It’s not often that you see an opposition goaltender steal the spotlight at Madison Square Garden, but that was the case tonight. All things considered, the Rangers responded well to Thursday’s 5-2 loss to the Penguins. That response, however, was nothing Semyon Varlamov couldn’t handle. Varlamov led his team to a 3-1 victory tonight, because if it weren’t for him, this would have been a blowout in favor of the home team.
The Rangers have gotten off to quick starts often in recent games but one thing they’ve been unable to obtain is an early lead. Tonight, though, they were able to notch the first tally of the game at 10:43 of the first period on a Mats Zuccarello redirection in front. Dan Girardi made a smart play along the boards to just throw the puck at the net, and Zuke somehow got his shaft of the stick to contact the puck and direct it past Semyon Varlamov for his first NHL goal of the year. This is when all of Norway rose to their feet and collectively yelled, “Told you so!”
Despite being badly outplayed and outshot, Colorado refused to give in and their hard work, which they are noted for, eventually paid off. Defenseman Matt Hunwick made a series of beautiful moves to dance his way around the Rangers and eventually get to the net, where he one-handed a shot past Henrik Lundqvist to make it 1-1. As gorgeous as the goal was, the Rangers need to be on top of that play defensively and stand up there. Stu Bickel, specifically, was caught stick-checking instead of using the body, and that left Hunwick by himself with Lundqvist.
So the Blueshirts had a 16-6 advantage in shots through the first twenty minutes, yet they still found themselves locked in a tie. Frustrating, yes, but certainly not a terrible situation to be in going into the second stanza.
Unfortunately things would get worse for New York, though, as the Avalanche continued to be outplayed, but also continued to score goals. After the Rangers had just failed on their third powerplay opportunity of the game, Colorado put their second goal on the board at 9:51 of the period. Peter Mueller’s shot from the point was deflected perfectly through the legs of Lundqvist by star rookie Gabriel Landeskog.
Once again, it was a pretty goal, but one that could’ve been prevented defensively. Landeskog was left all alone. Both Brandon Prust and Marc Staal left the slot vacant for Landeskog to occupy, and John Tortorella clearly didn’t like that. He, in turn, did not give the Fedotenko-Boyle-Prust line much ice time beyond that point. As Torts said before the game, if that line isn’t going to score goals, they cannot allow them either. Right now they are doing neither.
At the end of two, New York trailed, 2-1, even with a 26-13 advantage in shots. Not only were the Rangers doubling their opponent in shots, but in scoring opportunities as well. Varlamov was standing on his head without a doubt, but one goal on 26 shots is unacceptable.
After killing off an early penalty to open the third period (and what a weak call it was), the Rangers went back to work and continued to press. Varlamov kept up his insanity between the pipes for the Avalanche, though, and made multiple remarkable stops on prime scoring opportunities for New York. One that stands out is the glove snag on Brandon Dubinsky that came on an odd-man rush. Many thought that was the tying-goal right there, but Varly had other plans.
The Rangers had two late powerplay opportunities to get this thing tied, but failed on both. But I’m not too sure that “failed” is the correct terminology to use here, because they certainly generated some excellent scoring opportunities. Varlamov, again, was unreal and stopped everything thrown his way. If the Rangers were going to tie it, that had to be the moment - Varlamov made sure it wasn’t.
Paul Stastny put the game away with an empty-netter at 19:39 of the third period.
Henrik Lundqvist was obviously outdueled tonight, but I was fine with how he played in his first outing since returning from the flu. He may want the first goal back, but there was nothing he could do on the Landeskog deflection. Hank made some solid stops to prevent the game from getting out of reach, and that’s basically all he could do. In a tight tilt like this, the rest was up to the team in front of him.
Mats Zuccarello stood out for me on offense tonight. He was buzzing, scored the goal and had more shots on goal than he was given credit for on the scoresheet. I really like Zuke on the powerplay, especially in around the net. He slips into the slot unnoticed with his size and quickly causes havoc. He’s singlehandedly improved the Rangers’ powerplay as of late.
Tim Erixon was also exceptional in his first game up from the Whale. There’s no doubt that he’s gotten stronger and improved his defensive game, but his passing was dead-on tonight. I said Thursday that the Rangers were heavily struggling with their transition from defense to offense through the neutral zone. Erixon definitely makes a difference in the lineup with his vision in that respect.
At the end of the day, the Rangers were the better team. They showed up for three periods and showed unlimited amounts of desperation, reaching a season-high 42 shots on goal. You cannot criticize them in the effort department.
But a loss is a loss and the Rangers have now dropped two in a row and have first in the East by just two points on the Penguins. This is going to be an interesting finish no doubt.