With so much on the line every night and so little time left on the season the New York Rangers reached down deep and pulled out a crucial victory in a shootout over the Toronto Maple Leafs. It took sixty minutes of regular time, a five minute overtime and the shootout to give New York an important two points and a 3-2 victory.
With only two weeks left in the strike shortened NHL season, all three tri-state hockey teams, the Rangers, Islanders and Devils are fighting to stay in playoff contention in the Eastern Conference. All three are on the cusp of making the playoffs or missing them, a race likely to come down to the final day or two of the season. As of late Wednesday evening five teams are within four points of each other as they battle for the final three playoff spots in the East. All three local teams fall into that category.
The Islanders, winning seven of their last nine games had the night off and watched as the Devils fell to the Bruins and the Rangers outlasted Toronto in a shootout. The Ranger victory put them into a three way tie for the final playoff spots while the New Jersey loss kept them in tenth place, just two points behind ninth place Winnipeg and four points behind the aforementioned threesome with little more than a week remaining in the regular season.
The Rangers played host to the Toronto Maple Leafs on the back end of a home and home series. New York dropped the contest up north on Monday which elevated the urgency for two points when they reunited in Madison Square Garden. Henrik Lundqvist (17-14, 2.13 GAA, .926 SV%), playing his best hockey of the season as goaltender was in net for the sixth consecutive game and 15 of the last 16 for the Rangers.
Each team, reluctant to make the first mistake in the early going played a tentative opening period and seemed content to take a scoreless tie to the locker room for the first intermission. Both squads proceeded into period number two with a more aggressive and physical style of play resulting in a Phil Kessel goal 1:42 into the second session giving Toronto the 1-0 lead. Shortly after the score a fight broke out between New York’s Ryane Clowe and Toronto’s Mark Fraser sending both to the penalty box for five minutes. Although Fraser appeared to get the best of the exchange, the fight seemed to motivate the Rangers. While those two served their sentences the Rangers killed off a Michael Del Zotto tripping penalty and the Rangers offense kicked into high gear taking over momentum in the period. After attacking the net several times unable to penetrate the Toronto goal, center Carl Hagelin found a way to tie the game by converting on a rebound opportunity half way through the period. Hagelin, who had been without a point in eight games contributed to the Rangers second goal when he fed Ryan McDonagh just inside the blue line for a blast that found the back of the net. Toronto goaltender James Reimer had no chance thanks to a well placed screen by captain Ryan Callahan in front.
For the remainder of the second period and over eight minutes into the third Toronto was unable to produce a shot on goal, but when they finally did, Ryan Kessler scored his second goal of the night and the game was tied 2-2. Although both teams aggressively pursued the winning tally, the third period and overtime session ended in a tie prompting a shootout for the right to take home a win and a very important extra point in the standings. The number one star of the game, Ranger goaltender Henrik Lundqvist stopped all three shootout attempts by Toronto while Mats Zuccarello on his shootout attempt sent a quick wrist shot into the net giving New York the victory.
The Rangers, 12-0-0 when leading after two periods this season were able to keep that record perfect and end the evening tied for the final playoff spot with eight games remaining on the schedule including their hugely significant match up against the cross-town rival Islanders Saturday night at the Nassau Coliseum.