On Jan. 21, 2020, the New York Rangers entered the All-Star break on a two-game losing streak. Their dim playoff hopes had faded even more as they lost their most recent two games to the Columbus Blue Jackets and New York Islanders right before the festivities last weekend. The importance for them to come out swinging against the lowly Detroit Red Wings in back-to-back games that commenced on Jan. 31, was crucial if they wanted to maintain some sort of relevance in the postseason hunt.
The Rangers did just that as they won both must-win contests against the Wings. On Jan. 31, they defeated Detroit 4-2 at home and on Saturday (Feb. 1) they shut them out 1-0 on the road. This is exactly what they needed as they now have some momentum moving forward. Let’s take a scan at what exactly transpired in Saturday’s shutout victory.
King Henrik Shines
As we all are aware, Henrik Lundqvist is sadly nearing the end of his playing days. He will be 38 years old next month and his level of play has decreased dramatically over the past several years. Alexandar Georgiev and rookie Igor Shesterkin have both seen more playing time in recent months, which has caused Lundqvist to take a backseat. He has been relegated to the third-wheel role and it’s something I’m sure he is not accustomed to.
Throughout his illustrious career in the Big Apple, Lundqvist has always been the main man between the pipes for the Rangers. So many big moments occurred with him as their backstop since he made his first start in 2005. On Saturday night, the Rangers decided to give both their young goalies a rest. This was Lundqvist’s cue to step in and assume the starting duties that he once was in control of for so many years before.
He entered Saturday’s match with a 9-10-3 record and a goals against average that was above 3.00. I was a little uneasy how this was going to pan out for the Rangers. Lundqvist had not made a start since Jan. 11 against the St. Louis Blues, so he was most likely going to be a bit rusty due to the lack of usage. Suffice it to say, I was wrong to doubt Henrik’s ability to step in and help his team win an important game.
He had quite a vintage moment as he recorded his 64th career shutout and his first since Nov. 19, 2017, against the Ottawa Senators. It certainly was pretty surreal finding out that Lundqvist had gone three seasons without getting a shutout, but that just goes to show how difficult things have been for “The King” lately during this rebuild process.
The 33 shots he faced weren’t all easy ones either and he had to come up with some pretty impressive stops to keep the Red Wings at bay. There were two saves he made back in the third frame of action that stood out in my mind as he showed some flashes of brilliance that were common from his youth.
About three minutes into the third, the Red Wings were buzzing around the Rangers’ defensive zone trying to knot the game at one. Robby Fabbri was found coming around behind the cage and he decided to throw a pass into the high slot to teammate Valtteri Filppula. The 35-year-old veteran center showed no signs of hesitation as he ripped a shot right square on net towards Lundqvist. Luckily, he was up to the task as he stuck out both his glove and left pad to make a solid save. The puck was then quickly carried out of harms way and the Rangers avoided any unfortunate mishaps in the process.
A little more than a minute later, the Red Wings had another quality chance that could have ended up tying the game at one had Lundqvist not been sharp. Sniper Dylan Larkin entered New York’s defensive territory up the middle with the hopes of putting an end to the shutout bid. He dished it off to Todd Bertuzzi on his backhand and he snapped a shot on goal. Lundqvist made the save with his pads and the puck proceeded to shoot straight up into the air and behind the net. Both Pavel Buchnevich and Mika Zibanejad tried to intercept the puck and get out of the zone but they missed it in the process.
Larkin was in the vicinity and gathered it up to come back out from behind the cage and flip a quick pass over to defenseman Patrik Nemeth. He then whipped a laser beam of a shot towards Lundqvist. I was almost sure Detroit was going to tie the game up at this point. It was such a quality chance and I couldn’t see an aging Lundqvist having it in him anymore to prevent it from going over the red line.
Shockingly to my surprise, the puck was kept out of the net as Lundqvist snatched it from mid-air with his glove. The whistle sounded, and the play was blown dead. Somehow, the Red Wings were unsuccessful in converting a goal in that sequence and did not get a tally on the board.
Lundqvist’s stellar performance was probably the biggest reason why the Rangers managed to prevail in this contest. Regardless, a win’s a win and they will take it as every point is critical in their quest to qualify for the playoffs this upcoming spring.
Mika Zibanejad Remains Hot
Mika Zibanejad was obviously one of the other major factors as to why the Rangers were victorious in Saturday’s 1-0 shutout over the Red Wings. He was the only player on both sides who marked a goal on the scoresheet and his strong play as of late has kept the Rangers’ heads above water in the standings.
To put things in perspective, Zibanejad is currently riding a three-game point streak and has produced points in four of his last five contests. The Rangers will eventually need to name a new captain to their team and I strongly believe Zibanejad should earn that title soon. Getting back to Saturday’s action, he once again proved how valuable he is to this organization as he posted his 20th goal of the regular season to put the Rangers up 1-0.
The goal came 12:13 into the first period as they capitalized on a power play opportunity given to them thanks to an interference penalty committed by Justin Abdelkader on Jacob Trouba about a minute earlier. The Rangers and Zibanejad were able to seize the moment and make the most of it.
New York was spending some time down in Detroit’s zone setting up a lane to get the puck through towards the net. Tony DeAngelo was at the blue line and passed the puck behind him on his backhand to Ryan Strome. Strome proceeded to throw a pass down low to Chris Kreider who was parked out by the side of the cage.
Kreider reacted to the swift pass by redirecting it across the crease of Detroit’s goaltender Jonathan Bernier. Zibanejad was Johnny on the Spot right out in front to poke the puck home under Bernier’s body. Just like that, the Rangers scored on the man-advantage and were up 1-0 over Detroit.
Zibanejad has managed to make himself noticeable in key situations for the Rangers and knows how to come up big when the chips are down. The importance of this game couldn’t have been any higher at this point for the Rangers and they needed a leader like Zibanejad to rise to the occasion and pull them through.
Hopefully, the young guns like Kaapo Kakko, Brett Howden, and Filip Chytil can learn from this and use it as inspiration for furthering their playing careers on Broadway. It’s Zibanejad’s fifth time in nine years where he has scored at least 20 goals in a single season. Along with his 20 goals, he has an additional 43 points, which put him on pace to beat a personal best in his career as he recently produced 74 points last year. If he keeps it up, he can crack 80 points or more.
There is a sliver of light at the end of this dark tunnel for the Rangers as they are barely clinging on to playoff aspirations for the 2019-20 season. They currently possess a 25-21-4 record and are nine points back from the Carolina Hurricanes and Philadelphia Flyers for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Even if the Rangers fail in their journey to make the playoffs, it is still quite impressive how far along they’ve come since their rebuild process commenced a few years back.
The light at the end of that tunnel I alluded to earlier may be for next year. This season could very well be the prelude to something special for years to come. An empire doesn’t take one day to build, and the Rangers are doing the right thing by taking their time correctly structuring their corps. The youth is progressing well, maybe even a little faster than some had expected, but we shall see how it goes.
The future looks very bright for this squad and don’t be surprised if they will be competing for a Cup at some point within the next several years. It may seem like a bold prediction, but there just seems like something big is in store for this franchise who hasn’t experienced the sweet taste of a championship since Mark Messier hoisted the Cup in Madison Square Garden almost 26 years ago.
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I enjoy watching and writing about hockey. My favorite team is the New York Rangers. My most memorable moment is that waffle board save Henrik Lundqvist made to stop Thomas Vanek from scoring in the second period of Game 6 of the 2014 Eastern Conference Finals.