Raanta Overshadows Two Ships Passing

Antti Raanta’s third straight start in goal, third win in a row, and second consecutive shutout highlighted a 5-0 victory for the New York Rangers over the New Jersey Devils Sunday night at Madison Square Garden.

While Raanta deservedly earned top billing , his was not the only compelling story line on Sunday.

Here’s an inside look from the press box and locker rooms at Madison Square Garden about what happened Sunday, and what is taking place with these two teams heading in distinctly different directions in the Metropolitan Division.

Two Ships Passing in the Night

The Rangers have now won three in a row and four of their last five, putting things back in order after posting a 4-5-1 record over ten games. They have held off recent charges from Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Columbus and Washington, and continue to reside in first place in the division with 41 points.

On the flip side, the Devils have lost three straight and are 3-7-3 since an impressive, and surprising, 9-3-3 start to the season. Sixth place New Jersey has 30 points, two ahead of Carolina and just three points up on the last-place Islanders.

Clearly these are two teams heading in opposite directions, and that was evidently clear Sunday night. After a strong start, which included a disallowed goal by Adam Henrique 69 seconds into the game, the Devils began to wilt late in the first period when the Rangers began imposing their will with extended shifts in the offensive zone.

On a third consecutive such shift, the Rangers scored the game’s first goal. Mats Zuccarello won a battle for the puck behind the Devils net from New Jersey captain Andy Greene, then found a wide-open Chris Kreider in front. Boom. 1-0 New York.

Before it was all said and done, the Rangers added two power play goals, scored a shorthanded goal, and got a backbreaker from defenseman Brady Skjei, his first in the NHL, with 2.5 seconds to play in the second period.

The Rangers had five different goal scorers Sunday, and 12 players found their way on to the score sheet. That is contributions coming from your entire lineup, and does not even represent a terrific overall team defensive effort.

New Jersey, which has not outshot an opponent in any of their last 12 matches, was held to three shots in the middle twenty, though the Devils did have a glorious scoring chance early in the period when Vernon Fiddler broke in alone only to be denied by Raanta’s blocker.

The Rangers were poised, opportunistic, and had an excellent night on special teams, doing so without the injured Rick Nash, Mika Zibanejad, Pavel Buchnevich and Matt Puempel in the lineup. The Devils were unable to sustain a strong start, generated next to no offense, and were dreadful on special teams.

In their three-game win streak the Rangers have outscored the opposition 8-1. Meanwhile, the Devils were outscored by an aggregate 14-3 in their last three games, and have surrendered four goals or more in ten of their last 12 outings.

Skjei said of New York’s recent play, “[We’re] playing really well.  It starts with our goaltending and out from our defense to our forwards, and our whole team is playing really well right now.”

From the other dressing room, Greene had this to say about the play of the Devils:

“We got in this together.  We have to get out of it together.  We have to stick together.  We can’t just sit there and start pointing fingers and blaming guys, blaming someone else.  I think we each have to take a look in the mirror and see what we have to do better individually.  Everyone in here can play better, play harder.  It’s about doing that individually inside the team game.  That’s the only thing that’s going to do it.  We are going to get out of this together.  It’s about sticking here and making sure we bear down.  We have to head straight and focus on the next game.”

All Hail Raanta!

The King may not be dead in New York, but he has been sitting on the bench the past three games. Rangers No. 1 netminder Henrik Lundqvist has struggled to find his game over the season’s first two months. Despite moments of excellence, his consistency has wavered, and Lundqvist clearly looked uncomfortable in his most recent action, Tuesday’s 4-2 loss in Brooklyn to the Islanders.

Enter Antti Raanta, the 27 year-old Finn who has played splendidly this season. Raanta has started each of the game’s on New York’s current three-game winning streak, stopping 62 of the 63 shots he has faced, and earning shutouts over the Chicago Blackhawks and Devils in successive games.

On Monday, the NHL named Raanta its Second Star of the Week.

As Raanta told The Hockey Writers after Sunday’s victory, he is most pleased that his play has been consistently strong since Day One this season. It’s not just that he is riding a hot streak this past week. He has been the team’s best goalie since the start of the season.

Raanta is now 8-1-0 in 11 appearances this season with an outstanding 1.52 GAA and .945 save percentage.

“I just enjoy the game, enjoy the winning,” Raanta downplayed after the game. “I just go one game at a time. I don’t think too much about games in a row; but this has been a great thing.”

Raanta faced only 19 shots Sunday and didn’t have to stand on his head as he did in Friday’s 1-0 overtime win in Chicago. There was that huge stop on Fiddler, and another six minutes later with the score still 1-0 when he gloved down an open Kyle Palmieri look on the power play, but not too much to break a major sweat over.

Still, head coach Alain Vigneault has some decision to make in the short term. Does he continue to ride the hot Raanta while the prideful Lundqvist puts in extra work with goaltending guru Benoit Allaire? Or does he switch back to Lundqvist Tuesday against the Blackhawks at MSG, knowing that a loss or poor performance by Henrik will be poorly received and could further hurt Lundqvist’s confidence?

It says here that Vigneault will go back to Lundqvist Tuesday and that Raanta will not get a fourth start in six nights. We will find out at Tuesday’s morning skate.

Quote of the Day

After announcing that Raanta would start against the Devils, Vigneault said the following Sunday morning:

“I love Hank, but I love the team more. Right now there is no doubt that Antti is playing real well and deserves to play.”

Quote of the Night

While chatting with The Hockey Writers following his 5-0 victory on Sunday, Raanta said the following about starting three in a row in place of Lundqvist:

“If you can rob three games in a row from Hank, it’s pretty special, even more so when you get shutouts in two of them.”