NEW YORK – Many of the same cast of characters that sent the Rangers to the Stanley Cup Final last spring sent them to this season’s quarter pole in convincing fashion.
Martin St. Louis, who scored the overtime winner in Game 4 of the conference final against Montreal had a goal and an assist against the Habs on Sunday, while Dominic Moore, who scored the series-clinching goal in Game 6 last year, scored his first of the season as the Rangers smoked the Habs 5-0 at Madison Square Garden in their 20th game of the season.
“Our line has made some strides the last few games,” Moore said of linemates Tanner Glass and Jesper Fast. “We’re getting some more O-zone time, but I think that comes from being better in our defensive zone as a five-man group, breaking out together, coming out with control a lot more.”
After struggling with consistency throughout the season, the Rangers followed up a shutout win on Wednesday against the Flyers by duplicating the feat against their Original Six rivals from Montreal. Henrik Lundqvist stopped all 21 shots he faced in earning his 54th career shutout, tied for 20th in NHL history.
It’s the first time the Rangers have shut out their opponents in back-to-back regular season games since March 17-19, 2003.
“I think the last two games is probably as good as we’ve played all year,” said Lundqvist, who’s tied for the league lead with four shutouts this season. “Playing in our own end, coming with speed, close support in our own end, just really paying attention to all the details in the game that we need to do to have success.”
“It is how we want to play, and it’s the most important thing moving forward,” said Derek Stepan, who played perhaps his best game of the year. “It doesn’t just stop at the two games we’ve played so far, Philly and Montreal. We have to continue to play that way. We’re going to have a lot of success if we play in five-man units.”
Moore got the scoring started when Tanner Glass followed his own rebound and caused a turnover. He pounced on the loose puck at the top of the crease halfway through the first to beat Dustin Tokarski (29 saves).
St. Louis added his first point of the game on a pretty feed to Stepan 35 seconds into the second period, and added his eighth goal of the season on a brilliant individual effort with 4:27 left in the second.
“It’s just two games,” cautioned St. Louis of the team’s improved play. “It’s just two games. They’re a great measuring stick for us, but it’s just two games. We have to keep building on it.”
The Rangers dominated puck possession against a Montreal team coming off a 2-0 win over arch-rival Boston on Saturday. The Rangers hadn’t played since Wednesday after their scheduled game in Buffalo on Friday was postponed due to the lake-effect storm that hammered Western New York during the week.
“I don’t think it was a statement for us,” said defenseman Marc Staal, who was excellent in over 23 minutes of ice time. “We played a solid game at home. We did what we had to do. They were coming off a back-to-back. I think it’s a confidence-builder for us. We still have to come back tomorrow and get back to work. Repeat, repeat, repeat.”
“We knew tonight coming in we were playing against, at this time, the top team, as far as points, in the NHL,” said Rangers coach Alain Vigneault. “We needed a very strong team effort, and that’s what we got from our group tonight.”
It’s been an inconsistent first quarter of the season for the Rangers, but they find themselves in playoff position in the Metropolitan Division at 9-7-4.
“A lot of things we did a lot better last game [compared to prior games] and we wanted to continue to get better with the next game,” Moore said. “The same goes for the next game. It’s just a process that we follow and believe in.”
“A couple times this year I’ve said ‘we’re on the right track, we’re going,’ and then the next game I get a kick in the gut,” Vigneault said. “What this tells us is, we know the right way to play. When we apply ourselves, prepare ourselves, we can play against any team in the league. We certainly proved that tonight.”
All 12 Rangers forwards scored a point, the first time they’ve done that since Dec. 17, 1980 against the Winnipeg Jets.
The Rangers have shut out their opponents in three of their last five home games, the first time they’ve done that in the regular season since Nov. 18-25, 1973, when they had three shutouts in a span of four home games.
The last time the Rangers beat the Canadiens by five goals or more in a regular-season game was Dec. 13, 1992. They beat the Habs 7-2 in Game 1 of last spring’s conference final.