NEW YORK – When the Rangers signed Brad Richards in July, the prevailing thought was that he’d pair with Marian Gaborik to create a lethal top line for the Rangers. During training camp, the experiment seemed to fail, when the two players just couldn’t find chemistry.
Now, with Carl Hagelin on the left side of Richards and Gaborik, the trio has created that lethal top line John Tortorella’s unit was looking for.
The line combined to score all four goals, and added five assists in the Rangers 4-2 win over middling Carolina (26-29-15, 67 pts, 13th in East) Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden.
“I don’t know if it’s going to work,” said Rangers coach John Tortorella after the game. “I think in some of the shifts in the last month or so we’ve put them together after penalty killing, and I thought there was something going on. You never know. Richie and Gabby beginning of the year, there was no chance. You could see that right away. But you never know. You never know when it’s going to click.”
Hagelin adds a different dimension to that line – both literally with his speed, and figuratively with his puck handling and scoring ability.
“Carl adds a lot of speed into the line which we use on the forecheck, and we hold onto pucks offensively which is important,” said Gaborik, who scored a goal and added two assists. “We don’t spend a lot of time in our zone.”
“To me, the biggest key is Hags,” said Tortorella. They have puck-possession because he’s always chasing down pucks.”
Gaborik started the scoring for the Rangers just 3:02 in when he tapped in a rebound of a Dan Girardi point-blast. Richards added two goals in 2:59 in the second, both assisted by Hagelin, and the second helped by Gaborik.
Hagelin added a wraparound goal with seven minutes remaining to give the Rangers their final insurance.
“We found each other tonight – they skate so good, if I can get a little bit of time with the puck I can throw it into areas,” said Richards, who’s scored in four consecutive games (5-3-8). “They were jumping on pucks, forces me to play with pace, and I have to keep up with them.”
“It’s a lot of fun. Just being able to play with those two guys, first of all, is a lot of fun for me,” Hagelin said. “Creating the amount of chances we did is a lot of fun. That’s the feeling you want to have. You get on the ice and you know if you do your job and work hard defensively you’re going to get your chances offensively.”
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With that fascinating subplot, you’d think it would have been easy for the Rangers (44-18-7, 95 pts, 1st in East) to overlook a Hurricanes squad they had already beaten three times this season.
After all, the Penguins are division rivals, and biting at the Rangers heels. They’re just six points behind the Blueshirts for first place in the Atlantic and the top overall seed in the East that, barring a furious streak by Boston, will likely come with winning the Atlantic.
“We addressed that right away,” said Mike Rupp about the possibility of looking ahead. “We’ve had a tough stretch here with how we’ve been playing. We want every opportunity we can, no matter who it’s against, to right our wrongs.”
There was no letdown, no overlooking. Just a solid effort that saw the Rangers pepper Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward with 28 shots – 22 of them in the first two periods.
This Rangers team has had its losing streak. Every top team goes through it this time of year, as they get a bit complacent and the teams behind them surge. But the Rangers, with their fan base turning apoplectic, remained calm, and have now rallied off two straight hard-fought wins with their most important game of this seven-game home-stand upcoming.
“We played a pretty good game. Up 3-0, let them back in, but it was a little bit more of an up-and-down game which we don’t usually play,” said Richards. “That’s the way it went, we scored some goals to take a lead into the third, and did a good job in the third.”
The Rangers swept the season series against the Hurricanes, winning all four games. It’s the first season sweep against Carolina since the 2002-’03 season.
The Rangers can clinch a playoff spot on Thursday with a win over Pittsburgh, and losses by Buffalo and Winnipeg on Wednesday.
POST-GAME AUDIO CLIPS: