The Return of the 2015-16 Rangers

Even without Rick Nash and Ryan McDonagh, the Rangers keeping winning

Dylan McIlrath and Wayne Simmonds

Every Rangers-Flyers game feels big, but Sunday’s Rangers-Flyers game felt a little bigger. It felt a little different than normal and a little more important than usual. The moments leading up to the start of the game felt like something out of April or May and the first minutes after the puck dropped felt like something out of the ’90s.

NBC Sports built up the storyline of Wayne Simmonds dropping Ryan McDonagh and putting the Rangers’ captain in the press box for the foreseeable future and used a conversation between Dylan McIlrath and Simmonds during warmups like a movie trailer. Outside of watching Matt Damon return as Jason Bourne during Super Bowl 50, I can’t recall the last trailer that made me feel the way I did as I watched the red line serve as the linesman for McIlrath and Simmonds during warmups.

Tanner Glass had made the comments earlier in the week defending his captain when he said, “You just have to let [Simmonds] know that that’s not going to be tolerated. [McDonagh’s] our captain, he’s our best player, [Simmonds] can’t do that. He’ll know. He’ll know.” But here was the 23-year-old defenseman, who would still be in the press box watching games if not for Simmonds connecting with McDonagh’s jaw, taking it upon himself to act in a way Alain Vigneault’s teams haven’t acted in the past.

With the Madison Square Garden crowd booing Simmonds’ first shift of the night and Alain Vigneault and Ulf Samuelsson giving McIlrath the green light to hit the ice and challenge Simmonds, it only took 39 seconds for McIlrath to make Simmonds atone for his punch. It took 17 seconds from the time McIlrath and Simmonds dropped their gloves until the first punch was thrown, and 50 seconds after that, the linesmen broke them up.

McIlrath had a job to do and he did it, and even Simmonds, for as hated as he is by Rangers fans, had a job to do and he did it. He didn’t back down from McIlrath’s pregame challenge, knowing if not McIlrath, then Glass would be after him, and if he didn’t agree to go, one of the two would make him go. Simmonds answered the bell for putting McDonagh on the shelf, and as a hockey fan, you have to respect Simmonds’ respect for the situation. He’s still the perfect Flyer, but if he were a Ranger, he’d be the fan favorite in New York that he is in Philadelphia.

Seconds after Simmonds going to the box, screaming and shouting like a maniac, which is pretty much what one has to be to stand toe-to-toe with no visor against the half-shielded protected McIlrath and his three-inch and 30-pound advantage, Glass hit the ice with pent-up adrenaline and his chance to make goods on his comments. Glass went with the next best thing, running down Radko Gudas in the far corner and then immediately turning to drop the gloves with a more-than-willing Ryan White. Twenty seconds after the game stopped for McIlrath-Simmonds, it stopped once again for Glass and White to go. With 19:01 left in the first, and McIlrath, Glass, Simmonds and White in the box, and everything from eight days ago seemingly taken care of, the actual game could begin.

It was nearly a full game of domination from the Rangers. Whether it be from the energy created by McIlrath or Glass in the opening minute, or the simple fact that the Rangers are just a vastly superior team to the Flyers, or a combination of both, the Rangers not getting two points was never in question. For nearly a month now, the Rangers have looked like one of the best teams in the league, the same way they looked like a contender when they ripped off nine-straight wins in October and November and started the season 16-3-2. And to think, they’re doing it without their best offensive weapon and best defensive defenseman.

Derick Brassard was able to pull off the extra-long wraparound attempt on Steve Mason, who seemed to be the only person in the Garden and watching on TV, who didn’t anticipate Brassard’s eventual move with a full head of steam and no real passing lane. It was Brassard’s 19th of the season, tying a career high he set last season, as he continues to be the Rangers’ best scoring option not named Rick Nash.

Derek Stepan, who you would think would be the Rangers’ best scoring option not named Rick Nash, did what he does best, scoring a pair of a goals on wide-open nets, which seem to the be the only way he can score, for his 11th and 12th on the season. With eight goals needed and only 26 games to play, it’s going to take a Nash-like hot streak for Stepan to have just his second 20-goal season in six years, in what will unfortunately be another disappointing offensive season for the center.

And the man who helped save the Rangers’ season when it looked like it might unravel and when certain New York hockey writers called the team “done” played like his usual self. After having his first game off in nearly a month on Friday against the Kings, and just his second game off since Dec. 12, Henrik Lundqvist held the Flyers scoreless for 59 minutes and 50 seconds before a 6-on-4 garbage-time goal denied him of his second straight shutout.

Henrik Lundqvist has been the New York Rangers since 2007-08. (You could make the case for him being the team in 2005-06 and 2006-07 as well, but those were still Jaromir Jagr’s teams. At worst, he and Jagr were the co-New York Rangers for those two years.) And once again, he still is. During the Rangers’ recent resurgence, which started on Jan. 19 against Vancouver, the Rangers have gone 8-2-0 with Lundqvist in net, and he has allowed 18 goals in those 10 games. Lundqvist’s return to Vezina-esque status and him turning on his postseason switch a little early, stopped a nightmarish collapse as the Rangers have started to create separation between them and the rest of the non-Capitals Met teams and wild-card contenders.

The highly-coveted two points available on Sunday might have been an afterthought during the opening 59 seconds of the game, but after that, the Rangers did what they have done nearly every game for the last month: win. With Sunday night’s win, their second-place cushion in the Met got a little bigger and their lead to avoid the wild card and a potential matchup with the Capitals grew a little larger.

Watching McIlrath make Simmonds answer for his Feb. 8 punch was enjoyable, but earning those two points, helping keep the Flyers out of the postseason again and having the Rangers increase their own chances of making it is what really matters.