NEW YORK – Henrik Lundqvist outstretched his arms, looking past the famous spoked ceiling, all the way to the heavens. Like a weight had been lifted off his shoulders.
The Rangers home losing streak was over, and while it was about as difficult to kill as could possibly be, all that mattered was that it was over.
“It was just a big relief to finally get two points,” Lundqvist said of his post-game exultation. “I had a chance to close it out twice [in the shootout], and I didn’t do it. Then I just had a feeling if we don’t win this one, I’m not going to be a happy guy. Finally we ended the game.”
Despite trailing 2-0 in the first period and 3-2 in the third period, the Rangers rallied twice, eventually edging the Calgary Flames (13-15-5) in a seven-round shootout, 4-3, at a sold-out Madison Square Garden.
It’s just the middle of December, but the way the Rangers (16-17-1) have been playing, it felt like a far more important game on the schedule. Considering the Rangers had started this franchise-record nine-game homestand with a record of 0-3-1, it just seemed like one they had to have.
“I think the past few games, we’ve kind of been right there,” said Chris Kreider, who was often the best player on the ice Sunday night. “Down a goal, we get a lousy bounce or just one play and all of a sudden it’s in the back of the net. It was just a matter of time. The team showed a lot of character, a lot of resiliency tonight.”
Despite allowing the game’s first goal, despite allowing a go-ahead tally in the third, the Rangers clawed back. Kreider stuffed in the rebound of Derek Stepan’s shot with 7:53 left in the third, tying the game at three, and sending the Garden crowd to one of its’ loudest yelps of the season.
“It wasn’t pretty,” said Ryan McDonagh. “We knew it wasn’t going to be pretty to get us off this streak, but it’s a great character win.”
“We need it,” said Carl Hagelin. “There’s no doubt about it. If you want to be successful in this league, you need to win at home. Today, we showed character. Even though we were down, we came back and got two points.”
The Rangers had still more adversity to battle through, even after tying the game. When they failed to score on a five-on-three power play inside the game’s final four minutes, Kreider took a double minor for high-sticking Chris Butler with just under two minutes left. The Rangers had to kill four minutes of Flames’ power play time, stretching into the first two minutes of overtime.
But kill it they did. And rally they did in their long-awaited first shootout of the season. Mats Zuccarello’s goal to open the skills competition was equaled by Joe Colborne. Brad Richards scored in the fourth round, but Lee Stempniak kept the game alive by wristing one past Lundqvist.
Dominic Moore went blocker-side on Karri Ramo (29 saves), only for Paul Byron to go five-hole on Lundqvist (19 saves). But when Benoit Pouliot slid the puck past Ramo, Lundqvist (45-30 all-time in shootouts) made one final stop on Mikael Backlund. The Rangers had the win, and their goalie reacted with nothing short of gleeful relief.
“I just wanted to win. I was a little disappointed, obviously, I had two chances to close it out. I’m just happy we managed to get the two points,” Lundqvist said. “Baby steps right now. Don’t look too far ahead, we know we’re a little bit behind right now. We can only take it 20 minutes at a time and try to improve.
“It was our first shootout of the year,” said Derek Stepan. “A lot of guys showed they’re good in the shootout. If we can’t get two points after  minutes, we should go to shootout.”
“There were quite a few moments that tested us,” said Rangers coach Alain Vigneault. “We’re down by two early, we had a kill to make at that critical time. Found a way twice to come back in this game, something we haven’t done very often this year. So, there’s quite a few elements that hopefully we can build on and bring this to where it needs to be.”
Lundqvist’s 45 all-time shootout wins rank him second all-time behind Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller.
Ryan McDonagh played 31:01, just the third time in his career he’s played over 30 minutes in a regular season game.
The Rangers improved to 2-15-0 when allowing the game’s first goal.
This was the latest the Rangers have ever gone into a season without a shootout, surpassing their previous team record of 24 games in 2010-2011. The shootout has only been used in NHL games since the 2005-06 season.
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