After clinching a playoff berth on Monday night while idle—due to a New Jersey Devils loss—the New York Rangers were back in action Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden facing the Carolina Hurricanes. Brad Richards found his offensive game and the power play connected twice as the Rangers downed the ‘Canes 4-1.
Around the locker room it is evident that everyone understands the importance of these last few regular season games. It isn’t enough that the team clinched a spot in the playoffs because it is only a small step that the Rangers needed to make in order to have a shot at winning the Stanley Cup. With playoffs around the corner, the Rangers are using these next two games to work out the kinks, and play smart, consistent hockey.
“You want to get good habits, and you want to play the game you want to play next week,” said goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who had 27 saves on the night. “You can’t take any shortcuts. You need to focus the same way and take each game as an important game.”
Two important points came out of the Rangers’ matchup with the ‘Canes, as both the Philadelphia Flyers and Columbus Blue Jackets secured wins last night. In order to have home-ice advantage for the first round of the playoffs, the Blueshirts are going to have to hold on to the second-place spot in the Metropolitan Division.
The game was played pretty evenly throughout the first two periods; each team trading chances, including back-to-back breakaway attempts by Rick Nash and ‘Canes’ forward Alexander Semin, both of who were denied by the respective goalies. But it was the Rangers power play and the team’s discipline, they weren’t penalized the entire game, that gave them the edge over the ‘Canes.
The Carolina Hurricanes drew first blood early in the game after a lucky bounce and great positioning by Patrick Dwyer led to an opportune moment. The ‘Canes had the puck behind the goal line in the Rangers Zone. Brett Bellemore shuffled the puck toward the front of the net and it took a funny bounce off the side. Rangers defenseman Kevin Klein saw the puck pass through his legs to the waiting Dwyer who wasted no time ripping a one-timer that found its way over Lundqvist’s right shoulder.
The Rangers were able to answer in the latter part of the first after Semin was called for a hooking penalty at 15:44 and the Rangers earned a power play opportunity. After winning the face off, Martin St. Louis and Derek Stepan each attempted a shot that was blocked. St. Louis recovered the puck, saw Richards alone in the left circle and slide a pass across. With no defenders blocking his view, Richards fired a shot that fooled Cam Ward and found its way to the back of the net. The goal not only represented the equalizer, but also a step in the right direction for the team’s power play that has struggled of late.
Second periods are where the Rangers have shined throughout the past 13 games. Since March 13, the Rangers have outscored opponents 19-6 in the second period. The team added to that statistic last night as the Rangers added two more goals, including another power play goal by Richards, in the second to carry a two-goal lead heading into the final 20 minutes.
Mats Zuccarello, who was honored earlier in the night with an annual award voted by the fans, was eager to put points on the board after he was robbed of a goal due to a great defensive play by Jay Harrison late in the first. Zuccarello had an open net and redirected the puck past Ward, but Harrison got his stick in before the puck crossed the goal line and kept the game tied at one.
Zuccarello, along with his linemates, Derick Brassard and Benoit Pouliot, connected for the game-winning goal 50 seconds into the second period. Every time these three players are on the same line good things happen. They have substantial chemistry and know where to find each other on the ice. It’s a line made up of players who pass well and have precision sharp vision.
Anton Stralman started the play battling Andrei Loktionov on the boards. Stralman came away with the puck, completed a quick give-and-go with Brassard before passing the puck to Zuccarello streaking down the middle of the offensive zone. Zuccarello faked the shot and slide a beautiful tape-to-tape pass to Pouliot who had just come off the bench and was crashing the net. With a wide open net, Pouliot gave the Rangers the lead.
After the game, Zuccarello said the play happened very quickly. He realized he didn’t have a clear shot and saw Pouliot out of the corner of his eye. He figured his best option was to make a pass because he didn’t think he could score from his position. His decision paid off.
Richards’s second power play goal came in the middle of the second when the Rangers were able to keep possession in the offensive zone. St. Louis, Richards and Dan Girardi played keep away before the defense shifted enough for Richards to find a lane at the top of the blue line. Dwyer, who was covering the point, was without a stick, which gave Richards room. He drove a slapshot through traffic and into the net.
Clearly motivated by their second-period performance, the Blueshirts had an extra jump in their step starting the third. The team outshot the Hurricanes and added another goal less than five minutes in to put their opponents away. St. Louis found Derek Stepan waiting at the top of the crease. Ward, who thought St. Louis was going to shoot, was out of position and couldn’t get over in time to stop Stepan from sliding the puck in. St. Louis had his best game as a Ranger, tallied three assists.
“It’s nice to get rewarded on so many plays,” said St. Louis. “Just keep looking to build it up and keep getting better.”
Although he still struggles with scoring, he has given the Rangers coaches a glimpse of what he is able to do. Vigneault hopes this is just his warm-up.
“I thought tonight was probably his best game since he’s been with us,” said Vigneault. “He looked real good tonight. Hopefully, that’s a sign that’s going to continue for us.”
The Rangers have one more home game against the Buffalo Sabres before they close out the regular season on the road in Montreal. With the Flyers on their tail, the Blueshirts are looking to continue playing solid and complete games.