NEW YORK – A special anniversary was celebrated at Madison Square Garden in a most fitting way on Sunday.
Saying that New York Rangers’ goalie Henrik Lundqvist masked his team’s recent offensive struggles not only describes his 1-0 shutout over the visiting Boston Bruins, but it simultaneously references a connection with a moment that changed the face -– literally –- of hockey history, fifty years ago to the day.
Go back exactly half a century, also on a Sunday, November 1st, 1959, at the same venue.
Montreal Canadiens’ goalie Jacques Plante left the Garden ice that day after having his nose broken by a wrist shot three minutes into the Canadiens’ eventual 3-1 victory over the Rangers.
Plante returned to that game with a mask and only convinced coach Tom Blake that he should continue wearing it after the Canadiens remained unbeaten for another 17 games with Plante’s scarred face safely protected.
On March 8, 1960, Plante discarded the mask at Blake’s request and the Canadiens lost to Detroit, 3-0. The mask returned for good the next night and the Canadiens went on to win their fifth straight Stanley Cup that season.
But, this isn’t all about what happened fifty years ago. No, it’s about what’s happened since.
Plante became an instant pioneer. Ever since that famed day in 1959, the goalie mask has become standard equipment thanks to the Hall of Famer who additionally revolutionized the game by being the first goaltender to play the puck away from the net and to raise his arm to indicate an icing call, while also perfecting the stand-up positional style of cutting down angles.
Fast forward back to Sunday, after Lundqvist, a great goaltender in his own right, had a special helmet (not just a mask, these days) made featuring renderings of Plante’s masked face, the dates “1959-2009,” and a ticket stub from that now-famous Canadiens-Rangers game in 1959.
Perhaps an even better tribute though, was the way Lundqvist played in the same building fifty years later, recording his first shutout of the season and the 21st of his career, while notching his 150th career victory.
What better way to pay homage to the anniversary of The Plante Mask Game than an old-school, one-goal, milestone, shutout win in a grind-out type of fashion between two Original Six teams? Especially considering that Sunday also marked another anniversary involving the Rangers’ opponent — the 85th anniversary of the Bruins becoming the NHL’s first team based in the United States, on November 1st, 1924.
And, who better to score the only goal in a game of that style than Rangers’ right winger Marian Gaborik?
The Rangers sorely missed their leading scorer, who was a game-time decision after missing the Ranger’s previous two games with a knee injury.
But, even at less than 100 percent, Gaborik was still exactly what New York needed. His lone score was enough offense for Lundqvist, who stopped all 29 shots he faced. Like all great goalies, Lundqvist relished the pressure of protecting a 1-0 lead in the final period. “It was a fun game,” he said. “The feeling was one mistake could cost us big time. “I like that feeling. I have to be on my toes all of the time.”
Gaborik’s goal came as New York cleared its own zone, and center Vinny Prospal streaked up the left side to move inside the face off circle to the right of Bruins’ goaltender Tim Thomas, whose 22 saves earned him the third star of the game behind Gaborik and then Lundqvist (and, no Knick fans, that’s no relation to the other Tim Thomas who used to play basketball in the same arena).
Prospal made a nice cross-ice pass, leaving it back a bit for Gaborik to get to the puck in rhythm and one-time it low and right, for his 11th goal of the season, just out of the reach of the left glove of Thomas, with 4:09 remaining in the second period. The assist was Prospal’s team-leading 14th this season. Defenseman Marc Staal, a 2005 Ranger first-round pick, who passed ahead to Prospal on the play, was also credited with his fourth assist of the season.
Rangers’ head coach John Tortorella said of the game-breaking ability of the former first round pick spending his first year in New York after eight seasons in Minnesota, “That’s why Gabby’s here, that’s why we made the deal.”
Getting more scoring chances for Gaborik or any other Ranger was a challenge all game long in the defensive-minded contest. “In the first half of the game,” Tortorella said, “I was trying like hell to get Gaborick away from Chara,” Boston’s 6-foot-9, 255-pound defenseman tasked with spying the Rangers’ star who entered the game having registered at least one point in 11 of the 12 games in which he appeared this season.
Tortorella noted Gaborik’s other contributions besides the big goal, saying “Gabby scores a big goal for us, [but] I thought he [also] played very well away from the puck and killing penalties.”
That paid extra dividends for the Rangers in a game like Sunday’s, because as Tortorella pointed out, ”You have to play a real patient, grinding type [of] game [against Boston]. I thought our decision making was good. I thought our grinding was better [than it had been].”
Leading by a goal after two periods, the chances were good that the Rangers, who started the season 7-1, winning seven straight games right before a 1-4-1 slide, would get back on the winning track again. Sunday’s victory pushed New York to 7-1 when scoring first this season and a perfect 8-0 when leading after two periods.
Still, it wasn’t over until the final minute, as Boston made several late charges, including back-to-back power plays early in the third period. Ranger defenseman Michael Rozsival was called for tripping 2:28 into the final period. As soon as New York killed off that penalty however, center Brandon Dubinsky was whistled for slashing at 4:28, creating essentially, a four-minute Boston power play.
“I thought we lost ourselves a little bit when we went back-to-back with the penalties in the third period and then they started coming a little bit,” Tortorella said.
But, the Rangers killed off both penalties successfully, as Boston was held to 0-for-5 on the power play for the game. The Rangers were 0-for-2 with the man advantage, themselves.
Tortorella acknowledged the play of Lundqvist and his defense as the reasons the Rangers held on to win. “I think an important part of winning in the third period is your goaltender,” he said. “I thought [Lundqvist] made some key saves in the third period.”
Tortorella noted that the most of the Bruins’ best chances came late in the game, and he was proud of how his team responded defensively. “I think Boston only had two or three chances throughout the first two periods,” he said. “The latter half of the third period they came at us pretty hard but I thought we defended well.”
Two players who helped bolster the defense, who like Gaborik, missed the Rangers’ previous game and were uncertain to play before the puck dropped on Sunday, were left wingers Steve Avery and Smithtown, New York native Christopher Higgins.
Tortorella especially credited Higgins, saying “I thought Higgins had a really good game. It certainly stuck out how hard he played and that’s why he gets on the ice in the last minute of the game because of the way he grinded, blocking shots, killing penalties.”
It was in that final minute that Lundqvist made probably his best and most important save of the game, denying right winger Mark Recchi, the NHL’s active leader in assists, points, and games played, with a pad save, holding on with 47.7 seconds left in the game, after Recchi fired from point blank range, just a few feet outside the crease.
“Henk comes up with a great save there,” said Tortorella.
One that Plante would have probably appreciated himself.
It was certainly respected by the 18,200 fans in attendance, who rose to their feet and serenaded Lundqvist with chants of “Henrik! Henrik!”
Staying undefeated (4-0-1) against the Northeast division and moving to within three points of idle, first-place Pittsburgh in the Atlantic division, the Rangers (9-5-1) will embark on a three-game western trip Tuesday through Saturday, which takes them through Vancouver, Edmonton, and Calgary, before returning home against Atlanta, on November 12th.
The Bruins meanwhile, who played without two key players, center Marc Savard and left winger Milan Lucic, have been the model of inconsistency, starting 6-6-1, having alternated losses and wins over all 13 games this season. Boston will have a chance in the coming week to finally put consecutive wins together during a four-game homestand which commences after a trip to Detroit on Tuesday.