Hank to the Rescue
Henrik Lundqvist uncharacteristically has battled with inconsistency this season. Hank has been the back bone of the Rangers since assuming the starting netminding gig as a rookie in 2005-2006. He is solely why the Rangers are a playoff contender year-in and year-out. Yet it has seemed Marty Biron, brought in this off-season to spell Hank a little more to keep him fresh for the post-season, has outplayed the franchise goaltender to this point in the season.
Overall, Hank's numbers are still solid (.917 S%, 2.72 GAA) but Biron's (.917 S%, 2.15 GAA) are even stronger. Hank has also given up several soft, back-breaking goals in close games that have proven to be the difference in those contests. Remember the Mark Recchi goal early in the 3rd period of the 3-2 loss to the Bruins?
Hank was also coming off a lackluster performance in his previous start Wednesday night in Tampa, allowing 5 goals in the first 2 periods of a 5 - 3 loss. Hank was even pulled in the 2nd before returning to play the 3rd. Lundqvist's play was much stronger in that 3rd period creating optimism in advance of Friday's game against the Florida Panthers.
The King didn't disappoint his fans either last night. He was sharp from the opening faceoff and finished with 40 saves and earned his 3rd shutout of the season.
The Rangers were facing an offensively challenged team in Florida but the Panthers came out strong and controlled play for much of the game. The Panthers outshot the Rangers 40 - 19 and had 5 PP opportunities to 2 for the Blueshirts. In fact, it might have been the Panthers' 30th ranked PP that let the club down most last night.
Florida has scored a remarkably low 5 PP goals on the season and despite good puck movement, especially on the earlier PP's, the Panthers couldn't cash in. Worse yet, the Rangers took advantage of the Panthers inefficiency on the PP to score two goals, one short-handed and the other just after a penalty expired.
The night's first goal was scored by rookie Derek Stepan and marked his 6th of the season. Marc Staal corralled a loose puck just as a 4 minute, double-minor for high-sticking to Sean Avery expired. Staal hit Avery with a cross-ice feed and sprung Sean and the Rangers on a 3-on-2. Avery smartly wristed a shot on net and Panther goalie Scott Clemmensen made a right pad save. Fortunately for the Blueshirts, Avery saw Stepan going hard to that side of the net and the rookie was right there to collect the rebound and put it past Clemmensen.
Stepan now has 14 points in 24 contests this year. He's currently on pace for a 20-25-45 season which would constitute a fine start to what we hope is a great career in New York for the American-born centerman.
The Panthers outshot the Rangers by a wide margin in the 1st period (15 - 5) but it was New York who held the 1 goal lead.
The second period was more even though Lundqvist had to be on his toes early as Florida skated in on a 2-on-1 just after the opening faceoff. Shots for were 9 - 8 in favor of the Panthers but no goals were netted by either club.
The Rangers capitalized on just their 2nd PP opportunity of the evening when Ryan Callahan beautifully re-directed a feed from Erik Christensen by Clemmensen at the 5:24 mark of the 3rd.
Brandon Prust closed out the scoring with a SH effort at 14:25 of the period. Marian Gaborik deflected a pass in the Panthers offensive zone. Prust picked up the loose puck and kicked it to his stick before heading out on a 2-on-1. Prust wristed a shot that beat Clemmensen far side.
Yes, it was a win but it was still a bit of a disappointing effort. The Panthers are one of a handful of teams in the league the Rangers can say they are more talented than. Even on the road this is a game the should have controlled; or at least not been so thoroughly outplayed themselves.
Coach Tortorella was hard on his squad after a horrible 2 period effort against Tampa. I anticipated the Blueshirts to come out much harder against an inferior Panthers' team. Instead it was Florida that came out strong.
The Rangers get another chance tonight as the head to Nashville for the final game of a 3 game road trip. I expect to see Hank get the start between the pipes as he looks to build on last night's strong performance.