By Sean Hartnett
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It was the wildest game of the 2014-15 season and a taste of what would be a classic playoff series. New Yorkers are craving a Rangers-Islanders playoff showdown, and it almost seems inevitable that the Battle of New York will be fought in an epic playoff clash sometime in April or May.
On Monday night, the Rangers treated their fans to an unforgettable instant classic by summoning the spirit that carried them to last season’s Stanley Cup Final. When this team’s back is against the wall, their big characters show up and deliver. Captain Ryan McDonagh, Chris Kreider, Derick Brassard, Martin St. Louis, Derek Stepan and game-winning hero Kevin Klein played instrumental roles in delivering a 6-5 comeback win for the ages.
The Blueshirts entered a hostile Nassau Coliseum with the embarrassment of their previous three lopsided defeats to the Isles staring them in the face. Immediately, the Rangers dug themselves into a hole. Just 11 seconds into the game Cam Talbot gifted a pass to John Tavares, and the Islanders’ captain tucked the puck into the empty net for a 1-0 lead. Cheers of “Yes, Yes, Yes” filled the arena.
It looked like another night of misery for the Rangers against a foe that previously had their number all season. Nassau Coliseum turned into a cauldron of noise as the Rangers’ bad habits of careless turnovers and sloppy positioning allowed the Isles to outshoot them 22-11 to gain a 2-1 first-intermission advantage. It could have easily been 4-1 or 5-1. The visiting Blueshirts had played their worst period of the entire season.
The Rangers appeared shaken by the raucous Coliseum atmosphere. A long shot from Johnny Boychuk eluded netminder Cam Talbot at 1:20 of the second period, giving the Isles a 3-1 lead. Suddenly, the Rangers sprung to action. Kreider broke free and pinged a shot off the post and in. Just 23 seconds later, McDonagh scored his second goal of the night to even the score at 3-3.
Two Ryan Strome goals at 7:41 of the second period and 3:43 of the third period gave the Islanders a 5-3 advantage. Isles fans began taunting the Rangers and their fans with chants of “You can’t beat us” Those chants would prove to be premature. The Rangers would finish the game with three unanswered goals. A seed of doubt may have been planted inside the head of Isles netminder Jaroslav Halak, who was shaky all night. When the Rangers enter the playoffs, they’ll have their king back between the pipes. Halak still has much to prove.
Kreider made a no-look drop pass to Stepan, who buried it. The 24-year-old center rebounded from a funky performance to start the third-period rally. Two minutes later, Boychuk committed a turnover that led to an odd-man rush, allowing 39-year-old St. Louis to tie the game at 5-5. Both Stepan and St. Louis have suffered through recent lean stretches, but as they showed during last year’s playoffs and again on Monday night, they’re guys you want on your side because of their big-game heroics.
To put it away, “Big-Game Brass” and “Mr. Clutch” Klein combined for an unforgettable game-winner. Brassard carried the puck and waited patiently to dish off toward center ice. While St. Louis was unable to get a shot off, the puck found its way to the stick of Klein, who’s had the magic touch all season.
Klein has been on fire lately. He has now taken his assist/point streak to a career-high five games, recording one goal and six assists in the process. Klein leads all NHL defensemen with 12 even-strength assists and he’s tied for first among NHL defensemen with 14 even-strength points over the past 21 games. It’s still puzzling why head coach Alain Vigneault keeps him away from the power play, but that’s a question for another day.
The Rangers came back from two multi-goal deficits in regulation for the first time since Oct. 26, 1980, against the Detroit Red Wings. The road-warrior Rangers have won four consecutive games on the road and have scored five or more goals in each game. They’re now tied for the NHL lead in road victories with 17.
The Rangers may not possess the Isles’ four-line depth. But what they do have is an abundance of characters who step up and deliver when it matters most. McDonagh was an absolute beast on Monday night, firing six shots on goal, delivering four hits and scoring two vital goals. There were questions being asked about McDonagh’s ability to handle the demands of wearing the captain’s “C.” No one will be questioning McDonagh now. He looks like he’s back to his usual dominant best.
While Rick Nash was held pointless, he was able to make an impact by recording seven shots on goal. No. 61 has been carrying the Rangers all season. Nash is going to battle Washington Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin for the Rocket Richard Trophy down the stretch, and he’s a strong candidate for both the Hart and Selke Trophies.
McDonagh, Nash, St. Louis, Brassard, Kreider, Stepan, Klein, Zuccarello.
The Rangers have plenty of big-game performers, and it’s going to serve them well come playoff time.
The 73-point Rangers currently trail the first-place Isles by two points with two games in hand. They will meet the Isles again on March 10 in their final regular-season meeting at the Coliseum.
New York hockey diehards are hoping that a seven-game grudge match is just around the corner.
Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.