Nikolai Zherdev might need a nickname at the Garden soon. Better than the Niki Z I call him. Or perhaps he will continue to just remain "Z."
But after last night's game changing performance, he may have truly arrived in New York.
The first two periods were, as many of the Rangers have been so far this season, admit it or not, very lackluster. I didn't even realize Ilya Kovalchuk was on the ice for Atlanta more than twice, and only the second time because it was a power play that led up to Atlanta's tying goal (2-2).
Nigel Dawes, who I watched since Petr Prucha was scratched, actually appeared to look more confident in the game. Took five shots. As did Callahan. Gomez had one. But their line was pretty invisible overall.
As was the fourth line, and the pairing of Dubinsky and Voros was particularly quiet (minus the one assist for Dubi on Zherdev's marker ) and had very little ice time overall, but especially in the first period.
Dan Fritsche did nothing to make a case or ruin a case for himself. He hadn't played since the previous Friday in Columbus. He had a nice chance for a goal as he was left alone to skate through the crease in front of Kari Lehtonen, but the save was made. Although let it be said, he is significantly bigger than both Prucha or Dawes, and he skates pretty fast too. He's bigger though, so in some ways he can be more effective. He also seemed to be more efficient on marking his men in the defensive zone. Remember, he did play a lot of hockey in Columbus, in a fuller role than he's been given here.
Markus Naslund had a pretty goal to open the scoring. He now has extended his points scoring streak to 5 games. He's waking up. And he was in the position to get his second of the night, fifth of the season, except he quite obviously knew he kicked it in. Although his goal celebration for his first genuine goal was rather subdued as well.
Colton Orr fought Eric Boulton shortly into the game. And, you know what, he's fun. He really is. Taking a page from PJ Stock's book and smiling on his way to the box - win, lose, or draw. But, unlike Stock (who I love btw), he does not seem to lose all that often. And it's not even smiling, you know, it's grinning. The guy is grinning. I like it. And that might just go down as one of the loooooongest fights I've seen in my days.
And lastly, a quick mention of Paul Mara who had two assists, was a +1 on the night, and was named the game's 3rd star.
But now that all that has been established, last night was uncontestedly "The Niki Z Show" at the Garden.
He started off his stellar night by making a backcheck play that should almost make highlight reels. It was that good. He has wheels, and this time, instead of using them to score, he was skating back and diving to the ice, making the perfect swing of his stick to knock the puck away from an already broken Todd White. It was a really sweet move. And I guess something that most would not expected to see from the 24-year-old Ukranian. Yes, Ukranian - there are so few in the league, so it's not too hard to keep track. (At one moment in the game, he passed the puck back to Dmitri Kalinin and it ended up going back out of the zone quickly thereafter. I asked myself, did Z only pass to him because he called for it in the only language they both understand? Random thought, I know, but again, the first two periods were very slow moving.)
But his goal was a thing of beauty. Really was. Not many guys can get that movement on the puck on the backhand from that close to the cage and up against the goalie. But he did. Lehtonen had no shot. It was a nice, nice goal.
To continue his great evening (and great last couple weeks), Zherdev took command, skated around the Atlanta net, and sent a feed through the crease and out to the other side. At first I didn't know who rifled it in, but it ended up being Dan Girardi.
So credit Niki Z with the defensive play of the game, the goal of the game, and the assist of the game on the winning goal.
He also took a tripping penalty, when he knocked over Boulton on the faceooff shortly afterward. But you know, I'm not going to let that mar his night. I don't think many will. It might have been poor timing. But, Assistant captain, Naslund, was visibly annoyed with the refs for the call and animatedly talked to coach Tom Renney on the bench. Credit him for sticking up for his teammate.
Regardless, even though Hank Lundqvist has and continues to be strong in net, and the defense continues to be pretty solid, it was Niki's game to win for them. No one else stepped up in that way. He did and his team got the win.
The win, for the record, - does just that. At 10-2-1 it gives the Rangers 21 points in 13 games, which is the best ever start to a season for the Rangers. Best. Ever. That's like 82 years, folks.
Even though it hasn't really looked pretty. Even though their powerplay is quite possibly getting worse by the game (and making me look the fool for saying it couldn't possibly be worse than last year). Even though they have not gotten consistent scoring from any one line or two lines or what have you.
They have done something no Rangers team has ever done. Congratulations to them. I am, constructive comments notwithstanding, very proud to be a fan. I always am.
Around the league:
-Steven Stamkos notches his first NHL goal (and his second as well). First credited to Vincent Lecavalier, it was 10 minutes later announced Stamkos got the deflection. Congrats. And Vinny had already picked up the puck for him. That's why we love you Vinny. And beating Buffalo 5-2. That's not like beating a team like Tampa Bay. Er. Never mind. Good win for them. Good to see the kid get on the board. After all, I said Tampa would score. I didn't say they would stop the puck from going in their own net. But I said they would score.
-I just read Miroslav Satan got his team leading 5th goal of the season. Miroslav Satan? I know Sidney Crosby was slow to start the season. But Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Pascal Dupuis? But Satan? Seriously? The Penguins got roughed up in the desert, by the way. 4-1 loss and Crosby left the game with a mystery injury just before the end of the 2nd.
-Barring any major Rangers news between now and then, I'll probably check back in on Sunday with a wrap up of Saturday's game action and the first HNIC I've caught live in a while. I'm excited.