“Hockey is a funny game — it’s played on ice.”
Those deathless words were uttered by former Rangers goalie-coach-and-general manager Emile (The Cat) Francis.
As far as the current Blueshirts are concerned, the bromide could be amended to read, “Hockey is a fun game — when it’s played on our home ice.”
With Game 4 of the New York-Ottawa series on tap tomorrow night at The Garden, Alain Vigneault‘s skaters can at least enjoy a long exhale now that they have finally been victorious against the pesky Senators on their third try.
The 4-1 relatively relaxed triumph last night on Seventh Avenue not only moves the Rangers’ backs away from the wall — for the moment, at least — but regenerates confidence that had been diminished after two consecutive tough losses in Canada.
If that confidence bubbles over into Game 4 the way it did last night, we could be looking at a tied series by Friday morning.
Goals by Mats Zuccarello, Michael Grabner, Rick Nash and Oscar Lindberg staked the Blueshirts to a 4-0 lead until Blueshirt nemesis, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, put Ottawa on the board in the final minutes of the second period.
Starting the third frame, the question circulating through The Garden’s capacity crowd was whether the Seventh Avenue Skaters could protect what is often — and sometimes humorously — called “The Dreaded Three-Goal Lead.”
It appeared in danger early in the final frame when Blueshirts backliner Brendan Smith skated off with a high-sticking minor penalty.
New York’s penalty-killers were equal to this task and the three-goal lead remained intact.
Furthermore, the killed off power play seemed to deflate the visitors and from that point until the final buzzer, the Rangers played superior — and winning — hockey.
OVERVIEW: As it is said, “Turnabout is fair play” and now this turning-point game could very well catapult the Rangers into a 2-2 series tie if they play as well tomorrow as they did in the third tilt. All hands on the deck delivered, but especially the offense which gifted Henrik Lundqvist with a four-goal cushion. They cemented the lead with attention to checking and defense. All things considered, this could be the start of something big; but only if it can be duplicated in Game 4.
WHAT WENT RIGHT:
1. ATTACK AND ATTACK: From the opening face-off, the Rangers vigorously forechecked and rolled up a four-goal lead by the three-quarter mark of the second period before Ottawa broke through for its first goal.
2. HOLDING THE LEAD: Once Ottawa scored late in the second period, pessimists in the crowd had visions of another Rangers collapse as happened in Game 2 in Ottawa. But the defense held and the Sens never scored again.
3. THE GLASS EFFECT: Vigneault surprised some observers by deleting Pavel Buchnevich from the lineup and replacing him with toughie Tanner Glass. The latter played an effervescent, chirping game, chipping in an assist on Lindberg’s goal, a fourth of the game for the winners.
4. BOUNCE-BACK KING: Although Lundqvist rarely was under severe pressure, he was effective when he had to be and — under the circumstances — that’s all the Rangers required.
5. MATS AND MICHAEL: So important at home, the first goal at 5:31 of the opening period by Zuccarello got the capacity crowd going. The decibel count rose again just seven minutes later when Zucc set up the Rangers’ second goal; this one by Grabner. Mats and Michael each have four playoff goals.
6. ZIBANEJAD VS. BRASSARD: Mika Zibanejad was traded for Derick so the comparison continues. Last night, the Ranger finished with a plus-two and the Senator was minus-two. Case closed until the next game.
7. DEFENSE FIRST: The Blueshirts’ defensemen provided Lundqvist with enough vision so that their goaltender enjoyed a relatively relaxed night in the net. All told, the Senators had 27 shots on goal.
8. P.K. KILLS P.P.: New York’s penalty-killing units snuffed out all three Ottawa power plays. Anything less could have been disastrous.
TURNING POINT: His team desperate to avoid a third straight defeat, Zuccarello did what he’s done so often for the Rangers, produce a big goal. By tallying the first goal of the game, Zucc gave his club confidence and followed it up by helping produce the second — game-winner — by Grabner.
WHAT THEY SAID:
1. FORMER NHL PLAYER, G.M., COACH AND TV ANALYST MIKE MILBURY: “Zuccarello powered the win with an all-around game. His energy made a positive difference for the Rangers.”
2. GUY BOUCHER: “The Rangers won it in the first period. They had a sense of urgency. They didn’t want to be down three-nothing. We were off in our passing. Rangers were hard; we were not.”
3. RICK NASH: “We were able to erase an emotional loss. The extra day helped us to put Game 2 behind us. It was our goal to put it behind us. We had a good effort, but we’re still down. The next game is that much more of a big deal.”
4. MARC STAAL: “We were smart with the puck, but we got away from that a bit in the second period. We were much better with the puck and capitalized on our opportunities.”
5. J.T. MILLER: “We set the tone for the game with our strong start. Now we feel good about ourselves. We did a good job of keeping the puck out of the middle of the ice. Their goalie is outstanding, but we still managed to get a lot of good looks.”
6. BRADY SKJEI: “Holding them to five shots in the first period was huge. We wanted to limit their chances. During the first period, I thought we really jumped on them. We have to carry the same mentality into Game 4. We’re still down in the series and we need to play with the same desperation. The same type of energy we had in the first period. You need to keep your home atmosphere tough to play for the other team. I think we did that tonight – showing off our speed, showing off our playmaking abilities.”
7. ALAIN VIGNEAULT: “It’s one game and now we have to concentrate on the next. Mika is playing well and the more he seems to get out there the more plays he’s making. And we need more of that.”
8. DEREK STEPAN: “We always talk about adjustments through a series and every series is no different. You make your adjustments and clean up things that you feel you can do better in the next one, and we’ll do the same thing after this game. We’re going to figure out what we did and how we had success, and what we did that didn’t have success.”
9. HENRIK LUNDQVIST: “Most importantly, we’re back in the series. It was a big game for us. Everybody understood the importance of this one and we came out in the first period and set the tone. There is no question that we were the better team playing with speed, emotion, and determination. We got it done and it was great to see.”
10. MATS ZUCCARELLO: “We came out strong and set the tone right away. We played well as a team. Our defensemen blocked shots and we moved the puck quickly. That’s the key for us when we play with speed.”
BOTTOM LINE: The Rangers held serve last night and, if they do it again in Game 4, this could be as thrilling a series as the New York-Montreal affair. A “must” win was achieved with all aspects of the Blueshirt machine working in sync. Time will tell whether AV’s troops can do it again.