The Rangers wanted to get off to a quick start but less than a minute into the game they were trailing the Carolina Hurricanes, 1-0. Ol’ nemesis, Justin Williams beat Henrik Lundqvist with a “soft one” from the right side boards on Carolina’s first shot of the game. “It was a tricky one,” Lundqvist said after the game, “even though I looked stupid.”
Lundqvist looked “stu-pendous” on the other 32 shots that he stopped, including a controversial penalty shot in the third period, as the Rangers rebounded from a gut wrenching loss against Florida, earlier in the week, to score a 5-1 win at the Garden last night.
Michael Grabner led the scoring with his fifth career hat trick, two of the empty net variety, while David Desharnais and Paul Carey added power play goals.
Captain Ryan McDonagh returned after missing the previous four games with an abdomen injury and had the lone assist on Grabner’s first empty netter. “It felt really good,” McDonagh said. “I had good skating legs, obviously a little bit fresh which helps.”
Desharnais has filled in very well on the top line for leading scorer Mike Zibanjedad, who missed his second straight game and is out indefinitely due to a concussion. The veteran center tied the game thanks to a gift from Carolina’s goaltender.
Like a batter facing Ron Darling, ‘Canes goalie Scott Darling “whiffed” on a clearing attempt, just off to the side of his net. Desharnais pounced on the loose puck to score one of the easiest goals of his career and tie the game at one. Just a minute and 15 seconds later, Grabner scored his first of the game off of a gorgeous feed from defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, who was deep in the offensive zone, along the right wing boards.
Lundqvist made the save of the game in the third period. Hurricanes center and Ranger nemesis Jeff Skinner broke in on Lundqvist and was being hounded by Shattenkirk who was called for slashing. Skinner was awarded a penalty shot but since he was not in a clear breakaway, it was a controversial call. According to the NHL rule book (section 4, rule 24.8) four requirements must be met for a penalty shot to be called and only three of those were.
Skinner took the puck at center ice and skated side-to-side to try and get the Ranger goaltender to commit. “You wait, you wait for him to make the first move,” Lundqvist said. Skinner made his move and fired but Lundqvist stopped the puck with his left pad to preserve the lead. “I feel like he got a pretty good opportunity to shoot the puck, he almost got two chances there,” Lundqvist said.
McDonagh has been in front of Lundqvist since 2011 so nothing that his teammate does surprises him. “He’s (Lundqvist) really stepping up in big moments as we continue on in the season so it’s great to see,” he said.
With less than three minutes left, Carolina gambled and pulled their goalie, but Grabner cashed in on the opportunity with his second of the game for a 3-1 lead. 61 seconds later, with Darling again out of the net, Grabner took a pass from Boo Nieves and lifted a backhander to complete the hat trick. The Rangers got a power play as a result of Carolina’s failed challenge of Grabner’s third goal and Paul Carey took advantage to cap off the scoring with less than a minute left.
Grabner has paid big dividends since signing with the Rangers as a free agent before the 2016-2017 season. The 30-year old has found the empty net six times this season but McDonagh said it’s not as easy as it looks. “He’s not really ever cheating for ‘em,” the Rangers’ captain said. “He’s creating his opportunities by pressuring ‘d-men’ by getting loose pucks chipped out.”
Grabner downplayed his ability to put games away with an empty net goal. “I’ve had games where you ‘re out there for two minutes and you don’t get a chance to shoot on it so this year just seems to be going good,” he said.
It’s been going good for the Rangers of late. The Blueshirts have now won 8 of their last 9 home games and 11 of 14 overall. After a slow start to the season, the Rangers have thrust themselves into the playoff hunt but Lundqvist knows they can’t stop now. “If you wanna be in the race, and everybody’s winning, you can’t afford to lose too many games, you have to bounce back right away,” said the Rangers’ goaltender who won his 418th career game to tie Hall of Famer Tony Esposito for second on the list of most wins (Martin Brodeur is first with 688) with one franchise.