NEW YORK – New York Rangers back-up goaltender Antti Raanta has been quite the story over the last three games. That’s right, three straight games he has started for struggling Henrik Lundqvist and has won all three including two shutouts. Tonight, he replicated his performance against the Chicago Blackhawks from Friday night and shutout the New Jersey Devils 5-0 at Madison Square Garden.
It is certainly clear that head coach Alain Vigneault is playing the hot hand right now and he should be. Raanta has been the best Ranger in the last three games and has helped stabilize a mini losing streak prior. In the morning skate Vigneault had said, “I love Hank, but I love the team more right now”, in regards to sitting Lundqvist for a third straight game. Vigneault is no stranger to goalie controversy as the opposing goalie in tonight’s game Cory Schneider knew all about it (when he and Roberto Luongo were in Vancouver and a similar situation had happened). Let’s be clear though, we aren’t making up that there is indeed a controversy just a coach doing what is best for his team.
As for the game, the Rangers started slow and the Devils pushed early, they were able to get a puck past Raanta but it was reviewed and deemed to be kicked in. The Blueshirts were then able to get their game going and the combination of Mats Zuccarello and Chris Kreider connected for his eight goal of the season and the Rangers were on the board. Much of period two was kept at ease but late in the period on a shorthanded opportunity, Kevin Hayes found J.T. Miller (9th goal of season) cutting to the net and was able to tip it in and gave the Rangers the 2-0 lead. With two and a half seconds remaining in period two Brady Skjei picked up his first goal of his National Hockey League career as he blasted a shot from the point and the Rangers went into the second intermission up 3-0.
Brandon Pirri, who had been struggling picked up his sixth goal of the season in period three along with a Jimmy Vesey goal in the closing minutes of the game and the Rangers padded their victory. Vesey picked up his tenth of the season. All of the injuries (Rick Nash, Pavel Buchnevich, Mika Zibenejad) the Rangers have found ways to win – including the play of Raanta. The Rangers are now at 20 wins on the season in 30 games, no other team has that as they sit one win ahead of Montreal. The Blueshirts also improve their home record to 11-4-1 and increase their goal differential to a plus-35. They have now scored 105 goals on the season.
As for the head coach and his thoughts on Raanta’s game right now he went on to say, “Like I’ve said many times, he does what a goaltender’s supposed to do and give you a chance to win. He made that timely save at the beginning of the second period that I thought was a difference-maker in this game. We came back shortly after that, scored shorthanded and got that goal at the end of the period there. He’s playing – and the guys in front of him are – playing really hard and well, so that’s what we expect.”
For Raanta and how he’s been playing lately he went on to say, “I just try to go one game at a time. I don’t think too much about games in a row. The whole team has been playing good in front of me and it’s a big help always. I just try to focus on next shot, next save, and then go from there. Just enjoy the game, enjoy winning, and then go there and get some starts. It’s a great thing.”
As mentioned Skjei picked up his first NHL goal of his career and when asked about how the feeling was he said, “It was awesome. I’ve been waiting a while and you know I got a lucky bounce but I’ll take it for sure. I was just trying to get a quick shot on net and kind of one-timer place it out there and got a lucky bounce and it went in.”
Consistency is always a factor and the Rangers had that to start the season and they saw a dip in play which was expected. Now they are back on a winning streak and Derek Stepan acknowledged that, “We kind of were in a bit of a back and forth – win one, lose one – but I wouldn’t call it a tough stretch. You are going to go through dips and valleys. We found a way to get two wins on the road and build a bit of momentum.”
The team will be off tomorrow and a game on Tuesday when the Blackhawks come into town. It will be very interesting to see if Vigneault plays the hot hand and keeps Raanta in the net or he goes back to the franchise goaltender Lundqvist. We’ll just have to wait and see.
Raanta extended his shutout streak to 151:04, establishing a new career-high in the NHL. He is the first Rangers goaltender to earn a shutout in two consecutive appearances which were also two consecutive games for the team since Mike Dunham on Mar. 17, 2003 vs. NY Islanders and Mar. 19, 2003 vs. Buffalo.
Jimmy Vesey tallied a power play goal and recorded four shots on goal. He is one of three NHL rookies who have recorded at least 10 goals this season (along with Patrik Laine and Auston Matthews).
Chris Kreider registered two points (one goal, one assist) and recorded three shots on goal. He has tallied a point in five of the last six games, registering seven points (four goals, three assists) over the span.