The first team to 60 points, the New York Rangers play at the Bell Centre Sunday having blanked the Maple Leafs 3-0 in Toronto on Saturday. Marty Biron got the shutout, which likely means “King” Henrik Lundqvist — who many people considered the league’s top goalie in the first half of the season — will face Montreal.
Against the Leafs, the Rangers got secondary scoring, as they have lately, with big Mike Rupp and bigger Brian Boyle getting goals in the second period. Derek Stepan, who has been a linchpin in the Rangers offence this season, scored in the third.
The six-foot-five, 23 pound Rupp, who missed 22 games during the first half with a knee injury, also scored twice against the Flyers in the Winter Classic (taunting Philadelphia with a Jaromir Jagr salute after the first) and has a knack for big goals (including a Stanley Cup winner for the Devils in 2003).
For the six-foot-seven, 244 pound Boyle, who had 21 goals last year, it was only his third of the season and his first in 23 games. But he’s been an effective checking centre this season. Even when someone on this team isn’t scoring, they are doing something to help the team win. It’s a club with good chemistry and a determined attitude. They have lots of offensive balance — seven players with 20 or more points and six more in double digits.
It was a typical Rangers outing Saturday, displaying one of the NHL’s most effective forechecks, something you can expect to see on Sunday if the they bring their “A” game. The Leafs defencemen had almost no time to move the puck all evening as nearly every shoot-in was fiercely contested, nearly every play was made under pressure. According to the stats sheet, the Leafs committed 26 giveaways and the Rangers stole the puck four more times; that’s 30 turnovers compared to the 17 the other way.
The stats also show the Rangers out-hit the Leafs 48 to 39. They are credited with the most hits in the NHL this season, 1219. That’s about 200 more than the Canadiens. They are a team with good size and they use it.
“That’s a big part of our game,” Rangers coach John Tortorella said after the Leafs game of New York’s physical game. “That’s the way we have to play; we’re not talented enough, we’re not a good enough team if we don’t play the way we’re supposed to play. We’ve defined that as a team, we’ve developed an identity as a team and now it’s our responsibility to try and continue to play that way.”
But, other than Marian Gaborik and Michael Del Zotto, they are not an especially fast team, which was evident in the Canadiens’ 4-0 defeat of New York the last time they visited in November.
Although he had uncharacteristically kept his forward units together for weeks, an amazingly long stretch of games for him, Tortorella mixed up his lines at the start of the Leafs game, partly by necessity and partly to change things up after the Rangers lost to Ottawa on Thursday. Brandon Dubinsky missed his second consecutive game with a shoulder injury on Saturday and Carl Hagelin, a late-November call-up from the AHL who was a collegiate star for Michigan, was moved to that spot with Brad Richards and Ryan Callahan.
Tortorella also fiddled with his second line, promoting John Mitchell from the bottom six and slotting him between Stepan (who leads the Rangers with 19 assists) and Gaborik (who leads the Rangers with 23 goals). Stepan has had excellent chemistry with Gaborik and centred for him and Artem Anisimov. But he was bumped to wing and Anisimov was moved to the fourth line as a centre between Rupp and Wojtek Wolski.
As the game went on, Tortorella juggled things even more, and some of that was because Ruslan Fedotenko left that game with back spasms. It’s unclear who will take his spot if he can’t go on Sunday. Regardless, don’t get used to seeing any set combinations from New York.
But like so many moves Tortorella has made this year, it all worked out for him and his club, especially once they got motoring in the middle frame and forced Toronto into numerous errors, like on the first goal, caused by a bad pass from Mike Komisarek (video) that turned into a great three-way passing play between Wolski and Stepan that was finished off by Rupp early in the period.
The Rangers ability to defend has been one of the bigger surprises of the season. They have become very stingy in their own zone, the product of good positional play that blocks shooting and passing lanes. They’re third in the league in blocked shots with 692 (the Habs lead with 717) led by Dan Girardi, whose 106 blocked shots are fourth in the league (Josh Gorges 122 are tops). Emerging as a top defenceman, Girardi averages over 27 minutes a game.
His partner, Ryan McDonagh (yes, him) is second, averaging 25 minutes a night. He’s also second among Rangers defencemen in plus/minus with a plus-11.
Another big surprise has been the play of blueliner Del Zotto, team leader at plus-24 and a power play quarterback with a big shot. He wa a turnover machine in his first two NHL seasons, but he has matured and gained confidence this season and has Tortorella’s confidence as well.
With former All-Star Marc Staal back and regaining his form after missing most of the season with post-concussion symptoms, they are becoming even better defensively. They’re 5-1 since his return and have given up only nine goals. Staal is being used more than when he started out at the Winter Classic playing under 13 minutes. He’s now up to around 19.
The Rangers power play is no great shakes for a team first overall. They’re 23rd, clicking at only a 14.6 rate. The penalty kill is better, sixth in the league, negating 86.4 percent of opponents’ man advantage chances. They also have six shorthanded goals. They have to be good on the PK — they are among the most penalized team in the NHL, averaging almost 14 minutes a game. They also are tied with the Bruins for most major penalties, 33.
Here’s how the Rangers might start the game on Sunday (assuming Fedotenko can play). Then again maybe not. And even if they do, don’t expect it to stay that way.
Carl Hagelin-Brad Richards-Ryan Callahan
Derek Stepan-John Mitchell-Marian Gaborik
Ruslan Fedotenko-Brian Boyle-Brandon Prust
Mike Rupp-Artem Anisimov-Wojtek Wolski
Ryan McDonagh-Dan Girardi
Michael Del Zotto-Anton Stralman
Marc Staal-Anton Stralman