The night began with a special inspirational speech from Steven McDonald prior to the annual Extra Effort Award being given to the well-deserved Ryan Callahan. McDonald’s speech concluded with the phrase “see you in June,” which nearly rocked the roof off Madison Square Garden. Well, sixty minutes later, the Rangers proved why so many expect to see them in June in their 4-1 defeat of the Montreal Canadiens. After all, they are statistically the best team in hockey right now.
Tonight’s opening twenty minutes were the best the Rangers have played all month. Right from the opening faceoff, New York made it quite clear why they lead the East and the Habs are basement dwellers. They dictated the pace with a strong forecheck, continuous shooting and steady defense when needed. It felt like the Canadiens barely had the opportunity to break-out and get the puck beyond the red line and into the offensive zone.
At 8:56 of the first period, Brad Richards made an excellent pass to find Marian Gaborik positioned in the slot. Gabby fought through a check and on his second swipe at the puck put his 39th goal of the season past Carey Price to give the Rangers a 1-0 lead. Richards and Gaborik were feeding each other all night long, so this was just one of the few times they connected in the game. The Habs simply didn’t have an answer for them.
Richards continued his stellar night with a powerplay goal just thirty seconds into the second period. Derek Stepan fed Richie just above the circle and Brad walked into open space and fired through a screen for his 25th. This was just another instance in which we saw Richards’ growing confidence with the puck result in a prime scoring opportunity. Like I’ve said, he has one of the best wristers on the team.
After that, though, the Rangers lost some of their steam and the Canadiens began to find some scoring opportunities of their own for the first time in the game. Head coach John Tortorella couldn’t have been happy with the way his club let their foot off the gas there, but thankfully they got out of the period unharmed.
Henrik Lundqvist deserves most of the credit for that, because he was outstanding in that middle frame. The Habs may have only had eight shots, but they were mostly prime scoring chances. We can now officially say that Lundqvist has pulled out of his mini-slump and is back to form. He showed why in the second period.
The Rangers had to be satisfied with a 2-0 lead going into the third considering they allowed their opponent back in the game, but I can guarantee coach Tortorella didn’t pat them on the back for this in the locker room during the intermission. The look he had on the bench towards the end of the second was not one of pleasure, that’s for sure.
In response, the Rangers once again came out flying for the third period and their speed began to draw penalties on Montreal. At 8:17, while on the powerplay, Michael Del Zotto cocked back on a slapper from the point, which somehow sneaked through the legs of Price to give the Rangers a sturdy 3-0 lead. Ironically that was Del Zotto’s first powerplay goal this season, but it was also his second tally in two games.
Del Zotto wasn’t done for the night, though. Late in the third, Marian Gaborik would find Del Zotto cutting in towards the net, and DZ sniped over Price for his second of the period. That was also Del Zotto’s career-high tenth goal on the year.
Rene Bourque would end up scoring late to spoil Henrik Lundqvist’s shutout bid, but at that point it didn’t make much of a difference.
Henrik Lundqvist looked like Henrik Lundqvist tonight in his 38th win of the season. His timing was on, he wasn’t out of position and he looked comfortable in net. He played well earlier in the week against the Wild and Jets, but even then I think he found himself fighting the puck a bit. That wasn’t the case tonight – he was dead on.
His defense also gave him a lot of assistance tonight, once again led by Ryan McDonagh. In my eyes, McDonagh appears to get better and better with each game he plays. Over the course of this year, he’s not only strengthened his game in the defensive zone, but we’ve seen him round his attributes out to accommodate offense as well. Ryan’s value to this hockey club cannot be measured. To put it simply, he’s a straight up stud.
And how about Michael Del Zotto getting two goals? His offensive production has been a hell of a spectacle this year.
Lastly, Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards were dynamite tonight. They were both all over the ice and all over the scoresheet. These two are heating up at the right time as the playoffs quickly approach. Their line put up a six points combined tonight - there’s not stopping them.
Remember at the beginning of the month when I wrote an article about how this was the time of year when Brad Richards would heat up? Yeah, don’t call me a genius, but.....
The Rangers picked up their 50th win of the season tonight, the first time they have done so since 1993-94. They also notched points 106 and 107 in the standings to maintain their five-point lead over the Pittsburgh Penguins, who also won tonight, for first place. They got the full six points we said they needed this week, so now only three more remain in order to clinch that top spot in the East.
It’s almost playoff time and right now the Blueshirts are sure looking like a playoff-ready team.