Sunday, April 10, 2011

N.Y. RANGERS ~ Devil of a Game; Hell of a Night

The Rangers Are In The Playoffs!

The Sounds and Voices Of An Instant Classic:
Game #82 was especially excruciating for me.  I had tickets to the game but had to work and was forced to listen to the game on radio.  All Hail Dave Maloney and Kenny Albert who never, ever call anything short of a great game!  From the streets of Bay Ridge, I was shouting HEY! HEY! HEY! during all of early Saturday afternoon.  Their radio call will be one of the more memorable games I've ever listened to.  But of course, it will be memorable only because we won.

GAME #82
Saturday, 12:30 p.m.

New Jersey Devils ~ 2

NYR Finish Season ~ 44-33-5 ~ 93 Points

3:00 p.m.

NEW YORK RANGERS:  Blueshirts Turn Back the Reaper!  But Denying The Devil(s) Only Bought Them Four More Hours Of Life.

The game every Ranger fan dreaded versus the New Jersey Devils got under way at Madison Square Garden early Saturday afternoon; much earlier than Carolina's game against Tampa Bay would.   In the their final game of the regular season, they absolutely needed two points and a Carolina loss in order to qualify for the playoffs.  Anything less, and they'd be out, having let a playoff spot they've held on to for so long, get away.

It did not start well for the Blueshirts.  With only 2:03 gone by, Ilya Kovalchuk literally found a puck that took a not so funny bounce off the boards.  He cashed in on a good break for the Devils and gave them the early 1-0 lead.

Then, in what must undoubtedly be one of, if not the most important contributing factor in deciding this game for the Rangers was the return of Chris Drury.  At his best, he's been known to be in the right place at the right time and score the big, important, gotta have goal.  He hasn't necessarily been quite that guy here and his Captaincy is repeatedly questioned by many.  But on his first shift, in his first game back from a second lengthy injury this season, THAT old, great moment-Drury showed up when he came storming in from the far corner towards net and backhanded the tying goal under Marty Brodeur, only 1:11 after Kovalchuk's opening goal.  It was the Captain's first goal of the season and it could not have come at a more critical time for the Rangers.  That goal was a reward for an unheralded good guy, who throughout all his setbacks and self-admitted ineffectiveness, always maintained a correct attitude about his status on the team.  But that goal kept the Rangers and their heads in the game because it was such a quick response.  And maybe just as importantly, that goal kept the MSG crowd loud and raucous in support of their Blueshirts.  Even Coach Torts, if you watched the highlights, for a split second, could be caught smiling behind the bench when Drury scored, but quickly wiped it off.  That speaks a ton as to how Coach feels about Drury.  Coach was never known as an in-game smiler.

Now think of something in life that really makes you angry.  Here's one of mine; - Giving up a goal with less than a minute to go in a period.  And so, I was angry when Ilya Kovachuk scored his second goal of the game with only 0:42 left in the first period to put the Devils back up by one.  That left MSG's crowd with the coming 20 minute intermission to stew over their dilemma and ponder their future.

Commenting on the second and third periods after the game, Coach said they didn't necessarily out-hustle the Devils more-so than they scored opportunistic goals.  But we know opportunistic goals in Coach's system are by design.  And so the Rangers began to exert what little control they held regarding anything beyond tomorrow.   However way you classify the three second period goals scored by the Rangers, they were greatest trio of goals they'd score in a second period this season.

Opportunistic goal number one of the second period came quickly at 1:52 of the period when Wojtek Wolski's shot found net.  With the score now even at two goals apiece, the Blueshirts had themselves a new game.  Opportunistic goal number two of the period came at 11:59, when Ryan McDonagh, like Drury, found the most crucial time in the Rangers' season to score his first goal of the season.  Incidentally, it was the first NHL goal of his career and the most important goal of the Rangers' entire season.  McDonagh's goal eventually proved to be the Rangers' game-winner.

Then came the insurance goals.  At 16:06 of the second period, Brandon Prust netted the Rangers' fourth goal of the game slamming home a rebound off a Brandon Dubinsky shot taken from Brodeur's right.  And after a full forty minutes played in the Rangers' last game, they were now owners of a 4-2 lead with only twenty minutes left in their regular season. 

This was a 4-2 lead the Blueshirts needed to protect in order to just stay alive for a playoff spot.  After eighty-one games and two periods of Hockey, the Rangers were charged with winning the final twenty minutes if only to have the rest of their fate determined later in the day when the Hurricanes would host the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Many would argue the best defense is a good offense.  The Rangers gave a little credence to that notion.  Insurance goal number two came at 10:35 of the third period.  Vinny Prospal returned to the Rangers' line-up twenty games ago after what seemed to be an eternity for the team and the forward.  And he's been Hercules in a Blueshirt ever since.  With twenty points in his returning twenty games back to action, it was only fitting that he should score the last Rangers' goal of the afternoon and seal this desperately needed victory for the Rangers.
The final score was Rangers 5;  Devils 2.  Happily, instead of the Rangers' season being over, the Blueshirt's day was only half done but not without being riddled by anxiety.  The Rangers and their fans still had the matter of a Hurricanes/Lightning game left determining their playoff status.

7:00 p.m.

Rebuffed in New York, The Grim Reaper Sought To Snatch The Blueshirts' Season In Carolina.

A win by Carolina and the Rangers were out of the playoffs and the Hurricanes were in.  With a Carolina loss, the Rangers would return to the playoffs after missing out last season by one point. 

With so much going for them over the final quarter of the season, the Rangers somehow found themselves in less control of their future than they did this time last season when they were trying to claw their way into the playoffs.  But their chances of making the playoffs last season remained in their hands right up until that last shot got by Henrik Lundqvist in the shoot-out versus Philadelphia which definitively ended everything for the Blueshirts.   This year as the season wound down, they were desperately trying to hold on to what they fought to so hard to achieve.  However, when game eighty-two on the schedule rolled around and went final, to Coach Torts' dismay, the Rangers found out 93 points still wasn't good enough to earn a playoff spot (yet).  After a season which brought so much injury, reconstruction on the fly, growth, on-ice improvement, and large strides forward as an organization, there was only so much the Rangers could do to remain alive.  They played their way into a situation where they needed help.

How ironic is it, that the fate of the Rangers' playoff hopes now rested with the team who fired John Tortorella and making him available to become coach of the New York Rangers?  John Tortorella's former team, the Tampa Bay Lightning and their willingness to beat the Carolina Hurricanes, because this game would have no bearing on their own payoff slot, were what stood between the Rangers and the post-season.  The Rangers already did what they could earlier in the day.  They'd have to wait now, for a final score from Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina.

Hurricane goalie Cam Ward has had some pretty incredible games this season stopping what seemed like millions of shots to me.  He was a horse down the stretch leading the League in starts and was third in wins with thirty-seven.  But in all honesty, I felt the Tampa Bay's pure scorers would be just a little too much for Cam Ward to overcome this game.  The Hurricanes and Lightning split a home-and home back on March 25th and 26th.  So, I was counting on him being off for one night.  After losing a 2-1 OT duel to Buffalo, Ward stifled and shut out Detroit 3-0 while stopping 42 shots on goal in game #80 for Carolina.  He followed that up with a 6-1 near blanking of Atlanta in game #81 leading into the finale versus Tampa Bay.

Once they dropped the puck, from a Rangers' point of view, things went very right, very early for the Blueshirts and Tampa Bay.  Half way through the first period, the Lightning were already staked to a 2-0 lead and Ranger fans were feeling slightly better about their chances.  When the first period ended, the Lightning were ahead 3-0.  A fourth Tampa goal in the second period forced the Hurricanes to go into panic mode.  They scored once, but the session ended with Tampa Bay leading 4-2 after two.  Two Tampa empty net goals late in the third period ended any chance the Carolina Hurricanes had of coming back.  By 9:30pm Saturday night, Carolina was done, and I'm sure their fans will debate whether they ever showed up last night in the first place.

Above the Mason/Dixon Line, news of Carolina's 6-2 loss was met with Blueshirt Fan exuberance.  The New York Rangers are in the Playoffs.  In the end, 93 points was just good enough.

9:30 p.m. Saturday

We can all exhale now.


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