The Atlantic Division last place New York Rangers paid a visit to the surging first place Philadelphia Flyers last night and came away with an astounding 4-0 wipeout at the Wachovia Center. It was another demonstration of just how good the Rangers can play when their in the mood and for Rangers’ fans, it’s so frustrating to know that at any time, they can and will revert back to previous exhibitions where they make so many infuriating blunders.
In perhaps their best team effort of the season, no one player in particular stood out, although Chris Drury was a deserving first star with a goal and an assist. Four individuals each scored once and backup netminder Stephen Valiquette was called on to give Henrik Lundqvist a brief rest as the schedule heats up. With the victory, the Rangers are just five points behind the Flyers in the tighter than tight divisional race. Nigel Dawes, Petr Prucha, Drury and Brendan Shanahan lit the lamp for the Blueshirts and they could have scored several more if their execution had been perfect.
Antero Niittymaki got the start for the Flyers but he was pulled after letting all four goals in less than the first 22 minutes of action. He made just eight saves and was replaced by Martin Biron, who was far superior and kept the Flyers in the game somewhat by keeping the Rangers off the board for the remainder of regulation.
The first period has been positive for most of the Rangers’ contests this season and last night was no exception. At 8:18, Dawes faked out Niittymaki deep in the zone and put the Blueshirts up 1-0; it was his seventh of the season. Just before the 18 minute mark, Dan Girardi fired an ordinary looking slap shot which was stopped by Niittymaki, but the sloppy rebound came directly to Prucha, who shoved it in to double their lead (his seventh as well). The Rangers went into the locker room confident with a 2-0 lead but they have done that several times before and come away with nothing.
Very early in the middle frame, it became apparent that the Blueshirts weren’t about to throw another two points away with a bad second period. On a power-play that carried over from the end of the first, Drury fired a long range shot with just 23 seconds gone through a maze of bodies that eluded Niittymaki, who was clearly screened. It was his 13th goal of the season and further empowered the Rangers to continue their dominant play. Only 1:18 later, Shanahan finished the scoring on a two-on-one break with Sean Avery. He received a perfect pass from Avery and found a wide open net when Niittymaki didn’t move over to cover him in time.
Biron came in and calmed the situation for the floundering Flyers, but it was too late. The Rangers played a great 22 minutes and had a four goal lead, but the Flyers were just plain awful. Coming into the game, Philadelphia was on a 12-2-1 streak and had surged atop of their division, but they didn’t look anything like that last night. Shots on goal for the second favored New York 9-2, which indicated how poorly the Flyers were playing.
The scoreless third period was mostly uneventful with both squads getting nine shots; the Rangers had the higher quality of scoring opportunities, but it didn’t matter. The Flyers showed little interest for most of the last two periods with the exception of the last two or three minutes in regulation. The crowd was very quiet for most of the game; they have become spoiled with their team’s recent success and were not used to seeing such a lack of intensity and execution.
Of course there were the requisite cheap shots, hard hits and intimidation attempts by the home team. After all, they have to keep up their image at all costs, even if they’re getting annihilated on their home ice. With all those extremely tall and bulky roster members, opponents expect a rough game when playing in Philadelphia. But the Rangers were smart and did not bite; they took the shots and exacted revenge when called for, especially on the score board.
Usually when a goaltender gets a shutout, he is recognized for his work with a star of the game award. But last night, Valiquette, who made 20 saves in a solid effort, was not mentioned. He did not have to sweat much for his first ever NHL shutout.
With the Islanders losing, the Rangers are out of the division cellar for the moment and in eighth place in the Eastern Conference, although they have played one more game. They are right back in action tonight in New Jersey with another crucial divisional match with the Devils.