NEW YORK – It was gut-check time for the Rangers.
After twenty minutes, they trailed 2-0 following a subpar opening period. But at this time of the season, with teams scratching and clawing for every point they can get, the mental side of the house must be just as in order as the physical side.
Perhaps in November, the team closes up shop, doesn’t take the extra energy to battle back and force the action. But this isn’t November, it’s March. This isn’t the 10th game of the season, it’s the 73rd.
Monday night, the Rangers (40-29-4) got what they came for in a 4-3 comeback victory in overtime over a desperate Coyotes team (34-26-12) hanging onto a Western Conference playoff spot by a thread.
“We’ve scored some big goals in the last two months, where in the first [part of the] year it went the other way and we’d seem to lose handle of games when we get down early,” said Brad Richards, who scored the Rangers’ first goal just over six minutes into the second period. “It was tough tonight, they took the building right out of it, it was quiet; we had to gain momentum back. We just battled at it, and kept believing in what we were doing.”
This isn’t a time for feeling sorry for yourself. It’s a time for galvanizing the group together towards one common goal.
The Rangers trailed 2-0 after the first period, and had won just four times this season when trailing after 20 minutes. They tied the game with two goals in less than five minutes, before losing the lead again with 3:09 remaining in the second.
“Down the stretch here, every game is important,” said Ryan McDonagh, who scored the overtime winner at 1:56, slotting home the rebound of Dan Girardi’s shot from the point. “I like how we’ve been taking it period-by-period here, and not looking at the big picture. Just focusing on us, and focusing on finding ways to get points in games.”
In the third period, the Rangers kept coming, outshooting the Coyotes 12-4. But the goals didn’t come, even after goaltender Mike Smith (25 saves) was forced to leave the game with a lower-body injury. On the second shot faced by backup Thomas Greiss (seven saves), Girardi tipped home McDonagh’s point shot, tying the game and sending the Garden crowd into hysterics.
“I didn’t really know what to do,” Girardi said. “I just kind of turned around and started screaming, looking for anyone to come at me. I don’t make it down there too often, it was nice to get one from down there.”
“We talked about winning the second, and then we talked about winning the third period. We didn’t, obviously, execute the way we needed to in that first period,” said Rangers coach Alain Vigneault. “We found a way tonight. We were probably not as high as we normally are emotionally, and physically on the ice it took us a while to get going, but we found a way.”
Girardi’s goal set the stage for McDonagh’s heroics, as he got to the front of the net for the rebound that sent the Rangers into second place in the Metropolitan Division, one point ahead of the Flyers, who lost in regulation to the Kings and come to the Garden for a crucial matchup Wednesday night.
“I don’t know where we’d be without that pair,” Richards said of McDonagh and Girardi. “It’s fun to be out there with them, you know they’re down around the net, or [McDonagh’s] always jumping into different areas. Four-on-four especially, with Mac’s speed, he has no problem getting down there because he can pretty much beat anyone back.”
“It was a tough test for us in this game, a couple of times,” said goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who made 18 saves in the win. “We showed so much character, and we sat here a week ago talking about playing really well but not finding ways to win. The last seven, eight days we’re doing that. We’re finding different ways to win hockey games. That’s all that matters right now.”
The night started with cheers, when Lundqvist was honored by the team for his franchise-records 302nd career win and 50th career shutout. His parents joined him on the ice, as did Hall of Famers Mike Richter and Ed Giacomin, who have both had their numbers retired by the organization.
Lundqvist was presented with a photo collage of his work with the in-house charity, the Garden of Dreams foundation, a customized mask, and a guitar.
“Just to experience that, and what the Rangers did for me tonight, I’ll never forget it,” Lundqvist said after the game. “I’ve been saying it for years, they’ve taken care of me so well since I’ve gotten here. What they did for me tonight was so special, for me to get an opportunity to share that with my parents, my wife, and kid, it was hard not to get emotional. You see your mom cry when she walks out there, it was just a very special moment in my career.”
With the win, Lundqvist ties Billy Smith for 24th on the NHL’s all-time wins list at 305.
The Rangers won their 40th game of the season, the first time in franchise history they’ve had seven 40-win seasons in a nine-season stretch.
INSIDE THE LOCKER ROOM: