By Steve Silverman
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The two ships did not merely pass each other in the middle of the night, they zoomed past each other in the Pacific Northwest at dangerous speeds.
The two ships were the New York Rangers and the Vancouver Canucks, and the moment of inevitability occurred midway through the third period when Marty St. Louis finally scored his first goal in a Rangers uniform.
The shorthanded goal, which came as the direct result of a brilliant pass from Rick Nash, gave New York a two-goal lead over John Tortorella and the Canucks.
It was one of those seminal moments in the NHL season. St. Louis had scored 29 goals with the Tampa Bay Lightning before he was traded to New York for Ryan Callahan at the NHL’s trade deadline. The diminutive St. Louis is one of the most eye-catching athletes in the sport and he had gone 15 games without a goal playing for his new team. (He has also failed to score in his last two games with Tampa Bay.)
While he was playing well and picking up assists, the pressure on St. Louis was palpable. The Rangers had traded for him so he could score goals. He was not doing that.
So when he crossed the blue line and Nash put a pass on the tape of his stick, he had no hesitation. He was not thinking about making a deke move or passing back to Nash to create a fancy play. He simply ripped a shot at the top left corner of the net, and Canucks goalie Eddie Lack was going to be forced to make a brilliant save in order to keep that puck from going in the top of the net.
Lack did not have those capabilities, and the twine over the goaltender’s right shoulder rippled like a Pacific wave. It was the most beautiful sight in the world to St. Louis, who hesitated for an instant and then pumped his fist in celebration and was congratulated by his teammates.
The Rangers’ bench roared its approval, as their latest meteoric player finally turned potential into production.
At the moment that St. Louis scored his goal, Tortorella was crushed. The camera showed a man with a knowing half-smile on his face, and there was little doubt his team’s fate was sealed. The Canucks were going to have a hard enough time coming back from a one-goal deficit. When that margin went to two, there was little chance that Henrik Lundqvist was going to give anything up to the Canucks.
Vancouver has lacked the temerity and the presence to come back from third-period deficits all season, and Tortorella appears to be nearing the end of a very short run with this team. The Canucks are not going to play postseason hockey this year.
Alain Vigneault is not going to have that problem. The Rangers had the worst of starts, but they righted themselves by December and they have played exceptional hockey on the road this year. They are 25-14-0 away from home, and no NHL team — including the streaking Boston Bruins and dangerous St. Louis Blues — have won more games on the road.
The Rangers are gearing up for what should be a very interesting postseason run. If they can maintain a lead over the Philadelphia Flyers, they will have home-ice advantage against their longtime rivals in a first-round playoff series. The Flyers have also overcome a miserable start and they are a dangerous team. But the Rangers have Lundqvist, and that could be enough to get them to the second round.
If that comes against the Pittsburgh Penguins — and that’s a big if, because the Penguins have been vulnerable for weeks — the Rangers have the better team right now. Pittsburgh has been crushed by injuries, pressure and mistakes at key moments. They don’t appear to be of championship timber.
If Vigneault’s team gets past the second round, anything could happen. Boston appears a likely and formidable opponent, but the Bruins might not take the Rangers seriously after beating them in five games last year and winning all three regular-season games this year.
It could be a remarkable series.
St. Louis finally got his much-awaited goal, and the relief is palpable. A good team has found its stride, and there may be many more reasons to celebrate from this point forward.
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