The tallest player in NHL history turned in a performance reminiscent of one of the greatest players ever, as defenseman Zdeno Chara led the Ottawa Senators past the struggling New York Rangers 4-1, Monday afternoon at Madison Square Garden. The 6-foot-9 Chara had a “Gordie Howe hat trick,” with a goal, an assist and a fight, as Ottawa surged from behind late in the game, pouring in three third-period goals against the dispirited Rangers.
With the win Ottawa remained tied with Toronto atop the Northeast Division. The Rangers, meanwhile, continued their downward spiral with their third consecutive loss, dropping 11 points behind the New York Islanders in the race for the final spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
It was the Rangers who scored first with just over four minutes left in the second period. Rookie defenseman Fedor Tyutin recorded his first NHL point, as center Bobby Holik deflected his shot past Ottawa goalie Patrick Lalime, putting the Rangers on the board after nearly two mostly uneventful periods. Playing without their two leading scoring threats, Jaromir Jagr and Eric Lindros, who were injured, the Rangers had limited scoring opportunities, getting off only five shots in each period. The most action on the ice in the early going involved Ranger enforcer Chris Simon, who squared off with two separate Senators. Chara slugged it out with Simon at 8:11 in the first, with each receiving a 5-minute major for fighting. Following the game, however, Chara praised his rugged opponent.
“The guy is just doing his job out there, being physical. You have to give him a lot of credit, he stuck his nose out there twice,” Chara said, referring to Simon’s other brawl with defenseman Todd Simpson in the second period. “He was one of their best players today.”
Unfortunately for the 18,200 New York fans who arrived to see this President’s Day afternoon match, Simon was one of the only Rangers to bring any type of emotion to the ice, in a largely lackluster effort by the home squad. Simon piled up 12 penalty minutes in the game, extending his team-leading total to 189 and surging into second place in the league in that category, trailing only Sean Avery of the Los Angeles Kings. His teammates, added a few more penalty minutes of their own, but little else.
Holik’s goal was almost immediately followed by a Ranger penalty and Martin Havlet scored a power-play goal less than a minute later on the assist from Chara. Another Ranger penalty followed and soon the boos began.
“I don’t know how we can address it any more than we can,” Ranger Coach Glen Sather told reporters after the game in frustration, referring to his team’s recurring penalties. “You go to the player and talk to him and he says ‘I know, I know, I am not going to do that.'”
But they continued to do so with three more crucial penalties, and then everything seemed to fall apart for the Rangers. Chara put Ottawa ahead at 7:11 in the third period with a controversial goal on a wrist shot from the blue line. The puck caromed off the head of Ranger defenseman Brian Leetch and into the net of Jussi Markkanen, in what would prove to be the game-winning goal. Ranger players and coaches claimed that interference should have called on the play, as Ottawa left wing Brian Smolinski seemed firmly camped in the crease. But the goal stood and right wing Josh Langfeld scored 41 seconds later as the fans erupted into the all-too familiar chant of “Fire Sather” that echoed throughout the Garden for much of the third period.
Smolinski added another goal at 14:06 for Ottawa, who outshot New York 31-15. The Rangers had several chances to trim the lead late in the game, but a few bad breaks kept them out of reach. A Leetch slap shot hit the post, while right wing Matthew Barnaby missed a penalty shot with less than two minutes to go, as his shot flew wide of the net.
“The goal that Chara scored…it’s goaltender interference any way you look at it,” said Sather. “If they don’t call it, there is not a hell of a lot we can do about it. You can stand there and scream at the bench, but he isn’t going to make a change. That’s the way it is.”
Holik also preferred not to dwell too much on the officiating, instead focusing on the Rangers’ current slump.
“I don’t think we can use that non-call as any kind of excuse for our results, whether it’s today or the last three weeks,” he said. “We have been emotionally fragile. The only way to get out of it is to put out head down and keep working.”
Chara, who leads the league in plus/minus ratings, enjoyed his second consecutive multipoint game. He said he thought the Rangers played hard and stayed close for most of the game, but he added that the Senators made the most of their opportunities.
“It was a very patient game, nobody wanted to make any mistakes,” he said. “I think the game opened up after a few goals. It’s a different game when you are holding onto a lead and when you are chasing a lead.”