Heading into the game, Jim made it clear to me that the Rangers would have to play a tight, defensive game with a solid performance from goaltender Henrik Lundqvist if they wanted to prevent themselves from dropping four straight at the hands of the Sabres. Well, that was exactly the case tonight in Buffalo, where the Blueshirts displayed a 60-minute effort and were able to gain a hard-fought two points in the standings. In addition to the strong defensive play, the Rangers got something they have not had in quite a while and by that I mean secondary scoring. For once, two players other than Marian Gaborik were able to bury goals in this one.
In the first period, New York took control early, outshooting the Sabres 7-4. That eventually would change as Buffalo answered back in the second half and ended up leading the Rangers in shots heading into intermission. Where they did not lead, however, was on the scoreboard. With less than three minutes remaining in the first stanza, Marian Gaborik forced a turnover in his own end. Gaborik then rushed up the boards and received the puck from Artem Anisimov, when he lofted a pass through two defensemen onto the tape of Chris Higgins. Higgins ripped a wrister top shelf over Miller to register his first goal in eleven games and put the good guys up 1-0.
The Rangers struck again in the third period when Sean Avery sent a shot on goal from the circles, which rebounded off of Miller and out into the slot where Ryan Callahan netted his fifth of the season. It was a smart play by Avery to just throw the puck on net knowing that Callahan was crashing, and it worked out perfectly with Ryan finishing the rebound, who had his family and friends in attendance.
From there on out it was all Henrik Lundqvist. Hank has been criticized for his lack-luster play as of late, but he won this game for the Rangers tonight. With 36 saves, Lundqvist robbed Buffalo of sure goals numerous times in the contest, including two times on Tim Connolly in the second period. Yes, Henrik should have made the save on the Pominville goal which eventually broke the King's "to be" shutout, but I also put that on Brian Boyle for missing the empty cage down the other end. After seeing Boyle hit the post on that play and the Sabres turn it right back up ice, I just knew it would end up in the back of our net and surely enough it did.
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Lundqvist did have help from the defense in front of him tonight, which has not been the case in previous games. One of the standout performances on the blueline for the Rangers would have to be rookie Ilkka Heikkinen, who made his NHL debut. Heikkinen was great in his own zone and played a gritty game, sending Patrick Kaleta for a ride on his first shift in the league. Lundqvist acknowledged Heikkinen's (or as Mr. Fortunato calls him, "Beer's") efforts as well, so kudos to Ilkka in his first NHL tilt.
Marc Staal also played an exceptional game in this one as he attempts to look more like himself again. The play that stands out in my mind was when he blocked a shot on the penalty-kill, and while lying on the ground swatted the puck out of the zone. Plays like that are indicative of the effort the Rangers needed to overcome the Sabres, and we need to see effort like that on a more consistent basis.
On offense, I really liked what I saw from Artem Anisimov, who was centering the first line of Vinny Prospal and Marian Gaborik for the first time this season. Artem skated very well and picked up an assist on the night. Prospal and Anisimov had to be good because the Sabres were all over Gaborik, having three players collapse on him every time he touched the puck.
The second line of Avery, Drury, and Callahan also had a strong game. Avery was fantastic on the forecheck and has been one of the Blueshirts' top players lately. Callahan was crashing the net hard all night long and was rewarded with the game-winning tally as a result. Drury was clutch on faceoffs at key points in this one, and played a major role on the perfect penalty-kill for the Rangers.
Chris Higgins and Erik Christensen are also worth recognizing, as both played a mistake-free game at HSBC Arena. Through one game, I am satisfied with what I saw from newly acquired center Erik Christensen. He kept his feet moving, worked hard to retrieve loose pucks, and created some early chances. No real complaints about him just yet.
So this is obviously a much needed win for the Rangers to boost their overall confidence after losing three straight prior to this. However, consistency will need to be a factor for this club, because they have not been able to collect wins in bunches since their winning streak back in October. They will have a chance to build that streak up again Sunday night, when they host the visiting Detroit Red Wings at Madison Square Garden.