Originally written on The Rangers Tribune  |  Last updated 3/24/12

Come playoff time, it’s not about how you win games, but rather if you win games. The New York Rangers were not at the top of their game tonight against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre, but at the end of the night they found a way to earn a huge two points in the standings to claim first place in the National Hockey League. You can complain all you want about their lacking performance, and I will in the postgame analysis you are about to read, but they got the job done just as they have so many times this season.

Both teams were tentative at the very start of this game, but it was the Maple Leafs who struck first at 9:11 of the opening period. But maybe I shouldn’t point to what the Leafs did to score this goal, as I think the root of the tally lies in what the Rangers failed to do. With the puck in deep, Stu Bickel made a horrid read and pinched even though there were two Leafs behind him in the neutral zone at the time. This left Phil Kessel and Cody Franson on a 2-on-1 break, which both Brandon Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan did not attempt to break up as they coasted into their defensive zone with no desire to backcheck. Kessel made a beautiful feed to Franson, and just like that the puck was in New York’s net. 

Head coach John Tortorella had to be irate at that very moment, since bad pinches and lack of backcheck were two issues he made a point to address after Friday’s loss to the Buffalo Sabres. Yet here are the Rangers making the same mistakes on the same play in the first ten minutes the very next night. Nothing gets a coach more frustrated than that, which is probably why Dubinsky rode the bench for a good seven minutes after the goal before later being demoted to the fourth line. 

The Rangers would get one back just over two minutes later, though, with Marian Gaborik converting on a set play off an offensive zone draw. His shot from along the boards not only surprised goaltender Jonas Gustavsson, but it also nicked off defenseman Dion Phaneuf in the slot to change its direction. This threw Gustavsson off, and now the Blueshirts found themselves tied after the first period despite committing more mistakes than their opponent.

Toronto would regain their lead in the opening seven minutes of the middle stanza. It started with Brad Richards failing to clear the defensive zone, and then finished with both Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh cheating on the play, leaving Joey Crabb all alone with Henrik Lundqvist in front. Lundqvist, for an unknown reason, was literally spinning in his crease trying to track the puck, and Crabb managed to sneak it by him for a 2-1 Leafs lead.

That was the second goal of the game in which a mental defensive mistake cost the Rangers. I know Tortorella denies that this team is being hit with fatigue, but these weren’t errors we saw often earlier in the season. Now they are happening on a period-by-period basis. 

Meanwhile, in the final five minutes of the period, Brandon Dubinsky and the fourth line went to work and battled hard for the tying goal. Off the faceoff, the Rangers got the puck towards the net and Dubinsky fought his way to the slot where he found a loose puck and buried it to tie the game at 2. 

Finally, in the third period, the Rangers would grab their first lead of the night. Marian Gaborik may have scored the goal – his second of the night – but the play was all Brad Richards. Richie made an unbelievable move to get out of the zone, get onside, catch a pass and then saucer the puck to a breaking Gaborik all in one smooth motion. Plays like that are why Brad was signed to a mega-contract over the summer. That was gold.

But their lead lasted just 18 seconds, as Tim Connolly sent a juicy rebound given up by Henrik Lundqvist to the back of the net on the Leafs’ first rush following Gaborik’s goal. Not only was Lundqvist’s punch of the puck into the slot a horrible decision, but so was the decision of the players in front of him to allow Connolly to walk right in uncontested.

The two teams eventually would head to overtime tied at 3, where the Rangers would completely dominate play. They came within inches of ending this one in the extra period, but Gustavsson stood on his head for Toronto. The duo of Brandon Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan (ironic) pinned the Leafs in their own zone, and would work the puck to the net where Michael Del Zotto just missed winning the game. 

So to a shootout we would go, where two goals from Brad Richards and Ryan Callahan overtook just one for Toronto by Tim Connolly to win it for the Rangers, 4-3.

Henrik Lundqvist was strong in the shootout when the Rangers needed him most, as he normally is in those situations, but his play during regulation time was puzzling. I’m trying to put a finger on what’s gone wrong with Hank, but it’s a near impossible task right now. His rebound control has been costly, his positioning has been atrocious and he clearly does not have the confidence he did earlier in the year. 

For example, just look at this picture I tweeted during the third period. The puck is at the side of the crease and Lundqvist is sprawled out in the slot. That is as uncharacteristic as uncharacteristic gets for Hank.

The defense in front of him was nothing special tonight, either. As I pointed out above, their mindless errors ended up in their own net once again in this game. And this is nothing new as we’ve seen the defense guilty off committing the same mistakes over and over again as of late. Ryan McDonagh and Tim Erixon were the only blue-liners who played well, and maybe you can throw Dan Girardi in there as well. As for the rest, work needs to be done. 

Marian Gaborik was the team’s best offensive player tonight, but he had a lot of help from center Brad Richards. After failing to clear the zone on Toronto’s second goal of the game, I thought Richie really turned things around and started to make a difference. The Rangers, as a whole, improved their offense in the second half of the game, but these two led the way. 

Speaking of redemptions, how about Brandon Dubinsky? It’s obviously not a good thing when you are benched by your coach multiple times over the course of the season, but you can’t deny the fact that Dubi has responded big each and every time he’s rode the pine. This is a big reason why Tortorella’s pulls this stunt in the first place, because he knows he will get a response out of Dubinsky, and boy did that ever work out tonight. Dubi was a whole new beast after receiving the message loud and clear from the coach.

With this win the Rangers now have 101 points on the season and have surpassed the St. Louis Blues for first in the NHL since they have one additional regulation victory. They also climb back to three points ahead of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the East, as the Pens had a rough go with the Senators tonight, losing 8-4 in that tilt.

I’ve said it before and I will say it again: first place belongs to the New York Rangers, and while they may not be perfect in the process, they certainly aren’t giving it up as easily as everyone expected them to. 

* For those following the Chris Kreider situation, his BC Eagles defeated Air Force, 2-0, in game one of the NCAA tournament earlier this afternoon. And, of course, both goals were scored by the man himself, Chris Kreider. 

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