Not only does tonight's demanding win over the Tampa Bay Lightning put the Rangers in ninth place in the Eastern Conference, but it also places them just two points out of playoff position and gives them nine out of a possible ten points in their last five games. Ladies and Gentlemen, this team is effectively making a push towards the postseason and doing it in a dominating fashion. With five games remaining, the Blueshirts are red hot and showing no signs of cooling off.
The first period just may have been the best of the Rangers' season for multiple reasons. A) They scored four goals on just seven shots, B) they held Tampa to just six shots, and C) they forced the Bolts into making mistakes by bringing continuous pressure on the forecheck. Jody Shelley got things started by applying a thundering hit (get it? thunder and lightning?) on Tampa Bay defenseman Vladimir Mihalik. Instead of paying attention to the puck, Mihalik took himself out of the play by going after Shelley seeking retribution, giving Brandon Prust an open lane to cut in front and stuff the puck past Mike Smith. This would only be the beginning of a series of foolish mistakes by the Bolts.
Just 25 seconds after the Prust tally, defenseman Marc Staal sent a floater towards the net that eluded Smith and banked in off the post. This would be Staal's second goal in two games and his seventh of the year. Vinny Prospal, former member of the Lightning, scored his 19th of the season when his wraparound shot deflected off Mihalik's skate and past Smith. A Bolts' defenseman then scored for the Rangers once again as Kurtis Foster put a Dubinsky rebound into the back of the net to give the Blueshirts a 4-0 lead heading into the intermission.
It was not a surprise to see Mike Smith pulled and replaced in goal by Antero Niittymaki to start the second, after Smith allowed two flukey goals and then nearly got himself into trouble by attempting to play the puck more than just once in the first. Niittymaki, needless to say, looked much more stable in net than Smith did, stopping all seven of the Rangers shots for the period.
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The game calmed itself down drastically in the second. Other than the Rangers having to kill off a Tampa 5-on-3 powerplay - which they did successfully - they did not have to do all that much to contain the Lightning. Henrik Lundqvist made two marvelous saves on the only two legitimate scoring chances for either team in the period, which left the score at 4-0 after two played.
The third period was basically a "safely" played one for the Rangers, just trying to preserve their lead, capture the two points, and move on. This steady effort in the third had everyone contributing in their own way. Even Aaron Voros was able to score his first goal since January and his second of the season. You can bet on him staying in the lineup for now if he continues to play like this.
Although it may have been a blowout, Henrik Lundqvist's fourth shutout of the season did not come easy by any means tonight. The Rangers top netminder, who made his 12th consecutive start, made a total of 30 saves, several of them being beauties. It was nice to see Hank have a solid rebound effort after allowing the two questionable goals to the Isles on Tuesday and the tying goal in Toronto last Saturday.
Rookie defenseman Michael Del Zotto notched yet another point tonight, picking up his 27th assist on the season. However, his offensive game is not what I am going to compliment him on, but rather his defensive play in this game. Michael has taken some heat from fans this season about inconsistent play in his own zone, but tonight he was very strong, as were Dan Girardi and Marc Staal, who were paired up against the Stamkos unit.
So the Rangers will finish up their 2-game Floridian road trip tomorrow night when they visit the Florida Panthers, which will be another crucial game in the standings. In fact, if the Blueshirts win and the Boston Bruins lose, New York will temporarily slip into eighth place and claim a playoff spot for the time being. If that were the case, the Rangers and Bruins would have the same number of points, same number of games played, but the Blueshirts would have one more win than the B's, giving them the edge.