MATT: Pretty easy choice Friday night, as Benoit Pouliot had a great game in all ends of the ice in Pittsburgh. The first goal was huge because the Rangers were not pleased with their start the night before, so to get on the board first against a team like the Penguins was crucial. Pouliot's second marker in the third was him once again right around the crease, and his shot beat Marc-Andre Fleury high. The pattern here: Pouliot has had success using his large frame around the net, something he wasn't doing often enough earlier in the season. He, Zuccarello and Derick Brassard have developed some kind of chemistry, and are a huge reason for the turnaround over the six weeks. Pouliot finished his night with two goals, four shots and a blocked shot in 16:00.
The second star goes to Henrik Lundqvist, who once again was very good, especially in the overtime period when the Penguins threw everything they had at the Rangers. Lundqvist did allow three goals, but none could really be pinned solely on him, especially the third by James Neal, which sent the game to overtime. While the Brassard line has been huge in the Rangers' turning their season around, the biggest reason has been the play of No. 30, who is back to elite form heading into the Olympics. Lundqvist received some luck in the shootout with one shot hitting the post, but his stop on Sidney Crosby allowed the Rangers to gain the lead on Mats Zuccarello's shootout goal. Lundqvist finished the night with 26 saves.
My third star goes to Dan Girardi, who like Lundqvist, has completely regained his form after a tough start to the year. Girardi is back to being the shutdown defender he's been over the last six years or so. Any time you can keep Crosby and Malkin off the scoresheet at even strenght, you've done something right, and Girardi was a big reason for it, as he and Ryan McDonagh were matched at every opportunity against the team's big guns. Girardi has also been chipping in offensively over the past several weeks, and his goal early in the second period on the power play broke a slump for the Blueshirts with the man advantage. He looked strong on the power play last night as he was given more time by Alain Vigneault following a stretch of ineffectiveness by his units.
JIM: Benoit Pouliot stepped up with a pair of clutch goals Friday, and I found it real surprising as I researched after his second goal that he has never recorded a Hat Trick in his NHL career. Nonetheless the sixth two-goal game of his career--first as a Ranger--came at a very opportune time for the Blueshirts, who desperately needed two points heading into the break following Thursday's disappointment. Pouliot got 16 minutes of ice time, played very physically, and recorded four shots on goal. Not surprisingly both of his goals came from right in front of Marc-Andre Fleury. He has no qualms whatsoever about going to the dirty areas to score his goals and generate scoring chances. I love that about Benoit Pouliot; and it really paid off Friday night.
I almost did not select Pouliot as the game's First Star because that's how great a game I thought Dan Girardi played. A goal and an assist--two power play points--were at the top of his resume Friday night, but he was a rock defensively, too. Girardi logged a team-high 27:26, blocked five shots, was credited with four hits, and most importantly did a solid job against the Penguins top guns, helping limit Sidney Crosby, for example, to one assist in the game. An extremely worthy No. 2 Star selection is Dan Girardi.
My Third Star goes to Mats Zuccarello. I loved the fight--literally and figuratively--in his game again on Friday as he battled for the puck and positioning every inch of the ice all night long. His wars with Chris Kunitz were admirable and inspiring, and smart, too, when you consider he got Kunitz to take an extra minor penalty during their second-period scrum. Zuccarello also assisted on Pouliot's game-opening goal, keeping the puck alive by jabbing away at it when it was against Fleury's pads, extending his point streak to a career-high six games. He also scored the first goal of the shootout, putting the Rangers in an advantageous spot after two rounds, before Brad Richards won it in the third anf final round. Zucc is now 9-for-18 in career shootouts.