After watching last night’s 2-1 shootout loss to the Dallas Stars, it’s hard to believe that this morning we wake up to the Rangers still being in a wild card spot. It was only the miracle point that has New York in the playoffs after 30 games—a miracle point gotten for them by the backup goaltender Ondrej Pavelec. Pavelec made 40 saves through regulation, letting in only one goal in 60 minutes, and 44 when OT was included. Not that this was an anomaly; last week, in Pittsburgh, Pavelec made 41 saves out of 44 shots on goal. Clearly, last night, Pavelec was the game’s first star and the only thing that kept New York even in the game. As Mats Zuccarello admitted correctly after the game, “everyone … here knows that it was embarrassing for two periods.” If anything, Zuccarello was underestimating how long his team took to wake up (a better estimate was half way through the third period). But let’s give some credit to the Stars, who were all over the Rangers last night, particularly in the first two periods, just peppering Pavelec with shots from all over the ice.
New York’s defense was not doing its job either. As captain Ryan McDonagh said after the game, “we weren’t first on any pucks, … we are too far into the season here to have a game like this, where we’re not coming up with the pucks, not moving our feet, not connecting the dots.” Nick Holden, who plays on McDonagh’s right side on the first pair, had a particularly difficult time, giving the puck away four times last night and losing battles along the boards.
In addition, there was little offense, which made Kevin Shattenkirk’s defensive weaknesses even more glaring. The team knows that they are giving up something defensively in exchange for Shatty’s tremendous offensive upside, but it becomes problem when the numbers are not going up on the scoreboard. But at least Shattenkirk is right handed and can give a different look to the power play, right? Not when there are no penalties called against the opposition. But this is not to say that there were no plays that deserved calls, it just was they happened during the third period and the officials had already put their whistles in their pockets.
As I intimated up top though, last night was not all bad. Pavelec, has been the quintessential backup to Henrik Lundqvist in the last few games. Prior to his November 28th appearance in relief of Lundqvist, it was questionable whether the team could trust the former Winnipeg Jet to get the team the needed 10 to 15 wins. However, in his last three games, Pavelec has faced 116 shots and stopped 110 of them–a save percentage of 94.83. So, now Henrik does not need to keep up the pace he was on—to start more than 70 regular season games, a pace that was not sustainable for a player of his age, particularly with a playoff run expected to follow. This needs to continue, as 30 games into the season, Pavelec has started only five contests; as a goaltender who appears to need regularly work to stay on top of his game, Pavelec needs to be used at least twice as often as we get into January, February and March.
Another positive from last night was that it was Garden of Dreams night at MSG. So, children who have battled serious illnesses had greater participation in the pregame ceremony. This included a solo violin rendition of the National Anthem by 10-year-old Zoe Nguyen, who has been battling illness since birth. In one of the most moving moments in my years at MSG, she played to an almost silent arena, her young face intent on getting it right, while many in the stands (and press box) fought off tears. Zoe gave a thrilling performance, which inspired everyone with her skill and bravery.
Finally, as I was sitting in the press box last night and wondering what could be done, an email came in detailing the week of the Hartford Wolf Pack. I noticed that a right-handed shooting center Vinni Lettieri had been producing in the AHL recently. The rookie was signed as a free agent out of the University of Minnesota last spring and has posted 11 goals and 8 assists in 26 games. It’s not clear whether Lettieri is NHL-ready, but the roster could really use another right-handed shot.