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The King Conquers The Kings: Lundqvist turns in third straight excellent performance

Marc Weissman

henrik-lundqvist-profile-1-24

Photo courtesy of MSG Photos.

Thanks to the outstanding play of a resurgent Henrik Lundqvist, the surging Rangers and their #1 goaltender won their 3rd game in a row as they defeated the LA Kings, 3-2, at Madison Square Garden last night.

Ever since he gave up 7 goals against the Dallas Stars a week ago, Lundqvist has gone from being Bronx cheered to Manhattan chanted as the Garden crowd showered Hank with throngs of “HEN-RIK!…HEN-RIK!” chants throughout the game. Hank and the much-improved Ranger defense have now given up only 2 goals or fewer in 3 straight games. This after yielding 4 goals or more in the prior 4 games.  Quite a turnaround indeed.

It was evident from the get-go that Lundqvist needed to be – make that would be – rock solid in his second start of back-to-backs as the Kings came storming out of the Zamboni gate like a team on a mission. The irony is, LA sits in the non-playoff #10 spot in the Western Conference. Yet they were the ones who registered the first nine shots of the game before the EC 4th seed Rangers even mustered one. Amidst his team’s typical slow start, Lundqvist gobbled up everything thrown his way, played the angles with precision, used his lightning reflexes to their fullest and aggressively challenged crease and non-crease invaders alike.

The initial test came from none other than former Ranger, sniper Marion Gaborik, who forced Lundqvist to make a difficult left pad save early on. Later, and even more impressively, Hank stoned Jeff Carter not once, not twice, but thrice in the first period alone. LA’s leading scorer was acrobatically denied by Hank on a shorthanded breakaway as well as on a tough deflection/rebound sequence from right in front. And despite being badly outshot 14-5 in the opening stanza, the Rangers eventually helped out their netminder with some fortuitous shooting accuracy. Brandon Pirri opened the scoring at 11:30 of the first.  The fourth line winger – at least for now – pounced on a LA giveaway in the slot and rifled it past 3rd string goaltender Jeff Zatcoff to give the Rangers a surprising 1-0 lead. Pirri’s unassisted goal was his 8th of the season and came on the Blueshirts’ first shot from inside the offensive zone.

Even though they were being outplayed, out-hit, out-faceoffed and outshot, to their credit, New York didn’t back down from any of the physicality the Kings dished out. A shining example of this was when Zuccarello was brutally cross-checked in the back by the much larger Braden McNabb behind the Kings’ net. It goes without saying that Zucc was unphased by the cheap shots as he muscled his way right back to the front of the net. But on the ensuing stoppage and without hesitation, Kevin Klein came absolutely flying into the scrum, dropped his gloves, and proceeded to punish McNabb in the corner for taking liberties on our beloved Hobbit. Yup, Klein responded exactly the way teammates, coaches and fans alike appreciate. Lesson learned from the Eakin/Lundqvist debacle.

Anyway, the second period started out like a carbon copy of the first as LA again dominated early. Only this time, about midway through the period, AV tweaked his lines a bit, moving 4th liner Matt Puempel alongside Derek Stepan and Mats Zuccarello while fellow 4th liner Brandon Pirri was teamed with Rick Nash and Mika Zibanejad. No sooner were those changes made when Stepan feathered a beautiful 2-on-1, cross-ice pass to the promoted Puempel, who snapped one home to give the Rangers an improbable 2-0 lead. And while those adjustments could very well have been perceived as demotions for Kreider and Buchnevich, respectively, they were more a reflection of Puempel and Pirri’s noticeable play.  And obviously, the moves paid immediate dividends. Meanwhile, a nice by-product of the changes was that Oscar Lindberg was now centering Kreider and Buchnevich, thus creating a hard-hitting, but highly skilled, so-called 4th line. This gave the Blueshirts a much more balanced attack, not to mention took CK and Buch away from the more difficult LA defensive matchups.

The Kings finally did break through on Lundqvist late in the second when Jordon Nolan blasted one from the top of the left circle to the top-right corner behind Hank to bring LA within a goal. That tally ended a 102 minute shutout streak for Lundqvist and the Rangers, which began during last week’s win over the Maple Leafs and continued through Sunday afternoon’s game, thanks to The King’s 61st career shutout over the Red Wings.

So going into the 3rd, the Rangers inexplicably held a 2-1 lead and clearly the next goal was crucial. Well, with Kevin Hayes having been scratched due to a lower body injury, JT Miller had been playing center all game. And similar to the Detroit game, where he and Zuccarello combined for a beautiful OT game-winner, the duo came through once again. Only this time, it was in regulation and it was Miller who delivered a highlight reel pass.  JT perfectly anticipated Zatcoff’s clearing attempt along the board, and with barely a glance over his shoulder, backhanded a gorgeous feed to Zucc in the slot, who wasted no time snapping one under the cross bar. Mats had gone 16 games without a goal, albeit while racking up a bevy of assists in the interim. But for sure, it had to be a relief for Zuccarello to break the schneid and score what would turn out to be the game-winner.  Oh by the way, Lundqvist made a few more incredible saves for good measure during a late Kings’ powerplay. And although the Kings did put one by him with only 2 seconds remaining, it was too little, too late.

As for the Rangers, yet another outstanding performance from their franchise goaltender, who registered 36 saves, many of them high quality, while giving up only 1 meaningful goal. Oh sure, this time it was the offense that seemed to have difficulty getting untracked. But conversely, the defense was much more than solid in front of Hank. Solid enough to hold the Kings’ all-star trio of Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter and Marian Gaborik completely off the scoresheet, while also limiting Norris Trophy winner Drew Doughty to a lone secondary assist. That’s defense! In particular, Kevin Klein appears to turning his game around. Ever since the 3rd period against Dallas, Optimus has improved his positioning, increased his offensive involvement and, of course, stepped up physically when the situation calls for it.

And remember that burning chicken-or-egg question that smothered this team only 2 weeks ago: “Who’s to blame? Lundqvist? The defense? The coach? The Zamboni driver? All of the above?” Well, the answer was likely a combination of factors. And last night’s 3-2 win over LA was a result of solid defense, opportunistic goal scoring and phenomenal goaltending. In other words: a combination of factors.

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Posted on January 24, 2017, in Game Recaps and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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