NEW YORK – It’s a good thing the National Hockey League’s point system doesn’t give bonus points for style.
Even the Russian judge knows it’s been ugly.
In the end, they don’t ask how, they only ask how many. For the Rangers, the answer is two points, thanks to a sometimes-ugly 4-1 win over the struggling Calgary Flames (2-6-0).
“I think we’re a work in progress,” said Rangers coach Alain Vigneault. “I don’t think that anybody in our dressing room believes that there’s not room for improvement in our play.”
It was a ghastly start on Sunday night at Madison Square Garden. After a spirited shootout loss to the Flyers on Saturday at Wells Fargo Center, the Rangers came out sluggish against their Western Conference opponents, who jumped out to a lead at 3:06 of the first period when Marc Staal turned the puck over, leading to a Jiri Hudler tap-in right at the goalmouth off a terrific feed from second-year star Johnny Gaudreau.
The Rangers held close, and struck midway through the second when Oscar Lindberg took a terrific behind-the-back feed from behind the net by Kevin Hayes, beating Jonas Hiller for his fifth goal of the season, tied for most among NHL rookies alongside Edmonton’s Connor McDavid and Arizona’s Anthony Duclair.
“[Oscar’s] found a way to be at the right place at the right time, and that goal sort of got us going tonight,” Vigneault said. “We were much better after that.”
“He’s a smart player,” Staal said. “He finds the right ice to go to, to get good opportunities to score and get some timely goals. That’s what smart players do.”
The Rangers took the lead nearly five minutes later when Dan Girardi scored his 200th career point by sneaking to the slot on a broken play and firing through a screen. That allowed the Rangers to head to the second intermission with a 2-1 lead, virtually assuring themselves of a win. They improved to 154-1-9 in their last 164 games – a streak that dates back nearly six years – when leading after two periods.
“We know what it takes to win and to close out a game, especially with the lead,” said forward J.T. Miller. “We don’t want to sit back and let them dictate the play, we still gotta be up in their face and create momentum ourselves.”
Kevin Klein and Derick Brassard clinched it with third-period goals, as the Rangers outshot the Flames 13-5 in the final period on the way to victory.
“You’ve got to know how to play, and you have to be tough to play against,” Vigneault said. “A lot of that, I believe, is managing the puck well and making sure you have numbers. When there’s a breakdown, great goaltending always helps.”
The Rangers got that goaltending from Antti Raanta, who made 22 saves for his second win of the season, as the Rangers – despite some sloppy performances — improved to 6-2-2. It’s their best start since a 7-3-0 record at the outset of the 2009-2010 season.
“I think obviously it’s good to be winning games and getting points out of games,” Staal said, before referencing the four days off the team has before their next game on Friday against the Maple Leafs. “I think every day we still know we can improve and work on our game. Going into the four days [off], it’s a big weekend for us. We get two wins and a point out of three in four [days]. It’s a good job by us, for sure.”
“I think we just need to find a way to just get that 60-minute game,” Girardi said. “Obviously we’ll improve in our record, but we’re pretty happy with the first ten games with the record we have now. There’s definitely room to improve.”
“Right now, we’ve got the full week ahead of us where we can work on a couple things that we want to get better,” Vigneault said. “For a first ten games, there were some areas that were positive, and some areas that we’ll focus on and improve.”
The Rangers are 13-1-1 in the second game of their last 15 back-to-back sets, and 47-18-3 in that situation since the start of the 2010-11 season.
The Rangers are 122-1-2 in their last 125 regular-season games when scoring at least four goals, a streak that dates back to November 14, 2010.
Since the start of last season, the Rangers are 22-6-5 against Western Conference opponents, and 14-2-1 against the Pacific Division. This season, they’re 4-1-0 against the West and 3-0-0 against the Pacific.