JIM: A lot of Rangers to choose from Sunday night, but none deserves No. 1 Star ranking more so than Mats Zuccarello, who turned in his second three-point effort of the season---and third of his career--in another big-time creative performance. His goal was a fortunate one---he tried to pass to Benoit Pouliot but the puck instead deflected off a Lightning skate into the net---but it was a clutch one as it tied the game, 2-2, before the first intermission arrived. Then Zucc made a sweet pass for the primary assist on Chris Kreider's go-ahead goal, and notched a secondary assist on Pouliot's eventual game-winner---all on the power play. In addition he played physically again, standing up to much bigger and stronger players, as he has all season long. Just another strong game for Zuccarello, who now leads the Rangers with 28 points on the seasn.
I'm giving Henrik Lundqvist my Second Star from Sunday. He looked a bit shaky in the first period, but settled in as the game wore on and then saved his team in the third period when the Lightning poured on 16 shots, scoring only once on a beautiful Valteri Filppula deflection. Afterwards Lundqvist said that third period really helped build his confidence as he made big-time save after big-time save with the game on the line. Lundqvist finished with 37 saves in total, and now we all are intrigued to see how he builds off the performance and the win on Tuesday night against the Panthers.
I will sound like a broken record here, but Ryan McDonagh again did it all at both ends of the ice, and is deserving of Third Star honors. He picked up two assists---on goals by Zuccarello and Kreider---was stout defensively and led the team with more than 27 minutes of ice time. He has become one of the better defensemen in the NHL, and one could argue as important a player the Rangers have on their roster. Only a couple more days until the inevitable happens and he is selected to play for the United States in the 2014 Winter Olympics.
MATT: As you said, Henrik Lundqvist was shaky early and he did allow a goal — though one no one would have stopped — but his peformance in the third period won the game for the Rangers, and for that, I have to give him the No. 1 star. As Zuccarello said after the game, the Rangers didn't have the strongest of third periods, but that is where having one of the best goaltenders in the NHL on your side helps, as No. 30 was senstational in turning aside nearly everything he said against a high-powered offense, making 15 saves on 16 shots in the final 20 minutes, and ending up with 37 total for the game. In my opinion, this was the type of finish Lundqvist had to have, as it should give the former Vezina winner confidence moving forward.
No question Zuccarello was the team's best forward Sunday night, as he has been for about two months now. Mats just makes the players around him better and is the best player on the team to make something out of nothing. In the first period, Zuccarello's bad angle shot hit a Lightning defender and found its way into the net. In the second, Zuccarello fed Chris Kreider for the pretty breakaway goal that gave the Rangers the 3-2 lead. Zuccarello gets better and better each game, and is the guy I look forward to watching most every night.
As you said, Jim, hate to sound like I'm repeating myself, but Ryan McDonagh just gives us reasons to write about him night after night. While it's my feeling that Zuccarello has been the team's top forward, there's no denying that McDonagh has been the team's best blueliner. It's sometimes hard to remember McDonagh is just 24 years old when you look at his decision making every game. As we've both written in this space before, McDonagh's biggest improvement this season has been on offense, where it feels like he's picking up points on a nightly basis, including two assists last night. I can't wait to watch him in the Olympics and for those who may not get to watch him on a nightly basis like we have the pleasure of doing to see just how good he is.