The Red Wings peppered enough pucks at Henrik Lundqvist to earn the OT win.
DETROIT – Henrik Lundqvist sparkled Saturday, the opposite of rusty in his first game back from a three-game injury absence. Chris Kreider carried the offense, and Derek Stepan continued to make game-changing plays, but it was a drama-filled affair before a raucous crowd that ended in a 3-2 overtime loss to the Detroit Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena on a Pavel Datsyuk wrister through traffic at 3:03.
You couldn’t make up the ending: ex-Ranger leader Brad Richards, of all people, jumped in to bury the game-tying goal off Henrik Zetterberg’s initial shot with just 31.8 seconds remaining in regulation, after both captain Ryan McDonagh and forward Viktor Stalberg had barely missed the empty Detroit net by a hair from three-quarters ice.
Lundqvist made a sizzling pad save on Dylan Larkin about 2:30 into overtime and 40 saves total to get his team a point.
In Lundqvist’s return from a three-game injury absence (neck spasms), the King’s 15 first-period saves set the table for a typically tight affair in which the Rangers (39-22-7, 85 points) squandered a lead on Stepan’s first-period goal but broke the tie on Kreider’s power-play tip-in of a Keith Yandle point shot at 15:33 of the third.
Lundqvist earned the power play when the Wings’ Justin Abdelkader interfered in the crease as his right skate collided with Lundqvist’s left boot. A rowdy crowd got on top of Lundqvist for what they thought was a dive, and the Wings were all over the Blueshirts with a late power-play, but the King held.
Rick Nash was heavily involved and energetic in his first game back after 20 games sidelined by a nastier-than-anticipated left leg bone bruise. Nash attacked Abdelkader with a cross-check to the face after the Wings forward jabbed at Lundqvist after a whistle and was also in the grill of Detroit rookie Dylan Larkin when he didn’t appreciate contact.
Stepan (goal) knocked down a Detroit clearing attempt on the late power play to keep the puck in so Mats Zuccarello (two assists) and Yandle could set up Kreider’s goal. Stepan also had stripped Detroit defenseman Danny DeKeyser prior to his own goal with 48.5 seconds left in the first period helped by Kreider’s net-front traffic.
Lundqvist made 36 saves in regulation. The wild-card Red Wings (34-23-11, 79 points) outshot the Blueshirts 38-21 in regulation. The Rangers who played without top scorer Derick Brassard (flu), continued a grueling stretch of five games in eight days Sunday at 12:30 p.m. at the Garden against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Rick Nash also makes his return from an injury layoff in Saturday’s matinee in Detroit.
The Blueshirts worked hard on the back-check all afternoon, but Detroit’s Darren Helm tied it at one apiece 4:28 into the third period off assists from Luke Glendening and Danny DeKeyser. A fluke dump-in hit Zuccarello, and Glendening beat a flat-footed Dan Boyle to poke the puck to Helm. Kevin Hayes saw the play develop but whiffed on a cursory poke attempt of the puck.
A less headline-worthy addition to however, made all the difference in the world, too: the return of Marc Staal to the blue line.
Staal had missed the previous two games with back spasms and had sat out five of the team’s last 11 games overall for various reasons, including the birth of his second daughter on Feb. 17, a lower-body injury on Feb. 23 and the flu on March 3.
The returns of Lundqvist and Nash made bigger headlines due to their significance and the length of Nash’s absence. And the rest of the chatter lately has been about Marc’s older brother, Eric, the splash deadline acquisition who centered a new Towering Trio line of Nash (6-4), Eric Staal (6-4) and Viktor Stalberg (6-3).
Try these stats on for size, though: The Rangers had a 2-1-0 record in their last three games without Lundqvist. They had a 13-6-1 record while Nash was out. But in the team’s previous 11 games, the Rangers were 1-4-0 with Marc Staal out of the lineup and 6-0-0 when he played.
Vigneault was hopeful Brassard will be able to play Sunday against Pittsburgh. The French-Canadian center is the fifth Rangers player to catch the flu in the past three weeks including Dan Boyle, Marek Hrivik, Jesper Fast and Marc Staal, respectively. The team didn’t fly him to Detroit, though, because they can’t take any chances of the illness spreading further with this week’s three-city California trip coming up.