NEW YORK – Before Wednesday night’s Metropolitan Division matchup between the Penguins and Rangers (7-8-0), there was talk from the Pens locker room of trying to bury a team that stood ten points behind them in the standings when the puck was dropped.
Don’t start shoving dirt on the Rangers. Behind two points from Brian Boyle, a much-needed goal from defenseman Ryan McDonagh, and 28 saves from Henrik Lundqvist, the Rangers put Pittsburgh’s talk to bed with a 5-1 thrashing at the Garden.
“It’s a little early to be watching the standings,” Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen said before the game, according to The Record’s (N.J.) Andrew Gross. “But, we have an opportunity to bury some of these teams beneath us. If we keep winning, it could get some of those teams in the bottom of the standings out of our hair.”
Well, the Rangers aren’t out of the Penguins’ hair yet. They’re not out of anyone’s hair. Not after rolling off five wins in their last seven games. Not after holding eight straight opponents to two goals or fewer. Not after finding their game in their own end, and certainly not after keeping their head above water even with their long road trip that began the 2013-2014 campaign.
“Everything’s falling into place a little more,” said defenseman Anton Stralman. “We know more as a team, we’ve found our identity a little bit. It takes some time to do that. Right now, we’re rolling really good in here, and we’re playing some good hockey.”
“Right now, you don’t focus on other teams or where they’re at,” Lundqvist said. “We have to focus on ourselves. As long as we take care of our business, we’ll be in good shape.”
There were some doubts about Alain Vigneault’s style as his team battled through that interminable nine-game trip. But since coming back east, New York has settled their game. Perhaps most importantly, Henrik Lundqvist has settled his game. The star goaltender is 4-3-0, with a 1.45 goals against average in his last seven starts.
“We’ve got some pretty good goaltending, and that’s the way we like to play,” Boyle said. “That’s the way we like to play, and we’ve played in the past. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of playing team defense. The beginning of the year, that wasn’t us. It was us, obviously, it was the system for a little while, but we’ve done a great job getting rid of those habits and becoming a better team defensively.”
“Playing good defense is obviously doing a lot of things without the puck,” said Vigneault. “Good stick, blocking shots, battling hard, but a lot of it has to do with managing the puck. Making the right plays that need to be made to enable you to spend less time in your end. I think slowly but surely we’re getting better at that.”
It’s becoming a team that continues to improve with each passing game. After rattling off three straight wins against some of the Eastern Conference’s have-nots, the Rangers earned one of their best wins of the season against a Penguins (11-5-0) team currently first in the conference.
“Everybody was contributing tonight,” said captain Ryan Callahan. “We were putting the puck in the net, which is a big thing. Our penalty kill was outstanding. Against a team like that, that’s what you need.”
“We got the goals in the first [period],” Lundqvist said of the Rangers two-goal burst during a span of 1:05 late in the opening period. “It was a big difference playing with confidence, especially against this team. They’re a tough team to play because you have to start taking some chances, and they’re so fast going from their end to our end and creating chances. After the first ten minutes, we settled things down and those goals – we gained a lot of confidence and we played a really strong game.”
Boyle’s two-point night was his first since April 3, also against the Penguins. In fact, his last three multi-point outings have all come against Pittsburgh.
The Rangers were 5-6 on the penalty kill, improving their rate to 32-37 (86.5%) in their last ten games.
The last time the Rangers had eight straight games with two goals allowed or fewer was an eight-game span from Dec. 31, 2009 – Jan. 14, 2010.
Vigneault moved into a tie with Punch Imlach for 27th on the NHL’s all-time coaching points list with 954 points in 821 games coached (429-296-35-61).
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