NEW YORK – The Rangers got angry. The Rangers got mean. The Rangers threw their body around. The Rangers won a hockey game.
In perhaps their most complete effort in nearly a month, the Rangers (17-18-2) dominated the slumping Wild (20-13-5, 2-4-0 in their last six games) 4-1 at Madison Square Garden on Sunday night.
The game changed late in the first period. Matt Cooke flew towards an unsuspecting Mats Zuccarello behind the Rangers’ net, shouldering him in the chest. It was a clean hit, even though Zuccarello didn’t see the notorious Cooke coming until it was too late.
John Moore immediately confronted Cooke, who’s been suspended for illegal checks at least four times since 2008, and members of the Rangers bench verbally accosted the Wild forward, who had promised to reform his game after a ten-game suspension for elbowing Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh in 2011.
“That might have actually helped us get going,” said Carl Hagelin, who wore the celebratory Broadway Hat. “Before then, we were a little but soft, but after that we started skating and started hitting, and that’s how we created turnovers.”
“We have to play a physical game, it’s a physical sport,” Zuccarello said, who scored a goal to give him a team-high 25 points (eight goals, 17 assists) in the team’s last 29 games. “We have to win those one-on-one battles and that will get us the puck more. We’re a better team when we’re playing with the puck.”
The Rangers allowed the first goal of the game for the seventh consecutive contest, but once they did so they improved their compete level, tied the game late in the first, and dominated the second period – outshooting the Wild 17-5 in the one-sided period, one of their best 20-minute stretches of the season.
“I do know our compete level in the second period was probably our best four-line, six-D period in a long time,” said Rangers coach Alain Vigneault. “I rolled four lines, each line was playing very smart and simple. They were doing the right things with the puck.”
When the Wild scored at 4:08 of the first period on a Jason Pominville redirection of a Ryan Suter pass, they were outshooting the Rangers 5-2. After that tally, the Rangers had ten of the final 16 shots in the period before turning the game in the middle stanza.
“We owed the fans this one,” said goaltender Cam Talbot (24 saves). “They’ve been supporting us quite a bit lately, and we haven’t really produced for them. We owed it to the guys in this room, to each other, and to the fans in the stands. They’re our backbone out there, and when they’re in the game we seem to play a little bit better. To get their support throughout the night was huge for us, and we’re happy to get the win for them.”
A Rangers team that has shown very little pushback through their first 36 games finally showed some in their 37th. After Cooke smoked Zuccarello, the Rangers increased their physicality, increased their tempo, and improved their performance.
“We all compete hard for each other. It’s been a foundation for our success is standing up for our teammates,” said Ryan McDonagh, who had an assist to give him 20 points on the season. “More importantly is getting after them on the scoreboard, and that was a good thing. We scored some goals right away after that, and kept the momentum on our side. [Cooke] was probably trying to get the momentum on their side. We fought through it and [didn’t] let it distract us.”
It’s not going to be enough to rescue this disastrous franchise-record nine-game homestand during which the Blueshirts are 2-4-2, but it’s all about momentum and confidence. If the Rangers were able to improve their fragile confidence through arguably their most complete performance in December, perhaps they can get their season back on track.
“Probably our best game all year when it comes to playing a full 60 minutes and everyone contributing,” said Carl Hagelin, who scored what turned out to be the game-winner. “We definitely needed one of these, just to feel good about ourselves. Everyone in here contributed, and everyone should feel good about themselves.”
“We worked our asses off – if I can say that – and competed well,” Zuccarello said. “It’s a big game for us, we needed it. Hopefully we can get some confidence off this and build off it.”
It was a start. It doesn’t mean a thing unless they follow one strong effort up with another.
The Rangers’ 31 hits were their most in a single game since Dec. 7, their first game of the homestand
The Rangers scored a power-play goal, improving their power play to 10-for-43 (23.3%) in their last 13 games. The penalty kill was a perfect 2-for-2, and is killing at a 88.5% rate in their last 20 games.
INSIDE THE LOCKER ROOM: