It was not always pretty to watch, but the Rangers found a way to snag a 3-1 road victory in Buffalo Thursday night, once again pushing their record back over the .500 mark. Henrik Lundqvist was the backbone to the win, while Rick Nash, Brad Richards, and Mats Zuccarello provided the goals to the final road game the Rangers will play in three weeks.
RANGERS THREE STARS
JC: Interesting that my Three Stars from Thursday do not resemble the official Three Stars as voted by the Buffalo media, who went with 1) Rick Nash, 2) Brad Richards, 3) Tyler Ennis. My No. 1 Star did not even make that list, nor did my No. 2! Perhaps I was watching another game, but Mats Zuccarello stood out to me as the game's First Star. He had a goal and an assist in the third period, a team-high four shots on goal, and also rang a sneaky right-wing shot off the post late in the second period. When many of his teammates were going through sluggish shifts earlier in the contest, you could see Zuccarello skating hard, creating offensively and back checking diligently in his own end. I really liked his game on Thursday.
My Second Star was Henrik Lundqvist, who somehow failed to be mentioned officially as one of the three stars. While he was not tested often in the first half of the game, Lundqvist was very sharp in the second half. He was at his best in the third period, and his sensational right-pad save on Cody Hodgson was part of the game-turning sequence of events as the Rangers followed with a key power play goal after Hodgson's tripping penalty which followed Lundqvist's save. Instead of a tense 1-1 game and a blown third-period lead, the Rangers were instead up 2-0. Lundqvist finished with 27 saves and just missed out on his third shutout of the season.
My No. 3 Star did make the official list as I thought Rick Nash was solid all night long, and that goal of his in the first period would have been reason enough to make him one of the three stars. Any questions about if Nash is healthy and back on his game were more than answered on his power move to the net and incredible fake and finish past Ryan Miller. It was a hugely important goal, too, as the Rangers escaped a dreary first period with a 1-0 lead on the road.
MC: My first star of the night goes to Henrik Lundqvist, who had a slow first 40 minutes but certainly made up for it with one of his best performances in a single period this year in the third. After facing 14 shots through the opening two periods, The King saw 14 shots come his way in the final 20 minutes and turned aside all but one, including two breakaways and a few odd-man rushes. The biggest save came on Hodgson, who Lundqvist stopped on a breakaway and immediately led to a Rangers power play, which they scored the game-winning goal on. Lundqvist was phenomenal all night, and while Buffalo may not be a top team in the NHL, it was nice to see him bounce back after last Friday's loss in Boston and the subsequent back-to-back games not starting earlier in the week.
My second star goes to Mats Zuccarello, who I felt was the team's best forward all night. The thing I noticed most about Zuccarello's game was his willingness to shoot last night, something I've been hoping to see for weeks. While he's known for his passing ability — and rightfully so, as shown on Brad Richards' goal in the third — his shot is very underrated. Last night, though, he fired four pucks on net, scored once and hit the post on another. He's a guy Alain Vigneault certainly wants to see produce on a consistent level, and over the last two weeks or so, he's been doing just that.
Like you, I have to go with Rick Nash for that gorgeous goal in the first period that gave the Rangers a 1-0 lead. It certainly seems Nash is back to being Rick Nash, as he now has four goals in his last five games, and is looking like the player he was last season. He's so strong one on one and no matter how many times he uses that deke move, goalies just have trouble stopping it.
RANGERS UNSUNG HERO
JC: Before the game Alain Vigneaut met with reporters and did not have great things to say about the club's defensemen not named Ryan McDonagh. He was very pointed in saying that Marc Staal has been going through "a rough patch" recently. Well I thought Staal really responded Thursday night, playing a very effective game in front of Henrik Lundqvist, logging nearly 21 minutes of solid ice time. Staal recorded a game-high five blocked shots, moved the puck quickly and effectively out of the Rangers zone, and played his man well throughout. He was also a key member of the penalty kill unit which put forth a 2-for-2 effort on Thursday. For the Rangers to reach their goals, Staal will need many more consistent nights like he had on Thursday. He has shown it before in his game, nd needs to deliver again and again this season.
MC: I think Dominic Moore was the most noticeable player on the ice for me last night. It seemed like every shift he was making something happen in terms of a forecheck, a hit or just getting his nose dirty mixing it up between whistles. It's a shame he hasn't contributed with a goal yet because I think many under estimate how good Moore has been thus far in his return to Broadway. Moore, though, has been perfect for his role on the fourth line. Last night, he had three shots on net and won 60 percent of his faceoffs in 13:59, including 1:40 on the penalty kill.
JC: Thursday's victory was the Rangers tenth on the road this season, tying them for second most such victories in the NHL. That is a really good thing, as real contenders must play quality hockey away from their home ice and pick up as many road victories as possible. However good they have been on the road, the Rangers have hovered around .500 all season due in large part to the fact that they have really struggled at Madison Square Garden this season. The Rangers are just 5-6-0 at MSG, and have lost four of their last five on home ice. That trend needs to come to an end for the Rangers to be serious contenders. And now is the perfect time for that trend to come to a close as the Blueshirts open up a nine-game homestand, the payback, if you will, for starting the regular season with nine straight on the road. It's not fair to look at a block of games and put a number on it regarding wins and losses, but boy 7-2-0 or even 6-3-0 would go a long way for the Rangers on this homestand, while anything less leaves them basically as the .500 club hey have been all season to this point. The homestand doesn't start easily, though, as the Devils and Capitals pay visits for a pair of Metropolitan Division games this weekend to kick things off. One at time has to be the mindset, however, and that's the Devils first up on Saturday. By Christmas we should know where the Rangers are as a home team.
MC: What makes that record away from MSG even more impressive is how they started away from New York during that road trip to start the season. You hit the nail on the head, though, as the Rangers must be better at home if they want to make a run this season. As you said, the Rangers have to shoot for at least 6-3 on this road trip to give them some breathing room above the .500 mark and to add a bit of a buffer in the Metropolitan Division. There are some difficult games ahead, but that mark is very doable, in my opinion.