Coming into Thursday night’s game against the Blackhawks, New York Rangers coach John Tortorella acknowledged that they would be facing a “desperate” team. The sentiment around the league was that a team as good as the Blackhawks just couldn’t go on losing forever; and talk about firing coach Joel Quenneville was reality-checked by other coaches in the league.
With two of their top five defencemen on the injured list, bone-dry offense, and their PK once again limping along, Chicago had just dropped their 9th in a row, a disappointing 2-3 loss in Nashville. Although it was their best game in a few weeks, they ran into the ever-hot Pekka Rinne. It was expected that in New York, they’d be facing the equally spectacular Henrik Lundqvist, but as it turned out, Tortorella had promised his star goalie a night off, and Marty Biron would be in the pipes. Unlike some lopsided goalie pairings in the league, Biron has performed nearly as well as the team’s starter, going 10-2-1 in the games he’s gotten. The Rangers have sat atop the East for much of the season, currently with 79 points, a +44 goal point differential, and they are on track to win the Presidents’ Trophy this season.
Everything was stacked against the struggling Blackhawks, right?
The Blackhawks came out buzzing, and got their first break of the night at the 1:05 mark, when NYR defenseman Dan Girardi was caught closing his hand over the puck in the crease. Team captain Jonathan Toews was chosen for the subsequent penalty shot, which he won by – no surprise – going five-hole, and then the Blackhawks were off to the races, piling up four goals before the first commercial break. It was if a dam had broken – first Toews; then Nick Leddy, Patrick Sharp, and Marian Hossa. The Blackhawks controlled play; the Rangers were chasing; and Chicago had 3 goals in the first four minutes and had tallied 4 goals by the 9:38 mark.
Tortorella didn’t pull his goalie in or after the first, leaving Biron in to battle through it, and after the game, Tortorella complimented him on grinding through it and “battling back”. You could see the coach looking to the heavens – or the Jumbotron – as the Blackhawks piled up the goals early, a little “I can’t believe this” look on his face. Tortorella also questioned the penalty call in the first, saying that he saw Girardi “brush the puck away”, not close his hand over it.
While Chicago controlled play in the first, it was more give-and-go in the second, with the Rangers finally getting on the board at the 3:04 mark. Chicago outshot New York 19-12 in the first two periods and were still leading 4-1 going into the third. The Rangers scored their second and final goal at 15:15 in the third, and Corey Crawford and the defense shut the door from there.
As vital as this win was, it was all the little things in this game that were so important. The Blackhawks finally changed their PK game plan, and went a perfect 8 for 8 on the PK. Players were clogging lanes, blocking shots. The Blackhawks got outhit, and were just 47% on the faceoff dot; but they had 9 takeaways and no giveaways. Corey Crawford reverted to last year’s style, playing deeper in his net and less willing to play the puck behind the net, and as a result, looked back to the form that carried the Blackhawks when they struggled so badly last spring. Although Crawford was not one of the stars of the game, he was the recipient of the Blackhawks champion belt, which gets passed from player to player after wins, and is given to the player who was instrumental in the win. For a goalie that has struggled with his play all season, being awarded “The Belt” for his play might have meant even more than the win.
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NEXT GAME : CHI VS CBJ, SATURDAY, FEB 18
From New York, the Blackhawks go on to their final game of this 9-game road trip, a Saturday afternoon match up against fellow Central division rivals, the Columbus Blue Jackets. Columbus is the first team mathematically eliminated from the playoffs this season – they would need more points to qualify than they can possibly get out of remaining games on the schedule; but it doesn’t mean that they can’t be spoilers. Chicago is 4-0-0 against the Blue Jackets this season, and speedy winger Viktor Stalberg had his first career hat trick the last time these two teams met. Stalberg has scored the majority of his goals against Columbus this season, and there is certainly hope he can further that tally in the final two games between these teams.
Team captain Jonathan Toews acknowledged a good win on Thursday, but recognizes that the team has to continue to play the way it has for the past two games and not revert to the style of play that led to the losing streak. “The next game is even bigger than this one,” Toews said after the game in New York. “We’ve got to keep going. We’re in a tough situation after this cold streak we’ve been on. We need to keep digging our way out of the hole, and we can’t be comfortable with this win for one second.”
The puck drops in Columbus at noon Central / 1 p.m. Eastern on Saturday.
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INJURY / PLAYER REPORTS
There is “no change” listed for defenseman Steve Montador; Niklas Hjalmarsson is listed as “getting better” and not expected to play before Tuesday’s game vs the Red Wings. This should continue to give Finnish defenseman Sami Lepistö more time to play, but oddly enough, his TOI hasn’t been increasing, although he has at least dressed for the past few games. When playing on the defensively-minded Phoenix Coyotes, Lepistö logged more than 17:30 average TOI, often against second and third lines; in Chicago, his TOI has been low, just over 12 TOI/game. The opposing team rarely scores when he’s on the ice, he’s a “puck-moving defenseman” who can – and has – gotten good plays started, while at the same time favoring a more stay-at-home style so that he’s not frequently caught out of position. On a team that has struggled on its blue line while overloading Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook by frequently skating them over 28:00 TOI, you have to wonder why Lepistö 1) isn’t dressing for more games and 2) isn’t getting more TOI when he does. It’s well-known that the Blackhawks are looking for a “puck-moving defenseman”; how about starting with the one already on the team?
Rookie Andrew Shaw played just 5:08 in Thursday’s game vs. the Rangers. He was sent back down to Chicago’s AHL affiliate, the Rockford IceHogs, on Friday morning; and fellow rookie Jimmy Hayes was called up to the team in exchange. Hayes was on the ice for practice with the team on Friday and should play on Saturday.