break in the schedule right now because, quite simply, the Blueshirts are playing far and away their best hockey of the season. Winners of five of their last six and 11 of 15, the Rangers are 16-6-1 since December 22nd. That said, in a perfect world the schedule would not be so condensed and players not so mentally fatigued around the league right now, either. So the break is what it is, and I really do believe coaches and players will embrace it to recharge and reboot for that stretch run. I thought it was imperative the Rangers win Friday night following Thursday's loss, to head into the break on a high and not the downer of a two-game skid after playing so well for so long. They accomplished that. Next challenge is to not regress in their play coming out of the break and continue to forge ahead and build upon their terrific play the past six weeks.