Matt Hunwick, on just a one-year, $ 600,000 contract, gave the Rangers 55 hard-working regular season games during the regular season and has played in every playoff game so far.
Matt Hunwick inevitably will come out of the lineup whenever defenseman Kevin Klein (broken left arm, day-to-day) returns from injury. He is the seventh defenseman on the deepest blue line in the NHL.
But simply by logging his first postseason action since 2010 with the Boston Bruins, Hunwick, 29, has been a much bigger part of the Rangers’ efforts than many had anticipated when he signed a one-year, $ 600,000 free-agent contract last summer.
“I was fortunate to have the opportunity come here,” Hunwick said Friday morning, preparing for his fifth start in as many Ranger playoff games. “You never want to see anyone get hurt. I just try to be consistent and be someone they trust to put on the ice.”
Hunwick only has logged a modest 12:23 of ice time per game, and he had a difficult time for most of Game 4. But his step at the blue line to drive a pass down the right wall to Martin St. Louis was crucial in setting up Kevin Hayes’ game-winning overtime goal.
“I made eye contact with (St. Louis),” Hunwick said. “I probably rimmed the puck harder than I wanted to (down the boards), but he made a great play.”
The Rangers in the offseason signed Hunwick and Mike Kostka to compete on depth defense with returning sixth defenseman John Moore. Kostka couldn’t stick in the NHL, but Hunwick was clearly the most reliable of the trio. Glen Sather eventually traded Moore to Arizona in the blockbuster deadline package that brought Keith Yandle to Broadway.
Hunwick, a ninth-year veteran, played in 55 regular season games with two goals and 11 assists, and he’s been a regular especially since Klein’s March 11 injury. The modest defenseman, formerly of the University of Michigan, disagreed when it was suggested he’s found a way to become a “major” part of things.
“I don’t know about major,” he said with a smirk.
The fact is, though, he is a starting defenseman on what this season was the best team in the NHL.
THE KING’S QUICK RESTART
The uncertainty about Henrik Lundqvist’s preparedness for the playoffs coming out of his long-term injury feels like a distant memory.
“We’ve got the Hank that we’re used to having in goal again,” coach Alain Vigneault said Friday morning at the Garden.
Despite sitting out from Feb. 4 to March 26 with a partially torn blood vessel in his neck, Lundqvist finished the regular season with a 5-2-0 record in his final seven starts and carried a stingy 1.74 goals against average and a .926 save percentage this postseason into Game 5.
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Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury (2.24 goals against average, .921 save percentage) has been excellent but still hasn’t matched the King’s output. Lundqvist’s 46th career playoff win in Game 4 pushed him to 20th on the all-time NHL playoff wins list, passing Toy Esposito and Jonathan Quick.
In Game 2, Lundqvist appeared in his 94th career playoff game to become the franchise’s all-time leader in playoff appearances, regardless of position. Among all 30 NHL clubs, he is one of just two goalies who lead their franchise’s all-time playoff appearances list. Martin Brodeur (Devils) is the other.
Klein sat out a fifth straight game to start the playoffs on Friday but skated with the extras in the morning and continued taking shots … Keith Yandle and Mats Zuccarello, who both skipped Thursday’s practice for maintenance days, remained in the lineup for Game 5.
Derek Stepan (l.) and J.T. Miller focus on being responsible defensively when the offense doesn’t come.
‘STEP’ BY STEP
Rangers center and alternate captain Derek Stepan linemates Chris Kreider and J.T. Miller, like a lot of their teammates, have had a difficult time creating consistent offense against the Penguins through four games.
Chris Kreider scored the game-winning goal in Game 3, but the trio only has two goals and two assists between them. In Game 4, in particular, they struggled to keep the puck and attack Pittsburgh’s ‘D.’
They have still managed, however, to contribute to the Rangers’ stingy defensive effort to record three, 2-1 victories in the series.
“Offensively last game was our worst game, I shouldn’t say worst, it was our least effective game,” Stepan said. “We didn’t create as much, but at the same time, I thought Chris and J.T. did a great job being physical and did a lot of good things defensively. It’s important, if you don’t have the offense, that you focus on doing your job defensively, and I thought we did a good job of that.
“Like if one night Brass’ line (Derick Brassard’s line) or Hayes’ line (Kevin Hayes) is going and we’re not, we have to continue to be responsible defensively. And I think it says a lot about our team that we all know it’s important we make sure we play the right way, no matter how it’s going on offense.”
In Game 4, Kreider was credited with 10 hits. He and Miller also created a great chance off the rush on a two-on-one, but he shot that puck wide, squandering one of their few Grade-A looks. Their line generates chances off the rush more often than any other on the Rangers, due to Kreider’s speed and their dynamic as a unit.
They haven’t had as much time and space to use that speed consistently. The Rangers as a whole have not been able to fire on all cylinders against the Penguins’ conservative game plan. But fortunately, the Blueshirts have been able to win with what Pittsburgh is giving them.
“We have to realize throughout the playoffs that we’re never going to play a perfect game,” Stepan said. “We have to find a way to win games when we’re not at our best, and throughout this series, I think we’ve found a way to step up when we need to.”
GREAT DAYS FOR HAYES
Rookie center Kevin Hayes in Game 4 became the first Ranger rookie in franchise history to tally a playoff overtime goal on the road, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. He also became the first Ranger whose first career playoff goal came in overtime since Don Murdoch on April 13, 1978 against Buffalo.
NOT LOOKING AHEAD, BUT …
The Rangers’ two potential second-round opponents, if they are able to close out the Penguins on Friday night, include a familiar postseason foe in the Capitals and a bitter rival in the Islanders, who trail 3-2 heading into Saturday’s Game 6.
The Rangers have plenty of recent history with Washington, four playoff series since the start of the 2009 playoffs, while a Rangers-Isles series would give the local area one last ferocious battle between the two before the Isles move from the Coliseum.
Overall the Rangers are 4-4 in series against the Capitals and 3-5 against the Islanders. The last time they met the Caps they trailed 3-2 in the first round of the 2013 playoffs but came back to win. The Rangers defeated the Islanders and Capitals in the first and seconds rounds, respectively, of the 1994 playoffs en route to winning their last Stanley Cup.
Friday marked the exact day in 1994 the Rangers swept the Isles in the first round of the 1994 postseason, which was the last time the two rivals met in a series.
With Justin Tasch
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