Losses are inevitable. Even the Chicago Blackhawks couldn't avoid that. So when the Rangers lost to the Senators after four straight wins, the bigger concern was not the loss itself but how the Rangers would respond to it. For the first five minutes of today's game, the response was miserable. The Capitals were all over the Rangers, got to every loose puck, and scored as bad of a goal as any Rangers goaltender has given up in a long time. Hockey games are 60 minutes for a reason, though, and coming off a game yesterday against the Islanders it seemed unlikely that the Caps were going to keep that pace. Stepan took advantage of a sleeping Holtby, and from there the Rangers kept their foot on the gas the rest of the way. A very good response from the Rangers, and a game one could argue was as well executed as any they've played this season. Let's look at some post-game thoughts, which will be a lot more complimenting than those from two nights ago after the game against Ottawa.
Martin Biron: The goal he let up was quite possibly the worst one to get passed him in his tenure with the Rangers. He rebounded, though, and earned the first star of the game with 28 saves on 29 shots. No indiviudal saves particularly stand out, but rather he earned the honor from strong sequences. His positioning was spot on; when you're playing your angles correctly highlight reel saves aren't necessary. With a two goal lead late in the second period, the Capitals had a big opportunity to get back into the game an regain momentum with a two-man advantage. Though some timely blocks came from the skaters, Biron was the most important penalty killer, not only making the important saves but making sure rebounds did not land in front of his net. For some reason, Biron has become a whipping boy for some people. Backup goaltenders are backup goaltenders for a reason, so of course he is not going to be on Lundqvist's level. Still, you'd be hardpressed to find many superior backup goaltenders in the NHL. Can't expect much better than the 2.17 GAA and .923 Save % that Biron has amassed in five games this season.
McDonagh and Girardi: In truth, the entire defense deserves credit today. All six guys played a very solid game in relation to their expected contributions. I'll single out the top two guys because they really were fantastic today against an offense that has the ability to score at will. Ovechkin and Ribiero were held to only five total shots, and pretty much all of them were from the perimeter. Staal usually has the job of shadowing Ovechkin, so great job from these two limiting his chances specifically. The two also combined for eight blocked shots, were vital to keeping the Capitals' scoreless on three powerplays, and McDonagh was involved in the offense, pinching at the right time and adding a couple of assists.
Brian Boyle: Once again Tortorella scratches Boyle, and once again Boyle comes back playing with fire. He got his first goal on the year from a well placed shot, used his huge frame to shield the puck on the boards as well as to drive towards the net, and did his part with 2 minutes on the PK and two blocked shots. Two nights ago his future was in doubt. Today Tortorella gave him 15:30 in icetime. One game does not save him, but he certainly did more than enough to keep himself in the lineup short-term. When Brian Boyle is alive and playing like he can there are not many better bottom-six forwards in the NHL. With the lack of scoring we have received from the bottom two lines, a thriving Boyle certainly would be a big asset. He's more than capable; it's all mental with him.
Brad Richards: Two games since coming back from injury, two goals. Though he was playing better before being rammed into the boards by Patrick Kaleta, perhaps the injury was a blessing in disguise. Maybe a short stint out of the lineup was good for Richards. He has certainly stepped up offensively. Of course, it's a two game sample size, but the Brad Richards of last season has been the Brad Richards we are seeing.
Rick Nash and Carl Hagelin: We're running out of ways to say that these two are playing well. Nash had a goal taken away off an apparent Callahan deflection, ending his streak of games with a goal. Nonetheless, he was as vital as ever. It's no coincidence that the team's record is significantly better with him in the lineup than out. Two well deserved assists for him. With 23 points in 20 games, Rick Nash is now playing at a 94 point pace over a full 82 season.
As for Hagelin, yes, playing with Rick Nash of course is a big help. That being said, ask the plethora of talented but unsuccessful forwards in Columbus exactly how much that made a difference for them. Rick Nash is big, fast, strong, and skilled. so he definitely is going to open up space for his linemates. Still, and again as Columbus has proven, you can't just stick any random player on his line and succeed. Hagelin not only is fast but has really improved his offensive awareness. As Hagelin was developing with Michigan, the hope was that he would eventually become a defense first, bottom-six winger with the ability to chip in offensively on occasion. He is exceeding that projection significantly and is making a case for a long-term future as a top-six winger.
Fourth Line: As Kris Newbury and Christian Thomas and Brandon Mashinter were earning call-ups, it was a loosely contained secret that Micheal Haley was unhappy. He got his call-up with the Richards injury and I think has done what Tortorella wanted. He's good on the forecheck, throws the body around, battles for pucks along the boards, and doesn't take crap from anybody. Clear upgrade over Stu Bickel, who Tortorella wisely scratched tonight. Things will get interesting once Asham is healthy. Powe and Halpern have consistently done their jobs, and Boyle seems to be alive again. Whom do you remove from the lineup to insert Asham? For a team that was struggling to put together a fourth line capable of contributing anything earlier in the season, it's a nice problem for John Tortorella to have.
This was one of those games where I could have said something nice about all 19 players. I think we have to be pretty happy with what the Rangers have done the past four days, with three games; two on the road. Two wins which were the result of a sixty minute effort, and even the loss against the Senators was more about making a few too many mistakes as opposed to an overall bad effort. NBC alluded to it; the Rangers are finding their groove and identity; wins are coming from a complete, team effort as opposed to great individual efforts. They've put together four lines and three defensive pairings who are doing the jobs assigned. They've gotten back to the high tempo, physical, sixty minute games that were so successful last season.
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