Many people, including Rangers head coach John Tortorella, would have you believe that it is Henrik Lundqvist’s reduced workload that has been the key to “The King’s” Vezina, and Hart worthy season. Hey, I had be convinced until I looked at the numbers. Tonight marks the NewYork Rangers 56th game of the season. Game 56 last season against the Detroit Red Wings on February 7th was started by Martin Biron, it was his 15th start of the season. Biron’s start tonight against another original six opponent , the Chicago Blackhawks is his 14th start of the season. So much for the extra rest theory. The February 7th start would be the last action Martin would see in the 2010-11 season as a broken collar bone would end his season. That injury forced Henrik Lundqvist to play all but 20 minutes of the next 26 games.Each and every one of those games were pressure filled must win games in the scramble to secure the eighth and final spot for the playoffs.
What a difference a year makes. Coming into tonight’s game, the New York Rangers .718 winning percentage through 55 games is the team’s best start in 39 years. They come in winning eight of there last 10, building a seven point lead over the Bruins in the Eastern Conference. They face a struggling but immensely talented Chicago Blackhawk team that has lost its last nine games. (0-8-1).
All of those numbers were meaningless over the first few minutes of the game as the Blackhawks played with desperation. On the first shot on goal Martin Biron left a rebound in the crease and Dan Girardi slid across to try and push it to Biron. Instead he closed his glove on the puck, which resulted in a penalty shot being award to the Blackhawks. Jonathan Toews went through the five hole on Biron on the penalty shot to give Chicago the early 1-0 lead at 1:05 of the first period.
Reflecting on the penalty shot after the game ,Biron said, “It’s a big time in the game, you have an opportunity as a goalie to make a save and give your team some momentum early on. I didn’t come up with the save and the momentum goes the other way.”
The Blackhawks would strike again just over a minute later as Nick Leddy beat Biron short side. Maybe Marty should have gone with John Davidson’s Lone Ranger mask or Steve Baker’s Empire State Mask, hell even Dunc Wilson’s Rebel Flag would have been a better choice then a mask that pays homage to former Rangers Goalie Gilles Gratton. For those of you to young to remember Gillies, his body of work as a Ranger was an 11-18-7 record with a 4.42 GAA (but he did have a cool mask). Legend has it that Gratton once told his teammates he was reincarnated and had once been a soldier in the Spanish Inquisition. Gillies is still alive but it felt as though he came back in the form of Martin Biron for the first period.
Marty let in the 3rd goal of the period at the 4:00 mark when Patrick Sharp got his 23rd of the season, and then yet another at 9:38 to Marian Hossa who added his 22nd of the season to round out the scoring in the first period. Clearly a case could have been made for pulling Martin at that point, but the plan is to have well rested Henrik Lundqvist for the playoffs. Barring another injury to Biron, “The King” will go into the playoffs having played the least amount of regular season games since his rookie year. The temptation surely must have been there, but the Rangers have allowed themselves the luxury of one bad night, something they have not had in two seasons.
Captain Ryan Callahan kept that cushion in perspective after the game stating that, “Obviously it’s good to have a cushion, but at the same time you can’t go into games thinking into games thinking you have a cushion. But at the end of that, we have to come back and win the next game. We’ve been good at that this year. We’ve come back after a loss,we come back and battle. So Sunday’s a huge game for us.”
Credit needs to be given to John Tortorella for sticking to his plan and seeing the bigger picture. He stuck with Martin Biron. When asked if he thought about pulling Marty, Tortorella responded, “Not for a second. He didn’t need to be pulled, he needed to work through it,and he did. That’s what I love about him, and I though he made some really good saves. There wasn’t a second I thought about taking him out.”
To the Rangers credit they played a much better game in front of him over the next two periods, scoring the only goal of the 2nd period as Marc Staal got his first of the season. Rookie Carl Hagelin picked up his 9th late in the third to make it interesting. Aside from Martin Birons tough first period , one other weakness stood out, and it is something that clearly has to be addressed before the playoffs: the power play was a woeful 0-for-7 on the night.
February has been a magical month in New York sports so far with the Giants winning the Superbowl, the Knicks not losing since Jeremy Lin was inserted in the lineup and the Rangers only losing two games in the month and sitting atop the Eastern Conference. How far the Rangers go in the playoffs will depend on the management of “The King” down the stretch and how the Rangers address the power play at the deadline.