NEW YORK – Finally, the New York Rangers got some bounces. Finally, the Rangers played a smart, sound defensive game coupled with an opportunistic offensive game.

Finally, the Rangers looked like the Rangers.

Mired in a 5-11-2 slump over their previous 18 games, the Rangers (22-14-4) dismantled the Dallas Stars (28-10-4), who came into play with the NHL’s top record. Derek Stepan had two goals, while Keith Yandle, Derick Brassard, Viktor Stalberg, and Jayson Megna also scored in the 6-2 win Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden.

There have been signs lately that this long slump, which started the day before Thanksgiving, was beginning to end. After making a mess of a trip through Western Canada in early December, the Rangers were in free-fall until right around Christmas.

Their overtime win over the Ducks right before the holidays was a harbinger of better things to come, and they had played three vastly-improved defensive games since ending the Christmas break. But their improved defense came with a lack of quality scoring chances, especially in Saturday’s 3-0 loss to the Florida Panthers.

“If I look at this game and break it down, we did a lot of the same things that we did in Florida, but tonight we scored,” said Rangers coach Alain Vigneault. “In Florida, we couldn’t score. We generated a lot of opportunities [in Florida], defended real well, we did the same thing tonight against one of the elite teams in the league.”

“I thought, even the last couple games defensively, we’ve been a lot better,” said defenseman Marc Staal. “In Florida, we didn’t give them too many shots. [Tonight] was a stingy type of no-room way we’re used to playing. I thought, right from the beginning, they knew it wasn’t going to be easy for them to break through and score.”

For the first time in weeks, this was New York Rangers hockey. This group has been mired in a slump so long, so deep, and so crushing, it turned one of the most mentally-strong teams in the NHL into one of the mentally-weakest. But slowly, their confidence has started to rise again. After weeks of inexcusable defensive turnovers and misplays, the Rangers are defending again. Tuesday night, the offense followed.

“If you analyze our process, our process has been getting better,” Vigneault said. “We’re playing better hockey right now. Our execution and battle level is higher. We’ll have three days here to get ready for Washington. Like Dallas, right now [they’re] one of the better teams in the league.”

The Rangers will try to win back-to-back games for the first time since Nov. 21-23 on Saturday against the red-hot Capitals, who are 10-1-1 in their last 12 games.

“We took advantage of some mistakes that they made, and defensively we did a lot of good things,” said Stepan, who had his ninth-career multi-goal game. “Going forward, I think our last couple games defensively have been much, much better.”

During the skid, the Rangers seemed to give up goals in bunches. One turned into three in the blink of an eye. Tuesday night, after Stars defenseman John Klingberg tied the game at 13:50 of the first period, Yandle answered 18 seconds later to give the Rangers a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.

“I think we talked about it the last two games, we’re building. We’re starting to play the Rangers hockey we need to play to have success. Hopefully we’re moving in the right direction,” said goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who made 21 saves. “Good things [are] starting to happen. I feel like we’re on the same page in our own end, we’ve talked a lot over the last couple weeks about what we need to do to come back to our basics.”

NOTES:

The Rangers improved to 17-1-2 this season when scoring the first goal of the game, and are 58-7-5 when scoring first since the start of last season.

The Rangers are now 165-1-9 in their last 175 games when leading after two periods, dating to Feb. 6, 2010, including 15-0-0 this season.

Rangers’ defensemen had four points tonight, and now have 84 points (19 goals, 65 assists) this season. They have 27 points (seven goals, 20 assists) over the last 11 games.

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Seth has been covering the Rangers for Inside Hockey since 2008. Follow him on Twitter @RothmanHockey

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