The punch came with punishing quickness and stunning surprise. And as Ryan McDonagh crumpled to the ice, face down and concussed, the ramifications of Wayne Simmonds’ actions were about to unfold.
For the Rangers, that meant both immediate and long-term.
As you might expect, the Rangers lashed out at the feisty Flyer forward for his response to McDonagh’s high cross check last weekend — a hit that appeared as much protective as Simmonds bore down on the Ranger captain in front of his own bench, as it was intentional.
It should be noted that Simmonds had reached his personal boiling point only midway through the first period. It began after he absorbed a Chris Kreider shoulder to the mouth at the end of his first shift. It magnified when Simmonds absorbed the business end of McDonagh’s stick in the face, the same McDonagh who has waged years of on-ice battles with the most frequent Flyer net-front presence.
Yet within seconds of the punch, Simmonds had determined that his action should not have produced McDonagh’s reaction. First, he slandered the Rangers bench with a profane blanket statement about their collective, shall we say, “toughness.” It’s a claim and a phrase that Simmonds and other Flyers have used on-ice in recent years to describe the Rangers, to get inside their heads and under their skin. It rarely works.
Then, Simmonds screamed that McDonagh “took a (bleeping) dive” in an attempt to draw additional penalties. That accusation drew angry reactions from the Rangers bench, but none louder than the head coach. For the first time since I’ve been between the benches, Alain Vigneault directed his anger toward an opposition player.
“Are you kidding me? A dive?” Vigneault yelled, with saltier language thrown in for full effect.
All the while, the officials escorted Simmonds away from the scene as McDonagh was helped to the medical room for the rest of the game. Then came the cross-ice stick toss, presumably because Simmonds discovered at that moment that his 5-minute major was a match-game misconduct.
That sequence of events doesn’t exactly fit the narrative that Vigneault says he was given by game referees Kelly Sutherland and Dave Lewis, who claimed that Simmonds’ ejection was because he threw his stick. From my vantage point and my understanding in the moment, Simmonds was tossed from the game for the sucker punch — a deliberate attempt to injure with the head as the primary target.
But for the Rangers, the semantics of Simmonds are secondary to the status of their captain, their best defenseman and their ice-time leader. Amid all the hype and lead-up to this Sunday night at MSG, and all the words of warning from Tanner Glass and other angered Rangers, one concrete fact from last weekend in Philadelphia has emerged:
Ryan McDonagh will be a front burner storyline for most of the rest of the season.
His playing status will impact so much of what the Rangers do. On the ice for sure, but off the ice as well. McDonagh’s situation makes Keith Yandle that much more valuable on the Rangers blueline than as a chip at the trade deadline. And while the first two games without McDonagh yielded three goals against and two character-building wins, it is entirely logical to be concerned about the long-term viability of the Rangers as a Cup hopeful if McDonagh isn’t, well, Ryan McDonagh between now and June.
In body and mind.
Clearly, the Rangers played with a spirit and determination after the punch. Their anger stayed at the surface right to the last second of regulation in Philly when willing and effective yapper Ryan White tangled at the Rangers bench and again drew the ire of the head coach.
For the two minutes that followed the scrum, White alternately complained to the officials about Vigneault’s unpenalized screaming and directed his ire at AV. White even made reference to Vigneault’s penchant for chewing gum, which drew a smirk and chuckle from the coach as well as a plea to “calm down son, take it easy.”
All in a day’s work when it’s Rangers-Flyers.
Not to be lost amid the insults and injury, the confusing calls and illegal substitutions and barely controlled chaos of last Saturday in Philly was a terrific comeback win and two tremendously important points.
It was a win that followed what, two days earlier, could very well become the singular and signature tipping point to this Ranger season.
A wise man once said, “Without a sense of urgency, desire loses its value.” But Vigneault — wise for sure in his world — wasn’t nearly so poetic or profound. His words were far simpler, somewhat more pointed and every bit as impactful.
“Let’s (bleeping) go. Wake up. Let’s go.”
The words were barked from behind the bench less than eight minutes into a Wild night at The Garden against a slumping Minnesota team. The Rangers had already lost their first game out of the All-Star break in Jersey, and now, before the second TV timeout, the desperate deficit was two goals.
The Rangers responded with a strong finish to the first, but still trailed 2-0. Behind closed doors, though, the mood and the message took a decidedly positive turn.
And with it, apparently, so has the entire season.
