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Let’s get this out of the way first—the Rangers, coming off of a five-game winning streak, could not only afford to lose against a Columbus team just two points ahead of them in the standings, but it’s difficult to argue against them benefiting from a loss. That’s because the first Wild Card slot presents a favorable matchup against the top of the Atlantic division when compared to staying in the Metro bracket. Fellow author Ray Sarlo will have a piece up on this phenomenon tomorrow, so stay tuned for more on that.
Maybe Alain Vigneault knew this. He decided to switch up most of the forward lines to start the game, rather than leaving in tact forward combinations which scored four goals in each of the last four games. He apparently paid lip service by making the changes for defensive reasons. He did leave the J.T. Miller, Kevin Hayes and Michael Grabner line together, perhaps to avoid suspicion. He also decided to rest Henrik Lundqvist in favor of Antti Raanta. Dan Girardi also returned to the lineup.
The first five minutes of the game saw a feeling out process with not much flow or offense. The next five minutes saw the Blue Jackets press harder and after a shot and rebound chance, Rangers’ rookie forward Pavel Buchnevich lifted the puck over the boards, earning a delay of game penalty. Columbus started the game tied for second overall in the league on the man advantage. Although they had good possession, the Rangers kept the shooting and inside passing lanes covered. Just as the power play expired, former Ranger forward Brandon Dubinsky buried a pass out from behind the net by Brandon Saad to give Columbus a 1-0 lead.
Halfway through the first period, the Rangers had been out shot 7-1. It appeared as though AV’s strategy of mixing up the lines had stifled the Rangers’ offense. A quick flurry around the net earned them their first real scoring chance of the game.
Then, with 8:30 left in the first period, the Rangers drew a power play on a slashing call. Despite good movement and zone control, they failed to register a shot on goal. They followed the power play with a long shift in the Columbus zone but again failed to register a shot. With four minutes to go in the period, the Rangers were still stuck on just two shots for the game.
The Rangers drew another power play and again had pretty good possession but managed just one unscreened shot. They did have a series of chances after the penalty expired to tie up the shot total at seven, but a Kevin Klein holding penalty in the defensive zone gave Columbus a power play in the waning moments of the period.
The Blue Jackets would open the second period with a five-on-four advantage for 1:30, but it would be the Rangers who would score just 12 seconds into the period as Dan Girardi jumped on a puck that was knocked away from Kevin Hayes and fired it in through traffic to tie the score 1-1. It may have deflected off a Columbus defender. J.T. Miller had the other assist.
Nearly four minutes into the period, Columbus had a minute-plus shift that generated a quality chance that Raanta stopped, but drew a holding call for their third man advantage. The power play would be cut short, however, as Grabner got caught with a Boone Jenner high stick.
AV shuffled the lines again in the second. Jimmy Vesey started the game on the fourth line but was moved up to play with Rick Nash and Mika Zibanejad. That reunited Buchnevich with Jesper Fast and Oscar Lindberg, a line that had been together through the winning streak.
At the ten minute mark of the second period, Cam Atkinson was sent in on a breakaway and managed to get a good shot off with Holden draped over his back, and even better rebound attempt. Raanta made both stops to preserve the tie. A few minutes later Columbus got an excellent opportunity on a four-on-two but again Raanta was there.
Columbus would get their fourth power play attempt with just under six minutes to go in the period as Miller was called for boarding. The Rangers had another good kill, not affording Columbus any opportunities.
Columbus had one more high-quality chance that Raanta made a strong save on in the final few minutes of the period on a shot that squeaked by the post. With just a second and a half remaining in the period, David Savard took a slashing penalty.
This time the Rangers will open a period on the power play. Columbus would be equal to the task as both teams failed on their four power plays so far.
The teams would trade low-quality chances for the next few minutes until Kevin Hayes read a back pass in the neutral zone. He stepped up into David Savard just as he received the puck, took the puck away and skated in on a breakaway. Quick hands opened up Sergei Bobrovsky and Hayes put the Rangers up 2-1 unassisted.
The Rangers would drop back into somewhat of a defensive shell with over half the period still remaining. While still pressuring in the offensive zone and ready to attempt to break out on broken plays, their positioning was a lot more conservative. They dumped pucks in and clogged the neutral zone to limit Columbus’ attack.
With just over eight minutes to go, the Blue Jackets caught a lucky break as Nick Foligno threw a puck out from behind the net which deflected back off Miller’s skate and past Raanta to tie the game again, this time at 2-2.
The Rangers immediately went back on the attack and Stepan led Vesey with a pass out of the zone. Vesey skated in wide and beat Bobrovsky on a shot he would probably like back to restore the one goal lead, a minute and a half after Columbus tied.
Moments after the Vesey goal, Grabner was fouled from behind on a breakaway to give the Rangers their fifth man advantage. They wouldn’t score but ran two minutes off the game clock.
The Rangers again played defense in an attempt to kill off the remaining five minutes left in the game.
Columbus pulled their goalie with 1:45 left in the contest. They would spend most of that time in the Rangers zone and with under thirty seconds left, Raanta would have to come up with a number of close-in stops. The Rangers would hold on for the 3-2 win and make it six in a row.
The Rangers next game is Thursday against the resurgent rival New York Islanders in Brooklyn.
Assorted musings: Dan Girardi scored his first goal in 37 games. The Rangers are now tied for the league lead in shorthanded goals with eight. J.T. Miller has a 7-game point scoring streak (11 points). Kevin Hayes has a four-game point scoring streak (7 points). Jesper Fast played in his 200th NHL game.