Traveling to three different countries for three games in four days is no easy task, so unsurprisingly the New York Rangers came out sluggish for this morning's match against HC Slovan in Bratislava, Slovakia. They collected themselves well, however, and managed to come out with a 4-1 victory to improve their preseason record to 4-1-1. They will now have the opportunity to sweep their European road trip when they take on EV Zug tomorrow afternoon in Switzerland.
As mentioned, the Rangers did not have their legs to open this game. They were being outskated and outbattled by the very physical HV Slovan squad left and right and in turn found themselves in the penalty box often just as they did on Friday in Sweden. One of those penalties turned out to be costly when Slovan got on the board first with a quick wrister from the high slot that beat a screened Henrik Lundqvist.
The Rangers would regroup and come out much stronger in the second stanza, however. They managed to strike twice on a 2-minute 5-on-3 powerplay that, at first, featured five forwards on the ice for New York. Brad Richards made a marvelous play in the slot to slide the puck over to a wide open Mats Zuccarelo for the one-timer goal. That right there was a perfect example of the brilliant vision and awareness that Richie has out on the ice, and it was a great finish by Zuccarello to get the one-timer off as well.
Less than a minute later Dan Giradi pinched in and set Brian Boyle up perfectly for a deflection goal to give the Rangers a sudden 2-1 lead. This wouldn't be the only time we saw Boyle pinch in from the point on the powerplay, as I think this may be a new approach head coach John Tortorella is taking for this season. Having a defenseman enter the slot causes confusion for the opposing penalty-killers since they now essentially have another forward to cover. On this particular play you saw the penalty-killing unit of HC Slovan shift towards Girardi and Boyle was left open in front as a result.
Throughout the game I was commenting on Twitter about the spirited game Artem Anisimov was playing this morning. I don't know what he had for breakfast, but he was one determined hockey player out there. He was finally rewarded for his efforts late in the second with a shorthanded goal that was set-up by Brandon Prust behind the net. The Blueshirts now found themselves with a 3-1 advantage entering the second intermission.
In the third period the Rangers finally showed us some sound defensive play for the first time this preseason. They've been very sloppy in previous tilts and even began that way early in this one as well. But in the third period they buckled down and protected their lead to secure the victory. They did get on the board one last time before the final buzzer, though, as Ryan McDonagh cashed in from the slot after receiving a pass by a hard-working Ryan Callahan from along the boards.
While we are on the topic of McDonagh, I thought he and Michael Del Zotto both played very well this morning. They each had a turnover or two, but they looked sharp in their own zone regardless. I guess you would expect that from McDonagh because he's relatively consistent, but Del Zotto has had a lot of ups and downs in the preseason so far. Today may have been his best performance to date.
I also liked the play of Brendan Bell on the blue-line too. He plays a steady game and throws hits at the right time. I think if he wanted to make the team he would have to beat out Steve Eminger for the spot, and I don't foresee that happening. He did stand out more to me than Eminger did today, though.
On offense I am loving how far Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards have come since the beginning of camp. They are reading off each other well and Richards' vision, as I said, is incredible. He barely takes a look but still always knows exactly where Gabby is positioned on the ice. This is going to make a huge difference on that first line for the Rangers this year, especially on the powerplay.
I thought Gaborik skated well in his return to Slovakia. He didn't get a goal, but he was apparently credited with a secondary assist on the Zuccarello tally in the second period. Marian has his speed back and I think that's something he lacked last season when he was slumping. His powerful stride is back and hopefully will be sticking around.
The biggest surprise offensively, though, has to go to Mats Zuccarello. I'll be honest, I didn't think he was going to make the team out of camp this year, but boy has he proved me wrong. In his past two games he has a goal and two assists, he's been moved onto the first powerplay unit (at least today he was) and is making some great plays with the puck on his blade. If we've seen a huge transformation from one season to the next, it's definitely been from Zuke.
And lastly, Henrik Lundqvist was on his game once again this morning. I'm surprised that he played the entire game instead of splitting it with Marty Biron, but hey, I'm not complaining. Hank looks like he is in mid-season form already and with the way he prepares himself that's what is expected from the King.
The Rangers will now fly out to Switzerland later tonight for their final preseason game tomorrow afternoon. It will be John Tortorella's final time to see certain guys before making the final decision on the lineup for Friday's season opener in Stockholm.