The New York Rangers had the opportunity to clinch a playoff spot Saturday night at Madison Square Garden with a win against the struggling Ottawa Senators. The Senators were playing their second game in as many days and were coming off a deflating loss to the Montreal Canadiens. But Robin Lehner was starting in goal, and he came to play. Lehner stopped 41 shots and helped his team to a 3-2 victory over the Blueshirts.
The Senators play in the first period is what gave them the edge over the Rangers. With Lehner between the pipes, seeing the puck well and stonewalling every Ranger attempt, the Ottawa Senators started to gain some opportunities on offense. They got on the board midway through the first period with a rush up the ice by Chris Phillips and a nice, quick passing sequence that opened up some space for Mark Stone. Phillips gained the zone and slid a pass to Clarke MacArthur who saw Stone streaking toward the crease. Stone quickly gathered the puck and fired a wrist shot that beat Henrik Lundqvist glove slide.
After helping his team kill off a crosschecking penalty and stopping Rick Nash on a breakaway, Lehner was given some breathing room as the Senators responded to the Blueshirts’ pressure by adding another goal to their lead. With a little more than three minutes left to play in the first, Zack Smith won the faceoff back to Mika Zibanejad who maneuvered around the Rangers’ defense and ripped a shot that ricocheted off Lundqvist’s chest and in.
Although down two, the Rangers had plenty of time to stage a comeback; the team just had to figure out a way to put the puck past Lehner. Mats Zuccarello was the only Ranger to do so, scoring both of the team’s goals on deflections in the second period. Lenher was seeing the puck well and his defense had a tendency to collapse inward, making it hard for the Rangers to find an open lane and get second and third chances. Zuccarello’s quick hands and fearlessness enabled him to give the Rangers some hope and numbers on the scoreboard. Five minutes into the second period, John Moore fired a shot from the top of the blue line. Zuccarello was standing near the top of the crease and lifted his stick up to redirect the shot toward Lehner. The deflection fooled the goaltender and found its way to the back of the net. Zuccarello’s second goal came after a similar scenario occurred on Marc Staal’s shot.
The first goal gave the Rangers some life and reignited the hopes of clinching a playoff spot on home ice, but the Ottawa Senators sent another blow to the Rangers on a goal that left Lundqvist incensed. Erik Karlsson who is known as much for his offensive prowess as he is his defense, took a shot from the top of the blue line. Unable to stop it cleanly, Lundqvist left a rebound that Senators Captain Jason Spezza took a swipe at. Lundqvist again stopped the shot and had the puck underneath his pads, but Spezza continued to jab at it until it trickled in. Lundqvist, visibly upset about the whistle not being blown, believed he had control of the puck.
Lundqvist said postgame that he tried to stay still because he knew the puck was underneath him, but he was pushed by his opponents, which led to the puck going into the net. He gave Ottawa credit for how good the team is around the net and how they are able to create offensive opportunities, but he was still unhappy about the way the third goal was scored.
Throughout the remainder of the second and the third period, the Rangers continued to push, especially after Zuccarello’s second goal, but Lehner stayed solid between the pipes. It wasn’t just Lehner’s stellar play that helped his team hold off the Rangers. Karlsson and his defensive abilities got the Senators out of a few jams and odd-man rushes. His speed and stick helped thwart Rangers power forward Rick Nash from getting on the board while his offensive skills set up the game winner. He was all over the ice, joining the rushes and hustling back on defense. He played a hard-fought and well-rounded game.
As tensions rose between the two teams, so did the physical play. The game started to turn nasty in the second period. Hard hits were thrown, gasps were heard throughout the audience and players felt the sting of slamming into the boards. The nastiest hit of the night was bestowed upon Staal by Senators enforcer Chris Neil. With less than three minutes to play in the game, Neil slammed Staal with a questionable body check along the boards that sent him to the floor and led to an on-ice brawl. Staal went after Neil, while Smith got tangled up with Zuccarello. Neil threw Staal to the ground as the rest of the guys continued to poke, push and yell at one another. After they were all pulled apart, the Ottawa Senators came away with a power play, and the Rangers hopes of tying the game diminished.
“It’s a brutal call,” said Lundqvist. “I definitely think it’s a late hit.”
Zuccarello agreed, saying “I think it’s a dirty hit, it’s a blindside hit and a little late,”
Neil wasn’t penalized for the hit and the game ended with Ottawa as the victor.
“Our guys tried hard and couldn’t get it done,” stated Alain Vigneault. “Our execution from defense to offense was average.” His team will have to find a way to be better on home ice as the Rangers are 18-17-4 at Madison Square Garden. The Rangers look to bounce back with a good home performance against the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday.