Thanks to some utterly insane goaltending from backup Antti Raanta, the contagiously inspired play of Tanner Glass and yet another clincher from Mika Zibanejad, the Rangers shutout the Tampa Bay Lightning in overtime last night, 1-0, in what was, by all accounts, the most exciting, most energized, most physically engaged effort the Blueshirts have put forth all season.
Any questions about the “impact” Glass would have on his team’s psyche were answered almost immediately. Despite only playing 5+ total minutes, it was quality over quantity. On his very first shift, Glass set the tone by skating in hard on the forecheck, stealing the puck behind the net, passing it back to the point and – taking a page out of former Ranger Head Coach Fred Shero’s book – “arrived at the net and in ill humor.” Tanner got right in the face of newly-appointed, #1 Tampa Bay netminder, Andrei Vasilevskiy and made his presence felt both during the play and after the whistle. And the trickle-down effect of Glass’ dynamic spirit was evident. Rick Nash crashed the net with reckless abandon all night. Derek Stepan stepped up. Chris Kreider’s physicality came to life. All-star Ryan McDonagh put forth a “C”-worthy performance. Brandon Pirri threw his weight around. Heck, even the normally mild-mannered rookie Brady Skjei – who publicly apologized to his team for not responding when Henrik Lundqvist got clocked by Dallas’ Cody Eakin last December – came to the aid of his fellow Dman. After Steven Kampfer was viciously checked from behind and into the boards by Tampa’s Gabriel Dumont in the first period, it was Skjei who instinctively responded. Clearly, this wasn’t about Glass having to do all the dirty work himself. This was, first and foremost, a bench-wide mantra.
But when it was time to answer the bell, Glass did that as well, dropping the gloves against the Bolts’ Luke Witkowski 6+ minutes into the game. Whether he won the bout or not was a “moo point,” as Joey Tribbiani would say. The message was clear. The Rangers were NOT going to back down. They were NOT going to be physically manhandled as they had been against the Blue Jackets, Caps and Habs recently. Nope, these Blueshirts were going to scratch and claw and battle for every square inch of ice…and do so for 60+ minutes.
Nash’s goaltender interference call midway through the second was another laudable example of the Rangers’ rejuvenation. Sure, #61 took a penalty on the play. But like Torts used to say, those are the kinds of penalties coaches don’t mind seeing. Aggressive ones. Drive to the net ones. Ones that typically get killed off anyway because they fire up your team. And guess what? The Rangers did kill it off…along with 5 other Bolt man-advantages to go 6-for-6 on the night. In a game like this, New York needed its PK to come through, and it most certainly did. And big picture, plays like Nash’s make opposing goaltenders think twice about who’s gonna come barreling into them next. Don’t believe me? Just ask Hank, who’s been knocked around his blue paint like a Golden Gloves sparring partner recently.
To be fair, the Rangers’ still gave up glorious – I mean glorious – Grade A chances in their own zone all night long and relied heavily on Raanta’s superb goaltending to keep the game scoreless going into overtime. But the fact is, they’ve done that countless times this season while trying to play AV’s high risk, up-tempo, puck possession style. The difference last night at Amalie Arena was the WAY they were playing, with and without the puck. There was a visible sense of urgency. A sense of purpose. A playoff hockey-like intensity that, in early March, couldn’t have come at a better time. And whether you’re a believer or doubter of the “Tanner Glass Effect”, you’d have to admit it was awfully coincidental that last night’s amped-up effort just happened to explode on the scene when #15 was inserted into the line-up. Ultimately, that’s what a player like Glass can bring…on the ice, on the bench, in the room, wherever. Team-wide energy that goes far beyond his own play or T.O.I.
As for Raanta’s acrobatic performance, MSG Network’s Ron Duguay summed it up beautifully: “That was the best display of elite goaltending the Rangers have had all season…by EITHER goaltender!” And that wasn’t a backhanded shot at Lundqvist by any means. We know how well Hank has played lately. That was a one-time 40 goal NHL scorer paying the ultimate compliment to a highly focused, reliable #2 netminder. One that continues to look headshakingly razor sharp despite having started only 3 of his team’s 27 games since the New Year.
But in the end, after yet another exciting, back-and-forth, 3-on-3 overtime, it was Captain Ryan McDonagh who made the difference at both ends. Not only did McD hustle back to break up a blazing right wing chance by Lightning Ondrej Palat, launching him into the boards behind Raanta just for good measure, but mere seconds later, Ryan laid a perfect, tape-to-tape, headman pass onto the stick of Zibanejad. Mika raced down the slot on a clear-cut breakaway and snapped home the OT winner glove side past Vasilevskiy to give the Rangers a thrilling victory, with Zib recording his 3rd GWG in the last 4 Ranger victories, (2 in OT, 1 in the SO.)
And that’s how it’s done.