Brandon Prust does some heavy lifting for the Rangers: forechecking, killing penalties, blocking shots and taking on the enforcers in the league---most of whom tower over him. Last season, the winger scored 13 goals---five shorthanded---but this season had just two.
Today at Madison Square Garden, Prust scored the game-winner against the Washington Capitals, converting Brandon Dubinsky’s pass on a shorthanded 2-on-1 break at 6:26 of the third period to extend the Blueshirts’ lead to 3-1 in a game they would win 3-2.“It’s been a long time coming,” said Prust, who last scored on Oct. 20. “About 50 games…felt like a hundred.”
Prust’s goal was critical as the Eastern Conference-leading Rangers (36-13-5, 77 points) continued to roll. They have won seven of the last nine and have a seven-point lead over the Boston Bruins, whom they visit on Tuesday. They are dominating in the second game of grueling back-to-back series. They are 7-1-1 in the second leg of those series and 5-0-0 at home.
“We talked about not having any excuses going into this game even though it was less than 20 hours from the last game (a 5-2 triumph over the Flyers in Philadelphia),” said Henrik Lundqvist, who made 24 saves and won his 26th game. “So to get the first goal was big for us.”
That came from Ryan Callahan, his 22nd and fifth in three games, at 11:01 With his back to the net and falling, Callahan managed to lift a backhander past Michal Neuvirth. Brad Richards also set the first-year captain up on a 2-on-1 with 1:09 left but the winger’s shot hit the post. “I guess people sometimes think he’s just a shot-blocker, a guy who can bang along the boards and finish checks,” coach John Tortorella. “This is what, his third season with 20-plus goals?”
The Rangers were credited with 17 hits in the period, but a sleepier start to the second was costly. Alexander Semin’s one-timer from the right circle, set up by a drop pass from Jason Chimera, tied the score at 6:31.
The scariest moment of the afternoon involved defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who scored the second goal at 13:21 of the second period. After faking and going around Troy Brouwer’s slide near the left point and shooting, McDonagh’s leg buckled. Lying on his back and grimacing, he grabbed his left knee and had to be helped off the ice into the trainer’s room. But McDonagh, who is second in the NHL in blocked shots, returned to help kill a penalty to Marc Staal at 15:47. “It’s just a little tweak,” said McDonagh, who played a team-high 25:23. “I kind of had this injury in the past. It’s really okay.”
In his second season, McDonagh has been instrumental in the team’s defensive success. And yesterday, the line of Prust, Dubinsky (two assists) and Brian Boyle was outstanding matched against Alex Ovechkin, who had five shots and just one assist, on John Carlson’s goal that cut the lead to 3-2 with 2:28 left in regulation.
“They had Ovechkin all day,” said Tortorella. “A big part was having the puck; they did some really good things under the hashmarks, forcing them (Ovechkin’s line) to play defense. Dubi makes a big play on Prust’s goal and Boyle’s been doing some really good things faceoff-wise and forechecking. We had our top guys do some really good things Saturday and we get some other guys to step up today.”
Ruslan Fedotenko, sidelined since a high hit from Tampa’s Dominic Moore in the third period on Thursday, apparently will be on tomorrow’s flight to Boston for Tuesday’s game. “I saw him when he came in and said he was feeling better,” coach John Tortorella said. “I would think he can come on the trip.”
It’s not certain that Fedotenko, who has seven goals and seven assists in 51 games, will play. If he doesn’t, defenseman Stu Bickel, who played forward in the USHL, likely will move up to fourth-line wing for the third consecutive game. Bickel did not play in the third period. “It’s not going to be a long-term thing,” said Tortorella. “He had a couple good shifts, draws a penalty. He’s a guy with versatility as we continue to try to work with him. It’s nice to know that maybe you can give him some shifts there.”
Henrik Lundqvist hadn’t played in a back-to-back series since Nov. 25-26, against the same two teams, the Flyers and Capitals, and won both games as well. The Rangers have five more back-to-backs remaining. “He’s rested, he’s fine. I have no problem playing him back to back---there’s certain times I won’t---it just depends on when we can get him some rest,” said Tortorella.
For the first time, Ryan McDonagh was awarded the Broadway Hat, given to a key player after wins. “Pruster should have got it,” Tortorella joked. McDonagh also praised Prust. “He’s the guy that probably deserves that goal more than anyone. It was great to see him get that.”
The Rangers are 22-0-2 when leading after two periods….Prust’s goal was his second shorthander of the season and the team’s seventh…Wojtek Wolski and Jeff Woywitka, in the AHL for conditioning since Feb. 2, could return on Thursday.