By Sean Hartnett
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Boos engulfed the Rangers as they departed home ice at the second intermission of Monday’s meeting with the Minnesota Wild. The Gardenvision scoreboard made ugly reading for the Blueshirt faithful -– Wild up, 3-0.
Having witnessed the Rangers stinking up the joint over consecutive periods, paying customers unleashed their fury at a team that lacked any resemblance to last season’s gutsy Eastern Conference champions.
It was the wake-up call the Rangers needed. They were playing like a bunch of imposters in blue, red and white. Not only had the Blueshirts dug themselves into a sizable hole, their bench was short two skaters. Winger Chris Kreider and defenseman John Moore had each been ejected for reckless hits. Through two periods, the Rangers had gift-wrapped the Wild 29 penalty minutes. Had the visitors been any team aside from the Wild and their hapless 0-for-24 power play, the Rangers would have been burned for an ungodly amount of goals. The Wild power play failed to ignite on four separate man-advantage opportunities.
A sliver of hope remained for the Blueshirts in the third period. What unfolded was a comeback for the ages. The Rangers showed their fight, unleashing a hurricane in the form of Derick Brassard, Rick Nash and Mats Zuccarello.
“Brass, Zucc and Nasher took the game over,” Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault said. “That’s one of the best periods I’ve seen three guys play in a long time.”
The eye of the storm descended on Minnesota netminder Darcy Kuemper, who buckled under the pressure. Once the Blueshirts noticed Kuemper reeling, they circled his net in a feeding frenzy. Kuemper would allow five goals on 12 shots faced in the third period.
A previously snakebitten Zuccarello sent the Garden into euphoria by pulling the Rangers ahead 5-4 at 16:49 of the third period. Having admitted to difficulty sleeping during a seven-game goalless drought, Zuccarello leapt into Brassard’s arms after scoring his first goal of the season – which proved to be the game-winner.
“Mats is a real intense competitor,” Vigneault said. “He’s probably going through one of those phases. You’ve got to reassure him probably more than anything else. He really puts a lot of pressure on himself.”
“You could see that he was getting down,” he added. “Hopefully, this gets him going.”
Without a doubt, Brassard long ago cemented his status as Mr. Big Game on the Broadway stage. His drive and uncanny nose for the net aren’t teachable attributes. Since Game 1 of the preseason, Nash has played with an intense fervor. The 6-foot-4 winger is constantly going hard to the crease and making fans forget about recent playoff misery. Through nine games, Nash has recorded 11 points and is tied for the league lead with nine goals.
Amid all the failings of New York metro area sporting franchises, the Rangers have taken up the mantle as New York’s must-watch, never-say-die team. Their spirit mirrors the hustle and the bustle of those scampering about outside the Garden.
New York, this is your team.
The men inside the dressing room who pull on the famous Original Six sweater wear it like a badge of honor. This is a collection of proud professionals. Any kind of embarrassment – especially the cavalcade of errors suffered during the first two periods, adds a thirst.
Rookie winger Anthony Duclair fits right in with this group thanks to his even-keel personality, confidence and desire to improve. Duclair scored the tying third-period goal and first of his career.
“It’s probably the best day of my life, the best feeling,” an ecstatic Duclair said. “First goal at MSG, it can’t get any better than that.”
Contrary to prior belief, it is now understood that Duclair is not held to the typical nine-game rookie threshold before his NHL contract kicks in. Because of the timing of his January 2 signing, Duclair will burn the first year of his three-year contract regardless of whether he remains in the NHL or is sent to junior club Quebec of the QMJHL.
His chances of remaining with the Rangers is based solely on whether he can lock down a top-nine forward role. His challenge of sticking with the Blueshirts will become increasingly difficult once center Derek Stepan comes off the long-term injured reserve. Stepan has been skating alone and is eligible to come off the LTIR next Monday ahead of New York’s home date against the St. Louis Blues.
THE KING’S SPEECH
Despite his debonair image, no Ranger is prouder to work his butt off or cares more about representing this city than all-world goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. Don’t let the facade fool you — Lundqvist is a hardened New Yorker to the bone.
When the Rangers entered their dressing room after their second period humiliation, Lundqvist rallied the troops.
“I know Hank spoke up there and said a couple of things,” Vigneault said.
Lundqvist’s postgame comments may have given a hint of his inspirational intermission speech.
“This is our home ice, and we are going to show the fans just how much we want to win, just how much we are willing to play for that – and it showed in the third,” Lundqvist said.
MOORE AND KREIDER GET TOSSED; SUSPENSIONS COMING?
Two careless hits might have Moore and Kreider in hot water with the league. Both players were ejected for their indiscretions.
With just 15.8 seconds remaining in the first period, Kreider recklessly boarded Wild defenseman Jonas Brodin. The defenseman’s head went straight into the boards. Kreider made no attempt to slow down and elbowed Brodin in the back.
It’s possible that Kreider could escape suspension because Brodin turned just before contact.
Moore delivered a vicious elbow to head of Wild forward Erik Haula at 7:12 of the second period. The hit was an exact carbon copy of his hit on Dale Weise during the Eastern Conference finals, which earned him a two-game suspension.
He is a repeat offender and could receive a ban near five games. Monday’s incident triggered an automatic supplemental discipline hearing.
Vigneault did not go into detail about either hit, not having seen video replays.
Once Dan Boyle returns from a broken hand, Moore could struggle to regain a place in the Rangers’ lineup. He hasn’t impressed this season and has failed to harness his offensive upside. The 23-year-old has one point through nine games. Steady defenseman Matt Hunwick has clearly outplayed Moore. If the Rangers had anyone besides the error-prone Mike Kostka as a spare defenseman, Moore would have been scratched from the lineup.
Should Moore receive a suspension, the Rangers will most likely call up Hartford Wolf Pack defenseman Conor Allen. Through seven AHL games, Allen has scored two goals and notched three assists for five points.
Follow Sean on Twitter — @HartnettHockey.
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