“We were frustrated for sure but it really was positive, it was upbeat,” Henrik Lundqvist said.
“We showed them video of two plays where we did the right things, with the forecheck and puck possession, and produced some chances,” associate coach Scott Arniel told me that night when asked about the first period message from the staff. “There was enough good in the first that we felt we would come out strong.”
The Rangers did just that in the second. And, in the third. And for the most part, for the next six periods, plus that overtime and shootout in Philadelphia.
The result of all that urgency? Three straight wins, for the first time in 85 days. And, for the first time since that time, there is genuine dressing-room optimism that rock bottom for the Rangers is much more a memory than a destination.
To be certain, part of this resurgence was the rest and replenishment gained from a week at the beach (or home, or wherever it was away from the rink).
But make no mistake, the collective character of a team that has defined that word so often in previous years was on display again. Urgency and desire were visible, noticeable, and palpable, especially against the Devils in what was a 60-minute forechecking clinic. After two months of waiting and wondering, the Rangers have seemingly answered the call for desperation.
And lo and behold, the by-product was a legitimate and long-sought winning streak.
SEEN AND HEARD
Funny moment last week in New Jersey. Derick Brassard walked out of the dressing room for our first period intermission interview, but was missing his hockey pants. After I promised him that we would shoot the interview from the waist up, I asked if there was a reason, as this isn’t normal operating procedure for hockey players.
“A water bottle on the bench broke at the end of my first shift. All over me. And the rest of the period, my pants were soaked,” Brassard said. “I don’t know if someone sabotaged us or what.”
It reminded me of a road game earlier this season (I can’t remember the venue) where every water bottle that was given to Henrik Lundqvist to put on the top of his net was either clogged or malfunctioned. I remember watching as trainer Jim Ramsay feverishly attempted “damage control” as a frustrated Lundqvist waited on the bench.
LUNDQVIST GETS A GRIP
Speaking of Lundqvist, you might’ve noticed how often he seeks help with his stick during games from equipment man extraordinaire Cass Marques. It is often 2-to-3 times per period and looks as though Marques is perhaps fortifying a break where the shaft of the stick meets the wider paddle.
What Marques actually is doing is applying double-sided blue sticky tape to that spot to help Lundqvist “get a grip.” That’s because Lundqvist, like many goaltenders, sweats profusely through his equipment and the gloved hand inside the blocker becomes quite slippery.
In fact, if you listen closely during hallway interviews between periods, you might hear the sound of a hair dryer in the background. That dryer is actually inside Lundqvist’s gloves, airing them out for the start of the next period.
And now you know.
NOT-SO SUPER NEWTON
And finally, a note about Cam Newton and his Super-petulant post game press conference last Sunday:
I have covered sports for 30 years. I have probably interviewed a thousand athletes and conducted three times as many interviews. I fully understand and appreciate the emotion of the moment, the excruciating pain of the losing stage. And I never have believed that an athlete has an obligation to the assembled media to share those thoughts. I don’t even pretend to be that self-important.
However, I DO believe that he or she has an obligation to share those thoughts with the people whose hard-earned money and hard-edged emotion is spent to watch them play. The people who largely line the athlete’s pockets and enable them to enjoy the ultra-good life.
Athletes far better and far worse than Cam Newton have understood and honored that obligation. On stages far more daunting than his.
I bring this up because I have been privileged over the last decade to cover an athlete who fully understands this concept. I can honestly say that since 2005, whether uplifting or downtrodden, through celebration or dejection, and through 10 springs without a Stanley Cup, Henrik Lundqvist has never — not one time — ever skirted a postgame interview.
I’ve had captains ask me not to interview them. I’ve seen star players scurry to the safety of trainer’s rooms. I’ve witnessed belligerence and defiance and dismissiveness in the face of defeat. But I’ve never seen Lundqvist anywhere else but at his locker, waiting for me to approach for what I am sure is the furthest thing from his favorite moment of that day.
He gets it. So do many others in his star class. I’m sure after certain games, win or lose, you as fans want to hear from Lundqvist and others instrumental in that game. That is why I am there, to facilitate that. And you as fans would feel rightfully slighted if that noteworthy athlete chose not to discuss what you just saw, what you invested your time and emotions watching.
That is why Cam Newton needed to be better on Sunday. And that is why, every single year since 2006, I have thanked Henrik Lundqvist for his respect, for “getting it” and for making my job (and my life) that much easier and more pleasant.