By Sean Hartnett
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Throughout the Rangers’ first-round series against the Montreal Canadiens, you’re going to hear a lot about the lopsided 2009 trade that brought captain Ryan McDonagh to the Blueshirts.
Former Rangers general manager Glen Sather pulled off one of the greatest heists in NHL history by acquiring a do-it-all, eventual franchise defenseman in a seven-player deal that sent Scott Gomez’s burdensome contract to the Habs.
But let’s talk about one of Sather’s under-the-radar steals that has also made substantial impact, including during Wednesday’s Game 1 victory. On May 8, 2011, the Rangers shipped 6-foot-2 junior center Ethan Werek to the Arizona Coyotes for Swedish prospect Oscar Lindberg.
Flash forward to present day. Werek has been the property of six different NHL organizations and has yet to make his NHL debut, while Lindberg has blossomed into a dependable fourth-line center for the Blueshirts. His steady contributions start with him doing all the right things defensively and his all-out aggressiveness.
“He’s not going to let it get good to him,” alternate captain Dan Girardi said of Lindberg. “He’s not changing his ways. He’s still working hard every day. (He) doesn’t lay off or take the foot off the gas.”
Lindberg packs a lot of quality into the 10 minutes of ice time he averages per game. His 8.02 hits per 60 minutes led Rangers regulars during the regular season. Believe it or not, his 0.68 goals per 60 were even with alternate captain Derek Stepan and were higher than Mats Zuccarello (0.6). His 1.7 points per 60 were better than McDonagh, Brady Skjei and Jimmy Vesey, while his 1.02 assists per 60 were greater than Rick Nash, Michael Grabner and Jesper Fast.
Offseason double-hip surgery was expected to cost Lindberg the first month of the 2016-17 season, but he made his season debut quicker than expected, entering the lineup on Oct. 23 against the Coyotes. Chris Kreider was experiencing neck spasms and Pavel Buchnevich was placed on injured reserve, paving the way for Lindberg to make his debut weeks before his initially projected return date.
Rushing back into the lineup limited his early season production. Lindberg managed one point through his first 14 games. His production improved during the early part of the season’s second half, as he finished the February-March months with 12 points in 28 games.
That surge continued in Game 1. A thriving fourth line of Lindberg, Tanner Glass and Fast pushed back against the Canadiens. Lindberg picked up the lone assist on Glass’ first-period goal. He also finished the night with two shots on goal and three hits in 10:36 of ice time in the 2-0 victory.
The Glass-Lindberg-Fast trio provided energy, continually won puck races and pressured the Canadiens into mistakes coming out of the defensive end. In a game that began with Montreal dominating the territorial battle and shot attempts, the efforts of Lindberg’s line shifted the momentum in New York’s favor.
After so much was said about how the Canadiens’ rugged bottom-six forwards were going to be tough to play against, the Rangers’ fourth line thrived in a different way — through speed, ceaseless legs and active sticks.
Expect it all to continue Friday night in Game 2.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey